Do you remember Ramona Beckett, Hardy?
I remember her, I said.
Perhaps you also remember that her family offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible for her death. This was about two years after she disappeared, and thats fifteen fucking years ago.
I shrugged. If you say so.
Am I right in thinking that you had something to do with her?
The man whod asked the question was Barry White, an ex-cop, ex-private detective, ex-nightclub bouncer, ex just about anything in that line you could think of. He was middle class, university educated and had made Detective Sergeant pretty quickly, but hed resigned from the force just ahead of a corruption charge. Like me, hed lost his PEA licence for breaches of the regulations. Id regained mine fairly easily and quickly on the basis of a previously good record and the recommendations of police officers and others whose integrity was unquestioned at a time when a lot of questioning was going on.
White hadnt been so lucky. The only cops he knew were as corrupt as he was and were leaving the force under clouds or to go behind bars. He was a big, strong man, or had been, and hed looked pretty formidable outside a nightclub for a while. But the booze softened and slowed him and people who like to start trouble in those places these days have learned martial arts tricks that can make an old thumper like Barry look silly. Me too, for that matter. So hed slipped down a few more notches. When he turned up at my office that Monday morning I thought he might be scrounging for work. He wasnt.
I knew her, yes.
Ramona was a rich, spoiled young woman who wanted to be the first female Premier of New South Wales. She did a sociology degree at Sydney and, after blooding herself in university politics and local government, she decided that blackmail was the way to go. She set about seducing politicians and influential people with the aim of getting leverage on them to put her where she wanted to be in politics. One of her victims had had the guts to come to me professionally and Id helped him.
Well get to that. The unusual thing about this reward, White said, is that the money was well invested and has accrued interest. The amount on offer now stands at over one million dollars.
I didnt know that.
Its a long time ago. People forget. But no-one was ever charged with Becketts murder and the reward is still available, although her fathers dead now. You might remember that her mother was much younger. Mrs Beckett is still very much alive and at last report was still keen to see justice done.
I didnt much like the smell of this. Its nearly seventeen years ago, Barry, I said. Sure, I was around when it all happened, where were you?
He grinned and as it changed expression the high-coloured face showed the marks of booze and fists and late nights. He wouldnt have been much over forty and he looked sixty. He took out a packet of Drum tobacco and probed in it for the papers. You mind?
I said I didnt but I did, a bit. I used to roll them myself and I still missed the taste of the tobacco, especially the first three or four smokes on a clean palate, but I didnt miss the cough and the short wind. Still, the smell was good and there was no law against me enjoying that. He rolled the smoke expertly and lit it with a match which he put in his jacket pocket. He wore a business shirt, not too clean, a tie likewise, a double-breasted blazer with one gold button missing, grey trousers and black shoes that had just had a shine. He sported a fresh haircut and shave and I could smell the lotions. I hadnt seen him for a while but what Id heard of him was that his marriage was washed up and that he was living in a room in Chippendale. Clearly, hed spruced himself up to see me. I was suspicious rather than flattered.
He blew smoke towards the window where a little more grime wouldnt hurt. I had the office painted and the windows cleaned a year ago when I was given a two-year lease. It looked all right for a while but somehow lately itd slipped back.
I was there, too, White said. I was a probationary D at the Loo.
Whats this about, Barry?
Fuck, what dyou think? Its about the money, of course. Ive got a line on who knocked Beckett.
Oh, yeah? And who was that?
He laughed through an exhalation of smoke and the cough caught him like a hard right to the ribs. He doubled over and his face turned purple as he fought the spasm.
Jesus, Barry, I said. Youre holding a full hand for a heart attack.
I know, he gasped, fighting for breath. When he finally sucked some air in he said, Im just about fucked if I dont get this money. Ive got high blood pressure, a touch of emphysema and a crook liver. They reckon I can pull out of it if I stop drinking and smoking, lose weight and eat lettuce. If I can get the money Ill do it. Ill go to one of those health farms in the fucking Blue Mountains and drink mineral water and be a good boy. Itll be worth it. Kicking shit the way I am now, Id just as soon be out at Rookwood.
I nodded. I could understand that. Its easy to eat healthily if you can afford asparagus and chicken fillets. A good bottle of wine wont do the damage of a slab of beer. Trouble was, that line of thought made me feel like a drink and it was only four oclock in the afternoontwo hours before my self-imposed starting time. He went into a coughing fit again and while I waited for him to recover I tried to remember what dealings Id had with him before. There wasnt much, a bit of a brush when he was extorting from a madam named Ruby Thompson who was a friend and I asked him to lay off. He got even by verballing a client of mine who was probably guilty anyway but deserved a second chance.
He got his breath back and looked at the cigarette hed put in the ashtray. He reached over and snuffed it out. Maybe he could rehabilitate himself after all.
OK, OK, Id forgotten your sense of humour. Try not to make me laugh, Hardy. I could drop dead on you.
I was thinking he could drop dead for all I cared, but I knew that wasnt quite true. I had ambivalent feelings about Ramona Beckett, but my feelings about a million dollars were pretty straightforward.
The way I heard it, you screwed her, literally and otherwise.
Come on, Hardy. Im lining up a hundred thousand fucking dollars for you. I need to know how close you got to her.
While I didnt have Whites health problems, things werent getting easier. I was pushing fifty and the private detective business, like everything else, was rapidly being taken over by computers. Process-serving was being done by E-mail and fax, money was moved electronically rather than in briefcases, and there were big agencies specialising in finding lost kids, de-bugging offices and protecting men in suits. I didnt have any life insurance and the superannuation the government was obliging me to pay myself wouldnt keep me in red wine and secondhand books if I stopped earning. I had to be interested in a hundred thousand bucks. There were a lot of questions in my head but it was best to play along, for now.
You knew what her line was, did you?
Not really. Tell me.
I told him. This bloke she was blackmailing came to me for help and we set her up. Sort of biter bit thing. I pretended to be a bigwig, a lawyer who controlled the preselection for a safe Liberal seat. She arranged her usual dealthe drinks, the fuck in her Potts Point flat, the video camera. Only she was a solo operator by necessity and couldnt keep her finger on everything. I had help. I had someone swipe the video and substitute another one. I taped her when she came to me with the pitch. Then I turned the tables on hertold her Id send the video to her dad and give the tape to the cops and the papers. She backed off after that, but she might have done it again, just being