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Authors: Peter Doyle

The Big Whatever (8 page)

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Heavy steps on the stairs and Detective Sergeant Fred Slaney walks in, puffing. He glances around at the gathering and grins. He looks at me and winks, grabs a chair from against the wall and joins the circle. And at my right is my father-in-law Donny, in his white shoes and Ban-Lon sports shirt, his grey hair plastered down, smoking a Senior Service, trying to look at ease. He's anything but. A former publican, for the last few
years he's been mixed up in the second-hand motor trade, runs a yard on Parramatta Road. He's doing something on the side with Joe and Abe, something involving stolen cars and cleaned-up spare parts being sold as new. Donny wouldn't normally be considered a big enough fish to sit in on a top-level meeting of the Combine, the car parts rort notwithstanding. But sometimes they let him hang around, if they think he might be useful. He's smiling ingratiatingly at no one in particular.

I stand up. “Okay, that's everyone. Drinks?”

Mumbled replies. No drinks. So I sit down again.

Abe starts. “Thanks to all of you for making the time today. We have a bit of a fucking mess on our hands, but I'm sure we can deal with it like grown men. Our combine can deal with this, I think, so long as we listen to everyone's point of view and—”

Joe's voice cuts across him. “This fool—” he nods at Alex on his left, “lets a girl steal from him. His problem, not mine. But Mr Danny—” he nods to his right and the bikey straightens up a little, “and I have dealings with one another. So Mr Danny and his friends are very upset. And this one—” again he nods at Alex, “is my nephew. So it's my job to do something about it.” He looks at his watch.

That glance at his watch makes Joe's meaning clear. Let's not waste any time. Just punish the next person in line. Bill Glasheen. And take everything he's got as compensation.

The meaning isn't lost on anyone, and there's a moment of dead silence. Then Abe says, nodding, “Yes, Joe, we all understand. But it's complicated. Bill didn't really have a hand in this, even though his putz of a friend did. And this place here—” he gestures around the room “has a future. And we have a big stake in that future. So . . .”

He lets that hang there. His meaning is equally clear: “We” means Abe, and Abe isn't going to let Joe take anything from him.

Abe continues. “So let's look at what's practical here.” He looks in my direction. Wants me to make an offer.

“All right,” I say. “It's simple. You figure out what you're owed and get it from Max and Cathy, wherever they are. Nothing to do with me. That's all there is to it.”

The Mascot boys brace. Joe shakes his head. Abe is stony faced.

I've gone this far, so I go on and fill the silence. “I get where this is heading. You want to take this place from me. After the money I've spent. The work I've done. Well, forget it. Now, with respect, I'd like you all to fuck off and let me go about my business.” I stand up. No one else moves.

I go downstairs and out onto Oxford Street, to the espresso bar a few doors up.

Two minutes later Fred Slaney and Donny find me there, seat themselves either side of me.

Slaney says, “Got a gun?”

I'm not armed. I don't even own a gun. I shake my head.

“You really want to take them on?'

I look at Slaney. The question's genuine. Big, ruddy-faced, coarse-featured. But clear-eyed and shrewd. And eager for trouble.

Ten years earlier, Detective Sergeant Fred Slaney shot a man dead in cold blood just to make an impression on me. Extorted big bugs out of me. Nearly killed me. Later I nearly killed him. Then four years ago, in 1965, he knocked on my door and politely said he wanted to talk. I told him to fuck off.

He did, but he came back a month later, and again I fucked him off. Again he left. Then a month after that came again. I told him I'd give him one minute to explain himself. Right there at the front door.

“I want to square up with you,” he said. He was off the drink, a reformed character. “I'm making amends to some of the people I've wronged.”

“That'll be keeping you busy,” I said. I told him to fuck off.

He shrugged sadly and fucked off.

Six months later a thing I had going on went sour unexpectedly. It was messy, but my hands were tied – I had a wife, a kid,
another on the way, couldn't attend to the mess properly. Slaney fixed things, without me asking. He did it quietly, and no one knew. I only found out by accident much later that he'd intervened. I was angry. I hadn't asked for his help, didn't want it. But he kept doing me small favours here and there, looking after my interests. After a while it became just the way things were.

Eloise asked me one time whether I trusted the bloke.

“No.” I said, “Not a bit. But I'm getting used to him.”

Now, sitting in the coffee bar, Fred says, “The natural solution for that lot—” nodding vaguely in the direction of the club, “would be to shoot you. Right now. A deal of any sort, that's a special concession as far as they're concerned. That big Scottish cunt is tooled up. The Greeks probably are as well. On the other hand, Abe would hate any trouble right here and now, in broad daylight.”

“My, that's a huge relief,” I say.

Slaney looks away, shakes his head. “Abe's way would be to come back later and burn you out. Place full or empty – wouldn't matter so long as there was some insurance to collect.”

“Fuck him.”

“Yeah, fuck him. But if you do go up against them, you'd want a strong team.”

He glances at Donny, who sees the look and comes in hastily, “Well, you know you can count on me, Bill. I can get a few good blokes together. Just give me the word.” He bares his teeth in a tight, hostile grimace, punches his left palm with his right fist, says, “Bang!” The response is too hasty. He looks down at the floor right after. It's an empty promise.

A few seconds later Donny goes on. “But the thing is, it's not just you and me. If we turn on a blue, then everyone is in line. Eloise. And the kids, for chrissake.”

I say nothing.

“They've got you by the short and curlies.”

“It sticks in my craw, letting those arseholes take the business.”

“Early days yet,” says Fred. “But while we're at it, how good is the business anyway?”

In fact, R&R numbers are tailing off and trade has been levelling out. Max and I had discussed it: if we were to carry on, sooner or later we'd have to either turn the joint into a rock music club, for kids, or a gambling joint like the 33 or the Forbes.

I don't say that to Fred or Donny. “So what are my choices?”

“Right now, you've got to blue with them, or strike a deal.”

I sit there for a moment, doing my best to think it through. Donny next to me, talking tough. It's true, he has a whole team of dodgy characters, car salesmen, thieves, fences, mechanics. Crooks and spivs to a man. But they're not gunmen. Slaney is all I've
really
got on my side. One psychopathic killer. Not enough.

“All right,” I say. “No blue.”

* * *

When it was fully dark outside I cooked a pan of sausages on the primus and then made a pot of coffee. Flying ants flitted about the room, gathered on the kero lamp.

I drank the coffee then went outside, walked around the cabin, followed the track a little way towards the road. Just checking. Lights were on in the bungalow. I had no idea how many Chinese kipped there, who they were, or where they were from. Apart from them, there wasn't a soul around.

I went back inside the cabin, gave the Tilley lamp a good pump, hung it from a rafter, and sat down on the cane chair. I picked up the book, put it down again, stood up and walked around. After another half an hour of that I finally sat down to read.

TAKE ME TO THE BRIDGE!

Winter was becoming spring, and I was the speed Santa of the Melbourne discotheque scene. People had finally started picking up on the new powder thing. Parties would start after midnight and go through the next day and night. Cats
were grinding teeth, bobbing their heads, dancing like dervishes, drinking without let or hindrance. Musos were jamming high craziness for hours, even days on end. The whole damn town was
raving
.

I'd been making free with the shit, and was digging the heady round of boogaloo parties as much as anyone. Each day I'd resolve to give not one grain away, then that night I'd be chopping up lines for all and sundry. I was the Wizard of Whizz, the Guru of Go-Fast, the Master of the Good Ship Giddy-Up. Dig this, children: if you're going to play Captain Trips, then be free and open-handed about it. You'll fill your pockets just the same. But it never hurts to put a little something in the poor box, so to speak.

Anyway, that groovy Melbourne spring – music, parties, speed. Beautiful ladies with long straight hair and willowy figures, cool, amused and reckless. Tech college and art school students, earnest university girls. Chicks who worked in clothes shops, ran market stalls, or sold matchbox-fulls of smoking dope. Young lads who were playing at being musicians, painters, poets or freelance philosophers. Ne'er-do-wells and no-hopers, most of them, trust-fund playboys and Toorak tramps, still too young for their character flaws to show. Funsters, though. There were a few Maoists, forever gobbing off about the violence that liberates and the violence that oppresses, property being theft, and so on and so forth, while horning up the free drugs on the side. Would-be Neal Cassadys, soldiers of fortune, itinerants, vagabonds, mad scientists, fugitives, bikey types and crazy visionaries. Queers and lesbians flitting in and out. Petty criminals and hard men from Stan and Jimmy's crowd, mellow and sweet on dope and music.

Gradually a core group formed. There was Bobby Boyd, the bandleader and singer. Bobby was King of the Heads. The President. He sang in a big-voiced soul-blues style. Bobby was a solid cat, then and always.

There was Denise, photographer, arts student, freelance
journalist, and aspiring novelist. Younger, a big girl, just the right side of plump. Thick blond hair parted in the middle in kind of a supercharged Bardot style. Wore R.M. Williams with Cuban heels, straight-leg Lee jeans, bulky knitted jumpers – Afghan or some shit – carried a big shoulder bag, flicked her long straight hair around. Private school, equestrian, confident. She first turned up at the Barrel saying she was writing an article about Bobby for a student paper. We talked, we took drugs, we made love, we moved on.

There was a bloke named Clive, another journo. A fop. Wore a linen suit. Trying to look like Tom Wolfe, was my guess. He had plenty to say, pontificated about the “Carlton Underground” and such things. Took lots of drugs but was never seen to pay for any, or bring along any of his own. Wrote music reviews for a Sunday paper.

Another character who was usually still there when the rest had finally gone home was this heavy-drinking toff, a large, fruity bloke, always calling people “dear boy” and so on. Said to be ex-military, but he had a taste for the newfangled drugs. I'd never seen anyone put away as much. With a certain roguish charm, even old seen-it-all Mel had to admit. They called him ‘the Captain.'

Stan stuck pretty close, too.
His
crowd of old-school crooks and roughnecks mostly thought drugs were a longhaired degenerate poofter thing, but Stan was getting good mileage hanging around the Barrel and other discotheques, tagging along to the inevitable all-nighter at my flat or someone else's. Usually with Jimmy the Thug in tow. No one, but
no one
, in the scene knew the speed was coming from Stan.

Over time the money side picked up, thanks to a knockabout guy named Vic, who arranged the muscle for some of the rougher suburban rock'n'roll gigs I still did from time to time. Vic was a pill-popper from way back, but I'd turned him on to powder speed one day, and Jesus god he took to it. Came back the next day and bought – yes,
bought
– half a dozen caps. Same again a few days later.

Vic was a bikey, but not your stereotypical kitten-drowning, flying-booted brute. He was a short, nuggety bloke, ginger-haired, with a broken nose and a pugnacious air, yet quietly spoken, a thinker of sorts, who always figured the odds, planned his play. A good person to sell dope to. Stuck to his word, was good for credit. Vic made the Barrel scene too, and palled up pronto with Stan and Jimmy, who recognised a fellow hardhead.

When the booze was all gone and the partyers had drifted off, it'd be those same few diehards remaining – me, Stan, Jimmy, the Captain, Denise, Clive, Bobby and Vic – still playing records, jamming, sniffing lines of speed as the sun came up.

The Oracles had been working plenty that winter, but they had started heading in what I considered to be square and unhip directions. Bobby had taken to wearing long robes, with little mirrors and shit sewn into them. His afro hairdo was big enough to hide a cat in. Me, I still wore my beret, sunglasses, black skivvies and such. I had long since reverted to my bad hombre moustache, but the fellers in the band had begun nagging me about the “look,” saying I needed to grow my hair longer. They wanted me to wear the kaftan, beads and so forth. Dig, chillen, this tragic shit was uttered to yours truly, Mel Parker, King of the Hipsters! But since my hair is naturally curly, I grew it out, and let Bobby's hairdresser girlfriend Maysie turn it into an afro. With my swarthy Levantine complexion, I was quite the white negro.

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