Luck of the Draw

by Richard Holt

By the time they found Cornell’s body, dumped in a laneway near the Perseverance Hotel, I’d landed in Bangkok and taken the first bus south. Later, when I learnt the result of the game and heard about Cornell’s demise, I guessed what had happened. But the homicide boys would never figure it out. There’d be too many suspects, mean men with motive enough. Even the straightest of bookmakers make plenty of enemies. Small-time crooks like Cornell collect them like dead cats collect flies.

I knew that Bob Singleton would be on the case. “Bloody Cornell Whitbread!” I could imagine his disappointment. The Inspector preferred innocent victims. Cornell was just another loser who had it coming. “Take the snaps, dust the joint and bag him up. Christ, what a mess!” He’d have prodded the corpse a couple of times with the toe of a polished zip-up boot before casually wiping the upper clean on the cuff of the opposite leg.

In many ways the Punt Road job had been as sweet as they come. But there are weak links in any chain and ours was Sammy LeGuinn. The little Canadian was a nasty piece of trash. When we’d found ourselves without a driver, Sammy had been available. I didn’t trust him. I took precautions. Sammy would have to wait for his cut until the heat was off—a flat rate too, no percentage. That was the deal. We made sure he never knew who he was driving for or just how big the take was. All that LeGuinn had for security was his limited knowledge of the job and the van, a nice Toyota. He’d have no trouble rendering it untraceable, that being his main line of work.

Otherwise it had been a copybook heist. We had cover on all the exits and caught the guards by surprise. We’d had only a couple of shit-scared drunks for witnesses and no one got hurt too bad.

Cornell had helped us out with a few details. He knew someone working at Armourguard who had access to routes and schedules. We paid him off—just enough to cover a bad debt that was about to become injurious. It was a deal too good to refuse—Archie knew his bankers.

LeGuinn was as slimy as they came. I figured he’d be twitchy for his money.

“By the end of September, Sammy” I’d told him, muffling the phone to disguise my voice. “You’ll hear from us”. But when the cops busted Sammy’s backyard spray-shop in Thornbury things started to get complicated. Sammy’s continued presence on the streets was a concern. It suggested he may no longer be working solely for himself. He began being a little too inquisitive. He started drinking at the Curry Family in Wellington Street where the DiNatoli boys were regulars. That was a little too close for my liking. The cops and the Italians had too many ‘understandings’. We’d have to make sure we were out of the way before he either learnt, or said, too much. We’d have to play it carefully. Cornell! I figured the fat bookie might come in handy again.

Arch decided to head for London, as soon as he could, until things calmed down. He could live comfortably among his family, who were in the trade, so to speak. Asia seemed far enough away for me. I’d be off too, as soon as we’d paid off Sammy. I had an old mate, Barney Finch, running a string of bars and cheap beach shacks on the resort islands of Thailand. I’d be much more comfortable there than in Melbourne. But I wasn’t going to just skip town until I knew Sammy was settled. The little prick held a grudge. He’d been tried for Charlie Gutheridge’s murder up in Sydney in ’68. It was a gruesome piece of work. I didn’t want to finish up the way Charlie had.

Late-winter warmth. “You’re looking well, Flemmo,” Fiona trotted briskly up the Jolimont footbridge. I’d first met her years before when she was working topless at the Champion. She’d got herself clean and found a job she could do with her clothes on—’clerical assistant’ for the MCC, running errands for the toffs of the old boy’s network. I didn’t feel good about contacting her but it was a harmless enough request. In any case I knew she was solid and I had helped her out of a jam a couple of years before. “I assume you’ve got a favour to ask, but really I’m not sure what I can do for you. I live a pretty simple life these days.”

“No worries, love, it’s a small thing. Can you get your hands on finals tickets?”

“Yeah, that shouldn’t be too hard, Darl. What d’ya need?”

“Grand Final, bottom deck, Northern Stand.” I figured I could get away quickly from there. There’d be plenty of cabs hanging around the Hilton. Though I preferred the Ponsford Stand, timing was of the essence. “I need ’em on an aisle, one about ten rows back from the other.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Fee. You’re a cracker. Same time next week then, eh? And If I can help you out with anything let me know.”

“Same time next week, Mal… and thanks for asking but we don’t need anything, Darl. Things are good.”

A week later Fiona came through. Two tickets, rows E and N. I thanked her, wished her luck and pressed a hundred dollars in tens into her hand. “Get yourselves something for Christmas,” I said, half suspecting that she’d paid her own good money for the seats. Either way my conscience, which I liked to allow an occasional airing, felt good.

Sammy would have known what the ticket meant when it arrived by mail that week. Somehow he’d be paid off on Grand Final Day. September 24th at the MCG—he didn’t care for football, preferring the temptations of the track, but he’d be there.

As soon as the ticket arrived he’d have been working up plans for the money. I knew how he operated, always trying to turn a dollar into ten. His investment strategies were erratic. They included the ponies and two up, though he’d been banned from the big ring down near Swanston Dock. They also ran to heroin and speed, which he cut so severely that even amongst the disreputable his reputation was tarnished. All these endeavours supplemented what he made as part of one of the city’s biggest car rackets. He regarded himself as an entrepreneur. But he was just another crim like the rest of us, and usually one or two steps closer to trouble than those of us who conducted our activities judiciously.

Towards the end of August, just before he left for London, Archie and I paid Cornell a visit. “Cornell bloody Whitbread,” boomed Arch as he swung the gate that counted for the front door of the bookie’s ‘establishment’, a lean-to off the laneway at the rear of a St Georges Road slop joint. The place was heavy with the mingling odours of kitchen scraps and Cornell’s fat, unwashed, constantly perspiring body. Nobody ever used his surname. Cornell figured we hadn’t just popped by for a cuppa.

“Come in, gentlemen,” he mumbled through bloated lips, “shall I put the kettle on?”

“We’re not here to drink your stinking coffee.” Archie glanced around the room. “Don’t you EVER clean up, you fat bastard!” He upturned an overflowing ashtray onto the bookmaker’s grubby mattress.

Cornell backed away. “Take it easy Arch. If you need anything just let me know. Didn’t I help you out before?”

Archie reminded him that he’d been helping himself out. We’d just given him that chance. “But our connections are still concerned, Cornell. They got their money, but it took a year to get it. There’s a small matter of unpaid interest. You know how seriously they take accounting… Don’t you?” Archie slammed the startled fat-man into a wall so hard that a framed picture of a blue skinned nude clattered onto the concrete floor.

“Shit, you mad bastard.” Cornell pulled himself up from the ground. He was trembling, the folds of his face taking on a strange, gelatinous softness. As Archie pinned him with sharp eyes that suggested violence on a more meaningful scale, I intervened.

“What Arch is trying to say Cornell is that we’re here to help. Again. But really, as you can see, we’re getting a bit tired of having to keep you out of trouble. You’re not worth it, mate. Not worth the effort. You need to sort out your affairs.”

Archie cuffed him hard, like a schoolmaster. “Sort yourself out, Cornell, before you find yourself in real trouble.” The bookmaker whimpered.

“But just for old times sake,” I continued, “we’re gonna help you one last time. So listen carefully…”

Negotiations proceeded smoothly. Cornell saw the merit of our proposal. He accepted our proposition without fuss. Archie, who really did despise him, upturned a kerosene heater as he left. Holding the hot butt of his cigarette menacingly between his thumb and upcurled middle finger he aimed it at the trickle that started seeping across the floor. Cornell, looked at him pleadingly. “Just clean up the mess, ya pig,” spat Arch, redirecting the spent smoke towards Cornell’s face.

Everything was in order. I’d even started to relax. Arch was happily ensconced within the East-End underworld. After paying off everyone except LeGuinn he’d had little trouble getting the profits from the grab out of the country and into a couple of safe European accounts. Once Sammy was out of the way we’d be able to start enjoying the fruits of our labour. I had a seat on a five o’clock Qantas flight and was starting to imagine the tropical warmth of Thailand. By tomorrow night I’d be on Phi Phi with Barney, watching the sunset, enjoying the pleasures of the local liquor and the melancholy beauty of the local girls who served it.

I got to the ‘G’ just before Quarter time, North up by 17 points, one hundred and eight thousand packed into the stands. The place was like a cavern that had inhaled the energy of the city. As I took my seat the siren sounded and a roar went up that shook the place like thunder. I picked out Sammy, ear stuck in a tranny to get the race results. He had that stupid old army great coat on. He wore it everywhere because it suggested a bulk that his sinewy body didn’t possess.

Sammy made it too easy. Half way through the quarter, just as the ‘Pies were coming back, he got up and removed the coat, which he slung over the green wooden railing that counted for a back-rest, then he made for the back of the stands. I kept my head low under a wide brimmed hat and followed his progress. When he had disappeared down the stairs I rose myself and followed at a distance. Sammy joined a queue for beer. He’d be a few minutes.

I retraced my steps but this time walked past my own seat and sat down in Sammy’s. I looked around, felt the lumpy woolen coat against my back and mumbled something about having taken the wrong seat. Simple as that. I walked back up to my own spot, twenty feet or so further up the terraced seating.

I waited ’til Sammy returned then watched for a couple more minutes with Stan Magro starring in the centre of the ground and the Maggies looking dangerous. How quickly the game had swung. I watched as Peter Moore slotted his second and then headed for the airport. Sayonara Melbourne.

By three quarter time Collingwood’s lead was 27 points, I was checking in at Tullamarine and Sammy, I guess, was wondering when the pay-off would come. The uncertainty would play tricks with his excitable head.

Later, as I stretched out under the tropical sun I tried to imagine how things had unfolded. Maybe even without the distractions of the pay-off Sammy was having a bad day. Perhaps he’d had the double at Sandown until a protest, third against first and second. And he’d backed the relegated horse for the win on the TAB too, five hundred dollars at twenties. He’d have outlayed heavily, right across the card. When Sammy was on a losing streak you could almost see the money falling through his fingers. He’d get that crazy twitch in his cheek. Sammy may have been good at losing but he was no good loser. He’d have settled in to watch the last quarter with agitated disinterest.

The match came alive in the final term. Unlike LeGuinn I’d always appreciated the drama of the game and wished I’d been able to stick around to see it unfold. From everything I read and heard this is how I made it out—

Looking to revive North’s fortunes, Barassi moved Dench and Sutton into the forward line. Suddenly the Roos looked strong and Collingwood seemed to have run out of puff. North chipped away at the Collingwood lead. The margin narrowed to six points and the heat of the game intensified. But where Sammy was sitting, in the Northern Stand, the temperature would have dropped as the sea-breeze kicked in and the shadows extended over the crowd.

Twice, in the space of a couple of minutes, Phil Baker marked and goaled. The Shinboners had shot to the front. Seven points up with time running out and the play all their way, they looked safe. Sammy checked the clock at the Richmond end. Time-on. The big hand moved slowly through the red zone. Then Collingwood scored a point against the run of play. To take his mind off things and to ward off the chill of the breeze Sammy swung his coat back over his shoulders and fed his arms through its heavy sleeves. As was his habit he thrust his hands deep into the garment’s cavernous pockets. His right thumb struck something unfamiliar. The pay-off! He pulled out a little yellow pay envelope.

As he scrambled to tear it open Billy Picken took a mark in the centre of the ground and played on. He launched it long towards the Collingwood full-forward line. With six points in it and perhaps only seconds left, a pack so dense that it seemed to rise as one entity reached for the ball. One pair of hands reached higher than the rest, and clasped with certainty around the Sherrin. As the rest of the pack fell away Collingwood stalwart, Ross ‘Twiggy’ Dunne, emerged with the mark. The crowd erupted. A straight kick and the scores would be level. If it stayed that way the two teams would be back next week to do it all again. But if Twiggy’s shot missed then the dreams of a Collingwood premiership would be dashed.

Sammy ripped the top off the envelope. Inside were two bookmakers stubs, each for a large wager. One was for a Collingwood win and the other favoured North. Either result would cover what he was owed. Given his run of bad luck that day he needed his cut in cash and in total, that night. He’d already outlaid most of it, on spec, through a colleague, on a quantity of Vietnamese heroin. Sammy was always getting ahead of himself.

‘Twiggy’ Dunne was an ungainly player with an airy kicking style. But he was reliable in a crisis. As he lumbered towards the player on the mark just fifteen out and straight in front, Sammy looked up at the scoreboard.

In the backroom of his squad’s crappy little station behind Fitzroy Town Hall, Bob Singleton fingered a pair of Aces as the commentators described Dunne lining up. The policeman’s leather encased Sony fizzed with the noise of the crowd, which almost overwhelmed the commentary. Nothing but a faint crackle issued from the police radio in the next room. In a few moments the siren would ring. Then it would be different. The shit would hit the streets. “No calls, yet, boys. Grand Final day—like standing on the tracks to wait for a train.” Singleton stretched back to relieve the tension. PC Hobbs played three fives. On 3LO Clarke Hansen called Twiggy’s kick.

The ball left Dunne’s boot and sailed through. The Collingwood faithful rose as one—they were still alive. In the bar of the Curry Family they went wild. Tucked in a dingy corner Cornell Whitbread quickly considered his finances. He’d insured himself as best he could against either team through a complex series of side-wagers. It was safer that way. He knew he’d be left short of cash though, if he had to wait till next week before he could balance the books.

Sammy stuffed the envelope with the two tickets back into his coat-pocket. He twiddled his tranny to Harry Beitzel’s call, just in case one of the teams managed a late score. Thirty-three minutes on the clock. Boiling angry. Sammy rose and stumbled out of the ground, his face pale and tense. As he tramped between the cars parked beneath the old gums of Yarra Park he scraped a key along the duco of a member’s Bentley. It gave him no pleasure. The siren echoed behind him and an eery, rumbling silence, the sound of unfinished business, rippled around the massive stadium. It radiated out from the ground and across the city. Sammy felt it blow past him. He hitched his collar up over his thick ears and headed across the gardens towards Eastern Hill. As he walked up beneath the elms his left hand, buried deep in its pocket, caressed the bone handle of the very same blade he’d used to slit Charlie Gutheridge’s throat.

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