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Book extract: John Byrnes' crime fiction novel Headland

Summer Reading

In today’s Summer Reading extract, a coastal town that is evacuated after record floods leaves three police officers behind – with a killer – in this crime fiction novel by John Byrnes.

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A cold, fat drop of rain slapped onto the back of Craig Watson’s neck and rolled down his spine. He shivered, hunched his shoulders, and tried to soak the icy rivulet into his shirt before it made its way any further down. He clenched his cheeks just in case.

‘Miserable’ was how the weatherman had summed it up.

Cold and wet, raining for a week.

He’d only just arrived: tired, anxious, and absolutely gagging for the sweet relief of a toilet after three hours behind the wheel and four foul service station coffees. The rain was coming down hard and had done for the last two hours of the trip. His eyes were stinging, and his back was aching. The town looked worse than he’d expected—and he hadn’t been expecting much.

Gloster was the end of the road, where a sluggish inland river met the sea. One bridge in and one road out, a towering headland looming over one main street, tired, cracked and weedy, shut up shops and peeling paint. The few locals he’d seen out braving the rain looked like survivors from a shipwreck.

The car park at the rear of the Gloster police station was a muddy, potholed wrecker’s yard. Half-a-dozen smashed-up hulks lined a sagging, gap-toothed fence, old yellow police tape streaming in the wind. A mud-spattered police vehicle was pulled up hard against the back door, a large, land-locked boat taking up most of the other parking spaces.

Watson had chosen a spot as close to the rear door as possible—next to a sporty little hatchback with a My Family sticker on the rear windshield showing two netballers and a cat. The sign over the parking space read: visitors only.

Wishful thinking.

He dodged a couple of big puddles and knocked hard on the rear door of the station, checking the handle with his other hand. To his surprise the door was unlocked. He shouldered it open and stood steaming in a dimly lit kitchen. Watching his entry, wide-eyed with surprise, was the most overweight copper Watson had ever laid eyes on. He was wearing ser- geant’s stripes and polishing off the remains of what appeared to be a leftover butter chicken by running a thick, margarine-soaked piece of white bread through a takeaway container.

The sergeant nodded at Watson, both cheeks ballooning, too full to speak. When he’d got most of the mouthful down, he muttered something incoherent, stuffed the rest of the bread into his mouth, binned the container and motioned for Watson to follow him.

‘Sergeant Thomas Philby,’ he said as he slumped into a well- worn seat. He was grey-haired, late fifties, had the flushed cheeks of a heavy drinker, maybe diabetes. The small, disorgan- ised office smelt of BO, dirty socks and quiet desperation—or maybe that was just the sergeant. He wiped his right hand on his pants then offered it to Watson.

‘Detective Senior Constable Craig Watson,’ Watson said, shaking it. ‘Look, Sarge, if you don’t mind, I’ve really got to go.’

‘Oh yeah, of course,’ Philby said. ‘Just across the hall.’

The station was fifty years old. The toilets were the originals, chipped tiles, bloody freezing. Watson zipped up and exhaled a long foggy breath, his back teeth swimming.

The mirror had a corner missing and was covered in dark spots. Watson moved his face around, making sure he hadn’t contracted measles on the trip. His black-brown eyes were red- ringed and surrounded by tiny broken capillaries. He hadn’t bothered shaving. He looked every single day of his twenty-four years.

Not too bad. Considering.

He splashed some icy tap water onto his face, dried himself with a paper towel, and combed his wet, black hair with his fingers. Then he took a packet of pills from his inside suit jacket pocket, dropped one onto his palm and swallowed it.

He stood there for a minute, staring down at the sink, avoiding his own eyes, until he felt the warm opiate glow snake its way out of his belly.

As he re-entered the sergeant’s office, Philby spun around in his chair, grabbed a file from a chaotic pile stacked on a metal cabinet and slapped it down on his desk. Movement of the file disturbed the computer mouse sitting on his desk. Watson caught a flash of pink flesh reflected on the window behind the sergeant. Philby grabbed at the mouse and quickly switched screens.

‘So, all squared away?’ he asked. ‘You must have had an early start.’

‘Yeah, all good,’ Watson said, cruising now, comfortably numb. ‘Got away just after five.’

He caught a quick flicker in the other man’s eyes at this and realised what he must be thinking: it was a three-hour drive, and it was just after nine thirty now.

Watson had spent the night before leaving for Gloster alone in his Sydney apartment. Sitting in the dark, streaming videos and mixing things he shouldn’t be mixing. His phone didn’t ring; there were no messages on his pathetic attempt at an Instagram account. When the alarm sounded at 5 a.m., he’d switched it off and stayed in bed for another hour, trying to summon the impetus to move.

‘Ah. Well, there’s been plenty of weather, hasn’t there?’ Philby said, unsure.

‘Yep.’ Watson stifled a yawn.

Philby turned his attention to the file, shuffling pages till he found the one he wanted. He tapped it with a pen. ‘Says here you’ll be joining us for six months, while Alan Bishop is, er, convalescing.’ He seemed to struggle with the word.

‘Yep, that’s the situation,’ Watson agreed, without enthusiasm.

Philby blinked. ‘He’s a good man, Alan. Well respected. Big pair of shoes to fill.’

Watson wondered who he was trying to convince. If Bishop was any good, what the hell was he doing here?

‘Yeah, so I’ve heard. Very highly regarded.’

‘Yes, and it’s left us short-staffed here, as you’ve probably heard.’ Watson had heard nothing. ‘Be there Monday’ was the start and the end of his parting brief.

‘But we’ve managed to keep on top of most of Alan’s cases. You’ll find Arthur and Martha know what they’re doing, if you keep on the right side of them.’ He went for what Watson presumed was a conspiratorial smile—either that or the man had developed a nervous tic.

Watson was doing his best to stay upright in his chair.

Philby glanced down at the file again, flicked a couple of pages, and then slowly closed the cover. When he looked up his jowly cheeks had taken on a rosy glow. His expression said that Watson might hold the last piece to a particularly vexing jigsaw puzzle he had been labouring over for the past twenty years.

‘Look, I know it’s not much of a posting here,’ he said, consoling. ‘It’s a quiet little town. We get the odd domestic, a punch-up at the pub on Saturday night, and some of the kids are ratbags, but it’s nice and quiet, and we like to keep it that way. Are you hearing me?’

‘Loud and clear, Sarge,’ Watson said, doing his best.

Philby frowned. ‘Right. Well, come with me and I’ll intro- duce you to the boys.’

Watson followed a gasping and heaving Philby up a creaking internal staircase.

‘You’ll be in here,’ Philby wheezed.

The second floor was one large open-plan room. Dirty yellow neon and dark carpet gave the place a depressing sheen. The room was separated into individual cubicles by moveable par- titions. A bank of windows on the far wall let in what there was of the grey, drizzling, natural light.

Muffled conversation and soft music came from the cubicles at the far end of the room. Philby cleared his throat, and the murmuring ceased. Philby stopped short and stood with arms folded while Watson continued the extra two steps to the open- ended workstations at the back of the room.

‘The boys’? What a fuckhead!

‘Senior Constable Ellie Cameron, this is Detective Senior Constable Craig Watson,’ Philby announced formally from his position two metres to the rear.

Watson held out his hand to a smallish, triathlete-fit young woman who stood and took the proffered hand in a firm, cool grip. Her auburn hair was tied back, regulation perfect, and she wore no make-up. Her features were handsome rather than feminine, which, Watson guessed, was exactly the effect she was going for.

‘How are you?’ Ellie asked, her voice cool.

‘Yeah, not bad,’ Watson replied. He switched his attention to the other constable, who had risen to stand beside Ellie.

‘Constable Larissa Brookes,’ Philby announced. If he was going to add to the introduction, he was stopped short by a glare from Ellie.

‘Ah, your shifts and the casework will be on the usual drives. Senior Constable Cameron here will help you get set up. Let me know if you need anything,’ Philby said as he walked backwards to the door, turned and exited.

‘Larissa,’ Brookes said, smiling as she held out her hand. She was taller than Ellie, and it didn’t look like she had ironed that morning. Long dark hair piled up on the back of her head, brown eyes, a smooth olive complexion. She could easily pass for a relative of mine, Watson realised, and wondered randomly whether she thought the same.

‘Craig,’ he said, pasting on a smile.

They all took a moment.

‘So, how long are you here?’ Ellie asked, before it became uncomfortable. She was still glaring towards the doorway, as if Philby had left something distasteful in the air.

‘Six months,’ Watson replied, distracted by Larissa’s still- smiling face.

Ellie took a proprietary step closer to the other woman then said, ‘You’ll be over here.’ She motioned for Watson to follow her to the end cubicle, opposite hers, on the other side of the room.

Ellie spent a good twenty minutes running him through passwords, logins, files and the other administrative complexities of operating out of a new environment. She was patient, friendly and thorough. Watson started to relax.

‘Did he tell you about the flood watch?’ Ellie asked, gesturing towards the door through which Philby had exited.

She can’t even say his name.

‘Not a word.’

‘Typical,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘We’ve had six days of continuous rain here and up in the hills out to the west. The council and the SES have implemented a flood watch. There’s a monitoring station down at the main bridge. He really hasn’t told you any of this?’


‘We take it in turns, one day each: us, the council rangers and the SES guys. Whoever’s turn it is has to go and check the river gauge every four hours and report it to Emergency Services headquarters.’ Larissa, listening in from her workstation on the other side of the room added, ‘It’s such a pain.’

‘So up till now it’s just been the two of us,’ Ellie said, looking across at Larissa. ‘Every third day, one of us has had to be checking the gauge every four hours.’ Her gaze shifted to the centre of Watson’s forehead. ‘So, you will be expected to pull your weight.’

They were of equal rank, but as a detective he could easily have begged off, claiming that his time would be taken up with more important duties, but if Ellie Cameron was expecting a pissing contest, she had picked the wrong man.

‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘You organise the roster and I’ll be there.’ Ellie and Larissa exchanged a covert glance. Before Ellie could continue, the internal line began to ring. Larissa answered

it, listened, hung up.

‘You’re wanted down at the front desk,’ she called to Watson. ‘A Mrs Howard. Apparently, her daughter has gone missing.’ She smiled at him. ‘Welcome to Gloster,’ she said.

This is an edited extract from Headland by John Byrnes, RRP $32.99, published by Allen & Unwin, out now.

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