Excerpts from Finding Harry – A Tale of the Northern Suburbs
Only a few are given because, it is after all, a crime novel (with much satire and philosophy), and it would not do to give away the plot too early (or even late)…
Flat 9/15 Serenity Drive in Coburg
You think leafy, picturesque street? Older residents sitting in the sunlight waiting for their kids to show up and make them feel a part of their lives, sipping tea or an early sherry, saying hello to friends walking by while smiling vacantly at each other. It sounds like the kind of place developers salivate over while they wait for the owners to die or move to nursing homes. Serenity Drive, named by a poet to eventually be blighted by a developer, creating opportunities for dual occupancy by young professionals with sensible cars and instant low maintenance gardens of standard roses and pencil pines.
Alas not so. Think instead: industrial zoning with small factories, blocks of flats full of single mothers with screaming babies, the occasional run-down milk bar or weatherboard house, and old cars on nature strips, where nature wisely left long ago. A noisy and noisome place.
Serenity Drive is a temporary residence for me, just for a decade or two until I sort my life out.
I have been told to start my day in an organised fashion, as befits a private investigator with a logical, incisive mind, and a determination to get things done. That’s what the training manuals advise. In my experience, when you start the day well there’s only one direction in which things can go – straight down. So I keep my incisiveness for later when I might need it.
Coburg Police Station is a yellow brick lump on Bell Street just past the railway line. The side street is where cop cars are parked and Divvy vans transport their guests. I parked across the road in KFC and risked life and limb to cross Bell Street.
The officer behind the counter looked about 15 but he already had the attitude down pat. A minimalist ‘Can I help you?’ and ‘Wait here, I’ll see if he’s free.’ Then the disappearing act behind the door. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Carol but this front part of the station seemed strangely empty. Usually you have a mix of down and outs shuffling around, or young kids coming in to clear their Canaries, or victims registering complaints. The notice-boards were full of injunctions about neighbourhood watch and not leaving your valuables in cars.
The officer came back and asked me to sign a register. I imagine I was being added to their Christmas card list. Then he flipped up a hinged part of the bench and came around to show me where I should go. ‘D. I. Brown is ready for you.’
But was I ready for him?
Officers I had already spoken to earlier had been reticent about this guy. His reputation in the area as a ‘hard case’ did not endear him to the criminal class. You would have thought the local traders would have idolised him, but his poor diplomatic skills had failed to impress them. I was not sure about the structure of the food chain in the police force, but I figured Smelly Brown was pretty high up but off to the side, in a spot few dared to venture into. Except yours truly, the determinedly naive.
My confidence was deserting me as I trudged behind the young copper down a green lino corridor and into an interrogation room. This was cop-land, a branch office for the biggest club in the world. Compared to this place, my kind of work seemed juvenile. I decided I needed to play a part. Self-help books tell us how we can fool our mind and body by the power of visualisation. Laugh and your body thinks you’re happy; imagine you’re a tough guy, talk like one, and then you become tough. I called on the memory of every inspirational private investigator I had idolised as a kid, from Mannix to Magnum PI, from Sam Spade to Philip Marlowe (the Robert Mitchum version). Jim Rockford and even the cartoon Duck Dodgers were inspirational. How would they have handled it? Cool, baby, cool. Be firm, don’t let their lip get to you. I took some deep breaths and tried to focus my thoughts on what I wanted from this ‘discussion’ with Smelly Brown.
It was no good.
My mind kept wandering all over the place. The room I was in had an old veneer table, a few vinyl chairs which would be a real treat on a hot summer’s day, and nothing on the walls except a few greasy smears about head height. No window, one door in and out. Don’t these cop places have better rooms for their guests? Who does their interiors? Where are the glossy magazines for people waiting? Can’t they get some police chick into this blokey place to brighten things up? Why is everything shouting ‘Interrogation Room?’
Then the irony hit me. I really must have sleepwalked my way into here. I was in an interrogation room. What takes place in an interrogation room is an interrogation. I was the one who was going to be ‘interrogated’. A giant’s icy fingers gripped my gut, and I felt like a school-kid again, about to go into the deputy-headmasters office for verbal abuse and the strap.
And the bastard just kept me waiting. Let me stress out. He must have thought I needed more basting time to turn golden brown. Maybe I looked tougher than I really felt and he had to put on more pressure. That’s a plus for you Epi. Focus on it.
The Rosanna Job
I rang the bell, hoping somebody would hear it. A tall, fair-haired woman with a snooty accent let me in. She was middle-aged, in a long cream dress, once a looker, now stoically enduring the incursions of aging. I presumed she was the mother Louis warned me about. Her voice was steady but I almost had to lip-read because of the music.
‘You’re late. Melanie’s friends are already here. We would prefer it if you confined yourself to the foyer.’
I smiled, just to show I had cheek muscles.
‘It’s a good idea for me to see your daughter and her friends. So I can recognize them later if any trouble starts.’
‘Very well. We don’t expect any problems. It was Robert’s idea to have you. He’s such a worrier.’
She escorted me to the lounge and left me there with the understanding that the foyer was to be my station.
There were some cute girls in skimpy fluoro with dorky boys in hyper-colour shirts and jeans, a smear of cool gray, pink, and blue, all milling about, oblivious to the pain of their bursting ear drums. A table covered in an orange tablecloth was set up on one side of the room. A large punch bowl was in the middle of the table with small glasses invitingly arranged. Such naivety by parents never ceases to amaze me.
‘Come in for coffee. I have to clean up then we’ll talk, okay?’
It’s well known the effects of caffeine can be beneficial when you are physically drained. Too much though and you end up peeling back the wallpaper and sucking cutlery to make up for the loss of iron from your body.
At least that’s what one of the guys at work said, during our weekly graduate seminar at Helping Hand Security. I think it was Rossi who said it, as he popped another bunch of supplements into his mouth. Strictly a ‘My Body is a Temple’ man is our Rossi. But he knows things. Secret things.
I decided to resist the temptation to be irritating and discourse on coffee or interior design or anything at all. I had no desire to be considered a supper-time bore as well as a breakfast irritant.
Her house was a double fronted place in need of painting. One of those British style homes that in Australia are made of wood rather than stone. The inside was just one straight passageway with rooms on either side. Judging by the cracks in the plaster and the camber in the floor, it needed re-stumping and new floor bearers. The inside was strictly transient-rental. Plastic light fittings gave the passageway a warm, yellow glow, like in that Van Gogh painting about the pool hall. At least the light allowed visitors to avoid the piled up boxes.
‘Moving in or moving out?’
Neither. I haven’t got around to putting some things away. But I’ll be going soon.’
She tossed her handbag and jacket into a dark room to the side. We went to the back of the house and into the kitchen.
‘It beats having to pack I guess’ I said. ‘I still keep my non-essentials in the plastic bags you get at Coles. Where are you going?’
‘Don’t know. Waiting on a transfer’.
‘Who’s the bloke?’ I asked, indicating a pair of large men’s shoes in the passageway. One does need to be careful, after all.
‘You’ve a keen eye, haven’t you?’
‘I told you, I’m really a detective. I’m just slumming in security. Let me guess. You have a girlfriend who stays with you sometimes. Plays women’s basketball’.
‘The shoes belong to my Ex. I use them on the porch but I haven’t put them out yet. Makes sleazeoids think there’s a bloke in the house. Added security.’
‘Good idea. I just leave empty pizza cartons.’
‘How do you like the coffee?’
‘Black, strong, no sugar.’
She gave the electric kettle a shake to see if it needed water then hit the switch.
‘You know Epi, I sit here everyday, on my little stool, in my little office, with all these phones around me and fuckwits ringing in to tell me about all sorts of shit that’s happened or is going to happen. Some of the calls are from clients, like this really pissed off woman complaining about you last night. I don’t think she was very grateful. In fact, I think she was so upset talking about it, she sounded like her dentures were falling out. Either that or she was biting the phone cord while talking.’
A particularly uninspiring office was occupied by a person in his fifties who reminded me of the potato-man from an episode of Dr Who. A round head with spectacles was perched on top of a round body. There was the merest hint of a neck as a bridge between the two fleshy masses. His office lacked the phony glamour of the foyer and waiting areas, and instead aimed for orderly dullness. There were framed prints of European landscapes on beige walls and a low-cut, factory grey carpet, with a couple of vinyl armchairs in front of Harbinger’s pretend-wood desk. A large framed photograph on his desk was the only concession to personality, but I could not make out what it showed. Probably Mrs Potato and the little taters.
Tom Selleck without the moustache
‘Hi, is that Carol?’
‘Yes, it is’.
‘Its Epi here. Your saviour from last weekend, remember? The one who looks like Tom Selleck, only without the moustache.’
‘Hi Mr Selleck. What can I do for you?’
‘I wonder if you could do me a very small favour. Actually quite tiny.’
‘Oh yeah. Go on’.
‘Could you find out whether there’s anything in the files on Harry’s case involving the following information?’
I gave her the car make and rego, letting her know it was a stolen plate, described the goon and his mother Mrs Goon, the gym, the Nirvana health store and the blonde fitness chick with the name of Sharron.
‘Well gee, did you work out with her Mr Selleck?’
‘Don’t be sassy, officer. This is strictly professional. I really need anything and to confirm an address. Somewhere in Fawkner.’
‘Why don’t you ask Brown yourself.’
‘I tried, but he’s obviously ducking me. Probably scared I’ll show him up as a plodding ruminant.’
‘Never mind. Please, can you do it? I’ll make it up to you. Epi promises.’
‘I’m not the office girl, Epi.’
‘I know. I’m not saying you are. I’m willing to share information. You’ll be the first to know when I bust this case wide open on 60 Minutes. How about we discuss your concerns over dinner?’
‘It will cost you Epi. I don’t eat at McDonald’s.’
‘What do you take me for? Besides, I can’t afford McDonalds right now. I know a great Greek restaurant. One of my uncles runs it. He’ll let us eat there on credit. You want to come over after work?’
I gave her my address.
‘You live in Serenity?’
‘Sure. Somebody has too. I’m all class.’
‘Half the smack addicts in Coburg live there. It’s even on our beat. Serenity? Christ.’
‘I like the ambience, and it’s a surprisingly quiet street, with no questions asked.’
I didn’t mention the cheap rentals, and that it was quiet because most of the inhabitants were in drug-induced comas.
‘If you’re nervous that someone will recognise you, we can meet someplace else.’
‘Are you kidding? And miss a chance to see how you live? Only we’ll go out in my car. I’m not leaving it parked there.’
She was to be at my place at 8.00 pm. She had a late shift the following day, so dinner was a reasonable proposition.
Location, location, location, right? Smack addicts. The run down, post-industrial, post-apocalyptic look. The kind of place movie makers dream of finding. A few cars up on cinder blocks, savage dogs, feral pensioners with tatts and missing teeth, grimy kids, overgrown nature strips, junk mail recycled by the wind. It’s not Toorak or Surrey Hills I grant you, but it does have an in-your-face, honest charm. And like the billboards say, it’s affordable.
I decided I’d better make the place more presentable.
In my experience women are particularly averse to dust and dirt in general. The cat litter in the kitchen had to go. While in there, I took a slightly wet and slightly brown dishcloth and wiped a few surfaces. I couldn’t lift Pushkin’s paw-marks from the yellow Formica surfaces, so I left them. They could pass for a floral pattern in the poor light.
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