By Alan Carter
Fremantle Press Copyright © 2011 Alan Carter
All rights reserved.
Wednesday, October 8th, 2008. Late morning. Katanning, Western Australia.
The way the body was lying, it was obvious she hadn't seen it coming. The limbs were splayed at a grotesque angle. A pool of blood beside the head had dried in the sun before it could make it the few centimetres to the side of the road. Blowflies hovered impatiently. The October sun was high and unseasonably nasty. Anybody with any sense was sitting under the shade of the only tree for miles. Or they were somewhere else.
The sergeant was crouched beside the rapidly ripening corpse, talking into a small digital recorder. Cato Kwong squinted at the sergeant and took a swig of lukewarm water from a bottle that felt like it was melting in his hands. On his iPod, La Bohème was reaching a screeching crescendo. He turned it off and removed the earphones. He checked his watch: still only midmorning.
Time seemed to move so slowly these days. The sergeant's name was Jim Buckley: he chattered to himself, loving every minute, every detail of the task at hand. For a big bloke his movements were graceful. Pavarotti in a butcher's apron.
'Bullet number one entered just behind the left ear and exited through the right cheek; bullet number two entered the left eye. No apparent signs of an exit wound so we presume bullet number two is still lodged inside. I now intend to conduct an on-the-spot autopsy to confirm. Recording suspended at ... 10.22a.m. Detective Sergeant James Buckley.'
Buckley reached over and opened his toolbox. He pulled out a handsaw.
That's one big difference between Homicide Squad and Stock Squad, Cato mused, you don't have to wait for the autopsy, just do it yourself. He was still getting used to the idea: Detective Senior Constable Philip Kwong – Stock Squad. Homicide Squad, Major Crime, even Gangs, they had a ring to them that made you puff out your chest and stand a bit taller. Stock Squad? They were there to deal with cattle duffers, sheep theft, stolen tractors. They were touted as industry experts, they knew the farmers, knew the lingo. In Cato's view they were washed-up has-beens recycled as detectives. Mutton dressed as lamb? The Laughing Stock Squad. So if you come across a suspicious cow will you take it back to the station and grill it? Or leave it to stew?
So far Cato felt like little more than a glorified agricultural inspector. Stock Squad. It kind of escaped from the corner of your mouth like a coward's curse. Coward's curse pretty well summed up his situation. He was here because he'd been hung out to dry by a bunch of cowards he'd once worshipped and he couldn't do anything about it because of the Code, the Brotherhood, the whatever other bullshit name that might conceal a multitude of sins.
The Stock Squad was on tour: hearts and minds. The other two members of the squad taking the high road to the north, Cato Kwong and Jim Buckley on the low road south. A week of 'intelligence gathering' was how Buckley saw it: pressing the flesh, nosing around, random checks and a healthy per-diem budget – it would keep them in piss until they got back to Perth. A week of chewing straw, swatting flies and nodding sagely at stuff he didn't give a rat's arse about was how Cato saw it.
Cato Kwong: Stock Squad. Cato, like Peter Sellers' Chinese butler and martial arts sparring partner in The Pink Panther. A nickname inflicted on him at police academy. Cato hadn't seen any of the movies so he'd rented the videos to see what they were getting at. Cato, the manic manservant? Cato, the loyal punch-bag? Or just simply Cato the Chinaman?
The beginning of day three and Cato felt like he'd been on the road for a month.
'Oi, Kwongie, you gonna give us a hand, mate?'
Jim Buckley was already red-faced with effort as the saw bit into the back of the cow's neck. Blood spurting, blowflies going berko, he was in hog heaven. Cato winced primly; he preferred his meat plastic-wrapped and barcoded.
'Jim. Sir. Sarge ...'
Cato still didn't know how to address Jim Buckley. It wasn't that he didn't have any respect for authority, it was just that he was still working on it in Jim Buckley's case.
'Look, do we really need to do all this stuff? It's pretty obvious. The cow was run over, finished off with a couple of bullets to the head. The back leg was chopped off with a chainsaw and taken home to the barbie. End of story.'
Cato took another swig of the mountain spring water. He didn't function well in excessive heat. Maybe he should join the Canadian Mounties, or the Tasmanian ones, somewhere nice and cool.
Jim Buckley frowned, a tad disappointed with the younger man's attitude. 'It's still a crime, Cato mate. And it's our job to find the bad guys.'
Cato knew he was banging his head against the proverbial. Buckley, after twenty-five years in the force, had finally found his niche. Stock Squad was Jim's domain and he was in no mood for negativity. He mopped a sodden brow with a wipe of his shirtsleeve and passed the blood-soaked implement to Cato.
'So, as your senior officer, I'd advise you to shut the fuck up and start sawing.'
Four hours earlier.
Wednesday, October 8th. Dawn.
Hopetoun, Western Australia.
Her lungs were bursting and her left hip was agony: two kilometres from home and four behind her. For the last twenty minutes she'd been feeling a bit old, worn out. Too many twinges these days and getting harder to keep them at bay. But then she rounded the corner, hit the top of the sand dune and there was the ocean. Beautiful, she thought, gorgeous. A slight breeze rippled the surface and the sun was just coming up, dispelling the shadows on the hills in the national park over to the west. The huge open sky was striped orange, pink, purple, and blue.
And would you believe it, dolphins, two of them, splashing in the shallows near the groyne. She semi-sprinted the last two hundred metres along the sand where it was packed hard at the water's edge, never taking her eyes off the dolphins. As she drew nearer something changed. The way those dolphins were moving, the shape of the fins, the frolicking and splashing; no, it wasn't splashing – it was more like thrashing. Sharks. And there was something in the water with them, something brown, floppy, lifeless. A seal maybe, from the colony on the rock a few hundred metres out from the groyne. She quickened her step. This would be something a bit special to share with her primary class in news today.
One of the sharks seemed to be shaking the seal in its jaws, like a puppy with an old sock. Finally it let go and the seal flew a few feet through the air, landing with a soft plop at the water's edge. From five metres away she could see they'd ripped the poor little bugger to shreds; just one flipper remained and the thing didn't seem to have a head. She was right on top of the carcass now. She stopped, caught her breath, shivered. It wasn't a seal; it was a human torso. It wasn't a flipper; it was an arm – a left arm, no hand. She'd been right about the head though – there wasn't one.
She bowed forward, hands on knees, and threw up. Behind her she could hear the sharks still splashing in the shallows like a couple of dolphins, playfully taking the piss.
Hot flush. Senior Sergeant Tess Maguire put down her coffee, opened her jacket and cracked a car window. The smell of rotting roadkill nearby forced her to shut it again, quickly. Tess swore and flicked on the air conditioning. Six-twenty on a sharp, spring south-coast morning and she was sweating like a pig. Suddenly cold again, she flicked the air conditioner back off. She felt completely out of sorts. How could she be getting hot flushes when she'd only just turned forty-two? Tess looked at herself in the rear-view. The short-cropped blonde hair was losing its fight against the wispy greys. She kept on threatening to let it grow out to all-over grey. It was natural. What's so bad about grey anyway? She tried to think of some attractive, well-known, grey-haired women. She couldn't get beyond Germaine Greer. Tess added hair dye to her mental shopping list and turned the radio on.
The interviewer sounded young enough to be her daughter. She'd countried her voice up a bit, talking with an authoritative twang to a primary commodities broker about the grain and wool prices. Apparently one was up and the other was down, in contrast to the stock market in general which was still in freefall. Tess couldn't get her head around how a handful of venal mortgagebrokers in America could trigger what seemed to be a global financial tsunami and the end of the world as we know it. Never mind, it was unlikely to hit them here in Hopetoun – the end of the world and proud of it. This was Tess's first posting since she came off sick leave. Nine months. Most of the first month in hospital and outpatients, the next three in physio, the rest in therapy. She wondered how Melissa would go: new to town, year nine in high school, sharing a classroom with a bunch of teenage hard-cases whose dads had come down to work at the new mine. She'd seen them hanging around the park – the kids, not the dads. Testosterone. The pushing and shoving, swearing and shouting: youthful high spirits, some called it. Only these days it sent her into cold sweats and panic attacks, fighting for breath, tears welling up. Even now, just at the thought of them.
A new life, a new start, new hope in Hopetoun, they'd promised her. The place hadn't warranted a permanent police post in the past. For decades it had been a laid-back holiday or retirement spot for wheatbelt farmers. There was nothing to police except maybe the occasional drunk driver or domestic. Now, with the nearby nickel mine, the population had steadily grown from a stable four hundred in the old days to a whopping two thousand – and rising. It would still be a while before it was Gotham City but with more houses, plenty of money being tossed around and the pub getting busier it meant more bad behaviour, temptation, vandalism, domestics and drugs. Hopetoun was a good place to put ageing or wounded or useless cops out to pasture. Tess ticked all three boxes. At first she'd turned it down. Senior Sergeant Tess Maguire – the bump up to 'Senior' was a reward for getting the shit kicked out of her – wanted to tough it out. But after a few weeks at a desk in Perth HQ with the concerned but embarrassed stares, the traffic, the noise and the crowds, Tess was sold on the sea change. Hopetoun. No crime to speak of, she reasoned, no stress, just sunshine and sea breezes to clear out the cobwebs.
First she heard him. Then she smelled him. Then she saw him: weaving down the road, screeching and roaring, the acrid stench of burning rubber from the smoking tyres. Tess checked the clock on her dashboard: he was right on time. She had parked the paddy wagon by the turn-off to the mine. The swirling black tyre marks at the junction were a testament to his earlier handiwork. They were the kind of marks you'd see on any road in any Australian suburb these days but the big nobs of the Shire wanted an end to it. It was rampant hoonism, it created a bad impression, it was a bloody disgrace. And it was Tess Maguire's job to nip it in the bud. Tess started up her motor, switched on the flashing lights and swung across the road blocking his path. He stopped. She tapped on his window until he opened it.
'Having fun, Kane?'
Kane Stevenson, Doughnut King: a drongo kid from a drongo family. There was a time Tess might have avoided pinning labels on to people. Give them a chance, that kind of thing. Not any more. Drongo is as drongo does. But what the Shire bigwigs might find hard to swallow was the fact that this particular drongo was a local boy, born and bred. They couldn't blame this on miners, outsiders or incomers; Kane was home-grown trouble. Now that he was working at the mine, he had money to burn along with those tyres.
He wound down his window, all innocent. 'Morning Tess, early start?'
'Sergeant, or Officer, to you. What do you think you're doing?
'Sorry mate, had to swerve. Roo on the road, I couldn't kill it, animal lover me.'
'No: straight up.'
Tess stepped back and made a show of admiring what she saw.
'Company ute, nice. Been promoted, Kane?'
He slapped the steering wheel proudly. 'Yeah, Team Leader; extra fifteen grand.'
'Congratulations. Thing is, Kane, under our lovely new hoon laws, I've got every right to impound this vehicle.' She snapped her fingers. 'Gone in sixty seconds. I don't think your employers are going to be too impressed.'
His employers being Western Minerals, one of the biggest and richest companies in the world with mines in all corners of the globe. They paid their employees extremely well but were very unforgiving of transgressions. Their motto: Zero Tolerance. Everybody assumed they were talking about bad behaviour.
'Ah fuck, Tess, c'mon,' Kane pleaded, for the first time a flicker of recognition of consequences in his big brown eyes.
Tess's mobile trilled: caller ID, Greg, her offsider.
'Tess? You'd better get back to town. There's been a body.'
She squinted menacingly at the Doughnut King. 'First and last warning,' and took off in the paddy wagon, burning a bit of rubber on the way.
As the sky brightened, Tess passed a convoy of white utes heading in the opposite direction out to the mine, forty kilometres away. On the outskirts of town she climbed the low hill to the roundabout leading off to the light industrial on one side and the new sprawling off-the-peg Legoland housing estate on the other. Cresting the rise she relaxed a notch or two at the view down the main street to the bright blue Southern Ocean at the bottom of the hill. After three months she still hadn't got over how small, quiet and, yes, beautiful the place was. And she hoped she never would.
Tess pulled into the beachside gravel car park. Her colleague, Constable Greg Fisher, was on the beach talking to a middle-aged woman dressed in running gear, while the town GP crouched examining something on the sand; it was hidden from view by a makeshift canvas windbreak. Greg's initiative: he was in his first year out of police academy and eager to impress. Tess had long forgotten that feeling. A pair of pied oystercatchers pecked the sand irritably with scarlet stiletto beaks. A small handful of earlyrising onlookers strained to get a glimpse of the body, careful not to overstep the invisible line established by Constable Fisher.
As she got closer, Tess recognised the woman as a teacher from the primary school: she'd seen her around, hard not to in a town this small. The teacher was a bit green around the gills; her eyes were puffy, her lower lip trembled as she talked, Greg taking notes. Tess left them to it and walked, white sand squeaking beneath her feet, over to the doctor and the body. The torso glistened in the morning sun; green tendrils of seaweed sparkled on the mottled, lightly tanned flesh. There was no head, no legs, only part of one arm and a pale grey mush where the missing pieces should have been.
The doctor stood up, broad-shouldered, early fifties. Tess had met him once before, a few weeks back when she dropped in a young miner who'd been on a bender and tried to punch out the pub ATM when it argued with him about his PIN number.
'What's the word, Doctor Terhorst?'
'Well he's dead, that's for sure.' His lip curled slightly at his little joke, then he continued in his clipped Afrikaans accent. 'But at this stage I can't accurately say what age bracket or even, for sure, what race. From the torso length I'd estimate medium height, medium build. Don't ask me for a time of death, with something that's been in the water it's too hard without the proper tests. Ball park? Less than a week.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from Prime Cut by Alan Carter. Copyright © 2011 Alan Carter. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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