freshly squeezed pulp noir
Wednesday, April 09, 2003
Instalment 10: pages 41-44 [Elliot goes to Sydney to speak to Marina's brother Stephen]
Thursday in Sydney, Thursday night back in Canberra
Outside Sydney, I called Carmichael when I pulled over to refuel – ignoring the frantic signals of the attendant inside at the till that I wasn’t to use a mobile near the bowsers.
“Mister Carmichael’s chambers,” purred the receptionist.
“It’s Naylor,” I said. There was a little assessing pause, not much: a space between beats.
“Yes, mister Naylor – do you want to speak to mister Carmichael?”
“Well, him too,” I purred back.
“Will I put you through now?” she asked firmly.
“Just tell me one thing first,” I asked on impulse. “When was the last time Bob Mitchell came in to meet with your boss?”
Her answer came sharp and low: “I can’t tell you that!”
“Well then, just put me through.”
She said nothing, but shortly there was a click and then Carmichael’s voice from out of the emptiness, easily heard over the strumming chug of petrol pumps: “Elliot. You were meant to have called by now.”
“I wanted to have something to tell you. I’ve checked about a bit, no-one’s really seen her. A couple of people thought she was holidaying at Danielle’s – I’ve checked that out myself. I’m driving back from Guerilla Bay now.”
“Not immediately. I’m going to look up one of her Sydney friends.”
“I see, call by my office when you get back. Sharon at reception will have a cheque for you, to cover you through to next Wednesday. That’ll be nearly two thousand I’ve given you, Elliot. Keep looking.”
He hung up without me being able to make any comment. At least I’d been spared asking for an advance. But there was something else troubling him, clearly. He was lying to his wife about the police, and by the sounds of it about Bob Mitchell as well. What’s so important you won’t report your own daughter missing after nearly a week? I thought. It was time to shake another branch on the family tree. I put the petrol on my Visa card, praying it could take the strain until a Carmichael cheque cleared, and drove on into the city.
I arrived at the firm’s building, having parked the car in a place where the hourly rate was not much lower than the net value of my vehicle. Sydney’s knowledge workers traversed the foyer’s black marble, those who spun their money, suits and arrogance out of information no one else was allowed to have. These were the city’s self-appointed players – jostling for the status of Italian leather shoes, performance pay and harbour views – and the sound-bites of conversation as they passed were all snappy, adrenalin-hyped phrases from the game. Synergy, partnership, profit-share, Paris, front page, Fin Review, strategy, options, the NASDAQ opened down, got home Sunday morning, mate you should seen her. Sydney sunlight rained down on the just and unjust through massive three storey windows opposite the lift wells, casting a long shadow about an implausibly ugly sculpture that rose almost to the ceiling. I shouldered my way into a packed express elevator fitted out with enough by way of marble veneer and full-length mirrors to pass for a good hotel or a snazzy bordello.
In jeans and yesterday’s short-sleeve shirt over a fresh tee, I felt a gazelle among the lions. I tried to ignore the suits and their caffeine-buzz conversations. That really only left me with Stephen to think about. He was a year older than Marina, but had taken a year off after school while Marina hadn’t, so they’d gone through law school together. I’d always thought of Stephen as a loud party boy who coasted through exams on other’s notes. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing him again: I had only been passingly polite to him while in the Carmichaels’ orbit, and didn’t always hide what I thought of his academic ability. Nor had his father.
“Come on Stephen,” his father had once said at a family dinner with elephantine tact. “Why don’t you study for Corporations with these two? They have it in the bag.”
“Leave him alone,” retorted Daphne. “He’s doing perfectly well, too.”
A polite mother’s lie, I had thought. The implicit ranking had been done: neither of us boys was really in Marina’s league, but I was clearly closer to it than poor Stephen. David Carmichael had a lawyer’s eye for achievement, and treated everyone accordingly.
Stephen had sat fuming, I’d looked at my plate, Marina may have shot her older brother a discreet smirk that I chose not to see. Another happy night, chez Carmichael, in the days when I had sat shielded by Marina’s reflected glory.
Now Stephen was the lawyer in the big smoke; while I had to come to him as the supplicant, the part-time librarian from the sticks. It didn’t help that we worked for different branches of the same firm. It doesn’t matter what the firm, Canberrans always feel patronised by their Sydney office colleagues. The Sydneysiders wouldn’t even deign to think of such petty distinctions, but only because they’re already at the top of the heap.
The lift glided to halt at the highest of the ten floors occupied by Peepers. My ears had popped on the way up. You can tell how much a law firm thinks of itself by the altitude of its lobby. On the fifty-second floor, Page Edwards Prentice’s Sydney office was already well into the stratosphere, its reception a strange amalgam of traditional power-black and warmer wood tones: elaborate parquetry floor with marble trim, low leather lounges, and a curving sheath of glass as the exterior wall – providing an Olympian view out across Sydney. A vertiginous carpet met the feet of clients who stood at the window: the Domain’s verdure, then the sandstone gallery, and out beyond Rose Bay and the Eastern suburbs, the sea. Anyone at that window appeared to be standing on the best view in Sydney.
For all its grandeur, I shouldn’t have worried quite so much about looking out of place. Most of the clients looked like bewildered blow-ins, generally crumpled and bespectacled middle-aged men in khakis, open necked shirts and tweed sports coats. Casual business wear was in for the visitors, but had yet to trickle up to the fifty-second floor it seemed. The solicitors were identifiable by the combination of suits and an etiolated pallor: men with receding hairlines and expensive ties, and aggressively thin women with tight smiles and high, sharp heels that pocked the herringbone wooden floors. You could tell, at least among the men, which were the partners: all had the solicitor’s round-shouldered stoop, and skin tone somewhere between parchment and dust. The women know how to apply make-up at the end of a life of sixty-five hour weeks.
From what I heard a lot had changed since the excesses of the eighties: cocaine, promiscuity and excessive overheads were out; mineral water at business lunches and regular gym sessions were in. Long hours remained in fashion, but not long lunches. The lawyers came and went between lifts and meeting rooms, talking of the international soccer, the rugby or share prices as they whisked their charges away to meeting-room austerity.
After only fifteen or twenty minutes, Stephen came to collect me. He’d adjusted well, shoulders and smile firmly in place, like his politely expensive suit and brash white-collared banker’s shirt and candy-striped schoolboy tie. He proffered a hand for a strong shake. I put my hand in his, my face adjusting to mirror his confident, commercial smile.
“Mate,” he said in the tone of a man who’s served hard time in party meetings, “let’s get coffee.”