Nice Try (Murray Whelan Series #3)

Nice Try (Murray Whelan Series #3)

by Shane Maloney


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628724158
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Series: Murray Whelan Series , #3
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Chapter One

Melbourne, 1990

SHE WAS GIVING ME THE EYE. No doubt about it.

    Every time I glanced her way, I caught her looking at me. Her gaze would dart somewhere else, but she was definitely checking me out. She was twenty-two, maybe twenty-three, with a body that looked like it was molded from fiberglass to a design by Benvenuto Cellini. Smooth. Firm. Flawless.

    Too flawless for me, surely, a man teetering on the cusp of his late thirties. A man whose waist measurement was almost as high as his IQ. Not that I automatically assumed it was impossible for a woman like her to be interested in someone like me. But you get to a certain point, you know what's reasonable and what's not. Christ, she was practically a teenager.

    She tossed back her blonde ponytail, parted her thighs and thrust her hips forward. "Come on," she urged. "Do it. Do it."

    I couldn't. I just didn't have the energy. Wiping the perspiration from my eyes with the hem of my T-shirt, I lowered my vision to the electronic display panel of my exercise bike and urged my faltering muscles on. For more than half an hour I'd been at it. First the warm-up, then the super circuit. Three sets of leg extensions. The front lateral press and the rowing simulator. The mini-trampoline, the squat rack and the Stairmaster. Thirty-seven minutes of self-imposed agony.

    Beyond the window of the aerobics studio, the gorgeous creature had turned away. She was on her knees on the carpet now, extending first one leg then the other, her flanks as fine as a gazelle's.She was inexhaustible, her energy boundless, her body unravaged by time and cigarettes and a sedentary occupation. "Keep it up, keep it up," she cried. Her every move was immediately replicated by the twenty women in her class, flexing their Lycra-sheathed limbs to the syncopated thud of the sound system. Madonna.

    God, I hated Madonna. I tried to think of something else, to force my mind off that taut blue leotard. That pert, peachy derriere. Those surreptitious glances. To find some thought I could use to focus my energy on the last, muscle-quivering kilometer up the computer-generated incline. Concentrating my attention on the liquid-crystal terrain-simulator on the console between the handlebars, I screwed up my determination, bore down and pedaled into the final sinew-searing five minutes of my daily work-out. Every fiber of my mortal being screamed at me to stop.

    With a sharp electronic beep, the stationary bicycle announced that I'd arrived at my destination. Ten kilometers at Mark 8, a total kilojoule burn of 250. The calorific equivalent of two cherry tomatoes and a haircut. Responding as surely as Pavlov's dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, my legs went limp. With one last surge of willpower, I forced them to continue for the final minutes of my warm-down.

    I was warming down but the gym was hotting up. At the bike beside me, a furiously pedaling endomorph looked up from his copy of the Financial Review. "No pain, no gain," he muttered. Probably rehearsing his statement to the shareholders.

    The City Club was located in the Hyatt Hotel, but few of its clientele were hotel guests. Most, like me, worked in the surrounding office buildings. Many, judging by their furtive eyes and abrasive manner, were members of the finance community. The women tended to be younger and better togged out. The average male was a laterally expanding desk-jockey teetering on the brink of middle age. My kind of guy.

    My fellow City Club members, I reflected. Desperate old farts and despicable yuppies. So what did that make me, an AWOL apparatchik, sneaking away from the office to work on his personal downsizing plan? Not for the first time, I reminded myself that I'd chosen the place solely on the basis of its location, a three-minute walk from Parliament House. That, and the incentive provided by its astronomical cost.

    It was, I had told myself a month earlier, crunch time. Either face up to my need for constant maintenance or surrender entirely to my inner beanbag. So it had been on with the training shoes and out with the credit card.

    At $1500 a year plus joining fee, the City Club was more than I could really afford. On the other hand, I was getting a lot for my money You name it, the City Club had it. An atrium-roofed swimming pool in checkerboard tiles. Microchip-regulated warm-up bicycles. A front lateral press and a modular triceps extension machine. Rowing simulators, each with an in-built computer-generated opponent. Weight machines, both Universal and Nautilus. A boutique offering a comprehensive range of swimsuits, pedal-pushers and Musashi high-protein snacks. Shiatsu massage. Boxercise. Wet and dry saunas. Slide, step and low-impact aerobics. Complimentary cotton swabs in the changing rooms. An attentive staff of chipper young men and perky young women, each with the calves of a Sherpa and the smile of a toothpaste testimonial.

    Including, it seemed, the nymph with the wandering eye. My mysterious admirer. I'd first noticed her earlier that week when she started taking the midday aerobics session, replacing a rather fey young man with a taste for Vangelis and a cute little backside that was entirely wasted on his all-female class.

    Aside from the body of a goddess, clearly a prerequisite for the job, she had an open, frankly inquisitive face and wore her mandatory smile with a slightly ironic twist that didn't quite match the earnest, professional cheerfulness of her workmates. With a perennial tilt to her head and large, wide-open eyes, she appeared to regard the world with amused scepticism, as though nothing could ever quite manage to surprise her.

    Just the expression she used when she looked me over. A cool, appraising look which, while I found it flattering, seemed oddly perverse when directed at a man with trembling knees, a low-slung chassis and the motto "I'm With Stupid" printed across the front of his sweat-soaked T-shirt. Perhaps she needed glasses.

    The aerobics class was finishing. Twelve-thirty. My cue to start making tracks for my lunch appointment. I climbed down off the bike and waited for my head to stop spinning. Four weeks I'd been a member of the City Club and so far most of the weight loss had been in the region of my bank balance. On the other hand, where else did I get ogled by bodacious young babes? One bodacious babe, anyway.

    Now she was staring at me. As I slung my complimentary towel around my neck and staggered toward the locker room, she advanced across the floor, cocking her head and peering dubiously into my face.

    "Hey!" she declared, pointing knowingly. Women from the aerobics class looked our way. Shit, I thought. She hadn't really been looking at me. She'd been catching me looking at her. I was about to be banged-up for perving. Denounced as a sexual harasser. "Your name's Whelan, isn't it?" Her rising inflection was a clear accusation.

    "Murray Whelan," I admitted cautiously.

    "Thought it was." She clapped her hands in self-congratulation. "Am I good or what?"

    I stared at her blankly, not at all sure where this was going.

    "You don't remember me, do you?" she said, crestfallen. And what a crest. I made a point of not looking at it. "Holly. Holly Deloite."

    "Of course I remember." I racked my brains. As offsider to a politician, I meet a lot of people. More than I could ever hope to remember and quite a few I'd prefer to forget. But this Holly Deloite definitely wasn't in that category. If I'd ever pressed her flesh, I was sure I would've recalled.

    "Hadfield High School, tenth grade work-experience program," she prompted. "I've probably changed a bit since then."

    Had she ever.

    She was taking me back almost seven years. Back to when I was electorate officer for Charlene Wills, Member of the Legislative Council for the Province of Melbourne Upper. Running a shopfront office in a working-class electorate on the northern edge of the suburban sprawl. Keeping the constituents happy, massaging the grassroots of the political process, soliciting campaign donations, that sort of thing.

    Every year we'd take a work-experience placement from each of the local high schools. Give bored and slightly bewildered fifteen-year-olds a taste of real life. Teach them to stuff envelopes and make coffee, let them answer the phone if they were exceptionally capable.

    Holly Deloite had been a mumbler, if I remembered right. Mouth full of braces, a tubby bubby, pimples. Well stacked for her age and shy about it. Head always down, hiding her face behind her hair. But keen to please. It was all coming back to me. "The photocopier girl!"

    She blushed and her hand flew up to her mouth. "You bastard," she grinned. "You still remember that."

    I liked the bastard. It was a big improvement on Mr. Whelan. "How could I forget?"

    Truth be known, I hadn't given the matter a second thought since the day it happened. The day she'd misread my handwriting. Made five hundred copies by two o'clock instead of two copies by five o'clock.

    "Got the zeros mixed up with the noughts," she laughed. "But you were real nice about it. Even bought me lunch at that Chinese restaurant."

    The Dow Sing. Along with the rest of the office staff, courtesy of the petty cash account. Our standard farewell gesture for work-experience students. Nothing untoward. But clearly I'd made quite an impression on the young Miss Deloite. So, too, had the intervening years. All trace of the dumpy, bashful teenager had vanished.

    "You had that little kid, didn't you?" she said, now in the full throes of reminiscence. "What was his name again?"

    Work experience occasionally included the development of child-care skills in the visiting students. With my wife Wendy seconded to the Office of the Status of Women in Canberra, I had assumed the prime parenting role. Which inevitably meant that our son put in a fair bit of time at the office. Keeping a four-year-old amused had been about Holly's intellectual speed, far less demanding than the technological challenges of the photocopier. There were little brothers somewhere in her background, I seemed to recall.

    "Red," I said. "He lives in Sydney with his mother. We're divorced. I'm on my own now."

    "Aww." She tilted her head even further to the side and pursed her lips into a sympathetic little frown.

    Yes, it was a pity. Red, at least. Not the divorce. Wendy could look after herself. She was Director of Equal Opportunity for Telecom now, tapping away at the glass ceiling on behalf of the sisterhood. And herself. Remarried and doing well, thank you very much.

    At this declaration of my marital status, our conversation lurched into an awkward silence. Unnecessarily so. My assertion that I was footloose and fancy-free was not intended as a pick-up line. Young Holly Deloite was a delight, all right, but she was still too young. Even if she was interested, what would we talk about afterward? Not to mention the potential damage to my reputation. An older woman with a younger man, that was an historic advance. Vice versa, and the belles of censoriousness began to peal.

    Still, it was nice to be fondly remembered, especially by a ravishing young thing. And her frank manner reflected well on the employment policies of the City Club. Nothing worse than subservient help, in my opinion. You never know what they're really thinking. "You like it here?" she said. "Good, isn't it? Great place to work."

    "Yeah," I enthused, looking around at the heaving flesh and clanging metal. "Just started this week, have you?"

    "Nah," she shook her ponytail. "Been here ages, nearly a year. Just come back from six weeks in Queensland, but. The Hyatt Coolum Beach Resort. The chain has this sort of exchange thing with their instructors. Like I specialize in slide, okay? So I was doing that up there, training their staff, and they sent their low-impact guy down here."

    Mr. Bottom, the vanished Vangelis fan. Visiting Fellow in Bump and Grind at the University of Soft Knocks.

    "Sounds great," I said. Holly had clearly found her vocation, gun aerobics coach. Have leotard will travel. I was pleased for her but it wasn't an area I felt qualified to discuss. We were running out of subject matter.

    "Still with Mrs. Wills?" she said, casting about for a safe topic. "Out at the office."

    "Charlene died a fair while ago," I said. "It's Angelo Agnelli now." The Honorable Member for Melbourne Upper. Minister for Water Supply and the Arts. My current employer.

    Nearly six years Angelo and I had been together, ever since he inherited me from Charlene. Ours was a shotgun marriage of political convenience and, frankly, the relationship was wearing a bit thin. It was one of Angelo's remarks which had prompted me to join the City Club. "Lucky I'm not Minister for Agriculture," he told me. "Or they'd start calling you Beefy Whelan." This from a man with three chins whose only exercise was running off at the mouth and jumping to conclusions.

    Never heard of him, said Holly's face. A politician. Inhabitant of a distant galaxy. Holly's was the world of the here and now. Politics just wasn't in the frame. Life was elsewhere. Anywhere, really. Everywhere. She was young.

    "Anyway," she said. "Just thought I'd say hello. Really great to see you again, all of that. Anything you need, I'm here ten 'til eight every day." She flashed me the corporate rictus. "Maybe you'd like to join a class."

    "Maybe." I nodded amiably. "I'll think about it." Like hell. Nothing more pathetic, in my book, than the sight of a man doing aerobics. Prancing about to infantile music in a room full of mirrors, making a complete dick of himself. If I really wanted to look like an idiot, I'd start riding a bike to work.

    Holly Deloite's wandering eye was beginning to wander elsewhere, over toward the front counter where an unattended member was waiting impatiently for his complimentary fluffy towel. Nice girl, Holly. Beautiful body. Mind like a muesli bar. We parted, then, with a nod and a smile, she to customer service, me to the locker room.

    In the buff, all men are equal. But, even bare-bummed, class finds a way of expressing itself. No tattoos here, no amputees, no horny hands or industrial injuries. Only the best-bred, corn-fed flesh in the locker room of the City Club. Vivaldi humming quietly in the background. Fresh flowers on the washstand, limitless conditioning mousse in the showers. Silk ties and tailored jackets. Wooden coat hangers in ash-paneled lockers. An atmosphere redolent of Eau Sauvage and insider trading.

    As I stepped under the shower, the sudden shock of cold water reminded me of the dickheads I'd been dealing with that morning.

    Union officials, they called themselves. Back in my day at the Trades Hall, they would've been lucky to get a job with the Amusement Employees Federation, Circus Division. Clowns whose idea of negotiation was to start with a threat and work their way up to personal abuse. Typical Miscellaneous Workers Union bullshit. The Missos were never what you might call Mensa material.

    For months I'd been playing umpire in their interminable wrangling with the bureaucrats at the Department of Water Supply. Trying to convince them that the government was in no position to meet their demand for an across-the-board productivity bonus for the entire maintenance division.

    A productivity bonus, for Chrissake, as if the water was suddenly getting wetter as a result of their improved work practices. All they had to do was to keep the stuff running downhill, after all. And now these absurd threats of industrial action. "Such as what?" I wanted to know. "Putting LSD in the reservoirs? Making the toilets flush in reverse?"

    The dipstick drongos didn't seem to realize that it was 1990, that we were in the middle of a recession. Their obscure attempts at intimidation were the last straw. I'd finally lost it, given the miserable pricks a piece of my mind. Not my finest moment, professionally speaking. The meeting had ended in acrimonious disarray.

    There has to be a better way to make a living, I thought as I toweled myself dry.

    An elderly patrician with a washboard stomach and a mat of gray on his chest combed his temples at the mirror with all the gravity of a Roman senator. Paunchy plutocrats, towels at their midriffs, emerged dewy from the sauna. A consortium of brash young go-getters commandeered the benches, swapping their Florsheim brogues for Nike trainers, self-assured as Olympians.

    The Olympics, I thought, pulling on my jocks. My big chance.

    Brian Morrison had been insistent but tantalizingly vague when he rang and suggested we catch up. An old mate, Brian had wangled himself a berth with the Melbourne Olympic Bid, Incorporated, the organization running the city's candidacy to host the 1996 Olympic Games. "Let's have a bite," he said. "I might have a job for a man of your experience."

    I wasn't really in the job market. But I was curious. To exactly what aspect of my experience, I wondered, was he referring?

    Surely not my current situation as Senior Adviser to the Minister for Water Supply, formulating policy options on the privatization of the Mordialloc Main Drain, negotiating staffing levels with maddies from the Missos and making sure that Angelo didn't fall out of the boat while inspecting the catchment facilities.

    Nor, I thought, had Brian been referring to my brief sojourn at the Arts Ministry, my employer's other area of current responsibility, where I'd briefly grappled with transgressive postmodern cultural practice. Perhaps he meant my time at Ethnic Affairs, Angelo's previous portfolio.

    Yes, I thought, that was it. Athens was Melbourne's main competitor for the prize of the Centenary Games, after all. And five years at Ethnic Affairs, arm-wrestling the largest Greek community this side of the Peloponnesian peninsula, had taught me a thing or two about the Hellenic psyche. Helping to outwit the Athenians, I assumed, was what he had in mind for me.

    As I knotted my tie, my face stared back at me from the mirror. Assessing my presentability, comparing it with that of my fellow City Club members. No doubt about it, almost a decade in the antechamber of political power had done wonders for my wardrobe. What would the blokes back at the Municipal Employees Union have said about my Hugo Boss suit, I wondered? Or the electors of Melbourne Upper? Holly Deloite was not the only one who had changed.

    Smoothing my shirt front and buffing my shoes on the complimentary shoe-buffing machine, I strapped on my watch. Twelve-forty-five. Well exercised, well presented and on time. An ornament to the Australian Labor Party.

    Holly was at reception, sprucing up the motivational books and videos in their revolving display rack. Buns of Steel. Abs of Alabaster. Pecs of Polycarbon. "Lookin' good," she said. Just the sort of thing they said at the City Club, but that didn't stop me drawing encouragement from it.

    "What's it like?" I nodded at the book in her hand. The Seven Keys to Eternal Youth.

    Holly studied the object like she wasn't quite sure what it was. "Um," she said. "He's supposed to be really deep. You know. Philosophically." On the back cover was a photograph of the author, a man in a turban with heavy black-rimmed spectacles and a full beard.

    "Is he?" The guy looked like a myopic yak.

    "He did this one, too." From the rack she handed me Mastering the Forces That Shape Personal Identity.

    "Interesting title," I said. Refreshing in its brevity.

    I scanned a page at random. "Man is an air animal," it said. "Shed your clothes whenever possible. Take off your shoes, loosen your collar. Sleep in the nude."

    "Perhaps we could workshop this together," I suggested.

    But Holly wasn't listening. She was staring over my shoulder to where a customer was coming through the glass doors from the elevators. He wasn't one of the regulars, not one I'd seen before. He advanced toward us with the swaggering gait of a man acutely conscious of his physique. And with good reason. He was built like a small truck. Something compact but substantial. A Hilux two-tonner, for example, or a Ford Transit with aluminum dropside tray and dual rear wheels.

    "Uh oh," said Holly. "Here's trouble."

    He was a very solid piece of work. Medium height, oval face, a neck like a hatbox. Arms like legs. Legs like I don't know what. They were enclosed in voluminous pants made out of what appeared to be parachute silk. His torso bulged beneath a loose sweat-top that must have been a size XXXXL.

    He was somewhere in his mid-twenties, although his dark hair had already begun to thin at the forehead. The rest of it was slicked back over his skull and pulled tight into a rat's arse of a ponytail. The loose drape of his clothing seemed to accentuate rather than conceal the solid bulge of his body and he carried himself with the bowlegged strut of a man who has watched a few too many Sylvester Stallone movies. He'd probably been reasonably good-looking, in an over-masculine sort of way, before the acne got to work on his cheekbones.

    He smiled, showing a wide gap between his front teeth. "Hey, babe," he said.

    I took it that he was not addressing me. Holly's smile snapped shut like a venetian blind and her chin shot up about ten centimeters. "Excuse me a moment," she murmured, moving out from behind the counter to block Arnold Schwartzenschnitzel's advance.

    "Thought I told you to stay away." She spoke in an undertone, her irritation unmistakable.

    "Holly, babe." His voice was jaunty, undeterred. "Don't be like that."

    Holly folded her arms across her chest and glued her feet to the floor. "Listen, Steve." She spoke through gritted teeth. "It's all over between us. Can't you get that through that thick head of yours?"

    "Aw, be nice," Steve cooed, rolling his shoulders, a couple of performance artists trying to get out of a satin sack. His arms hung so far out from his sides he looked like he was doing an impression of the Sydney Harbor Bridge.

    Holly tossed an apprehensive glance over her shoulder and dropped her voice to a steely hiss. "You'll get me sacked if you don't stop coming around like this. And I want my stuff back."

    By this stage, I'd realized that I wasn't witnessing a bad moment in customer relations but a disagreement of a more personal nature, probably romantic in origin. Returning the hairy guru to his place in the wire display rack, I began to edge away, heading for the exit.

    "Don't be like that," Mr. Muscle said again. He was trying hard to sound casual but there was a note in his voice that I wasn't sure I liked. Holly didn't like it either, especially when he reached across to stroke the side of her neck. "I roolly miss you, babe."

    Her arm shot up and brushed his away. "I'm warning you, Steve."

    As I angled around them, Holly suddenly grabbed my elbow and thrust me forward. "This is my lawyer," she declared. "Stop harassing me or he'll have you in court, dead set."

    Too astonished to contradict her, I cleared my throat, squared my jaw and tried to look jurisprudential. A damsel in distress and all that. The Hulk gave me the slow once-over, not much impressed with what he saw.

    "What choo wanna lawyer for?" Now his feelings were hurt. "They just rip you off."

    I concurred with the general sentiment but resented the specific insinuation. Behind me, I heard a click like the latch falling on a closing gate. Garth, the club's deep-tissue masseur, was emerging from the pool deck with an armful of folded towels. The clicking noise was the sound of his tongue rebounding off the roof of his mouth. He steamed toward us.

    "Holly," he commanded tersely. "Put these in the stock room for me, please."

    Shooting me a quick look of thanks, Holly grabbed the towels and evaporated.

    Garth wasn't quite as hefty as this Steve character, but he had a good half-head on him. And a very butch manner, considering. He inserted himself between me and Steve, arms akimbo. "Come in here again," he said, "I'll call security. This is your last warning. On your bike, Tinkerbell."

    If looks could kill, Garth was a goner. Tinkerbell's lip curled back and his nostrils flared. But he managed to restrain himself. "Hey, man," he sneered. "Call this a gym? This ain't a gym. It's a pussy factory." He pirouetted on ballerina feet, tiny in comparison with the inverted triangle of his torso, and stalked contemptuously out the door.

    "Sorry about that, sir," said Garth. "Not our kind of person at all." On the other side of the glass doors, a balled fist was pounding the lift button, hammering it into the wall.

    "No trouble," I reassured the masseur, glancing first toward the stock room then at my watch. "No trouble whatsoever."

    Of course, Steve hadn't killed anyone at that stage. Not yet, anyway.

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