I met Dominic O’Grady at the Botte D’oro restaurant in Leichhardt. O’Grady was a former private inquiry agent who’d turned to journalism. He’d worked for Sterling Security Inc and now wrote for the online investigative newsletter The Sentinel, run by my old friend Harry Tickener. O’Grady was a gourmand who’d undoubtedly order a massive and expensive lunch. I put in a long workout session at the gym in preparation for the meal and the wine that were bound to tempt me.
O’Grady was there before me, sitting massively in his chair by the window. He’d taken his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves, preparing for some serious eating. His belly kept him back from the table a fair way, but he was a big man with long arms. He was working his way through a bowl of olives and one of nuts. There was a bottle of white wine in the ice bucket and his glass was half full. The table napkin was tucked into his shirt below the first button and spread down towards, but not quite reaching, his pot belly. He looked up from the menu he was studying with the intensity of a stamp collector inspecting a penny black.
‘Hardy, you bastard,’ he rumbled. ‘Good to see you. You did say you were paying, didn’t you?’
‘Gidday, Dom. My client is.’
We shook hands and I sat. He poured me a glass. I almost winced when I saw the bottle—French, of course.
‘Ah,those were the days. Expense accountlunches.’
‘You don’t look as though you’re wasting away.’
He patted his stomach affectionately.
‘Now, why I wanted to see you—’
‘No, no, you philistine. First things first.’ He smiled at the waitress who approached with another menu. She was dark and attractive, spike heels, tight skirt, lacy top. O’Grady emptied his glass. The waitress filled it and the bottle was empty.
‘Antipasto, large,’ O’Grady said. ‘I think then the swordfish. And I’ll decide on the dessert later.’
‘Chips and salad or vegetables, Dominic?’
‘The former and another bottle of course. Hardy?’
‘Swordfish good here, is it?’
‘Everything is good, but the swordfish is superb.’
I ordered the swordfish with vegetables. The wine was cold, dry and fresh tasting—about as much appraisal as I can give the stuff.
‘I understood Bobby Forrest was your client, but I hardly think he’s paying for our lunch.’
‘Just back in business and two well-off clients already. I’d offer congratulations, but… Ah. Here we are.’
The waitress put a large platter of antipasto on the table in front of O’Grady. She showed him the wine bottle and opened it expertly on his nod. She produced a fresh glass; he tasted the wine and nodded again. He scooped up the few remaining nuts and olives and ate them before using a small fork to spear pieces of meat and cheese which he gobbled. He dived in again.
‘Won’t you spoil your appetite?’
Just let me savour this for a few minutes before getting down to the no doubt distasteful business you have in mind. Do you want to share?’
I shook my head.
‘Can we get started?’
‘Always in a hurry, that’s you, Hardy. Wait until I’ve had my first bite of fish. Have some more of this fine wine. Relax a little.’
With someone like O’Grady there’s nothing else to do. It was late in the week, a popular time for lunching, and the restaurant was filling up. We were at a table for two with no other table really close. Ideal for a private talk. O’Grady was an old hand. I drank some wine and ate some bread. The fish came.
‘Cracked pepper, Mr Hardy?’
I looked at her in surprise. I hadn’t been in the place for years and had never seen her before. O’Grady chuckled.
‘Fame, Cliff, fame. She saw you on television. It’s the only thing that matters these days, unfortunately.’
I accepted cracked pepper and ate fish. It was good. O’Grady took some time with the dressing on his salad. He started on his fish.
‘Phil Tyson,’ I said. ‘What can you tell me about him?’
‘Nothing good. A thug. You know he sacked me.’
I nodded. ‘But I want you to be objective.’
‘Hard to be objective about Phil.’ He ate a couple of large mouthfuls of the fish followed by a considerable number of chips and some salad in rapid succession. He chewed slowly and bowed his head reverently. ‘Beautiful food, don’t you agree?’
‘It’s fine. Thuggish how?’
‘In every way—the people he hires, the pressure he exerts, especially on his clients.’
I stopped eating. ‘On his clients?’
‘I assume you’re working for one of them. Not surprising. You should never tell your secrets to Phil. He’ll handle your problem all right, but then he owns you and you have to dance to his tune.’
‘You could say that.’
‘Do you happen to know whether he did any work for a bloke named Ray Frost?’
O’Grady ate and drank in his measured, appreciative way. He dabbed at his mouth with the napkin. ‘I believe he did, yes.’
‘Do you know what it was?’
He poured more wine and inspected the level in the bottle. ‘Another, d’you think?’
‘No. Tyson and Frost?’
‘Sounds like a comedy team but I doubt there was anything funny about it. I don’t know the details; it was after my time, but I imagine Phil straightened out Frost’s problem in his usual direct manner and then just as ruthlessly collected his reward.
He compiled a forkful of food.
‘Phil has a bunch of heavies and they run about in a fleet of cars. I once saw the entire executive fleet turn up at the one place at the same time. Very intimidating. You’re not eating.’
The fish was succulent and the vegetables were crisp but I was losing interest in the food. Something about O’Grady’s rapid consumption and absolute enjoyment put me off. I toyed with what was on my plate for a while before putting my knife and fork down and taking a decent swig of wine.
‘Disgusting,’ O’Grady said. ‘Sip it, man, sip it.’
‘Why did you leave Sterling Security, Dom?’
‘I blew the whistle on Tyson in 2003. I’ve got a flexible conscience but enough was enough. I thought everyone knew that. You disappoint me.’
I’d been a mess for some time after my partner Lily Truscott had been killed, and then I’d gone overseas for a year or so. I’d missed a lot.
‘And were there reprisals?’
‘Oh, yes. Physical at first, now more or less just harassment. Unsettling. Tiresome.’
His plate was clean and he poured the last of the wine into his own glass.
‘Doesn’t put you off your food.’
‘It did for a time, I can assure you. But I’ve got a comfortable spot now. Will there be anything for me in this matter you’re pursuing?’
‘Thought so. Oh well, better make the most of this. Now I wonder what’s best for dessert.’
I thought over what he’d told me as a way of fixing the information in my memory—thug . . . heavies . . . pressure . . . fleet of cars . . .
‘How many cars in the executive fleet?’
‘What kind of cars, Dom?’
‘White Commodores. Phil never uses anything else. Crème caramel, I think.’
Sterling Security Inc’s website listed six senior associates: five men and one woman. No photographs. I thought it unlikely a woman would drive around disguised as a bearded man. I faced the prospect of getting a look at the five men to see if one was bearded. Not a strong line of investigation, beards come and go, but it was the best I could come up with.
I was back in the office. Frost’s money had been deposited so that the balance in my account that took a heavy hit from the cost of the restaurant lunch was nicely topped up. I wrote down the five names and did the routine checks to find out more about them, particularly their addresses. No luck with the telephone directory; they were just the kind to have silent landline numbers if they had landlines at all. Mobile phone types for sure. But there are other ways. I’d lost my valuable Roads and Traffic Authority contact, which isn’t much use for checking on people driving leased company cars anyway, but I still had one in a big credit checking outfit. The information was costly but reliable.
A phone call got me addresses for three of the names: Arthur Pollock, Blacktown; Stephen Charles, Randwick; and Louis Salter, Clovelly. Anton Beaumont and Ralph Cochrane were proving more elusive. But persistence paid off. Beaumont turned up in a newspaper report on a traffic accident in which he was involved and his address was given as Alexandria. He’d been taken to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for observation. I was pretty sure Hank could be persuaded to hack into the hospital records.
They say that there’s nowhere to hide these days, but Ralph Cochrane was doing a pretty good job of it. He didn’t appear on any of the databases I had access to and some discreet inquiries among people I thought might know yielded nothing. I could give him some thought. The procedure was going to mean a lot of driving around and trying not to be seen by people who presumably were good at not being snooped on.
There are people who do the easy stuff first. I understand the impulse but I’m the reverse. Get the hard stuff out of the way first. I’d always been like that—at school, in the army and in the profession I’d followed for so long. In the army it passed for keenness and efficiency. My reports spoke of ‘diligence’ and ‘initiative’. It wasn’t really, it was more a matter of doing the hard stuff while my energy level was high. I was easily bored and could get sloppy when I lost interest. As a detective the habit sometimes had benefits and sometimes not. Sometimes hard turned out to be easy and hard. You could never tell.
I wasn’t sleeping well. A matter of loneliness and a feeling that I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I should. So I was happy about making an early start. They say everyone is working longer hours these days and I assumed it applied to people in the security business, especially senior people if they wanted to stay senior. And why not me as well? I drove to Blacktown, setting off at 5 am, picking up the Great Western Highway and cruising through light traffic to arrive at the address a bit before 6 am.
Pollock’s place was on the fringes in a street with large houses on big blocks with some bushes and yellow grass. It was a short street and every house had a driveway but there were three cars in some places that looked to have two-car garages and a couple had a car in the driveway and another out on the street. Kids still living at home. One extra car wouldn’t stand out too much. I parked on the opposite side of the street and about fifty metres away so that I’d get a clear view of Pollock as he backed out and turn around to face me before driving off.
The house was a two-storey job with white pillars, liver-coloured bricks and no eaves. Freezing in winter and stinking hot in summer, but presumably air-conditioned with a heavy carbon footprint. At 6.30 a roller door slid up and a white Commodore backed out. The driver obliged me by stopping before he reached the street, getting out and collecting the newspaper from the cylindrical holder beside the letterbox. He was small to medium sized with fair, thinning hair. Nothing prominent about the jaw, no beard. He tossed the paper onto the passenger seat, got in and drove off without looking at me.
One down and four to go. I drove into the Blacktown CBD, found an early opening café and treated myself to a decent breakfast. I washed down my morning heart medications with some very passable coffee. Blacktown woke up around me. It appeared to be a busy, bustling kind of place with something of the feel of a country town as well as the big city.
The weekend interrupted the work. People follow different schedules, sleep in, go away and, anyway, a stakeout can look obvious. Monday was the day of Bobby Forrest’s funeral. As Frost had anticipated, it was a big event attended by a lot of people from the entertainment industry, friends and the media. The ceremony was secular, at the Rookwood chapel. I’d been there too many times over the years and too recently.
The modern style is to ‘celebrate the life’ rather than ‘lament the passing’, but it’s hard to do with someone so young. Frost did his best. He was impressive in his dark clothes.
‘My son Robert was the best thing in my life. He’s gone but all my memories of him are good. He never once disappointed me or let me down and I tried not to ever let him down. That’s what I mean by him being the best thing. He made me better than I really am and I’m grateful to him for that. I’ll always be grateful for that.’
Pretty good. He echoed the words Bobby had used in explaining his relationship with Jane Devereaux. I suppose Bobby had said the same to him and he’d picked up on it. It was appropriate, and I thought Jane Devereaux would probably appreciate it.
A few others, including Sophie Marjoram and people from the entertainment business, spoke briefly. Bobby had been an organ donor and what was left of him was cremated. Among those attending there was a clutch of young people—goths and emos and the like—who stood apart. At one point I thought I could sense someone looking at me. I glanced at the young group and saw a woman in semi-goth clothes fixing me with a malevolent stare.
There was a wake, which they called a wrap party, at a restaurant in Surry Hills. I stayed long enough for a drink and to recognise a couple of the stars and semi-stars, some looking better than on screen and some not so good. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Frost.
Over the next few days I went through the same surveillance procedure with Charles in Randwick and Salter in Clovelly with the same negative result. Neither man fitted the physical description of the one who’d followed Bobby and threatened Mary Oberon, though both were more impressive physically than Pollock. Hank was out of town on a job, which stymied me on Beaumont so I turned my attention to Ralph Cochrane. With no address available, the simplest way to get a look at him was to make an appointment to see him so that’s what I did. It was a strategy I could use only once without raising questions and now seemed like the right time. Wouldn’t hurt to get a close look at the Sterling set-up anyway.
Cochrane was described on the website as the ‘Personnel and Training’ manager. The obvious ploy was to inquire about the possibility of employment. The big security firms were swallowing the small ones continually and there was every reason for a senior personnel guy at Sterling to believe I was looking for a lifeline. I’d been head-hunted a few times in the past and had declined offers. That would have been known in the appropiate circles.
Sterling’s HQ was in Rosebery, fairly close to the airport. Handy enough for the eastern suburbs dwellers, long drive from Blacktown. The building was an example of 1950s brutalism—a three-storey red cube set on a major road with no landscaping or trimmings—just a large asphalt parking area, a high fence and a manned security gate.
I drove up to the gate and told the guard my business. He consulted a sheet of paper on a clipboard, presented me with a visitor’s pass on a lanyard and directed me to a parking slot. I parked, put the lanyard round my neck and followed white arrows painted on the floor to a set of double glass doors. The doors slid open, admitting me to a foyer. A woman sat behind a desk working at a computer. She was young and good-looking. Her long nails clattered on the keys.
She looked up. ‘Mr Hardy?’
‘Right,’ I said, ‘to see Ralph Cochrane.’
She pointed to an elevator. ‘Second floor, room twelve.’
I thanked her and waited for the lift. The décor was functional—a few generic posters, a couple of citations for Sterling’s creditable performance as an employer, a scale model of a projected new HQ. I rode the lift to the second floor and followed a corridor to room twelve. I could hear activity behind the closed doors—telephones ringing, machines humming. There were noticeboards along the wall bristling with pinned paper. Cochrane’s name was on the door. I knocked.
I’ve never liked that response. Bad start and it got worse.
There were three men in the room—one sitting behind a desk and two flanking it. As I entered one of the men moved behind me, closed the door and stayed there. The other standing man sat in the only other chair in the room apart from the one behind the desk. Not a friendly reception. The man sitting was Arthur Pollock of Blacktown, the smallish guy with the wispy hair. I didn’t think I’d have too much trouble with him. I turned and looked at the man at the door. Much bigger, much younger. It’s hard to judge the size of a man behind a desk but this one didn’t look puny. He was in his thirties, dark and tanned. Maybe just back from his holidays, maybe a spray job. None of the men was bearded.
‘I’m Ralph Cochrane, Hardy,’ the man behind the desk said. He pronounced it ‘Rafe’. ‘This is Arthur Pollock and Louis Salter you know.’
‘Well, not exactly, but you saw him when you staked him out in Clovelly a few days ago. More to the point, he’s seen you. Arthur seems to think there might have been a crappy blue Falcon like the one you drive outside his house, too.’
‘Arthur’s right,’ I said. ‘I didn’t think he’d noticed.’
Pollock smiled. ‘Subliminally,’ he said.
‘So you’ve shown a very great interest in us and we’re wondering if we should be flattered or worried.’
‘Flattered,’ I said. ‘I was considering trying to join your organisation and I was just checking a few of you senior people out before making an approach. That’s why I made this appointment. I have to say I’m having second thoughts.’
I heard a movement behind me but I was too slow. A punch hit me hard in the kidneys, drove the wind out of me and buckled my knees. I had to grab at the desk to keep my feet. Salter looked pleased with his result as he should have. The punch was expert, placed in just the right spot and with just the right force. Deep bruise but no rupture, probably. I fought for breath and almost gagged at the foul taste filling my mouth. ‘Let the man sit down, Arthur,’ Cochrane said. ‘He needs the chair more than you do.’
Pollock stood and I collapsed into the chair and concentrated on sucking in air. It felt thin and insubstantial and as if it wasn’t going to last.
‘You’ve got a reputation as a tough guy, Hardy,’ Salter said. ‘I thought you’d be able to take it a bit better than that.’
My voice was a thin wheeze. ‘We’ll see how it goes next time, when we’re face to face.’
‘I’m off,’ Pollock said. ‘You can handle it from here. Let me know what he tells you.’
Cochrane nodded. Pollock took a step and I stuck out my foot. He stumbled and fell flat on his face. Pretty pathetic taking on the little guy but I had to do something. Salter stepped forward but Cochrane stopped him.
‘Cool it, Louis. You okay, Arthur?’
Pollock got up, straightened his clothes and gave me a look meant to be venomous but it’s hard to be venomous when your tie’s crooked and your comb-over’s been disturbed. He pushed past Salter and left the room.
‘Let’s start over again. Why’re you so interested in us?’
I’d recovered my breath and straightened myself up in the chair. My kidneys had the ache that suggests blood in the urine. I’d been there before in my boxing days. My brain was working well enough though.
‘I’ve got a question first,’ I said. ‘Your reaction is way over the top for spotting a little surveillance. What’s got you so upset, Ralph?’
Cochrane and Salter exchanged glances and Cochrane nodded.
‘You were seen having lunch with that fat arsehole O’Grady the other day,’ Salter said. ‘Someone passing by your table caught the name Sterling. You weren’t discussing the fucking swordfish and O’Grady wouldn’t be advising you to join this firm.’
‘You’re right there,’ I said. ‘He told me not to have anything to do with you but I decided to go ahead and see for myself. And I’ve seen all I want to see.’
‘And what have you seen?’ Cochrane said.
Something interesting that I’ll keep to myself, I thought. I said, ‘I’ve seen a couple of stupid guys worried about a fat man.’
‘He’s a journalist and he’s never forgiven Phil for sacking him. You’re snooping on his behalf.’
I tried to force a laugh but the action hurt too much. ‘You’re wrong. He says he never had it so good. He’s enjoying what he does now. He reckons he owes Phil.’
They exchanged glances again.
‘I suppose we could be wrong,’ Cochrane said slowly.
I levered myself out of the chair suppressing a groan. ‘Is that an apology?’
‘Fuck you,’ Salter said.
‘I wonder if Phil knows how you’re handling this?’
Salter looked worried; Cochrane didn’t. He said, ‘Phil’s much too busy to worry about a nobody like you.’
Cochrane stood and put his hands on the desk. He leaned forward, so close I could smell his aftershave. ‘You’ve wasted some of our valuable time, Hardy. You’re a loser from way back and now you’re scratching around trying to make a living. Well, don’t scratch around here. Now piss off!’
He pressed a buzzer on his desk and an answering knock came on the door within seconds.
‘Come,’ I said.
Cochrane growled. The door opened and a woman stood there with an inquiring look on her face.
‘Show Mr Hardy out,’ Cochrane said.
I followed the woman down the corridor, into the lift and we went down to the foyer without a word being spoken. The glass doors slid open.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
She pointed to my chest. ‘The pass, please.’
‘I’ll hang on to it as a keepsake.’
I glanced back at the building as I opened the car door. I thought I could see a figure standing at a window on the second floor about where room twelve would have been. I put the pass in my pocket and drove to the gate. The guard stopped me.
‘Where’s the pass?’
‘I gave it to a woman inside.’
‘No you didn’t. She just called me.’
I nodded. ‘Good security.’
I tossed him the pass and drove out.
I stopped at the first set of shops I came to and bought some painkillers. My back was aching and sending shooting pains up to my shoulders. I took three pills and sat on a bus stop seat drinking a takeaway coffee waiting for them to work. I stamped the image of Louis Salter on my brain—about my height and a bit heavier, maybe fifteen years younger. He had ginger hair and a long chin. The expertise of his punch suggested some kind of combat training, maybe military.
There was a reasonable chance of meeting up with him again. For one thing I still hadn’t sighted Anton Beaumont, but there had been something distinctly conspiratorial about the behaviour of the three senior associates. I had no idea what it was about but they were overanxious about something. Salter had reacted oddly when I mentioned Phil Tyson. I wondered whether Phil knew how his minions handled apparently minor matters.