Instalment 43: pages 179 - 183 [Elliot interview Dave Pritchard, old battle-horse of the union scene, about Bob Mitchell, the financial backer of the shady property development involving David Carmichael.]
Dave Pritchard was not a hard man to find. A dubiously beige jacket was, as Eva had predicted, zippered up to his chin, marking him out from the Phoenix’s other punters. He looked like a bloke accustomed to disappointment, the incompetence of others, the geological accretion of petty injustices, nights long in drinking but short in memory and the small, daily, depression of knowing that no matter when or in what condition he stumbled home he would still be the first to turn on a light. He carried with him a microclimate of disillusion normally found on the middle slopes of the public service, among those who’d woken to find, on an otherwise unremarkable morning, that they’d come up hard against the glass ceiling of their own competence, with plenty of time left before retirement to enjoy the view. It was the resignation of Tantalus, learning to suffer the sight of what you’d never quite be allowed regardless of hunger or thirst. Not that it would appear thirst had ever been a great problem for Pritchard. Sitting alone, there was already an empty pint glass before him and the one in his hand didn’t look like it was putting up much of a fight. If he’d arrived at twenty past the hour, he hadn’t been wasting time. I realized I wasn’t just meeting him in his pub, I was meeting him in his lounge room.
Whatever description Eva had given him of me, it worked. He gave me a cursory nod and motioned I should sit.
“You look like shit, mate,” he said, unceremoniously dismissing the efforts I’d to smarten myself up. “Need a beer?”
The last of his second pint vanished as an afterthought to the question.
“Thanks. I’d get the round, but someone helped themselves to my wallet earlier.”
“Put up a fight did you? Good for you, you stupid bastard. If a few more people pasted these arseholes one … ,” he appeared to continue his mumbled monologue for the benefit of other ears than mine as he proceeded to the bar.
It was fine by me if he wanted to reward me for an assumed, if futile, valor. I wasn’t really feeling in good enough shape to take anything but the path of least resistance. When Pritchard returned, we made a silent toast with my first and his third glass and I lapped at it gratefully in the brief silence.
“So,” said Pritchard, “Eva said you wanted to know something about my old mate.”
I nodded, acknowledging the hint not to mention Bob Mitchell’s name.
“Yeah,” I said slowly. “I have a friend who’s got their money mixed up with his. I get the impression the deal isn’t going well. Now my friend’s had a bit of trouble …”
“Your kind?” said Pritchard, eyeing my face. I had caught a bad gravel rash down half of it, and looked a little like raw steak brought to high polish with an orbital sander.
“Pretty much,” I said, not thinking of Jenny’s body, the open eyes, the clutching hands.
“My mate wouldn’t dirty his hands with it,” he said, his head moving in slow disappointment. “Oh sure, back when it was open warfare with the construction companies, he’d have had no trouble roughing up any mongrel stupid enough to cross a picket. Probably landed a few in hospital in his heyday. Now though, it’s all play nice and straight down the Federal Court or the Commission for orders about unprotected industrial action or bloody statutory cooling-off periods. You’ll see photos of the tiniest scuffle, and the papers will print them ‘til ink runs dry, but it’s all lawyers at ten paces at dawn. Different bloody game and he knows it. Especially now that he’s jumped the fence and is a construction boss. My mate knows how to keep his nose clean and clear of the trouble.”
Even through the pain in my side, and the feeling that my skull was slowly constricting, I caught the emphasis.
“But if someone was making trouble for one of his projects, how would he handle it?”
“If you’ve got the right people around you, you don’t need to worry, do you? You find someone young and hungry, bit of a temper, a lot more to lose than you. Someone who can get muscle if it’s needed. They’re your security: if the deal is just one of the many for you, but a lot of money for them – you don’t need to worry. You don’t ask, you don’t know, you don’t get involved at all. You leave it to the young and hungry to protect the investment. They’ll go in harder and heavier than you’d bother to anyway. Your hands are clean.”
He gulped his beer again.
“My mate just finds someone who reminds him of who he used to be.”
Ryder, I thought. Mitchell might be the money tying the Carmichael family to him, but he’s saying it will all be down to Ryder.
I drew heavily on my beer for support as the next logical consequence fell into place.
Ryder is someone Bob Mitchell, construction kingpin, trusts to get the job done. No orders, just taking the initiative - and all the blame if it goes bad.
The thought failed to reassure me at all.
“In the old days,” I asked slowly, “the bloke your mate used to be – would he have had any qualms about seeing people out of hours? Sorting out trouble-makers with a home visit?”
“None at all,” said Pritchard seriously. “If your friend is making any trouble for that sort of person, they should get out as fast as they can. Sell the house, sell the kids, sell their kidneys – just get the hell out.”
The beer was not lessening the pounding in my head. I hadn’t warned Eva. Suddenly, swapping flat numbers seemed a flimsy ruse.
Shit, I thought. What have I started here?
My phone rang.
It wasn’t the time, and I wasn’t at my most coordinated or quick-witted. I thought about leaving it, then realized it might be Danielle. If she was calling me back, she should be warned off dropping round.
I grimaced at Pritchard, who shrugged while I pushed my chair back so I could frisk my pockets and work out which one held the mobile. It rang out as I got it to the table-top.
The missed call had been from Eva’s phone. Pritchard must have seen something of my thoughts in my face.
“That the friend you should be telling to get out?” he asked.
“Yes,” I muttered, “one of them. Sorry mate, look, I think I’ve got to run.”
Pritchard just nodded and reached out for his beer. He looked tired, as if his life had been an accumulation of mistakes from which there was no escaping – like the amateurish tattoos that escaped from under the elasticized cuffs of his jacket. I just hoped mine wasn’t going the same way.
I pushed up on the edge of the table and stumbled in the direction of my car.