A Danny Arbor Investigation
Copyright © 2019 by Calder Garret All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Created with Vellum
With thanks to Val, Ali and Sandra
I acknowledge the Noongar people as the traditional custodians of the land on which this novel is set and was written, and the continuing connection that Aboriginal people have to land, waters and culture. I pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
This is an entirely fictional work. The views of the characters in this novel are not intended to offend and do not represent my own views, but rather reflect the reality that we, as a country, still have some way to walk together on our journey towards reconciliation.
About the Author
This time as the blow landed, Salim Rashid felt a tooth shatter and his mouth fill with blood. He forced open his one good eye and glared at his blond assailant.
‘Don’t you dare look at me like that, you Paki prick,’ the man said.
Rashid spat what remained of the tooth onto the man’s shirt and then steeled himself for the next blow. But, instead, he heard the clatter of an iron door. A ray of sunlight hit the blood-covered straw on the floor around him.
‘Any luck?’ said the assailant.
‘No,’ came a reply. ‘But we found this instead.’
Rashid heard the muffled but terrified cries of a woman. A woman he recognised.
‘Amira? Amira?’ he called. ‘Is that you?’
‘Abba? Abba?’ Amira replied. ‘Help me! Please!’
Behind Amira’s cries, Rashid could hear the men laughing.
‘We were thinking,’ said one of the newcomers. ‘We might have some fun with it later.’
‘Yeah, I’d be ; up for that,’ said the assailant. ‘She’s quite a looker, isn’t she? All things considered. What do you reckon, Rashid? Do you want us to have some fun with your little girl?’
‘Oh, no, please,’ said Salim Rashid. ‘Please. Please don’t.’
‘Then I reckon you should give us what we want, eh? Fair’s fair. Go on. Spill. Tell us all you’ve been up to.’
‘But I beg of you,’ said Rashid. ‘I can’t. I swear.’
‘Fine, then,’ said the assailant. ‘If that’s the way you want it. I’ve just about had it with you, anyway.’
The man stepped out of view, leaving Rashid with just shadows and the whimpers of his daughter.
‘Have faith, Amira,’ he called. ‘We will survive this.’
‘You’ve got Buckley’s chance of that, mate,’ said the man, returning. ‘Because if you won’t spill your guts, then I’ll spill them for you.’
Salim Rashid glimpsed a flash of steel, and then a sharp movement in the air above him. He felt a searing pain in his belly, and then he sensed no more.
Arbor felt the draught of the air conditioner as soon as he opened the door. From the rasping wind outside, it came as a cool relief, but it meant that O’Reilly had beaten him to the punch and was already at work. He cursed himself, for he knew that a reprimand would follow in short order. O’Reilly’s response to his tardiness would be yet another sermon, peppered with the sergeant’s cumbersome wit, and, no doubt, a list of menial chores to complete as punishment for his crime. Not that O’Reilly bore him any ill feelings; he would be surprised if the sergeant bore him any feelings at all. This was merely the state of play between the sergeant-in-charge and his only, most lowly, junior officer.
Sure enough, O’Reilly was sitting near the small kitchen at the back of the room. He had his fat arse parked in the only decent chair and his feet on another. He was watching the cricket.
‘What time do you call this?’ he said. ‘Fucking lunchtime?’
‘Yeah, sorry, Sarge,’ said Arbor. ‘How’s it going?’
‘As slow as,’ said O’Reilly. ‘They’re trying to bore us to death, I reckon. And this crowd … Have a go at it, will you? Trumpets for bloody breakfast. Fuck me. Ah, shut up, you …’
The Indian supporters didn’t respond. They just continued with their Boxing Day antics.
O’Reilly helped himself to another can from the beer fridge, cracked it and guzzled it with a sigh. It was only twenty to eight. Arbor could see the kind of day the sergeant had planned for himself. But he concluded that O’Reilly would be safe in his cocoon. What with the post-Christmas wind-down and a forecast of over forty degrees for most of the day, the town of Chatton would be at a standstill. Any of the local hotheads still chasing excitement would be miles away, burning off their hangovers by burning up the back roads. Someone else’s problem.
‘Any visitors, Sarge?’ Arbor asked. It was code, for any prisoners in the one-cell lockup out the back. It was a regular occurrence. Living just next door, O’Reilly often swept up the hotel’s drunks.
‘No, we’re empty,’ said the sergeant, his eyes still trained on the telly. ‘It was a quiet night.’
Arbor sat at his desk and shuffled a few papers, without method and without intent.
‘You’d better get that assault file seen to,’ O’Reilly continued. ‘It was due away Monday.’
In the silence, Arbor could hear it coming.
‘Oh, and yeah,’ O’Reilly said, shifting his weight and taking another sip of his beer. ‘You might want to clean out the filing cabinets. Yeah, there’s a job for you. There’s twenty years’ worth of crap in there and I want it all sorted for New Year. But before you do anything, nip down and get us a pie. A pie and chips. And do it pronto. The only things moving out there in an hour or so will be the wind, the flies and the stupid farts running away from them.’
So Arbor was outside again, in the heat, on the dry parchment that was Palm Street. He took shelter for a while in the small sliver of shade that skirted the station, his eyes drawn to the procession of trucks approaching the silo on the other side of the railway line. This pageant, he knew, would continue well into February, until all the farms had completed their harvest. That harvest, he suspected, remained the town of Chatton’s only reason for being.
Above Arbor, the crows’ cawing was hard and grating, as if intended to wake the more lethargic townsfolk. But it wasn’t working. The power lines’ song was soft and hypnotic and Palm Street remained empty, save for the odd parked car roasting in the sun.
Arbor eyed the paddy wagon. For a moment, he considered taking it, making the trip to the delicatessen a quick up and back. But like the rest of the vehicles, it would be an oven inside. It was simply not worth the effort. Uncomfortable though it would be, the only option was to walk. He headed east, laughing to himself. At least walking would give him a chance to gauge the damage done to the town by those for whom Christmas had been a less than silent night.
He wasn’t entirely certain, but Arbor felt it likely that it was the rail line that had spawned Chatton, not the other way around. The town had probably begun as a depot rather than a community, a pick-up and drop-off point for the growing number of farmers in the area. Palm Street, the main street, ran alongside the rail line, mirroring the line as it stretched westwards towards the city and eastwards into the desert.
Palm Street, Arbor understood, was a place where tourists rarely slowed down. And if they did, it was not to see the sights. There were none. It was only due to the hazards posed to their cars by children and livestock. Named for a former town clerk rather than for any flora that might adorn its margins, the street was a colourless expanse of asphalt and dust, a street built exclusively out of function and necessity. And in both winter and summer, the prevailing easterly wailed down Palm Street like a feral cat. In winter, it cut the locals to the bone, and, in summer, it peeled the skin from them.
The railway line and the wheat silo, that cold grey colossus that stood both to define and to dwarf the rest of the town, were all that marked the other side of the street. On this side, lying side by side in idle repose, were the post office, the police station, the one and only hotel, the bank (now closed) and the few other shops on which the town depended. Jack and Jill’s Deli, the only fast food joint in town, together with Rashid’s Newsagency, lay just beyond the bend at the far end of the strip. The entire street, the heart and soul of Chatton, was little more than a hundred metres long.
And if Palm Street was the heart and soul of Chatton, the Chatton Hotel was the heart and soul of Palm Street. Large and yawning, Federation in style, the Chatton dominated the north side of Palm Street in much the same way as the silo did the south. It functioned as both watering hole and meeting hall, a place of solitude during the day and a source of mayhem during the night.
Arbor noticed as he passed that a billboard had been torn away from the hotel’s western wall and a colourful tag added in its place. And although he had been in town only six weeks, he already knew what was coming. Ronald ‘Rusty’ Piper, the publican, would be quick to deliver his complaints to O’Reilly, and O’Reilly would send Arbor out to gather up the usual suspects. O’Reilly would give them all the sharp end of his tongue and the culprits would walk away sniggering and eager for more. O’Reilly would return to his lair and Piper would mumble something about police ineptitude. He would conveniently forget about the underage drinking that went on behind the hotel, and the shuttle service of takeaways that kept the juveniles’ creative juices flowing.
Arbor did not take issue with the drinking or the tagging. So long as there was no trouble and the graffiti remained out of the way, he was happy to let it slide. His bigger concern involved the pub itself.
Things were changing in Chatton, he thought, but not fast enough.
The Chatton Hotel, he had been quick to learn, was, like its fading facade, stuck firmly in the past. Unlike other pubs in the area, it still chose to operate under a three-bar system. It had a public bar, a lounge bar for the ladies, and – Arbor cringed every time he passed it – a back bar. Designed originally for use by the town’s indigenous population, the back bar, a bare concrete box with entry through a weather-beaten door off the main drag, remained a convenient receptacle for any customers who failed to meet Rusty Piper’s standards.
But Piper’s standards were outlandishly exact, and by insisting on strict dress codes and outdated notions of propriety, he was making it plain. He was continuing to draw a line between his white and Noongar clientele. Arbor could tell. There was an unwritten law at work at the Chatton. If you were indigenous and thirsty, the back bar was still where you drank. And for the rest of the townsfolk, the bar remained like a third ear. You knew it was there, but you didn’t talk about it.
And of course Piper, always smiling, always willing, he said, to give everyone a chance, would hotly deny any racism on his part. And he was difficult to argue with. He had been here forever and he knew it all.
And while the décor of the public and lounge bars had recently been updated, the furnishings and fittings of the back bar remained a stark reminder of an old Slim Dusty song, something one might find in an outback Territory pub or in the deepest recesses of an underground inner-city nightclub.
Arbor forced his way along the street. Things are different out here, a voice inside him said, but the voice wasn’t his own and it angered him. But, as a probationary constable, he was powerless to make any changes. The law in Chatton, such as it was, had its feet up in the station and was watching the Aussie bowlers do battle with the Indian top order.
How long does it take to walk a hundred metres? The hotel’s verandah merged with the bank’s, then the co-op’s, then the hairdresser’s, then the butcher’s, each offering Arbor a little cover, until he came at last to the bend in the road which signalled the end of his travels. By now he was stinking of sweat, his shirt was sodden and he could feel his head pounding as his cap rim clutched tightly to his brow. He looked at the butcher’s shop window for a reflection and felt a touch of shame at what he saw. Pride in the job, pride in your appearance, he had told himself … and felt. But not today.
It was a little odd, he mused. Despite it being Boxing Day, and although the sign on the door said ‘Closed’ and ‘Butch’ Paterson was missing from his usual station, the lights inside the shop were on. Arbor laughed. Butch, he had soon learned, was never one to miss out on a dollar. He was probably out back, dressing a lamb for a cashie or for a few slabs of beer. Arbor continued around the corner.
What surprised him most was the silence. The crowd, at least twenty strong, was spilling out onto the street and into the sun. Butch Paterson was among them, his bald ostrich dome shining like a beacon, high above the rest. Their attention was drawn to something outside Rashid’s, something hidden from Arbor by the weight of numbers.
‘What is it?’ he asked. ‘What’s going on?’
His standing as a cop carried little sway with the locals. He knew that. Six weeks was hardly enough time to make an impression. But at least he could try. He pushed forward.
Several of the townsfolk cast their eyes on him, deep and mistrustful. Then, slowly, grudgingly, they peeled away from the crowd to allow him entry.
It was the festive season and he had expected something different. He had expected, perhaps, a residual Santa, happily handing out lollies or presents to the kids. At worst, he had expected a smashed window or a drunk using the pavement as a pillow. What he didn’t expect was the drunk to be the devout Muslim, Salim Rashid.
‘Back off,’ he said to those still edging close to the man. ‘Give the poor bugger some space.’ He placed his hand on the newsagent’s shoulder.
‘Hey, Salim,’ he said.
Rashid didn’t move. As he’d suspected, thought Arbor. The man was dead to the world. This close he could smell the whisky. He gently rolled the man onto his back.
Salim Rashid was dead to the world, all right. Quite literally. By the looks of it, the poor bastard had been split from neck to navel and then bled dry. And by the look on his frozen face, it had happened quickly.
‘Stand back, all of you. Clear a space,’ Arbor heard himself say, as seven months of training kicked in. ‘Mrs Sullivan, get those kids out of here. It’s not a peepshow. And has anyone got a sheet or something? Butch, you must have something back there.’
He knew O’Reilly would ignore his call.
‘Ronny Miller, run up and get the sarge for me, will you?’ he said. ‘Let him know what’s what. And Kev … For Christ’s sake, Jason, get your paws off him … Kev, do us a favour and ring Doc Phillips.’
The butcher reappeared with a handful of aprons.
‘Will these do?’
‘Not really,’ said Arbor. ‘But hell, I suppose they’ll have to, won’t they?’
The butcher dropped the aprons at Arbor’s feet and returned to his shop. He flipped his sign to ‘Open’, obviously keen to catch some of this passing trade. Arbor was only too aware of the huddled throng and their still-gawking eyes.
‘Ah, come on, you lot,’ he said. ‘The show’s over.’
A few of the onlookers moved away, slowly making their way about their holiday business. A few more lingered, among them the three Jones boys. Drew had hair as sharp as his tongue and more sunspots than a chocolate freckle. Jason seemed to have his finger permanently up his nose. Compared with his brothers, little Shane seemed almost normal.
‘Come on, boys,’ Arbor said. ‘Off you go.’
‘Hey, Danny,’ said Drew. ‘Can I take a selfie first?’
‘No, you fucking can’t,’ said Arbor. ‘Off you go.’
A selfie. In retrospect, photos weren’t a bad idea. He took out his own phone and began snapping. He knew it would be a day or so before Major Crime Squad detectives came up from Perth, if they came at all, and any evidence might be long gone by then. Besides, Doc Phillips, the only medical examiner within a bull’s roar of Chatton, wouldn’t want the body to get much riper.
Just as his thoughts turned again to O’Reilly, Ronny Miller came panting around the corner.
‘Where’s the sarge?’ said Arbor.
‘He said he’d be down after the next wicket,’ said Miller. ‘He said in the meantime you should do what you’re paid for.’
‘That’d be right,’ said Arbor. ‘Fuck.’
Miller passed Arbor the station evidence kit, never opened, sealed with a fine film of dust.
‘He said you’d need this.’
‘Cheers,’ said Arbor. ‘Thanks a bundle. I can take it from here, I guess.’
‘Do you need an off-sider?’ said Miller. ‘I’ve seen CSI.’
‘No, I’ll be fine,’ said Arbor. ‘Run along … Come on. The rest of you, too.’
He returned to the body.
This wasn’t his first corpse. He had attended one or two fatals, had seen his fair share of blood, and had been on the scene when old Mr Smith had collapsed at the car boot sale. But it was his first murder.
He found it impossible to look at Rashid’s greying face, so he focused on what he thought would interest the detectives. Some loose straw had attached itself to the man’s clothing. Arbor peeled it free and bagged it. Then he pushed his shirt apart for a better view.
‘Hey, get your hands off him. That’s my job.’
Behind him, the tired and rusting Mercedes 380 of Doc Phillips had pulled to a halt.
‘Where’s O’Reilly?’ the doctor said. ‘Watching the box, I suppose? The man doesn’t change from one year to the next.’
He opened his boot, pulling out what appeared to be a body bag. He gave the bag a ruffle as he crossed the street.
‘Aren’t you going to examine him?’ said Arbor.
‘What, here?’ said the doctor. ‘In this heat? No bloody way. Besides, he’s dead, isn’t he? That’s not going to change. No, we need to get him iced up. As quick as. And I’ve got the grandkids up from Perth. I’m not spoiling their holiday for some useless wog. I’ll get to him tomorrow. See if Butch has some room in his cool room for him.’
‘You what? Ah, you’re joking, aren’t you? You can’t leave him there.’
‘Where else are we going to put him? I’ve got nowhere at the clinic. And knowing O’Reilly, every fridge at the station is chock full of beer. Am I wrong? So go and see Butch. Better still, get him to come and give us a hand. I don’t fancy having a stroke trying to carry the bugger.’
Arbor considered for a moment, thinking of a better option. But there wasn’t one. He picked up the aprons and entered the butcher’s.
‘We won’t be needing these,’ he said. ‘But Doc Phillips was hoping … He was hoping you might have some room in your fridge. Just until tomorrow, eh?’
The butcher laughed.
‘Say what?’ he said. ‘Don’t come the … Danny … Do you want to scare away all my customers? What’s that, Mrs Lloyd? A dozen snaggers and a pound of Paki? Yeah, I can manage that. Just fresh in. Ah, Jesus wept, Danny … Ah, yeah. Whatever. Bring him in.’
‘Yeah, about that. Could you give us a hand? It’s the doctor. He’s not the fittest, is he?’
The butcher donned an apron and threw another to Arbor.
‘Here, you don’t want to mess up that lovely new uniform of yours, do you?’ he said. ‘Oh, and, by the way, I hope I’m getting paid for this. Inconvenience money or something.’
‘I’ll ask the sarge,’ said Arbor.
They walked out on Palm Street, which apart from Arbor, the butcher and the doctor, was now a soulless street.
‘Where’s my pie?’
‘I sent you for a pie.’
‘There’s been a murder, Sarge.’
‘Yes, so I heard. Who was it?’
‘Rashid. The newsagent.’
The silence spoke.
‘How’s the cricket?’ asked Arbor.
‘Not so good,’ said the sergeant. ‘But the Indians are dragging their arses. How’s the daughter?’
‘The daughter. Amira, isn’t it? Lovely little thing, she is. Pretty cut up by now, I’d reckon.’
Shit. The girl had been nowhere.
‘I plain forgot,’ said Arbor.
‘Well, you’d better get back down there, hadn’t you?’ said O’Reilly. ‘And have a good look for her. Did you take any happy snaps?’
‘Yeah. On my phone.’
‘Good boy. Send them to me and I’ll have a gander during the lunch break. Oh, and Arbor …’
‘What’s that, Sarge?’
‘Take the wagon this time.’
‘Oh, and Arbor …’
‘Don’t forget my pie.’
The newsagent’s door was a cluttered mess of notices – ‘Wanted’ ads, ‘For Sale’ ads, notices from the local sports teams seeking players, and the latest bright posters offering the Woman’s Day and the Women’s Weekly. Arbor had to peer between the TV Week and New Idea posters to see in. But the place was in darkness and he could see nothing. He briefly considered breaking the glass, but thought better of it. An open or unsecured door or window might be found around back, out of view of Palm Street. So he squeezed his way past a pair of wheelie bins into the narrow passageway between Rashid’s and the butcher’s.
As he rounded the corner into the back alley, Arbor could see that the butcher’s door was open. He could hear the old man singing inside, what seemed to be a Waylon Jennings song. But, although he knew his country music, Arbor really wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, Butch was doing it some damage.
The door to the newsagent’s was solid and deadlocked, seemingly sound, with just a small set of louvre windows above it. Arbor pressed several times. The door didn’t move. Then he looked about for a hiding place for a spare key. No luck. He gave the door a kick. It remained strong. He spied the window. Perhaps, he thought, if he could remove the plates of glass, he might just manage to slide through.
Both bins were missing wheels, but he managed to drag the fullest and heaviest and push it hard against the door. It wouldn’t be too much trouble, he thought, if he was careful and watched his gammy knee, to get it balanced and use it as a launch pad. Football, he laughed. He could have been a star. He shook the bin several times. It was sturdy enough, he decided. It was going nowhere. Using his arms as levers, he lifted himself onto the lid. Then he climbed slowly, gingerly, to his feet, clutching the brickwork as he rose. Finally, he jumped up and down. Certain the bin was going nowhere, he turned his attention to the louvres.
‘Are you having fun up there, Danny?’
The butcher was taking out some rubbish.
‘I’ve got to get in there, Butch,’ Arbor said. ‘There’s no sign of Amira.’
‘Why didn’t you say?’ said the butcher. ‘Get down, you stupid bugger. Rashid gave me a set of keys. A while back. He had a memory like a sieve and hated going back home to get them. Hold on. I’ll grab them for you.’
Paterson dumped his rubbish and returned to his shop.
Getting up here was easy enough, thought Arbor, but he dreaded the long trip down.
The storeroom was a dog’s breakfast of boxes, newspapers, magazines, stationery and, of all things, layers of brightly-coloured socks and slippers. Arbor assumed that the socks and slippers had been a winter enterprise for Rashid. It had clearly been an unsuccessful one. He fought his way past the boxes and through the otherwise darkened space towards the strings of beads that marked the entry into the shop proper.
Part of him, although he prayed against it, expected to find the girl. In what state he didn’t know, but surely dead like her father. He circled the room, peering behind the counter and weaving between the magazine racks to make sure. But he was alone and, as best he could tell, the shop seemed completely undisturbed. There was no sign of the girl and no sign that Rashid’s killer had ever entered the shop. What that told him, he didn’t know. He would stew on it. In the meantime, the glistening cover of a magazine caught his eye. The latest Sports Illustrated. He had been meaning to buy it. He picked it up and flicked through a few pages.
Too late for Rashid to mind, he thought. But, still, he handled it like stolen porn, furtively, rolling it up tightly and slipping it into his trousers. He would read it later, when this God-awful day was over.
‘Amira!’ he called, but all he could see was the changing pattern of the dust in the air. He slipped behind the counter. The computer, he decided, he would leave to someone more qualified. He checked the phone instead. The answering machine was flashing brightly. Four messages. He hit the button.
‘Hey, Amira. Where are you? I’m sitting here waiting for you. I’ve been pinging your mobile. I tried calling you, too. But I just got voicemail. So call me, eh? Call me when you get this.’
‘Amira, it’s me again. Hoggy? Remember me? Yeah, I’m still waiting. Come on. A promise is a promise. If you think I’m going to sit here for the rest of the day, you’re wrong. Look, call me … Shit, I might as well have not bothered.’
‘What the hell is it? Is it your old man? Tell him you’re living in Australia, for shit’s sake. Tell him things are different here. He should know that by now. Just tell him that, or I’ll sort him out myself.’
‘Yeah, Rashid. I’m not sure Amira’s even getting these messages. You’ve probably got her stuck out back or somewhere. But just so’s you know, you can’t keep her locked up forever. Ask her what it is that she wants, you miserable old prick. Or don’t you give a shit, you …?’
The message trailed off. Just as well, thought Arbor. He hoped that neither Rashid nor his daughter had heard it. If this was the girl’s boyfriend, then God help her. Was he a suspect? Arbor didn’t know. But he had somewhere to start. He didn’t know any Hoggy, but he was sure O’Reilly would. O’Reilly knew everyone.
A rapping. Arbor could feel eyes on him. More rapping. A girl, no more than sixteen, had her face pressed hard against the glass and was peering in. Arbor ignored her. Probably another nosey schoolkid with too much time on her hands. She rapped again, more urgently. Arbor opened the door.
‘Is it true?’
‘What? Yeah, it’s true. Who are you?’
‘My name’s Jacinta Wallis,’ the girl said. ‘I’m a friend of Amira’s. Is she okay?’
She was older than Arbor’s first impression, probably eighteen or nineteen, but, still, he didn’t want to frighten her. The truth was, he didn’t know. The Rashid girl might just be on a sleepover, or visiting relatives for the holidays.
‘Yeah, I’m sure she’s fine,’ said Arbor. ‘When was the last time you saw her?’
‘Saturday,’ said Jacinta. ‘We went shopping in Ashby. Is she okay?’
‘Yeah, look, I’m sure she is. Listen, this Hoggy bloke, whoever he is. Tell me about him. Are they a thing, are they?’
‘He wishes. As far as he’s concerned they are. But Amira just tolerates him, I reckon. She knows he’s got something going with one of the Noongar chicks as well. Anyway, she’s got some arranged thing going on with a cousin in Pakistan.’
‘And she’s happy with that?’
‘She doesn’t seem to mind.’
Arbor made a mental note. The cousin might also be someone to give some thought to, when he had the time.
‘And Hoggy?’ he said. ‘Where’s he at?’
‘That’s not his real name,’ said Jacinta. ‘It’s Harry. Harry Hogg. His dad runs a piggery. Can you believe it? Hogg? Pig? Just off the Whitney road. Near that old colonial homestead.’
‘Ah, yeah. I know it,’ said Arbor. ‘And what? He lives out there, does he?’
‘Yeah,’ said Jacinta. ‘He works there, too.’
Arbor could see by the way Jacinta was chewing at her thumbnail that the conversation had done little to relieve her anxiety.
‘Look, I’m sure Amira’s fine,’ he said. ‘I haven’t found any sign that she’s in any sort of trouble. She’s probably with some rellies or something. But, look. Do me a favour, will you? Can you keep calling her? And if you get through to her, let me know. Better still, get her to call me. Okay?’
He gave the girl his card.
‘You could give me your number as well, if you like,’ he added. ‘Just in case.’
He passed her a pen and another card. ‘Just write it on the back. Good on you. Look, I’m sure you’ll hear from her. And if you don’t … Well, I’m sure you will.’
Handled like a pro, thought Arbor. The girl wandered off, her eyes on his card. Arbor pulled the shop door closed and headed for the paddy wagon. He thought twice about calling O’Reilly. No, stuff it, he concluded. The lazy bastard could whistle.
He stepped into Jack and Jill’s, grabbed a pie and chips for the sergeant and a drink for the road and then pointed the wagon towards the Whitney road.
Arbor could smell the pig shit a mile away. It was nothing dramatic. It wasn’t some sudden stench that hit him out of the blue. But rather, it was a slowly growing sense that he was up to his nostrils in something, and that something wasn’t nice. He pulled up momentarily and made a rough job of masking his face with a handkerchief. But he knew there was little point. Before long his eyes would be watering. And the flies – the flies would be everywhere. In his ears. Up his nose. And in other places, too.
Ten minutes out of town he took a left onto the dry scratchy stretch of dirt road that led to the Hogg place. He scowled as the paddy wagon raised a cloud of dust. It was a sure sign. O’Reilly would have him washing it again before morning.
He let himself through the gate and drove slowly past the house, looking for life. It seemed hardly a house at all, he mused. It was just a tangled mess of fibro and corrugated iron, the type of place where you couldn’t tell where the original structure ended and the extensions began. A chook pen sat to one side and several of the birds ran free. Always in front of the vehicle, thought Arbor. He could see several more seeking shade under the house’s verandah. But there was no sign of human life. He kept driving towards what was clearly the piggery, a large, glistening, and seemingly new edifice a few hundred metres away.
Closer, as the road became mud, the main pathway for the piggery’s stinking discharge, Arbor could feel the wagon begin to slide. He nursed it alongside the only person in sight, a slouch-hatted, flannel-shirted man. Arbor guessed him to be somewhere in his fifties. He was hard at work on an automatic feeder. Three heelers, two blue, one red, lay at his feet, two asleep, one frantically snapping at flies. Arbor expected some barking, or at least growling, as he approached, but the dogs didn’t move. They were either too hot or too old.
‘What’s the little shit done this time?’ said the man as Arbor pulled to a stop. He deliberated before alighting.
‘What makes you think he’s done something?’ he said. ‘Mr Hogg, is it?’
He offered his hand. The man declined, his own hand covered in … something.
‘That’s right. Henry,’ said Hogg. ‘I assume you’re after the young bloke? Me and the missus, we hardly ever leave the property.’
‘You wouldn’t have heard about Salim Rashid, then?’ said Arbor.
‘The Paki?’ said Hogg. ‘No, why? What’s he done?’
Arbor hesitated. He wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. It might come to Hogg as an unwanted Christmas present.
‘He’s dead,’ he said, surprising himself. ‘Murdered. Left gutted like a lamb outside his shop.’
Hogg didn’t stop working.
‘The girl. His daughter, Amira,’ Arbor continued. ‘She can’t be found. We thought Harry might have seen her. We heard he’s been seeing a bit of her.’
‘The right bits, I hope,’ Hogg said. ‘Yeah, well. I wouldn’t know. You’ll have to ask him for yourself.’
‘And is he around?’
Hogg looked up for a moment and offered an Aussie salute.
‘You might say that,’ he said. ‘He’s up finishing off the top paddocks. You can wait for him if you like. He shouldn’t be long. But don’t sweat it. You don’t have to hang around here. Go down and see the missus. Tell her to put the kettle on. Tell her to lay out the Victoria sponge. I’ll be in shortly.’
A golden orb spider had made its home at one end of the verandah, its fine mesh snare stretching across beams, supports and the full height of the house. It was clearly the Hoggs’ answer, an environmentally sound one at that, to the plague of flies. A large, fat, ginger moggy, no smaller than a pit bull, sat on the threadbare couch. It eyeballed Arbor for a moment, full of disdain, then resumed licking its paws. This, Arbor surmised, was the solution to a plague of a different kind.
He knocked on the screen door. He wondered why they bothered with it. It was full of holes.
He didn’t wait long. Mrs Hogg, a plump, jolly-faced woman a few years younger than her husband, came out of the shadows. At a glance, Arbor could sense her warmth, a welcome change to her husband.
‘Come in, love,’ she said. ‘Henry rang and told me you were coming. I’ve put the kettle on. Come on. Come into the kitchen. It’s a bit cooler in here. It’s been a hell of a Christmas, hasn’t it? It’s hot enough to … How’s your day been? It must be a nightmare out there, eh?’
Arbor opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
‘Take a seat,’ she said. ‘No, that’s Henry’s. He’s peculiar that way. How do you take it? White and two, I’ll bet. Or are you a coffee man? I can never tell.’
‘No, tea’s fine,’ said Arbor.
He watched as she poured and then slowly turned the pot. He laughed.
‘You’re really old school, aren’t you?’ he said.
‘Yeah, I know all the tricks,’ she said. ‘I had a cup earlier that told me a stranger was coming. So, what’s your name, love? We can’t be strangers forever, can we? What are you? A detective?’
‘No, I’m uniform, Mrs Hogg. Can’t you see? Just a constable. Arbor. Danny Arbor.’
‘Well, nice to meet you, Danny Arbor. Call me Dotty. Everybody does. So what’s your business here, Danny? Here to see Hoggy, are you?’
‘You call him that too, do you?’
‘Oh, yeah. He only gets Harry from his dad. Out on the combine, is he?’
‘Yeah, that’s what Mr Hogg said. He said he’d be in soon.’
The woman laughed.
‘You might be lucky,’ she said. ‘If he’s nearly finished, he might just keep going.’
‘So, what’s he like, then?’ said Arbor. ‘This boy of yours?’
He felt he could take the chance.
‘Hoggy?’ said Dotty. ‘Oh, he’s our darling. He’s a real softy. Especially when it comes to his old mum.’
‘And, so, you’ll have met his girlfriend, then?’ said Arbor. ‘Amira? Amira Rashid?’
The woman seemed perplexed.
‘I can’t say I’ve even heard of her,’ she said. ‘Let alone met her. What’s her name?’
The woman gasped.
‘No … Oh, God, no …’ she said. ‘She’s not an Aborigine, is she? … I mean, it’s not that I mind. Really. But Henry. I don’t know what Henry would say. He’s a bit … Oh, God. She’s not, is she?’
‘No,’ said Arbor. ‘She’s Pakistani.’ As if it mattered. He could see the woman thinking.
‘There we go,’ she said, feeling the teapot. ‘That should be ready.’
He watched as she poured the tea, noticing how the little finger of her left hand balanced delicately, with surprising grace, on the lid of the pot.
‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ she asked. ‘A local?’
‘From the city,’ said Dotty. ‘No, there’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. You’ve just got that air about you.’
He blushed. It seemed she was a better detective than he was.
‘Do you fancy some cake?’ she said. ‘I did a nice sponge for Christmas. There’s some left.’
She opened the fridge and pulled out a tray.
‘I did in all those runts, Dotty,’ Arbor heard as the screen door slammed. ‘I’ve chopped them up for chook feed.’
‘That’s nice, dear,’ said the woman. Arbor listened to the sound of the man washing his hands. He watched as the woman collected a beer can from the fridge, opened it and placed it on the table.
‘Nothing like a bit of bacon to go with your eggs, is there?’ the farmer said as he entered. He settled into his chair and took a long, slow gulp of his beer. He followed it with a burb. For show, Arbor thought.
‘Has she got your life story yet?’ he continued.
‘Yeah, just about,’ Arbor replied.
‘She’s like that, our Dotty,’ said Hogg. ‘She wants to know everything about everyone. Me, I keep myself to myself. Things run a bit smoother that way.’
‘Yeah, I get you,’ said Arbor. He didn’t want to say much himself. The last thing he needed was to get bogged down in this man’s mire.
‘Lovely cake, Mrs Hogg,’ he continued.
‘I told you, Danny. Call me Dotty.’
‘Dotty by name, dotty by nature,’ said the farmer without expression. Arbor could feel the man’s humourless eyes upon him. He felt a little more respect for Dotty, for her ability to rise above what was obviously a common barb.
‘I might wait in the wagon,’ he said, rising. ‘It’s about time I let the sarge know where I’m at. I’ve been out most of the morning.’
‘Please yourself,’ said Hogg. ‘But it’s a bad day in hell out there. Mind you, the boy shouldn’t be too much longer. It’s certain he’ll be in for his lunch. Eats like a horse, he does.’
‘Could you call him for me?’ asked Arbor. ‘Let him know I’m waiting?’
‘I already have.’
Arbor offered the meekest of smiles to the farmer’s wife.
‘Thanks again for the cake, Dotty,’ he said.
‘You’re very welcome, Danny,’ came the reply. ‘Would you like a slice to go?’
‘No, thanks. I’ll be fine.’
‘Don’t be a nuisance, woman,’ said the farmer.
Arbor made a beeline for the door, for an escape from cake, Dotty and the rising ire of her lord and master.
Nearly an hour had passed before he saw the farm utility approaching in his rear-view mirror. He got out and watched as Hoggy pulled up and greeted the heelers. They bounded around him like urchins seeking alms.
‘Get down, you crazy pricks,’ he said. They did. ‘Hey, cunstable,’ he continued, in a way meant to insult. ‘The old man called me. He said you wanted to see me.’
Yeah, and you made me wait, too, didn’t you, you little shit, Arbor thought to himself. And Hoggy was little. He wasn’t much younger than Arbor, maybe eighteen or twenty, but barely half his size.
‘Did your old man tell you what’s happened?’ said Arbor. ‘Have you seen Amira Rashid?’
‘He told me about the old Paki,’ said the boy. ‘That’s a bummer, eh. But Amira? No. I haven’t seen her since last week. I’ve been out harvesting.’
‘But you left her some messages.’
‘Yeah, well. That was last weekend. We were meant to catch up. It didn’t happen.’
The boy adjusted his crotch, seemingly without shame.
‘I thought I was in there, too,’ he said. ‘If you know what I mean. I thought I’d finally conned her into it.’
‘But you haven’t …? You don’t know anyone who might want to harm her, do you? Or her father?’
‘Nah, I wouldn’t have a clue.’
Pushing the boy further was pointless, thought Arbor. Hoggy was either playing dumb or plain stupid. He couldn’t tell, but he leaned towards the latter.
‘Look, if you do hear from her, you’ll let me know, all right?’ he said, offering his card once again, feeling like he was running around in circles.
‘Yeah, sure,’ said Hoggy. He gave the card no more than a glance. ‘Ditto … Danny. Tell her she owes me one.’
He laughed, something base and just a little cruel.
‘Where did you two hang out?’ said Arbor.
‘The pub,’ said Hoggy. ‘Mostly the pub. Amira wasn’t … isn’t a drinker, but she loves to karaoke. And me? I love to drink.’
‘What, there’s you, that Jacinta chick, who else?’
‘Johnno, Nobby. The usual mob.’
‘Any of them worth talking to? Worth looking at? Anyone with an interest in the Rashids?’
‘How about in Amira in particular?’
‘Only me,’ said the boy. ‘I’m the only one that likes their meat dark. If you get me?’
‘Yeah, I get you,’ said Arbor, wishing he didn’t. ‘So you’ll call me, then?’ he added, heading for the paddy wagon.
‘Sure thing,’ said Hoggy, slipping Arbor’s card into the back pocket of his jeans.
It would stay there, Arbor considered, until Dotty’s next laundry day.
He was keen to see the back of the Hoggs, so the moment he hit the tar, he put his foot down. That was one of the perks of being a cop. He could floor it and be free and easy about it. If anything got in the way or came at him from the other end, he could flick on the lights and music and fly on by. He was back in town and alongside the station no time.
O’Reilly looked like he hadn’t moved, but, gathering from the number of cans in the bin, he must have pissed Niagara. Several times.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ the sergeant said.
‘Out visiting the Hoggs,’ said Arbor. ‘Young Hoggy … He left some messages on the Rashids’ answering machine.’
‘Uh-huh. And what in God’s name do you call this?’
‘A pie and chips. It’s what you wanted isn’t it?’
‘That was hours ago. And they’re fucking cold. And soggy.’
Arbor threw them into the microwave and gave them a minute.
‘So, what’ve you learned?’ O’Reilly asked.
‘Not much,’ Arbor replied. ‘I thought the Hogg kid might’ve given us something, but it was like talking to a fence post. Thick as shit, he is.’
‘Don’t let the act fool you,’ said O’Reilly. ‘They’re a crafty bunch, the Hoggs. How’s Dotty?’
‘Dotty? Yeah, she’s fine, I guess.’
‘Good root, that one … What? Did you think I was past it?’
If God only, thought Arbor. He’d rather not know. But O’Reilly insisted.
‘Yeah, I’ve had her. Manys a time. A few years go,’ he said. ‘She’d drop into the station while Henry was at his meetings.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ said Arbor. ‘And what meeting were they?’
‘You know,’ said O’Reilly. ‘The funny ones. Oaths, rituals, regalia, silly handshakes. All that shit. But they wouldn’t let me join, would they? Bastards. Too much Irish in me, I reckon.’
Arbor laughed to himself, imagining O’Reilly done up in all his finery.
‘So, what do we do now?’ he asked, dropping O’Reilly’s meal on a plate. ‘I’m sort of new to this game, remember?’
‘Not much we can do,’ said O’Reilly. ‘I spoke to Doc Phillips. He’ll look at the body tomorrow. And I’ve phoned the city. There’s a couple of Ds coming up. In the meantime, I’m running dry. Nip next door and get me a dozen cans.’
Arbor did as he was told. All in the name of keeping the peace.
The lounge bar was dead. Dead as. Which was lucky. Given the uniform, Arbor didn’t like being seen buying grog. Especially in the middle of the day. He felt sure that the local barflies would be full of judgement, ready to convince themselves that he, the fresh-faced kid from the city, and not O’Reilly, was the one with the drinking problem.
‘A dozen cans. VB,’ he said, as Rusty Piper entered. The man was every bit the publican, Arbor thought. Named Rusty not for his surname, apparently, but rather for his ruddy complexion, Piper was a big man in his forties, with a beer gut that matched anything in town, even O’Reilly’s. He headed for the refrigerator.
‘Bad news about Rashid,’ he said. ‘Have you caught the bugger yet?’
‘Steady on,’ said Arbor. ‘It might take us a day or two. It’s just me doing the work, you know.’
‘Yeah, I suppose it is. Make it an even sixty.’
Christ. Now I’m paying for the old prick’s beer as well, thought Arbor. And at bush prices.
‘Hey, Danny!’ he heard through the doorway at the end of the bar. In the dim light of the back bar, he could just see several men laughing amongst themselves. One was waving to him. It was Nathan Webb. They were neighbours of sorts, in the cluster of public housing on the east side of town.
‘You lot keep it down in there,’ shouted Piper.
‘No, why bother them?’ said Arbor. ‘It’s no skin off my nose.’
‘In fact …’ Arbor handed Piper another twenty. ‘Stand them one on me,’ he said.
Piper scowled. But Arbor didn’t care. He liked Nathan and felt a small Christmas gesture was not out of place. And Nathan and his friends seemed to appreciate having a friend in uniform. So Rusty Piper be damned.
One thing was for sure. He would have to find something to take himself away from the blaring telly and the shouting Irishman. So he put in his earplugs, chose some music and opened the folder of crime scene photos. O’Reilly didn’t seem to mind. The Indians were settling in for a big knock and, in the heat of the day, their supporters’ song had become just a little calmer and more melodious.
Arbor remembered the crime scene. Neither body nor pavement had shown any sign of blood. The concrete had been hot and grey and the body seemingly milked dry. Given these obvious clues and the lack of any other worthwhile evidence, Arbor made the safe assumption that Rashid’s end had come somewhere else. But why, he wondered, did the killer or killers bother to move his body back to the front of his shop? And what was with the brutal, barbaric method of dispatch? It seemed a strange way of doing things. Almost ritualistic. Was it a sign? Maybe some kind of halal slaughtering technique? If it was, that might offer a connection to other Muslims in the area. But that was unlikely, he thought. There were no other Muslims within cooee of Chatton. Salim Rashid and his daughter were the only ones.
The truth of the matter was, he had absolutely nothing to go on.
He considered the physical evidence, examining closely the pieces of straw he had bagged earlier. It was a common enough find, he thought, in just about any local paddock. It told him little.
‘Did you see his face?’ said O’Reilly. His voice startled Arbor. He was sure the sergeant had no interest. He removed an earphone.
‘How do you mean?’ he asked.
‘Look at the bruises coming up. A sure sign someone bashed the shit out of him. Just before they did him in, I’d reckon.’
Experience counts for something, thought Arbor. He sat back and looked again at the image on the PC. Was it racism? Some elaborate hate crime? Maybe. But perpetrated by someone with more than just an axe to grind. He felt his frustration brewing. In the vacant space that was O’Reilly’s authority, it had happened on his own watch. And, truthfully, he hadn’t a clue.
Arbor had made no more headway by the time O’Reilly told him to pull up stumps and close the station. He did so willingly. It had been a long and exhausting day. But, as he had envisaged, O’Reilly announced that the paddy wagon needed washing and cleaning before morning. So he took it home and, parking it in front of the house, he gave it the once-over with a bucket of suds and then a quick spray with the hose. He left it to dry, hoping that with the bite gone from the afternoon sun, he might avoid any excessive wiping down with the chamois.
There was nothing in the fridge but for a couple of ciders, a few slices of stale bread and a jar of chutney well past its use-by date. The cost of a poorly stocked co-op and of country living in general. Dinner, it seemed, would be the last of the frozen lasagnes he had kept for emergencies. He stabbed the plastic sleeve several times with a fork, gave it five minutes in the microwave, and then helped himself to one of the ciders. Time to ring Mum, he thought, while he waited for the meal. He stepped outside again and sat on the front step, opened his cider and took in the view, an unappealing stretch of bushland and the weathered fibro house that was the home of Nathan Webb and his wife. He could hear loud voices. Nathan, it seemed, had been on the grog all day. He tapped his mother’s number.
‘Hey, love,’ came the answer.
‘Hey, Mum. So, how did it go yesterday?’
‘Oh, it was fabulous. It was a shame you missed it. Your dad did his Bad Santa thing again for the kids. He had them all in stitches.’
‘I’ll bet he did.’
Arbor took a breath, thinking.
‘What’s wrong, love? You sound miserable.’
‘Ah, nothing … Ah, I’ve had a shit of a day, Mum We’ve had a murder.’
‘Oh, you poor thing. Was it …? It wasn’t someone you knew?’
‘No. Not really. Well, sort of, I guess. To say hello to.’
‘Oh, that’s a shame. But I suppose it’s all part of the job, love,’ said Mum. ‘I guess it’s something you’ll have to get used to.’
‘Yeah, I guess it is.’
‘Your dad played golf today. The Boxing Day bash at the club. He shot an 84.’
‘That’s good. Now ask him what his real score was.’
There was a pause.
‘He says an 82.’
‘Yeah, that’d be right,’ he said. ‘Tell him I’ll give him some lessons next time I’m down.’
‘And when will that be? We miss you, love.’
‘Yeah … I don’t know. But it’s just the two of us, Mum. And the sarge is such a slack arse. It’s hard to get away.’
‘I understand. Are you eating all right?’
‘Not drinking too much?’
‘No. You know me, Mum.’
‘Yeah, and you know me. I can’t help worrying. Ring me again at New Year, okay? Oh, and thanks for the flowers.’
‘Oh, you got them, then? I wasn’t sure. And I didn’t know what else—’
‘No, they’re lovely. Orchids and everything.’
‘Only the best.’
‘We didn’t know what you wanted. What to get you. So we just got you some smelly. We thought we’d wait and double up on your birthday. Get you something nicer then.’
‘You’re not twenty-one anymore, son.’
‘No. Don’t remind me. I’m going grey up here, I reckon. And quick. I’ll see you then, Mum. I’ll speak to you later.’
He dragged himself away just as the microwave chimed. He got up and went inside, took out the lasagne and peeled back the sleeve. The food looked disgusting, not unlike a pool of vomit that might litter Palm Street on a Sunday morning, but at least it would fill a hole. He grabbed the last of the ciders and returned to the step.
Suddenly, a door slammed. Across the street, Nathan Webb was backing down the steps. His wife had thrown him out of the house.
‘Yeah, fuck you, too!’ he shouted. ‘I’ll go to Sean’s!’
He started walking, across their front lawn and down the street. Arbor hesitated, not sure he should say anything. But it didn’t matter. Nathan had noticed him and was walking his way.
‘Hey, again, Nathan,’ Arbor said. ‘Had one too many?’
‘No such thing, Danny,’ said Nathan. ‘Ah, she’s got a short fuse at the best of times. I forgot some family were coming over. Say, you wouldn’t have another one of those, would you?’
Arbor shook his head.
‘No, this is my last.’
‘That’s a shame,’ Nathan continued, sitting. ‘Never mind, I probably have had my fill. What is it you’re drinking, anyway? Ah, Christ. You’re joking, aren’t you? That’s worse than cat piss, that stuff. Hey, I heard about Salim. That was rough.’
Interesting, thought Arbor. It was about the first time he’d heard the man’s first name all day.
‘Yeah, it’s a weird one,’ he said.
He looked at Nathan. He had a thought. It was the kind of thought that was bound to insult. But he had to ask. There was too much at stake not to.
‘Say, Nathan,’ he said. ‘You don’t …?’
‘Don’t what?’ said Nathan.
‘Well, it’s Amira,’ said Arbor. ‘Salim’s daughter. I reckon she might be missing. Lost somewhere. Possibly somewhere outside of town. And I reckon I might need someone to … I mean … Do you …? Hell, Nathan. What I’m saying is … Are you any good at tracking?’
‘Oh, fuck me, Danny,’ he said. ‘And why do you ask that? … Christ, talk about assumptions.’
‘Hey, I’m sorry,’ said Arbor. ‘I know I shouldn’t have. But if it wasn’t for Amira.’
‘No, you shouldn’t,’ said Nathan.
Arbor felt himself reproached. He waited as the man deliberated.
‘But, hey, look,’ Nathan offered at last. ‘I guess, if you’re desperate, then, yeah. I suppose I might be able to help you. I’m not hopeless. I’ve lived in Chatton since I was little. I know the area pretty well. I know the songlines.’
‘That’s a joke, isn’t it?’
‘Is it?’ Nathan continued. ‘You’re not eating that, are you?’
Arbor had given up on the lasagne, had hardly touched it.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘No, I can’t say I blame you,’ said Nathan. ‘Mandy kicked me out without my tea and there’s no way I’d touch it either.’
The detectives’ Commodore was parked outside the station when he arrived. Forewarned at least, he supposed. He entered cautiously, keen to take stock before he was noticed. But he may as well have been invisible. O’Reilly was watching the cricket and the two detectives were poring over what looked like Rashid’s computer, chatting between themselves. Both were about thirty, Arbor figured. The man was tall and lanky and wore a dark ill-fitting suit. He had a spectral, almost vapid, air about him. The woman seemed tougher. Dressed in blue pin-stripes, she was stocky, muscular and, Arbor decided, singularly unattractive. He had an inkling that it was she who had the clout. She might be a force to be reckoned with. Her hearty laugh set him back.
‘She wouldn’t cough where her brother was,’ she said. ‘So I twisted her arm so far up her back that her eyes spun and coins came pouring out her arse.’
The man joined in her laughter. Arbor blushed.
‘G’day,’ he said. ‘How are you? Danny Arbor …’
He offered his hand.
‘I’m Danny,’ he said again.
‘Yeah, we heard you,’ said the woman, hardly looking up.
The man, at least, offered eye contact.
‘How am I? How am I?’ he said. ‘How the fuck do you think I am, Danny? It’s two days after Christmas and I’m stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. Did you take these pics?’
Shit. Please yourself, thought Arbor. Welcome to Chatton. Have a nice day.
‘Yeah. I guess I did,’ he said.
‘They’re crap. They tell us nothing.’
‘They were the best I could manage. It was hot.’
The detective lost interest. The woman turned to O’Reilly.
‘Where did you say the body was?’
‘At the butcher’s,’ said O’Reilly. ‘I’ll ring Doc Phillips. He said he’d look at it this morning.’
‘Honestly,’ said the woman. ‘Is this a one-horse fucking town or what?’
Arbor could see the displeasure on O’Reilly’s face.
‘Are you the Arbor that played for the Eagles?’ the woman continued, offering him the barest of glances.
‘Yeah. You could say that,’ he said. All of four games, he thought. Until the snap of a cruciate ligament put paid to it. In the end, he had barely managed the police physical.
‘Yeah, I saw you. Took a good grab against Franklin one time. A bit of a screamer.’
‘Yeah, that’s me,’ said Arbor. It was his one claim to fame.
‘Doc Phillips has been busy,’ said O’Reilly, hanging up. ‘He’s already organised to have the body moved to the clinic. He’ll start the autopsy in about an hour. Arbor, take these dingoes—’
‘I’m Sergeant Burke. He’s Constable Cole,’ said the woman.
‘Burke and Hare. Whatever. Take them around to Doc Phillips.’
‘No. It’s okay,’ said Burke. ‘We’ll find our own way. I’m sure you have a lot to do, Constable.’
She drew closer to Arbor, looking up. She smiled, something both scornful and lewd.
‘Out of my way, big fella,’ she said. ‘I’ve got work to do.’
Terrific, thought Arbor. Barely two minutes and she’s already got my balls.
The door closed and O’Reilly laughed.
‘Shit. They’d be wankers, wouldn’t they?’ he said.
‘Eh?’ Arbor replied.
‘There’s no need to be precious, son,’ said O’Reilly. ‘I could tell what you were thinking. They’re all the same, these city Ds. They think they’ve got it all sussed the minute they hit the ground. Arseholes. It could have been me, you know. Easy as. I did all my exams and then some. I just didn’t want to leave the bush. You get to know people in the bush. You know what I mean?’
Your arse gets to know the chair, thought Arbor.
‘Yeah, I get you, Sarge,’ he said. ‘Is there something we should do? Shouldn’t we do something?’
‘Nah. Fuck them. If they want to find their own way, let them. It’s no skin off my nose. They’ll be quick to claim the credit, any which way. Let them do the work. Get back to your filing.’
Paper, thought Arbor. Give me a day without paper. Better still, give me a day without O’Reilly.
The phone rang. And rang. And rang.
‘Are you getting that?’
It was a sign. If O’Reilly let the phone ring three times, it meant that he couldn’t be bothered and it was up to Arbor to handle whatever disruption lay on the other end of the line.
‘Chatton Station,’ he said. ‘Constable Danny Arbor speaking.’
The reply came in a woman’s voice, faint but clear.
‘Yeah, hi. My name’s Martin. Jenny Martin. I own a small property out on the Melton road.’
‘I was checking my fences this morning. I heard a lot of traffic, you know, hoons, over the break. Anyway, Melton Creek runs along the north side of the property. I just found a burnt-out car in it.’
‘Uh-huh. Just a sec. Sarge, have there been any reports of stolen vehicles? There’s a burnt-out car out Melton way.’
‘No one’s said anything. Not to me, anyway.’
‘You weren’t able to read the plates, were you?’ Arbor asked the woman. ‘What sort of car is it?’
‘It looks like a Subaru. One of the new ones. I think I got the plate. It was pretty badly burnt.’
‘Let’s have it.’
‘C …T … 1 … 9 …7 … and I think it’s a three.’
Arbor tapped on his keyboard.
‘It’s Rashid’s. It’s the newsagent’s car.’
‘Should I call the Ds?’
‘Nah. Let them wonder.’
‘Do you want to take a trip out there? Have a gander?’
‘Nah. If it’s burnt out, there’ll be fuck all to see. You go. Take a few more pics for your detective friends. Have a sniff around. See what you can see.’
‘Yeah, all right … Mrs Martin? Sorry, Miss … Jenny. Yeah, I’ll be out there shortly. Don’t touch anything, okay? Where is your place, exactly?’
Arbor scribbled down directions, hung up the phone and grabbed his cap. It was beginning to make a little sense, he thought. No wonder the shop was clean. Salim Rashid had been waylaid on the road somewhere.
On the case again, he mused. It really didn’t take much to make him feel like a real cop. But, typically, O’Reilly found a way to soil the moment.
‘You be careful out there,’ he smirked. ‘And don’t get up to any funny business, you hear me? I’ve heard that Miss Martin is a pretty good sort.’
Honestly. Did the man have no boundaries? Apparently not.
The notion that country roads were treacherous was a myth, thought Arbor. Sure, there were a few black spots, a few spots where, if you hit the corner at the wrong speed or at just the wrong angle, you might find yourself upside down on the shoulder, or, worse still, greeting St Peter at the pearlies, but the road to Melton was not one of them. It was one of the best, he decided, a joy to drive on, long, straight and not a pothole in sight. He wound down the window and let the cool breeze wash over him. It was a welcome change from the dry heat of the day before.
He had come a long way in six weeks, he figured – in the six weeks since the Academy, since the study, the drills, the marching and the obligatory cap toss. He’d had to. Sergeant O’Reilly had left him to fend for himself. But he was in some way thankful. He had been a quick learner, and had appreciated the sense of achievement and satisfaction that all the new responsibilities had given him.
Of course, police work had never been his first choice. That had been football. It had always been football. Ever since he was a nipper. And after being picked up in the draft, he had thought that all of his dreams had come true. But dreams can die quickly, he had learned. His had died when the club doctor told him that his knee would never again withstand the pressures of the top flight. And he could risk permanent injury, suggested the doctor, even in the lesser leagues. His football career was finished at twenty-one.
So, on a whim and on the advice of his old man, he had become a cop. His Uncle John had been a cop, until he had quit to become a gold prospector up in the Murchison. He had never seen Uncle John again.
When he had told her, his mum had been as pleased as punch. But, then, Mum would have been pleased no matter what he did. And, on the day he graduated, Dad had bought him a new watch. It was strange, given that he had a watch and still had a bucketload of money as a payout from the Eagles. But it came engraved, and it clearly meant something to Dad, so he had retired the Rolex and now wore the Seiko with pride.
They had just begun the harvest down this way, he noticed. In the fields adjoining the road, mad spirals of cereal dust filled the air. He could see three combines, two bottle-green, one bright red, inching their way through the wheat, leaving long snail trails of straw. And everywhere he looked, the land was rich and golden.
The Martin place was just where she had described it, nestled in the clump of trees just beyond Melton Creek Bridge. A lovely little spot, he thought. To his surprise, the woman was waiting out front for him. As O’Reilly had said, he hated to admit, she was quite a sight – tall, dark-haired, with a bronzed country body and just enough curves to make her interesting. A billowing floral dress completed the picture. But she was well into her thirties, thought Arbor, maybe closer to forty. Out of his age range. Probably. Besides, this was work.
‘Miss Martin?’ he said.
‘Jenny will do.’
‘Sorry. Do you want to hop in? Show me this car?’
‘Oh, we won’t get there in that,’ she said. ‘We’ll have to take the quads.’
Magic, thought Arbor. I don’t fancy that.
He got out of the paddy wagon and, although there was little point, locked the doors.
‘Is it far?’ he asked. ‘I’m Danny, by the way.’
‘Yeah. You said on the phone. No. It’s not far. Five minutes. Have you ridden one of these before?’
‘Once, I think. Maybe. I was, what, ten?’
She thought for a moment.
‘Best get on mine, then,’ she said, tossing him a helmet. ‘We shouldn’t, but we don’t want you to roll it or something, do we? Mind, it’s not as though the cops will be bothered, will they? Get on behind me … That’s it. Now hold onto my waist. Tight. I’ll go slow, but it’ll still be a bumpy ride.’
Arbor did as he was told. Nervously. She started the engine and a gentle vibration ran through his body. Fuck, he thought. Two women in one day. And, with this one, he had his hands full. His cock was pressed hard against her arse and, despite his best intentions, he was getting hard. And it wasn’t even lunchtime.
He couldn’t help but wonder – if the Subaru had reached the creek bed, then surely the paddy wagon might have managed it, too. But when he surveyed the scene, he realised his error. The trail of steel and chrome told him that the Subaru had been driven down the creek bed for some distance.
He circled the car for a few moments, looking for something. He didn’t quite know what. But all he learned was that the beast was dead and the carcass was cold. It had clearly been that way for several days. But the fact that the doors were hanging open and the boot was closed gave him a sickly feeling. He gave the boot lid a tug, and then eyed the quad.
‘That thing doesn’t come with a tool kit or anything, does it?’ he said.
‘I’ve got a few things here,’ said Jenny. ‘What do you need?’
‘A screwdriver,’ said Arbor. ‘A flat one. The biggest you’ve got.’
Jenny passed him the tool. He jammed it between the boot lid and the body proper.
‘Stand back,’ he said. ‘And don’t look. This might be ugly.’
Jenny stepped back. Arbor hit the screwdriver with all his force and the boot popped open.
‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘It’s empty.’
‘What were you expecting?’
‘Don’t ask,’ said Arbor. ‘Anyway, finding nothing is good news, I think. What’s up the creek a bit?’
‘Not much,’ said Jenny. ‘The bridge one way. A couple of old sheds the other.’
‘No, I don’t think so. I’ve never used them, if they are.’
‘They might be worth a look, if you’ve got time. Do you mind?’
‘No. Not at all.’
‘Can we get there on this?’ he asked.
‘We can get just about anywhere,’ she said. ‘Just, whatever you do, don’t let go.’
The jolting had become just about bearable when Jenny took the quad out of the creek bed and approached the sheds. Baked brown by years of sun and rain, they seemed to Arbor ages old. They were positioned at the bottom of a hill, in an otherwise empty field. A well-used dirt track ran north, towards Chatton.
‘Whose property is that?’ he asked, indicating the other side of the fence. ‘It’s not yours, is it?’
‘No,’ said Jenny. ‘It’s the Blairs’. And I always figured the sheds belonged to them, too.’
‘These Blairs. Do you know much about them?’
‘I’ve lived next door to them just about all my life,’ said Jenny. ‘But I feel like I hardly know them at all. Just a little bit. They’re feral, the lot of them. And I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate us going onto their land.’
‘That’s too bad,’ said Arbor. ‘Let’s have a look, shall we?’
A rusted padlock was hanging on the door to the larger shed, but it had recently been broken. Arbor removed it, opened the door and let the sunlight in.
The light had revealed something, something Arbor had not expected.
‘What is it?’ said Jenny.
‘You’d better not look,’ he said.
But she did. A solitary chair sat at the rear of the shed. But what drew their eyes were the flies around it. They were swarming, feasting on the large mass of dark, treacle-like liquid that still soaked the chair and had pooled on the surrounding earth.
‘Oh, God,’ said Jenny, clutching Arbor’s arm. ‘Is that …?’
‘Yeah, I reckon it is,’ he said.
‘So what do we do?’
‘We close it up and call the experts,’ said Arbor. ‘I’d be dead meat if I touched this.’
He called the station.
‘Yep?’ came O’Reilly’s voice.
‘Sarge, it’s me,’ said Arbor. ‘I think we’ve found the murder scene.’
He made eye contact with Jenny. She was expressing just the right amount of concern.
‘Yeah, all right,’ said O’Reilly, sounding gruff and displeased. ‘Tell me more.’
‘It’s a barn bordering the Martin and Blair properties,’ said Arbor. ‘Up past Melton Creek Bridge.’
‘I’ll send your friends out as soon as they get back,’ said O’Reilly. ‘They can meet you at the farmhouse. You don’t mind waiting, do you?’
Arbor’s eyes followed Jenny. She had walked away. For a moment, he thought she was going to retch, but, no, she was just looking into the scrub, getting some air.
‘No, Sarge. I don’t mind,’ he said. ‘We’ll meet them there, then. Okay?’
But O’Reilly was gone. Arbor took the few steps towards Jenny.
‘The sarge says he’ll let the Ds know,’ he said. ‘And I expect they won’t muck around getting out here. He told me to wait.’
‘No. At the house. I mean, I guess I’m supposed to stay here, chain of evidence and all that, but … Well, they’d never find us, would they? What are you looking at?’
‘This. It’s not one of mine. Strange there’s only one. Stuck out here. And it’s just about brand new.’
Arbor looked. On the other side of the fence, nestled in the grass, lay a woman’s shoe.
Like a duck to water, thought Arbor. A couple of spins around the house and he had the quad down pat. Or so he hoped. They would need both to get back to the scene, and he felt sure that neither detective would show any competence. So it was up to him. He pulled to a halt with a small skid, just for show.
‘No posing like that when you’ve got a passenger,’ said Jenny, emerging from the house, wielding two mugs. ‘You’ll lose them, for sure.’
‘I’ll remember that,’ said Arbor, accepting his mug. But his mind held the image of Sergeant Burke landing head first in the dirt. Or, better still, on her arse.
‘I’ve no idea how long they’ll be,’ he said.
‘That’s all right,’ said Jenny. ‘I’m not busy.’
‘You don’t run this place all by yourself, do you?’ asked Arbor.
‘No, I’ve an arrangement,’ said Jenny. ‘Bob Anderson. He has the spread just west of here. He does all my seeding and harvesting for me. He takes a percentage of the crop. Follow me?’
‘It saves me a lot of grief,’ said Jenny. ‘And I don’t need that much to get by.’
‘Yeah, I get it,’ said Arbor. ‘It sounds ideal.’
‘So, how long have you been here?’ Arbor asked.
‘Me?’ said Jenny. ‘I was practically born here. It was Mum and Dad’s place. They died a few years back.’
‘Yeah, well. It happens. I came back from the city to nurse Dad. I was down there teaching. Primary.’
‘And there’s no … You’re single?’
‘Yeah, I’m single. Suits me fine, too. Sorry, do you want a biscuit or something?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘So, what about you?’ Jenny asked. ‘How long have you been the sheriff in Chatton?’
‘Sheriff? Me?’ said Arbor. He grinned. ‘Not me. I’m only the deputy. I dunno. Six weeks? I only just got here.’
‘And how do you find it? Crazy enough for you?’
‘It is now. Before that … It’s hard to believe that just yesterday I was so bored I was counting all the trucks at the silo.’
‘I know what you mean,’ said Jenny. ‘I wouldn’t say my life’s full of drama. Except for Days of Our Lives and The Bold and the Beautiful. And, of course, Home and Away.’
‘Oh, no. You don’t, do you?’
‘Not all the time. Look, is this your mates?’
The Commodore had turned off the main road and was slowly approaching them. Arbor took a large swig of his coffee and tossed the rest away.
‘I expect they’ll want to get on,’ he said.
‘I told you this was the turn,’ said Burke to Cole, sharply, as they alighted. Arbor noticed that she now had her jacket off and that the outline of her bust had been revealed for the world to see. Her breasts were large and well-defined, he thought, and he found it difficult to keep his eyes from the fragment of lace peeking between the buttons of her shirt. Despite any other lack of appeal the woman might have, he considered, her chest was a thing of beauty.
‘How did the autopsy go?’ he asked.
‘No surprises,’ said Burke, shortly.
‘But at least we know what the murder weapon was,’ said Cole. ‘Something big and nasty.’
Arbor watched as Cole unloaded the evidence kit from the backseat. If there was any more information to be had, it wasn’t forthcoming.
‘So, where are we going?’ Cole continued. Arbor could tell he had his eyes on Jenny. He could tell she was aware of it, too, and wasn’t enjoying it.
‘It’s at the north end of the property,’ said Arbor. ‘About a kilometre away.’
‘Shit,’ said Burke. ‘And how are we supposed to get there?’
The question came as an accusation, as if Arbor was to have an easy solution at hand.
‘We can walk,’ he said, enjoying the consternation on the detectives’ faces. ‘Or there’s these things.’
He indicated the quads.
Burke looked at Cole, with a strange mix of trepidation and relish.
‘Oh, bugger it,’ she said. ‘I’m game if you are.’
Without hesitation, she continued, this time to Arbor.
‘Constable, I’m riding with you.’
Arbor used a pair of occy straps to stabilise the evidence kit in front of the handlebars of the quad and then gave it a shake. Fine, he thought. It’s going nowhere. He climbed on board and signalled for Burke to join him.
He could feel the strength of the woman’s thighs as she pressed them hard against his hips. Her breasts were soft against his back as she shifted her weight and then held him tight. Her arms wrapped around him. Decidedly low, he worried. Her hands, rather than around his midriff, were below his waist, below his belt, patently close to the seams of his trousers.
As he started the quad and moved off slowly behind Jenny and Cole, Burke wriggled even closer. You’ve got to be kidding me, he thought. He could feel her hands move. Lower and lower. Fuck, he thought. Before long, she’ll be right in there, wanking away.
He could stop her, he supposed. Just say something. But he wasn’t sure. What if this was just the detective’s way? What if she just needed to feel secure? And, on the other hand, he could happily admit, it was beginning to feel all right. A little like Christmas gone had finally arrived. This could be habit forming, he thought. He was getting hard for the second time today. Ah, to hell with it, he decided. Jenny and Cole were a good way in front and with no view of proceedings. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Danny, he told himself. He was entirely in Burke’s hands.
The detectives spent just a short time examining the Subaru before deciding that there was nothing more to learn. Any trace evidence – DNA, fingerprints and the like – had long since been burned away. And Arbor had already surmised that the Chatton murder case, such as it was, did not warrant, or deserve, the full investigative resources that might come to bear on another, higher profile, case. He was already convinced that, to Burke and Cole, solving the crime was not a high priority. Getting back to Perth for New Year was.
‘That about does it,’ said Burke, ripping off her gloves and tossing them into the scrub. ‘Nothing more here that the locals can’t sort out.’
She climbed onto the back of the quad and put on her helmet. ‘Come on, Constable,’ she smiled at Arbor. ‘Time for another joyride.’
Arbor could see Jenny Martin looking at the detective, disapprovingly.
‘I’ll take you this time, Sergeant,’ she said, surprising Arbor. ‘The creek bed’s a bit tricky. I’m not sure I’d trust the constable to give you safe passage. I’m sure Constable Cole will be gallant about it and swap places.’
He would thank Jenny later, Arbor decided.
‘Yeah, no worries,’ said Cole, but Arbor could tell that this detective, too, was displeased.
They set off slowly, at only a few kilometres an hour, Arbor making sure he followed in the exact path set by Jenny. After several minutes, he followed her up the bank of the creek and towards the sheds.
‘It’s the big one,’ he said, pointing, as he killed his engine.
‘Just let us do our job,’ snapped Cole. ‘You and the lady stand back. We don’t want you destroying evidence.’
You’re a bit late for that, thought Arbor. I’ve already opened … Oh, never mind. Just keep your mouth shut, Danny. There’s less hassle that way.
The detectives collected the evidence kit and entered the shed.
‘Did you tell them about the shoe?’ asked Jenny.
‘Not yet,’ said Arbor. ‘I’ll wait until they come out. We don’t want to interrupt them while they’re hard at work, do we? Are you sure it’s not one of yours?’
‘Yeah, I’m quite sure of that. It’s nothing like anything I’d wear. That’s a young girl’s shoe.’
Burke emerged from the shed holding her nose. In the other, outstretched hand, she held a sickle, caked black with blood and flies.
‘Hell, I didn’t see that before,’ said Arbor.
‘Then you weren’t looking hard enough,’ said Burke. ‘But by the looks of it, we’ve definitely found our murder scene. There’s enough blood in there to fill Sydney Harbour.’
That I could have told you, thought Arbor. An hour ago.
‘Sergeant Burke,’ he said. ‘Miss Martin here, she found a shoe. Over here. She swears it’s not hers. I thought … With the girl, Amira, being missing …’
Burke took the few steps to the fence and peered over.
‘Well, there you go,’ she said. ‘I can’t see much in it, but … Why don’t you bag it up, Cinderella? Eh? That can be your little project.’
The sarcasm in her voice was masked only by a sudden retching from inside the shed.
‘Oh, Christ. Get it up, why don’t you?’ Burke shouted, her face now lined with disgust. ‘I told you to give that burger a miss! He never fucking learns, that prick.’
Well, if your crime scene wasn’t fucked before, thought Arbor, it certainly is now.
The other detective reappeared, headed for the scrub and retched some more.
Whatever you do, Danny, don’t stuff it up. They’re right behind you, ready to take the piss at a moment’s notice.
He began with photos, observing that the shoe was intact, new and relatively clean. Sparkling red. Upside down. The heel, he noted, was ridiculously high for this environment. Too high, he considered, even for daily life in Chatton. He kept snapping. Never too many, he told himself.
‘You’re doing a good job, there, Constable,’ gibed Burke. The two detectives were standing some distance away, smoking.
Crazy, thought Arbor. Didn’t they realise that one ember …? It was high summer and the grass and crops needed little more.
He looked closely at the area surrounding the shoe. It offered just a little comfort, he thought. The grass appeared undisturbed and, whatever they might be, there were no actual signs of a struggle, no signs that a body had fallen or been dragged away further into the scrub. It seemed as if the shoe had just been thrown there, perhaps from some distance.
He donned his gloves and moved in for a closer look. He squinted, peering inside the shoe, looking for a label. He could barely make it out.
‘Senso?’ he asked Jenny. ‘Have you heard of it?’
He heard the detectives snigger.
‘No, sorry. I haven’t,’ Jenny replied.
‘Come on, Columbo,’ said Burke again. ‘It’s only a fucking shoe.’
They might have helped him, thought Arbor. There was a girl missing, after all. But, no. They’d rather play their silly games. He lifted the shoe and placed it into an evidence bag. He might need to check it for fingerprints, he thought. Hopefully, he would find something to compare them to at the shop. But, for now, all that seemed a long way off.
He stood up and looked around, taking in the bigger picture. He drew an imaginary line between the shed, the position of the shoe and the creek bed beyond. And he shuddered. Although everything in his nature told him otherwise, he could tell it was possible. The body of Amira Rashid might really be lying there, hidden in the scrub, no more than fifty metres away.
‘Is it worth having a look?’ he asked. ‘Maybe we could walk up the creek a bit.’
‘Yeah, maybe we could. But, no. Not now. Not in this light,’ said Burke. ‘Another five minutes and you won’t be able to see your hand in front of your face. You could step on her and not even know it. Come on. Back to civilisation.’
She had to be joking, thought Arbor. Sure, the sun was getting low, but there must have been at least an hour of decent daylight left. Plenty of time to … But, he could see the detectives were getting restless.
He bit his lip. Maybe Burke was right. He was new at this. What did he know? In any case, there was no way he could override her. Any search for Amira would have to wait until tomorrow. All he could do for now was head back to the farmhouse and then put some distance between himself and what passed for intelligent policing.
‘So what time do we start?’ he asked. He was watching Burke load the evidence kit into the boot of the Commodore.
‘When? What do you mean, Constable? Start what?’
‘The search. Tomorrow. For Amira, I mean … Shouldn’t we do something? Organise a search or something?’
‘Ha. You’re joking, aren’t you?’ said Burke. ‘On what basis? One bloody shoe? And where would we get the resources for that? It’s Christmas, remember?’
‘Yeah, but … the girl,’ said Arbor. ‘She might be stuck out there. She might have been out there for—’
‘Look, you can search for her all you like,’ said Burke. ‘We’re not stopping you. But we’ve got bigger fish to fry. We came here to solve a murder, remember? Not to find Little Red Riding Hood. But if you do find her, we want her. And pronto. Do you understand? I don’t want some novice playing softly, softly, catchee monkey when a hard line is called for. Capiche?’
‘Yeah, I guess.’
‘Good. Enough said.’
‘And what about the Blairs?’ said Arbor. ‘Are you going to—’
‘Yeah, yeah. We’ll see to it, Constable,’ said Burke. ‘We’ll stop in and see them on the way back in. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about them.’
She slammed the boot lid and joined Cole inside the car. The Commodore raised a cloud of dust as it hit the main road.
‘Jeez, they like to put it about, don’t they?’ said Jenny.
‘O’Reilly’s right,’ Arbor replied. ‘A bigger pair of dickheads, I’ve yet to meet. Excuse the French. But I’ll be surprised if they do half the job they’re supposed to. I’ll give them a few minutes, let them get well down the road, before I head off.’
He turned towards Jenny. ‘Listen, thanks for your help today. I’d have been stuffed without you.’
‘No worries,’ said Jenny.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ Arbor said. ‘It’s too late to do much more tonight, but if I can square it with my sergeant, I might come out tomorrow again and have another look around. If you don’t mind, that is. There’s no way of telling for sure, but I reckon there’s a good chance Amira is out there somewhere. I can’t organise anything big by myself, but … Well, I’ll see what I can do. I’ll come out early tomorrow morning, okay? And I might have a word with those Blairs myself. God knows what sort of job those two will make of it.’
‘That’s fine, Danny,’ said Jenny. ‘I’ll be up.’
‘Thanks, again,’ said Arbor. He found himself offering his hand. Her grip was firm but her skin soft, he found. Just right, like so many other things about her.
The shoe. The shoe, thought Arbor. It sat on the passenger seat like a burning coal, demanding action. It was Amira’s, he felt sure of it, and it meant that something dire had probably happened to the girl as well as to her father.
He took out the number the Wallis girl had given him. It seemed so long ago. He gave it a call.
‘Hello,’ came the distant reply.
‘Hi. Can I speak to Jacinta, please?’ he said. ‘It’s Constable Arbor, Chatton Station.’
‘Yeah, hold on. I’ll get her.’
Arbor heard the phone crash and then the chatter of family life.
‘You kids! Keep it down! Jacinta! It’s your phone! It’s a cop! What’ve you been up to?’
‘Nothing! And you shouldn’t touch my phone, Dad!’
The girl reached the phone breathless and, Arbor imagined, flushed pink.
‘Yeah, hi. It’s Constable Arbor. I was wondering. I’ve got a shoe here. I was wondering if you could look at it for me. Tell me if you recognise it.’
‘Is it Amira’s?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Arbor. ‘That’s why I need you to take a look at it. Look, I’m just on my way back into town now. I don’t suppose I could drop by?’
‘Yeah, well. If you’re quick,’ said the girl. ‘We’re just about to have dinner.’
‘That’d be great.’
Arbor listened as the girl gave her address, and then punched it into the GPS.
The sun had set, he thought, but he was beginning to see daylight.
Even in the dark, Arbor could see that the yard was tidy and the lawn short and well-cultivated. They were sure signs that the Wallis family were house-proud. But the caravan parked in the driveway gave him food for thought, that the family might be large and overflowing the standard three-by-one. Sure enough, when Jacinta flicked on the light and opened the door, she was attended by a crowd of noisy siblings.
‘I’ll only keep you a minute,’ said Arbor, offering her the bag. ‘Don’t touch it. I just need to know if it’s Amira’s.’
Jacinta needed just the briefest of glances.
‘Yeah, that’s hers,’ she said. ‘She bought them on Saturday. In Ashby. They cost her over two hundred bucks. I told her they were stupid. Look at those heels. Have you found her yet? Is she okay?’
‘There’s no news yet, good or bad,’ said Arbor. ‘But don’t worry. I’ll let you know if anything comes up.’
The girl breathed deeply.
‘You’ve put me off my dinner, now,’ she said.
‘Why? What is it?’ said Arbor.
Compared with the Wallis residence, Arbor mused, his own place was a pigsty. The yard, such as it was, was a scattering of weeds, the windows were curtain-less, and the house itself was an embarrassing reminder of the nineteen-eighties. It was a box, like all the other little boxes that lined Royal Street. An amusing irony, he thought. It was the last place in the world any royal would visit.
But the rent was cheap, he decided, and, unlike other landlords, the government didn’t demand the continual upkeep of the property. Like the rest of Royal Street, number 15 was sliding into ruin, and no one seemed to mind.
He had remembered his empty fridge, and had dived into Jack and Jill’s just as they were closing their doors. It was nothing new. A hamburger here, a pizza there, Jack and Jill’s offered him a varied diet. Tonight was fish and chips. What kind of fish it might be, he didn’t ask, but he had had it before and survived. He had actually enjoyed it. And a Fanta. He always preferred citrus with fish.
He hit the exterior light, sat on the step and listened to the cicadas sing. Before long, he had company. The Webbs’ hound, a big dark rangy thing, had come loose from its chain and come looking for food.
‘Bugger you,’ said Arbor. ‘You’re not getting my fish.’
He threw the dog a chip. It swallowed with a snap and looked for more.
‘You’re a greedy bastard, aren’t you?’ Arbor continued.
He threw a few more. The dog devoured them quickly. Arbor looked towards the Webb place. The lights were on and Nathan’s Hyundai was parked in the drive. He would take the dog home later, he thought, when they had finished their dinner.
The door opened. Arbor kept a tight grip on the dog’s collar.
‘Hey, Nathan,’ he said.
‘Hey, Danny,’ said Nathan. ‘What’s the story? Are you lost?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean, you’ve been living across the road, for what, a month? More? This is the first time you’ve been over.’
‘I brought your dog back.’
‘Yeah, so you did. Bring him in. Come on. We don’t bite.’
‘Hi, I’m Mandy,’ sad Webb’s wife, offering her hand. She was about the same age as her husband, thought Arbor, older than himself, but not by much.
‘I’m Danny,’ said Arbor. ‘Your hound here ate half my dinner.’
‘He eats more than the two of us put together. Loves his grub, does Chopps.’
‘Yeah, he’s a big bloke. Have you had him long?’
‘A couple of years. He’s still a pup, really. Come. Sit. Do you want a drink? A cuppa?’
‘No, I’m just … Yeah, all right, then. That’d be nice. Coffee. White. Two sugars.’
Mandy headed for the kitchen. Arbor and Webb sat in silence.
‘You remember yesterday when you said that you might be able to help me out? Looking for Amira? The Rashid girl? Well, I might take you up on it. I … How well do you know that creek? The one that runs under Melton Creek Bridge.’
‘You mean Melton Creek? Yeah, fairly well, I reckon. My brother and I used to do a bit of roo shooting out that way.’
‘Well, I reckon she might be out there somewhere. And I reckon she might be in a bit of trouble.’
‘If she is out there, she will be,’ said Nathan. ‘How long has she been gone for?’
‘I’m not sure, said Arbor. ‘For anything up to three or four days.’
‘She’ll be lucky,’ said Nathan. ‘There’s bugger all water in that creek this time of year.’
‘Yeah. I saw that today.’
‘Who were you with?’ asked Nathan. ‘Was it Jenny Martin? The schoolteacher?’
‘Yeah, she could give me lessons any time,’ he said. ‘She’s lovely, that one.’
‘Yes, she is.’
‘Who’s lovely?’ asked Mandy, returning with a tray of mugs.
‘No one you’d know,’ said Nathan.
‘You’d be surprised,’ said Mandy, placing the tray on the coffee table. ‘I know everybody.’
‘Hey, Mandy,’ said Arbor. ‘How well did you know Salim?’
‘Well enough,’ said Mandy, sliding him his mug and a plate of biscuits. ‘I’d chat with him just about every day. I got my Lotto from him. Of course, I had to. His was the only game in town.’
‘You don’t know any reason why someone would want to hurt him, do you? What they did to him was … I dunno. It just seemed so over the top.’
‘Yeah, I know what you mean. But I’ve no idea. Not for sure, anyway. Of course, just him being Pakistani pissed off quite a few of the locals. That was enough for some. Even after him living here for ten years. Not so Amira. She’d just about blended in. But Salim … And it didn’t help with him being such a devout Muslim. You know? Right up to the end, I reckon. That got up a lot of people’s noses.’
‘Uh-huh. Anything else?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. There were rumours, I guess. The usual.’
‘There was one,’ she said. ‘You don’t know what to believe. This one was the best. He was supposed to be a big wheeler dealer. Up to his elbows in some shady property shit. You know, farmland. I don’t know if it was true or not, but, if it was … Well, I reckon there’d be nothing like an outsider buying up land to piss off the locals.’
‘I can imagine,’ said Arbor. ‘And thanks, Mandy. It’s a nice cuppa. I needed it after the day I had.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Mandy. ‘Any time.’
‘So, Nathan,’ Arbor continued. ‘I was wondering. If you’re not doing anything tomorrow, would you mind coming out with me? To see if we can find Amira? I had Jenny with me today, but … Hell, I’d hate for her to find what I’m dreading.’
‘The weaker sex, eh?’ said Nathan.
Mandy gave her husband’s arm a sharp jab.
‘Weak, are we?’ she said.
Nathan reached for his arm, rubbing.
‘Don’t worry, Danny,’ said Mandy. ‘He’s just being clever. He understands fine where you’re coming from.’
‘So, what’ll you pay me?’ said Nathan, still rubbing, grinning through the pain.
‘What’ll you pay me? I don’t mean to sound callous, Danny, but … A day in the bush. I mean, you’re not doing it for free, are you?’
‘No. I suppose not.’
Arbor reached for his wallet.
‘A hundred and twenty,’ he said. ‘That’s about all I’ve got.’
‘That’ll do fine,’ said Nathan, taking the notes. He passed them to Mandy. ‘You’ll be able to claim it, won’t you? On expenses or something?’
Arbor could see O’Reilly’s face as he tried to explain.
‘Yeah, pig’s arse,’ he said.
Nathan was waiting for him when he opened the front door. The sun had barely risen and Arbor’s eyes were still thick with sleep. The air was surprisingly fresh, given the time of year.
‘Morning, Sunshine,’ said Nathan, an orthodox greeting in a very unorthodox situation. ‘Don’t let that breeze fool you. It’s going to be a stinker. Glad to see you’re not wearing that stupid uniform. I got us some oranges.’
Nathan held up a bag of oranges, about a dozen.
‘We’ll pick up some water somewhere along the line, no doubt. But these’ll come in handy if we get parched. Which we will. We can stuff them in our pockets. They could be a lifesaver.’
Up there for thinking, thought Arbor.
‘Where’d you get them?’ he asked. ‘At this time of day?’
‘I know someone who knows someone,’ said Nathan. ‘No, joking. I know Belle Carter who works in the co-op. She let me in. I charged them to your account.’
‘I don’t have one,’ said Arbor.
‘You do now,’ said Nathan. ‘What about your boss? Have you cleared it all with him?’
‘I’ll call him from the farm,’ said Arbor. He thought about it. By then, he hoped, he would be a little more awake and a lot more persuasive.
‘So you’re not a local, then?’ asked Arbor. ‘Originally?’
They were heading out of town and had just turned onto the Melton road.
‘No,’ said Nathan. ‘I’m from down Albany way. I came here when I was, what, eleven or twelve?’
‘Do you know the Blairs? They live next door to Jenny Martin.’
‘I wish I didn’t,’ said Nathan. ‘Trouble all round, I reckon.’
‘I was going to drop in and see them,’ said Arbor. ‘On the way.’
‘I’ll stay in the wagon, then, if you don’t mind,’ Nathan said.
‘That bad. Fucking trouble. Fucking racist pricks, if you ask me.’
‘What about Harry Hogg?’ said Arbor. ‘Hoggy. Do you know him? He’s a bit younger than us.’
‘Yeah, I know him,’ said Nathan. ‘He’s a wanker, too. Of the highest order. He got hit in the head by a cricket ball a few years back. It did him some good, I reckon.’
‘He reckoned he was in with Amira,’ said Arbor.
‘Yeah, in his dreams.’
‘Yeah, that’s what Jacinta Wallis said.’
‘She’s another waste of space.’
‘Jeez, you don’t mince your words, do you?’
Nathan didn’t reply. At least not immediately.
‘I just tell it like I see it,’ he said. ‘There’s no harm in that.’
‘No, I guess there’s not.’
‘Are you the Arbor that played for the Eagles?’ he said.
‘Yeah, that’s me,’ said Arbor. Wait for it, he thought.
‘Yeah, I’d reckoned so,’ said Nathan. ‘You were an accident waiting to happen. I said that to Mandy the first time I saw you. That bloke runs like a chook, I said. Legs like one, too.’
‘Thanks a bundle.’
Arbor followed the trail of broken vehicles from the Melton road to the Blair farmhouse, stopping next to the heavily dented Land Rover that was obviously the farm runabout. As promised, Nathan stayed in the paddy wagon. Arbor alighted and made his way towards the front door.
‘What the fuck do you want?’
The voice was female, but deep and husky. The owner appeared from behind a small shed. Arbor had a sense she had been there to urinate.
‘I’m Danny Arbor,’ he began. ‘Constable at—’
‘I don’t care who you are,’ she said. Closer, Arbor could see she was lost in her twenties somewhere, craggy and mean looking, carrying not a scrap of fat. She had a face like vinegar.
‘You’ve got no right to be here,’ she continued. ‘You’ve got no fucking right.’
As if on cue, two men appeared from the other side of the house. To Arbor, they looked like a WWE tag team. Big, bald and tattooed to the max. Arbor could smell them from where he stood.
Both picked up lengths of pipe.
‘Are you all right there, Gertie?’ the larger man said.
‘Answer her question,’ the smaller man aimed at Arbor. ‘What the fuck do you want?’
‘I tried to say,’ said Arbor. ‘I’m Constable Arbor. From Chatton. I wanted to ask you … Yesterday, we found what seems like a murder scene. In one of those sheds out beside Jenny Martin’s place.’
‘Yeah, well, like we told those other cops. It’s got nothing to do with us.’
So the detectives had been. And received the same answer.
‘That creek. It runs on your property a bit,’ said Arbor. ‘Do you mind if we …?’
The smaller man squinted towards the wagon.
‘What the fuck?’ he said. ‘What’s that arsehole doing here? What gives you the right? You can’t just bring anyone you like out here without asking. This is private property. Go on. Fuck off.’
This, thought Arbor, was clearly the end of the conversation. They turned their backs on him, entered the house and slammed the door. But Arbor had a creeping suspicion there were eyes on him still. He could see a curtain flutter.
‘I told you,’ Nathan called from the paddy wagon. ‘And you haven’t met old Matilda yet.’
‘I’ve a feeling she’s watching us now’ he said.
He took the few large strides back towards the wagon and then ducked behind the Land Rover.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Nathan.
‘Just a minute,’ said Arbor.
He peered inside the Land Rover. But there was nothing to see. The dust on the windows had long since caked into a dark red impenetrable film.
He had all but given up when a splash of colour on the rear window drew him back. It was a sticker. He rubbed away the dust.
‘What is it?’ asked Nathan.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Arbor, rubbing harder.
As the dust broke away, he could see. Facing him was an emblem, in the centre of which, in pride of place, was a blood-red sickle.
‘Fuck,’ he said.
His first thought was that it might be something cultish, something Wiccan or Satanic. Then, perhaps, something political, the remnant of a time when left was left and right was … wrong. But he was wrong. The redness of the sickle, he soon discovered, was just the effect of years of ground-in dirt.
Laid bare, the emblem was just a coat of arms. Not unlike the Australian one. But, in this case, the kangaroo and emu were missing and had been replaced by a jumble of farming tools – the sickle, an axe, a plough and what appeared to be a simple hook. Behind the implements, functioning as a kind of border, was a red cross of St George. And atop the image, in all its majesty, was a royal crown.
It said something, Arbor decided, but he wasn’t quite sure what. Was the sickle just a coincidence? Or was it something more? It was a common farming tool, he knew, but given its choice as the murder weapon, he could not escape the parallel.
Was he thinking too much? Reading too much into it? Perhaps he was. But, just in case, he took out his phone and took several snaps. He would chase it up first chance he got. He climbed into the paddy wagon.
‘What was it?’ asked Nathan again.
‘Ah, probably nothing,’ said Arbor.
But, then again, he had nothing to begin with. Nothing ventured, he thought. He started the engine.
He phoned ahead and, by the time they arrived, Jenny had cuppas and a stack of pikelets waiting. Arbor devoured them. Although it had been a while since his last drink, he felt remarkably hungover – a sure sign he had had too much sun and not enough water the day before.
‘I packed a couple of knapsacks for you,’ said Jenny. ‘Some lunch, plenty of water … and some fruit. It always comes in handy.’
Nathan showed her the oranges.
‘Great minds,’ he said.
They filled their pockets and donned the knapsacks.
‘You’ll be taking the quads?’ asked Jenny.
‘I don’t know,’ said Nathan. ‘Where did it all happen?’
‘Do you know those old sheds? Over near the Blair’s place? Between the shed and the creek.’
‘We’ll ride to there, then,’ said Nathan. ‘We can explore the creek on foot after that. If that’s okay with you, Danny?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ said Arbor. He would happily follow Nathan’s lead.
‘Shit,’ he added. ‘I nearly forgot. I’d better call the sarge. If I don’t turn up at the station, he’ll send out his own search party.’
It would be easiest, he decided, if he just rang the residence. He was certain O’Reilly would be still in bed, or, at best, at his toast and jam. He put the phone on speaker as he fumbled with his pikelet.
‘Sarge, it’s Arbor.’
‘What do you want? I’m still in my fucking PJs.’
‘Sarge, I was wondering. I’m out at Jenny Martin’s place. I thought I might have a look about. See if I can find the Rashid girl. You don’t need me in the station, do you? I mean, you don’t want me piss-farting around while you’re watching the cricket. And those city Ds have made it pretty plain they don’t want my help. I thought I’d do the most good out here.’
‘Yeah, well, don’t do too much thinking, boy,’ drawled the sergeant. ‘You might think you’ll get ahead, but in the end they’ll cut you down. Yeah, all right. Just keep in touch, eh? I don’t want you wasting your time out there. And if I find out you’re just out there rooting the Martin woman, I’ll knock your block off. You hear me?’
He hung up and offered Jenny an embarrassed smile.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I should have known better.’
‘That’s all right,’ said Jenny. She smiled back.
‘He’s all class, our O’Reilly, isn’t he?’ said Nathan. ‘All class. Come on. I can feel the sun on my back. Let’s get a wriggle on.’
He’s spent a decent amount of time on one of these, thought Arbor. Nathan was rocking his quad from side to side, leaning into every turn, backing off at any sign of trouble, but then gunning it again whenever he could. Arbor had trouble keeping up. In truth, he had trouble staying on. For some reason, today, with less weight and extra speed, he had lost all stability and poise.
With the tempo Nathan set, it didn’t take them long to reach the sheds. By the time Arbor pulled up behind him, Nathan had already alighted and was eating an apple.
‘Where’d you find the shoe?’ Nathan asked.
‘Just in there.’
Nathan looked around, thinking. He eyed where the creek bed narrowed as it ran under the fence and then widened again as it snaked westward.
‘If she’s alive and on her own,’ he said, ‘I reckon she’ll have stuck to the creek. Anyone with any sense would. It’s the only place they’d get water. I reckon we should keep going. Follow it a few Ks. See what’s up there.’
‘Do we just leave these things here?’ asked Arbor, meaning the quads.
‘Sure,’ said Nathan, climbing the fence. ‘Who’s going to steal them?’
The morning passed slowly, as they inched their way along the stony creek, following the small trickle that was the summertime flood. Each held a stick, using it to brush away the grass on the creek’s banks. Arbor could feel his shirt clinging to his back and arms. He welcomed the moments when the big gums arched over him. He welcomed, too, the light breeze that blew from time to time along the creek bed. It didn’t cool him, he thought, but it did stir the air.
Finally, at about eleven, he saw Nathan stop, find a spot on the bank and open his knapsack. Arbor joined him.
‘Hard yakka,’ he offered.
‘You reckon?’ Nathan replied, waving the flies from his sandwich.
They sat there, for the longest time, enjoying the rest. Arbor took a bite of his sandwich and then listened to the silence.
‘Hey, Nathan?’ he asked, finally.
‘What’s that, Danny?’
It was another difficult question, but he felt a need to ask it.
‘I was wondering,’ he said. ‘There’s something that’s been bugging me since I got here. In Chatton. You know, that bar you drink in? You know the one. Well, it seems to me … I mean, why is it you don’t just go into one of the others? You know? Just ask for a beer in there? At the end of the day, Piper can’t really stop you, can he?’
‘Yeah? And why would I do that, Danny?’ said Nathan.
‘I don’t know,’ said Arbor. ‘I mean, you have rights, after all, don’t you?’
‘I have rights, do I?’ he said. ‘Well, that settles it, then. Thanks for that, Danny. That makes it easy. But did you ever think it might be the other way around? That we don’t want to drink with you whadjulla, you whitefellas?’
Arbor was silent.
‘Yeah, fair enough,’ he said, eventually. ‘Anyway. Nice sandwiches, these, aren’t they?’
‘Yeah, I think she makes her own pickles,’ he said. ‘Just the lady for you, Danny, if you’ve a mind to settle in our little town.’
I’d rather settle in hell, thought Arbor. I’d rather settle in hell.
By mid-afternoon, Arbor was in hell. His face and neck were burning bright, he had drunk most of his water and he had just a couple of oranges left in his pockets.
‘Ah, fuck it,’ he said at last. ‘I think we should give it away.’
‘That suits me,’ said Nathan. ‘I’ve been thinking it’s a wild goose chase for a while now.’
‘Then why didn’t you say something?’ said Arbor.
‘Why should I?’ said Nathan. ‘It’s your party.’
‘So, we’ll head back then?’ said Arbor, still a little unsure.
‘Just lead the way.’
They tossed their sticks.
‘Hang on a minute,’ said Nathan. ‘Listen.’
Arbor did as he was told. Gradually, he heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle.
‘Shit,’ he said. ‘How did you …?’
‘Shush,’ said Nathan. ‘In here.’
They dived into the scrub at the foot of one of the gums.
‘It’s getting closer,’ said Arbor.
‘Yeah, I know that,’ said Nathan, waving him down.
Arbor could tell by the growing engine knock that the vehicle was in ill repair. He peered over the bank of the creek. It was the Land Rover he’d seen at the Blairs.
‘Fuck, no,’ he said.
The vehicle stopped, finally, within twenty metres of them. Gertie Blair and the younger of