Authors: Peter Doyle
When I rolled up to my job at the Barrel Discotheque that night â by then I was playing the funk-filled Hammond B3 two nights a week with Bobby Boyd and the Oracles â I was packing a pocket full of speed deals, neatly folded in foil. I was primed to kick off the retail venture in fine style:
Bobby and the boys and their various wives, girlfriends and hangers-on were dopers, every man jack of them.
But drugs were iffy in those days: you could never rely on them being there when you wanted them. Someone would go to Bali for a few weeks, bring back some buddha, sell a bit, give the rest away to friends. Someone else would have purple hearts now and then. Hashish was a delicacy, hash oil even rarer. Junkies had their tame doctors and their chemist busts, but they were in a separate world. You wanted your drugs regular, you had to leave the country. So me, with my supply of high-quality powder, offering consistent deals, neatly packaged, at stable prices â that was a whole new thing.
Listen to me now, you lot, let me lay on you some heavy tips regarding the purveying of mind-fucking substances. With the exception of Bobby Boyd himself, who'd been in the game almost as long as me, who'd played hillbilly, rock'n'roll, rock, soul-funk, fusion, and who knew the truth, that music was a gift of the gods, and who also knew that to help us play it, they, the gods, had given us drugs and alcohol, and who had therefore fallen upon my new-found supply of amphetamine with expressions of joy and thankfulness â with that sole exception, my questing ones, every single person I sidled up to that night, I mean every last one of them, told me the same miserable, useless, sorry-arsed, bullshit story. They liked pot, they told me, or they liked acid, or they liked magic mushrooms, or morning fucking glory seeds, or opium, or even the occasional line of smack or what-fucking-ever, but none of those fiends â that's right, not a single one â would cop to liking speed. A frown, a turning-up of the nose, a shake of the head. Oh no, not speed. Speed's a
drug, speed fucks your brains, speed makes you paranoid, speed ruins your teeth, and so on. One chick even told me the problem with speed was, it keeps you awake.
Oh, but offer one of those scoffers a free line, my pets,
and they'll fucking well horn it up in the blink of an eye, all the time telling you, too bad it's not [here insert their drug of choice]. And then they'll continue to bang on for the next seventeen hours about how much they don't care for your speed, which they will continue to sniff up every time it's offered, all the while making out they're doing you a favour. And then the next time you see them they'll tell you again, in case you'd forgotten, how much they don't like that shit, in tones of outright condemnation â but hey, you wouldn't happen to have a snort with you by any chance? Because it's going to be a long night and just this once it might be the thing they need to get 'em over the hump. Oh, hear me, impressionable ones, selling speed to heads is tough work.
After two nights on the trot at the Barrel, a quarter of an ounce of sparkling sulphate had disappeared up greedy nostrils and I had scarcely a shekel to show for it. I rang Stan that night with a sales report: plenty of stock moved, poor cash-flow situation. Like me, Stan hadn't really slept the past few nights, and a volatile reaction to the news would not have been unexpected. But he took it well. He was icy cool, in fact. Said yeah, same story his end.
It is not the way of Mel âPsychonaut' Parker to give up easily, however. I knew the product was first-rate, it was just a matter of finding the right market. I got on with my business, drawing water and chopping wood as the ancients counsel. I was doing my thing, playing my part, vamping the chords, dear ones. There
be a key change, I knew, for such is the nature of things. The big question: would yours truly be ready?
I woke up with the book open across my chest. Eleven a.m., sunny outside. I made a cup of tea, ate more toast. Smoked a cigarette. Walked up and down. Had another cup of tea, another cig, then went to the corner phone booth and rang the Professor to tell him I wasn't going to drive that night.
Before I could get to that he said, “Phil is looking for you. He's rung here twice.”
“He said he tried you on the network.”
“Yeah. Listen, I can't drive tonight.”
“Just like that?”
“Yeah.” I said nothing more. There was still time for him to get a driver for the three p.m. start.
After a moment he sighed and said, “All right. But ring Phil for Christ's sake, will you? I don't want the cunt on my hammer.”
“While I've got you,” I said. “There was a book in the glove box. Cover has a chick with big tits, dancing, a couple of shady blokes in the background. Know the one I mean?”
“The shit you blokes leave in that glove box, I tell you. There's always a few books in there, aren't there?”
“This one's a kind of thriller.”
A pause. “I'm not with you, mate. Did you lose it?” Sounding genuinely perplexed.
So I rang Phil.
“Bloody hell have you been?”
“Nowhere. What do you want?”
“I need you to do a little something.”
“No need to sound so enthusiastic. I want you to go see the Lebs again. I need them out of there.”
I said nothing. A Lebanese family was renting one of Phil's old houses in Annandale. He'd been trying to get rid of them for months, had me go and see them a couple of times. They'd been friendly but apologetic. They weren't going anywhere too soon.
The silence dragged on a few seconds, until Phil said, “Billy! You there? Hear me?”
“Well fucking answer then.”
“Tell me, âYes Phil, I'll do it.'”
I sighed. “I'm busy for the next few days. I'll drop by when I get a chance.”
“I'd like you to go there next Saturday. In the morning. No more bullshit. I'm sending Barry along with you.”
“He's a liability.”
“I want him to be there. And I want
there to keep an eye on things.”
“Keep an eye on him, you mean?”
“That too. Meet him outside the Toxteth at eleven.”
I bought a newspaper and a bottle of milk from the corner shop. As I turned back into Duke Street, there was a new yellow P76 parked a little way down the street. A hundred yards away, a bulky figure was opening the front gate of the place a couple of doors down from mine. Barry, the liability we'd just been discussing.
I watched for a minute without him seeing me. The householder came to the door. There was a short exchange, Barry standing a little too close to the householder, the householder pulling back, Barry closing the gap again. Then he left, tried the next door. Big friendly smile on his face. I could imagine his line. “I'm looking for an old mate named Billy, late thirties, sandy-haired bloke. Lives in this street, but I've forgotten which house.” It wouldn't take him long to find Terry and Anna's.
I called to him before he could knock on our door. He turned around and walked back to the footpath.
been?” he said, still grinning. “Phil is looking for you.”
“I spoke to him just now.”
Barry looked around. “Yeah? Did he tell you about us going to see the Lebs?”
“How did you know to come to this street?”
He smiled. “Ah, so you
know everything, do you?”
“The taxi driver, right?”
He pointed to the derelict house across the street. “Is that one yours?” he said, guffawing.
I didn't answer.
“Just kidding.” Barry waited, staring at me for way too long. I held the stare, but it wasn't easy. Then he shook his head. “Jesus, you're a hard cunt to be friendly to.” He shook his head. “No need to be so hostile,” he said quietly, an ever-so-slight note of hurt in his voice.
He walked off, turned around when he got to his car. A forced smile now. “See you at the Tocky.”
I walked back up the street, away from my flat, and watched him drive away. I came back only when I was sure he'd gone.
I went inside and packed a couple of suitcases, then went to the back of the main house. Anna and Terry were in the kitchen drinking tea. The place was tidy, no sign of last night's partying except for a box of empties by the back door.
Anna was a psych nurse at Callan Park. She was wearing denim overalls today, her hair in a plait, smoking a roll-your-own. Terry was early thirties. Beard and long hair, but not scruffy. Hair parted in the middle, tied back and clean. His official job was as a cook at Balmain hospital. Unofficially, he was a trader in old furniture and an unlicensed dealer in second-hand cars, one a fortnight, sold through the
classifieds. A bit of dope in the mix, too. And now, like me, he was an investor in the film industry.
I sat down at the table. Anna smiled and pushed the teapot and a mug my way.
“Eloise rang a little while ago, said to ring her,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. I pulled out my wallet, counted out fifty dollars and put it on the table. “Rent. I'll be away for a few weeks.” I asked Terry, “Can I borrow your ute for an hour or two this afternoon?”
Anna looked serious. “Everything all right?”
I nodded and said, “It's unlikely, but if anyone comes around looking for meâ”
Terry put his hand up. “We know, Bill. It's okay.”
They did know. That's what I liked about them.
Anna said, “That book you showed me last night . . .” and trailed off.
I shook my head. “Not sure about that,” I said. “Gotta straighten a couple of things out.” I drank the tea, got up.
Anna said, “Eloise said for you to ring her.”
“Yeah, you told me.”
“She said I was to tell you twice.”
I drove out to Matraville with my bags. Turned off Bunnerong Road, followed a track through a gate, past the Chinese market gardens, around a sandhill, then another one, to an old shack. I hadn't been here in a while, and the spiders and rodents had moved back in. I spent an hour cleaning up, airing the place out, firing up the kero fridge. The bushes had grown since the last time, but that was good, it made the place even less visible.
I bought groceries at Maroubra Junction, stocked the fridge, which had cooled nicely, took the car back to Balmain. I hailed an RSL cab â no one at that network knew me, I hoped â and had the driver take me to Kingsford. From there I took the bus back to Matraville. When I walked past the gardens, not one of the Chinese working in the paddock even looked up. That's what I liked about them. I hacked out some weeds growing around the door of the shack, upsetting a clumsy blue-tongued lizard in the process. It got late.
Standing at the front door, I could see in the distance the back of the drive-in screen, the white oil tanks at Boral, the top of the crematorium chimney, and the very tallest of the smokestacks over at the ICI complex. Nothing else. No houses. Not even a road. Just the track leading to the cabin. I went inside, pumped up the pressure lamp, lit a mosquito coil and sat down. I felt the need for a cigarette, bad as I ever had.
* * *
Monday morning at the House of Cards, three days after the rip. The place looks forlorn by daylight, and it smells of stale cigs, cheap perfume and spilt booze. An emergency meeting of the Combine has been called.
Abe's bought an offsider, not Maori Lucas this time but a bulky, mean-looking sergeant-major type named Jim. He has a big mo, a pommy accent, and is clearly itching for trouble. He silently sets up chairs and a table in the middle of the room.
The Greeks arrive. No smiles, none of the usual “Life's a crazy party, so let's have a drink and lose the long faces.” Today it's business. Joe Dimitrios is there in person. Quiet, dark, wearing heavy-rimmed glasses, not unlike Abe in size and stature. Two younger toughs with him, Mascot boys, looking elaborately casual. They take their places against the wall. One of them nudges the other, points to the shattered glass on the floor opposite, where Cathy's single gunshot the previous Friday night had taken out the old dance academy mirror. The lads smirk.
Alex, Joe's nephew, sits at the table, a hangdog look on his face. Next to him is Danny, a large, youngish bloke, hunched over. Not too bright, but mean. He'd been present last Friday night, he's one of the “bikeys” referred to in the book. Works as a bouncer for Joe sometimes.
Another dark-haired bloke comes in, smiling amiably. Heavy-set going on pudgy, but well-groomed. At first glance you might think he's an easygoing spiv. His name's Phil, he's a property speculator, doing well building flats and town houses around Glebe and Annandale. He waves vaguely at everyone and takes a seat, catches my eye and shakes his head sadly. It's meant as sympathy. But he's a shark, and he can smell blood.