‘Are you scared of him?’
‘I don’t know enough about him to know whether to be scared. He’s big enough for the work, and he looks like he wouldn’t trip over the furniture when he moved. But that’s not the real worry. If Mai’s got a minder, it means he expects trouble. He doesn’t know we’re onto him so the trouble must be coming from another direction. Chances are that trouble for him means trouble for us. Logic?’
She jumped up, skipped around me and headed towards the threesome’s table. I was so surprised that I stood still for a few seconds and wasted more time opening my mouth to yell at her. I didn’t yell, but by the time I got moving she had woven through the drinkers and had fronted up to Mai.
Mai shook his head and Erica said something loud and uncomplimentary. Mai pushed his chair back, the woman moved her body closer to him and the other guy got smoothly to his feet. He was well over a foot taller than Erica, but she stood her ground. I could feel the adrenalin starting to flow as I pushed towards the table. The minder had his hand on Erica’s upper arm in an ungentlemanly grip. I came up on the side and chopped at his big biceps to break the grip. He let go and half-turned, and I swung him further off-balance by pulling on his forearm. He stumbled, and I hacked his right foot out from under him so that he fell down hard and awkwardly into his chair. He looked up, and for the first time I saw that he was very young, not much over twenty. He jumped up and threw a punch, but he wasn’t set and I blocked it pretty easily.
‘Real rough on women are you, son?’
Mai yelped: ‘Fix him, Geoff.’ Geoff tried his best, but I didn’t let him get set. I gave him a short hard punch well below the belt and rasped my shoe heel down his shin bone. With the wind knocked out and a shin giving hell, most people have the good sense to sit down.
Erica flashed a smile at a man who showed some interest in joining in the action. She shook her head at him and pulled a chair up close to Mai. I leaned down hard on Geoff’s shoulder and whispered in his ear.
‘Don’t worry, son. I’m not part of his big problem and I won’t hurt him. I just want a little talk.’
He wriggled, and I put my foot down hard on his left suede shoe. Mai’s face was white and I was sure I could hear his knees knocking under the table. He was looking at me with fascination and I saw that the butt of the gun under my shoulder was just visible where my jacket was open. Geoff saw it too. I closed the jacket and smiled at him.
‘Just stay where you are and no-one gets hurt. You might learn something.’ He nodded and I took my foot away.
Erica had pulled her chair up so close that she was almost sitting in Mai’s lap. The woman with the weight problem was sitting bolt upright and trying to draw herself away from Erica as if she smelled bad. I stood up beside Geoff’s chair and nodded down at Erica who was lighting a cigarette. She puffed the smoke over Mai’s shoulder.
‘Where’s Bill Mountain?’ she said.
Bill who?’ Mai’s voice was not much above a whisper, but his fear made the sound carry.
‘We’re talking about play-acting,’ I said in his ear. ‘About the Bill who played Bruce Worthington in the same show that you played Henry Majors in.’
‘Christ. Who’re you?’
‘It doesn’t matter who he is,’ Erica said. ‘Where’s Bill, you little shit?’
It would have been amusing in another context-four foot whatever Erica calling a man ‘little’. Mai was small and he was scared, but something about the quick movement of his eyes over Erica’s face and the half-head turn to check on me told me that he wasn’t dumb.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said loudly. ‘Geoff…’
‘Geoff’s taking a break. Listen, mate, you’re right in it. I’ve got a photo of you signing for a car you forgot to return. You took your sunnies off to sign. Mistake, that. It’s a police matter if that’s the way you want to play it, but there is another way.’
‘Stop yapping, Hardy.’ Erica helped herself to a cigarette from the packet on the table and did a pretty good job of looking tough. Mai’s quick, snake-like eyes moved again; they took in her act and Geoff, who was slumped in his chair rubbing his chin.
‘What other way?’ he said.
‘You got Bill Mountain into the game, we know that. Now he’s missing.’
‘I know he’s fucking missing. S’cuse me, Glad.’ Glad’s second chin wobbled as she acknowledged the apology. She was over her fright and getting interested. She fumbled a cigarette from what had become the communal pack and Erica lit her up. Mai watched the women sourly.
‘I know he’s missing. So’s the bloody car. Why d’you think they’re after me? Why d’you think I’ve got Geoff along, not that he seems to be any bloody good.’
‘Geoff’s all right,’ I said. ‘He’s young, that’s all. We have to have a talk, Mai. Here or somewhere else?’
‘I don’t want to talk.’
‘It’s me or the cops. Those pictures and the registration form with your disguised handwriting on it’ll send you to gaol. And if you’ve been around as much as I think you have, you’ll know that gaol’s not a safe place if the wrong people dislike you.’
He kept his eyes fixed on my face while he felt for his drink. I moved it across for him, and he picked it up and took a sip. Glad sipped her drink too, and she and Erica puffed on their cigarettes. It was getting to be quite a cheery little party with only Geoff and me not drinking up and smoking, but then, we were on duty. Mai was doing some quick thinking.
‘I might as well use you as an escort home,’ he said. ‘You seem to know what you’re doing. If you’re looking for Mountain you’re looking for the car too. Right?’
‘The car could stay missing?’
‘That’d certainly help.’ He finished his drink and pushed back his chair. Glad finished her drink, and Erica butted her cigarette. Geoff looked at me, and I stood up. Mai surveyed the bar carefully to see if anyone was interested in us. No-one was. He stood up and squared his shoulders, looking like Henry Majors again.
‘Where’s your car?’
‘In the car park.’
He marched out; Glad tried to hang onto his arm but he shook her off. Geoff brought up the rear. Erica didn’t try to hang onto my arm. Mai looked nervously out at the al fresco drinkers, and hurried down the steps to the car park. We followed him to a white Holden which he unlocked. He handed the keys to Geoff.
‘Where are we going?’ I said.
As Glad was in an arm-holding mood I gave her mine; Erica got the idea and took hold of her on the other side.
‘We’ll take Glad along with us,’ I said. ‘What’s the address?’
He gave me the street and number and I told Geoff to wait until I picked him up, to take it easy and give plenty of clear signals. Then the three of us trooped off to the Falcon where Glad waited for me to open the door like a gentleman. Erica and Glad sat in the back and lit fresh cigarettes. I started the motor which coughed a bit; I coughed a bit too, wound down my window and followed the Holden out of the car park.
‘I’m shooting through,’ Mai said.
We were sitting in the front room of his little studio apartment. Glad had the flat upstairs, and she’d pecked Mai on the cheek before going up. I gathered their arrangement was a convenient one for both of them, company when needed and low on demands.
Mai had made coffee in his tiny kitchen and brought it through nervously. He was older than I’d first thought, close to fifty, and, away from the pub noise and good cheer, he seemed oddly diminished, shrunken. This was despite his expensive clothes-hand-stitched shirt, European shoes-and cared-for hands. Watching him, I realised that acting a part had become an ingrained habit with him. The trouble was he switched roles a bit too often. Judgement: Mai had been a con man for a very long time, probably too long.