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Bad Debts Part 9

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'Oh yes. He worked for the Safe Hands Foundation. They help the homeless.'

I'd never heard of the foundation but that didn't mean anything. 'Why did Ronnie move to Perth, Mrs Bishop?'

She pondered this for a moment. 'I don't know, really. Just wanted to go somewhere else, I suppose. Young people are like that, today, aren't they?'

Ronnie was always going to be a young person to his mum. 'He bought a new car before he left. That must have been expensive.'

She smiled. 'He won some money on the Lotto. He took me to Georges to buy a winter coat. I've still got it. Beautiful. He's such a generous boy.'



It was time to go. Mrs Bishop came to the front gate with me. In front of the house next door, a man in a dark double-breasted suit was leaning against a BMW, talking into a mobile phone. He gave Mrs Bishop a wave: five stiff fingers moved from side to side. He'd be making her an offer for the house any day now. I said I was sure Ronnie would be in touch soon, gave her my card, shook her small hand, and left.

12

I went back to my office and brooded for a while. Ronnie Bishop came to Melbourne a worried man. Perhaps his friend Charles Lee, the man who'd answered his telephone, could tell me why. He certainly wasn't going to tell me on the phone. That meant going to Perth. I didn't want to go to Perth. Did I owe it to Danny? What did I owe Danny, anyway? b.l.o.o.d.y something. I phoned Veneto Travel.

'Perth?' said Shane DiSanto. He had recently inherited the business from his uncle Carlo. It was a big change from panel beating.

'Put Denise on, Shane,' I said.

'Jack, Jack, Jack, I'm the boss here now. You're talking to the owner. I can handle this. What you want to go to Perth for? You don't go to Perth in winter. I can do you Hamilton Island. You can't live at home and eat McDonald's for what I can do it. Dirt, Jack, dirt. Are you listening?'

Shane eventually agreed to let me go to Perth and made the booking. I rang Linda Hillier and left a message on her machine. Then I considered ringing Charles Lee and decided against it.

When I went to pick up the ticket at the airport, they'd never heard of me. I rang Veneto and got Denise.

'You're lucky it's only Perth,' she said. 'He made all the bookings for Frank La Bianca's daughter's honeymoon. High season in Florence. Lucky couple had to have sanctified root numero uno in the back seat of the Hertz car.'

I hired a Corolla in midair from a steward called David. He thought a person like me would be happier with a BMW. So did I.

It takes hours to get to Perth, flying over the huge shark-infested dent in the continent called the Great Australian Bight. And when you get there, you're two hours in the past. I didn't know Perth; it was just an airport on the way to Europe. They tell me the locals have secessionist tendencies. I can understand that. Judging by the accents, they'll probably have a fight over whether to rename the State Manchester or Birmingham.

It was a sunny day in Perth, insignificant wisps of cloud decorating a sky the colour of old blue jeans. I studied the map book for about ten minutes and set off for Fremantle. On paper, getting there was a matter of keeping to the highroads. On land, however, the Corolla had a tendency to wander off the beaten track. On my second sighting of the same pub I stopped for lunch and directions. I sat out in the beer garden with a bottle of Swan Lager and a big piece of charred West Australian steer. Around me the locals, mostly Britons with flaking skins wearing towelling hats, were being enthusiastic about the chances of the West Coast Eagles against Carlton. I thought it would be nice if they both lost but this wasn't the place to say it.

After lunch, I took some counsel from one of the Poms and went off driving again. By the time I found Fremantle I had a fair idea of Perth. It was a huge suburb built on sand dunes around a shallow estuary. The upmarket bits had more dark-green vegetation and more trees. I went through the city centre with its standard collection of gla.s.s towers and roughly followed the course of the Swan River to its mouth, which is the port of Fremantle.

Fremantle looked like an English Channel port transported to the Mediterranean; handsome Victorian stone buildings looking slightly uneasy in the hard light. There were plenty of signs of the tourist trappings that had made the place so dangerous during the America's Cup challenge, but it also felt like a working harbour.

I had a good cup of coffee in a place full of voluble Italians and people with time to read a book in the middle of the day, walked around the fishing harbour, visited the maritime museum, browsed in a bookshop, had another cup of coffee.

Ronnie Bishop's house was two or three blocks back from the waterfront, a sandstone dwelling in a street of smart revamped houses. It had two young palms in front, high walls blocking off the neighbours and a severe wrought-iron fence with spear tops. Morton Street, Clifton Hill, this was not.

The front door was a nice piece of woodwork, a rich, dark jarrah frame with panels of pine oiled to a dark honey colour. I pressed a bra.s.s b.u.t.ton in a bra.s.s plate and heard the chime. No-one came. I took a walk up the street. The house next door bore a bra.s.s plate saying Souter & Whale, Architects. I was back in the car reading a novel I'd bought called The Means of Grace when a white Honda Civic drew up outside Ronnie's address and a man in jeans and white golf shirt got out. He checked Ronnie's mailbox, unlocked the front door and went inside, leaving it open. He was out again in minutes and set about watering the garden.

I got out of the Corolla and went over to the fence. He caught sight of me approaching.

'You must be Charles,' I said.

He was a tall man, early forties, light tan, thin and fit-looking. What remained of his hair was close-cropped. He looked like the mature outdoor male in an advertis.e.m.e.nt.

'Yes,' he said, warily. He held the hose as if ready to water me.

'I'm Jack Irish, the lawyer from Melbourne. I rang you about Ronnie.'

His face relaxed.

'You've come a long way,' he said. 'Let's go inside.'

I followed him though a small hallway with a highly polished floor into a sitting room furnished in a dark masculine style. He opened the curtains and we sat down in Morris chairs.

'Well,' he said, 'I'm very worried. I didn't know anything until I rang his mum about the break-in.'

'The break-in?'

'Last Wednesday. We've cleaned up, but my G.o.d, the mess.'

'What did they get?'

'My dear, they walked off with the weirdest stuff. And they took housekeeping money as far as I can tell. Ronnie told me he'd left it in the usual place, which is under the breakfast cereals. Not a lot. I think it's a hundred dollars. Mrs G says it's not there.'

'They gave the place a going over, did they?'

'Certainly did, my G.o.d! The study you would not believe. A shambles. All Ronnie's business papers on the floor, all the books off the shelves, all the drawers out of the desk.'

I said, 'Charles, why would Ronnie disappear?'

He shook his head. 'Jack-may I call you Jack?-I can't think of any reason why. He's been very, very depressed, of course, but...' He looked away into the middle distance.

'Why was that?'

'Well, business has been terrible, for one thing.'

'What business is that?'

'Ronnie's in video. It's suffered with the rest of the economy. And he put a lot of capital into some compact disc venture. CD-ROM. Very high tech. A mystery to me.' He put his right hand to his mouth. 'I haven't even offered you a drinky. I generally have a G and T around this time.'

I accepted a gin and tonic. It came large, with a smudge of bitters. Charles folded a leg under him as he sat down.

'Ronnie's mother says he has AIDS, Charles.'

He sighed. 'The dear old girl. That's simply not true. Ronnie is HIV-positive. There's a big difference, you know. He'll probably outlive us all.'

'Did he think that way?'

He eyed me like a dog show judge. After a while, he said, 'I'm not sure that I understand what's going on.'

'Going on?'

'Going on. Something's going on and I'm the poor bunny in the middle of it.'

'Well, as I said on the phone, I'm interested in talking to Ronnie about evidence he gave in a trial in Melbourne years ago.'

'You must be very interested to come to Perth to ask me questions.'

I shrugged. 'I'm feeling a bit driven. And Ronnie's the only person who can help me. If I knew a bit more about him, I might be able to find him.'

Charles looked at his nails. Clean, pink, blunt nails. 'Well,' he said, 'ask away.'

'Why did he go to Melbourne?'

'He said he had to see someone.'

'Do you know what about?'

'I'd only be guessing.'

'Even a guess might help.'

'There were phone calls from Melbourne.'

I waited. Charles sipped his drink. There was a beautiful sunset going on outside. I could see a coral glow on the wall of the neighbour's house. You don't see sunsets in Melbourne in winter. It isn't even clear to me that the sun rises in Melbourne in winter.

'A man rang twice.'

'Was that unusual?'

'Yes. To ring here, that was unusual. I stop in on my way from work every day and give the garden a sprinkle, that sort of thing. It'd die if it was left to Ronnie. He doesn't come home until all hours, so I listen to the answering machine and I ring him at the shop if it's anything he needs to know about. The only person who calls from Melbourne is his mum and she generally rings on Sunday mornings.'

'What did the man say?'

'He said he needed to speak to Ronnie urgently. I rang Ronnie and gave him the message. Twice.'

'Did he say anything?'

Charles was silent again for a while. He was still at war with himself about answering my questions.

'The first time he said something like, "Oh, Christ, no". Something like that.'

'The man gave a name and a number to ring?'

'Yes.'

'Can you remember the name?'

'I'm afraid not. I'm hopeless about names. It'd be on the tape.'

I felt a small flush of excitement. 'You've got the answering machine tape?'

'No. The burglars took all the tapes. They took all the CDs too, but you can understand that. Ronnie didn't wipe any answering machine tapes. He just put in a new tape. Some of them have got messages that go on for half an hour or more, my dear. He's got these weird girlfriends. They don't seem to want to talk to him. They just pour out all this drivel about men and shopping and films to the machine.'

'But all the tapes were here?'

'Yes. They were all in the phone table drawer. The burglars dumped the drawer on the floor, my dear. Gave it a kick too, by the look of things. Pens and stuff everywhere. They took the tape out of the machine, too.'

I tried the name Danny McKillop on him.

'I can't say yes and I can't say no,' he said. 'I think it was an Irish sort of name. But I can't be sure.'

'Did Ronnie ever talk about his past?'

'Never. The man was like the Sphinx. Could've been born yesterday.'

What had Ronnie's mother said? Doug always said he would make a good spy.

'He never mentioned any names?'

Charles picked up his gla.s.s and stuck the tip of his tongue into the liquid. He looked at me over the rim. 'Not ever. I've been over all this before. I told the detectives that. They asked these questions. I told them the same thing. Ronnie simply did not talk about himself except in the vaguest way.'

'These were the detectives about the break-in?'

'Oh, absolutely not. That was PC Plod from the local station. These were men in plain clothes. Rather grubby plain clothes in the case of one of them.' He laughed, a light laugh, verging on the nervous.

'And they identified themselves as policemen?'

He didn't answer for a few seconds, turning a gold band with a single red stone in it on the little finger of his right hand. 'No,' he said. 'They didn't. They came to the door at home. It's just around the corner. My unit. About nine at night. Smelling, reeking of drink, if you don't mind. One expects more.'

'You a.s.sumed they were detectives?'

'Yes. I did. They were, I think. They had that manner. The smaller one took out some sort of notebook. He wasn't small, mind you. The opposite. Just smaller. He said something like: "It's in connection with the disappearance of someone you know. Ronald Bishop. We'd like to ask you some questions."'

I savoured the last of my drink. 'Can I get the timing sorted out?' I said. 'This visit was after the break-in?'

'Two days after. Mrs G and I had spent hours cleaning up and then I came home, utterly drained I can tell you, and I'd had a shower and slipped into a gown and there they were pounding on the door.'

'What did they want to know?'

'Refill time,' Charles said. His drink was hardly touched but he took both gla.s.ses away. I took out my notebook, full of horse observations, and made a few entries. When he came back, Charles sat on the edge of his chair, gla.s.s held in both hands.

'All they were interested in, Jack, was what Ronnie had told me about going to Melbourne,' he said. 'Names. They wanted to know any names he'd mentioned. And they wanted to know what he'd told me about his life in Melbourne before he came to Perth.' He leaned towards me. 'They were very crude, Jack. It upset me. I'm not used to that sort of thing. Not at all. I'd have complained if I'd thought it would do any good.'

'Crude in what way?'

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Bad Debts Part 9 summary

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