Instalment 6: pages 24-27 [Elliot leaves Marina’s mother and calls Eva again]
I made my promises and left. A promise to drive down to Guerrilla Bay and a promise to call her tomorrow. There was an uneasy taste in my mouth, not the dregs of my third coffee, but the growing tang of hypocrisy: coming over to Daphne all kind family concern, when the impetus was all David’s money. Either way, I now had obligations to both of Marina’s parents.
But what the hell was I going to do? If Bob Mitchell was in any way involved, I was out of my depth. On reflection, though, the shady deal with Bob Mitchell was probably little more than another straw across the back of Marina’s relationship with her father, which had been, at best, a rickety beast.
The best thing was to check out Danielle’s place. I’d been to her coast house before, when I was still with Marina – there wasn’t a phone. It would be good to get down there again, if only for a little while. It looked like someone’s daddy was going to have to pay me for a day or two at the seaside. I didn’t even head home to pack. I did give Eva another call, though.
“Hi honey,” I warbled in my best sitcom sing-song. “Wanna go for sinful winter’s weekday retreat down the coast?”
“Who’s going to provide my share of sin?” retorted Eva. “Some of us have to work the rest of the week, but I take it you’re heading off?”
“And travelling alone it seems. There’s a rumour abroad that Marina might be at Danielle’s place down the coast.”
“That’s the big lead? You’re just going to chase off after her?”
“Why not?” I replied, “I’m getting paid. Anyway, what can you tell me about Bob Mitchell?”
There was a contemptuous snort at the other end of the line. “What can I tell you? He’s a shit who’s managed to make any legitimate construction union look like a pack of thieving bastards, busily stuffing kickbacks into greasy bags. When he ran things, all the wheels turned on graft and a blind eye … drinks and monkeys and gorillas – ”
“The bigger the size of a bribe, the bigger the mammal. Someone asks you for a gorilla, your wallet feels like it’s been buggered by one. He was a heavy figure in the old Building, Construction and Allied Trades Union. They had a number of scams going. Equipment just walking off site. Overtime payments being made cash in hand. And there was a lively cash flow involved in keeping union strife at a safe distance. We’ve been shovelling aside the shit his lot left for years.”
“Didn’t know your union was into construction. I thought your guys were all surveyors and civil engineers?”
“It’s all the same to big developers. Especially once the unions started to merge and consolidate. After some of the mergers it got hard to tell what was really happening. Who supported the old guard and who really wanted new blood? How big were the black holes in shonky budgeting? No-one knew. Mitchell’s put a nasty smell and a lot of mistrust through the whole construction industry.”
“So what happened to him? Our mate Bob?”
“Oh, he works the other side of the fence now. A lot of work as a developer or consultant. He dabbles in construction supplies.”
“What does he consult in?” I asked.
Eva laughed: “Industrial relations and project management.”
“Didn’t he do any time after all those enquiries?”
“He did a couple of months, strictly low security. Not much was ever proved. From what I’ve heard he operates now through consultancies, companies, other vehicles that keep his name off the paperwork and out of the headlines. But he still runs a good deal of the construction game. You know a project with Mitchell on it will come in on time, maybe not on budget, but certainly on time. He’s involved in most of the significant projects in Canberra and Queanbeyan one way or another.”
“Can you give me a for instance?” I asked.
“The new High Trees estate out between the highway and Gundaroo.”
“Is that big?”
“It will be once all the planning permission comes through,” she replied. “Stage one is inside the ACT border, stage two is just over the line. It’s a nightmare of planning law and union jurisdiction.”
“If I ever needed to, how would I get in touch with him?”
There was a long pause. “There are people I know, rusted on fossils at the Australian Industrial Relations Institute, they’d know him. It’s not something I’d recommend, though. What’s his connection to all this?”
I answered carefully. “Marina’s Dad sunk some money, possibly without realising who was running the show, into a Mitchell venture. Marina found out and had a row with Dad just before she vanished. I doubt Mitchell’s involved, really. Daphne Carmichael seems to think Marina sloped off down to the coast to sulk.”
“When do you think you’ll head off then?”
“Straight away, any later and it’ll be getting a bit dark for my enthusiasm by the time I get in.”
“Probably a good call,” Eva said, “I worry about you night driving.”
There was an edge to her voice I avoided answering.
“Yeah, well,” I said. “I guess I won’t be taking my turn cooking tonight. There’s that soup you can defrost if you want to. I should be back tomorrow.”
“I’ll probably head out for pizza with one of the Saturday brunch gang if you’re not about. Be careful driving Elliot.”
I didn’t respond that, the tone wasn’t Eva’s light chirrup; it was the warning of any unhappy parent, but one who knows enough not to try and lay down the law.
Instalment 5: pages 20-23 [Elliot talks to Marina’s mother]
I made a pointed study my coffee cup. Give people enough silence, they tend to fill it.
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t very fair, was it? I always liked you for your frankness, Elliot. I was just trying to match it.”
“Well, Daphne, I always liked you more than –”
“You liked my husband?”
“I was going to say, more than you gave me credit for.”
That struck her. Her face slipped a little, the solid set of her shoulders weakened. The certainties beneath her had been subsiding a while, it seemed. I was part way there, she wanted to talk.
“That’s kind Elliot, but I know a part of you always found me - suffocating. The matriarch. Someone to be spoken to politely, someone who’s work is attending her husband’s functions,” she gave me a searching look. “ It isn’t always easy, being the mother of a successful family. You carry their problems, but you don’t dare talk about them.”
“It’s a small town,” I said, echoing her husband’s phrase.
“And in some circles, not always sympathetic. For most, there’s nothing more dull than the worries of a middle-aged woman.”
“I can imagine.”
“No, Elliot, you can’t. You’re a man. When you give birth, Elliot, you give up a piece of yourself. You become devastatingly vulnerable. It starts with their first day at school, a first day out of your sight and safe keeping. Even once they’re grown up, you worry … I’m happy for Marina and Stephen’s success, of course, but it took them away from me. Gave them a world I know less of than my husband’s.”
She paused, sipping her coffee, beginning now to look worn down, talking herself into telling me something.
“There’s a vulnerability too, in not having worked in twenty-five years as anything more than a volunteer at historic houses. But there are some things you don’t say to your friends, when they are women in their fifties. When they have their own problems – children, cancer scares, aging parents – sympathy is sometimes in short supply, and you never want to become a social liability. A whinger.”
“So you haven’t spoken to anyone about Marina these last few days?”
“It’s only been two days,” she said, defensively. “Of course I’m worried about Marina, Elliot. I’d have called the police a dozen times by now if I wasn’t certain that she’d phone at any moment.”
“You’ve tried her mobile?”
“Incessantly,” she said. “But she said there wasn’t any reliable coverage where she was going.”
“Daphne,” I asked quietly, “where was Marina staying? She must have told you.”
“She said she’d be at Danielle’s family house – in Guerrilla Bay. If she’s not back tonight, I’ll drive down there myself. Or call the Bateman’s Bay police.”
“Look,” I said. “I’m not doing anything for the next few days, I’m happy to drive down and check myself.”
“Would you Elliot?” she seemed genuinely grateful. I began to feel an impostor, being credited with altruism, when I was in fact the hired help. I leaned forward, elbows on knees, to look Daphne in the eyes.
“Was there any reason why she might have extended her holiday. Was there anything at work?” I asked.
“She thrived on her job, Elliot.”
“Was there something else, then? Anything?”
She glanced at me, and then out the window. There was nothing in the garden for her eyes to fasten on, and she shifted amid her cushions. I began to wonder again why Carmichael had asked me not to talk to the family.
“Daphne,” I asked quietly, “was there something wrong between David and Marina? Did they fight before she left?”
She exhaled and gave me a simple, unguarded look. We were back on old terms, when she had thought of me, with some fond approval, as a prospective son-in-law.
“Yes, it was a stupid fight really. David invested some money in a … consortium. Construction scaffolding. It’s expensive equipment, always in demand. A lot of people in Sydney were doing it. Anyway, Marina found out who the business was being run by, and, well, she wasn’t impressed.”
“Who was it?” I asked, frowning.
“Bob Mitchell,” she said. “I mean, it was a shock to me to discover that snake was involved in anything we had money in. My reaction was, what have we done? Marina’s was stronger.”
“I can imagine,” I answered – and this time I really could.
Mitchell had a star turn act that had played in a number of industrial relations, Supreme Court and royal commission hearings and looked to be booked through well into the coming years. A sometime construction union heavyweight, and now Canberra “personality”, he was a notorious stand-over man and a survivor of more official investigations than an HIH board member or failed telco tycoon.
“Well, we weren’t the only good people caught that way. There was nothing in the business plan that indicated Bob Mitchell was involved. I just wanted our money out of his grubby hands before anything could happen.”
“So you got your money out?”
“Of course it did. David’s one of the best barristers in Canberra.”
“David took care of it then?”
“He told me he did. I leave most of the business arrangements to him. I’ve some money of my own, but he’s the businessman,” she looked out to the garden again, before turning her anxious eyes back on me. “But you’ll go and check on her at Danielle’s? I’d hate to barge in on her if everything’s alright, but not being able to get in touch is such a worry …”