‘You’re after the alimony then?’ she said.
‘I didn’t know he was married.’
‘I’m not interested in any alimony. It’s a bit hard to explain. Could I sit down?’
She waved the hand holding the cigarette and I plonked myself down in one of Mountain’s easy chairs. My legs felt stiff and old. The shotgun leaned against the wall equidistant from us, but she seemed to have lost interest in it. She drew deeply on the cigarette.
‘Hard to explain, you said. Probably bullshit.’
I tried to look like a non-bullshitter. ‘No, but it’s not exactly a public matter. Could I ask who you are?’
‘Erica Fong. I’m Bill’s girlfriend or whatever you call it. Or I was-not sure now. Let’s see this ID you mentioned.’
I took out the wallet that contains the investigator’s ticket, and leaned forward to pass it over to her. I brought the hand back, took hold of the shotgun, and moved it along the wall closer to me. She appeared not to notice. She looked at the licence, shrugged and handed it back.
‘I just might have heard him mention you. Is that likely?’
‘Depends on what you were talking about and how much he’d had to drink.’
‘What does he ever talk about? How he hates the crap he writes and
‘Why do you want him, Mr Hardy?’
That was the crunch. Here we were in Bill Mountain’s front room, me in my burglar gear and her in what I now realised was a ski suit and getting along so well and I had to tell her that I was after her bloke for stealing a car. Tricky. She threw her cigarette butt into the fireplace and leaned back watchfully.
‘It’s to do with a car,’ I said.
‘A car! No-one has adventures in cars anymore-not since Kerouac’
Adventures, I thought, who said anything about adventures?
‘Have you read Kerouac?’ she said.
‘ On the Road, that’s all. Long time ago.’
‘I haven’t. I haven’t read anything. I just picked that up from Bill. I’ve picked up a lot of stuff like that. If you say Harold Pinter I can name a couple of plays, but I haven’t seen them.’ She reached back for her cigarettes and matches, lit the cigarette and tossed the match into the fireplace. It landed neatly beside the butt. She drew in the smoke and her tough voice started to waver.
‘Bill said he’d take me to all the plays.’ She sniffed. ‘He said I could read all the books too, but he could never find the right ones in all the mess.’ She was crying now, quietly with her cigarette burning down between her fingers and her slim shoulders shaking.
I let her cry, and occupied myself by breaking open the shotgun, removing the shells and replacing the weapon on the mantelpiece. Erica Fong got control of herself, got the cigarette back up to her mouth and took a drag. Her tear-stained face was in profile, firm-chinned and strong. She didn’t wipe her face and I got the feeling that she hadn’t cried very often.
‘I haven’t seen Bill for three days,’ she said. ‘This is the fourth. I was used to seeing him every day and most nights. I’m very worried about him.’
‘How long have you known him, Erica?’
‘’bout a year. I know he’s a drunk and everything, but he’s a lovely man really. We were going to go to China together. He was going to show me things.’ She sniffed and drew on the cigarette. ‘He’s been there before and he speaks Cantonese. Isn’t it funny? I don’t speak a word of Chinese.’
I gave her one of my semi-professional smiles; I was feeling very confused and in need of something to stimulate thought. When you burgle a place you expect creaking boards and cats, not non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese girls with shotguns.
‘Can we make a cup of tea or something, a drink? We’ve got a pretty tricky situation here.’
Socially speaking, it should have been more awkward than it was-the Occidental burglar and the Oriental girlfriend, but a strange sort of harmony grew between us in the kitchen as she made instant coffee, using the spoons and utensils with familiarity.
I fiddled with Mountain’s car keys at the table while the water was boiling. She smoked non-stop, practically lighting one cigarette from another, and the smoke hung heavily with the steam in the still, small kitchen. One part at least of her story checked out: the milk in Mountain’s fridge was a week old and had gone off. When the coffee was ready she sat down opposite me and put three heaped spoonsful of sugar into hers and stirred vigorously. Her lean figure suggested that this was something new. She sipped and puffed.
‘Are you running on coffee and cigarettes, like in the movies?’
‘Hasn’t Mountain ever taken off somewhere for a few days before? He’s not Mr Steadfast as I recall him.’
‘No. He hasn’t.’ Puff. Sip.
‘You were going to say something else back there a bit.’ I tried to recall the conversation. ‘Something about other things on his mind apart from his crappy work.’
She looked angry again. ‘You don’t like him, do you?’
‘I was just trying to get the words right.’
‘But you don’t like him?’
I shrugged and drank some more coffee. It wasn’t a good brand and they always taste worse black. ‘It’s not relevant. It’s not a personal matter.’
‘What sort of matter is it then? All I know is that it’s about a car.’
‘I can’t tell you. I’ve got a client and his business is confidential. It’s serious, the part involving Mountain I mean, but it’s not life and death.’
‘You’re going to have to tell me more than that.’
‘How can I? All I know about you is that you can handle a shotgun and you’ve made coffee here before.’
She stubbed out her cigarette in the saucer and almost upset the cup. ‘You’ve got a bloody nerve! All I know about you is that you sneak around in other people’s houses.’
I grinned at her. ‘If Mountain was here d’you reckon he’d think this was good dialogue?’
She smiled, and it was as if her face had been waiting days to do it. It was a good smile. ‘He might. I don’t know.
Did you ever see him do a send-up of the stuff he writes?’
‘Yes. Hilarious. What did he call the show — Tumourville?’
‘That was one name, there were lots of others. Oh God, I might as well finish the thought I had before. He seemed to be talking a lot more about wanting to write a novel and needing some more experience to do it.’
‘I’ve heard him talk like that.’
‘Mm, well, it seemed to be getting more and more important to him. He took leave from the TV job a while back to work on the novel. I told him he’d had all the experience he needed-two wives, kids, God knows how many women.’
I murmured, ‘Fights,’ and she glanced sharply at me.
‘I suppose so. He wouldn’t listen. On and on about life and experience. First he drops out of sight and now you turn up. I was worried before, but I’m really worried now.’
‘Why? He’s a grown man.’
‘It’s this word experience. D’you know what kind of stories he wrote? What that novel of his was about?’
I shook my head.
‘Weird stuff. Crime. Horror.’
‘I thought it got a good review in Meanjin?’
‘Oh, it had “art” in it as well, but it was about what I say.’
‘And it still didn’t sell?’
She shook her head. ‘Bill wouldn’t let me read it. He didn’t keep a copy himself.’
‘Maybe it needed more crime and horror.’
I looked down at her and wondered how old she was. Under thirty, I judged but it was hard to tell. I realised that one of the interesting things about her was that I had no idea what she was going to say next. This time she looked away from me, spoke slowly and suddenly made me wonder how old I was.