Excerpts from two books of The Sydney Quartet
It’s been a busy few weeks in many ways as I prepare for the publication of Flank Street, and start those spring jobs in the garden. I’ve also been working on the third book of the Sydney Quartet. Today I’m taking the easy path and pasting some excerpts here for you to enjoy, and comment on.
Flank Street Excerpt
We join Flank Street as Micky and Carol drive back to Sydney to collect a gun from her safety deposit box. She seems keen to get Micky back to her place. He’s wary after being stitched up by her before.
Monday, 11 March 1991
We rolled into Sydney a few minutes before eleven the following morning. It had taken five hours from Coffs, with a breakfast stop on the way. Carol had been quiet, but not hostile or angry, and I’d tried to keep the peace for the duration of the journey. Things would tense up when we got to the bank.
‘What suburb is your bank in?’
‘It’s right in the middle of town. In Martin Place. I need to go home and get my keys first.’
‘Bullshit. Why wouldn’t you have your keys with you?’
‘I just didn’t bring them, that’s all. I didn’t expect to need them.’
‘So you’re telling me you were going to return to Sydney? To live here amongst people who want you dead?’
She lit a cigarette and drew heavily. ‘I didn’t know what I was thinking.’
‘Yes you did. You’re a strategist. Some would say a cunning bitch.’
‘What’s the real reason for wanting to go home?’
She faced me, and said, ‘I want us to talk. I want to tell you what a huge mistake you’ll be making if you give that gun back to them. Micky, please listen to me.’
‘You’ve just had a thousand kilometres to tell me any bullshit like that. What’s different at home?’
She went quiet as if in thought, smoking her cigarette and staring out of the side window.
‘We can work something out, Micky. Something where we both come out all right.’
‘If you’re so sure, let’s get the gun first, then I’ll listen. I just don’t trust you, Carol. Are the keys at your place, or are you just jerking me around?’
She wound the window down, threw out the cigarette, closed it again, and then straightened her windblown hair. ‘They’re in my bag.’
‘I thought so.’
We were approaching the central Sydney where Martin place and the bank were located. She pulled down the sun visor and touched up her lipstick. I parked in an underground about two-hundred meters from the bank, then we walked in silence.
It took ten minutes to get access to the safety deposit box. Two minutes later we were back on the street, walking toward the parking lot with the Makarov in my pack. It would have been easy to just walk away, give the gun to Mitchell, and tell them she was dead, but I drove to Turnbuckle instead. Not a word was said, and she didn’t seem surprised that I knew where to go.
I followed her inside. She looked around, taking in the missing photograph and the glass fragments on the floor, but all she said was, ‘Drink?’
She poured Jameson into crystal tumblers, and handed me one. It was early for me, and I’d no intention of getting pissed and waking up on the wrong side of a .38. When I sat in an armchair, she sat opposite me with an expectant look on her face. I raised my hands palm-up. ‘So speak. I’m out of here after one drink.’
‘What’s the rush? You have the gun. You have me where you want me.’ When I didn’t answer she said, ‘Have you killed before?’
‘What do you want to say? What’s your great scheme where we both come out on top, and Kurt Reed, or Mitchell, don’t chop us into little pieces?’
‘There are ways, Micky, and you know it. We could get on your boat and both disappear.’
‘You’re not my type. Anything else?’
‘I know you don’t want to kill me.’
I sipped my drink and said, ‘What makes you so sure?’
‘I’m not saying you wouldn’t kill, you might, but not a woman in cold blood. You’re not the type.’ She tipped the whiskey back and got up to refill her glass.
‘You don’t know what type I am.’
She gave a short derisive snort. ‘I know men. That’s one thing I do know. And you, Micky Dewitt, are not a cold blooded killer.’
When she emptied the tumbler for a second time in five minutes, I guessed it was fear, not thirst. She’d just said that she knew men. She also knew men that I needed to know about, so I decided to loosen her tongue and see what I could find out. There were three days yet before I had to face Mitchell. I drained my glass and held it out for a refill. Time to play.
‘Do you know men that are? If you know I’m not, then you must be comparing me with someone else.’ I reached forward, took one of her cigarettes, lit up, and then leaned back waiting for her to speak. She had to play along. In her mind, keeping me entertained was all that was keeping her alive. A modern day Scheherazade.
‘Hanging around The Cross, you meet all sorts of people. People come and people go. Some are good, others scum. Sure, I knew of one guy had the reputation of being a cold-blooded killer. I didn’t know him, but I’d seen him around. You know how the grapevine works with people like that. Must be the same where you’re from, where ever that is.’
‘Is Soho like The Cross?’
‘Not even close. What happened to the guy?’
‘He got whacked. I heard he’d crossed Brookes over money….’ Her words trailed off as she realised what she’d said. As she recognised the parallel, and how she was destined to end up getting whacked for the same reason.
‘He doesn’t like to be duped over money, does he, Carol?’
She hung her head, her arms resting on her thighs. ‘Fuck.’
She sighed and stood wearily, looked down at me, and then walked into the kitchen returning a moment later with a bag of chips and a pack of cashew nuts. She poured herself another, and then held the bottle out offering me more. I accepted with a shrug. She poured until my tumbler was nearly full, and then stood the bottle between us. I could feel the alcohol, and guessed she could as well, which was why she’d gone for food. She tore open the pack of nuts, put a big handful in her mouth, and chewed.
‘Why do you want to stop Reed from expanding?’
She held up the index finger of her left hand as she finished eating, and then washed it down with a mouthful of whiskey. ‘Like I told you, he’s a complete arsehole. Kurt is the worst of them. There’s lots of bad bastards hanging round The Cross, but Brookes keeps them in line to some degree. If the Reeds ever take over, it’ll be a free for all.’
‘Why do you care?’
She drank again, and then reached for chips. ‘I just do.’
‘Enough to risk getting killed it would seem. So why did you try to extort him? Surely if you’d recovered the gun and taken it to him, there would have been some gratuity? Yet you spent ten grand on me, plus whatever else, to achieve what?’
‘You could fake my death.’
‘You could fake it. How would they know?’
‘How about if they want your head as proof, how am I going to fake that? Anyway, after you screwed me like that, maybe I want to kill you anyway.’
‘If you wanted to, you would have done it already instead of sitting her drinking whiskey and looking at me like you want to fuck me instead.’
‘You’ve well and truly fucked yourself; nothing I could do would top that.’
‘I have money. I’ll—’
‘Then why did you try to blackmail Brookes? Or is that how you got money in the first place?’
‘I’ll give it to you. You could sail away and never come back. I’d disappear. We could fake a car crash, which is plausible given how you drive.’
‘So now you want to insult me?’ Despite the seriousness of the situation, the banter was taking on a comic surrealism, and I found myself enjoying it. I held out my glass for a refill which she was quick to oblige me with, refilling her own at the same time and taking another handful of nuts and scooping them into her mouth.
‘Okay,’ she said tipping her head back to stop the nuts spilling out as she chewed and spoke at the same time. ‘What will it take?’
There was no pout now, no sign of fear, just a hard and knowing look as she locked eyes with me as she probably had a hundred other guys.
‘Let’s just say for arguments sake, that I was prepared to consider one of your hare-brained schemes, I’m not, but let’s just pretend that I am. What have you got to offer?’
‘Money. Contacts. Information.’
‘Okay, tell me about the information. Information about what?’
‘I hear a lot of things. Things that a dishonest person could use.’
‘You mean you used to. You’ve lost your Kings Cross privileges. You’re persona-non-gratis, and on your way to becoming the recently departed Carol Todd. And the only thing you’re going to hear is the racking of a 9mm slide.’
‘Not if we play it smart.’
‘We? What the fuck are you talking about? There is no we.’
‘We, you and I, Micky, can both get out of this sweet. If you’ve got the stones for it.’
She was almost cocky now as she slopped more whiskey into both glasses. Her speech was becoming slurred, and her face carried a loose smile. I sat back and swallowed whiskey and chips as she told me her plan. Just like last time, it sounded simple enough.
All we had to do was find a fall guy who we say was holding Carol and forced her to call Brookes with threats. That she was a square gee all along, and would never cross him.
The more whiskey we drank, the more plausible it sounded.
‘Who’d you have in mind?’ I asked, as she lit a pair of cigarettes and handed me one, the tip imprinted with her red lips, which I could taste as I placed it between mine.
‘Hedges. He’s one of the few who knew about it. He’s known as a grasping arsehole with few, if any, ethics. If somebody told me he’d done that, I’d have believed them.’
‘But he’d be afraid of what happens when he gets caught. And getting found out would be inevitable in the long run, unless he was going to kill you.’
She thought for a moment, ‘You lifted his gun from the nightstand, didn’t you?’
I smoked, and waited for her to continue. She had it all planned out, which made me wonder if she was playing me again.
Flank Street is available all leading ebook retailers
Today's music interlude is a change in pace from yesterday's offering. The Fade Out Lines, by Phoebe Killdeer is one of the tracks on the excellent soundtrack from the 2011 movie Colombiana. In Colombiana, Zoe Saldana, who played Neytiri in Avatar, plays a young woman out to get revenge on mobsters. So it has that common thread to both Shadow House, and Flank Street.
I've no idea what the video is trying to say, but if you do, drop a comment in the box below.
Enjoy your intermission.
Shadow House Excerpt
We join Sam and Heather in her home. She rescued him from an alley in Kings Cross the previous night. It's their first real meeting; he's badly hung over, and she seems a bit pissed off.
The Morning After
Heather was sitting at her marble-topped breakfast bar, looking distractedly at the front page of the Telegraph as she finished her breakfast of muesli and oranges. She could smell the rich aroma, and hear the sound of the coffee percolating on the stove. Brewing a pot of coffee was an unalterable part of her morning. She bought her favourite blend and made it precisely the way she liked. No matter where she had to be, or what she had to do, she never missed or rushed her morning coffee.
She had already showered and was wrapped loosely in a white terry towel bathrobe, having barely slept since arriving home and getting Sam settled. When he'd passed out for the last time, it had been two-thirty, and she was beyond sleep.
She folded the paper, got up and scraped the orange peels in the compost bin, and then rinsed the knife and plate before pouring coffee. She walked to the window seat overlooking the back yard and veggie garden, pushed the window wide open, took a sip of coffee, and lit a Longbeach. Every day she told herself she didn't need them, that smoking was a filthy habit, but nothing went with a cup of coffee quite like a ciggie. Tipping her head back and aligning her face squarely with the morning sun, she closed her eyes feeling the heat warm her face and throat and chest. The slow warmth calmed her and helped still her racing mind.
The sound of Sam's sonorous breathing drifted through from the spare bedroom, and Heather wondered if she'd done the right thing to bring him to her home, to the only place that gave her respite from her other life.
I guess I owed him one for getting me off that fucking lunatic's yacht, and for not calling the cops.
Realising that he could wake at any time, and she was still in her bathrobe, she crushed out her cigarette and went through to the bedroom, quickly dressed in jeans and white t-shirt, then returned to her seat by the window, enjoying the warmth of the sun on the chilly mid-winter morning.
Heather had spent much of her life living alone. She and her sister Carol had shared a place a couple of times, but not for long. Her life had been too complicated for sharing a flat with Carol. She had bought the house in Mosman after Carol had died. Now she'd paid off the mortgage and owned the house outright, she felt as if she'd achieved something. Owning her own home, also gave her a sense of security knowing she'd at least have somewhere to live when she grew old; if she ever did.
Buying the house had been a major ordeal, and she'd nearly given up on more than one occasion. With no visible income, no job and no explanation to how she could afford the repayments, the banks laughed at her, despite her having two-thirds the asking price as a deposit. Eventually, a friend put her in touch with a Chinese broker who didn't give a shit about all of the red tape, and obtained for her a 'no-doc' loan. The interest was one and a half percent above base, but she didn't care, she could afford the extra and looked upon it as another hidden tax for the sex workers. The day she walked into her own house had been the best day of her life. She walked into the empty house, locked the door, and sat in a corner on the carpeted floor and cried.
She'd never owned more than a few clothes until then, never owned a car and had lived in furnished apartments. Sure, she had some money in the bank, but numbers in an account didn’t feel like anything tangible to her other than a means to this. She valued her home for more than the bricks and mortar. It was a sanctuary, like her own health farm where she could just be. She'd never brought any clients back here, never would. Nobody from that side of her life knew she had the place. Sam was her first houseguest.
When she heard the sound of the bedroom door opening, she stood and walked to the kitchen, poured a glass of juice, set it on the small table, then once more took up her position by the window as Sam walked unsteadily into the room.
Sam looked around the unfamiliar room as he sat at the small dining table. His hand was shaking badly as he tried to force himself to swallow some of the juice this woman had laid out for him. This woman whose house he’d awoken in, and whose face was vaguely familiar, but whom he couldn’t put a name or place to. He wondered if he’d picked her up in a bar the previous night while spilling whiskey and drowning sorrows.
He looked again her sitting in a window seat, the morning sun lighting her dark hair and pale face. He took a little juice and thought he was going to throw up, but the feeling passed and he put the glass down, and thanked her again.
She seemed to sense his confusion. “You passed out in the alley beside the club, beside Ronnie’s, so I brought you back here.”
“Sorry. Sorry to have put you to so much trouble,” he said with obvious confusion and embarrassment. He continued to look at her, trying to remember where he’d seen her before.
“I didn’t steal from that Canadian fucker. I might be an escort, but I’m not a thief,” Heather said, still not looking at him.
Sam placed the glass on the table and squinted directly at her for a few more seconds, his addled mind trying to put the pieces together. Then, slowly, the memory came to him.
This is the woman who shouted for help from the dead Canadian’s yacht. What was is name, Stevens, Stimson, Stanley? He looked back at Heather and the memory of that early morning incident came back to him; a woman crying out for help from the Canadian yacht … the Canadian accusing her of stealing … two days later he’s found dead in a Kings Cross brothel.
Sam pushed the juice away and said, “I didn’t think you had. I didn’t make any judgement. It was just a ruckus I had to quieten down. I didn’t know you, or him.”
“Yes, well I just wanted to tell you. Lots of people think if you work like I do, then you’re a thief and Christ knows what else.”
His pinched the bridge of his nose, and screwed his eyes shut against the pounding in his head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t recall your name.”
“Heather. And yes, it’s my real name.”
“I’m Sam,” he said, not sure what else to say, or whether he should thank her and leave. For all he knew, she might be a nutcase that abducts drunks, drugs their orange juice, and then cuts them into small pieces in the cellar.
“I know. You told me last night.” Her manner was cold, bordering on formal.
“I did?” he said, as he tried to recall what had happened to him the previous night. “What else did I say?” He tried to muster a grin, but it came out as if he was going to be sick, which was a strong possibility. Her face gave nothing away, not about last night, not about why he was here, or if she was pissed off or sympathetic.
“So,” he ventured, “did I pick you up last night?”
She turned and looked at him, and for an instant a wide grin split her rigid face, before she once more regained her inscrutability. “I picked you up; off the ground in the alley beside Ronnie’s. You passed out trying to light a cigarette.”
“Oh shit,” his voice filled with regret.
“Sure as shit you did.”
“Why didn’t you leave me there? Or put me in a cab home?”
He had taken another mouthful of the juice and was feeling sick again. He wondered if he had vomited here last night, and that was why she was pissed with him. Or perhaps she was one of the eternally pissed off, who spend their entire lives angry and growling at everyone around them.
“Is that your way of saying, ‘Hey, thanks, Heather, that was kind of you’?”
She spoke without looking at him, and then reached for her cigarettes, shaking one out of the pack and lighting up with a deep, angry suck.
“I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful, Heather, and I do thank you. I am grateful for you doing that. But…”
“But fucking what. Look, I’ve seen you at Ronnie’s a few times now, getting lit up like there’s no tomorrow. Spilling whiskey and feeling sorry for yourself. I also know there are some lowlife arseholes who hang around those clubs ready to roll anyone who has had a few too many. And, I figured I owed you one for not being too much of a prick when that Canadian fucker flipped out on me. You didn’t immediately assume I was guilty and take his side when he said I was a hooker, and you didn’t call the cops either. I owed you one and I always pay back.”
“Alright. Ok,” he said, holding up a shaky hand in a mixture of agreement and defence.
Shit! This might be a real good time to get the fuck out of here.
As if she had read his thoughts she said, “Your clothes are in the washer. They’ll be another twenty minutes.” He didn’t want to ask why they needed washing so let the question pass and concentrated on the nausea.
“Help yourself to a shower,” she said, still not looking at him.
It was more of an order than an invitation, so he rose unsteadily, thanked her, and made his way to the bathroom. He noticed the house had been tastefully furnished, not expensively, but was nicely put together. The small bathroom was clean and orderly. There were fresh towels on a rack, a clean bath mat, face cloths folded by the towels, and spare bars of soap next to those. He locked the door, slipped off his bathrobe and took a long shower, letting the cool water blast his face, and tried to drive away the feeling of imminent death.
When Heather heard the shower running she relaxed a little, wondering why she had been such a bitch.
He actually seems like a nice guy. Why can’t I ease up on him? Because I’m frightened, that’s why. Frightened of what is going on in my head right now; frightened of saying too much and getting fucked up.
She knew she was being needlessly aggressive. She had made the decision to bring him back here. She also recognised that she behaved that way any time she feels threatened or out of her depth. Sam was no threat that morning, but she was way out of her depth in what she was thinking.
Taking a shower had revived him a little, but he was still feeling shaky. What he needed was some strong coffee, but he did not want to ask this strange and angry woman.
No, stuff that. Get dressed, thank her again, and then get the fuck out of here before you end up in a pie. What an unusual woman. She swears like a trooper yet keeps her home so clean and organised. Maybe she has a housemate. Or maybe she’s wealthy enough to have a maid. Some of these high-end escorts make a poultice.
Sam figured by the time he had thanked her again, his clothes would be ready, and he could scoot out of there and into the nearest café where he could get a big mug of coffee and greasy breakfast. At the moment he didn’t even know what suburb he was in.
He put the bathrobe back on that had been beside his bed when he woke. And that raised a thought.
She must have undressed me last night. Did we have sex? And what else did I do and say? Christ all blood mighty, Autenburg.
He checked for his clothes in the room he had woken in and noticed the decor and fit out was quite feminine. He also noticed Heather had placed a new toothbrush on the bedside table while he had been in the shower; beside the toothbrush were his wallet, phone, and keys. He was grateful for the toothbrush and returned to the bathroom to scrub away the flavour of the previous night. Curiosity got the better of him, and whilst the water was running he slid open the mirrored door of the bathroom cabinet. No sign of a male presence, no prescription drugs, just the usual spare toiletries and air freshener.
Feeling and smelling better, Sam walked back into the kitchen wondering where this was leading.
“Thanks for the toothbrush, that was thoughtful of you.” He sat back in the same chair at the table, searching for things to say. “It’s a nice house, Heather. Where is it?”
“Where’s what?” she snapped.
“Sorry, I mean what suburb is it in? I don’t remember much at all about last night. Not after midnight anyway.” He hung his head and rubbed the stubble on his chin, not for effect but out of genuine embarrassment. It had no effect on Heather; she’d seen all that male guilt a thousand different ways.
“Mosman.” She paused as if not sure whether to continue, before finally saying, “The place was a bit of a dump when I bought it, so I’ve been chipping away when time and money allows.”
She looked pensive then asked, “Would you like some coffee, Sam?’ Then with the slightest shadow of a smile, she added, “You look as if you need one.”
Her tone had changed. She no longer sounded pissed off and her face held that faint memory of a smile. The hard straight line of her mouth now had a gentle upward curve to the corners, as did her eyes. Sam noticed for the first time she was quite an attractive woman, with full lips and clear grey/blue eyes.
“I’d kill for a coffee. Thanks, I’d love one.” Again, he tried unsuccessfully to grin.
“How do you like it?” she asked, as she walked over to the kitchen, passing close to him. She laid a pack of cigarettes and a red Bic lighter on the table, then slid an ashtray across beside them. He looked at the cigarettes and felt sick again, and wondered for the tenth time what he’d been drinking.
“Strong with one sugar and a little milk, thanks.”
As Heather busied herself with the coffee maker, Sam looked around trying to get a clue to what makes this woman tick. The walls were freshly painted a neutral beige colour. In the corner there was a look-like-teak entertainment unit housing a top end hi-fi complete with turntable. Below the Hi-Fi, there were a couple of hundred old twelve-inch LPs, all neatly arranged in racks. Framed photographs covered the wall in the dining area; family Sam assumed. Some clearly of Heather when she was younger with parents and what looked like a sibling. Set into the wall facing him were a pair of French doors leading out to a small brick patio, on which stood a circular wrought iron table and two chairs. To the side there was a barbeque hidden under a vinyl cover. Pots of herbs lined the paved area. The whole place looked cared for but not lived in.
Heather placed the mug of coffee on the table and went back to the window seat, wriggled into the cushions and lit a cigarette.
“Is that your parents in the photograph?” Sam asked trying to find something to say other than ‘how’s work’. The picture showed a white haired couple standing hand in hand. Heather stood behind them, a hand placed on the shoulder of each.
“Yes. It was taken at their home in Gosport.”
“Is Gosport where you grew up?”
“As much as anywhere. Dad moved around with work quite a bit, but I guess Gosport was sort of home.”
“They look happy. You all do.”
“They were. They were in love from the age of fourteen to the day dad died. Mum went not long after him.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stir unhappy memories.”
“The memories aren’t sad. They had a great love for fifty years. Nothing sad in that. None of us live forever.” She spoke without looking at Sam or the picture, continued staring out of the window towards the poplar trees lining the boundary at the end of the yard, as if expecting somebody to appear.
Heather felt a strange emotion she couldn’t define. Talking this way with a stranger felt safe, she was anonymous, and chances are they would never meet again. Yet still she couldn’t talk openly. Her voice portrayed no sadness, her body language gave away nothing of her feelings, or how her heart hung heavy in her chest now they were all gone. Even though she had not seen her parents or Carol often, they had been there when she needed to feel part of something normal. She had family if she wanted. Now as she approached her fortieth birthday she had never felt so alone.
Sam’s voice pulled her out of her reverie, “And the next one, is that your sister you’re with?”
“That’s Carol, she… she’s seventeen there.”
There was so much Heather wanted to say, so many questions to ask him, but she had no idea where to start. She had been up much of the night rehearsing this. Forming the questions in her mind but her intentions had all come to zip.
I can’t do it. I need to get to know him a bit first. Maybe his drunken rambling was just that, just mouthing off as so many pissed males do. Like that Canadian fucker did.
Inside, in her gut, that silent voice which prompts and guides was saying this was a time to act. Sod the consequences, and fuck the danger and risk. But instead of speaking out, she swallowed her words, pulled herself back into the moment, and said, “I think your clothes should be dry now.” She got up and left him to finish his coffee alone with his own thoughts and hangover.
Sam dressed and pushed his wallet into his pocket, picked up his phone and keys and went back into the kitchen.
“I better get moving and not take up any more of your time. Thanks again, Heather, I’ll try and stay out of trouble from now on.”
“Sure, no problem. Do you want to call a cab?” she asked as she walked to the door with him.
“I think I’ll walk for a while. Try and walk some of this alcohol out of my system,” he said grinning sheepishly at her.
“See you round then…” her words lingering as if there was more she wanted to say, but then fell silent as she looked at the ground.
“Thanks for everything, Heather.” His mouth formed a crooked smile, and then he turned and walked out onto the footpath, groaning inwardly as the broken shards of sunlight stabbed his eyes. As he closed the gate behind him, he saw she was still standing there, but then hurried inside once he noticed her.
“Funny girl,” he said under his breath, “kind of cute though.”
He made a mental note of the house. He didn’t know the street, but he did recognise the high street at the end of it. Something told him he might be back.