It was just another day at the office for Rebecca Crowe. Or so she thought. It would soon become patently uncertain as to its outcome.
Rebecca had just arrived for work, a little later than usual, owing to a late night out following up socially invigorating leads, when her PA came into her office with a special delivery.
“Good morning, Reb. Was it a late one? You look a little green around the gills.”
“Hey. Morning, Trish. Never too late to do over. Just remind me not to over indulge in Sazerac cocktails. Unless chaperoned, of course. Have I missed anything?”
Trish approached the desk and placed a wad of sealed documents onto the blotter.
“These arrived this morning. I was in early and came in the security entrance out back to find it on the carpet runner just inside the front door. And it definitely wasn’t there when I left last night.”
Trish paused and looked back down at the bundle.
“Well, that’s the implication. Must be a newsagent or a paper boy with a good arm.”
Rebecca leaned back in her desk chair with a furrowed brow.
“Let’s make a point of reminding the security firm to double-check the transom window is closed. No point even having it open with the air con working overtime in this unseasonal heat.”
“Transom window? Have you been subscribing to Home Beautiful or something?”
“Very funny. You forget I started an architecture degree before I decided to switch to Law. Truth be known, I did once subscribe to Town & Country.”
“I never took you for someone ‘horsey’. Don’t tell me you were a polo groupie.”
“Nay, Trish, nay. More your Church groupie. And this would seem the result of an unguarded moment, if ever there was one.”
Trish blinked blankly.
“The band. Of my youth. A song. A perfect fit…”
“Oh, yeah, right…”
“A perfect fit for, for this. Whatever it is. But before we go there, you have to tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Your groupie crush.”
Trish flushed with reminiscence.
“Oh, you’ll only laugh.”
“Oh, come on. We’ve all been there at some stage.”
Trish rolled her eyes at herself.
“OK. OK. Powderfinger”
Rebecca cooed suggestively.
“Bernard Fanning, eh?”
“Yes, and he’s still got it too!”
Rebecca smiled at the honest admission.
“I didn’t mean to fan the flames. Have to admit, though, that it’s a perfect fit for tracing the owner of this.”
She prodded and turned the bundle over to examine any identifying markers. The address consisted of large, childlike uppercase characters.
“Apart from being addressed to the firm and me by name, there’s nothing to distinguish it from an overzealous attempt at an affidavit. Don’t suppose it could be any kind of chemical injunction?”
“What do you mean? You don’t suspect any kind of white powder threat?”
“We might not exactly be a direct arm of government, but you can never rule out the state of mind to hold a grudge.”
“Let’s not take any risks, Reb. Call the Police and let them check it first. Forensics or bomb squad? I’ll call. The boys down at Docklands still owe me a favour.”
“Let’s not talk about that night cruise on the river. Ok. Call it in.”
48 hours later and the results were in. The package was clean. No hint of anthrax, or any other contaminant. Certainly no explosives. Not even a trace of fingerprints or DNA.
“We could get a handwriting expert in.”
“Slow down Trish. We don’t even know what we’re dealing with yet.”
Trish tried not to hover over the desk.
“OK. I’ll leave to you. Let me know what turns up. I’ve got a deposition to arrange.”
She spun on her sensible in-house soles and made to close the office door.
Rebecca called after her.
“Try not to let your curiosity cloud the morning…”
The door politely clicked closed .
Rebecca leaned back in her leather chair and stared at the now unsealed A2 manila envelope within the tagged plastic police evidence bag.
She kicked off her heels and rocked querulously.
Her direct line rang and she let it go through to voicemail.
Damn modern over-packaging.
Her trim, short manicured nails struggled with the wrapping.
She was overcome with a momentary wave of exhilaration akin to the pangs of expectation that command a child's senses on Christmas Day.
Hah! I hope it’s not another negligee.
Once released from the evidence bag, she placed the enveloped bundle squarely on her blotter. She preferred to work at her PC on a special upright workstation; sitting for too long made her uptight, but this was a different matter for sedentary application.
I wonder how thoroughly the boys in blue read through any of this?
Rebecca squared up to the pile of documents and with the practiced skill of an archivist she respectfully began to go through the documents sheaf by sheaf in a bid to discern the reason for its unusual delivery.
It presented like a portfolio of work connected by a tenuous thematic thread. There was what passed for a letter of introduction cum request for an expression of interest. The language presented as quaintly opaque, couched in an almost breathless quality and a turn of phrase that strove for directness but stumbled upon itself.
At times, it sounded like it was a parody of a quest for a voice.
Dear Ms. Crowe.
I take this opportunity to ingratiate myself with your firm resolve to leave no stone unturned. Such is your reputation that precedes you in wide estimation.
You may be forgiven for thinking the mode of my delivery somewhat unconventional and you would be right. What better way to encourage your wonder as to the unique situation I will ask you to entertain at my discretion. I would advise, however, that you reconsider leaving your transom window open even for the sake of discouraging copycat behaviour – for the original modus operandi remains the utmost example of clear aforethought and can never be relegated to a mere footnote.
Please don’t get the wrong impression, but I have followed your career from afar with keen interest and acknowledge your perspicacious credentials in the area of your expertise as a lawyer and notary of note.
As such, I am aware of your predilection for seeing things through to their resolution, intent on not letting circumstantial evidence outwit your determination to follow the trail and champion truth’s freedom from travail.
I also know how you cannot resist a challenge. Consider this a challenge to restore your faith – in me (who you may or may not care to claim to know or remember, or wish to know), the administration of justice and in yourself as prominent proponent.
At the time of writing I am still very much alive, but cannot guarantee that I will be in such fettle as this as our case is worked through by you.
The common bond cannot be denied. Yet, I must refrain from giving too much away since I must not betray what I have been entrusted with.
My tone you will not recognise, neither the script I have chosen to convey the matter’s course.
You will find no tell-tale identifying marks, for I am scrupulous to maintain my anonymity at this introductory stage. Consider me a surgeon whose hygiene and attention to detail is without parallel. I could very well turn my hand to anything, but have chosen to reinstate that which will ensure what by extension deserves to be honoured.
Yours is a tradition and heritage that cannot be underestimated or allowed to be overshadowed by emergent dangers that threaten to undermine our reward.
Obscurity does not become you, however much you may wish to remain a free agent.
I hereby accept your terms, but do you dare to accept mine?
The accompanying papers are for your edification and guidance.
Clues to fathom the depths of the mystery before us.
Remembrance and the eternal gesture of a life’s tribute?
Or, oblivion and scant regard for existence hard-won?
Try not to hedge your bets or bide your time to the detriment of enhancement’s outcome.
Refined eschatology serves no one if paused to impose a rort,
of the lore you no doubt double down on when inconveniently overwrought.
Forgive my posy, but we all have our flaws.
I can only hope it doesn’t put you off the scent.
I wish you well in this endeavour.
With unbound convention,
Your particular petitioner.
Rebecca was none the wiser. Even more nonplussed as a result.
The letter was not hand written. Rather, it had been typed using a font she judged to be Informal Roman. Was this a clue in itself?
She placed the letter to one side, closed her eyes and reflected on its import.
Certain turns of phrase leapt to mind as she reread it in her mind:
…for the original modus operandi remains the utmost example of clear aforethought
…champion truth’s freedom
…restore your faith
…chosen to reinstate that which will ensure what by extension deserves to be honoured
…overshadowed by emergent dangers that threaten to undermine our reward
…remain a free agent
…clues to fathom the depths of the mystery before us
…the lore you no doubt double down on when inconveniently overwrought
…we all have our flaws
This was already doing her head in.
It was a harbinger. No doubt about it. She would definitely need some Tiger Balm.
Or a couple of Panadeine. Or both.
None of it made sense. What could it mean?
She didn’t recognise the tone. Yet, there was definitely a familiarity there.
Did this ‘particular petitioner’ know her?
Had they been a client?
Something she couldn’t quite shake told her that the petitioner was possibly older and came across as male.
What was it about the voice?
Playful, yet wilful.
Insistent and accommodating.
Was it all just a joke?
Only one thing for it – an early lunch. Time to chew it over at her favourite café.
The rest of it could wait.
She laughed self-consciously.
I’m already going against the flow and biding my time. Typical.
Placing the documents in her desk drawer, she went to find Trish and asked her to join in the brunch break for bagels and coffee.
Once at their usual table at Grinders, a short walk from their Drummond Street office in Carlton, she felt better placed to brief her offsider.
“So, tell me, what did you find out?”
“About last night?”
Trish shook her head.
“That can wait. I think I can guess, anyway. I mean the special delivery.”
“Not so much yet. There was a letter of introduction that demanded most of my attention. It really threw me. I don’t know what to make of it. I’m still trying to get my head round it. Here, see what you think. I just need to eat this and finish my chai before I can think again.”
Rebecca pulled from her briefcase a facsimile she had the foresight to make before she had stowed the original in the lower holdall lockable drawer of her desk.
She sat quietly opposite Trish and observed her while she read the letter.
It seemed that at every few lines Trish raised her eyes to look quizzically at her boss, at a loss herself as to the bona fides of the missive.
She paused a couple of times to sip from her coffee mug without uttering a word, before she continued.
Rebecca ordered them each another drink as she awaited the verdict.
Finally, after what must have been two or three careful reads, Trish lowered the photocopy and contemplated the fresh brew before her.
“Thanks, Reb. You read my mind.”
“So, what did you make of your read-through?”
Trish blinked concertedly a couple of times.
“Is this serious?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“Pardon the pun, but it comes across as magisterial. Sure it’s not a senior counsel or silk with a crush?”
“You know I don’t sully my own backyard. Not worth the angst.”
“Just putting it out there. Do you suspect it’s someone you know? I mean, the references to your character traits and reputation.”
Rebecca picked delicately at a poppy seed caught between her front teeth.
“I couldn’t even begin to guess. Whoever it is does a pretty solid job concealing their identity with the language they’ve couched it all in. It comes across as something out of a Sherlock Holmes story.”
“Then it looks like you have your very own Moriarty.”
Rebecca had taken out a compact and reapplied her lipstick post ingestion.
“It’s elementary my dear Trisha. Maybe we should consider changing our practice to Bagel & Chai.”
“Or, Gris & Grigio.”
“Partners in crime.”
“So what other leads did you find?”
Rebecca paused and smudged the lipstick stain on the rim of her mug.
“My Joker routine always comes to the fore, even at this time of the day.”
“So, what leads, other than leaving traces of yourself?
“The letter was as far as I got.”
“What! You’re kidding me?”
“Guilty as charged. You have to admit the letter was a doozy.”
Trish was exasperated.
“Well then, it’s not the time to remain true to your personality traits. Back to the office. You’ve got some proofs to get through.”
Luckily there were no pressing matters to personally attend to that the rest of the small team at Crowe & Co couldn’t handle.
Ensconced in her office, Rebecca spent the best part of the day going through the rest of the material in the mystery envelope.
Beyond the letter, which she reread and tried to tease some ulterior motive and meaning from, the remaining contents continued to keep her hypothesising.
There were two old school maps for the Riverina region of southern New South Wales, with especial emphasis on the towns of Burrumbuttock and Tumut, both having been highlighted on their own respective fold out section.
Sticky notes had been affixed beneath each town with the printed capitals ‘PLACE OF INTEREST = PEOPLE OF INTEREST’.
There was a last will and testament form minus the deceased’s names or signatures, with only another sticky note which read ‘FILL IN THE BLANKS’ and ‘GOODS AND CHATTELS’. What came as a shock was that Rebecca had been nominated as the executor.
A small vinyl photo album contained a series of randomly selected postcards from all over the world. There was no dedication on any of them, but on each had been stamped the abiding line ‘WISH YOU WERE HERE!’
There was a selection of bills of fare from various restaurants and theatre productions. The shows had come and gone but Rebecca recognised a couple restaurants that were still famously in business.
Newspaper clippings included old articles by Max Harris and Phillip Adams from The Australian. Leunig cartoons also featured – was she to go in search of Curly Flats and rescue a duck?
Junk mail advertising and sale catalogues for Dimmeys and Forges department stores seemed to be making a statement by having had acid house smiley face stickers placed over images of male and female models posing in underwear.
A collection of poems and other creative writing examples; the start of a novel/memoir that stated in the preface that the names of people had been changed to protect the innocent.
Novelty doctor’s certificates detailing cases of diseases and afflictions previously cured or for the likes of which only Science Fiction could hope to conjure.
Bank withdrawal and deposit slips from last century that had been filled in with make believe absurdist details and amounts to the order of an entirely new system of economic control.
An autograph book full of the scribbled monikers from a who’s who of Australian politics, sports and television luminaries.
Harold Holt and Bob Hawke were mixed in with Dawn Fraser, Max Walker, Barry Crocker and Humphrey B. Bear. All of a particular vintage, this pointed to the collector being of a certain generation; unless they had inherited these from a forebear or stumbled across them at auction of an unsuspecting thrift shop.
The most intriguing article, however, proved to be what defined itself as a ransom letter; a nice bookend to the introductory letter.
It purported to be a ransom demand for the next of kin who would be the beneficiaries of the incomplete will; one more or less piece of the puzzle.
It stated that if the leads were followed and the clues resolved then a reward would be revealed as intended for Rebecca to do with as she pleased, but with a veiled proviso that it would be in her interests to make it known that she would donate the funds to certifiable charitable organisations for the purposes of tax deductibility.
Whoever this was, they were clearly intimating, rather than being outright intimidating, that they would look after Rebecca as long as she played the game according to their rules. Oh, and the next of kin would be ‘accommodated’ in style.
She felt no less baffled than when she had returned from the café break.
The business day was almost over and her thoughts turned to the evening ahead.
She would need to at least process what had so far been revealed before coming to any workable conclusions.
Her mind felt flayed from trying to join the dots. If this was a hoax, then it had succeeded in consuming her entire day.
Time to clock off. Head home, get changed and investigate one of the restaurants whose menu was included in the bills of fare. Maybe even a cocktail or two.
She replaced the envelope in the desk drawer and locked it for good measure.
Trish didn’t want to press the point and held off quizzing her, thinking that it could wait ‘til morning after she’d had a night to sleep on it all. Rebecca reminded her that they had arranged to have after work drinks with a couple of partners from another firm on Friday and was assured that it had no competition on her social calendar.
“Let’s just hope another envelope doesn’t appear overnight.”
“Well, let’s make a point of keeping that transom window closed. And don’t forget to set the alarm. Did you ask the security to do an extra patrol?”
“Always do and yes, security is briefed.”
“What would I do without you, Trish?”
Tyler Upson was craving a change of scene. And he was more than a little peckish.
The French restaurant would fit the bill nicely.
Paris Go Bistro was something of a local institution. He certainly knew its reputation and recalled having previously dined there once or twice on business.
This time he was spoiling himself and wanted to satisfy his curiosity.
The term le plat de resistance had always amused him and he couldn’t help but momentarily entertain the fantasy that he was in fact part of an underground guerrilla movement bent on restoring traditional cuisine to its rightful place in opposition to any trend in fascist tendencies towards national domination.
Contemporary fusion could have its place but would not usurp the time honoured demand for authentic regionally inflected fare.
He snapped out of it and decided better of the notion to wear a tie. At the end of a day at work the last thing he felt like was to feel constricted by formalities. (Not that he was in the habit of tying a Windsor knot for work.) Plenty of other opportunities would arise to play the sartorial card. Tonight would see a more reflective mood, relaxed and at ease in jacket, chinos, button down collar and leather loafers.
The combo seemed to fit the mood and ambience of such a place.
Tyler was nothing if not a chameleon. This evening he felt more salubrious than usual. Sophisticated, even. That was it. Not quite so scruffy.
He often ate by himself at home or sat alone in the nearby pub for a counter meal on those nights when he had no apparent reason to venture out, other than in need of respite from the work he had brought home. That being said, he could technically be said to work from home anyway in his self-appointed role as private investigator.
Not that he found it hard to separate the role from his personal life. He enjoyed strictly fluid parameters. Besides, he was ‘unattached’ and didn’t really have a personal life to speak of, other than being his own free agent.
‘After hours’ were his modus operandi.
It was only a short stroll from his terrace in Carlton and he enjoyed the idea of his version of a constitutional convention.
Regular forays into the public domain kept him on his toes. And were great for his calves too, especially in the warmer weather when he really only felt comfortable wearing his cargo shorts. They were versatile to boot and made a man bag redundant, however much a part of him clung to the notion.
Tonight he felt like putting on airs; a spot of play acting to keep in shape, as much to mock the late spring breeze that conspired to play havoc with hay fever sufferers as to convince himself that he could mix it up and practice his high school French, complete with an insouciantly deceiving accent.
Dining alone had the advantage of his being able to be accommodated when reservations were at a premium, as all he needed was a cancellation for a quick rearrangement of the seating plan and he had himself a table.
Such was this occasion. Whether or not the accent and fluent convivial banter had done the trick over the phone, he was effusively expected at his preferred time.
As coincidence would have it, he had chosen a night when the establishment was celebrating the anniversary of the owners’ separation as a couple, but successfully ongoing business relationship. A perverse French arrangement if ever there was one. Befitting Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
He arrived a little before the nominated time of 7:30, but there was already almost a full house. The night’s bill of fare included a chanteuse and a burlesque performance to whet the appetite.
His elevated table was positioned in clear view of the little podium and within serviceable reach of the bar.
‘’Salut.Comment allez-vous ce soir?’’
‘’Très bien, Merci.’’
‘’Je vous sers un verre?’’
‘’Tu lis dans mon esprit.’’
The waitress laughed conspiratorially.
Tyler cocked his head coquettishly.
‘’Un Martini sec serait parfait.’’
‘’Gin ou vodka?’’
‘’Eh bien, je ne suis pas James Bond, alors mieux vaut en fairedu gin.’’
‘’Tout comme vous le souhaitez.’’
The waitress nodded and went to place the order.
Tyler pushed his chair back, crossed his legs and surveyed the scene.
Not surprisingly, most table settings were for two, although there were a few tables for small groups.
Charles Aznavour provided the low key background score.
The waitress returned with his drink and an apologetic set to her features.
‘’Votre verre, Monsieur.’’
‘’Mes excuses. J'ai négligé de vous laisser avec un menu pour parcourir.’’
Tyler accepted the proffered menu.
‘’Pas d'excuses né cessaires. N'y pense pas.’’
She smiled in gratitude for his easy going charm.
‘’Et vous observerez le tableau des spéciaux pour ce soir. Jepeux recommander le canard un orange pour une entrée et lablanquette de veau pour le plat principal.’’
‘’Ça a l'air délicieux.’’
‘’S'll vous plaît, prenez votre temps. Je reviendrai prendre votre commande.’’
Her features more relaxed, she smiled graciously and retreated.
Tyler sipped his martini and contemplated his comparatively enviable station in life.
Who wouldn’t want to be him? Someone without hang-ups?
He scanned the paraphernalia adorning the walls. It had the impression of a collage overlaying the brickwork; postcards and posters ranging in subject matter from advertising for Gitanes cigarettes, Air France, Moulin Rouge, Josephine Baker, movies including, ironically enough, Sean Connery as 007 in Thunderball, Le Samouria, Monsieur Hulot and Amelia; instantly recognisable works by Toulouse Lautrec and Jules Cheret, Chat Noir - Ce Soir, Sarah Bernhardt, Asterix, Citroen, Le Coq Sportif and absinthe.
The martini worked its magic.
His attention was then directed to the menu.
The choices were eye-wateringly tempting and on closer inspection inspired flashbacks to the first trip Tyler made to France in his early 20s when he had finished his law degree.
This time round though there was a distinctive flavour of French colonialism in the orient. A separate section of the menu catered to Indochinese possessions and colonies and the traditional dishes inspired from this period.
He felt like something a little different and scanned this section until he hit upon a dish called thit bo kho which was basically a Vietnamese take on a beef stew, braised with a cinnamon infused marinade, complete with a baguette.
The combination of star anise and cinnamon with fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and sugar in a broth was enough to make him salivate at the prospect. The carrots were a concession to the continental predisposition to root vegetables, but seemed right at home in such a creation of enthusiastic fusion. Time honoured demand be damned!
This would suffice as a main and he couldn’t go past the foie gras terrine as an entree. He hated to disappoint the waitress and her recommendations, but felt he had to honour his critical capacity for cultural appropriation as a wider, ongoing appreciation of food as central to human evolution verging on a devolved civilisation.
One regret in his life was that he hadn’t studied history or anthropology. The law had won out, thanks to family pressure to submit to an esteemed profession they could be proud of; especially his father, who felt he had failed his father by choosing comparative literature and didn’t want to see the same frictions and estrangement perpetuated as a result.
Well, that had certainly born bad fruit.
If dessert beckoned, the bhan flan would win out. Word was it was a take on a crème caramel. He would take the menu’s word for it.
The waitress returned to take his order and didn’t seem too displeased with his selection. Another martini was on the cards and a closer look at the wine list.
A pinot gris was deemed an ideal partner for the foie gras and a glass was duly ordered in contemplation of the entrée.
Tyler was definitely relaxing into himself. There was a discernible air of camaraderie between a substantial proportion of the diners, as if they were regulars come to celebrate the anniversary and their own association with the establishment.
As he waited, Tyler let his eye wander and fall on various fellow diners, pausing to nod and smile should his gaze be met. A generous helping of joie de vivre had settled over what could have passed for a congregation giving thanks for their good fortune at having such a place to discover and absorb the divine sophistication of Parisian attitudes; so conspiratorial that it bordered on the louche.
So louche that he himself couldn’t resist verging on open scrutiny of the next diner as she entered the restaurant.
She was apparently alone and had no trouble securing a table that had obviously been reserved in her name.
The waiter (funny how it seemed synchronised so that a staff member of the opposite gender was in wait for the next customer as they arrived) presented himself for her regard, obtained her name and proceeded to lead her over towards the raised section where Tyler was seated.
He raised his glass in welcome as she took her seat adjacent at another table for one.
This particular section of the dining area seemed set aside for individuals of redoubtable resilience, who preferred their own company when none better would do out of mere arranged convenience.
Tyler sat back and continued his observation while swirling his glass and tapping his fingers to the current Leonard Cohen selection; Quebec having been saluted in honour of the shared language and cultural touchstones.
The word secession rolled over his tongue with the wine in mute recognition of claims outstanding.
He surmised she must have had a long day and could not be bothered engaging in the routine of showing off her dexterous foreign language skills, as she politely waved away the notion and explained in an audibly discriminating, though not arrogant, Melbourne accent of the tertiary educated (before the higher education contribution scheme kicked in for a brave new world of privatised knowledge), that she had a headache the likes of which only a drink could cure.
In the time it took for her aperitif to safely land before her, she had stopped rummaging through her bag and fiddling with her smart phone, and focused on the matter at hand.
She felt his eyes upon here before she looked up to register his interest.
Distracted as she was upon her arrival, it was only once seated and snifting the vapours from the glass that she realised her placement in the singular scheme of the setting.
Tyler smiled and raised his glass. Despite being in such relative proximity, the hubbub meant he had to lean forward toward her table no more than a metre or so away from his in order to be heard.
“We seem to be in the minority.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Our table arrangement, I mean. I take it you’re not part of the gathering of the communal tribes.”
“Only table left. Anyway, you are spot on as to any affiliation. Something just commanded me to go French tonight. Compelling evidence rather than convenience over a sense of polite bonhomie.”
“Nothing wrong with that. Compulsion can be a force for good.”
“Are you generally this compulsive in striking up conversation with complete strangers?”
Tyler pondered his penchant for tipping the balance.
“Not out of habit. It’s a momentary reflex. Not that I’m expecting any reflux from this sitting. Do you come here often?”
“I can’t say that I do. More of a random selection on sheer impulse. The clues all seemed to point in this direction.”
“An alignment of planets, eh?”
This comment was met with a wide-eyed smile of incredulity.
“Sorry. I guess I’ve been watching too much of the stargazing show on ABC. Have you seen any of it?”
This seemed to elicit genuine interest.
“Oh, you mean the Brian and Julia love-in. Can’t say I’ve caught them all back-to-back, but I am recording them so I can catch up. That bloke in the bush with his laser star pointer is out of this world.”
“Haha! Literally. Gave me a newfound respect for ‘zenith’ and ‘azimuth’. Hadn’t heard that one since year eight science. It’s all about the trajectory and arc and knowing how to find the South Celestial Pole. Bet Mawson would have bitten off more than he could chew if his dog team had imagined themselves as reindeer. Wrong hemisphere, of course…”
“You seem to be in your comfort zone. So, what brings you here, of all nights?”
“More of a whim. As the adage goes: because it’s there. Have you explored the menu yet? I’ve gone the eastern route – the French take on the Orient. What are you drinking?”
“Pinot Gris. Seems de rigueur given the ambience. Plus, it’s my favourite tipple of late.’’
“Joint the club. It’s never too late.”
Tyler again raised his glass in salute of her choice.
The waiter came back to take his neighbour’s order, with Tyler proving an able aid in selection of Indochinese flavours to do justice to the preferred drop.
Order placed, Tyler felt emboldened to seize the moment.
“Seems silly to conduct ourselves like this. I’m Tyler.”
He offered his hand to seal the deal.
“Enchante. I’m Rebecca.”
“What do you say we combine our little tables and enjoy our meal together. That’s if I’m not being too overbearing and intrusive.”
Rebecca paused mid sip and considered the proposal.
“To be honest, I can’t say that I’m in the habit of accepting impromptu dinner invitations while already seated, but I feel I can make an exception on this occasion. Docking permission granted.”
With a little indulgence on the part of the waiting staff, Tyler and Rebecca were able to rearrange the cosy table settings so they no longer felt as though they were engaged in a ship-to-ship communique.
Once resettled, Tyler hit upon an idea he was appalled he hadn’t thought of sooner.
“What do you say to sharing a bottle? Much more economical. My shout.”
“OK. Makes sense. It is going down a treat. Same again then?”
Tyler detected a faint warming to her complexion and conceded to himself that he could drink them under the table should it turn out that was to be the necessary act of giving over.
The evening proceeded to its own orchestrated tune of whim and wonder. Almost as though there was an overarching celestial determinant at play.
Performances interspersed the savouring of the menu and celebration of the venue’s history and personality; complete with off the cuff speeches of appreciation from the owners and chef, which were in turn toasted by the ebullient crowd for the years of passionate hospitality and culinary consistency.
The wine flowed freely as did the conversation.
Rebecca and Tyler found that they had much in common besides their fondness for wines of the Alsace. Albeit at different universities only a few of years apart, they had both studied law. She had pursued the legal profession to where she found herself in her present incarnation as a senior partner in her small though reputable firm.
He, on the other hand, had graduated top of his final year before working as junior counsel on a few high profile news worthy cases and then throwing it in and walking away.
“I literally went bush as a tour guide with a mate who was an operator in the Kakadu and Daintree. He could tell I was fed up and made me an offer too good to refuse.
I was pretty flush, so could afford to weigh up putting my little place on the market to sell or rent out. I went with the latter option to keep the liquidity flowing from both directions – monthly rental and decent pay for leading foreign tourists astray.”
“But why so fed up?”
“Defence or the prosecution? Take your pick. You know the song Lawyers, Guns and Money? Well, I started to feel like a precedent without precedent for hire, if you get my meaning. I had no real say in our clients and had to follow the lead of the QC and firm bigwigs. It was OK for a few years, but by then the cynicism had set in. Tried my hand with a pro bono outfit for a little while, but I guess my heart just wasn’t in it.”
“And now you’re on holiday back in town, or does this mean a new venture.”
“Haw! You know what they say about nothing ventured, nothing gained? Well, I’m in a position to call the shots and can sustain the dream to be my own boss, minus any idealistic pricks of conscience. Not that they were all pricks, mind you.”
“So, don’t tell me you’re starting your own independent party and getting into politics!”
“Yeah, right. Unlikely. Good try. No, more like private investigator. And before you say anything about being for hire, this is getting my hands dirty of a different nature. I mightn’t be a part of the legal fraternity any more, but at least I’m working from the bottom up rather than down from up on high. Suits me.”
Rebecca sat back, realised the delicious irony of the setting, and tried to gauge her dinner companion in light of this revelation.
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t pick you for a private dick. You don’t seem all that tied up in a knot. Be careful not to give too much away, though. You never know who could be listening.”
“Thanks for the advice. I’ll remember that.”
“So, are you working any interesting case at the moment? You can confide in me.”
“I wouldn’t take you for a confidence trickster. Shame on you.”
“No, I mean it. Anything untoward? Need a woman’s perspective?”
“Just the usual – domestic squabbles, infidelity, worker’s compo, missing persons. Nothing out of the ordinary. What about you? Anything juicy to sink your teeth into?”
“Mainly administrative appeals. Dispute resolution. Pretty petty stuff as it goes. A lot of our time is taken up with notary public practice. It’s raining documents, regardless of the season.”
Tyson rolled his eyes in exaggerated exasperation and adopted a bombastic tone of judicial reproach.
“Counsel will be reminded not to attempt to engage his Honour in any exchange of paronomastic parodies. This can only result in contempt and being sent down.”
Rebecca merely blinked before she uttered the first thing that came to mind.
“OK. I am on notice. Duly noted. Well served.”
“Very deft. I warrant that. Touche!”
“Writ large, if you ask me. But, what I want to know is how you came to speak French so fluently?”
“No choice in the matter. I went to a secondary college where you had to start learning a foreign language in year 7 up to year 9 when it became an elective. I guess I must have an ear for it because I dropped it as soon as I could, but it sunk in and has stayed with me ever since. It helped with travel and with the French tourists up north. They certainly didn’t expect Crocodile Dundee to spout off in a Romance language.”
“I can just see their faces. We must have been at school at about the same time, before the Asian languages apparently became so important to our future. I would have preferred Japanese, but I know what you mean about it staying with you. I sometimes even watch French cinema without the subtitles.”
“Bonte divine! That is out there. You obviously like to live on the edge.”
“Well, I’m sitting here with you aren’t I?”
Tyler pursed his lips as though for an air kiss but let forth a surprised whistle instead.
“This is true, mademoiselle.”
“You can forget about the presumption of innocence. I’d like to know what happened to true diligence.”
“Very good. OK. Let me start with my first job. It was a newspaper round. I then moved on to shelf stacker at a supermarket. To this day I can’t stand the smell of laundry powder, but I could still manage to lob the morning paper through the transom.”
A momentary silence interjected and cracked like a bullwhip.
“What did you just say?”
“It’s an expression. I could have said yardarm for the same affect. I mean, it would have to be an older house, like the terraces around here.”
Rebecca looked like she had just seen the real thing exposed.
Tyler went on without skimping on an explanation.
“I grew up around inner Melbourne, so I’m well versed in the styles of period architecture. You could say it’s a hobby of mine. I moved back here to Carlton, actually.”
“That is just too ludicrous. Are you serious?”
“What? I can’t have such a hobby or Carlton’s lost its charm? It’s definitely lost none of its appeal for me.”
“No, I mean, er, well, you see, we had an incident at the office. Your choice of words couldn’t be more apt. Very psychic of you. Can I ask you a question, Tyler?”
“Please don’t stop there. Rebecca.”
“You’re not in the habit of devising mysterious schemes for engaging the services of a probate court lawyer by any chance?”
“Mysterious schemes? Do tell. Prie dis!”
Rebecca launched into a recap of the scenario which had left the bundle of documents in her desk drawer, but her none the wiser as to their real significance.
Tyler refilled her glass.
“You can see why I was thrown by that term. Not something you hear every day.”
“Bloody hell. That is weird.”
“Foutu enfer, alright.”
She repaid the gesture and refilled his glass in the hope of sponsoring an insight.
“So, you’ve got nothing more than the assortment of clippings, cards, catalogues and certificates? Oh, and the letters. The personal touch.”
“That’s it. Do think it’s credible?”
“Either that, from an eccentric source, or someone’s having a lend of you, just to see you on a wild goose chase. Is there anyone who might be out to get payback for anything?”
“Just what are you fishing for?”
“Well, I want to rule myself out for a start. It has to be something more than mere coincidence.”
“Your surname isn’t Transom, by any chance? Tyler Transom has a nice ring to it.”
“Would be a good fit if it were true. Tyler Upson to be exact.”
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d said Grout.”
“As incredible as it may sound, I reckon that it’s too original to ignore. Would be a complete waste of time for the so-called ‘petitioner’ otherwise. If you’re sure there’s no one gunning for you.”
“No one on my radar. And I mean both professionally and personally. I did a review and couldn’t pinpoint anyone as a likely candidate. I am inclined to suspect that this is not a set-up, but an actual call for help. It’s one reason I came here tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“One of the bills of fare contained in the bundle of clues is for this very restaurant. How could I resist putting myself in plain sight to see if someone would take an over the top interest in my being here?”
“You sound like you’re using yourself as bait. But, from my experience, if this is genuine then whoever it is wouldn’t reveal themselves so early in the piece. They seem to want this all to play out according to some script. So far you’ve only got the prompts and stage directions. You’ve just got to follow the narrative as it unfolds according to the clues.”
“Yeah, right. And cue Robert Palmer.”
Tyler broke into a gentle croon.
“Ooh, I’m looking for clues…”
Rebecca cocked an eyebrow.
“Wow! You have a nice voice. Just don’t start with Addicted to Love.”
“OK. So long as you don’t suspect me of any involvement in this scheme. I’m more fixer than trap setter. Although, that could come in handy in certain circumstances. What are you going to do?”
“Dessert wouldn’t go astray.”
“I could entertain possibilities of a cognac.”
“Have you ever tried absinth?”
“Careful. This could turn into a Baz Luhrmann production.”
“I think it’s already well on the way.”
Rebecca nodded in the direction of the small chorus line of dancers who had appeared outside the restaurant on the footpath and visible through the large pane glass frontage.
They broke into a rowdy interpretation of a can-can, accompanied by the strains of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld played over the dining room’s speakers.
A waiter went to open the door and two of the dancers flounced in through a rustling of skirts and petticoats, tantalizing patrons with quick circular movements of their lower legs with knee raised and skirt held up, and finishing with them performing the splits in front of the bar and high kicks on the podium.
Applause and hollers of approval resounded round the dining space as the dancers posed for selfies with patrons while the chanteuse readied herself for another set.
“So, are you curious to try the absinth now?”
Tyler replied by way of raising his fist in front of his nose and twisted it like he was revving a motorcycle.
Rebecca parleyed with what looked at first like a facepalm of bewilderment at her companion’s gesture, but which resulted in her smacking her open hand over her ovoid mouth to create a sudden popping sound.
The waitress had begun to approach their table when she thought better of it and courteously backed away so as not to disturb such a curious courting display.
The newly acquainted mimics convulsed with what could have been mistaken for delirium tremens, but which spasms were brought on by a mutually perceived appreciation of frivolity.
As if to consolidate their intrepid foray into folly, Tyler offered his hand to Rebecca and suggested they join the others dancing in the clear space in front of the podium.
She readily endorsed the idea, but made a point of whispering that she had “deux pieds gauches”. He made light of the deterrent and, with her in tow, pranced away with a hop, skip and a jump towards the swaying formation in thrall to the popular conviction of giving over to the ineluctable.
To be continued...