I turned off Yarralumla Drive a bit upstream of the dam, where the road becomes lined with earthy banks and pine trees, before looping back in towards Weston Creek. The side road I was on did indeed wind down towards the river. I was wondering about parking in plain sight of Ryder, when I passed a turn-off to some stables. Backing up, I swung the car in along the gravel strip leading down toward the horse paddock. A strand of pines nicely screened the parking area from the main drive.
I pulled up next to a Toyota Corolla full of horse-blankets, and nodded cordially to the white horse hanging its head over the wire strands. The owner of the Corolla did not seem to be about, but had left a white plastic bucket with some oats in it near the stable wall and a spare blanket draped over the gate. I scooped both up and muttered to the horse the lawyer’s axiom: “It’s not theft if there’s no intent to permanently deprive the owner of possession. I’ll bring it back, promise.” The horse whinnied assent and I made my way up towards the Conference Centre on foot, walking purposefully and carrying things. You can walk unchallenged a lot of places you’ve no business going if you look like you have a job to do and a couple of props to back you up. It was not a long walk.
The Lake and River was not an impressive establishment as conference centres go, more a misguided refurbishment of a rural property than either a heritage-value prestige corporate retreat or a purpose-built palace of glass and white décor. There was a large, low red brick house, single storey and roofed in brown tiles that looked like it predated the founding of Canberra by only a fistful of years. Off beside it was a timber-beamed structure that looked as if it were once intended for a greenhouse, but now was a reception area. A whiteboard stood idly behind the glass, trapped with a few wilting green-fronded things in tubs. Scattered around the driveway’s circular close were a few motel-like buildings, each holding three or four rooms. A sign by the entrance to the house read: “The Lake and River Conference Centre welcomes the Delicious Serpents corporate function. No Vacancies”. Ryder’s blue BMW and a group of other cars and vans were clustered in front of one of the mini-motels. I walked in that direction.
Delicious Serpents, I thought, of course, DS conference. But what does a retail pornography company need a corporate retreat for?
I was still pondering this when a white hatchback, even more battered than mine, pulled up bearing an adolescent in a red cap and blue shirt and a backseat full of pizza pulled up. There looked to be at least twenty of the things, all in padded red heat-retention bags. The youth stepped out onto the gravel. I bowled up to him and set my bucket and blanket down beside his car.
“This the pizza for the Delicious Serpents crowd?” I asked. I had to speak up a bit, there was distinct chugging sound from one of the vans, a bit louder than an engine coughing into action.
“Name was Reggie,” answered the lank-haired youth, squinting at me. “Not you is it?”
“Nah,” I answered. “I’m with the Lake and River, boss sent me out to give you a hand. Great cap, can I buy one of those at any of you guys’ stores?”
He touched his hat. “Guess so,” he answered.
I smiled, trying to wedge some enthusiasm past the façade of his indifference, which I was beginning to suspect was a lot more than skin deep. I spoke up even more to get the cheerful tone in around the thub thub thub of the motor in the van.
“Mind if I try it on? Just while I help you get this lot in. I could use one like that out at the stables.”
“You can get it free with two pizzas and an two litre Coke,” he said, and passed it to me.
“You should have said earlier,” I reprimanded him, pulling the visor down over my face in a fairly feeble disguise and holding my arms out to be laden with pizza. I was banking on the delivery adolescent, on the basis of our short acquaintance, proving as shy of the prospect of real exertion as he seemed and loading me up with an unfair share of the pizza which I could then hide behind. He didn’t disappoint me. I was soon trotting behind him carrying a swaying stack of square foamy red vinyl bags as he made his way up onto the decking that skirted the pod of rooms. “Room twelve,” my leader said, as if there were some danger of me losing him on the walk. We rounded the corner to a set of doors out of sight of the parking area.
As we passed the last of the vans, the one with the chesty coughing unnamed device aboard, black and orange electrical cable snaked up from the vehicle across the decking in front of us. Generator, I thought, rather belatedly. The cables lead past the feet of a man in jeans and a black t-shirt, and lead through a door they held slightly ajar. The man was smoking, wearing an expression or boredom as washed out as the band logo on his breast. He was big and stocky, if you’d call what the beating sea can hack from a cliff and leave towering on the shore line big and stocky. He did not look so much like something that had been gestated, as something that had been squeezed from the earth by tectonic processes. A hefty construction of a man, with a heavy acne-eroded face divided by a too-often broken nose about the shape of a softening pear. He looked at us and his face parted in what was probably a grin of amusement.
He held a figure to his lips to indicate silence, and pushed the door open – indicating a table just inside the lintel. A series of counter-point human grunts could be heard, out of synch with the thub thub pulse of the generator: the noise of a squash game with the hefty slap of the ball and squeal of rubber soles deleted.
My mind discreetly refused to anticipate what would see inside once I passed our door-frame Atlas, and then failed to process for a good moment what I did when I had. A slightly strangled noise from the pizza boy indicated, despite his carefully cultivated indifference to the outside world, a similar failure to process the information at hand. But it’s not every day that you walk into a room of fourteen people where only six of them are clothed.