Instalment 32: pages 132 - 135 [Elliot is taking an unexpected, late-night call from Jenny and Marina's boss, Milton Dawes, Minister for Justice and Customs]
“I’d like you to come round to my house in an hour. You’re available?” The question was firmly enunciated, a formality, a command.
“Good,” the voice replied, and gave me an address in Ainslie, not too far from the war memorial.
I set the phone down and thought, He doesn’t want anyone to know I’m coming – no staff, no office. It’s either a personal thing for him, or he’s very very sensitive about it. I wish I could say I slung on my old cord jacket over what I was wearing and went to meet the minister like he was any other person, that I met my own standard of scepticism about the great and the good. However, I shaved and put on the suit I’d worn to my interview with David Carmichael. I didn’t put on a tie. I don’t know why, but as I walked down to my car, my hands were shaking. The rules seemed to be changing very fast. It only occurred to me as I fumbled my car keys into the door, that I might have been summoned because he thought someone might be listening – to my phone or his.
I drove slowly down the street, not from any sense of foreboding, but because, as in all old Canberra suburbs, in the murky orange light of 1940s street lamps it was all but impossible to make out street numbers.
The house sat behind a tall hedge, open only at the broad driveway. I drove slowly past. A single bulb at the front door provided the only space where shadows were not drawn in under the eaves. It was a strong, louring full moon, immediate in the way it only can be in a town like Canberra, where the skyline scarcely crests the established suburbs’ leafy canopy.
I only realised it was the Minister’s house when I passed his neighbour’s property and caught sight of an intelligible street number. It took me a little while to come to a halt. I parked where I was and walked back. I don’t know what I’d expected, at least some unmarked vehicle across the way with a couple of spooks in it, but the street was deserted. All the natives had their four-wheel drives safely tucked up in double garages. I walked up the drive, past open but sturdy-looking security gates, up to the solitary light and rang the bell.
The Minister was in shirt-sleeves, cuffs rolled up to the elbow, tieless, his slacks grey and expensive. His handshake was strong, and his left hand gripped my elbow to steer me through the door. Behind me I heard the mechanical rattle of closing gates. With scarcely a word of introduction he led me down a half-darkened hall and out into spacious, softly lit room. Russet wooden floors led to a great expanse of window, overlooking a swimming pool in tiled surrounds, water glittering frostily in the moonlight. A sunroom, I realised, as the Minister steered me towards a pair of matching rattan chairs, facing each other over a small glass-topped coffee table: an entertaining space for grander occasions. The Minister retreated beyond a marble topped counter, and into the kitchen.
“I’m not sure what I can offer you,” his face outlined against the refrigerator light. “I really only keep breakfast things here. I like juice. Do you like juice?”
In some ways, he looked a lot like David Carmichael, the same sort of large square frame, bulging a little with middle age, and somewhat stooped by long years at a desk. His face was rounder, kinder, though, an impression somehow accentuated by his thick, square framed glasses and haplessly thinning hair, long strands clinging to his scalp.
“That would be fine. Thank you,” I said.
“Celery and carrot for the evening, I think,” he said. “Keeps the eyes sharp.”
He laughed to indicate the joke.
He pulled a couple of plastic zip lock bags from the fridge, each full of vegetable sticks and dumped a few handfuls into a squat-bellied appliance. It rumbled obligingly and spat orange liquid into small jug. He poured it two glasses and approached the table, set a glass in front of me, settled himself into a chair and caught me in his tenacious, steady gaze. Behind thick glasses the eyes of many men seem weak and watery, his had an entirely different effect. I once driving out into the Lake George hinterland, to a party at a friend’s parent’s property. It was dark when I arrived, and having taken a few wrong turns on rural side roads, late. When I got out to open the front gate, there was an owl, or a mopoke, sitting on the fence post, captivated by the headlights. It was tawny and strange, a storybook apparition, and its eyes glinted vast and orange in the headlights. I don’t recall the bird as much as its eyes, huge and dilated in the headlights. I stood looking at it for what seemed the longest of times, before it flurried away into the dark. Then I was left blinking in headlight glare, unable to see where it had gone. I felt that same sensation now, held in the dark by a gaze I could not read.
“This has to be unusual,” I said, feeling a need to speak into the silence, “a minister talking to a suspect in a police investigation.”
“If you were under any suspicion, I certainly wouldn’t be speaking to you,” he replied tersely.
“Poor choice of words,” I said, scrambling. “Witness.”
I was too caught off guard to absorb this information with any sense of relief: that I was not under any suspicion, at least not yet.
“I’ve spoken to David Carmichael,” he said, ignoring me, “after what happened to Jenny I had to. It’s not a question of family privacy anymore. Jenny and Marina were good friends. It’s important that anyone who knows anything about Jenny, about her life in Canberra, speak to the police.
“And I need to know where Marina is.”
“David told you he’s got me looking for her?” I asked.
The Minister looked at me without saying anything, his kindly face not moving a flicker. I realised I’d lost a point. Given something away without getting anything in return. He had thirty or forty years of experience in hard-nosed negotiation on me, I was soft, outgunned, an amateur. He’d now had me confirm I was working for David Carmichael, a fact he could assume for the rest of the conversation without having to tell me that he already knew.