The Dunbar Case(5)
Author:Peter Corris

    Town planners and social engineers lament that our population is concentrated in the capital cities of each state. They say the maximum functional size of a city is about two million and it’s crazy that Sydney has five million plus people while Bathurst, only a couple of hundred kilometres away, has barely thirty thousand. It’s different in America and better, they say, where regional cities help to spread the population out. They’re probably right but it’s a bit late now to make that change.

    I was looking forward to the drive. Like most Sydneysiders, I don’t want to live west of the Blue Mountains, but I like to visit. It can be cold out there so I packed some warm clothes in a bag, a bottle of Haig scotch and a carton of Camel cigarettes. I’d stopped smoking longer ago than I could remember, but, in my experience, many prisoners still smoked and wanted the hardest hit they could get. Camels were about the only unfiltered cigarettes easily available. Some gaols will allow you to take things in to prisoners, some won’t.

    I had other things—my mobile, a laptop and a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver. No Uzi, no shotgun. I hadn’t fired the .38 since I’d been relicensed to carry it and I didn’t want to start now, but Jobe Tanner had a formidable reputation. Even if Braithwaite was right and Tanner had ways to learn about Twizell’s visitors, those networks—of prisoners, ex-prisoners and gaol staff—tend to be slow, and I hoped to be in and out before he got wind of me.

    Four hundred kilometres isn’t a long round trip, but my Falcon had a lot on the clock already. Besides, there’d been times when I’d set off expecting to be back in two days and had been away for a month. I had the car thoroughly checked over. I had a worn tyre and an air filter replaced and considered whether to charge them to Wakefield. It depended on how things panned out. He was certainly up for the cost of the petrol.

    ~ * ~

    The car behaved itself and the traffic cooperated so that I made good time on the Great Western Highway out of the Sydney basin and over the Blue Mountains. It got colder, but that works for an old engine. I stopped for lunch in Katoomba at the Blue Moon cafe, that carried memories— some good, some bad—and pushed on, listening to a couple of Lead Belly CDs I’d bought cheap at a garage sale in my street. eBay has cut the legs out from under garage sales and this one had been a flop as they mostly are now, but there was a good selection of CDs and DVDs and I bought some, promising myself I’d find time to listen and watch.

    Lead Belly sang: There’s a man goin’ round takin’ names and I couldn’t help thinking that’s what I did a lot of the time. The road had some rough spots and the thumping six-string guitar music seemed appropriate, especially as Huddie Ledbetter had spent a good part of his life in prison.

    I rolled into Bathurst in the early afternoon expecting that nothing much would have changed since my last visit maybe ten years before, and I was right. Bathurst was created by the gold rushes of the 1850s. Like Bendigo and Ballarat, it has expanded, but again, like them, with its solid, Victorian centre, it seems to have resisted fundamental change. I booked into the first central motel I spotted and Wakefield’s bill went up a serious notch.

    Strictly speaking, a private detective arriving in a country town would be wise to check in with the local police. But there are times to do this and times not to. Braithwaite had warned me that the Tanners kept an eye on Twizell and it was more than possible that the Bathurst police did the same. That’s not to say that the two interests intersected, but they might. The police and the crims need each other the way fleas need a host and I wasn’t keen to advertise my presence any more than necessary.

    I made sure the shower, television and radio worked, tested the bed and checked the mini-bar, a feature of Australian motels unknown in the rest of the world. The trick to countering the depressive sameness of motel rooms—the bland decor, the plastic fittings—is to make it as untidy as possible by scattering your belongings around, especially books, newspapers and magazines. Within a few minutes I had the bed rumpled, shirts hung over the backs of chairs and a table carrying a paper open at the crossword and a bookmarked copy of Lord Jim. I was going back to the old guys.

    ~ * ~

    I was stiff from the drive and I wandered around the streets for a while to get the kinks out. It was cold with a sharp breeze and I upped the pace to keep warm. Back in the motel I plugged into their connection to use the laptop to check for emails. Nothing important. I took some of my prescribed pills and poured myself a solid scotch to offset the indignity. That gave me an appetite and I went to a nearby Indian restaurant with Conrad for company.

    I had battered cauliflower for an entree and goat curry for a main. The food was good and the small carafe of house wine washed it down well. Jim was getting himself deeper and deeper into trouble. I’d seen the film many years before; Peter O’Toole was well cast, but the book was a good deal darker than the film.

    Wakefield had asked, or rather told, me to contact him as soon as I reached Bathurst. But I was still irked by the feeling that he had an agenda I wasn’t aware of and I was taking petty revenge by delaying the call. I dialled his mobile and got a message. A few minutes later the text came through:

    Ask him what he remembers about his paternal grandparents.

    Ask him where they were living when he was young.

    Ask him about the family Bible.

    Tell him there could be a six figure sum for him if things work out well.

    Experience has taught me that when people deliver messages with more than one clause, the important subject is in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. Wakefield really wanted to know about the Twizell family Bible: so, I had to admit, did I.

    I slept the way you do in motels when you’re on your own, especially after a few drinks. You miss the usual house and neighbourhood sounds that reassure you subliminally, and you need at least one piss. I got up at 3.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep. Again, as in most Australian motels, the bedside lights weren’t well placed for reading. I turned on the television, flicked through the channels and turned it off. I couldn’t find Radio National, the only station I ever listened to. I did the crossword and eventually fell asleep just as light was showing through the dusty Venetian blinds.

    ~ * ~

    As a person accredited by a legal practitioner I was permitted to visit in the morning; others could only visit in the afternoon. The gaol was three kilometres west of town and I was in the parking area at 10am sharp. The place would have been forbidding enough on a bright sunny day, but the heavily overcast sky and gusting cold wind gave it an extra air of gloom. I’d read up on it a bit. The sandstone gate featured a hand-carved lion with keys in its mouth, supposedly a symbol of the might of the law. They were keen on that sort of thing in Victorian times when the gaol was built. As they will, prisoners found a way to undercut the symbol—legend had it that when the keys fell from the lion’s mouth all the prisoners would be freed. The gaol had had a foul reputation as harsh and ill-run until the prisoners rioted in 1970 causing enormous damage. An official inquiry brought reforms and, as far as I knew, it now ran on the standard lines.

    I’d been briefly on remand in Long Bay gaol in the past and had served a short sentence in Berrima, and I’d visited clients, friends and enemies inside, so I knew how to behave in a prison. You have to desensitise yourself to sounds, sights and smells. The absence of freedom sits like a cloud of smoke in the air and nothing on the outside resembles the sensation of waiting for the door behind you to be locked before the one in front of you can be opened.

    I went through the procedure of divesting myself of keys, mobile and coins. The supervising officer was a woman.

    ‘Can I give him the smokes?’

    ‘The prisoner will receive them later.’

    ‘Can I trust you?’

    There’s a TAFE course for correctional officers; they probably have a technique for removing the sense of humour.

    I was conducted down corridors smelling of institutional cleanser to a windowless room with a lino-tiled floor and walls in the same grey shade. There were three tables and six chairs and heavy staples set in the floor near three of the chairs for the prisoners to be shackled if necessary. There was a clock mounted high above a door opposite the one I had come through. There are lots of clocks in prisons and they don’t offer comfort.

    The door opened and a guard escorted in a man I had to convince myself was John Dalgarno Twizell. I thought I was accustomed to the impact prison makes on people, but I was shocked at this man’s appearance. Four years ago he’d been stocky, running to fat and aggressive-looking, now he seemed very different. His green overalls hung loosely on him because he’d replaced the fat with lean muscle and the fuck-you look of his staring eyes and shaved skull had changed to a calculating smirk. He had shaggy brown hair.

    The guard backed away to the door, out of earshot of low voices, close enough to step in if there was trouble. I stuck out my hand.

    ‘Cliff Hardy.’

    He ignored the hand and stared past me.

    ‘Mr Braithwaite says hello.’

    ‘What do you want?’

    I studied him; it was hard to believe he was the same man as in the photograph I’d seen, I had the feeling that the thug was an act and that this composed character was the real man. I was pretty sure Wakefield planned to exploit him in some way and I was prepared to play my own game if it came to that. On the other hand, he didn’t look like a victim.

    ‘You must be having a bloody great time in here, Johnnie,’ I said.

    That reached him. His pale eyes screwed up and his thin lips twisted into a sneer. ‘Yeah, I’m doing great.’

    ‘It’s funny,’ I said. ‘I was told you had charm.’

    A transformation came over him. He squared his shoulders and expanded his chest; he patted his hair into place, smiled broadly and slapped some colour into his grey cheeks.

    ‘Now, Mr Hardy,’ he said in a pleasant, almost tuneful voice, ‘it’s a great pleasure to meet you. Sorry I can’t get you a drink or perform a few other civilities. How’s the world treating you today?’

    I nodded. ‘I get the point.’

    ‘Do you? Charm is bullshit. I could always turn it on and off like a tap. Look where it got me.’

    I wasn’t going to let him snow me. ‘I understood drugs and booze got you here.’

    He laughed, still in his positive, engaging pose. ‘They helped, they certainly helped, but I’m not blaming them.’

    ‘You’re going to do well with this act at the parole hearing. When’s that again?’

    Some of the brio went out of him. He slumped a bit in the chair but much of the animation stayed in his face. ‘Why’re you here? Old Courtenay gave up on me a long time ago, I thought.’

    ‘He’s the one who said you had charm, but this is about something else.’

    He tensed, looked suddenly alarmed. ‘I’ve got you now. You’re the private eye who tried to blow Paul Brewer away and would have if the gun had fired. He’s in here. He talks about you.’

    It had happened a few years ago. Brewer had killed my lover, Lily Truscott, and I’d tried to kill him. It was one of the things that had cost me my licence. I hadn’t expected to come up against those memories again. I’d slotted them well away, I thought. It was Twizell’s turn to put me off balance.

    ‘That’s right,’ I said slowly. ‘I... was off my head at the time. I didn’t know Brewer was here and I don’t give a shit about him now.’

    ‘You used Braithwaite to get in to see me. The Tanners—’

    ‘Relax, it’s nothing to do with the Tanners, at least not directly.’

    ‘That doesn’t sound too comforting. What the fuck is it about?’

    I felt I couldn’t just put Wakefield’s questions to him without any context and I had the outline down pat now after telling it to Megan and Braithwaite. I gave Twizell an even more edited version, stressing his family connection to an important historical event without being specific. The animation he’d shown stayed with him more or less and he listened intently.

    When I’d finished he leaned back and smiled.

    ‘Are you telling me I’m related to some aristocrat and in line to be Lord Twizell of Twizell fucking Hall? Always thought it was a weird name. Wasn’t there some guy way back tried to claim a fortune that way?’

    A film about the Tichborne claimant had been on television not too long ago. I’d seen it and so, apparently, had he. A young aristocrat on his way to Australia in the nineteenth century had gone missing, believed drowned, and a man had turned up years later claiming to be him. He had supporters, but was eventually exposed as a fraud and went to gaol.

    ‘No,’ I said, ‘nothing like that, but there’s talk of some kind of document, a letter or a journal or some kind of writing, that’s historically important. I have a client who wants to find it and if you can put him on the right track there could be money in it for you.’

    ‘Not much use to me now.’

    ‘When you get out. You know and I know that getting back on your feet after a gaol stint is ...’

    ‘A slippery slope to climb.’

    ‘Nicely put. The ancestor we’re talking about is said to have had a way with words. Maybe you’re a chip off the old block.’

    ‘Don’t... what is it?...patronise me,’ he said. ‘You’ve given me the first thing to interest me in this fucking hole apart from what the Tanners had in store for me. I was trying to close every fucking thing out. We’ve still got a while. Tell me more.’

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