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Peter Corris

The Washington Club

1

In our twenty-year-plus relationship, there were only two reasons why my lawyer, Cy Sackville, ever called me. One was to remind me that I owed him money. In my time as a private detective Cy had bailed me out of gaol, headed off suits for assault, threatened welshing clients with litigation and performed other services. He didn’t need the money and I usually didn’t have it, but Cy said the reminder kept us on a professional footing. The other reason was to invite me to play squash. I hate squash, play it like tennis and mostly lose, even to Cy who is no athletic marvel. He’s had the lessons though, has all the gear and gets lots of practice. He enjoys winning and I see losing as like paying interest on the debt. A twenty-year pattern is pretty fixed but patterns can be broken.

‘I want to hire you, Cliff,’ Cy said.

‘I still owe you money.’

‘This could clear it and then some.’ Cy did his Masters at the University of Chicago and has resolutely hung on to the Americanisms he picked up in his days as a brilliant student. Some, like ‘cool’, meaning uncomplicated, have gone in and out of fashion since he graduated.

I was interested. Getting out of debt is almost as interesting as actually making money. And if I was out of debt I could refuse some squash invitations, or even try harder to win. And working for Cy would certainly mean doing something legal in both senses. Cy is too smart to need to be dodgy.

‘I guess I could fit you in,’ I said.

I could hear Cy’s snort of amusement over the line. ‘I know you’re snowed under with big cases, but if you could get along here at two this afternoon I’d be most terribly grateful.’

‘Give me a taste.’

‘I’m representing Claudia Fleischman.’

‘Is that good?’

‘I suppose in your usual ignorant fashion you haven’t been reading the papers.’

‘Not true. I read that Sampras beat Stich in straights in Munich.’

‘So one millionaire pops it over the net a few more times than another millionaire. Who cares? Claudia Fleischman…’

‘I know who she is, Cy. I was having a lend of you. You’re not exposed to enough irony in your trade. You’re rusty, if you get the pun.’

Cy groaned. ‘I wish I hadn’t heard any of that. See you at two, Cliff. Don’t be late.’

Claudia Fleischman was accused of murdering her husband. Julius Fleischman was a mysterious figure, the only absolutely clear thing about him being that he was very rich. Some newspaper accounts had him as English, others as South African. I seemed to remember that there was dispute as to whether he had become a naturalised Australian. He had a big house in Vaucluse and a slightly smaller one with a lot of land around it at Kiama.

His yacht was one of the biggest and best. Among his other toys were a few racehorses, a Lear jet and a vintage Rolls-Royce said to be worth a million dollars. It might as well have been a 1956 Volkswagen for all the good it was to him now. Three months back Fleischman had been shot to death in his bedroom.. I’d followed the case in a desultory fashion. At first there were ‘no suspects’, then ‘investigations were continuing’ and finally Claudia Fleischman, along with one Anton Van Kep, was up for committal, charged with murder. Motive obvious-the dough. Means, well, Van Kep was the means and if a wife doesn’t have an opportunity to murder a man the law doesn’t know who does. Almost nothing was on the record as yet. To judge from a press photo that was published in defiance of the ban, Claudia Fleischman was a spectacularly attractive woman-thirtyish, tall, fashionably slender, dark. Journalists speculated circumspectly about a love triangle, about a purely commercial hit, about a bungled attempt at intimidation. They didn’t know and the public didn’t know.

Only the cops and lawyers knew anything solid and I was about to join their exalted company. I had to admit that I was intrigued. Summons-serving, bodyguarding and money-minding are all very well and pay the bills, but there’s bugger-all about them that’s ‘investigative’ and it was primarily my snoopiness that had got me into the business in the first place. My ex-wife said that I had no respect for people’s privacy and I’m afraid she was right. My bookshelves gave me away- The Diary of Pete Seeger, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, that sort of thing, took up a fair bit of space. I had the paperback of the letters of Paddy White all ready to go. How the old bastard would have despised Julius who, so far as I knew, had never read a book, looked at a painting or been to a play in his life.

It was close to midday when Cy called and almost one o’clock when I finished musing about Fleischman, money, life and death. I had a few small things on my plate, nothing that couldn’t be delayed for something more interesting. I ate lunch at my desk-three bananas and a bigger-than-standard glass of wine. Since Glen Withers left me to marry another cop, I’ve found it hard to think of meals as anything other than necessary fuel. The fruit shop in Glebe Point Road has seductive bananas the year round and they’d become my staple food-tasty, easy on the clackers, full of goodness and no plate or cutlery needed. I’d discovered that bananas don’t go really well with any kind of alcohol and that was a plus. Nourishing food that kept my grog consumption down had to be a good thing. I’d even thought of doing the book- A Pi’s Balanced Diet, eight bananas and eight glasses of red wine per diem.

I wandered down William Street and took in a little slice of Hyde Park on my way to Cy’s office in Martin Place. People occupy the park in numbers unless it’s pissing down rain. This December day was fine, a bit muggy- shirt sleeves and drill trousers weather for me, no jacket. I wondered if any of the people lunching on the grass, strolling about or hurrying through were millionaires or murderers. I was pleased with the speculation-it showed I was getting involved and using my imagination. When I’m working on a case and no bizarre ideas or unlikely suspicions enter my head it means I’m not properly wired into it.

Cy’s office is everything it should be- well-appointed but not opulent, suggesting competence rather than ostentation, effective service rather than massive fees, but with those professional touches that showed you why you needed him probably more than he needed you. His secretary hadn’t changed in twenty-plus years. Miss Mudlark, I called her to myself, because she always wore brown. She was a tall, rather angularly built woman, wearing a beige blouse and loose dark brown pants, high heels. Her hair and eyes were brown and I bet she took her coffee with a dash of milk. Her name was Janine. She knew how matters stood between me and Cy and she was tolerant. Our communications were almost entirely banter.

‘Mr Sackville is expecting you, Mr Hardy. Go right in.’

‘Thanks, Janine. Nice outfit.’

‘You always say that.’

‘It always is. Is she in there?’

‘Yes. Try to stay on your feet.’

I knocked and entered in what I hoped was a smooth, confident sweep. Cy was sitting behind his desk and stayed there. A woman was in a chair slightly to his side; not exactly where you’d expect a lawyer’s client to be but not in his lap either. She stayed seated too. That made me, at six feet and half an inch, the tallest thing in the room, but a long way from the most powerful.

Cy checked his watch. A reflex action. I’d done the same a few minutes earlier and ensured that I was on time.

‘Cliff Hardy, Mrs Fleischman,’ Cy said. ‘Claudia, this is the man I spoke to you about.’

She turned her head slightly to look up at me and I suddenly understood what Janine the Mudlark meant. This was a woman to melt your bones. She was nothing like beautiful and much, much more than that. Her dark hair was frizzy and her nose was big, like her mouth. Her eyes had a strange slant and she was slightly buck-toothed. The effect was devastating and utterly unlike the newspaper photographs-better.

She said my name and I muttered hers out of a dry throat. Cy pointed to a chair that more or less put his

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