‘Can’t be that long.’ Terry didn’t smile, and it looked like time to drop the levity. He’d never been a boastful man but the self-deprecatory crack about making lists had struck me as a fragility that he probably couldn’t afford in this kind of business. In any case, the lurk was a new one on me and interesting in that respect. And it seemed to hold out the prospect of travel; I’d been stuck in Sydney too long. It was time to get business-like.
‘A hundred and twenty-five a day and expenses, Terry,’ I said. ‘I’ll waive the retainer because you’re a friend.’
‘No you won’t!’ He reached for a fat cheque book and wrote rapidly; I could see the seven hundred and fifty dollars from where I sat. I took the cheque and looked at Terry rather than it. There seemed to be something almost furtive about him, and that was the last word you’d normally apply to Terry Reeves. I gave him one of my hard-guy looks.
‘Something else you want to say, mate?’
He sighed. ‘Shit, you might as well know. We installed cameras behind the desk a year ago. Didn’t want to, but the insurance boys insisted on it. We’ve got pictures of the clients. Snoopy stuff. We destroy the bloody things when the cars come back.’
I snapped my fingers rudely. ‘Gimme.’
The manila folder came out again and Terry shoved it across the desk. The photographs were in colour and blown up to postcard size. The camera looked to have been mounted fairly high behind the desk; the pictures showed the customers full face, but in two instances the lens had caught faces in half profile. They weren’t good pictures; the light in the office wasn’t conducive to photography and the fixed camera made no allowances for subject size-the tops of the heads of two tallish men were lopped off and of a short man and a small woman there was not much more than head and shoulders. I shuffled the pictures until I had three of each, then I leaned forward to study them more closely.
‘You see it?’ Terry said.
‘Just a minute… Yeah, I think so.’
‘Disguises, pretty good ones. Anyone ever tell you that you look like John Cassavetes, the actor?’
‘Yeah, but she had designs on my manly body.’
Terry snorted. ‘I’m told this sort of thing is pretty easy to do if you know how.’ He pinched in his fleshy nose. ‘You can fill in this bit and take in that. A make-up expert could turn you into a Cassavetes look-alike. The hair helps.’ He reached over and stabbed at one of the photos. ‘Wigs, make-up, contacts, their mothers wouldn’t know them.’
I nodded, and took one shot of each person. ‘Means there’s a well-planned operation here. Expensive too.’
‘Good returns,’ Terry said. ‘You get an as-new car for the cost of the rental deposit, and I try to keep costs down. You get plates, service book…’
I made a stack of the photos and Terry passed me an envelope. I put the pictures in it and tapped the edge against his desk.
‘I know this sounds like a psychiatrist, but have you got any ideas?’
‘What about the competition? Anyone you’ve put under pressure getting back at you?’
He shrugged. ‘It’s a cut-throat game, but it’s still an expanding market. I haven’t driven anyone to the wall that I know of. Some of the others might be having the same problem.’
‘You haven’t checked?’
‘No way; that’d be letting on what I’ve lost. That might give rise to talk. A lot of this is expense account stuff; everyone wants a solid firm to do business with. Nothing shonky.’
I examined the typed list. ‘Are they all fleet cars-I mean, all that attractive shade of orange?’
‘Ochre.’ He looked embarrassed when he said it. ‘That’s what it’s called, ochre. No, that’s going out. People don’t want to advertise that they’ve got a hire car. It’s on the list. The Holdens are… orange. The Laser and the others are different colours. They’ve got a small logo on them, that’s all.’
I grunted. ‘They don’t have to say where they’re going, do they?’
‘No, just stipulate a period. They’re supposed to say if they’re going interstate; affects the insurance. None of this lot did. Probably means they went to Perth.’
‘You never know, they could be in Surry Hills. Well, I’ll follow you up on the checking and try the photos out on a few people. There’s a few other possibilities too.’
‘Don’t be so negative, Terry. Like the make-up angle; can’t be a hell of a lot of people around who can do that stuff.’
‘I said: ‘Don’t worry’ and immediately thought of something to worry him. ‘Those cars weren’t all signed out by the same person, were they?’
‘No. Jesus, Cliff, I trust all these people.’
He did, too, and it was a good reason to work for him. I stood up and the phone rang. He said ‘Yes’ into it, and then groaned. ‘Which one?’ The voice on the line sounded agitated. I sat down again. Terry listened and aged in front of my eyes. ‘Okay, okay, calm down. I’m doing something about it right now. Just send in the paperwork as soon as you can, and the pictures. Take your time.’
He put the receiver down gently. He was looking straight through me, and I swivelled my head to look at the wall behind me. There was a big poster of Ayers Rock, looking red and mysterious. I wanted to say that the cars wouldn’t be parked behind the rock but I didn’t. Terry was undergoing some sort of crisis.
‘Another one, fuck it! I’m getting angry.’
‘Good. What kind of car?’
‘Bloody Audi, only one I’ve got. There’s a special booking for it, too, Shit, that’ll cost me money.’
We sat without talking. I studied the typed list and Terry shuffled some papers. After a few minutes the orange skirt swished in. The woman put papers and photographs on the desk, clicked her tongue sympathetically and went out. Terry spread the exhibits.
‘Bruce Worthington’, he said. ‘Company Director, Mastercard, New South Wales licence, blah, blah, usual thing. Out for five days and three days late. See the name? Worthington. What were those others? Majors was one, Sergeant, and the woman was Faith somebody. Jesus!’
‘Let’s have a look at him.’
I spread the photographs, which were only passport size, peered at them and tried to keep my jaw attached.
The face was lean with deep grooves running down beside the nose to the mouth. The hair was short, not long and wild, and the bushranger beard had been trimmed to a fine line along the jaw… but it was still the face of Bill Mountain, a fairly close enemy of mine over the past ten years.
Terry undid his loose collar and slipped his tie down; he rumpled his thin hair and looked more like a football player than a businessman, but a player in a losing team. I scribbled the details from ‘Worthington’s’ registration form on the back of the typed sheet, selected two of the clearest photographs and slipped them into the envelope. I looked through the other set of photos again and pulled out another two. Terry looked through me as if a graph of his business had suddenly appeared over the Ayers Rock poster.
‘Going to be hard to cover that Audi,’ he muttered. ‘Wonder if he’d settle for a Merc?’
‘Probably.’ I stood up and passed the photos of the defaulters back across the desk; they had a blank look as if they knew they were only wearing their faces for a day.
‘What’re you going to do, Cliff?’
I tapped ‘Worthington’ on the nose. ‘Start with the freshest. I’ll be in touch, mate. Try not to worry. You can probably take a lot of it off your tax.’ I grinned at him. ‘You can take me off your tax, too.’
‘Yeah.’ He summoned up a quick smile. ‘When you give me a receipt.’
I let him give me my exit line, and went back into the outer office. His phone rang as I went, and I hoped it wasn’t another bolter. A fat man was checking out a car at the desk; I couldn’t see the camera, but I could imagine the pictures-very unflattering angle for chins, especially when you’ve got three of them.