About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Marvellous Boy
By Peter Corris
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1982 Peter Corris
All rights reserved.
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 uninterrupted — the 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 clothes — leather 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 house — refrigerator hum, air conditioning, talk-back radio — had 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 paintings — dark, 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 stuff — measured, 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 ... "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 family — if 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.
"My husband took steps to terminate the marriage."
"Why did your daughter marry so young?"
She shot me a sharp look. "Not for the reason you may be entertaining. Bettina was ... well, wild and flighty. She showed an interest in Henry and he seemed steady. We thought marriage might settle her down. She was our only child, we had to protect her."
It saddened me. 'From her youth' she might as well have said. I turned a page of the pad.
"Tell me about Henry, the husband. What's his other name?"
"Brain, Henry Brain ... ah, here's the tea."CHAPTER 2
Verna Reid wheeled a glass and stainless steel trolley about two feet into the room. Silver pots and jugs gleamed, bone china tinkled. She poured milk and tea, added sugar and brought the cup across.
"I'm going out," she said.
"You will not!" The old woman strained at the chair's arm rests trying to lift herself. "Not with that man. I forbid it!"
Verna Reid laughed. She thrust the tea out. Lady Catherine took it and tea slopped into the saucer. Two spots of high colour burned suddenly in her parchment-pale cheeks. She slammed the cup down, tea sprayed and bits of thin china skidded across the floor. The dark woman laughed again.
"Get on with your silly chat," she said and walked out of the room.
The old woman fought for control. She blinked and plucked at her scrawny neck. I got up and pulled the trolley across, poured her more tea and handed it to her.
"Thank you." She took the tea then reached out and took a buttered scone. Her hand was rock steady. "I'm hard to work for," she said. "You'll find that out."
"I still haven't said I'll work for you."
"We won't fence, Mr. Hardy," she said around her scone. She did it without any offensive noise. Breeding. "I'll pay your seventy-five dollars a day and my accountant will look over your expenses. If they are not too ridiculous they'll be met."
It had been a lean six months with more going out than coming in. The Falcon's clutch needed overhauling and the stack of bills at home was reaching half way up the spike. I needed every cent of the seventy-five a day and she could see it.
"I'll need a retainer of two hundred and fifty dollars," I said.
Her tea cup rang against the saucer and she let out a short, high laugh. "All right, Mr. Hardy, all right. The last word is yours, you'll get a cheque when you leave. Now perhaps I can get on with what I have to tell you. Have some tea."
I shook my head.
"Bettina had a long illness after the marriage ended, she traveled abroad with my husband and myself on one occasion and with a friend on another, I believe her to be unstable; she was a disappointment to us."
"Does she live in Sydney? Do you see her?"
"Yes to your first question, no to your second. We had a falling-out. I dislike her second husband and her children. Always have. The rift between us has grown." She looked at a point above and behind my head. "My husband was a great man, Mr. Hardy, a great man. He had the greatest legal mind in this country in this century, but no son, no way to build a legal firm of distinction. I am editing his memoirs, they'll show the world his quality."
She was talking to herself and there was nothing for me to say. Still I felt there was a connection between all this and the information she had to give me. I was sure of one thing — she blamed herself for not giving the great man a son. The memoirs would be a belated child.
"I share Sir Clive's tragedy, the absence of an heir."
"I thought you said your daughter had children."
"They are not suitable," she flared. "I have disinherited them. Bettina, too, although she doesn't know it. I am pinning all my hopes on you, Mr. Hardy. You see, I have learned of a grandson."
I struggled not to leer. The armour was cracking like sandy cement.
"Sir Clive had an illegitimate child?"
"Certainly not!" she spat. "He was the most moral of men, the most scrupulous. No, Henry Brain and Bettina had a son, he must be thirty now."
"How did you discover this?"
"Henry Brain told me. He wanted money from my husband. He came here. I hadn't seen him for a great many years and I scarcely recognised him. He was a wreck, a ruin from drink. He looked as old as ..." She stopped herself. "How he got to the house and inside I don't know. He forced his way in here, almost knocked Verna down. He broke in on me, here." She waved her hand around indignantly.
"What did he say exactly?"
"He raved. He was frightfully drunk. My husband was away in Canberra. When I refused to give him money Henry became abusive. He taunted me by telling me about my grandson whom I'd never known."
"What did he say?"
"He said he wouldn't be surprised if the boy ... man was on the way to being just like him, a piece of rubbish. It was a terrible thing to say."
"I mean, what details did he give you of the birth?"
"None, or almost none. He said the child was born during the first year of marriage, that Bettina went away to have it and returned without it. He said Bettina blackmailed him into concealing everything about the child. She hated him and wouldn't bring up his child:"
"Do you remember her being away for long enough at the time?"
She put her hand up to her forehead, a tracery of fine, blue veins was visible through the tight white skin.
"I've tried, I can't remember. They traveled a good deal."
"How would she have blackmailed him?"
"Henry Brain had a full complement of the human weaknesses, Mr. Hardy, it could have been almost anything."
"You say he was drunk and raving, why did you believe him?"
"I can judge character. Truth has a different quality from falsehood. Henry was telling the truth, I'm sure of it."
She wanted to believe it. It could have been true, but the story had a wild insubstantiality like the memory of a dream. Even thirty years ago it was hard to evade registering the birth of a child. Not as hard as now but hard enough. I asked her what her daughter had to say about it and got the answer I anticipated.
"She denied it, denied it utterly. I pressed her hard but she said that Henry was a worthless liar and that we should never ... that she should never have had anything to do with him. She was lying."
"This was when you and your daughter fell out?"
"When was it?"
"Two years ago."
"Sir Clive was not well at the time," she said quickly. "I didn't want to alarm him by taking any steps then. He died a year ago, as you well know."
"I read about it. Why wait until now to do something about this? Have you been in touch with Brain again?" I added, hoping.
"No, he never troubled us again. He was too addled to follow a fixed purpose. I suppose he just took it into his diseased brain to batten on to us and gave up when the approach failed. I've had time to mull this over, Mr. Hardy. My daughter is like a stranger to me. I'm sure I'm doing the right thing. I want that man found and restored to his rightful place in the world."
"What if Brain was right ... what if he's ... unsuitable?"
"I pray that it won't be so. He may be a man of distinction in his own right. It will take delicate handling, Mr. Hardy." The idea of her scheme succeeding took hold of her and shone in her eyes. "I'll pay you anything you like, a hundred dollars a day. Just find my grandson."
"That won't be necessary. A hundred a day would warp my style. Seventy-five is fine. It's an intriguing case and I'll take it but you have to be aware of the problems."
She sat back, tired by her outburst and regretting the slip of control.
"And they are?"
"Basically three. One, Brain may have been lying and there is no grandson, never was. Two, there may have been a child and it could have died. Three, if there was a child it may be impossible to trace. Thirty years is a long time and the trail this end is cold by two years. Brain is the obvious starting point and if he was as far gone as you say, he could be dead by now."
"I accept those hurdles. I have faith that they can be overcome."
She was used to getting her own way and I could only hope that her luck would hold. Her luck would be my luck. If the thing fizzled, two weeks on those rates would be a thousand plus change. Handy. Besides, I fancied working for the aristocracy, it'd give me something to put in my memoirs. That train of thought led me back to the judge and his daughter.
"I'll need a number of details, Lady Catherine. Your daughter's name and address, information on everybody in this house."
She was displeased. She grunted. Suddenly I wanted the case and the thousand, bad. I went on quickly. "I'll need as many descriptions of Brain as I can gather, others may recall different details. By the way, does anyone other than you know about this claim to have had a son?"
"Not Miss Reid?"
"Certainly not, I sent her away when I recognised Henry."
"Who else could have seen him then?" "I really couldn't say. I have no staff now apart from Verna."
She sounded like Bob Menzies lamenting the Empire.
Excerpted from The Marvellous Boy by Peter Corris. Copyright © 1982 Peter Corris. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.