Deal Me Out
When Terry Reeves of Bargain Renta Car rang me, I bought at first that he was up to his old trick-trying to Hog off an exmember of his fleet on me. Over the years he’d offered me Commodores, Peugeots, even an ‘84 Falcon, but I’d remained true to my Falcon which had been born about a decade earlier.
‘Terry,’ I said, ‘you’re wasting your time, I’m going to be buried in that car.’
‘You probably will be, Cliff. But this is a business call.’
‘You mean you’re going to give me money, not take money off me?’
‘I mean I want you to earn the money by investigating something. That’s what you do, isn’t it-investigate?’
‘Yeah. Lately I’ve done more money minding and debugging than investigating, but I can still remember how it’s done.’
‘Yeah, it’s all the go. People want you to de-bug everything, cars, dunnies, the lot. I did a course in it.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Means I talked to a bloke in a pub about it. He puts bugs in and he told me how to take them out. He learned it from another bloke in another pub. What’s the job?’
‘You’ve got me edgy, Cliff. Better not talk on the phone.’
‘Bullshit. Nine times out of ten the only bugs I find’ve got legs and feelers. What…?’
‘Just the same I’d rather do it face to face. Come over to the office. And park that wreck a block away at least. I don’t want anyone thinking it’s one of mine.’
I let him have the last word, which is always good business practice and I couldn’t think of a snappy comeback anyway. I worked with Terry as an insurance investigator after I got out of the army and decided I wasn’t cut out for the law. We’d been competitive, had disagreements about fires and things gone missing, but got along well. He went into the car rental business about the same time I set up as a private investigator, about fifteen years ago. He’d probably made a hundred times as much money as me and he’d acquired a nice wife and a couple of attractive kids. I’d lost my not so nice wife who’d gone off to have her attractive kids with someone else. I occasionally rented a car from Terry when a job called for it: we’d stayed in touch.
I drove over to his office in Surry Hills on one of those Sydney spring days that remind you of somewhere else warm with car fumes where you’ve had a good time, like Rome. Terry runs his show right off one of the parking and servicing stations. It had been a no-frills operation that had lately acquired considerable polish, but it was still not unknown for Terry to do a day behind the desk or in the workshop.
I pulled the Falcon into a prominent place beside one of the highly-glossed, bright orange, fuel-injected vehicles, and told the woman in the orange skirt and white blouse who came over to protest that Terry was expecting me. She eyed the car, which is a bit faded and wrinkled, like me.
‘I bet he wasn’t expecting you to park that here,’ she said.
‘You’re wrong, he insisted on it’
She sniffed at that and stepped aside. I walked past a line of cars to the glass-walled outer office. It had a big registration desk, some VDTs, pot plants and posters of places you might drive to with Bargain. A waist-high partition is the only barrier Terry puts between himself and his staff; I considered vaulting it, decided against, and pushed open the half door.
Terry had a telephone in his hand and was scribbling on a pad on his desk. He nodded at me, flipped the receiver up to his ear and caught it with his shoulder like a night club performer playing with the mike, then he waved me into a chair with his free hand. I sat down and looked at him; it was an odd experience, regarding an old friend in a new light, as a client. Clients need special looking at, for rust spots and other defects. Terry was a well-built six footer with blond hair going thin on top. He’d played professional football and been a pro runner in his younger days, and he still had a lot more muscle on him than flab. He was one of the few teetotallers I knew who wasn’t a dried-out alcoholic.
Terry had always looked ten years younger than his true age, but now it seemed that a few years had jumped in and wrestled him down. His face was thinner than I remembered it and there were strain lines around his eyes and mouth. He said a few quiet, firm words into the phone and hung up. He gave me a welcoming grin, but the expression flicked off his face quickly as if the muscles couldn’t hold it.
‘Hello, Cliff. You don’t look any more brain-damaged than when I last saw you. Have you been taking it easy?’
‘Mmm, could be. I seem to be getting more sleep. How’s the family?’
‘Okay. Let’s get to it. I’ve lost five cars in the last month.’
‘You’d be insured, wouldn’t you?’
‘Of course. But you know the deaclass="underline" they’ll be getting shirty if I report them all, and the premiums next quarter’ll kill me. They already take an arm and a leg.’
‘How many claims have you made?’
He ran a finger around inside his shirt collar where there seemed to be more room than a good fit required. He was a neat dresser, Terry, who wore white shirts and plain ties. This shirt was a little grubby at the neck and the tie had been knotted too far down. Terry Reeves looking like a country cousin; that was something new.
‘One claim,’ he said. ‘That puts me in an irregular position. I should have claimed for two more, signalled them at least. But word gets around.’ He made a dive-bombing motion with his big, freckled hand. ‘People get nervous and business goes down. The margins in this game are tight, believe me.’
Another orange-skirted young woman walked into the office and plonked two polystyrene cups of coffee on the desk. Terry’s tired face gave a quick, painful smile.
‘Thanks, Dot.’ He pushed a cup towards me and rummaged in a drawer of the desk. He pulled out some tin foil wrapped pills, released two and washed them down with a swill of coffee. If it’d been me with that load of worry on I’d have had the bottle out lacing up the coffee, but that wasn’t Terry. But then, pills weren’t Terry either. I took a sip of the coffee and was surprised that it was good espresso.
‘I seem to remember that you wanted my mother’s maiden name and references from three clergymen before you let me take out one of your cars.’ I drank some more coffee and tried to remember the procedure. ‘Driver’s licence, plastic… what else?’
‘All that, but it didn’t do us any good in these cases, or at least in the couple I checked on-all faked. I don’t have the time to follow up on all these and I’m rusty. I wouldn’t know how to go about it now probably.’
‘It hasn’t changed much,’ I said, ‘footslogging, eyestrain…’
‘Eyestrain I know about. Look, Cliff, I’m a desk walloper.’ He snorted derisively and opened a drawer. ‘I made you up a list. I’m good at making up lists.’
He brought out a manila folder, extracted two sheets of paper and pushed them across to me. The first sheet contained five blocks of type, each recording a name, address, licence number, credit card details and information on the car hired: vehicle make and model, mileage recorded, period of hiring etc. There were three Holdens, a Fiat and a Ford Laser. The second sheet carried photostat copies of one personal and one company cheque and three credit card debit slips.
Terry finished his coffee, crumpled the cup and dropped it into his wastepaper bin. ‘I checked on the first two- Majors and Stanford, both Holdens. Phoney as a three dollar note-bodgie addresses, crook licences, no money in the bloody accounts. That’s about twenty thousand bucks worth of car gone west.’
I grinned at him. ‘West?’
‘It’s no bloody joke, Cliff. A few more and I’m in real trouble.’
I finished my coffee and took a shot at the bin over the desk. Bullseye. ‘What do the cops say?’
‘What do they ever say? Yes, sir, very sorry, sir, give us the numbers, sir, and we’ll keep an eye out. The last time a cop solved a crime in this town was about the time a doctor cured a patient.’