the punch

With the first winds of winter scything through Melbourne, Tom Adler stood in the doorway and sniffed. He knew from the moment he had started walking down Collins Street that he was fucked. One way or the other he was fucked.

The last conversation he and his mother had shared always came to mind before he was going to do something he knew he would regret.

“You’re an idealist, Tomer.” He always loved how she pronounced his name, with a soft ‘m’ and the emphasis on the ‘er’. Her eyes were dewy and she smiled as she spoke. Tom had been by her bedside in the Palliative Care Clinic at the Alfred Hospital every day for six days. They said more with their eyes than either could with words alone. There were no tears.

“No. I’m not. Rules are rules. It’s that simple.” Even in their final conversation Tom wouldn’t bend.

“You’ll never be satisfied. Deep down, you know it. It’s rotting you inside.”

Those last words were always on his mind. He knew she was right, and he knew he would never do anything about it because the rules were the rules. She was the only parent he had known. Freida Adler had been his mother and father. And she had made him strong because of it.

The low cloud cover made the city centre streets feel like tunnels. Rain hung in the air. It was the kind of rain that fell in rods as you walked but disappeared when you entered a building. It was Melbourne rain; heavy and determined. It wouldn’t take long for streets to flood and traffic to grind to a crawl.

Adler walked, head bent out of the rain, towards Elizabeth Street. A few stores ahead, a homeless guy sat at his pitch in front of the perfume shop, against the store front, looking up at the faces passing him by. His cap out in front with a collection of notes and coins in it caused a bottleneck. Adler moved to the far side of the pavement. He saw too much of himself in the man. He knew he was only ever a couple of bad decisions away from joining him in the gutter. But a different part of him just wanted to sit down and chew the fat with a kindred spirit. But that would be presumptuous. Yet it felt right.

“Fuck off!” The guy blurted out to no one and everyone that was passing him.

Adler carried on walking. He felt like he had lost a friend. A common soul.

Lightning flashed from the pantograph on the top of the tram as it crossed the feed from the junction of the power lines that ran down Collins and Elizabeth. The flash of light bounced off a black Audi that was almost invisible in the darkness. The Audi was facing a gothic sandstone building on the corner of an intersection. The ornate carvings of the building would be at home in any European city but in Melbourne they stood out. The offices that occupied the top three floors were emptying for the weekend. People emerged down the marble steps in a steady stream to join the throng of Friday evening commuters. Groups gathered in the street. Conversations were animated. Plans were laid. Cheeks kissed.

To the left, a little way down the hill behind a gate that had rusted to be permanently open in the cast iron railings was The Pit. It took up most of the basement of the building, hence the name. To call The Pit a dive bar was an insult to dive bars. The air hung thick with stale beer and the sweat of a thousand nights. The hardwood bar was peppered with carvings left by previous clientele.

Inside the Pit, Adler was the only one not smiling. Sitting at the bar, both forearms resting on the wood, a pint between his hands, he watched people come and go. The Pit was not his usual haunt but for two hours he had been perched on a barstool that was reinforced by duct tape and screws. From the moment he walked into The Pit, Tom knew it was a bad idea. Tomorrow was the first of two days off so he would have time to let things cool.

Adler’s head hung over the bar the way that only happens from four pints and a depression chaser. His phone rang. He propped himself up by resting his forearms on the bar, he held his phone to his left ear and a finger in his other ear. Getting old felt shit.

“Adler.”

“Where are you? I tried the house.” Adler was the only person he knew that still had a landline. The bill still came in his mother’s name and for that simple reason he kept it. In some way, in his mind, it meant that she was still around and he wasn’t alone.

“The city,” his words slurred together.

“Where?”

“The Pit.”

Adler heard Oskar Koehler sigh. It made him feel worse. Juvenile, even. He also heard Oz whisper ‘fuck’ under his breath. He wasn’t supposed to have heard either.

“You’ll be as out of place in as a priest at a kindergarten in there. What are you trying to achieve? You want to be fired?”

“It’s all bullshit.”

“So you’re just going to your head in the noose?”

Adler’s head felt like a block of wood. Clear thoughts were not forthcoming. “It was clear cut. Motive, evidence. Watertight they said. And it happens again. Another one walks scot-free.”

“Look, Tom, what good do you expect to do by drowning your self-pity in front of them.”

“What’s wrong is wrong. And they should feel the full force of the justice system.”

“You’re an asshole. You know that? I’ll be there in five minutes. Okay? Someone’s got to look after you. Might as well be me.”

Adler studied the pattern the condensation made on his glass. It seemed random at first glance, but like everything, it wasn’t. As he watched he could make out the path each droplet of water would take on its way down to the bar. To Adler, it felt like the bigger droplets had their own gravity that attracted the smaller ones as they cascaded down. Nothing was random. In Adler’s mind there was no such thing as chance. Everything was black and white. Right and wrong. That’s why he had joined the Victoria Police force. To uphold the rights of the small man.

Leaving would be the sensible option. He ran the idea through his mind again. Another tram would be along in a few minutes. No one knew he was here. Nobody ever need know if he left now. Adler hadn’t taken the sensible option in years. It wasn’t in his DNA. He looked around the place just to make sure. It was busy but none of the faces said they would react. The patrons, for the most part, were office workers having a drink after work. City slickers with slicker skin. He looked to the end of the bar, up top on the left. Two security cameras were mounted his on the left, back to back. One watched the till, not the bar, the other the door. He could see the feed on a screen behind the bar. A group of women standing just inside the door obscured the camera’s vision.

Roberto Giannini had walked free from court two hours earlier as Adler sat in the gallery and watched helpless. The lawyers had done it again. Spun their web of golden bullshit and made a mockery of weeks of work. Adler had spent the whole day in court and it hadn’t gone well. Not in the remotest. Another fancy lawyer in a suit that would have cost a month’s salary for Adler pulled the case apart. The Senior Crown PTinacutor, Grant Mathers QC was one of the sharpest minds when it came to trying commercial crime, fraud and organised crime. Every so often he had been known to sharpen his mind and pTinacute a homicide case. Usually with the desired results. Which was why Adler was dumbfounded with the smarmy defence lawyer got the better of the QC. Things quickly dissolved and before Adler could get a handle on the arguments being put forward a move for a mistrial had been motioned citing police misconduct.

Adler knew straight away where the celebrations would be in the bar that Roberto’s boss part owned, and his arrival hadn’t gone unnoticed. Roberto had tipped his pint in a mocking thank-you when Adler walked in.

A short time later Anthony Patullo arrived. He hadn’t seemed to notice Adler, yet Adler could feel his presence. Some people called him Fat Tony. Those people didn’t stick around for long. The mood had shifted on his arrival, but then that’s what having one of the unofficial key figures in Melbourne’s underworld in a bar could do. Tony Patullo owned a string of Italian restaurants and a business that supplied half of the restaurants in the state of Victoria with small goods. The Pit was a new thing for him. He had been expanding his reach of late. The rumour was he acquired it to offset a bad debt. The move had probably bought his new business partner a few years more life.

Patullo started out as a knuckle-puller in an abattoir before opening a butcher’s stall in the Prahan Market. Two years later the first Patullo’s restaurant opened and within the decade he was sitting atop an empire. And as it grew, so did his reputation. He lived as hard as he worked. The twin scars on his forearms were evidence of his lifestyle. They stretched from each elbow down his inner arm to just before his wrist. A memento from when the surgeon had taken the radial artery from each arm for grafts in a coronary bypass seven years earlier.

“Didn’t think I’d see you here.” Roberto Giannini’s voice snapped Adler out of his trance. “I’d buy you a drink, but there’s a rumour going round that you’re on the wagon.” He didn’t look at Adler when he spoke.

The words hung in the air between them. Adler looked at the optics of spirits behind the bar. He knew how this unfolded. He was in the game, as they called it. “I’d better not. Thanks all the same. How would it look, me taking a drink from the likes of you?”

Roberto turned to lean on the bar with an elbow, Adler fixed his gaze on the bottle of scotch behind the bar as Roberto bent down to his ear and whispered, “Better luck next time.” His acrid breath struck Adler.

The barman placed the pint between Adler and Roberto and waited. He could feel the tension. Roberto picked up the pint and made his way back to the rowdy group in the corner of the bar.

Adler finished his beer and headed out the door.

Adler’s phone rang again. He took the call without looking, “Look, I’m leaving, I’m leaving. I’ll see you in the morning, alright?” Standing in the centre of the bar, he stared at the line of taps. He had the thirst, that was for sure. Given the day’s turn of events, and another case collapsing in court he felt like some good old self-medication. Their pull was strong.

“You’d better not,” said the woman’s voice. It snapped him sober.

“Fuck.” He moved the phone away in a wave of exasperation and headed to the exit.. Putting it back to his ear, “What do you want?” Adler leaned his forehead against the door frame, his free hand rubbing his temples.

“Sign the papers Tom. I’m sick of getting my lawyer to chase yours and nothing happening so I’m doing what I’m paying them to do. I’m telling you, sign the papers.”

“Take the house out of the deal. Your old man has money. You’ll be fine. The house is all I have, what’s left of it.”

“If I agree, you’ll sign?”

“Yes.”

“And not contest custody?”

“No. I’ll agree to what we said.”

“Every second weekend?”

“If that’s what we said.”

There was a pause. Then a sigh. “Do you even care?”

“Of course. They’re my children too!” Adler’s blood began to quicken. “Send me a new agreement. One with the house out of it, and I’ll sign it. Then you can go and fuck off your own way and I’ll fuck off my way. Happy?”

“Ecstatic Tom, just bloody ecstatic.”

She hung up.

“Bitch.” Adler said it more to feel like he had the last word than to call his soon-to-be ex-wife a bitch. For the longest time he had entertained the idea that they would work it out. Evidently not.

Adler shook the phone in his hand as if it were the cause of all his problems and whispered a venomous fuck you. He slid the phone into his pocket, stood up straight and looked back into the bar.

Roberto and his crew of thugs we still going hard. Tony Patullo had taken a seat at one of the tables and was being lauded like the benefactor he was.

Adler gave into his growing anger and strode back into The Pit. A couple of faces stared as he walked straight up to the group. Roberto was laughing with two of his companions. He stopped when he saw Adler approaching. He was too late.

Adler’s right fist connected. Roberto staggered back, dropping his glass. He felt his jaw and saw the blood on his hand. Tony Patullo got to his feet quicker than should be possible for someone his age or size and held the two men apart. His involvement gave pause to those around Roberto that were seconds from sending Adler to intensive care. They all waited for Patullo’s next move. So did Adler.

“Everybody calm down,” shouted Patullo with his thick accent. The air cleared, and Roberto relaxed. Patullo looked at Adler. “You’d better leave, before someone really gets hurt.”

Adler straightened himself, tugged the collar of his shirt and smoothed the front with his hands. “I was just leaving. Must have tripped on something on my way out.” He looked at the TV, “It’s a shit game anyway.”

A few bodies took a step closer. Patullo caught their eyes one by one. He raised an index finger to them to halt their movement.

“Evening gentlemen,” Adler said to Roberto and Patullo before turning to the rest of the group on the way out, “ladies.”

They surged again. Patullo’s hand held back a chest. “Enough!”

Adler was still straightening his shirt when he stepped outside. It had been raining and the city lights dazzled of the road surface. Headlamps flashed twice at him. He walked to the car that was parked a few metres away and the passenger door opened as he got to it. Oskar Koehler leant over and shouted at him.

“Get in. You look like shit.”

Oskar Koehler was more gums than teeth when he smiled, which wasn’t often anymore. But Adler liked his habit of speaking to himself under his breath in conversations, like he was once-removed from reality.

“Don’t ask. One of those days that everyone has a beef with me.”

“You ever thought, maybe it’s you that has a beef with everyone else”

Oz pulled away from the kerb into the slow flowing traffic of the city at night, headed to Adler’s house.

“Me?” said Adler, his spirits lifted in the company of Oz. Both men laughed. “I’m fucking delightful. People love me.”

Oz watched Tom as he drove. Adler’s eyes belied his apparent joviality. The pain he carried was never far below the surface.

As they joined the flow of cars a black Audi pulled out from where it was parked, three cars behind Oz, and followed them.

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