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Authors: Peter Temple

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Bad Debts

BOOK: Bad Debts
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I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick-veneer suburb built on cow pasture east of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.

Eddie Dollery’s skin wasn’t looking good. He’d cut himself several times shaving and each nick was wearing a little red-centred rosette of toilet paper. The rest of Eddie, short, bloated, was wearing yesterday’s superfine cotton business shirt, striped, and scarlet pyjama pants, silk. The overall effect was not fetching.

‘Yes?’ he said in the clipped tone of a man interrupted while on the line to Tokyo or Zurich or Milan. He had both hands behind his back, apparently holding up his pants.

‘Marinara, right?’ I said, pointing to a small piece of hardened food attached to the pocket of his shirt.

Eddie Dollery looked at my finger, and he looked in my eyes, and he knew. A small greyish probe of tongue came out to inspect his upper lip, disapproved and withdrew.

‘Come in,’ he said in a less commanding tone. He took a step backwards. His right hand came around from behind his back and pointed a small pistol at my fly. ‘Come in or I’ll shoot your balls off.’

I looked at the pistol with concern. It had a distinctly Albanian cast to it. These things go off for motives of their own.

‘Mr Sabbatini,’ I said. ‘You’re Mr Michael Sabbatini? I’m only here about your credit card payment.’

‘Inside,’ he said, wagging the firearm.

He backed in, I followed. We went through a barren hallway into a sitting room containing pastel-coloured leather furniture of the kind that appears to have been squashed.

Eddie stopped in the middle of the room. I stopped. We looked at each other.

I said, ‘Mr Sabbatini, it’s only money. You’re pointing a gun at a debt collector. From an agency. You can go to jail for that. If it’s not convenient to discuss new arrangements for repayments now, I’m happy to tell my agency that.’

Eddie shook his head slowly. ‘How’d you find me?’ he said.


I blinked at him. ‘Find you? We’ve got your address, Mr Sabbatini. We send your accounts here. The company sends your accounts here.’

Eddie moved aside a big piece of hair to scratch his scalp, revealing a small plantation of transplanted hairs. ‘I’ve got to lock you up,’ he said. ‘Put your hands on your head.’

I complied. Eddie got around behind me and said, ‘Straight ahead. March.’

He kept his distance. He was a good metre and a half behind me when I went through the doorway into the kitchen. There were about a dozen empty champagne bottles on various surfaces around the room—Perrier Jouet, Moet et Chandon, Pol Roger, Krug. No brand loyalty here, no concern for the country’s balance of payments. The one on the counter to my right was Piper.

‘Turn right,’ Eddie said.

I turned right very smartly. When Eddie came into the doorway, the Piper bottle, swung backhand, caught him on the jawbone. The Albanian time-bomb in his hand went off, no more than a door slam, the slug going Christ knows where. Eddie dropped the gun to nurse his face. I pulled him into the room by his shirt, spun him around and kicked him in the back of the right knee with an instep while wrenching him backwards by his hair. He hit the ground hard. I was about to give him a kick when a semblance of calm descended upon me. I spared him the grace note.

Eddie was moaning a great deal but he wasn’t going to die from the impact of the Piper. I dragged him off by the heels and locked him in the lavatory along the passage.

‘Mate,’ he said in a thick voice from behind the door, ‘mate, what’s your name?’

I said, ‘Mr Dollery, that was a very silly thing to do. Where’s the money?’

‘Mate, mate, just hold it, just one second…’

The freezer had been stocked for a two- or three-week stay, but all the recent catering had been by Colonel Sanders, McDonald’s and Dial-a-Dino. Dessert was from Colombia.

There were dirty shirts and underpants all over the main bedroom and its bathroom.

The mirror-fronted wall of cupboards held three suits, two tweedy sports jackets and several pairs of trousers on one side. On the other hung a nurse’s uniform, a Salvation Army Sally’s uniform, a meter maid’s uniform, and what appeared to be the parade dress of a female officer in the Waffen SS. With these went black underwear, some of it leather, and red suspender belts. My respect for Mrs Pick, florist and signatory to the house’s lease, deepened. By all accounts, she had a way with flowers too.

I was passing the lavatory on my way back from looking over the laundry when Eddie Dollery said, ‘Listen, mate, you want to be rich?’


He had excellent hearing. I stopped. ‘Mr Dollery,’ I said, ‘meeting people like you is riches enough for me.’

‘Cut that smart shit. Are you going to do it?’

‘Do what?’

‘Knock me.’

His was not a proper vocabulary for someone who had been an accountant. ‘Don’t be paranoid,’ I said. ‘It’s that marching powder you’re putting up your nose.’

‘Oh, Jesus,’ said Eddie. ‘Give me a chance, will you?’

I went into the sitting room and telephoned Belvedere Investments, my temporary employer. Mr Wootton would return my call, said Mrs Davenport. She’d had twenty years as the receptionist for a specialist in sexually transmitted diseases before joining Wootton. J. Edgar Hoover knew fewer secrets.

I looked around some more while I waited. Then I sat down next to the phone and studied what I could see of Mabberley Court. Nothing moved except a curtain in the house opposite, a building so sterile and with surroundings so perfectly tended that it could have been the Tomb of the Unknown Suburbanites.

The phone rang.

‘Jack, my boy. Good news, I hope. Speak freely, old sausage.’ Wootton was in a pub.

I said, ‘Dollery thinks I’m here to kill him.’

‘Got him, have you? Bloody spot on.’

‘I expect to be warned about the armed and desperate, Cyril. There’ll be an extra five per cent deduction to cover my shock and horror at having a firearm pointed at me.’

Wootton laughed his snorting laugh. ‘Listen, Jack, Eddie’s a disloyal little bugger with lots of bad habits but he wouldn’t actually harm anyone. People like that think the worst about everything. It’s the guilt. And eating icing sugar with their noses. What’s on the premises?’

‘Ladies’ uniforms,’ I said.

Wootton laughed again. ‘That’s one of the habits. He’s got the stuff on him, hasn’t he?’


It was starting to rain on Mabberley Court. Across the road, an impossibly white cat had appeared on the porch of the Tomb.

On my way out, I stopped to speak to Eddie. You can’t help admiring a man who can get the local florist to dress up in Ilse Koch’s old uniform over crotchless leather panties.

‘Mr Dollery,’ I said outside the lavatory, ‘you’re going to have to be more cooperative with people whose money you have stolen. Pointing a firearm at their representatives is not the way.’

Eddie said, ‘Listen, listen. Don’t go. Give me the gun back and I’ll tell you where to find ten grand. Go round the back and put the gun through the window. Ten grand. Notes.

Old notes.’

‘I know where to find ten grand,’ I said. ‘Everybody keeps ten grand in the dishwasher.

And everybody keeps seventy grand in the airconditioner. Wootton reckons you’re short twenty. I’m pushing a receipt for eighty grand and a pen under the door. I want you to sign it.’

There was a moment’s silence.

‘Mate,’ Eddie said, ‘every cent. Tell him every cent.’

‘You tell him. Just sign,’ I said.

The receipt came back, signed.

‘The pen, please.’

The pen appeared. ‘Thank you. Goodbye, Mr Dollery.’

Eddie was shouting something when I closed the front door, but he’d stopped by the time I reached the car. Across the road, the white cat was watching. I drove out of Mabberley Court. Two hours later, I was at Pakenham racecourse watching a horse called New Ninevah run seventh in a maiden.

The next day, I went to Sydney to talk to a possible witness to a near-fatal dispute in the carpark of the Melton shopping centre. It was supposed to be a six-hour quickie. It took two days, and a man hit me on the upper left arm with a full swing of a baseball bat. It was an aluminium baseball bat made in Japan. This would never have happened in the old days. He would have hit me with a Stewart Surridge cricket bat with black insulation tape around the middle. Except in the old days I didn’t do this kind of work.



It was 5.30 p.m. on Saturday before I got back. I listened to a summary of the football on the radio on the way from the airport. ‘Fitzroy started in a blaze of glory…’ said the announcer. I felt like switching off. The only question left was: By how much? By 114 to 78 was the answer.

I turned off at Royal Park and drove around the university and through Carlton to the Prince of Prussia. It was one of the few pubs left in Fitzroy that still made a living out of selling beer. Most of the proud names had been turned into Thai–Italian bistros with art prints in their lavatories.

I parked a block away, two wheels on the kerb in a one-way street, and made a run for the Prince. I could have found it by smell: a hundred-odd years of spilt beer. My grandfather used to drink there. So did my father. His dark, intense face is in the faded photographs of the Fitzroy Football Club sides of the late 1940s on the wall near the door marked GENTS.

There are only a few dozen Fitzroy supporters left who remember my father; to them I represent a genetic melt-down. Three of these veterans were sitting at the bar nursing glasses of beer and old grievances. As I stood brushing rain off my sleeves, they looked at me as if I were personally responsible for Fitzroy’s 36-point loss to despised Carlton on Saturday.

‘Three in a row, Jack,’ said Eric Tanner, the one nearest the door. ‘Played like girls.

Where the hell were you?’

‘Sorry, men,’ I said. ‘Business.’

Three sets of eyes with a combined age of around 220 examined me. They all held the same look. It was the one the boy in the gang gets when he is the first to put talking to a girl ahead of kicking the football in the street.

‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’ I might as well have said I had to go to Perigord for truffles for all the exculpatory power this statement carried.

‘Should’ve taken the team with you,’ said Wilbur Ong.

‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.

I caught the eye of Stan the publican. He was talking in undertones to his wife, Liz, at the serving hatch to the kitchen. Only half of her face was visible, her mouth a perfect Ctesiphon curve of disgust. Stan said a last word and floated over, a big man, thinning head of pubic hair, small nose like an afterthought pinched out by the divine sculptor.


His eighty-six-year-old father, Morris, owned the pub and wouldn’t sell it. To Liz’s disgust, he also wouldn’t die.

‘The boys missed you today,’ he said.

‘They told me how much,’ I said. ‘Cleaned these pipes yet?’ The beer had been tasting funny for weeks.

Stan looked at me pityingly. ‘Jack, you could give a baby milk through these pipes. I had the bloke in. Nothing come out ’cept clean steam. Clean steam in, clean steam out.

Chucking my dough away, he reckons.’

He put the first full glass on the counter. ‘Your Mr Pommy Wootton’s been ringing. The old bat said to give him a tinkle when you came in, quick smart.’

‘He’s about as pommy as you are,’ I said. ‘His old man taught welding at Preston Tech.’

‘Wish my old man’d taught welding at Preston Tech,’ Stan said with controlled venom.

‘Then I wouldn’t be standin here till all hours listenin to old buggers fartin on about footie games sixty years ago.’

I rang Wootton from what Stan called his office, a midden of old bills, junk mail, newspapers, telephone directories. Under the telephone was a Carlton & United Breweries page-a-day diary. The year was 1954.

‘Mr Wootton has made a number of attempts to contact you,’ said Mrs Davenport.

‘Please wait while I see whether he’s free.’

‘Free, free, like a bird in a tree,’ I said. I don’t know why.

‘I beg your pardon?’ said Mrs Davenport, not startled.

‘It’s a line from an American poet, E. A. Presley.’

There was a silence of precise duration. It told me my flippancy had been noted. Then Wootton came on the line, querulous.

‘What’s the point of having an answering machine if you don’t plan to respond to messages? I even resorted to ringing that filthy hole you drink in.’

‘Even as we speak I am in that hole.’

‘Well, see if you can get out of it by Monday to do a small task for me.’


‘Cyril,’ I said, ‘do I detect a hint of the master-servant relationship creeping in here?

Let’s start with a nice thank you for the parcel I dropped off on Thursday. And then we can talk about the possibility of future dealings.’

‘Thank you,’ he said ungratefully. ‘I notice that you remunerated yourself rather lavishly in excess of the agreed fee.’

‘The agreed fee didn’t cover uniform fetishists armed with dodgy guns. I explained that on the phone.’

‘Perfectly harmless little turd.’

‘There’s no such thing as an armed harmless little turd.’

We went on like this for a while. Then I went back to the bar, drank a beer with the lads, ate a toasted cheese sandwich crafted out of recycled sawdust and polyvinyl by the reluctant hands of Liz. I was at the door when Stan said, ‘Another bloke looking for you. Thursday, I think it was. Said he’d been round your office.’


‘Didn’t say. Didn’t ask. Said he’d come back.’

‘What’d he look like?’

Stan thought for a while, squinting slightly. ‘Short,’ he said. ‘Dangerous.’

BOOK: Bad Debts
4.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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