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'It's his cousin I'd like to talk to.'
She looked at me in silence.
'It's about the accident Danny went to jail for. It's possible he didn't do it.'
'There might be some compensation.'
She cleared her throat. 'You'd better talk to Vin. He's Danny's cousin. He's not here.'
'Is he Vin McKillop?' I said.
'Do you know where I could find him?'
She thought for a while, then said, 'Suppose he's working. Only time he gets up before twelve. Dennis Shanahan in Edge Street'll know.'
I found Dennis Shanahan in the phone book. A woman said he was demolishing a building in Abbotsford, Joseph Street.
There were three middle-aged men, a teenage boy and a lean brindle dog with a studded collar on the site. I could see them all from across the road. One man was sitting in the cab of a truck behind the sh.e.l.l of the single-storey building, the second was prising out a window with a crowbar, the third was feeding a fire of old timbers in the back corner. The teenager was cleaning bricks with a hammer and chisel. The dog was watching him. A portable radio somewhere in the ruin was putting out 'Bridge over Troubled Water' at full volume.
I crossed the road and walked along a plank bridging the exposed floor beams to the first doorway in the pa.s.sage. A smell of poor lives hung over the place: cooking fat, yellow feet, burnt ironing boards and blocked drains.
'I'm looking for Vin,' I shouted to the window remover. He made a gesture with his thumb without looking around.
I guessed the man in the truck would be the boss, so I tried the man at the fire. I couldn't get close: the heat was intense. It didn't seem to bother the man feeding it. He was short, heavyset, with dark curly hair and sideburns, probably in place since Elvis. The same could be said for his jeans and the grime on his hands and under his nails. His nose was flattened and slightly askew and a big piece of right eyebrow was gone.
'Vin McKillop?' I said.
He had a length of two-by-four hardwood in his right hand, poking the fire. He looked up at me without expression. Boxer's eyes. 'Who wants him?'
'I'm a lawyer,' I said. 'It's about Danny McKillop. I know he's dead but I need to talk to someone who knew him.'
The man threw his two-by-four into the flames.
'What about him?' he said.
'It's about the accident. The woman's death.'
He picked up another splintered piece of wood. 'He done the time,' he said flatly.
'I'm trying to find out if he done the crime.'
The man spat into the flames. 'What's it to you if he done it or not done it?'
'It's complicated,' I said. 'Can you spare me a bit of time? There's an interview fee.'
'I'm on the job.'
'Take half an hour unpaid. I'll pay you for that too.'
Vin McKillop positioned the wood carefully on the fire and rubbed under his nose with a forefinger. 'There's a pub around the corner,' he said. 'Cost you twenty bucks.'
The pub was empty except for two old men sitting at a formica table in a corner looking at nothing. The place smelt of stale beer and carbolic. I got two beers and sat at a table near the door. Vin came in and went straight through the door marked GENTS. When he came back, he stood at the bar. He was making some kind of point. I picked up the beers and went over to him.
'Cheers,' I said.
Vin didn't say anything. He just picked up the gla.s.s and drank three-quarters of the beer. 'So,' he said, 'what's the fee?'
I had a fifty-dollar note ready. I put it on the bar. Then I put a twenty on top of it.
Vin put the money in his top pocket. He took a cigarette out of the same pocket without revealing the pack and lit it with a plastic lighter. He took a deep drag and let the smoke run out his nostrils. I felt like asking him for one. 'You a Jack?' he said.
'No.' I took out a card and held it up for him to read. He looked at it.
'Need gla.s.ses,' he said. 'What's it say?'
'It says I'm a lawyer.' Vin couldn't read.
'Danny don't need a lawyer now.'
'There's his wife and child,' I said. 'Had you seen him recently?'
'Seen him when he come out. Didn't know him. Lost about a hundred pounds.'
'What kind of work did he do before he went in?'
'Nothin.' Vin drained his beer and signalled the barman with a big, dirty finger.
'Surprise you when he hit the woman that night?'
Vin flicked his cigarette stub into the trough at our feet. It lay there smoking. He lit another one. 'Yeah, surprised me.' He held his cigarette hand just above the counter and drummed with his thumb.
'What's it matter? c.u.n.t's wormfood now.'
Vin's beer arrived. I paid.
'It matters. Why were you surprised?'
He drank half the beer and wiped his mouth on his cuff. 'Hadn't been near the car for months. He was on a year suspended for p.i.s.sed driving. Fat p.r.i.c.k was s.h.i.t-scared of doing time.'
'But he could've forgotten all that, he was so p.i.s.sed.'
Vin scratched an armpit. 'Yeah, well, that could be right if you can work out how a bloke that's so legless he's pa.s.sed out in Punt Road about quarter past eleven can get sober enough to go home and get his car and drive about thirty blocks to cream some b.i.t.c.h at twenty to twelve.'
'Danny didn't mention that before the trial.'
'How do you know where he was at quarter past eleven?'
'Mate of mine saw him.'
'You didn't tell the cops?'
'Didn't hear about it till after Danny was inside.'
'Why didn't your mate tell the cops at the time?'
Vin blew two flat streams of smoke out of his nostrils. 'Cause he was hoping Danny'd get about fifty years. Danny was a dog. There's lots of people hoped they'd throw the f.u.c.king key away.'
'Dog for who?'
'Drug squad. He'd dob anyone, every little t.w.a.t he heard big-noting himself in a pub. Jacks'd pay him off with a couple've hits.'
'He was on smack?'
Two men in donkey jackets and woollen caps came in from the street. Vin looked them over carefully while draining his gla.s.s.
I signalled for two more beers.
'One of his Jack mates was talking to him near the pub that night,' Vin said.
'How do you know that?'
'Same way. My mate. Saw Danny with this c.u.n.t Scullin in a car down the road. Danny come in, full of dough, drinking Jim Beam, in and out of the p.i.s.shouse, gets off his face. They kicked him out round eleven. Then my mate sees him lying behind a bench, he's drunk another half of JB.'
'That was a quarter past eleven?
'You reckon your mate would talk to me? For a fee?'
'Dead. OD'd on smack.'
'The cop's name's Scullin?'
'Where did Danny keep his car?'
'Garage behind his nanna's house.'
'That's in Collett Street?'
'Fair way from Clifton Hill.'
'f.u.c.king A.' He finished his beer. 'Got to go.'
I said, 'Thanks for your help.'
'You got nothing from me, mate. Is that right?'
Vin McKillop looked back at me before he went out the door. There was still nothing showing in those boxer's eyes but he wasn't going to forget my face.
We went to Ballarat in the big BMW, Harry driving through Royal Park and on to the Tullamarine Freeway like the late James Hunt on cocaine. The day was fine, thin cloud running west. In ten minutes we were pa.s.sing through Keilor, the beginning of a huge sprawl of brick veneers nominally divided into suburbs with names like Manna Gum Heights and Bellevue Hill. These were the places where teenage dreams came to die.
'Heights,' said Harry in wonder. 'Flat as the paper under the lino.'
I was in the back, reading the Age. Cam was in front, fiddling with the laptop.
'Wootton tells me you put the squirrel grip on one of his commissioners, Jack,' Harry said.
'Not without difficulty,' I said. Harry knew Wootton well. He used him for big jobs.
'More b.u.g.g.e.rs doin a runner these days, seems to me. Probably time for another Happy Henry.' Harry turned to look at me while accelerating pa.s.sed a tradesman's ute with two cattle dogs on the back, barking into the wind. I paled.
'You know about Happy Henry, Jack?'
'Hidden history of the turf,' Harry said. 'Commissioner called Happy Henry Carmody. Happy shot through on a big punter, Baby Martinez, came from Manila, Hawaii, somewhere like that, got into a few duels with the books. Silly b.u.g.g.e.r, really. Happy did a bit of work for him, came highly recommended too. Then one Satdee Happy had a kitbag of notes owed to Baby, thought b.u.g.g.e.r it, Baby's just some dago'll cop it sweet, go home and weep under the palm trees.'
Harry looked around again.