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Peter Corris

Comeback

PART ONE

1

‘You read the papers don’t you, Cliff?’ my lawyer, Viv Garner, said.

‘All depends,’ I said.

‘On what?’

‘Whether they’re going to make me angry or not, and a lot of things make me angry-politics, economics, religion, television. .’

‘That just about covers it. Bit sour though.’

‘Oh, a lot of things make me happy. Make me laugh. Sometimes the same things that make me angry. I’m not sour. You might say bittersweet.’

‘Okay, I gather you haven’t followed the High Court decision in the case of Wade versus the Commissioner of Police.’

We were drinking coffee in a place in Glebe Point Road that had been recommended to me by a coffee snob. ‘The best, mate,’ he’d said. It was okay, better than some, and they’d served it very hot, the way I like it. Viv had rung wanting to meet and offering to buy. He knew I was broke or very close to it. I’d ordered a croissant to go with the coffee. I’d been skipping meals a bit to save money. I thought I could probably tap Viv for a second cup. I shook my head in answer to his question.

‘Jack Wade was, and will be again possibly, a licensed commercial and private inquiry agent. Like you, the Commissioner banned him for life.’

That got my interest. ‘What did he do?’

‘He impersonated a police officer for financial gain. The thing is, a law firm took up the case and fought it all the way to the High Court. The court decided that life bans are unconstitutional. Violation of human rights.’

‘What’s the upshot?’

‘Jack wins the right to apply for a review of his case to the Security Industry Registry. If he gets the nod there it’s likely the Commission’ll have to settle for a suspension, say, three years.’

I forgot about coffee good or bad, hot or cold. ‘I’ve done more than that already.’

Viv’s smile was smug. ‘Exactly.’ He reached into his briefcase. ‘I downloaded the appropriate forms. Does that make you happy?’

‘I think it might. You want a kiss?’

‘No thanks. I just want to see you back at work.’

It happened and more easily than I’d imagined. I’d had a couple of suspensions even before I’d had the book thrown at me. I’d served a brief gaol term which, strictly speaking, should have cancelled me out for a long spell except that I had some high-profile help. There was no chance of getting help this time. The application was processed and the hearing was held and the matter was referred to a committee and a sub-committee and they must have built up a metre-high stack of paper. But in the end I was reinstated, given the plastic licence card and a folder of rules and regulations that would have taken a week to read.

Then it was a matter of getting liability insurance at a ruinous rate given my age and record, joining a gun club and putting in the hours to qualify for a pistol licence and renting an office and furniture. All costly. I’d had my house in Glebe free and clear of mortgage for years; now I took out a sizeable mortgage again at a high interest rate over the fairly short term the bank allowed me. Gratifying, though, to find out what the old place was worth. I felt I’d got away with something. I was back in business with a necessity to earn money to cover my overheads. Just like the old days and I got a lift from it.

At my daughter Megan’s insistence I bought some new clothes, and that gave me a buzz, too. But I drew the line at changing cars; Megan just wanted to get her hands on my noble old Falcon.

The office was in Pyrmont, squeezed between Miller Street and Bridge Road. The building had been a warehouse. It’d been gutted, honeycombed, painted and rewired but sometimes I could swear I still smelled wool or wheat or copra or whatever had been stored there. I threw a small office-warming party. Megan, her partner Hank and my ten-month-old grandson Ben, Frank and Hilde Parker, Viv Garner, Daphne Rowley, my doctor Ian Sangster and a few other Glebe types drank cask red and white, ate saladas and cheese slices and wished me luck.

‘Fresh start, Cliff,’ Frank Parker, who’d retired as a Deputy Commissioner of Police, said as he examined my secondhand Mac and phone and fax set-up. ‘Not common at your age. How’re you feeling?’

‘Bit anxious but optimistic,’ I said. ‘Comebacks aren’t such a good idea, even if Ali made it.’

Frank nodded. ‘He stayed at it too long though.’

‘I’ll know pretty quickly whether I’ve still got it,’ I said. ‘In this game you’ve got the knack or you haven’t. Anyway, I have to give it a go. Trouble is, I’m out of touch with the usual conduits, the lawyers and such.’

Daphne Rowley, who runs a printing business and plays pool with me at the Toxteth Hotel, topped up her plastic glass with the red. ‘That’s why I got him to advertise, Frank,’ she said. ‘Ads in the local rags, cards up here and there and a website.’

Frank almost spilled his drink. ‘ You , a website?’

‘Megan set it up,’ I said. ‘Photo makes me look ten years younger.’

‘It’d need to,’ Frank said. ‘Well, good luck, mate, and try to stay out of trouble. They’ll be keeping an eye on you.’

I’d worried about the website and the photograph. In the past anonymity had been the PIA’s stock in trade but times had changed. If you’re not in cyberspace you’re nowhere. Anyway, the photo didn’t look all that much like me.

They drifted off and I shovelled the glasses and paper plates and uneaten food into a garbag. I sat at the desk and examined the room. It felt better for having had people and wine and talk in it. Less sterile. But the brightness and the clean surfaces made me uncomfortable. My two battered filing cabinets and the bar fridge from offices past stood against the wall like comfortable old friends. The hired desk and chairs weren’t new either and I noticed a couple of wine stains on the pale grey carpet. I’d soon knock the place into shape.

I sat there wondering if I’d made the right decision. The private inquiry business has changed radically over the past decade or so. Now it’s all search engines and databases and emails and very little knocking on doors. I’m told some people in the game charge by the hour, like lawyers. I was always one for getting out there, asking around, finding the pressure points and applying the force. Of course I did my share of bodyguarding and money minding, but there were security firms doing those jobs exclusively now. Process serving could provide a steady but minor income stream like credit checking. But credit checking in particular was completely computerised now. The question was, were there still human problems out there that needed the personal touch, the right question, the accumulated experience of more than twenty years? I was sure there must be.

The mortgage didn’t worry me too much. There it was, an extraction from a slender bank account every month with heavy penalties for failing to have enough money to cover it. I decided to see it as a stimulus. Until about eighteen months before, I’d enjoyed a period of affluence, courtesy of an inheritance from my partner, Lily Truscott. I hadn’t exactly enjoyed it; I felt guilty about it mostly, and it had all gone west in a financial scam of which I was the victim. It’d been a bad feeling and I’d done things about it. That had primed me for my new start. I was ready.

I kept busy renewing old contacts and trying to establish new ones. A few crackpots approached me-a psychic offering her services, a wannabe crime writer with twenty rejected manuscripts wanting me to read them and tell him where he went wrong, a defrocked minister wanting me to prove that the woman who had replaced

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