The Dunbar Case(7)
Author:Peter Corris

    Motel rooms aren’t hard to break into. The room keys aren’t complicated and, with a bunch of people who don’t know each other circulating about, things don’t get noticed. Whoever had been in my room hadn’t tried to conceal the fact; quite the opposite. Lying on top of Lord Jim was a disc of silver foil about the size of a ten-cent piece. I unwrapped it; maybe the white powder was coke, maybe it wasn’t. I didn’t care. I flushed it down the toilet. Then I made a thorough search of the room and my belongings in case there was a second stash which would have been a cunning thing to have done—and Hector Tanner was cunning personified. There wasn’t. I made a cup of instant coffee and sat down to think.

    There was no point in going to the police and accusing the Tanners of deprivation of liberty and making threats. They’d deny it and I had no evidence. I could do as they said, give Twizell the message and get on with the job Wakefield had hired me to do. That went against the grain: I was being threatened and blackmailed. I’d been used to threats ever since I’d got into this business but blackmail was something new. I felt in my guts that if I gave in to it I was finished.

    The first thing to do was buy some time. I rang the gaol and arranged to see Twizell again. I assumed the Tanners’ contact would let them know that. The next step was to find some way to neutralise the threat. The Tanners were based in Newcastle and I had contacts there—a PIA named McKnight who I’d worked with in the past, and Marisha Henderson, a journalist on the Newcastle Herald who’d been a friend and colleague of Lily Truscott. I rang and arranged to meet Pete in his office at Hamilton that evening.

    While Pete was wary, knowing that I needed something from him, Marisha sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me.

    ‘Hello, Cliff,’ she said. ‘Hey, it’s been too long. What’s up?’

    I told her I was going to be in Newcastle that night and wanted to talk to her about Novocastrian matters.

    ‘Like what?’

    ‘Bad guys.’

    ‘Right up my street. Dinner?’

    ‘Has to be later.’

    ‘Come to my place. How long are you in this shithole for?’

    ‘Don’t know. I thought you were glad to get the job in Newcastle.’

    ‘I was. Now not so much. Anyway, we can talk about it. I hope you’re still drinking. Not one of these born-again teetotallers, are you?’

    I said I wasn’t. She gave me the address. A mental picture of her formed as we finished the call—tall, slim and energetic with a slight and attractive overbite. Lily had said she was my type and she was, but at the time Lily was all I needed.

    It was 3pm and I had a four-hour plus drive ahead of me. I checked out, paying for two nights, and headed north after topping up the tank and washing down a couple of No-Doz with black coffee. I headed north-east, picking up the Bells Line of Road, keeping a close watch in the rear vision mirror for the first stretch, but there was no tail. I paid a toll for the short run on the M2 and got onto the Newcastle freeway. I played a series of CDs, mostly blues. Hummed along or sang when I knew the words. I was tired from the meeting with Twizell, the confrontation with the Tanners and having to concentrate on the driving, but the caffeine kept me alert.

    Pete’s office was in a block on the site of a building more or less demolished by the 1989 earthquake. The facade had been preserved. It was well situated but modest, suggesting that Pete was making a living but not getting rich. He was an ex-policeman, invalided out with a pension after being shot. He was ten years younger than me but looked every day of his age. He got slowly and stiffly to his feet as I came into his office.

    ‘How’s it going, Pete?’ I said.

    ‘Up and down. You?’


    I sat and we exchanged small talk for a minute or two. Pete’s hair was thinning as his body thickened. I knew that he was divorced and that his wife had taken the two children interstate. There were signs of work being done in the office but not a lot. The last time we spoke, Pete had told me he missed the bustle of police life but was still heavily dependent on the force for the jobs they threw his way. He’d had some funny stories back then, but he was much less chatty now.

    ‘I’ve run up against the Tanners,’ I said. ‘Hector and Joseph.’

    ‘Be thankful it wasn’t Jobe.’

    ‘I’ll keep that in mind. Joseph’s not much, but Hector’s got something about him. Would you agree?’

    He grunted but didn’t say anything. For what seemed like the hundredth time I sketched the job I was on, the message I was supposed to deliver and the threat that came with it.

    ‘Couple of questions,’ I said. ‘Do they have the resources to plant coke the way they say—the supply, contacts in Sydney, good break-in people?’

    Pete nodded. ‘They do.’

    ‘I need some leverage against them.’

    ‘Why not just do what they say? No skin off your nose.’

    I didn’t answer. He looked at me and sighed. ‘Of course— you’d reckon they’d own you.’

    ‘Something like that. Hector mentioned my daughter. That made a difference.’

    ‘Hardy the hero.’

    ‘Hardy the pissed-off. You’ve worked here a long time, Pete. You’ve got an in with the cops; you know the scene. You know the informers. Shit, operators like the Tanners’ve got as many enemies as friends, maybe more.’

    ‘That’s true and I’ve been one. But the smart thing to do is stay clear of them. What they’ve threatened you with is nothing compared to things they’ve done.’


    He shook his head. ‘You don’t want to know. I can’t help you. It’s a good thing you didn’t mention the Tanners when you rang. I wouldn’t have been here.’

    ‘That bad?’

    ‘That bad. In fact I’m worried about you coming here. You asked about contacts—they’ve got ‘em, all over.’

    ‘Jesus, Pete, you used—’

    ‘I used to have more balls.’

    I got up. ‘I’m sorry.’

    I wasn’t quite sure what I meant when I said that. I had a mixture of feelings. But Pete took it in the worst way. His sagging face went red and a tic started in his cheek. He knotted his hands together on the top of his desk to stop them from shaking.

    ‘You pity me, right? Fuck you.’

    I moved towards the door. I heard him suck in a deep breath.


    I turned back.

    ‘Don’t say you weren’t warned.’

    ‘About who in particular?’

    His troubled voice sank to a whisper. ‘About every one of the fuckers. They’re a volatile lot. I doubt that any one of them trusts the other.’

    ‘Not unusual in a crew like that.’

    ‘Yeah, but if anyone tells you Jobe’s a spent force, don’t believe it.’

    ‘Sounds as if you—’

    ‘Just an observer.’

    My nod didn’t mean I believed him.

    ~ * ~

    I’d thought my session with Pete would have taken longer. I thought he might have filled me in with some details about the Tanners, might even have taken me to meet a useful person or two. I didn’t anticipate that he’d be so reluctant to help. I was there so briefly I could’ve had dinner with Marisha but she’d have made other arrangements by now so I had time to kill.

    I drove into the city centre. Newcastle wore a rundown look and I recalled reading that a plan to spend millions on a revamp had fallen through and that the money men, local authorities and the state government were still trying to thrash out a deal. It looked overdue; road markings were faded, the buildings were rust-stained from leaking guttering and everything seemed to need an injection of money and ideas.

    I found a parking spot and had a meal in the first decent-looking eatery I came to. Fish, as recommended by my cardiologist and generally my preference anyway. A half-bottle of white wine to go with the food and wash down the necessary pills. Service was slow, which suited me. I read some Conrad and scribbled some notes. Black coffee to finish.

    I bought a bottle of wine at a pub, programmed the GPS and followed the directions to Redhead on the coast a bit north of the city. Marisha’s address was a block of flats on the road that ran along the beach. If she was up high enough and in front she’d have a view across the road, the dunes and the beach straight out to the South Pacific Ocean.

    It was just after nine o’clock when I buzzed her flat. She released the door after telling me to come up two flights. I went up slowly—you don’t want to arrive on a woman’s doorstep puffing. She had the door open waiting for me. No ceremony. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me. I hugged her and felt a surge of feeling that’d been missing for a long time.

    She hung on to my arm and pulled me inside. I hadn’t seen her since Lily’s wake when she’d been one of the most distressed people there before she became one of the drunkest. She hadn’t changed much—still looked as though she could do a triathlon the way she used to. She seemed reluctant to let me go and I wasn’t struggling. I waved the bottle of red.

    ‘Good one,’ she said. ‘Let’s crack it and drink a toast to Lily. How are you?’

    I knew what she meant. The name had to come up and she’d done it in the best way possible.

    ‘Healed,’ I said.

    ‘Jacket off, have a seat, I’ll open the plonk.’ She looked at the label. ‘Shit, that set you back a bit.’

    I put my jacket on the couch on top of a pile of newspapers and magazines—the room was pleasantly untidy, a bit like Marisha herself, who wore a wrinkled skirt and a shirt half tucked in, half out.

    ‘My client, you mean.’

    She unscrewed the cap on her way to the kitchen. ‘Yeah, I heard you were working again. Having fun?’

    She came back with two glasses, put them on the coffee table in front of the couch and poured. Then she sat in a chair across from me but not far away. She raised her glass.

    ‘Lily,’ she said, ‘from two who loved her.’

    We drank.

    ‘I asked if you were having fun.’

    ‘It’s a good question. I haven’t thought about it.’

    I was having trouble thinking about anything except her smooth olive skin, dark eyes and the way her overbite gave her a smile all her own. I drank some wine to stop from staring at her.

    ‘Some of it’s fun,’ I said. ‘Some of it’s a bit like what you do—talking to people, finding things out.’

    She nodded, still smiling. ‘But there’s a difference. I haven’t been shot ten times.’

    ‘Nowhere near ten.’

    We drank and didn’t talk for a minute. I pointed to the curtains drawn across floor to ceiling windows. The flat was at the front of the building. ‘Must be a great view.’

    ‘You don’t want to talk about the view, do you, Cliff?’

    ‘No.’ I finished the wine, stood and moved towards her. She put her glass down and I took her hands and pulled her up and towards me. She came smoothly and we kissed as if it was something we’d rehearsed. She tasted of wine; she smelled of the sea.

    ‘You’ve been swimming,’ I said.

    ‘Every night.’

    We kissed again. We pressed close. I was getting hard.

    ‘Lily said—’

    ‘I know. She told me. She said I was your type.’

    ‘You are.’

    ‘Come on, then.’

    We were both eager but not impatient. We took our time and discovered what pleased us both the most. Then it became urgent and we fucked vigorously. After we finished we lay wrapped together in the semi-darkness. She ran a finger down the pale spots that marked where they’d split me open.

    ‘I heard about this but I forgot about it just now. Didn’t seem to cause you any trouble.’

    ‘It doesn’t. Mind you, if we’d done that, say, a day or two before the heart attack, you’d have had to heave me off and give me CPR.’

    ‘I’m good at that. Anyone who does a triathlon should know how to do it. I’ve done it twice to blokes younger than you who didn’t know their hearts were iffy.’

    ‘They say I’m good for quite a while yet if I look after myself. Which I do, more or less.’

    ‘You look pretty good. Not much flab.’

    ‘None at all on you.’

    ‘I’ll get the wine.’

    We sat in the bed and drank the wine. We filled each other in on what we’d been doing over the past couple of years—solid journalistic work for her and plans for a book on crime in the Hunter Valley, and some interesting cases for me in amongst the routine stuff.

    Marisha was still on the right side of fifty; I’d crossed that line. We stayed close, but the days of multiple fucking were past for both of us. We fell asleep before even getting near to talking about why I’d contacted her.

    ~ * ~

    I woke up alone in the bed and had the momentary feeling of not knowing where I was or even who I was. But the sensation passed almost immediately. The bed was warm from Marisha’s body and retained her scents of sea, sweat and sex. Light flooded into the room through the open door. I pulled on my boxers and went into the sitting room where Marisha was standing by the big window with the curtain drawn back. She wore a blue silk dressing gown.

    ‘There’s your view,’ she said.

    It was all I thought it would be—a busy road contrasting with silent dunes, an empty beach and the ocean rolling away forever. I put my arms around her and she rested back against me.

    ‘It’s why I bought the place.’

    ‘Wise move.’

    ‘I’ll make some coffee, then you can tell me why you’re here.’

    She was slipping back into professional mode. I told her I needed to get some pills from my bag in the car. I had a quick shower, dressed and got the pills. I arranged them in the palm of my hand and ran the tap for a glass of water. She watched me as I swallowed them.

    ‘Every day?’

    ‘Every bloody day.’

    ‘You didn’t bring the bag up,’ she said. ‘Not planning to stay? Love me and leave me?’

    I kissed her. ‘Not this time.’

    ‘Meaning there’ll be others?’

    ‘I hope so.’

    She began to spoon coffee into a plunger pot. ‘Me too. So what’s on your mind?’

    ‘More who.’

    She smiled. ‘There’s no one else around, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

    ‘Glad to hear it, but I was thinking of Jobe Tanner.’

    She dropped the scoop and coffee spilled over the bench. ‘My God! How the hell did you know?’

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