For reader L., who may like this one.
The fat man with dyed and slicked back hair sat tugging his too-red suspenders upward, as if to correct gravity and his seventy years of gorging. Vintage Rodenstock specs, square framed with tinting, and a floppy bow tie completed the image of a Middle European who had been trying for too long to intimidate Australians with his savoir. In fact, Paul Kleinlich, once an ingenious eviction specialist and cash lender-cum-washer, had grown less and less relevant to a Sydney of six-month leases and electronic money-fiddles.
The other man sat opposite, but at an angle from the desk so that no eye contact was made. He was nearly as old, but still had a rangy lock forward’s frame. His face was disconnected flaps and bulges; the lipless mouth was set in a permanent slight sneer. Nobody except Harold Brand still wore grey three piece suits with greasy club ties – but that suited Harold Brand. The ageing standover man was happy to be apart, to have it said that his only friend was his cricket bat, that feared length of willow which had been his main tool of trade for decades.
As always, he waited for his employer to speak, not out of respect but out of his default attitude of indifference to all.
“Harold…does anybody like you?”
The other shrugged.
“No, I need to know. I’m not trying to insult. Does anybody like you? Has anybody ever liked you?”
“Maybe. I wouldn’t know. The old caretaker at the Waverley Oval liked me, I think. But maybe he was a poof. Sorry, nothing personal.”
“Harold, just give me an answer…Do you feel a need to be liked? Is there something which, you know, moves you? You say you don’t care about cricket any more. You don’t have friends, don’t watch television…no family…no outlets…”
Now Brand turned his head to face the other directly.
“What are you after, Paul? This is the longest chat we’ve had in forty or more years. I can tell you that long chats are something I definitely don’t like. By the way, has anybody ever liked you?”
“Of course. When I came to Sydney in 1958 I couldn’t keep up with all the invites. I still get invites. The old Espresso Bongo crowd. The Viennese Club. Two chess societies, Musica Antiqua…Colourful people! You don’t see it, but I’ve always had friends, old friends, away from…all this necessary stuff we have to do.”
“People too poor to gyp?”
“Harold, with respect, there are things you Australians don’t get. Things which Europeans…”
“Wogs and reffos, you mean?”
“I mean people who can put a finish on things, add a certain grace to things, so life is more than just staying alive…”
“Like I thought. Wogs and reffos.”
A dead end. Harold Brand turned his sneer away again. Silence, then:
“Harold, I’ve got a job for you.”
“Righto. How much are they in for?”
“Ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and fifty dollars – all cash – was the starting debt. For some reason she wanted that exact sum. Maybe for superstitious reasons. Now she owes a lot more, obviously.”
“I’ll come to that. The thing is…the other boys won’t handle this.”
“The other boys prefer working for the Angelitos now, Paul. That’s the future: bikies who are set up like the Commonwealth Bank. Or haven’t you noticed?”
“There’s still room for people like us, Harold. Just because there are department stores doesn’t mean you can’t have boutiques. What I’m saying is, you’ll have to go alone on this job. But I need to know…if there are limits. Things you won’t do. People you won’t touch because…”
“No, there aren’t any limits, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody pays.”
“Everybody? What about eighty-three year old women?”
“You mean you let some old sheila run up that size of debt?”
“She’s been borrowing for twelve years. Always got the money back to me. That’s why I’ve never even mentioned her to you.”
“What was she doing with the money?”
“She’s Sicilian – but don’t worry, she’s not connected, as they say. People from Catania, quite respectable. Widow. Old family business. Shoe factory out west. Folded once the husband died and the Asian imports hit hard. There was some real estate out that way, as well as a cafe in Petersham. She had to show losses all over the shop, or everything would be for the tax man.”
“A wog who hates the tax man. Wonders never cease.”
“Anyway, it was a complicated lead up to a bankruptcy that still hasn’t happened. As she sold up for less than things were worth, she took supplementary cash from the purchaser. It’s a very European style of arrangement…You sell cheaply to someone who needs to get rid of cash, but not quite that cheaply…It relies on a certain amount of trust within an ethnic community…or between ethnic…”
“Yeah, I get it. Wogs and cash.”
“Summing up, Harold, while she waited for sales and supplementary cash to come through, she paid me a bit, to avoid paying the tax man a lot. The cash I gave her kept creditors quiet, I suppose, and provided pin money. That’s the situation as I understand it. I don’t know why she kept needing to borrow after the first few sell-offs, but since she had collateral and paid up promptly each time, it was hardly my affair.”
“I’m glad someone understands. Maybe you need a wog brain to work all that out.”
“Harold, she’s been a good little earn, till recently. Most customers aren’t as easy as she was, hence your…services. But – as you might have guessed – I’m in no position to carry this kind of debt right now. If the lady had done what she normally did, I’d be over eighty thousand better off, as we speak. That’s the kind of interest she’s been happy to pay, four times in twelve years. I was dead sure she’d pay. The loan was very short term. She still looked in perfect health. Huge collateral. Admittedly the first three times she didn’t borrow much…”
“All right, maybe she’s been setting me up. But who sets up a private, er, loan specialist like me and expects to get away with it? Especially when the whole of Sydney knows about our association. I don’t know what she’s up to. Doesn’t make sense. One thing I do know: that hundred and eighty thousand total she owes now would be keeping a lot of wolves from my door. Instead…Harold, I need the money. The sturgeon farm wasn’t such a good idea in hindsight, I admit that. But everyone has these ups and downs in business….
“Put whatever you like on top for your trouble, but I need what she owes, Harold, and fast!”
“You certainly do. So…what’s been the problem?”
“The old factory. She’s had months to sell it. That was the whole idea: she was going to undersell the factory and take another big cash supplement from the purchasers. She didn’t mention the Meinecke brothers, but, with their cash situation, I sort of assumed…Anyway, last week I learned from Ray Meinecke that she hasn’t even tried to sell. I would never have given another loan without that property to back it. It’s a good re-development site, no question. I need her to sell it fast, or find money from somewhere else.”
“Harold, that money is due, but she hasn’t even bothered with excuses or part payments.”
“Hmm. So what’s her game? How does she expect to get away with it?”
“She’s hiding! She’s never at her company-rented flat in Ashfield, never answers phones.”
“How do I find her?”
“Well, it seems she’s not as cunning as she thinks. She still drives, even at eighty-three. And Google Earth shows a white Camry parked inside the fence of her abandoned factory at Greendale. She’s living in the old dump on the sly – I’m sure of it.”
“Bloody Greendale. If the arse hole of the world had an arse hole…”
“Harold, I need that money right now, and all the interest…She has to stay alive or there’ll be no money. On the other hand…”
“Exactly. Everybody pays…So how do you feel about…You know, about punishing an eighty-three year old woman…in the usual way…”
Harold Brand sent his employer a hard glare.
Harold Brand drove a dark coloured Commodore into a dark side street near the factory and parked it in a dark place.
He walked to the factory.
No lights or movement. Dogs barked in factory yards nearby, and that was all.
Sure enough, inside the locked fence a solitary white Camry was parked. It would have been invisible from the road but not from Google Earth.
Rather than risk suspicious movement and waste time looking for a hole in the fence, Brand made one quickly with compact wire-cutters he always had with him. Stepping through, he advanced quickly and, for all his size, quietly toward the front door of the factory. It was open. With all the smashed windows, there would have been no point in locking. The only security would have been in having nothing to steal or vandalise, which appeared to be the case.
He walked in, being careful not to make sounds. His tiny LED light on its lowest beam let him see his footing without attracting attention. Patrolling about, all he could find was open factory space and two unlocked offices, empty of furnishings. Inside one office, he closed a door and quickly flicked a light switch down then up again, to test. There was no electricity.
Yet there was some kind of humming noise in the air.
He moved out to the centre of the factory floor and held his breath. Yes! It was music, or something very like music. Where could it be coming from? He methodically checked all above with the strongest beam of his torch. There were no balconies or upper levels of any sort. Now he cast about the ground and…
A heavy trap-door set in brick!
A couple of metres in front of it was something like a ventilation grid. He set his ear to the grid and listened. Yes, there was a vault below, and some sort of wailing ethnic music was rising up from it.
He pulled very quietly on a sturdy handle welded to the metal trapdoor. It had no lock but the weight was enormous. If an eighty-three year old woman had entered the vault, she could not have entered it alone this way. As he got it ajar, he could see a narrow flight of steps leading down from the opening. The music was louder for a moment, there seemed to be light somewhere below. Then light and music died suddenly.
Someone was down there.
There was no lock but the trapdoor would only lift to a thirty degree angle: doubtless a safety measure for workers on the floor. With some difficulty, Harold Brand squeezed his body down onto the top steps, then lowered the door behind him. It seemed to close with a neat click.
Whoever was down the bottom knew he was here, so there was no point in not shining his torch. Better to get down safely.
At the base, a brick floor. He shone the torch up. A brick ceiling.
The vault was narrow and elongated. There was nothing but bare walls and floors near him, but there were shapes down the other end. He shone his torch in that direction.
Bars from floor to ceiling, and behind them objects like boxes. Obviously, a kind of secure storage from a past era.
He advanced, keeping the torch out from his body so nobody lurking could get an idea of where his body’s centre was. Finally he got to the barred area, with its heavily chained barred door, and shone his light in.
Among the boxes and other clutter was the immobile shape of an elderly woman, seated. In front of her, on a low table, was a camping stove, a tiny one-shot espresso maker and a little cup. (He had briefly caught a whiff of coffee when he opened the hatch, but then thought he had imagined it.) There was also a big ghetto-blaster on the table.
“Hi there. I’ve come to see you. About business. Are you awake?”
“Sure. Sure I am.”
The woman’s accent was only light.
“Can you open this door so we can talk?”
“Sure, but…maybe I shouldn’t.”
“You’re the cricket bat man, aren’t you?”
“Do you see a cricket bat?”
“No, but to hurt an old woman like me you just need one hand.”
“Why would I hurt you? I just want to talk. And I wouldn’t mind some Italian coffee while we’re talking. I take it very short – the proper way.”
“Maybe…I’ll let you in…after we talk.”
“Well, you know why I’m here. If we can come to an arrangement, you’ll be able to go back home where you’re comfy. Why don’t we both sit down right there and have a coffee. Work this out.”
“And you won’t hurt me?”
“I’m not in the business of hurting nice old ladies. If you were a young bloke, maybe I’d give you a love tap or two.”
“You hurt young men?”
“Maybe, It depends. I don’t like hurting anybody.”
Silence. Then the woman:
“There was a young man once. He told me you were happy when you hurt him. Said nothing else filled you up. Just that made you happy. Nothing else.”
“I think you’re confusing me with someone else. I don’t know you, or any of your friends. I’m just here to get things sorted…Now what about that coffee?”
“I had just one daughter. She and the husband died in that big bus crash up north.”
“I’m sorry, but…You’ve got to be tired living like this. If we both clear our heads with a coffee…If we can sit down together, you can tell me about your family, then we can…”
“She had a son, my daughter did. Good boy. Ah…Maybe not such a good boy. Got into trouble gambling. I had to stop giving him money in the end. It just made him worse. He was trouble for himself. And for me. But he was mine. My beautiful grandson. Angelo Higgins.”
“You know him, yes? Or knew him. About thirteen years ago, yes? One of his legs…what’s the word?…it…it suppurated. Is that the word? After you broke his legs one of them suppurated, poisoned his blood….He took a long time to go. But while he was sick he was my boy again. When he wasn’t in trouble he was the most beautiful boy…”
“Look, I’m sorry how these things go at times…”
For the first time the woman moved, raising herself slowly from her chair, sighing:
“How these things go at times…how they go at times…Ah, si…”
She turned away from the man and moved to the end of the storage area, where the light showed the outline of a door. Now she turned about again.
“The trap you came through – it’ll never open. Got a special lock, and a little electronic thing so I know you haven’t left it open somehow. Very, very strong. Like this door I’m leaving by. The ventilator that let out the sound of the music? I’ve got a special plate ready to screw over it. When I close this door to the low side of the building, it’ll never open. Special job. Italian feller in Petersham. Makes a place so tight that water can’t get in if it floods. You won’t drown down here, that’s for sure. No sound in or out, that’s for sure too. Took a lot of years to get this place just the way I wanted it. So I could do what needed doing. The right way: in person.”
“Come on, joke’s over. Open this bloody door or…”
“Or someone will kill me? Who?”
“Paul Kleinlich, that’s who. He knows where I am and where you are. This really is going to get you hurt.”
Now the woman moved a little closer toward his torch beam.
“As you hit my grandson you called him wog. Over and over. Wog, you said….
“Hear this, Mr. Cricket Bat Man. Before there were Greeks or Romans or Arabs in Sicily…Before we had the Spanish guappi who made the mafia, that human shit…”
The woman spat sharply on the ground.
“In Sicily, long before all that…
“C’è stata la Vendetta!”
Again she spat.
A minute later she was gone, closing the colossal door behind her. It made a neat click as it shut to.
“Mate, it’s like a dream, and all that. Jesus, the fish a bloke could catch in one of these!”
“Chicks don’t mind the odd boat ride neither.”
“Nah. Chicks. They don’t. They’d be into it. You’re right. Chicks. Chicks would bloody…in a flash…a boat like this…”
As Jiggs steered, hiding his nervousness at being at the controls of something so large and expensive, Watto was gaping about him, sometimes at the ocean and the cliffs of Watson’s Bay, sometimes at the boat’s prestige fittings and furniture.
“Jiggs, this is a long way from catching flatties from my dad’s putt-putt on the Hawkesbury, and all that. I just didn’t think…you know…bikies…”
“New era, mate. Forget leather jackets and hairy old blokes who need a wash. The Angelitos are more organised than most corporations. If we do the right thing by them, there’ll be more of this. They want sensible blokes, quality muscle. Blokes like us. If we do have to put on the leather and get tatts, that’s by way of promoting us up the ranks. The tatts will be small and won’t show. Speck on your bum. But, really, they want blokes who don’t look like bikies. Blokes they can send to Queensland in suits…”
“That’s us. Right for cocktail parties with Campbell Newman, and all that.”
Some minutes later the boat, a Blackfin 38 Sport Diesel, floated to a drift, with the motor off.
“This’ll do, Watto. How’s our passenger? He’s not cold just in his blanket?”
“Not gonna matter in a few minutes, is it?”
“Suppose not. Still…some respect…”
“Yeah, you’re right. Martial arts and all that. I don’t think bikies would understand…”
“Don’t bag bikies, Watto. They’re our future. Still, respect…Let’s get it done.”
They walked to the stern where an enormously fat man, wrapped in chains attached to an old anchor, sat writhing and shivering, only half covered by a blanket which was too small for his frame. There was tape over his mouth, but his eyes were wide and darting.
Watto put his face close to that of the fat man.
“Sorry, Mr. Kleinlich, This is where we have to leave you, and all that. There’s no reef under us, so you’ll sink fast. You won’t feel anything much, especially if you just inhale the water.”
Paul Kleinlich was making furious noises through his nose, but the other two ignored them and got ready to lift him. As they did so, Watto said his piece:
“I just want to say you were a good boss and all that. I learned a lot from you. You’ve been a sort of sensei to me, and I respect you very much. I’m sorry you’ve been losing it lately, with the fish farm and all that, but that’s age, I suppose. And all that. Oh, and thanks for showing us about sour cream in soup and all stuff like that. And history…and all that…”
“That’ll probably do, Watto. Mr. Kleinlich, we both respect you, but the Angelitos couldn’t let you go on competing with them as well as owing them and other people money. It was getting awkward. They were thinking of, you know, moving you on when someone out of nowhere paid them to do it this way. The customer was paying well over the market…you see how that is…and all in cash. If the bosses of the Angelitos said no to deals like that they wouldn’t be bosses for long. I’m sure you’d do the same in their position.
“Anyway, Mr. Kleinlich, for some reason I’m supposed to give you a message from the customer.
“The message is that the contract on you was for ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and fifty dollars. Cash.”