Read The Big Whatever Online

Authors: Peter Doyle

The Big Whatever (5 page)

I locked the door after her, sat back down. When I picked up the book, my hand was shaking. I put my head back, closed my eyes, started replaying the old tapes.

* * *

Back then. A warm autumn night. The whole job, start to finish, is sweet as can be. Within a minute of the truck backing into the loading dock, the roller door opens from inside. Multi is already making progress on the vault out the back. He has it busted within
thirty minutes, all alarms disabled. The four men work quietly and steadily for the best part of an hour until the vault is empty, the truck full. The nightwatchman remains absent, as arranged.

Electronics. Small components in boxes. All sorts of things, but the most valuable is some sort of new computer gear just arrived from America. Schottky Bipolar Ram. Except for Multi, none of us even know what it does, but it's valuable, and a handful of in-the-know people in South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong are prepared to pay plenty for it.

After less than an hour we drive away slowly through the dark streets of Alexandria and pull into a warehouse about a mile away. The gear is unloaded, sorted into groups, and repackaged. Over the next two days it gets delivered to our buyers. Our last job had been a furniture shop – lounge and dining suites, fridges, stereograms – so everyone involved just loves this stuff.

Two weeks later the crew gets together at a house in Collaroy to divide the whack. The money has come in from the on-sellers with no big complications. Everyone is happy. A perfect hoist. Beers, scotch and wine are drunk. Soft drink for the kiddies. Multi lifts a glass of champagne, and says, “To miniaturization, the way of the future,” and everyone laughs. Then we happily go our separate ways.

I'm left with a nice bundle for my contribution, which involved getting the right hoisters together, and doing a bit of driving. My pal Max Perkal, noted Sydney musician and ratbag, had a stake in the job too, a smaller one. But between us we now have the wherewithal to expand our current, sort of legitimate, enterprise.

The year before, the US military had done a deal with the Australian government: henceforth many planeloads of US servicemen would arrive in Sydney each week to blow off steam before being shipped back to Vietnam. This “R&R” – rest and recuperation – promises to give Sydney its biggest night-life boom ever.

For two weeks we watch the hordes of bored Yanks milling around the Cross. Then we rent a place in Glebe, a big room on
Bridge Road, and put the word out to the R&R guys, big party this Friday night. We invite some girls. Max and two other musos do a human jukebox thing, playing Beatles, Stones, Creedence songs. We charge a goodly snip at the door, offer free mugs of flagon wine, and turn a blind eye to joints smoked, pills dropped. We let the girls run their own race, but insist they do nothing out of line on the premises. At the end of the night the cash box is bursting.

So we do it again two weeks later, then again a week after that, then we open up Saturday nights as well. I work the door while Max holds the stage, plays MC. The cops come around, but since we aren't selling grog, just giving it away, we're not technically breaking the licensing laws, so there isn't much they can do other than accept a small consideration and a glass of plonk.

All in all, a not bad way of turning a modest dollar. The last of the good times.

Just before Christmas, eleven at night. The place is three-quarters filled. Party lights, music, boys and girls. Abe Saffron and the biggest Maori lad I've ever seen wander up the stairs, stop at the door, look inside. There's a hundred and fifty people in the room, dancing under the lights. The band in the corner is playing loud. I'm sitting right there at the door, taking the cover charge.

Abe's face crinkles into something that could be a grin, could be a grimace, and shakes my hand. “Bill Glasheen, it's been far, far too long. We miss you. You should come and visit.” He doesn't introduce the Maori bloke, but slowly looks around the room again, nodding. “You've done pretty well here, pretty well.” He looks back at me, and says, “Congratulations.”

My blood runs cold. “Abe, it's not that much.”

“No really,” he says, “You've shown the mugs something.”

Max is on the bandstand singing “Love, Love Me Do,” in his strangled cocky voice. Abe nods in his direction and laughs. “The fifth Beatle, eh!”

“He likes to sing his songs,” I say. “So, Abe, what brings you here?”

He grin-grimaces again. “Let's get away from this row, so we can chat. Lucas here will mind the door for you.”

We go downstairs, sit in Abe's Merc.

It comes out soon enough. After praising our get up and go once more, Abe delivers a more studied assessment of the business. He quickly identifies our most vulnerable point: the crappy location. And he's right. Each week we have to spend two or three days handing out leaflets at the Cross, otherwise no one is going to troop across town to a forlorn, semi-industrial precinct, no matter how rocking the party might be.

Abe sympathises and then, as though he's thinking aloud more than putting forward a proposition, “I've got this room upstairs in Oxford Street,” he says. “Got it on a long lease. Doing nothing at the moment.”


“Used to be a dance academy or something. Has a good floor, a small stage. A block down from Taylor Square. It's not the Cross exactly, but a good spot for—” he nods back towards the room, “that sort of thing. No neighbours.”

Then he stops, looks at me, and waits.

“You're about to put it to me, Abe, so go ahead.”

“We've had our dealings, Bill. I know you're reliable. A man can make an advance to you and it'll come back on time. I don't trust your mate up there so much, but I trust you, and that's good enough.”


He lays it out: We take over the Oxford Street space. Abe will get us a liquor license, put in a couple of slot machines, maybe later on run a game out the back. We'll keep the door and the bar, but kick back a percentage to him. It's more or less extortion, in that we don't have much choice. But the deal itself isn't too bad, and the way things are going it could work out well for us.

So in the new year we move. We call the club the House of Cards. We get the license. And Abe's right, of course. It's much easier to get a regular, big-spending R&R crowd to the Oxford Street place.

We have to do some fixing up first: the old joint is pretty drack. A dance hall originally, up a flight of stairs. Thommo's was there for a couple of years, it was a physical fitness gym for a while, then used for storage by the furniture shop downstairs. The old hardwood floorboards are split and worn, plaster is falling off damp spots on the walls. It needs rewiring. It needs a proper bar. But this just happens to coincide with the Alexandria electronics hoist. So we have our share of the readies.

It costs a lot, but it gets done. Abe's people work the bar. They're ripping us off, but within reason. And we're charging high prices. We have to pay proper bouncers now, and we have to kick back to the licensing police, the vice squad, the council, the health department and the fire brigade. We're obliged to serve food – barely edible spaghetti bolognaise – for which we need a kitchen and a cook, of sorts.

But still, by the end of the year we're ahead. Just barely, but the trend is in the right direction.

By then things are rocky on the home front. Eloise and I have more or less gone our separate ways – our mutually relaxed attitudes to foreign orders didn't play out so well in the long run. In theory I still live at the big house in Woollahra, but sometimes three or four days go by without us seeing each other. I try to take the kids out once a week, and always sling some spondulicks into the kitty, make the mortgage payments.

In her mid-thirties now, my wife still looks as impressive as ever with her billowing brown hair, her kaftans, her Black Russians. She affects the to-the-manor-born demeanour she learned when her dad Donny – then the licensee of a scungey Ultimo pub, starting price bookmaker, and occasional on-seller of stolen goods – sent her off to the very best ladies college on the North Shore, where she must have stood out at first, until she got properly tooled up for life among the upper crust. But Eloise understands the ways things really work in this town, did then and does now, and she backs me up when it's needed without having to be prompted. Most of the time.

When we're stuck she comes down and pulls drinks or works
the door at the House of Cards. Calls the punters “darling” in her posh voice, with the saucy inflection. She brings the kids along sometimes for an extra-special treat, just like Donny did with her when she was a sprout. “It's good for the tots,” she says, “to see how their daddy's money gets made.”

Max Perkal is having a good time, too good. He keeps up there with purple hearts and joints, sometimes acid. Max with a bellyful of purple hearts and alcohol can play rhythm and blues pretty well, but anything non-musical he's likely to stuff up. So when Cathy Darnley returns from Vietnam and starts dancing in a go-go cage at the House, there are emotional complications all round. Things move quickly.

The House of Cards, under Abe's protection and with the cooperation of various civil authorities, naturally becomes a bit of a drug market. Not always and not every day, but if you need to do a deal, the House isn't the worst place in town for it to happen. You give the house a cut, of course. So when Max and Cathy pull their stunt, wise heads mutter that they saw it coming.

The rip doesn't take place in a house in Bondi, as whoever wrote the book has it – it happened late one night in the House of Cards, after closing. I wander in on proceedings, more or less as the book describes, maybe not buttoning my fly exactly, but kind of. A shot is fired, amid much drama. But no one actually gets hit. Which is not as big a distinction as you'd think, because a bridge has now been crossed: guns have been produced at a marijuana deal, and that's a scary new thing.

There is present, as the book describes, a motley gathering of heads and hangers-on, and the deal is indeed orchestrated by a doper of Greek extraction, name of Alex Politis. After everyone on the premises has been relieved of their drugs and money, the safe is emptied. Cathy walks out looking pleased and proud. Max is sheepish, shrugging at me as though it's all out of his hands.

And that's the last I see of Max. Ever. I hear later that he's in Melbourne, then later still that Cathy has cleared out, that Max is playing in some band. But by then I'm not inclined to go after him. I know there'll be nothing to recover anyway. The
nearest I'll get to Max Perkal again will be two years later, standing by his casket at Waverley Cemetery while Marty Mooney plays “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” on tenor sax, and a couple of hundred aging beatniks, jazz-dags and stoned young heads whimper into their hankies.

Back at the House of Cards, the night of the rip, I'm left with a safe full of nothing. My problems – or “the Troubles,” as I come to think of them – are about to begin. And in short order they will have me living semi-incognito in a sleep-out behind a falling-down hippie house in Balmain, driving a cab on the night shift, neck-deep in unmoveable debt.

* * *

I woke with a start. It was two thirty in the morning. The music from Terry and Anna's had stopped. I got out of the chair and made another pot of tea. I wasn't going to sleep much anyway. I sat back down, lit another cig and picked up the book. Just holding it gave me a strange and creepy feeling, like I was being watched. I recognised the feeling, of course, the old paranoia. But this was something more.


I took a room at the George. The next morning I sought out the publican, a harmless-looking old cat. I told him I was supposed to be meeting a bloke named Stan who'd said he was a friend of his. He said he didn't know who I meant. I looked into his eyes. Not a flicker.

I bought the local papers. Nothing about a jail escape in New South Wales, nothing on the radio either. I went to the municipal library that afternoon. The Sydney papers came in at three. There was a story on page two of the

An escape from Goulburn Jail last night. A bloke serving
five years for armed robbery (the Commonwealth Bank at Bexley). Whereabouts unknown. Believed to be dangerous. But nothing, zero, not a word, about any cold-blooded murder in Bondi.

I went to the milk bar and thought about my situation. The mob at the house had got rid of the Drew's corpse after all. It's harder than you might think – take it easy, my little ones, don't ask how I know – but not impossible. Maybe Johnny stepped to the fore there.

The drug rip was a bad scene, sure, and the boys back at that house would be spewing. But they were in Sydney, no doubt stoned off their dials by now, one way or another. I couldn't see them coming five hundred miles after me, even if they knew where I was. So my resolution was: stay clear of Sydney, and with luck, further unpleasantness could probably be avoided. (Tip for hip ones: stay away for long enough and pretty much
can be forgiven and forgotten. Hear me talkin' to ya!)

Cathy. Yeah, bad shit there. Cathy had been a mistake, as bad as mistakes get. Oh brother, she had powers, heavy powers, Christ knows what, white magic, voodoo, some twisted Vietnamese juju. Acid magic, too. LSD bestows weird and dangerous potencies upon certain souls, makes it so they can read minds, bend others to their will, even move matter by thought alone. I've seen all those things. I'm not for burning people at the stake and so on, but phew, heed me friends, don't fuck around with the acid priestess.

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