Read The Marvellous Boy Online
Authors: Peter Corris
PETER CORRIS is known as the âgodfather' of Australian crime fiction through his Cliff Hardy detective stories. He has written in many other areas, including a co-authored autobiography of the late Professor Fred Hollows, a history of boxing in Australia, spy novels, historical novels and a collection of short stories about golf (see
). In 2009, Peter Corris was awarded the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction by the Crime Writers Association of Australia. He is married to writer Jean Bedford and has lived in Sydney for most of his life. They have three daughters and six grandsons.
The Dying Trade
The Marvellous Boy
The Empty Beach
Make Me Rich
The Big Drop
Deal Me Out
The Greenwich Apartments
The January Zone
Man in the Shadows
Beware of the Dog
Burn, and Other Stories
The Washington Club
Forget Me If You Can
The Black Prince
The Other Side of Sorrow
Salt and Blood
The Coast Road
Taking Care of Business
The Big Score
Follow the Money
The Dunbar Case
This edition published by Allen & Unwin in 2014
First published by Pan Books (Australia) Pty Limited in 1982
Copyright Â© Peter Corris 1982
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.
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for Sophie, Miriam and Ruth
The house had an unhurried, gracious air; the grounds were big, a couple of acres, and the three storys rose up white and serene to a grey slate roof. But the lawn was scruffy and neglected, the garden beds needed weeding and from where I stood on the porch I could see daylight up through holes in the section of guttering above my head. When the house was built the view down to Rushcutters Bay would have been uninterruptedâthe green would have flowed down to white shimmering sand with a deep blue beyond that. Now there was a lot of rooftop and highway and bad air between the house and the water.
I stood in front of the doorbell, a no-nonsense black button on a brass plate, feeling ambivalent. I should have felt out of place, a private detective with one phone, one car and no secretary, but the house's down-at-heel character comforted me. Great edifices, like people, could fall on hard times. I hoped Lady Catherine Chatterton's times weren't too hard. I work for money, not for the privilege of dropping the names of my clients.
I rang the bell and straightened my clothesâleather jacket, good but old, clean shirt, clean denim pants, no tie. The door opened soundlessly and a dark-haired woman with
a bold, beaky-nosed face stood there looking at me as if I were a rag-and-bone man.
“Yes?” Welcomes weren't her big talent.
“My name's Hardy. Lady Catherine telephoned.”
She stepped forward as if she was going to smell me. “Ah, the detective.” Her thin lips and small white teeth were contemptuous. “Yes, she told me to expect you. Usually I do her telephoning.” She made a challenge of it and I decided that a smile might be in order.
“Well, maybe you were busy.”
She sneered at that but stepped back and opened the door just enough for me to go past her. I smelled dust and the temperature dropped suddenly; the hot November morning was somewhere else and so were the bustling, vulgar 1980s. I'd stepped into a reception lobby with parquet flooring and panelled walls. The usual sounds of a modern houseârefrigerator hum, air conditioning, talk-back radioâhad never penetrated here. There were paintings on the walls, portraits I thought, but my eyes were slow to adjust to the gloom after the bright day. I had an impression of moustaches.
The woman pointed ahead of her with an imperious gesture like a general directing troops.
I followed, trying to keep my feet clear of the legs of carved tables and ornately upholstered chairs. We went down a wide passage and then swung off into a narrower one, dropped down a short flight of stairs and entered a drawing room that reminded me of my school's meeting hall. It was high-ceilinged with oak panelling reaching halfway up walls which were hung about with more paintingsâdark, gloomy jobs that evoked memories of those school honour boards on which my name never
appeared. A woman was sitting on a straight-backed chair in the middle of the room. A similar chair was placed a few feet in front of her; the woman and the chairs had all the warmth and charm of an executioner with his axe and block. Her arms were stick-thin inside tight black velvet sleeves. She raised one dismissively.
“You may go, Verna.”
I watched how she took it; she'd been devouring the old woman with her eyes, burning her up and now she cut off the contact with an effort. Her dark hair was pulled back in a tight bun and her thin lips were like a strap keeping the pale, clear flesh on the lower part of her face tight. She was about thirty, handsome in an only-one-of-her-kind-in-captivity way. She looked as if she had a very good opinion of herself and a low one of nearly everyone else. She left the room.
The old woman waved me into the chair in front of her.
“That is Miss Reid,” she said. “My companion. A tiresome person in many ways but invaluable. You will be dealing with her in future.”
“If I take the job.”
She raised an eyebrow. The gesture caused hundreds of tiny wrinkles to spring into life all over her face. Her skin was old-leaf yellow. She had a thin nose and mouth and all the life in her face was around the eyes. They were dark and still large although flesh had fallen in around them. They looked disconcertingly young in that ancient face.
“I am of course Lady Catherine Chatterton.”
“Don't be flippant, Mr. Hardy. The world is not a flippant place and neither is the situation I am about to confront you with.”
She sounded as if she had thought it all out so I let her have her say. Something about her voice, firm with the
stamp of the right breeding and the right schools on it, struck a note in my memory. I'd been in court five or six years before when her late husband had handed down one of his savage judgements. It hadn't worried me, I'd been on the winning side, but the manner and tone of voice of Justice Sir Clive Chatterton had stuck. Making allowance for the sex difference, this was the same stuffâmeasured, arrogant, utterly self-assured. I couldn't have been flippant to save my life.
“I want you to find my grandson.”
“The police have a missing persons department,” I said. “They're experts.” You have to tell them that. It's like reading them their constitutional rights. They never listen. What she said in reply sounded like “Psshaw” and might have been.
“He's been missing for many years. The police would not have the resources or the flexibility the matter needs. Besides, I have been told that you are .Â .Â . “she hunted for the word, “discreet.”
That was nice. Not brave, not clever. Discreet.
“Who told you that?”
She waved the question and everything to do with my professional standing aside.
“I forget. It doesn't matter.”
It did to me, a little. I'm not domineering but I don't like having feet wiped on my face. Besides, it's a bad working relationship. Mutual respect, that's the thing to shoot for. I broke for cover.
“I charge seventy-five dollars a day and expenses. I don't touch political work and I don't beat people up unless they try to beat on me.”
Her mouth slid down into a sour arc. “Ridiculous. That could run into thousands.”
I felt more relaxed, a chink in the armour. “It seldom does,” I said soothingly. “Most matters are resolved one way or the other fairly quickly. I reduce the rates for the exceptions, when it's a sort of long-term watching brief.”
I'd made a concession. She looked happier. “You're in an unsavoury trade, Mr. Hardy.”
“It's a living, like any other.”
“No, that's where you're wrong. There are differences. The only honourable money is the sort of money that built and sustained this house.” She looked around the walls. “Money from the land, money from the professions.”
I shrugged. She was a bit boring. Then it struck me that she burbled on like this because she was lonely, didn't get enough people to talk to. Another chink.
“Tell me about your grandson, Lady Catherine.” I took out a pad and pen. What's his name?”
“I don't know.”
That wasn't boring. I tapped the pen on the pad and waited for her to go on. She enjoyed the effect of the statement. I began to warm to her, a little.
“It's a long story, would you care for some tea?”
I wouldn't but said I would and thanked her. I sensed that she'd rehearsed this scene in her mind and that it was important to her that it be played just right. I hate tea, but if tea was part of it I'd go along.
“Good, some should be arriving presently.” She glanced at a tiny gold watch and nodded confirmation; her eyesight was remarkable.
“I must tell you things, Mr. Hardy, which ordinarily I wouldn't tell a soul, not even a close member of the familyâif such a person existed.”
I nodded and tried to look discreet, my strong point.
“My husband and I had only one child; that was a
sadness.” She raised a hand to her pale, dry hair as if saluting the days of her fertility, or infertility. “Our daughter, Bettina, was born in 1931, she was married very young, at seventeen years of age. The marriage did not last long, a few years only. Bettina's husband was a barrister, a very promising man at the time but he turned out to be weak, a drunkard. He was some years older than Bettina.”
“How much older?”
“Oh, twenty years.”
I didn't really. Seventeen-year-old girls don't usually go for men in their late thirties. They tend to regard us as doddering. Some do of course, but I thought I could smell “arrangement” in this one and her next remark increased the suspicion.