On a Sunday Morning in September, three weeks into the job, the Tiverton policeman took a call from his sergeant: shots fired on Bitter Wash Road.
“Vaguely, Sarge,” Hirsch said.
“Vaguely. You been sitting on your arse for three weeks, or have you been poking around like I asked?”
“Poking around, Sarge.”
“You can cover a lot of ground in that time.”
“I told you, didn’t I, no dropkicks?”
“Loud and clear, Sarge.”
“No dropkicks on my watch,” Sergeant Kropp said, “and no smartarses.”
He switched gears, telling Hirsch that a woman motorist had called it in. “No name mentioned, on her way to view the wildflowers, heard shots when she pulled over to photograph the Tin Hut.” Kropp paused. “You with me, the Tin Hut?”
Hirsch didn’t have a clue. “Sarge.”
“So get your arse out there, let me know what you find.”
“Could be someone’s idea of a joke,” the sergeant said, “and this is farming country, the sheep-shaggers like to take pot-shots at rabbits, but you never know.”
Wheat and wool country, in fact, three hours north of Adelaide, Hirsch’s new posting a single-officer police station in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it town on the Barrier Highway. There were still a few of these little cop shops around the state, the Department knowing not to call them one-man stations, not in this day and age, or not in print or in range of a microphone, but it didn’t place female officers in them all the same, citing
safety and operational concerns. So, single guys were sent to Tiverton (the wives of married officers would take one look and say no thanks)—often, or especially, guys with a stink clinging to them.
The police station was the front room of a small brick house right on the highway, where flies droned and sluggish winds stirred the dusty community notices. Hirsch lived in the three rooms behind it: bathroom, sitting room with alcove kitchen, bedroom. He also enjoyed a parched front lawn, a narrow driveway for his own aged Nissan and the SA Police fleet vehicle, a four-wheel-drive Toyota Hi Lux mounted with a rear cage, and a storeroom at the back, its barred window and reinforced door dating from pre- death-in-custody days, when it had been the lockup. And for all of these bounties the Department screwed him on the rent.
Finishing the call with Sergeant Kropp, Hirsch located Bitter Wash Road on the wall map, locked up, pinned his mobile number to the front door and backed out of the driveway. He passed the general store first, just along from the police station and opposite the primary school, the playground still and silent, the kids on holiday, then a couple of old stone houses, the Institute with its weathered cannon and memorial to the dead of the world wars, more houses, two churches, an agricultural supplier, a signposted grain dealer down a side street . . . and that was Tiverton. No bank, chemist, medical practice, lawyer, dentist, accountant or high school.
He drove south along the floor of a shallow valley, undulating and partly cultivated hills on his left, a more dramatic and distant range on his right—blue today, scarred here and there by scrubby trees and shadows among erupted rocks, a foretaste of the Flinders Ranges, three hours further north. In the fashion of the locals, Hirsch lifted one finger from the steering wheel to greet the oncoming cars, all two of them. Nothing else
moved. He was travelling through a land poised for movement: birds watched him from the power lines as if snipped from tin, farmhouses crouched mutely behind cypress hedges, and farm vehicles sat immobile in paddocks, waiting for him to pass.
Five kilometres south of Tiverton he turned left at the Bitter Wash turnoff, heading east into the hills, and here there was some movement in the world. Stones smacked the chassis. Skinny sheep fled, a dog snarled at a fence line, crows rose untidily from a flattened sleepy lizard. The road turned and rose and fell, taking him deeper into pretty but hardscrabble country, just inside the rain shadow. He passed a tumbled stone wall dating from the 1880s, a couple of massive perfect gumtrees, a wind farm turbine. Someone had been planting trees up and down one of the gullies, to combat erosion. Then Hirsch remembered to check kilometres travelled since the turnoff, and wondered when he’d come upon the hut his sergeant was talking about.
He slowed for a dip in the road, water running shallowly across it from last night’s storm, and accelerated uphill, over a peak and around a blind corner and jammed on the brakes.
A gumtree branch the length of a power pole lay across Bitter Wash Road. Hirsch switched off, his heart hammering. Close shave. Beyond the obstacle the road dipped again, bottoming out where a creek in weak, muddy flood had scored a shallow trench in the gravel, then it climbed to another blind corner. And in a little cleared area inside the fence and alongside the creek, was Sergeant Kropp’s Tin Hut: corrugated iron walls and roof, mostly rust colored, and a crooked chimney. On a flat above it he glimpsed trees and the suggestion of a green farmhouse roof.
Hirsch got out. He was reaching to drag the branch off the road when a bullet snapped past his head.
His first and natural instinct was to duck, his second to scuttle around to the lee side of the Hi Lux, drawing his service pistol, a S&W 40 calibre semi-automatic. His first thought was that Kropp’s anonymous caller had got it right. But then, crouched
there beside the grubby rear wheel, Hirsch began to have a second thought: two days earlier, some arsehole had placed a pistol cartridge in his letterbox, and it occurred to him now that it hadn’t been a joke or a threat but a promise. He weighed his options: call for backup; tackle the shooter; get the hell out.
Or the choice had been made for him. The cunts had trapped him where the road dipped between a canola crop and a stony hill. As soon as he showed himself—as soon as he got behind the wheel or clambered uphill to find the shooter or climbed the fence to run through the canola—he’d be shot. Meanwhile, police backup was in Redruth, forty kilometres away.
Hirsch’s mind stopped racing and settled on one thought: the shooters were the very officers he hoped might back him up. They were not forty kilometres but forty metres away, up there on the hillside, positioned for a crossfire, their radios conveniently switched off. Redruth was a three-man station, Kropp and two constables, and when Hirsch had called in to introduce himself, three weeks ago, they’d called him a dog, a maggot. They’d mouthed pow! as they finger-shot their temples, grinned
as they finger-sliced their throats.
Placed a pistol cartridge in his letterbox when his back was turned.
Hirsch thought about it some more. Even if he managed to climb inside the Hi Lux again, the tree was still across the road, there was nowhere to turn around and they’d shoot him through the glass. Discounting a full-on, up-hill assault, that left a zigzagging escape into the canola crop, a broad yellow swathe stretching to the smoky hills on the other side of the valley—but to reach it he’d first have to climb the bank and then tangle himself in a wire fence, and how much cover would the crop provide?
Hirsch began to feel jittery, a strange discordancy of his
senses. He might have put it down to fear, but it was more a kind of illness. Some emanation from the wind farm? He was very close to one of the turbines. It sat on the stony hill where the shooter was hiding, the first of a ragged line stretching along this side of the valley, and the blades were cutting the air in a steady, rhythmic whooshing that reached deep in his guts. To Hirsch, it was all of a piece with ending his days where the world was unlovely, at the base of a scruffy slope of grass tussocks, rabbit
holes and licheny stone reefs.
He glanced both ways along the road. He didn’t know where the next farmhouses were or how much traffic to expect, or . . .
Christ, traffic. Hirsch cocked an ear, listening for vehicles he’d have to warn off, or protect, or mop the collateral blood from. Or fear.
Which raised the question: Why would the bastards ambush him here, within cooee of town? Why not somewhere more remote, like “out east”—as the locals called it. According to the calendar hanging above Hirsch’s desk, “out east” was a region of undernourished mallee scrub, red dirt, nude stone chimneys, mine shafts, rock art, September wildflowers and one jagged hill named the Razorback.
September school holidays, wildflowers blooming . . . Hirsch listened again, imagining he could hear a busload of tourists trundling along Bitter Wash Road.
He risked a quick glance over the passenger door windowsill. The radio handset jutted from a cradle on the dashboard. His phone, a Motorola Defy, sat in a drinks holder between the front seats. He wasn’t obliged to call the Redruth station. He could call Peterborough, Clare, even Adelaide . . .
The next shot came.
Hirsch froze, fingers on the door handle.
Then he relaxed minutely. He analysed what it was he’d heard. Not a high-powered crack but something flat, puny, small calibre, dampened further by the huge sky above and the whoosh of the turbine blades. Hardly what you’d expect of a sniping rifle, and it had been accompanied by a weak howl as the bullet hit an obstacle—a stone?—and whanged away across the creek.
Nowhere near him.
A second ricochet came. He stiffened again, relaxed again. Not a ricochet, nor an echo, but a young voice saying peeowww.
Hirsch did what he should have done from the start and eyed the fallen branch. No drag marks in the gravel, no saw or axe cuts, excess foliage still intact. He eyed the tree itself. The wound was half way up the trunk, and he recalled camping trips from his childhood, the teachers warning the kids not to pitch their tents under gum trees. All that sinewy health on the outside and quiet decay within.
Like the police.
He holstered his handgun and, hunching his shoulders a little, stepped into the middle of the road and dragged the branch into the ditch. Then he parked the Hi Lux on a narrow verge, leaving room for passing vehicles, and climbed the scabby hill to see who might have put him in his grave if his luck hadn’t been running.
They didn’t hear his approach, the boy and the girl: the
wind, the rhythmic rush of the turbine above their heads, their
absolute absorption as one kid aimed a .22 at a jam tin on a rock
and the other stood by to watch.
Hirsch knew he should pounce on them before they sent another ricochet over the road, but he paused. The view from the base of the turbine was panoramic, exhilarating, and Bitter Wash Road was clear in both directions, so he took a moment to get his bearings. The broad valley, the vigorous crops, the road running up and down the folds in the earth. And that khaki smudge back there was Tiverton with its pale grain silos poking into the haze.
There was a farmhouse above the Tin Hut, the green roof clearly visible now, and on the other side of the road was a redroofed house. Trees and cypresses hedged them in, shrubberies and garden beds and lawns, the usual landscaping out here in the wheat and wool country, but the green-roofed property was extensive, with a number of sheds, a set of stockyards and farm vehicles parked on a dirt clearing beside a haystack, while the red roof was small, faded, boasting only an attached carport and one small garden shed. Hirsch wondered at the relationship between the two properties. Maybe a farm manager lived in the smaller house. Or a “couple’, a man to do the gardening, his
wife to cook and clean. The shit work. Or maybe those feudal relationships no longer existed.
Hirsch shaded his eyes. The sun passed in and out of the scrappy clouds, a crow sideslipped above the road, sparrowhawks hunted above the creek, sheep trotted nose to tail along a dirt pad on a nearby hillside.
Otherwise only the children moved, and Hirsch was betting they belonged to one or both of the houses. No school for two weeks, and, with the blessing or ignorance of their parents, they’d taken a .22 rifle out for some target shooting. The location was perfect: nothing here but grass and stones, sloping down to the creek, nothing with blood in its veins, yet you could pretend you were in a shootout with the bad guys, and when the rifle grew too heavy for your little arms you could prop the barrel on a rock.
Except that bullets strike objects and howl off in unexpected directions. Or you might forget where you are and take a pot-shot at a crow or a rabbit just when a policeman is stepping out of his Hi Lux to shift a fallen tree.
Yeah, well, wasn’t this just great? A couple of adults he could deal with: clear regulations, clear offences and penalties. But kids . . . He’d have to involve the parents; he’d maybe have to charge the parents. Hell to pay.
The children didn’t hear him, not at first, not until, side-stepping down the slope, he skidded and fell. Now they heard him, his curses and the tock and rattle of stones tumbling over one another, Hirsch cursing because he’d frightened himself, torn his trousers and barked the skin on palm and elbow.
The children whirled around in shared alarm, mouths open, eyes shocked. They were caught in the act, and they knew it, but it was how they managed it that mattered, and Hirsch, forgetting his discomfort, was intrigued to see divergent reactions. The boy dropped his eyes like a beaten dog, already surrendering, but the girl grew tense, her eyes darting to the empty hill, the boy alongside her and possible escapes routes. She didn’t run, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t. The gaze she fixed on him was working it all out.
Hirsch held his palm up, not quite a warning, not quite a greeting. “Don’t,” he said mildly.
A faint relaxation of her limbs. She was about twelve years old, skinny, contained, unblinkingly solemn, with scratched bare legs and arms under shorts and a T-shirt, her hair dark and cropped at the shoulders and forehead. Scruffy, but she had the looks to light dark places.
Disconcerted, he eyed the boy. Thin, similarly dressed, he could have been her brother, but his hair was straw-colored, full of tufts and tangles, his pale skin was flushed and mottled, and where the girl seemed to look for the angles, he seemed ready to take orders or give up. But it was he who held the rifle, and he was practiced at it, keeping the barrel down, the stock in the crook of his arm, the bolt open. Hirsch counted five .22 shell casings glinting dully in the grass.
“My name,” he said, “is Constable Hirschhausen. I’m stationed at Tiverton.”
The girl remained expressionless but Hirsch sensed hostility, and he scratched around in his head for the best way to go on. One logical path was: “How about we start with your names?”
Her voice piping above the whoosh of the turbines, the girl said, “I’m Katie and he’s Jack.”
Katie Street and Jackson Latimer, and Katie lived with her mother in the smaller, red-roofed house that Hirsch had seen, and Jackson with his parents and older brother in the larger green-roofed house. In fact, Grampa Latimer lived on the property, too, in a house half a kilometre in from the road. “You can’t see it from here.”
Even Hirsch had heard of the Latimers. “This is your land?” he asked, indicating the hill they were standing on, the turbine above them, the ragged line of turbines stretching away along the ridge.
Jack shook his head. “Mrs. Anderson’s.”
“Where does she live?”
He pointed to where Bitter Wash Road disappeared around a distant bend.
“Won’t she be cross if she knew you were trespassing?”
They were puzzled, as if the word and the concept hadn’t much currency out here. “It’s the best spot,” Katie reasoned.
Right, thought Hirsch. He continued to pick his way. “Look, the thing is, one of your shots went wild. It nearly hit me.”
He gestured in the direction of the road. “I’d just got out of my car to move a fallen tree when I heard it go right past my head.” Putting some hardness into it he added, “It’s dangerous to shoot a gun so close to a road. You could hurt someone.”
He didn’t say kill someone. He didn’t know if the severity would work. He didn’t know if he should be gentle, stern, pissed off, touchy-feely or a full-on tyrant. He took the easy way:
“Do your parents know you’re up here shooting a gun?”
No response. Hirsch said, “I’m afraid I’ll need to talk to—”
The girl cut in. “Don’t tell Mr. Latimer.”
Hirsch cocked his head.
“Please,” she insisted.
“My dad will kill me,” the boy muttered. “Anyway he’s not
“Okay, I’ll speak to your mothers.”
“They’re out, too.”
“My mum took Jack’s mum shopping,” Katie said.
They had all the answers. Hirsch glanced at his watch: almost
“Redruth,” she said reluctantly.
Meaning they hadn’t gone down to Adelaide for the day and would probably be home to make lunch. “Okay, let’s go.”
“Are you taking us to jail?”
Hirsch laughed, saw that the girl was serious, and grew serious himself. “Nothing like that. I’ll drive you home and we’ll wait until someone returns.”
Keeping it low-key, no sudden movements, he eased the rifle—a Ruger—from Jack’s hands. He’d disarmed people before, but not like this, and wondered if police work ever got chancy, out here in the middle of nowhere. He walked the children back over the ridge and down to the Hi Lux. The girl moved at a fast clip but the boy trudged with his spine and spindly arms and legs in a curious counterpoint, a kind of pulling back on the
reins, and Hirsch saw that his left shoe was chunkier than the right, the sole and heel built up.
Catching Hirsch, the girl said, “You’ve got a hole in your pants.”
Garry Disher is one of Australia's best-known novelists. He's published over forty books in a range of genres, including crime, children's books, and Australian history. His Hal Challis and Wyatt crime series are also published in the US by Soho Crime. He lives on the Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne.