Detective Inspector Hal Challis showered with a bucket at his feet. He kept it economical, but still the bucket overflowed. He toweled himself dry, dressed, and, while the espresso pot was heating on the bench-top burner in his kitchen, poured the bucket into the washing machine. Couple more showers and he’d have enough water for a load of washing. Only 19 December but already his rainwater tanks were low and a long, dry summer had been forecast. He didn’t want to buy water again, not like last summer.
The coffee was ready. As he poured he glanced at an old calendar pinned to the corkboard above his bench. He’d bought the calendar by mail order three years ago, and kept it opened at March. The vintage airplane for that month was a prototype of the de Havilland DH84 Dragon. Then the toaster pinged and Challis hunted for the butter and the jam and finally took his toast and coffee on to the deck at the rear of his house.
The early sun reached him through the wisteria with the promise of a hot day ahead. He felt bone-tired. A suspected abduction on the Old Peninsula Highway two nights ago—the investigation ultimately dumped into his lap. Frankston uniforms had taken the call, then referred it to the area Superintendent, who’d rung at 1 a.m. and said, “Maybe your boy’s struck a second time, Hal.” Challis had spent the next four hours at the scene, directing a preliminary search. When he’d got home again at 5 a.m. yesterday there hadn’t seemed much point in going back to bed, and he’d spent the rest of the day in the car or on the phone.
A little four-stroke engine was chugging away on the bank of his neighbor’s dam. Cows once drank there. Now the cows were gone and the hillside stretched back in orderly rows of vines. Challis couldn’t spot his neighbor among the vines, but the man was there somewhere. He usually was, weeding, pruning, spraying, picking. Challis thought of the insecticide spray, of the wind carrying it to his roof, where the rain would wash it into his underground tank, and he tossed out his coffee.
He stepped down from the verandah and made a circuit of his boundary fence. Half a hectare, on a dirt lane west of the Old Peninsula Highway, tucked in among orchards, vineyards and a horse stud, and Challis made this walk every morning and evening as a kind of check on his feelings. Five years now, and still the place was his port in a storm.
As he collected the Age from his mailbox on the dirt lane at the front of his property, a voice called from the next driveway, “Hal, have you got a minute?”
The man from the vineyard was walking toward him. Small, squint-eyed from the angling sun, about sixty. Challis waited, gazing calmly, as he did with suspects, and sure enough the man grew edgy.
Challis stopped himself. The fellow didn’t deserve his CIB tricks. “What can I do for you?”
“Look, I realize it’s nothing, but you know the ornamental lake I’ve got, over near the house?”
“Someone’s been fishing in it,” the neighbor said. “After the trout. The thing is, they’re scaring the birds away.”
Ibis, herons, a black swan, moorhens. Challis had watched them for half an hour one day, from a little hide the man had constructed in the reeds. “Do you know who?”
“Probably kids. I found a couple of tangled lines and fishhooks, half a dozen empty Coke cans.”
Challis nodded. “Have you informed the local station?”
I thought, you being an inspector—”
“Inform the local station,” Challis said. “They’ll send a car around now and then, make their presence felt.”
“Can’t you . . .”
“I’m very sorry, but it would look better if you lodged the complaint.”
Challis left soon after that. He locked the house, backed his Triumph out of the garage and turned right at his gate, taking the lane in bottom gear. In winter he negotiated potholes, mud and minor flooding; in summer, corrugations and treacherous soft edges.
He drove east, listening to the eight o’clock news. At five minutes past eight he turned on to the Old Peninsula Highway, meeting it quite near the abduction scene, and headed south, toward the town of Waterloo, hearing the screams the dying leave behind them.
He could have been more helpful to the neighbor. He wondered what the man thought of him, a detective inspector and “New Peninsula.”
The Peninsula. People talked about it as if it were cohesive and indivisible. You only did that if you didn’t know it, Challis thought. You only did that if you thought its distinctive shape—a comma of land hooking into the sea southeast of Melbourne—gave it a separate identity, or if you’d driven through it once and seen only beaches, farmland and quiet coastal towns.
Not that it covered a large area—less than an hour by road from top to bottom, and about twenty minutes across at its widest point—but to a policeman like Challis there were several Peninsulas. The old Peninsula of small farms and orchards, secluded country estates, some light industry and fishing, and sedate coastal towns populated by retirees and holidaying families, was giving way to boutique wineries, weekender farms, and back roads populated with bed-and-breakfast cottages, potteries, naturopathy clinics, reception centers, tearooms and galleries. Tourism was one of the biggest industries, and people with professions—like Challis himself—were flocking to buy rural hideaways. Some local firms made a good living from erecting American-style barns and installing pot-belly stoves, and costly four-wheel drives choked the local townships.
But although there was more money about, it wasn’t necessarily going to more people. A community center counsellor friend of Challis’s had told him of the growing number of homeless, addicted kids she dealt with. Industries and businesses were closing, even as families were moving into the cheap housing developments that were spreading at the fringes of the main towns, Waterloo and Mornington. The shire council, once one of the biggest employers, was cutting expenses to the bone, using managers whose sense of humanity had been cut to the bone. The adjustments were never forewarned or carried out face to face. Challis’s counsellor friend now sold home-made pickles and jams at fairs and markets. There had been a letter, telling her she was redundant, her whole unit closed down. “Just three days’ notice, Hal.”
It was happening everywhere, and the police were usually the ones to pick up the pieces.
Which didn’t mean that the Peninsula wasn’t a pleasant place to live in. Challis felt as if he’d come home, finally.
And the job suited him. In the old days of murder or abduction investigations he’d been sent all over the state, city and bush, with a squad of specialists, but the Commissioner had introduced a new system, intended to give local CIB officers experience in the investigation of serious crimes alongside their small-time burglaries, assaults and thefts. Now senior homicide investigators like Challis worked a specific beat. Challis’s was the Peninsula. Although he had an office in regional headquarters, he spent most of his time in the various Peninsula police stations, conducting investigations with the help of the local CIB, calling in the specialists only if he got derailed or bogged down. It was a job that entailed tact, and giving as much responsibility to the local CIB as possible, or the fallout was resentment and a foot-dragging investigation.
He didn’t expect that from the Waterloo CIB. He’d worked with them before.
Challis drove south for twenty kilometers. The highway ran down the eastern side of the Peninsula, giving him occasional glimpses of the bay. Then the Waterloo refinery came
into view across the mangrove flats, bright oily flames on the chimneys, and glaring white tanks. There was a large tanker at anchor. The highway became a lesser road, bisecting a new housing estate, the high plank fences on either side hiding rooftops that varied greatly but were never more than a meter apart. He crossed the railway line and turned right, skirting the town, then left on to a main road that took him past timber merchants, boat yards, Peninsula Cabs, crash repairers, an aerobics center, the Fiddlers Creek pub and a corner lot crammed with ride-on mowers and small hobby tractors.
The police station and the adjacent courthouse were on a roundabout at the end of High Street, opposite a Pizza Hut. Challis glanced down High Street as he turned. The water glittered at the far end; frosted Santas, reindeer, sleighs, candles, mangers and bells swung from lampposts and trees.
He parked in the side street opposite the main entrance to the police station, got out, and walked into trouble.
“That windscreen’s not roadworthy.”
A uniformed constable, who had been about to get into a divisional van that idled outside the station with a young woman constable at the wheel, had changed his mind and was approaching Challis, flipping open his infringement book and fishing in his top pocket for a pen. He’s going to book me, Challis thought.
“I’ve ordered a new windscreen.”
“Not good enough.”
The Triumph was low-slung. On the back roads of the Peninsula, it was always copping stones and pebbles, and one had cracked the windscreen on the passenger side.
“This your car?”
A snapping of fingers: “License.”
Challis complied. The constable was large—tall and bigboned, but also carrying too much weight. He was young, the skin untested by time and the elements, and his hair was cut so short that his scalp showed through. Challis had an impression of acres of pink flesh.
A classic bully, Challis thought.
Then the constable saw the name on Challis’s license, but, to his credit, did not flinch. “Challis. Inspector Challis?”
“Sir, that windscreen’s not roadworthy. It’s also dangerous.”
“I realize that. I’ve ordered a new one.”
The constable watched him for a long moment, then nodded. He put his book away. “Fair enough.”
Challis hadn’t wanted to be booked, and telling the constable to follow the rules and book him would have been an embarrassment and an irritation for both of them, so he said nothing. The constable turned and made for the van. Challis watched it leave.
“A real prick, that one,” a voice said.
There was a work-dented Jeep parked outside the courthouse. The rear doors were open and a man wearing overalls was unloading air-conditioning vents. Challis glanced at the side of the Jeep: Rhys Hartnett Air-Conditioning.
“The bastard did me over yesterday. Hadn’t been here five minutes and he booked me for a cracked tail-light. Shouted in my face, spit flying, like I was some kind of criminal.”
Challis steered the conversation away from that. “Are you working in the police station?”
The man shook his head. “The courthouse.”
He snapped a business card at Challis. He did it in a way that seemed automatic, and Challis had a vision of hundreds of people walking around with unwanted cards in their pockets. He glanced at it. Rhys Hartnett, Air-Conditioning Specialist.
“Well, I wish you were doing the police station.” Hartnett seemed to straighten. “You a copper?”
“Just my luck. I was wasting my breath complaining to you about police tactics.”
“Not necessarily,” Challis said, turning away and crossing the road.