The Dunbar Case(6)
Author:Peter Corris

    I put the first of Wakefield’s questions to Twizell. It wasn’t a response to his request, but I didn’t want to lose control of the agenda.

    ‘Grandpa Bob and Grandma? Jesus, they were ancient, or that’s how it felt when I was a kid. They were pretty old. He had some tatts. He’d been a sailor. There was a story that he owned some ships once but not by the time we came along. He was just a retired sailor. Not a bad old bloke. He used to give us money. Grandma? She was quiet; pretty well educated, I think. She read a lot of books. I remember that they were both pissed off at my dad. He was a loser.’

    I put the next question.

    ‘They had an old dump of a cottage out of Newcastle near the beach. They reckoned it was historic. Grandma had a vegie garden and Grandpa Bob went fishing all the time. I suppose they had a pension, but they seemed to live on vegetables and fish. We used to stay there when Dad was off somewhere and Mum couldn’t handle us, and we got fucking sick of fish, I can tell you.’

    ‘Do you remember the address?’

    His eyes went shrewd. ‘I might, why?’

    ‘Could be important. What do you know about a family Bible?’

    I was watching closely and, although he tried not to react, he could not quite control his eyes. The lazy, out-of-focus stare he’d been affecting dropped away for a split second when he blinked.

    ‘Hey, what’re you talking about? I don’t know anything about a Bible.’

    ‘Yes, you do,’ I said. ‘And my client has authorised me to say that a six-figure amount could be due to you if... things work out.’

    ‘That’s very vague.’

    ‘Do you have anything more solid to think about just now, Johnnie?’

    He leaned forward and all the cocky aggression I’d seen in the after-trial newspaper photograph was back in his face and body language. ‘You bet I do, arsehole—getting out of this place.’

    I shook my head. ‘Year away, if you’re good.’

    ‘I’ve been good, bloody good, and they’ve brought my parole hearing forward. It’s on next week.’

    ‘Well, good luck.’

    ‘No, these bastards play games with you. There’ll be a hearing and you get your hopes up but they’ll knock me back for sure. You never get out on a first hearing, the blokes in here tell me. That’s unless ...’

    He paused strategically.

    ‘Unless what?’

    ‘Unless someone with clout puts in a good word. Hey, I bet your guy’s rich or a museum dude or a professor or something, and you’ve got old Courtenay onside. They could swing it.’

    He was a lot smarter than anyone had thought.

    ~ * ~

    I left the prison with only Twizell’s proposal to take back to Wakefield. He wouldn’t be pleased. The odd thing was that it didn’t feel like failure. Twizell wasn’t likeable but neither was Wakefield and I’d be interested to watch the interplay between their devious minds if it went that way. It all might end right there for me, but, again, it might spin out for a time and earn me some money.

    While I’d been inside the car park had filled up a bit with a variety of vehicles including vans and utes apparently making deliveries to the prison. I reached my car, felt for my keys and was suddenly aware of three men emerging from the station wagon parked next to the Falcon. They arranged themselves to block me into the space between the vehicles. One, a compact type in early middle age, wore a suit, the others jeans, T-shirts, jackets. One of them was very big, another was rangier.

    ‘A word with you,’ the suit said.

    Two I could possibly have handled, even in the confined space, but not three. I leaned against my car with my hand not too far from the radio aerial, a possible weapon.

    ‘Okay,’ I said.

    The suit shook his head. ‘Not here. Come with us.’

    ‘I don’t think so.’

    I reached for the aerial but the lean, wiry one was too quick for me. He chopped down savagely on my arm, numbing it. The one behind me moved up and pulled my other arm halfway up my back. There was no space to kick or head-butt.

    ‘You’ve done this before,’ I said.

    ‘You bet we have,’ the suit said. ‘And we’ve done worse. Be smart.’

    Being smart meant getting into the back seat of the station wagon between the one who bent my arm and the suit while the other guy drove. I sat, working my arm to restore the circulation, and cursing myself for not being more careful.

    ‘Who do I have the pleasure of meeting?’

    ‘There’s no pleasure involved, Hardy, not for you or us. My name’s Joseph Tanner. Who my friends are doesn’t matter.’

    ‘It matters to me. Someone hits me and someone else bends my arm, I like to know who they are before I get even. I’m funny that way.’

    There was an amused snort from the arm bender. I leaned forward; he reached to pull me back and I slammed my elbow as hard as I could into his ribs. He gave a gasp, coughed and fought for breath.

    ‘I had to make an exception in his case.’

    Tanner took a small pistol from his pocket and pressed it against my knee. ‘Settle down. You all right, Clem?’

    ‘Let me ...’

    ‘No. Maybe later. We’ll see how it goes.’

    The driver said, ‘What’s going on?’

    ‘Nothing,’ Tanner said.

    ‘What’s wrong with Clem?’

    Clem was gasping as he breathed.

    ‘I think he’s got a broken rib,’ I said. ‘Maybe two if I did it right. I’m not sure.’

    ‘Fuck you,’ Clem gasped.

    ‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘I’ve had a few. They hurt for a while but they get better.’

    ‘Shut up, Hardy,’ Tanner snapped.

    I did. Part of my chatter was nerves and it was important to get that under control. We were back close to the town now, moving through suburbs and then into an area of shops and light industry. The van turned and went up a lane. It stopped at the back of what looked like a small warehouse. The lane dead-ended a little further on and there were no obvious signs of activity.

    ‘Out,’ Tanner said. ‘Any trouble from you, Hardy, and you’ll be sorry.’

    I nodded in keeping with my stoical decision and took in everything I could see. The thing to do in these situations is to know the ground, spot weapons and, if possible, play some of the people who have you off against each other.

    Again, I was in a confined space with three men who had no love for me. One disabled, but one with a gun. No time for heroics. The driver opened a door at the back of the building and Tanner shepherded me in with Clem, wheezing, bringing up the rear.

    Boxes stacked high around the walls, windows too dirty to allow in much light, fluorescent tubes glowing. The place had a concrete floor with red paint worn mostly away by feet and time. The man sitting in one of a set of three deckchairs could only have been Tanner’s brother—similar hard lines to his body and face, similar suit. A couple of years older, perhaps, and more controlled.

    Joseph grunted something unpleasant I didn’t catch and slumped into one of the chairs. The older, more composed brother gestured for me to sit. He waved away Clem and the driver.

    ‘Hector Tanner,’ brother two said. ‘You’ve met my brother Joseph.’

    ‘I’ve had that pleasure.’

    ‘He’s a smartarse, Hec. I don’t reckon you could believe a word he says.’

    Hector looked across to where Clem was crouched, holding his side. ‘What’s wrong with Clem?’

    ‘Hardy cracked one of his ribs.’

    ‘I told you to be courteous.’

    ‘He’s a smartarse who thinks he’s a tough guy.’

    ‘Not really,’ I said. ‘It’s just that Clem was underexperienced at this sort of work.’

    Hector smiled. ‘I’m not.’

    I shrugged. ‘We’ll see.’

    ‘Have you any idea why we’ve brought you here?’

    I shook my head. ‘You’re not doing so well, Hec. I’m not playing that game. You talk to me to start with, not the other way around. If you’ve got something to say to me, say it.’

    ‘You’ve been to see Johnnie Twizell.’

    ‘Have I?’

    ‘What about?’

    I shook my head.

    Joseph shifted in his chair. ‘We can make him answer.’

    ‘Doesn’t matter,’ Hector said, then turned to me: ‘I expect you’ll be seeing him again.’

    ‘I expect I will.’

    ‘I want you to deliver a message to him.’

    ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘You know so much you’ve obviously got connections inside the gaol. You can get a message to him any time you like.’

    Hector unbuttoned his jacket and relaxed. Good technique to ease the tension. He was right, he knew what he was doing. Joseph was still tightly strung. ‘No,’ he said, ‘he wouldn’t believe a message coming from us through our normal channels.’

    ‘I can understand that. I suppose Jobe Tanner’s your father. He threatened to kill Twizell.’

    ‘Well, that’s part of it,’ Hector said. ‘Dad was upset because of what Johnnie did to Kristie, but we don’t feel that way.’

    ‘Kristie’s a slag,’ Joseph said. ‘She deserved what she got.’

    ‘Nice,’ I said.

    Hector shot his brother an angry look. ‘I wouldn’t put it quite like that but you’re right. It’s not nice. We’re not nice people, can’t afford to be.’

    ‘I won’t argue with that.’

    Joseph growled and tried to swipe me with a backhander. The numbness in my arm had eased off. I caught his wrist, twisted and he had to fall off his chair to prevent his wrist being broken.

    ‘Stop it!’ Hector snarled.

    The driver had come forward and looked ready to join in but he stopped when Hector spoke.

    ‘Back off, Rog. Let him go, Hardy. There’s no need for this. Let’s keep it civilised.’

    I laughed and released Joseph’s wrist. I got to my feet and turned towards Rog. ‘I owe you one, mate. Want to have a go?’

    ‘No one’s having a go,’ Hector said. ‘Calm down, all of you. Let’s have a drink.’

    He had a briefcase by his chair. He opened it and took out a bottle of vodka. Not my favourite but a drink just then seemed like a very good idea.

    ‘Find some glasses, Rog, and, Clem, you’d better go and see a doctor. Get your ribs strapped up.’

    ‘I could do with a drink myself, Hec,’ Clem said.

    Rog rummaged in a cupboard and came up with some plastic glasses.

    ‘Not too elegant,’ Hector said, ‘but a drink out of your boot’s better than none at all.’

    He lined five glasses up on the arm of his chair and poured them half full. ‘Just the one for you, Rog, you’ll be driving Mr Hardy back to his car.’

    Rog and Clem knocked back their drinks and left the building. Hector handed me a glass. ‘Cheers.’

    The three of us drank. It was good, smooth stuff. Hector poured another three generous measures. ‘We’re not going to have any more trouble here, are we, Hardy?’

    ‘Depends on what happens when you stop being all hospitable and tell me what message you want me to deliver and why.’

    ‘Fair enough. First, we don’t intend to kill Johnnie or hurt him in any way. Second, tell him that we’re willing to offer him protection and assistance when he goes for the money.’

    I found myself repeating what Twizell had said to me. ‘That’s very vague.’

    ‘He’ll know what it means.’

    ‘I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what it means—just to help me be more convincing.’

    ‘You’re an irritating man, Hardy. A little of you goes a very long way.’

    ‘I’ve been told that.’

    Hector nodded. ‘I’m sure it’s one of your techniques, part of your stock in trade, as it were.’

    He was right there. I finished the drink and stood. ‘You’re out of your mind, Tanner. I’m leaving. If Rog comes anywhere near me I’ll put him in hospital.’

    His voice had a whip-crack quality. ‘You’ll do as I say.’

    ‘Involve myself in a criminal conspiracy with a few wannabe gangsters like you? No chance. I’ve got a job to do and I’ll do it. Just that.’

    He shook his head mock-sadly and took a mobile phone from his pocket. ‘There’s 385 grams of high grade cocaine in your motel room. One call and the cops’ll be there with the sniffer dogs. I’ve checked on you, Hardy. You’ve done time and been suspended and had your fucking licence lifted. You got it back on a technicality. You walk a fine line. I bet there’s quite a few cops who’d be happy to see you go down—again.’

    He had a point. My reinstatement as a PIA came about as a result of a technicality and there were people who were unhappy about it.

    ‘Supposing I don’t go back to the motel?’ I said.

    Hector sipped his drink. Joseph smirked. ‘There’s always your car, your house, your office, your daughter’s flat, for that matter. We’ve got a law and order government now, I’m happy to say. Might be a bit hard to convict, you might hang on to your licence if things went your way, but it wouldn’t do much for your business.’

    ‘What’s to stop me agreeing and then not delivering the message?’

    ‘We’ll get a reaction from Johnnie when you do. No question about it.’

    Joseph must have thought he’d played second fiddle too long. My guess was that he’d done it from infanthood. He was wearing a nice suit as well, after all, if a bit less classy than Hector’s. ‘Stuck for words?’ he said. ‘That makes a welcome change. You’ve got no real choice, Hardy. And what’s your problem? You deliver a message, walk away and never hear from us again, right, Hec?’

    Hector didn’t like not being the spokesman. Didn’t like his brother very much, possibly, but he played along. ‘Right.’

    I sat down. ‘How about another drink while I think about it?’

    ‘Why not?’ Hector filled my glass. I held it up and then poured it slowly out onto the dusty cement floor.

    ‘You prick,’ Joseph said, half rising from his chair.

    ‘Easy,’ Hector said. ‘Just as a matter of interest, what were you seeing Johnnie about?’

    I stood and moved towards the door. ‘It was about money. Maybe a more attractive offer than yours.’

    Hector didn’t react but my reward was a worried frown on Joseph’s face. I opened the door and looked back. Hector waggled his mobile phone at me. He wouldn’t unravel under pressure as quickly as his brother, but he was probably the more dangerous of the pair.

    I had no idea where I was. I walked down the lane. No sign of Rog, Clem or the station wagon. I went towards the loudest traffic noise and walked until I reached a small shopping centre. I located a taxi rank with one cab waiting. I got in and swore when I was asked where I was going. My mind was on Tanner’s threat. Bluff or for real? I told the driver to take me to the gaol car park. My manner discouraged any friendly chat he might have had in mind. We didn’t exchange a word the whole way.

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