Excerpt from Meet Me at Harry's
Chapter One - American Woman
I laid the whiskey tumbler in front of her, then asked again, ‘Why did you come to Sydney?’
She looked at the drink, and said, ‘It’s warm, and a long way from Chicago.’
‘Chicago your home?’
She had an air of defeat about her, shoulders hunched with forearms laying heavily on the bar as she gazed down into the tumbler.
‘Why’d you leave? Violent ex? Cops after you?’
She looked up, a sardonic grin spreading slowly across her face.
‘Cops? I was a cop. Joined up right out of high school. Twenty-two years straight. Made detective after ten and worked narco.’
‘Why’d you quit?’
She swallowed half the whiskey, and hitched her shoulders. ‘I got in a bit of a jam.’
It was one thirty in the morning, the crowd had thinned, and I was too tired to care what jammed her up. There were three regulars sitting around their usual table, and the American woman with a taste for cheap whiskey and strong cigarettes. It was the fourth night in a row that she’d been there, always alone, drinking and smoking until the small hours. I didn’t know her name and had no interest. My job was to serve drinks and stop people getting rowdy.
If she hadn’t started asking me questions about Kings Cross, I wouldn’t be telling you this story now. To begin with, her questions were general, then she started getting more specific, wanting to know about organised crime. My responses were brief and vague, my curiosity elevated. Her speech was slurred, and she had to close one eye to light her next cigarette. She crushed it out almost immediately, leaned forward, and spoke conspiratorially.
‘I was in a classy joint down the road last night. Place about a block away called blue something. Heard some guys talking about The Boss. The Boss of The Cross.’ Her eyes held mine, her brows flinched upward. ‘Who is he?’
‘No idea what you’re talking about,’ I said, then moved away and stacked glasses into the washer, filled a shelf and changed a couple of optics. When I turned toward her, she beckoned me over with her left hand, raising the empty glass in her right. When I tried to take it from her to refill it, she held fast and said. ‘I think you do know what I mean, and who I mean. I need to speak to him, and he needs to speak to me.’
‘Go talk with your mates at the Blue Room,’ I said, then twisted the tumbler from her hand. ‘On your way, you’ve had enough.’
Something bothered me about the ex-cop from Chicago, if that’s what she was.
When two nights later Ray Peterson came in to collect the weekly kickback, I mentioned it to him. Ray worked for Johno Brookes who—at that time was The Boss—and in a way, so did I.
My name’s Nick Miller; a Sydneysider born and bred, and at that time, manager of a smoky bar in Kings Cross called The Saracen’s Head. Fat Mark McGuire, a cleanskin for Brookes, owned it on paper. Fat Mark was a lazy prick and had put me on as manager so he could spend more time eating, drinking, and playing the tables at a private gaming room two blocks away. Each week, Ray, or his offsider Sonny, would come in to collect Brookes’ cut.
I’d known Ray since I was old enough to drink. We were never mates, and I don’t think he ever really had any. There were plenty of people who feared or respected him, many that toadied up to him, but he was a cold, hard bastard that kept everyone at arm’s length, including Sonny Thaku, his number one enforcer, and a tough guy in his own right.
‘Do you know where she’s staying?’ Ray said with his usual disinterest.
‘I didn’t get into conversation with her.’
‘If she comes in again, see what you can find out.’
‘She’s just some burned out jack they pensioned off.’
‘Maybe.’ Ray pocketed the envelope of cash I’d handed him, gave me one of his trademark tough-guy looks, then left.
She was there again later that night. I left Stella the barmaid to serve her, and went out the back and watched for a while. She sat there looking around; looking for me, I guessed.
‘That classy joint close early, or did they toss you?’ I said, as I passed her on my way to serve at the far end.
She gave a good-natured grin. ‘Saving that for later, Nick.’
We kept up the sporadic banter throughout the night, as I worked the bar and served her scotch.
At one-thirty, I sent Stella home. There were maybe ten people left in the bar including the American.
I flicked off most of the house lights, indicating close.
‘How about one more for the road, Nick?’
‘Sure, why not?’ I tossed another shot of Red Label into her glass.
Whether I liked it or not, I had to play along—there was no percentage in pissing off Ray—so I did my best to smile at her and said, ‘Seeing as you got my name right tonight, I should know yours.’
She looked at me for a five beat, that interrogating, looking-right-through-you cop look, then she said, ‘It’s Stacia. Stacia Black. Ex-Lieutenant Stacia Maria Black: Englewood, Chicago District 7.’
Her chin jutted out, and her eyes held a defiance that suggested years of having to prove herself in a man’s world. If what she’d told me was true, that made her a narco detective at age twenty-eight. A tough call for any female, and my guess was that despite her small frame and fine, nicotine stained fingers, she was a tough little sod.
‘How long are you in Sydney for, Lieutenant?’
‘It’s Stacia, and I haven’t decided yet. Depends on how things play out.’
‘Could be a few more hours then?’
One side of her mouth twisted up into a mocking smile. ‘Could be a few more months, Nick.’
By two o’clock there was only me and her, standing either side of the bar slowly sparring and sizing one another up.
Remembering Ray’s order to see what I could find out about her, I took one of her Luckies, lit up, and waited for her to speak. It didn’t take long.
‘You know why I chose this bar, Nick?’
When I didn’t respond she gave an amused snort, like she’d seen all this before a thousand times, then said ‘You. That’s why.’
‘You need to lay off the cheap scotch, Lieutenant Stacia. It’s affecting your judgement. And these cigarettes could fell an ox.’
‘If Luckies are too much for you, you better stick with your menthols.’
‘Cute. Go on with your story.’
‘I met a lot of people working narco. After a while you get to know about a person just by watching, seeing how they move, what they say and what they don’t, how their eyes take in everything, without appearing to look.’
‘Is there a point to this, Stacia, or are you just being entertaining?’
‘Bit of both I hope. You know the guy that runs Frankie’s Bar a block away? Got the same name as you.’
‘Close but not the same. He’s Micky as in Cohen, I’m Nick as in old. And I’m nothing like him, Lieutenant Freud.’
‘I know you’re not. He’s a criminal. Trust me, I’ve seen the type too many times to be wrong. You’re not. You mix with them, work for them, but you don’t do drugs, you’re not a heavy drinker, and have a clean sheet.’
‘And you base that assumption on what?’
‘No assumption; or tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you’re an enforcer, part-time baggie runner, the Boss.’
I stubbed out the Lucky Strike, wondering if it had taken the skin off the back of my throat. I took a drink and waited for her to go on.
‘No tats, no ridiculous stud through the eyebrow and your face is younger than your 37 years so you’re not an old stoner, meth head or snowman.’
She waited for a reaction when she revealed that she knew my age. I was surprised, and fought hard not to show it. She gave another of those know-all snorts, and I felt targeted. It added credence to her story of being a cop, or ex-cop, and perhaps that was why she’d shown her hand, to make me a believer; but why? I realised that it was going to be easier to get close to her than I’d thought, but I’d have to up my game.
‘I bet you even workout, don’t you, Nick? Go to the gym? Run?’
‘The only running I do is running this bar, and the only working-out is right now, working out what you want. You come into a bar in a red-light area, openly claiming to be a narco cop—albeit one who’s had her narrow arse kicked off the force, so you say—and start asking questions that could get you a beating. And look at you; what are you, five-five and a hundred and ten pounds? Hardly intimidating.’
I moved to the corner of the bar and flicked off the house lights, leaving us in the dim glow of two glass-fronted chiller cabinets.
‘It’s close time.’
‘So close,’ she said, chained a cigarette, then pushed her glass toward me for a refill. I slopped more Red Label into the tumbler, pushed it back at her. It was her sixth, yet her speech was clear, her eyes sharp, and my guess was that her mind was still humming. Surprising for a lightly built female a full six inches shorter than me.
There was a wry smile on her face and trouble in her voice as she said, ‘I like you, Nick. You’re a straight talker. A stand-up guy. When’s your night off? You do get a night off don’t you?’
‘Once a fortnight, and I spend it with my aging aunt.’
She tossed her head back exposing perfect American teeth and a surprisingly feminine laugh. ‘Your aunt? Come on, Nick, you can do better than that.’
‘Okay, once a week, and I take out any burned out old narco cop I can find propping up a bar.’
‘Old! That’s not nice.’
‘You’re older than me, that’s enough.’
‘I don’t look my age though. Admit it. I look … what, early thirties?’
‘Have dinner with me next time you get a night off.’
‘Come on, indulge me. Let’s go to some fancy schmancy restaurant. I’ll pay.’
My instincts told me to pull back. To let this whole situation cool off and start again next time she came in, if she did. But that other voice told me to forge ahead—nothing venture, nothing win.
She watched without saying anything as I walked around to the public side and locked the doors. Then took her by the arm and led her out back.
‘What’s this, Nick? Gonna lock me in the cellar and rough me up?’
‘I thought you wanted to go out.’
‘Now? At two-thirty in the morning?’
I dropped her arm, and walked ahead. ‘You coming or not?’
The cab took just five minutes to get to Woolloomooloo. Stacia climbed out and looked around at the naval dockyard, then looked questioningly at me.
‘Behind you,’ I said. She turned and looked at the caravan as I walked past her.
‘What the fuck is this?’
‘It’s an icon, a late night pleasure palace for the tastebuds.’
‘You’re kidding me, right?’
I kept walking, and she fell in step beside me.
When we stopped in front of the van her face lit with amusement as her eyes moved from picture to picture of many of the celebrities that had eaten there.
‘That good huh?’
‘Better than that.’
I ordered pies and mushy peas for us both as she wandered around the van looking at more pictures of the rich and famous who had stopped at Harry’s for a pie.
‘You really know how to treat a lady, don’t you?’
‘What can I tell you? I’m a sap with a big heart and no brains.’
We carried the pies to the railings by the waterfront, and looked out across the naval yards as we ate.
‘Do they do anything other than pies and peas?’
‘Hot dogs. But that’s mainly for Americans. Here we eat pies, not hot dogs washed down with weak coffee and doughnuts.’
‘You don’t like Americans, do you?’
‘No. You want ketchup on that?’
She gave me a sour smile and bit off another big lump of pie.
I didn’t learn much about her that night, or what she wanted. But I did at least establish some form of … friendship I guess you’d say. She didn’t feel like a friend, more like a predator.
It was a twenty-minute walk back to the cross. As we walked, she probed with well-formed questions, a skill no doubt sharpened on the streets of Chicago. I parried, ducked and weaved; said plenty, and told her nothing.