A cold-case investigator will stop at nothing to find justice in this gripping standalone by Australian crime legend Garry Disher.
The young detectives think Alan Auhl is washed up, but that doesn’t faze him. He does things his own way—and gets results.
He still lives with his ex-wife, offand on, in a big house full of random boarders and hard-luck stories. And he’s still a cop, even though he retired from Homicide some years ago.
He works cold cases now. Like the death of John Elphick—his daughters are still convinced he was murdered; the coroner is not so sure. Or the skeleton that’s just been found under a concrete slab. Or the doctor who killed two wives and a girlfriend, and left no evidence at all.
Auhl will stick with these cases until justice is done. One way or another.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Garry Disher has published over fifty books in a range of genres, including crime, children’s books, and Australian history. His Hal Challis and Wyatt crime series are also published by Soho Crime. He lives on the Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne
Read an Excerpt
One mild October morning near Pearcedale, southeast of Melbourne, a snake slid over the edge of a veranda on a shortcut to somewhere. Nathan Wright, blearily contemplating his parched lawn from the front door after breakfast, caught the movement in the corner of his eye: a big fuck-off copperhead rippling over his veranda. Heading where? Toward his wife and daughter? Jaime was pinning jumpsuits to the clothesline on the side lawn, Serena Rae on a pink blanket at her feet.
Finding his voice after a few seconds—weeks—Nathan pointed and squeaked, “Snake!”
Jaime straightened from the clothes basket and followed his pointing finger. Dropping a tiny pink singlet, spitting a clothespin from her mouth, she scooped Serena Rae from the blanket and stumbled backward with a little squeal of terror. The snake slid on, over the patchy grass and dirt, toward a weathered concrete slab the size of a couple of tabletops. No one knew the original purpose of the old slab. The base of a garden shed, now demolished? Chook shed? It was cracked and holed here and there but seemed solid enough and Jaime had set a garden seat on it, crosswise in one corner, where she liked to read in the sun, shell peas, nurse Serena Rae.
The oblivious snake stuck its nose into a hole that seemed to Nathan impossibly small and began, with a series of long, muscular pulses, to squeeze its way under the concrete. Soon a quarter of the body length had disappeared. Jaime and Nathan watched, appalled. Serena Rae popped her wet thumb and pointed. “Yes, darling, snake,” said Jaime shakily.
Nathan roused himself from paralysis. A snake living right beside the house? No fucking way. He ran to the leanto behind the garage where he stored the firewood and garden tools.
“Nathan!” Jaime clamped Serena Rae to her chest. “Where are you . . .?”
She gaped, then understood: he was going to chop the snake in two. She watched him vanish, then reappear with the axe, charging the visible half of the snake at a clumsy gallop.
“Don’t!” Panic in her voice.
He pulled up, confused. “What?”
“It could be pregnant.”
Something she’d read, dozens of baby snakes escaping from a severed body, disappearing in all directions to thrive and breed and bite baby humans.
“Plus,” she said, trying for calm—Nathan looked even more rattled than she felt—“snakes are protected.”
“What? Fuck that.”
“And what if the head section comes back out to bite you?”
This seemed unlikely to Nathan, but he hadn’t fanciedgetting close to the snake to begin with, and now it was too late. The snake had disappeared into its burrow.
Still. The fact remained: they had a snake.
Nathan lumbered back to the lean-to and picked up a couple of old red bricks. Approaching the concrete slab as if it was a bed of hot coals, he skittered across the surface, plonked the bricks over the snake hole and retreated. Brushed the brick dust off his hands and joined his wife, who had withdrawn to the veranda.
She seemed unconvinced by his command of the situation. “What if there’s another hole we can’t see? What if it knocks the bricks off? What if it digs another exit hole?”
Nathan resembled any young husband of the district: a little beefy, lawn-mower haircut, baggy shorts and surf brand T-shirt, a couple of meek tats, sunglasses perched on his baseball cap, given to belligerence when he didn’t grasp things. Which happened often enough that Jaime had developed a habit of impatience.
“We need to call the snake catcher,” she said sharply, masking the jitters she still felt.
“Oh for . . .” Nathan remembered Serena Rae in time to bite off his words; she gazed at him as if she shared her mother’s view of him.
“The number’s by the kitchen phone,” Jaime went on.
Nathan knew that. He’d stuck the snake catcher’s name and number there himself after reading a story in the local paper. Baz the snake catcher advising residents it was going to be a “good” season for snakes, particularly copperheads, tigers and red-bellied blacks.
“Nathan . . .” said Jaime, her tone carrying the rest of the sentence.
“Okay, okay.” He stomped back along the veranda to the front door. Christ, he’d left it open. Who knew how many snakes had slithered into the house? Quick glance back over his shoulder: Jaime was still eyeing the slab, jiggling Serena Rae on her hip. Serena Rae was eyeing him. He gave her a sickly wave, entered the kitchen and dialed the number. Waited. Gazed over his yard to the side fence and the neighbor’s pine trees and the acres of undulating grassland all around him. All of it crawling with snakes.
Eventually Baz arrived, wearing a blue Snake Catcher Victoria polo shirt, jeans and heavy boots. A cap shaded his face, his big mitts clasped a long crook. Staring from Nathan to Jaime, he said, “Lead the way,” as if time were valuable.
Nathan indicated the slab and Baz shook his head. “Jesus, you’re not making it easy on me, are ya?”
“That’s where it went.”
Behind them Jaime said, “Can you catch it?”
“Give me a jackhammer and a Bobcat, maybe,” said Baz.
Nathan stood with him, eyeing the slab, and wished he’d just ignored the stupid woman and chopped the fucking snake in half. “Shoulda killed the bloody thing.”
Baz turned to him, slowly, calmly, and said, “Bud, I didn’t hear that. And for sure I don’t want to hear you say it again. It’s illegal to kill snakes. You’re looking at a six-thousand-buck fine.”
“I’m just saying . . .”
“Well, don’t.” Baz pointed to the discarded axe. “Even if you chopped it up, the head section is capable of biting you for a long time afterwards.”
“That’s what I told him,” Jaime said.
Nathan’s meaty hands clenched and unclenched. “So, what, we just leave it where it is?”
“Mate, if it can’t get out, it dies,” Baz said. “By blocking off the hole, you’ve in effect killed it. Six thousand bucks.”
“You’d report me? Jesus fucking Christ, what the hell are we supposed to do? We’ve got a little kid. You’re saying we remove the bricks so a venomous snake can roam free and me and my wife and kid barricade ourselves indoors for the rest of our lives?”
Baz, unimpressed with Nathan, was nonetheless a fair man. He had kids. He’d even suffered a snake bite, ten years earlier, throwing his family into a panic. He chewed his bottom lip. “Okay, this is what we do. You need that slab for anything? Intend to build a shed on it, for example?”
“You can cart it away for all I care.”
“I’m not carting it away, you are. Or disposing of the pieces once we’ve broken it up, anyway. I’ve got a mate, a concreter, specializes in house slabs, verandas, foundations. He’ll dig it up, no worries. We’ll start at the hole, widen it a bit at a time, enough for me to get an idea what’s under your slab, like a big cavity or a network of burrows. Soon as I see a snake, snakes, I’ll go to work with me hook.”
Snakes, plural. Brilliant. “What’ll you do with it? Them?”
“Release into the wild.”
“Right,” said Nathan. “And what if your average copperhead has a, I don’t know, a homing instinct?”
“Mate, there are snakes all around us all summer. Most of the time, you never encounter them. I get rid of this snake, who’s to say you won’t see another one in your garden tomorrow?”
Nathan glanced at Jaime. He sighed. “Okay, let’s do it.”
“Might not be today,” Baz said, with a troubled look that hinted he didn’t like to think of a snake in distress.
But Baz’s concreter mate agreed to come around midmorning, so Baz made himself at home—coffee, Anzac biscuits and a chin-wag on Nathan’s veranda—while he waited. Had Jaime in admiring giggles with his snake stories, the prick.
Finally a small truck trundled in, grey as cement, Mick the concreter himself a grey, powdery wreck of a man in shorts, a blue singlet and heavy boots, his years of heavy labor manifest in a stooped back and bow legs. He shook Nathan’s hand with a crooked, lazy grin full of sly knowledge. Nathan blushed, quite sure Baz had said something to make the concreter think he was a dickhead.
“Hear you got a problem,” Mick said, releasing Nathan’s hand.
“You could say that.”
“I did say that.” Mick eyed the slab and rubbed his hands together. “I’ve been laying concrete all my life. Not often I get a chance to rip it up.”
“Be ready to back off if a head pops out,” Baz said.
“Yeah, well, you be ready with your hook thingy,” the concreter said.
“Be careful,” called Jaime from behind the screen door.
Mick gave the other men a sleepy look and walked back to his truck to fetch a jackhammer. “I won’t start in the middle,” he said, approaching the slab, “in case there’s a thumping great hole underneath and I fall into a nest of copperheads. I’ll start at one edge, dig out, say, a square half meter at a time, check underneath, move on to the next section. What do you reckon?”
“Go your hardest,” Baz said.
Nathan wondered, pry out each section barehanded? Sooner him than me.
Not barehanded: Mick used a crowbar. And after four half-meter-square sections had been removed, it was clear that a large proportion of the concrete had been poured straight onto bare dirt. Except that as the newly bared edges crept closer to the snake hole, a degree of soil subsidence was becoming apparent under the middle of the slab.
“There he is!” Nathan said.
Baz nodded. “He’s trying to burrow deeper away from us.”
“I’ll cut out another section,” Mick said.
“Yeah, all right. But be ready to backpedal,” Baz said. “Our boy won’t be a happy chappie.”
Mick cut out a small segment of concrete this time, taking in the original hole. It crumbled as he tried to crowbar it out. “Whoever the fuck poured this didn’t know shit about concreting,” he said, irritated. “Too much sand, and badly mixed at that.” He reared back. “Fucking shit!”
The friable concrete had crumbled onto the snake, which tried to strike but was hampered by the masonry on its coils. Baz darted in and pinned the head with his crook. Then he crouched and used his other hand to flick away lumps of concrete until the snake was free. He picked it up, keeping the whipping front section clear with his crook, and poured it into a hessian sack.
“Piece of cake,” he said, grinning at the others.
Who were more interested, it seemed, in a depression under the middle section of the slab.
“What, we got a whole family of the buggers?”
He looked. What they had was a rotting cotton shirt over a rib cage, and a wrist bone encircled by a knockoff Rolex Oyster.