Naylor's Canberra
freshly squeezed pulp noir

Monday, February 16, 2004  

Installment 41: pages 169 - 174 [Elliot's day gets significantly worse when he tries to interview the receptionist at Unchaperoned]

“Yes?” she asked. “First visit?”

“It’s not that. I was wondering if you’d seen this man.”

I produced the photo of David Charmichael. The receptionist leant back in her chair, pushing away from the desk with one hand, and running the other through her hair in a slightly bored gesture.

“We don’t discuss our clients,” she said flatly.

“It’s important,” I said. “His daughter is missing and -” I wasn’t entirely sure where my latest improvisation was going to carry me, but I didn’t get the chance.

“You really had better leave now,” she said, looking at me steadily, “if you don’t want to see one of the ladies. Otherwise, you can sit down right now and we’ll say no more about it.”

There wasn’t a trace of a smile. Her tone was as smooth and hard and brittle as expensive crockery.

“If I could just – ”

A rather surprising amount of pain cut off my train of thought. My extended right arm was suddenly being ratcheted up behind my back into a position it had never previously reached unaided. I couldn’t say my right shoulder-socket was too happy about the experience either.

In a small moment of adrenalin-clarity I realised what the receptionist must have done: there was some sort of panic button under her desk, when she pushed back she’d triggered it - the motion with the other hand, the steady look, keeping a firm tone - it had all been about distracting me until help arrived. Fairly no-nonsense help it seemed.

They had an admirably swift way of preserving client confidentiality it seemed, a terribly smooth system that I was little inclined to appreciate as my knees buckled. I was propelled quickly past the waiting area’s gawping clients and through a door behind the receptionist. It was a service corridor, not a place where the regular customers trod: bare concrete, bare brick, snaking pipes and power cables. I careened helplessly towards a fire door. My assailant opened it by ramming me hip-first into the crash bar. Passing through it we were still inside, dim lights and steep concrete stairs.

As life is not a Hollywood action film, I was not cast down the stairs, to have the hard, corrugated plastic strips at the front of each step tattoo my body. Explaining a broken-necked punter at the foot of your car-park steps to the police and incoming trade is not something your average bordello-lord likes doing. What happened was nowhere near as painful – well, not in the short term.

I had to run down stairs with my arm pinned behind me as my pain-consultant assisted me, firmly and efficiently, through the exit. We were now into his real arena, the car-park. I had a very strong premonition that it was not company policy just to let people off with a warning.

If you’re going to be beaten up by a professional, you have to hope you’re being done over by the bored seen-it-all before type; rather than the violent, I’m-in-this-job-for-the-action type. And when you’ve arrived in the car-park, if you don’t want someone tap-dancing on your chest, you’ve really got to play it for an audience that’s bored. This means being no fun, and putting up no fight – much as you might want to curse, or spit, or swing out or generally act the raging warrior of challenged manhood. A risky strategy if you do draw a psycho, but not being very handy with my fists at the best of times, I was going to have to take my chances.

I suppose I just have a morbid fear of unnecessarily losing teeth.

So, when pushed, I remembered to stumble and fall down and just take the lumps my stupidity had earned me: a short volley of steel-capped blows to the kidneys. Or what I presume to be my kidnies. I’d never before been so intimately aware of my relationship to my internal organs, except when vomiting.

Which followed pretty shortly. It would be nice to say I missed my clothes entirely, but that’s not always an option in the foetal position.

The talented feet of my own personal security-services consultant withdrew at this point, not even a final kick for the sake of form. As I heard the feet retreating across gravel, I prised my abraded cheek up and rolled over, away from my own mess. I only got a three-quarter glimpse of profile as the jeans-and-black t-shirt clad form passed back through the fire door, but it was enough. It was the Slab from the conference centre.

I wonder if he’d bothered looking at my face, he’d first seen it only an hour ago, but it was my back he’d mostly been paying attention to. Rather thoroughly it seemed, from the unaccustomed topography of pain spread about my spine.
Remaining laying down on the nice gravel for a while seemed the way to go. It gave me a chance to wonder what the Slab was doing at Unchaperoned so soon after I’d last seen him. The most uncomfortably plausible solution would seem to be that Ryder was here and had called his handy little helper in. That lead to a fairly obvious conclusion.

“You’d better not lie there too long.”

It took me a while to realise it was a woman’s voice, not my own thoughts. It seemed I’d closed my eyes at some point.

There was a woman in cargo-pants and a zip-up, hooded sports top smoking by the fire door.

“Are you okay to drive?” she asked.

She crunched across the gravel in sneakers and squatted down beside me. Her posture was relaxed, but poised: she had the air of a sprinter, someone ready to move once she heard the signal. I reflected that her dark curls and blue eyes went rather pleasingly together, and that the cigarette smoke was mixing pleasantly with the tang of her perfume.

“You’d better not lie there too long,” she repeated, making a small gesture with her head.
My eyes flicked to follow the motion. Crap, I thought. A small white box adorned a corner of the building with a nice view over my bed of gravel. My present discomforts were very possibly being recorded for posterity. Which meant my little act in the waiting room might also have been performed for the cameras. I wondered if Ryder took an interest in video-tape of trouble-makers at his establishment.

“You OK to drive?” my new friend persisted. “That was pretty stupid what you did.”

“You saw?” I croaked.

“Closed circuit,” she said, confirming my fears. “This is a small town, the girls have to have a chance to screen the clients. Last thing you want is to meet a lecturer at work.”

I evidently blinked in surprise. My normally impoverished poker face was clearly performing particularly poorly while lying on my side in gravel, reeking of my own bile.

“You’d be surprised how many students spend some time as working girls,” she said with something that might have been condescension.

I swallowed, the taste was not nice, but it was a necessary prelude to talking properly. I pushed up on one elbow and got my torso above gravel.

“Here,” said the woman, swiftly clamping her cigarette between pursed lips and hooking an arm through mine. With her assistance I got up to a sitting position, and then managed to lean up alongside the nearest car.

“Are they always this … thorough?” I winced.

“They normally only got rough over at Butterflies – but when that closed they put extra security on over here,” she said laconically.

“Taking a bit of a chance, aren’t you? Being seen out here with me?”

She shrugged. “My last day, I’ve had enough of this for the time being. The management’s been kind of shitty since their other place closed. They want us all doing extra shifts. I don’t need the hassle.”

“The raids closed Butterflies?”

The woman smiled, and blew smoke past me. “They got lucky, shut it down a bit before all that. They probably did have some girls there without visas. I heard they even got rough with some of them. We’ve always been treated OK, but they’ve gotten jumpier since the raids. They don’t like punters who ask questions – and really don’t like anyone hanging around trying to talk to the girls when they come off shift.”

She looked at me rather pointedly. I too thought it might be time to get moving.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be right to drive.”

“Just so long as I don’t have to call an ambulance or your Mum,” she said.

She ground out the cigarette, and made a small circling gesture with the hand that dropped it. I thought that might have been a wave goodbye. Like the slab, she slipped back in by the fire escape.

My back was sore, I smelt bad and migraine was beginning to encroach on my peripheral vision, but it hadn’t perhaps been an entirely wasted journey. Butterfly Babes closed before the raids, I reflected. Convenient if they did have trafficked workers. With this nugget of information to ponder, my anxiety was already rising before I made my next discovery. It was as I pulled rather shakily out of the drive and back onto the road I realised what I had dropped at Unchaperoned.

I no longer had the photo of David Carmichael with me.


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