Instalment 19: pages 78-81 [Elliot goes to the library]
Daphne dropped me in Dickson, sparing me the public transport shuffle. I collected my car and dropped by Carmichael’s office to collect my cheque. I took the opportunity to leer a little at Sharon the receptionist, who hadn’t developed any great love of me in my absence. I visited the bank and scraped into work just before lunchtime. Peepers Canberra had impressive offices for a local firm, but nothing like my stratospheric encounters with the Sydney office. I’d a good view from thirteenth floor the library out across the inner city: mostly of car parks, but also the trees out towards O’Connor and the university. I discovered a post-it on the computer screen from Sue, the permanent librarian telling me she was taking the rest of the afternoon off. It didn’t look as thought there was much to do: no outstanding research requests, though there was a fair pile of loose-leaf filing.
Legal publications come in four types: on-line; textbooks; authorised law reports, issued first as slim expensive paperbacks and later bound into expensive, heavy hard-covers; and loose-leafs. Loose-leaf services are book-sized ring-binders, with pages you can replace as the law changes. Updates are issued anything from twice to twelve times a year, and the filing can be a few pages or inches thick. It’s tedious, fiddly work that causes chaos if it’s done wrong. Inevitably, it’s work that tends to fall to the most junior librarian.
At Peepers, loose-leaf filing also required tracking down borrowed volumes, prising them from busy lawyers’ grasp and making ludicrous promises about how soon they’d be back, suppressing murderous thoughts all the while. (What are you, welded to it? You want to give out-of-date advice, be my guest!) Anyway, I was hard at the task that afternoon, and desperate for distraction. So it was something of a relief when John Ireland, one of the first-years, came in with the scared, stressed look most junior solicitors wore in the library. Or wore most of the time, come to that. Funny how no first-year solicitor fresh from law school has a clue about legal research. It’s always the first thing I wind up teaching them: me, the guy refused admission to legal practice.
“Elliot, I’m looking for the NCDC planning volumes,” said John.
Canberra planning law is a nightmare. Back when the town was still federally administered nothing got built without the National Capital Development Commission’s approval. Its old manuals remained the bible, but tricks and turns remain. Including the fact that no one owns their property in Canberra, they just hold ninety-nine year crown leases, and all sorts of planning restrictions get tucked away in the crown lease itself.
“How’s it going?” I asked, leading him to the planning and construction law shelves and hauling the NCDC binders onto the reading desk.
“Wrong week to ask mate,” he said, smiling grimly. “It’ll be funny in a week or two, but right now …”
“Bit close to the bone?” I suggested.
He sighed: “Bog standard debt recovery action. We get a fraudster and his business declared bankrupt. Time to seize property. So, two days ago, I’m sent round to his swanky flat in Kingston to take possession before a sale: me, a locksmith and bailiffs from the sheriff’s office. We get into the apartment - stripped bare. Not a thing there. Well, he’s clearly not living there, so I get the locksmith to go ahead and change the lock. I tape a notice to his door and head off. Today I get some guy screaming at me over the phone, says he bought the place and they’re just trying to move in. Now, we’d already lodged caveats over the property, so no way could anyone legally have sold it without us finding out. So, I double-check the title deeds and the registered plans for the units. Guess what?”
I shook my head.
“Our bastard bankrupt entrepreneur has only taken a screwdriver and swapped flat numbers with the door across the hall from him. He’s used the intervening time to clear all his gear out of his real place. We’ve illegally taken possession of a vacant flat and lost all his portable assets. Unhappy client. One very unhappy client.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“Yeah, like I don’t have enough work without sorting out a debt recovery gone bad and now this pissy little zoning question,” he said. “Can a hairdresser’s become a restaurant? You’d think it’d all just be a commercial use …”
It suddenly occurred to me that the firm did a lot of work for developers.
“All fun and games in the property group, then,” I said sympathetically. “By the by, do you know who’s doing Bob Mitchell’s work on the High Trees development?”
“Yeah,” said John. “You’re looking at him. Muggins here’s had the file dumped on him from a great height. I mean, there’s a partner who landed Mitchell’s business, but could he be bothered? ‘It’s easy stuff John,’ I’m told. ‘Perfect for cutting you’re teeth on.’ My arse.”
“We do work for Bob Mitchell? Really?”
“He’s a pretty big client. You know the rules. Solicitors only turn down clients if there’s a conflict, or an inability to pay. And Mitchell pays.”
“So you’re doing the work on High Trees?”
“As we speak,” he said, flicking through the volume. “ Why’re you interested?”
“Just curious. I just heard High Trees was the next big housing estate, that it was a Mitchell project, and wondered who had the work.”
“Well, now you know,” he answered, hefting down a couple of volumes on Australian building standards and balancing them on the NCDC volume. He lugged his haul out of the library with a taut, despairing grimace.
I thought for a moment and picked up the phone.
“Eva,” said a curt, professional voice.
“Now, I ask you, is that any way to speak to the man who wined and dined you last night?”
“Well, hello mister Naylor. I take it you found your way to work all right. What’s up?”
“Two things. The first is, it turns out Bob Mitchell is a Peepers client, on top of having some hold on Carmichael. I need to think about how I can find out more about what that might be. I might even to need to speak to one of your old timer contacts.”
There was a guarded pause.
“I’ll think about what I can do, but you should be careful, Elliot. What else?”
“I’m going to be at work late, so hold me some dinner.”
“You’re going to be working late?” she asked incredulous.