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Follow the Money
By Peter Corris
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Peter Corris
All rights reserved.
'I heard about your misfortune,' Miles Standish said. 'That's why I asked to see you.'
'I've had a few misfortunes in my time,' I said. 'Which one d'you mean?'
'Losing all your money.'
'Oh, that one.'
Standish was a lawyer. His secretary had rung me at home that morning asking me to meet him at his office at two in the afternoon. When I asked what about she said Mr Standish would explain. He'd told her to tell me that the matter was important, urgent and the meeting would be of mutual benefit.
I had nothing better to do and since I didn't have a private investigator's licence anymore and the money I'd inherited from Lily Truscott — and there was a lot left of it even after some house fixing and gifts and loans here and there — had all gone, 'mutual benefit' had an appealing ring.
Standish's office was in Edgecliff and I travelled there from Glebe by bus, two buses. Driving in Sydney had become an exercise in frustration. Since my heart attack and bypass, I'd been advised to avoid stress and I found off-peak bus travel restful. I was early and I sat in the park on a cool late autumn day looking around at things that had changed and were going to change more. The boxing stadium where Freddie Dawson had cast a pall over Sydney's sporting community by knocking out Vic Patrick had long gone, and the White City tennis courts were no longer grass. Boats bobbed on the water as they had since 1788 and always would, but if the climate change gurus were right, where I was sitting would be underwater later this century. How much later?
Standish's office was one level up in a building on New South Head Road. The façade was nineteenth century but the interior was twentieth, even twenty-first — carpet, pastel walls, air-conditioning, pot plants. The secretary who'd summoned me was there to greet me. Obviously head honcho of a group of three women, all busy in the open- plan office, she was Asian, elegant and with a private school accent.
'Thank you for being so prompt, Mr Hardy. Mr Standish is anxious to see you.'
Anxious didn't seem quite the right word for these surroundings. Back when I had a low-rent office in Newtown, anxious was just the right word — my clients were anxious and so was I. Here, comfortable seemed more the go, but comfort is easily disturbed.
She showed me into a room that almost made the outer office look shabby. It was all teak and glass and set up for both work and relaxation — a huge desk holding electronic equipment reminiscent of NASA, and a cosy arrangement of armchairs, discreet wet bar and coffee table tucked away in a corner. The waist- to almost ceiling-high windows looked out onto the main road but the double-glazing muted the traffic noise to an agreeable hum.
Standish sprang from behind the desk, rounded it athletically, and almost bounded towards me. He was tall, well built, and looked about thirty, which could have meant he was older trying to look younger or younger trying to look older. He wore the regulation blue shirt and burgundy tie, dark trousers. We shook hands — firm grip, a golfer maybe.
'Have a seat. Coffee?'
'No. Thanks. Nice place. Did someone refer you to me?'
Standish liked to talk, especially about himself. He told me he wasn't a courtroom lawyer. He hadn't been in one since moot court in his student days. He was a money lawyer. I already knew that. You don't turn up for a meeting like this without doing some checking.
'I put together people,' he said. 'And then I put together deals. I help the money to be found and placed where it's needed to the benefit of all parties including myself. You must know the movie Chinatown.'
'One of our ... one of my favourites. You'll remember Jake Gittes says divorce work is his metier. Deals are mine. I got first class honours in contract law and graduated magna cum laude from the Yale MBA course. I know the Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Isle of Man, Jersey and Australian tax acts off by heart.'
I said, 'Can't leave you much room to know anything else.'
He leaned back. 'You'd be surprised. I know you failed contract law at the University of New South Wales and abandoned your studies. I know that you are banned for life from holding a private enquiry agent's licence in New South Wales and, by extension, anywhere in Australia. I know you had investments worth several hundred thousand dollars and it has all gone.'
I shrugged. 'I never felt good about being rich anyway.'
'How do you feel about being bankrupt?'
'It's not that bad.'
'It will be, and soon.'
He brought a computer to life and tapped the keys. 'Let me see if I've got this right. Richard Malouf was a partner in the very honest and upright firm that controlled your financial affairs. Unhappily, he was neither honest nor upright. Because of your, shall I say, careless attitude to your assets, he was able, over time, to liquidate the majority of your shares and hive off the money to accounts he controlled.'
I sighed. 'I don't really want to hear this. Malouf gambled the money away and got himself shot when he ran up a tab with someone who got impatient first and then got angry. You're right; when I inherited some money I took my business to an accounting firm someone had recommended: a big firm.'
Standish smiled. 'A mistake as it turned out. You should've come to me.'
Not likely, I thought, but he was accurate. I met the boss of the accounting firm — a Lebanese Australian named Perry Hassan — and liked him. He introduced me to Malouf. We talked; he seemed to understand my diffidence about being a capitalist investor. I trusted him. Financial matters bore me. I signed things I shouldn't have and put things away in a drawer unopened.
'Spilt milk,' I said. 'The money's gone.'
'What if I told you it isn't, not necessarily.'
'There was a thorough investigation.'
'How many thorough investigations have you known that were all complete bullshit?'
He had my interest now, not because I believed him, but because the smooth unflappability was fraying. Despite the air-conditioning, he looked a little damp around the edges.
'You've got a point, but Malouf's dead. He was identified by his wife.'
'Dental records? DNA? Did they bring in the Bali ID unit?'
'I don't know.'
'They didn't. There was a big stink on about a murdered family and they were preoccupied. He's not dead. He's been spotted.'
'So has Lord Lucan. So has Elvis.'
'This is reliable information. I want to hire you to catch him.'
'Why would I do that? The money's gone.'
'I don't believe it. I think the gambling was a cover story to help convince the authorities that he was dead. He's still got your money, or some of it. Plus that of a lot of other people who could be very grateful to you.'
I looked around the room — the framed certificates, the photographs in the company of celebrities in politics, sport and show business, the gleaming surfaces. Standish was the living embodiment of a business and lifestyle I disliked. He was right about me failing contract law. I'd detested the subject and wrote rude things about the questions and teachers before walking out. It had been a catalyst for my giving up university and doing other things. I didn't want to work for this man.
Standish tapped some more keys. 'Following on from what I said about your finances, it'll interest you to learn that Malouf left you a little legacy. More of a time bomb really. He bought, in your name, a parcel of shares at what seemed bargain rates. You OK'd the purchase. It was peanuts as things stood in your portfolio then. However, those are what's called option shares and holders are liable for a very substantial margin call on them. In about a month's time you're looking at a bill for three hundred thousand dollars, give or take.'
I felt a sharp prick of anxiety. Being short of money was one thing, and something I knew a bit about. But bankruptcy was something else. And if what Standish said was true, Malouf hadn't just taken me for a ride like the others but had got personal. When someone gets personal with me I get personal back.
He gave me a Hollywood smile. 'I thought that'd get your attention. To answer your question, there's your motivation. Catch Malouf and some very serious charges can be brought against him. You might be able to make a case of fraudulent dealing on his part that could get you off the hook in respect of the shares. I could help you with that, really help. Worst case scenario — if you can recover the money from Malouf, you could pay the call. The shares will have value in time, although not quite yet, given the GFC.'
'And would you help me with that?'
'Recovering the money from Malouf.'
The smile again, broader. 'I wouldn't stand in your way.'
'How do I know you're not lying about the shares?'
He opened a drawer in the desk and slid a sheet of paper across to me. 'I got in touch with Perry Hassan, your trusted friend. He confirmed what I've just told you.'
I read Perry's email to Standish. Somehow Malouf's purchase of the shares, on the positive side of the ledger, hadn't cost enough initially to make a difference to my balance sheet, but Perry conceded that I was facing bankruptcy. We civilians imagine that information about clients held by financial advisers is private and protected, but these days nothing is. At a guess, Standish had some leverage on Perry.
'I have a few questions,' I said.
'I don't have an investigator's licence.'
'From what I've heard of your conduct as a PEA, the rules you broke and the lines you stepped over, that hardly matters.'
'That's a fair point. OK, the real question. You've got a million-dollar office and a secretary who's probably as efficient as she is glamorous. You know Mel Gibson and Bob Carr and Greg Norman; but you strike me as just a bit worried. What's your motivation, Mr Standish?'CHAPTER 2
Suddenly Standish looked closer to forty than thirty. His face seemed to clench and lines radiated out from his eyes.
'Did you ever meet Malouf?' he said.
'Two or three times.'
'What did you think of him?'
I didn't want to talk about Malouf. I'd tried to forget him. 'As I said, I found all that money management stuff boring and I tended not to take much notice of the people who spouted it.'
He persisted. 'Good-looking?'
'Certainly not ugly, anyway.'
'He had ... has a fatal attraction for women, including my wife.'
You want to say 'Ah' at times like that but you don't.
'I discovered that they'd been having a long-running affair.'
'How did you discover that?'
'She told me.'
It hurt him to say it; Standish was the sort of man who liked to put a personal-positive spin on anything. 'Why?'
'It was after he disappeared with your money and other people's as well, as I suppose you know. She seemed upset at the news about Malouf but not distraught. But it was a sort of catalyst. We hadn't been getting along for some time, the usual things ... and she told me, shouted it to me. She said she loved him.'
Saying this had taken a lot out of him. He got up and the athletic bounce had left him as he crossed to where his bar fridge and a cupboard were tucked away. 'I'm going to have a drink. You?'
It was about three hours before my usual drinking time, but I didn't want him to feel any worse than he already did. 'Sure, what've you got?'
'Scotch, a bit of ice.'
I didn't recognise the bottle; that doesn't mean much; I don't see enough single malts to get well acquainted. He made the drinks and brought the bottle back to the desk. The whisky was smooth — about as far as my capacity for appreciation goes. Standish downed half of his in a swallow and topped up his glass.
'I'm not a drunk,' he said.
'Just that it's hard to ... relive it all.'
'Are you making fun of me?'
I sipped the drink. 'No, I'm not. But you've only scratched the surface of what you want to tell me about all this, and I'm wondering how much you're going to have to drink to get through it.'
He pushed the glass away. 'They told me you were a hard man to deal with, but that if I was straight with you you'd give me a hearing and might be willing to help.'
'I wouldn't exactly call what you've been doing up to now being straight.'
'No, you're right. I'm sorry. I'm manipulative — force of habit. Let's start again.'
Standish said his wife, Felicity, had met Malouf at a dinner for people in what he called the finance industry where he was the keynote speaker.
'I was swamped by commitments, clients, prospective clients, offers of various kinds.' He pointed to his glass. 'I'd had a few too many.'
'It happens,' I said.
'Yeah. I tell myself if not that night, then sometime, and if not him, someone else. I sort of believe it. Anyway, the point is, it became an affair. I was busy and didn't know until she hit me with it.'
'You said she was only upset when Malouf was killed, not devastated.'
'You'll think me paranoid, but I suspect her and Malouf's wife and Christ knows who else of being involved in a conspiracy. There's a lot of money involved, but more than that ...'
For a man like Standish that was a big admission. What could be 'more' than money? I sipped whisky and waited for him to tell me.
'Word got around about Felicity's involvement with Malouf. Confidence is everything in this business. Trust is nothing. A few clients have ... withdrawn; a few are cooling off and it's not just the GFC. I'm facing a personal fucking financial crisis.'
So it was about reputation but still about money. He was serious, no question. He'd drawn up a list of names — the person who claimed to have seen Malouf, Malouf's wife, his own wife, gamblers the police had interviewed, a journalist who'd covered the case, a lawyer representing a client who was suing Perry Hassan's firm and another who was processing Perry's application to the insurance company covering him against precisely this kind of disaster. For someone who didn't particularly care for lawyers, it looked as though I was going to be spending some time with them. If I agreed to work for Standish.
'Well?' he said after handing over the list and some supporting information — newspaper clippings, web page printouts, emails. 'Will you help me, and yourself?'
I finished the drink and ran my eye over the list. The alleged sighting had been in Middle Harbour, at a marina by the Spit Bridge. That helped me to decide. It'd be hard enough tracking people down and questioning them with no credentials whatsoever in Sydney, but impossible in Liechtenstein or the Bahamas. Standish saw me focusing on that entry.
'He's still in Sydney. That means there's a reason, probably an associate. He had to have someone help him mount this operation.'
'From what you've said it could be a woman looking after him, giving him sanctuary. That's if the sighting's genuine.'
'The names are there. Felicity and I are separated. You can approach her.'
'The helpful associate and the woman could be one and the same,' I said.
'Does that mean you're in?'
'I'm thinking about it.'
'Let's talk money.'
Standish began by mentioning a contract, a daily rate and expenses but I stopped him.
'First off, I'll go and see this yachtsman, the one who says he saw Malouf. If he doesn't convince me then it's all off and I won't charge you anything. If I'm convinced I'll follow up the other leads and see where I get. I'll charge you what I think the work's worth.'
'That's not businesslike.'
'Right,' I said, 'look where businesslike has got us. I'll need your email address and a mobile number where I can reach you twenty-four seven.'
He slumped down in his chair. 'See May Ling in the office.'
I dealt with May Ling, who seemed to have everything at her perfectly manicured fingertips. I went down the stairs to the street feeling strangely buoyant. It wasn't just the prospect of recovering some money or avoiding bankruptcy. High enough stakes to start with, but it was more than that. It was because I was working again and about to be useful in a way I hadn't been for too long. Maybe.
They told me that after the heart operation I'd have a new surge of energy, feel ten years younger. I did some days, not others. Some days I worried about little things that never used to bother me and some days I didn't let quite big things concern me at all. And I couldn't predict the way it'd go. For the moment I was feeling younger because of the prospect of interesting work. I decided to walk back to the city for the exercise and to plan ahead. I was looking forward to studying the material Standish had given me and interviewing Stefan Nordlung, who'd claimed to have seen Malouf. He was a retired marine engineer, an acquaintance of Malouf's. A drive to Seaforth tomorrow morning was a pleasant prospect after all the sitting about and time-filling I'd been doing.
Excerpted from Follow the Money by Peter Corris. Copyright © 2011 Peter Corris. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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"Reminds you just how good Peter Corris is, what a legend his private detective character Cliff Hardy is." Sydney Morning Herald
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