You don’t have to be a real estate agent to know that Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs have some of the most expensive houses on the planet. You do have to be very rich or a real estate agent to cash in on that knowledge. Ben Freeman was a real estate agent, born and bred in that gold-tinted, sun-bleached and heavily capitalised area of outstanding natural booty. His was a sole principal business, Ben Freeman Real Estate. He always answered his mobile phone with a smile.
“Ben Freeman Real Estate, Ben Freeman speaking.” He hoped it sounded warm yet efficient and implied that he had a team of agents dealing with listings all over Bondi, Rose Bay and Vaucluse.
“Hi, this is Fiona Campbell,” said a familiar voice, a famous voice. Fiona had been a successful model in her teens but that was pre-Internet. A Google search revealed only a couple of images from the late 1980s in miniskirt, lace gloves and beret. Her Wikipedia mention was for a whole other reason, the same reason Fiona was now on the city’s celebrity A list, alongside fashion designers, footballers’ wives and Leo Sayer. It was so Sydney, thought Ben. Where else would your husband being jailed for insider trading land you a spot in the gossip columns, 23,000 Twitter followers and an invite to every public relations event?
Fiona’s voice triggered Ben’s memory of watching her interviewed on 60 Minutes. She had made a compelling case for her husband Charlie’s innocence of an assortment of white-collar crimes. Not so compelling anyone believed her, but she had shown cool and class that had impressed everyone other than the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Now she wanted to meet Ben.
“I’ve got a sale I think you can help me with,” said Fiona. “I’d rather tell you in person so I can put a face to the name.”
“It’ll be a pleasure. You want to meet for coffee?”
“Lunch at Catalina. I’ve booked us in for tomorrow at midday under your name.”
Ben felt cheap for suggesting coffee. Now he’d have to pick up the bill at Catalina. It was an expensive mistake but the food there was excellent and it could be money well spent; the Campbells owned a serious property portfolio.
They sat so Fiona had the view across the seaplane jetty to Rose Bay. Ben’s outlook was Point Piper, the top of the Harbour Bridge just visible beyond. It was a clear mid-winter’s day; the sunlight angled over Fiona’s left shoulder, the direct glare and reflection from the water forcing Ben to keep his Wayfarers on. The waiter had arrived with their first glasses of champagne, and already Fiona had been recognised three times by other diners and posed for a stranger’s selfie shot.
“Didn’t know you are such a celeb, you should have asked for a different table,” Ben teased.
“And make people wonder what I’ve got to hide? I’ve done enough of that. This is fine; it’s nice to be sitting down to eat for a change. I’m a bit over cocktail parties, rocking a pair of high heels and praying for the canapés to arrive.” Fiona’s throaty chuckle was unexpected when he heard it the first time.
Fiona’s face was perfectly symmetrical and flawless. Her blonde hair was shoulder length, centre-parted and her spray-tanned cleavage was there for all to see in her little black dress. Ben fixed his gaze respectfully on her sparkling blue eyes.
“I know we’re meant to make small talk before we get down to business but I need to know now that I’m talking to the right man.” Fiona’s candour caught him off guard.
“There’s only one Ben Freeman at Ben Freeman Real Estate,” he replied meekly.
“I expect it saves confusion. And as it’s you, are you confident you can sell my house at Point Piper?”
“That’s the property you’re selling?” His voice sounded way more confident than he felt.
“Well, it’ll depend on how discreet you are.”
“Discreet?” Not a word Ben heard often.
“I’d like the sale to go through with the minimum of publicity.”
“Might be difficult, you’ll have the big end of town there in droves for the auction, it’s such a prestige property. Plus Charlie is pretty well known.”
House prices were all everyone in Sydney talked about or, at least, made small talk about. Making money on your principal residence was what people cared most about, that’s if they could afford to get a foot on the ladder in the first place. After that it was your investment property, negatively geared for tax purposes, and for lifestyle-loving baby boomers, the weekend place “up” or “down” the coast.
Some started their portfolios from a privileged background, as had Charlie Campbell who had done very well with his various property investments, presence on the boards of investment banks and, famously, his shares in some very dubious small mining and exploration companies. That was before the Australian Federal Police had traced that behind a couple of overseas shell company aliases, it had been Cheeky Charlie, as the tabloids labelled him, who had netted $32 million for the sale of his options in Seamless Gas Explorations, which he’d purchased for $4 million just one week before news of a takeover bid hit the stock market.
There was a lot of Australia to mine, most of it in remote areas, and not many stockbrokers who made the effort to drive for hours on dirt roads through the desert to check out a prospecting company’s credentials. It transpired that Seamless Gas Operations consisted of three optimistic Queenslanders called Greg, Colin and Bob, a six-year-old Nissan Patrol, a 30-year-old drilling rig and a high-pressure pump on loan from one of Col’s mates who had assured him it would “do the trick, no worries.” Their inflated prospectus was knocked up on Greg’s wife Natalie’s laptop, using unlicensed images from the Internet and printed at the nearest Kwik Kopy. If they had actually struck gas, it was highly likely they would have blown themselves to pieces and killed the last breeding pair of northern quoll for a thousand kilometres in any direction.
Charlie’s banker and financier colleagues had been staggered at the high risk he’d taken for what was pretty much loose change for Cheeky Charlie. But they didn’t know the half of it. Fiona knew the whole of it and then some.
“I’d like a private sale, if it’s all the same,” said Fiona.
Ben was surprised.
“Really? You could make an extra four or five million at auction in this market if it’s a sunny day and someone gets over-excited.” Which he knew they always did. Mansions on Point Piper were the prime residences on the harbour, known by names and not street numbers, worth tens of millions of dollars and with no shortage of potential buyers, especially as China’s main export at that moment seemed to be real estate speculator dollars.
“Well, I really don’t want the whole place knowing what I’m doing, and let’s face it, they know everything else. A girl needs some secrets.”
“Fiona, when you say I…your husband does know you’re selling the place?” Ben was feeling an unease creeping from the centre of his stomach, something the arrival of his pan seared scallops and ham hock rillettes wasn’t going to settle. He took a swig of champagne and hoped for a buzz.
“Call me Fi. No he doesn’t. The house is in my name. It’s what people like Charlie do to make sure if things go pear-shaped their creditors can’t get hold of everything. You grew up here, you know that.” Fiona smiled.
“Yeah, and so does the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the cops.” It was Ben’s business to know all the rules, trusts and little-known but effective tax havens. He was willing to bet Cheeky Charlie was no stranger to Samoan banks.
“I don’t care about them. His business associates are a bigger worry.” Fiona drained her champagne glass and held it aloft. A waiter glided over to provide a refill, without Fi making any sound or eye contact. Ben was impressed. He’d always believed all waiters possessed zero peripheral vision.
“It’s not like he’s bankrupt with a line of creditors queuing up though, is he? It’s a slap on the wrist really. I’m sure he’s got a nice little gig in the kitchen at Silverwater Jail.”
“Please don’t make light of my husband’s incarceration…” Ben was surprised that his comment might have offended her.
“Prick that he is, he should have got twice the time!” Fi’s signature laugh kicked in and the couple at the next table exchanged disapproving glances.
“Let’s just say when I married Charlie I had no idea how many different pies he had his fingers in. The Charlie that gets reported in the press is the tip of the iceberg. Thank God nobody reads newspapers anymore. If there were any decent investigative reporters left, Charlie could have kept them in stories for years. But I’m the one that gets the press, and God help me if a photographer gets a bad shot. I’m straight into the tragic photo section of Woman’s Day, next to a bikini shot of some soapie starlet with post-baby cellulite.”
“I think I’m following…I understand if you don’t want to tell me more, but we’re not talking anything…life-threatening are we?” Ben held his now empty champagne glass aloft. Nothing. No waiter. He was invisible.
“Charlie’s like all rich kids, he’s got a massive sense of entitlement and thinks he can play with the big boys, whether they’re bankers, bikies or pollies.”
“But he doesn’t owe anyone any money, does he?” He still held his champagne glass in the air…it was drying out fast.
“Well, as in a straightforward debt, probably not. But some people need him here to keep their various enterprises ticking over. Let’s just say import and export interests that aren’t counted in the balance of trade numbers every month.” Fi grabbed his glass from him and the waiter refilled it faster than you could say “Krug.”
“I had heard that people’s weekends are costing a bit more recently.” Ben was in his mid-thirties but some of his divorced, single and separated mates still liked to load up on a Friday night with coke and various other chemicals, mixed in buckets in hairy-arsed bikies’ kitchens and pressed into pills. His friend Ashley had even extolled the virtues of Ice, as in “Ice Epidemic.” There was such a thing as taking your love of Breaking Bad too far. The only thing that might have tempted Ben to relive his partying days was a couple of lines of coke, but at that moment it was hard to come by, expensive and mostly washing detergent. Something to do with a big drugs bust up North.
“You catch on fast. Now, let’s talk about what you can do for me.” Fi smiled. “Why should I use you and not say, McGrath, or Ray White?”
Ben slipped easily into sales mode.
“Well, for a start, it’s my business and you’re not getting some franchisee who’s cashing in on being part of a brand. You get individual attention, I’m on call 24/7 and I’ll put everything into making sure you get the best price for your house. You prepared the contract for sale yet?”
“You got a lawyer?”
Fiona looked at him sternly. Ben realised his slip.
“Sorry, stupid question, but you need a conveyancing lawyer, not a criminal one.”
“Can you recommend one?”
“Good. Do I get a cash discount?” asked Fiona sweetly.
Ben drained his second glass of champagne. Did he just hear that right?
“I was thinking a fee of 3%, Fi. But for cash, I’d settle for $1 million, I guess.” He couldn’t believe it was his own voice he was hearing.
“Sounds good. Are you getting the picture of how much discretion I need?” Fi smiled sweetly and sipped gracefully from her glass.
“And no publicity at all. The purchaser will need to give me 20% of the purchase price in cash. Tell them we’ll say that the sale price was 20% lower too so he can save himself some stamp duty. Don’t want to rip off the state government too much, might make them query it.”
“No advertising at all?”
“Why would you need it, Ben? How many people can actually afford to buy our house? My house. Those that can will be all too happy to keep it quiet if they think they’re in with a shot, and with a chance of a bargain at that. You’d have to have a good idea of who’s in the market for it. How’s your Mandarin?”
“Everyone speaks English when it’s time to close the deal.”
Their entree landed in front of them just as Ben finished speaking.
“Great, well we’ve done a deal, now we can relax and enjoy lunch.” Fiona reached in her bag and as if touching his hand for emphasis slipped a small clear plastic bag filled with a familiar white powder into his palm.
“Something to cleanse the palette after this. It’s good stuff, not the crap doing the rounds at the moment. Charlie would go ballistic if he knew I’ve been helping myself to the stock.”
Ben quickly put the bag in his pocket before anyone could see, as if they’d have cared.
“I won’t be telling Charlie…anything. Ever.” His stomach was tingling. Excitement? Fear? He didn’t know, but the harbour had never looked as blue and the scallops never tasted so good.
Charlie Campbell was in Silverwater Jail, in the minimum-security wing. He had quite a few privileges although e-trading in shares was strictly off limits and offline. He was allowed phone calls of six minutes’ duration on the inmates’ phone but he preferred the longer ones he could have by borrowing one of the small “burner” phones which were smuggled in. These less-than-smart phones were an ideal size for slipping into a prisoner’s secret little places. It was best to wash your hands after use and not think too much about where the mouthpiece was previously. Fliptop phones were understandably the most popular.
After the initial shock and dismay that all his money couldn’t keep him out of prison, Charlie had settled into a routine. He was a large man, a rugger bugger, a former B grade rugby prop forward. He still had big shoulders, well-defined calf muscles and a broken nose, with an ever-expanding waistline and fully receded hairline.
He found it was possible to keep most of his business interests simmering while he was inside. What Charlie hadn’t expected was the amount of new opportunities that arose from being in close proximity to so many low-risk, financially intelligent fellow inmates. He was rubbing shoulders daily with disgraced accountants, investment advisors and, ironically, several lawyers, a profession with a particular predilection for stealing their clients’ money. Charlie was amazed that they needed to, if the fees he had to pay were any guide. Most got caught through acts of stupidity, like Charlie himself. One director of a public company had simply written cheques payable to himself over a couple of years, totalling over $8 million. Top marks for simplicity, not such a good score for avoiding detection. Charlie wouldn’t be doing any deals with him; that was a certainty.
There were some temporary residents, just passing through for a couple of nights, like criminal Airbnb guests, while the system sorted out where they should serve their sentence. It was how Charlie had met the leader of one of Sydney’s outlaw motorcycle gangs, The Flying Fux. The spelling mistake was deliberate, and the emblem on the backs of their denim vests was a cartoon version of a Flying Fox, upside down (which, being a fruit bat, is the right way up), with the fictitious middle finger of its wing raised in salute. It’s a big bat and pretty much life-sized on the back of a denim jacket. Ray Di Maria was less threatening out of his leather and denim regalia until you got up close. His eyes had seen it all and could see right through you. Piercing blue, sparkling even, but able to express cold hatred with a twitch of the iris.
“Good to meet a fellow traveller,” said Charlie. They shook hands firmly, Charlie’s smooth as a baby’s, Ray’s calloused by motorcycle maintenance, firearm cleaning and money laundering.
“You’re that arsehole who got caught for insider trading.” Ray had a deep voice with a slightly ethnic accent, Westie or Woggie, depending on how politically incorrect you wanted to be.
“Charlie Campbell,” smiled Charlie, unfazed.
“Yes. That’s right.” Ray stared at a point several centimetres through Charlie’s head.
“Surprised to see you here, didn’t think the cops could ever get a witness to testify against you guys,” said Charlie, brightly.
“Damn right they can’t. Got me on CCTV. Fucking everywhere these days. Filmed me re-aligning a lapsed member. He told them I hit him in self-defence, but they still did me…some trumped-up charge about using a machete in a congested area or some bullshit. Broad daylight so I couldn’t argue it.”
Charlie was a bit surprised Ray hadn’t learned about the risks of CCTV from a highly publicised murder in the Sydney Airport check-in area. Rival motorcycle gangs had resolved their differences using any metal objects not screwed to the floor as their weapons, in full view of other passengers and security cameras. This had resulted in a conviction but Charlie didn’t remind Ray, figuring it was too soon.
“Who was your silk?”
“Brady QC. If he wants paying he can kiss my hairy arse.”
I bet it is hairy too, thought Charlie, who had taken to man-scaping in recent years in an attempt to stay attractive for Fiona.
“Be good to catch up when you get out. I’m sure we could do some business.”
“You wearing a wire or something?”
Charlie laughed. Ray did not.
“No, God no. I’m just trying to make the most of a bad situation. Some of my conventional business dealings are over for now. Can’t be a director of any new companies, blah blah, yada yada, you know the deal. But I’ve got a shitload of money and it’s not earning any interest where it is at the moment. And I don’t mean it’s in a term deposit in the Commonwealth Bank.” Charlie laughed again.
“What are you thinking?” Ray didn’t sound at all interested, but that never stopped Charlie. The deal was his drug of choice, nothing got him more excited, and he’d tried some very expensive amusements over the years.
“Well…pharmaceuticals can be very profitable. Strictly on an import basis so far of course, I’d never dabble in local production. I know that’s an area you and your competitors have got sewn up.”
“That boatload of coke Customs got last month?”
Charlie shook his head.
“You’d reckon all their boats would be up North stopping people smugglers, but no. Those guys must’ve been pissed off.”
“Or they’d pissed someone off and got dobbed in.” Ray, like most outlaw bikers, had a strict set of club rules. The code might not be legal, but it set boundaries you didn’t cross unless you were prepared to face the consequences.
“Could be. Anyway. I’m sure there might be some way we could do business in the future.”
“You got somewhere else you need to be? What’s wrong with now?” Ray smiled slightly. He looked even more dangerous.