‘Who is he?’ Erica fiddled with a cigarette but didn’t light it.
‘Don’t know. My guess is he’s from the car-stealing firm.’
‘Bill killed him?’
‘Looks that way. I’m going to go around and put things back and then we’d better get out of here.’
‘Leave me the torch. I don’t want to sit around in the bloody dark.’ She was getting her nerve back-not that she’d done too badly anyway.
I toured the house looking for signs of Mountain’s presence. There weren’t many: the beds were made, the dishes had been washed, the kerosene fridge was empty and turned off. I found no road maps, no newspaper clippings or note books with indentations I could shade in and read. All I found was the whisky bottle and a book with Mountain’s name in it. I took the book, put the lantern back on the shelf and we found our way out by torchlight.
Erica lit her cigarette as soon as we got through the gate.
‘Off-as fast as we can.’
I plucked the cigarette from her fingers and took a drag, my first for years. I had to do something to get the taste of death and decay out of my mouth. The cigarette tasted like old dog blanket.
‘We don’t report it?’
I returned the cigarette. ‘How would you like to explain what you were doing in there?’
We didn’t talk much on the drive back to Sydney. Erica smoked a bit and yawned a lot. At Katoomba I asked her if it was Suntory whisky she had in the bag. She shook her head, turned around and rummaged and came up with a flask of Bundaberg rum. We both had a good pull on it, me telling myself it would help keep me alert for the drive. In fact I was alert enough, but discouraged.
Car Stealers Inc. would undoubtedly go looking for their boy before long, if they weren’t at it already. When they found him, Mountain would be in even deeper trouble. If he was the one who’d done the killing, his legal position looked very dodgy. The first few blows could have been in self-defence but the damage had gone way beyond that. By rights it was a police matter, but there were snags in that for me. Bring in the cops and the reporters come in the door behind them. Terry Reeves didn’t need his troubles served up to everyone at breakfast along with a dash of bloody murder.
Apart from that, I felt that I owed something to Erica by this stage. She’d shown guts and persistence in her search for Bill Mountain, as well as some compassion for Mai. I liked her well enough to worry about what might go on behind that fringe now that the Blackheath tip hadn’t paid off.
We were off the freeway and back into the cocoon of the inner west when she spoke up.
‘Won’t you get into trouble if you don’t report it to the police. I mean your licence and everything?’
‘Maybe. But I can handle a little pressure of that sort, or my lawyer can. You have to make your own judgements in this business. One standover man more or less won’t disturb my sleep.’
‘Are you sure that’s what he was?’
‘Will you help me? Can I hire you to find Bill?’
‘You can’t hire me, I’m already hired. But he’s still the freshest trail in this mess.’
‘What will you do?’
I gripped the wheel and felt the tiredness grip me. I yawned impolitely. ‘I’m too tired to think now. Maybe I can go back to Mai and squeeze some more out of him. Maybe he has a way of contacting his principals and the information I’ve got now could give me some leverage. I don’t know.’
She huddled against the door and blew her nose violently. ‘I wish he hadn’t killed that man,’ she sniffed. ‘Why would he?’
I didn’t have any answer to that, certainly not at 2.45 am. Death has a draining effect on a normal person and we were both so normal and drained that we went into my house and dumped our bags on the floor without even discussing what we were doing. I showed Erica the plumbing and the spare room, which Hilde had painted and transformed in other ways from the bare cell it once was.
‘Nice room,’ she said.
I took a pull on the rum and went to bed with the comforting warmth of the spirit in my mouth and throat.
Before dawn I woke up from a dream in which a man with a bashed-in head was following me round and round an overgrown garden. In the dream I was yelling, and I yelled for real when I stepped over a rusty gate, fell and woke up. Sweat was breaking out on my face as I sat up and instinctively looked to see if I’d woken Helen, but there was no Helen. I was half glad, half sorry for that. I lay back and waited for the sweat to dry; then I went deep under and slept without dreaming or turning over until 9 am.
The kitchen was filled with grey cigarette smoke when I got down there. Judging by the smoke and the butts, Erica had been up for a few hours. She didn’t look tired as she lifted the coffee pot. I nodded and sat down wondering why I wasn’t looking and feeling as good as her.
She re-charged the pot. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’
‘I was wondering if Chinese people got red-rimmed eyes from lack of sleep.’
She laughed. ‘I got some sleep. I feel all right. D’you want milk? There doesn’t seem to be any.’
‘Black is fine. The cat drinks all the milk around here. Seen the cat?’
‘Yeah, it looked in and left.’
‘No milk, see? Goes next door.’
We waited while the pot did its job. She poured two cups of coffee and took hers across to the sink. She leaned back against the sink and used it for a big ashtray. The morning was cool, and she was wearing a sloppy joe Hilde had left behind. It was about three sizes too big and the message ‘Dentists are people too’ was down around her waist. She saw me looking and tugged at the sweater.
‘Does this belong to your woman?’
‘No. To my ex-lodger.’
‘Not at the moment. She comes and goes.’
‘Does that suit you?’
‘Two lives are more interesting than one.’
‘Sounds like Bill’s philosophy. You’re a bit like him, you know. Why didn’t you two get on well?’
‘He’s more of an extrovert than me; you probably noticed.’
She smiled. ‘Can we go over it all a bit? I’m sorry, I just don’t know what to do.’
‘Suits me.’ I spilled some bread out of its wrapper and inspected it for mould. ‘A talk’d be good. I need to know a hell of a lot more about him. Toast?’
We sat and drank coffee and ate toast and she talked about Mountain at length. A picture formed of a wilful, selfish man, but one capable of great emotional generosity. Erica claimed that he had taught her a lot without ever patronising her or making her feel inadequate. She thought he’d make a good teacher.
‘It sounds like a gift all right, but what he wants to be is a great writer, not a teacher. How about that?’
She shrugged. ‘It’s what he wants, that’s true. He wants it so badly.’
‘Does he want it too much to do it?’
‘How do you tell? I never even write a letter. I don’t know what it’s like to write anything. Do you?’
I shook my head.
‘He reads about writers all the time. Literary biography is probably his favourite reading. He says he does it to find out how a writer should behave. When he’s drunk enough
‘He curses television, says real writers don’t have anything to do with television.’
‘Certainly didn’t bother Shakespeare.’
‘Don’t joke; you said you wanted to know about him. Well, this was his obsession. Look.’ She pulled the book I’d brought from Blackheath, and completely forgotten about, out from under the morning newspaper. ‘Why did you take this?’
‘I don’t know. Let’s have a look at it.’
The book was a thick paperback biography of Jack Kerouac. The pages were turned down at irregular intervals indicating that Mountain had read it in dribs and drabs and possibly more than once. I looked at his big sprawling signature-a firm hand that he’d tried to disguise when he wrote ‘Bruce Worthington’. The date was printed boldly in figures half an inch high.