‘Er, hi, mate. Is John Franklin here? He asked me to come and see him.’
A large, florid man with several teeth missing replied: ‘Over in the corner, mate. Grab yourself a beer.’
At least one of them’s friendly, Jack thought, as he made his way past posters carrying slogans like ‘Dare to Struggle: Dare to Win’. Even for a crusty old cabbie like him, the atmosphere felt intimidating.
Jack spotted Franklin on the far side of the carpark, deep in conversation with a heavily tattooed man in work shorts and a dark T-shirt.
‘Jack! Good you could get here, mate. Jacko, this is the bloke who saw it happen. Lives next door. I’ve known him for years.’ Franklin turned back to Jack. ‘You’ll do the right thing, help us nail these pricks, won’t you, Jack?’ Jack didn’t respond. Franklin seemed to be enjoying himself.
‘So, mate, things are heating up. Heard from Worksafe?’
‘Some guy dropped by a few days ago, telling me if I said I didn’t see anything, I wouldn’t have to go to court. Some bloke from Worksafe.’ Franklin raised his eyebrows. ‘Yeah? Where’d you meet him?’
‘Outside my flat. He was in his car, one of them fancy Hondas …’
‘Did he show ID or anything?’
‘No, just said if I didn’t want the hassle of going to court and all that shit, I should just tell them I didn’t see anything.’
‘Sounds like a phony to me, mate. Since when do the cops start telling you how to fuck up a prosecution? What’d you say to him?’
‘Just said I didn’t want to go to court. What the fuck’s this all about anyway? Why’s anybody care if I give evidence or whatever? They hassled me going home, threatened me on the phone, and left a dead bird at my front door last night.’
‘See the paper this morning?’ Franklin said. He pulled out a folded page from his pocket and waved it at Jack.
‘Have a look at it. Tells you all about Auspart, mate. Serious crooks.’
Jack’s eyes widened, and Jacko belched.
‘Connected to the mob doing up the flats next door to your joint.’
‘Come again? Auspart’s doing up next door?’
‘The crooks in Auspart own it. That’s why they’re after you.’
Jack glanced at the paper and a word leapt off the page: ‘Mafia’.
‘Jesus! It says here the Mafia’s involved.’
‘Shit.’ Jack could feel fear flooding through him.
‘Christ, now I definitely don’t want to go to court.’
‘Not so fast, mate. We’ve been fighting these pricks for three or four years. They’ve already been done a couple of times for safety stuff, and now there’s a widow and her kids who’re wondering where their next meal’s coming from. The crooks are shitting bricks, because they’re exposed. We’re going to nail them, and we need your help to do it.’ He looked right into Jack’s eyes, daring him to refuse.
‘Er, yeah … but it’s the fucking Mafia!’ Jack didn’t say anything about the newspaper article from 1994 — that would just underline Franklin’s argument.
‘They’re small-time crooks, just trying to pretend they’re the real deal to frighten people. They’re not real Mafia — just the kind you see in movies. Stay cool. We’re used to dealing with people like that. They’re everywhere in our industry.’
‘Yeah, well, they’re doing a real good job of scaring me.’
Franklin stepped closer to Jack and grabbed his arm.
‘Listen, Jack. I saw my best mate die on a building site not long after we were farting around at La Trobe. Never forgotten it. I’ve seen blokes crippled, all kinds of stuff — lose their houses, marriages break up, you name it. This isn’t just about you, mate. There’s a whole lot of blokes out there just like you, getting killed and injured every week by scumbags like these Auspart pricks. You can’t just look the other way, mate.’
‘I didn’t sign up for this shit! You sure you can’t track down the other bloke — Dan, or whatever his name is?’
‘Gone for good, mate. Lives at 29 Hotham Street in Collingwood, supposedly, but looks like he’s done a runner. So you’re it. But don’t worry, it’ll never go to court. Just need you to stay cool for a week or two. We’ll screw them to the wall, it’ll be over, they’ll lose interest in you. But we won’t — whichever way you jump.’
The threat was obvious. Jack stood there shaking, vaguely wondering if this was what a panic attack felt like. Dan’s disappearance was starting to look very sinister. Maybe he was in the Yarra wearing concrete boots.
‘Come and meet a few of our blokes, Jack. They’ll be keeping an eye on you. Need them to get a look at you …’
Franklin ushered him through the smoky, beery huddles to the end of the trestle table, and bent down and grabbed a can of VB and thrust it into his chest.
‘Get this into you. Hey, Ritty, Baz — meet Jack. He’s our witness, going to make sure we sink them arseholes and get Paul’s missus a decent chop-out.’
Jack shook hands with two hulking men whose faces remained impassive. Franklin turned back to him.
‘Oh, and this is Earl.’ Jack’s eyes set upon a small, wizened man who looked a little like a monkey.
‘Don’t be fooled’, Franklin said, obviously reading his mind. ‘Earl could take out these two blokes any day, ain’t that the truth?’ Ritty and Baz smiled, but not in a pleasant way.
‘Do the numbers seven-four-two mean anything to you, Jack?’
‘Er, no.’ He was mystified. He concentrated on opening his beer without his hands shaking too much.
‘That’s how old Paul’s kids are, mate. Seven, four, and two. Missus was a shop assistant, hasn’t worked for a while. Got a mortgage, no cash, no family to look after them much. They’re depending on us, mate — and you. You going to stick by them?’
‘Ah, yeah, guess so.’ Jack thought about crossing his fingers as he gave the only possible answer, given the circumstances. How in the fuck am I going to get out of this?
Jack felt trapped. The message was crystal-clear: if he ducked this fight, he’d be looking over his shoulder for a long time.
‘Hang in there, mate — you’ll be fine. You’re in witness protection now.’
Jack was stunned. He’d been blundering around spying on Dempsey, not realising why they were so interested in him. Jesus. They know where I live. What in the fuck do I do now?
He’d always been a bit in awe of Franklin, and it was hard to resist his impassioned plea for support in his crusade against Auspart. But against the Mafia?
Feeling punch-drunk, Jack drained the remains of his beer and said his goodbyes. He walked slowly back down the lane, feeling more despondent with every step. One lot of heavies were threatening to harm him. Another lot were forcing him to stand up to the first lot. His interest in Emily was fading. And his always-fragile finances were in free-fall. Could things get any worse?
He turned wearily into Swanston Street and approached his Falcon.
‘Jack! Thought we should get better acquainted.’
Fuck. Ritty and Baz were leaning against the wall opposite the cab, still gripping their cans of VB and crumpled cigarettes.
Jack blanched, and slowed to a crawl. What more could possibly happen to him?
‘Known Franklin for a while, Jack?’ said Baz in a friendly tone.
‘Ah, yeah. Long time.’ Jack was so nervous he could barely speak.
‘He’s a good bloke, isn’t he?’
‘Me, I’m not a good bloke, Jack. But you know what? Compared to Ritty here, I’m fucking Mother Teresa.’
A sinister grin spread over Ritty’s face. Jack said nothing.
‘So you won’t be doing nothing to upset him, will you?’
Jack shook his head.
‘Ritty knew Paul. Worked with him on a site in the city a few years ago.’ Jack nodded. He was almost paralysed with fear. The Auspart guys seemed bad enough, but Ritty looked like a bloke who hung people off balconies for fun.
‘Well, nice getting to know you, mate. We’ll be seeing you around. Keeping an eye on you.’
They flicked their butts into the gutter, crushed their empty cans, and set them down on the roof of the cab.
By the time Jack eased himself into the driver’s seat, he was shaking so much he had to grip the steering wheel and do some deep breathing. His idle annoyance at some jackhammering and his mild interest in Emily had somehow landed him in the middle of a tug of war between two bunches of heavies playing for keeps. And it looked like he was the rope.