- Published: 1 July 2022
- ISBN: 9780143777274
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $32.99
He shouldn’t have brought them here.
It was hard to navigate the bush at night. He ran through the landmarks in his head; the edge of the road, the path by the stream into the bush, and then crossing over the tape the council had put up warning people to go no further. He’d been here less than a week ago and the hat he’d left behind must be here somewhere . . .
Slowly he turned 180 degrees, the phone torch shedding a jagged beam of light, making the trees jump out, appear too close. He took a deep breath, rubbed his free hand down his jeans. Despite the cold, he could feel a thin sheen of sweat rise on his forehead. He breathed out slowly, spun the torchlight again, this time behind him in a wide arc.
The girls’ faces appeared ghost-white in the spear of light and they covered their eyes with their forearms.
‘Are you lost?’ the younger girl, Sarah, asked. ‘Evan, are you lost?’
‘Quiet,’ he said. ‘I need to listen.’
‘What even is this?’ Sarah’s older sister Emma, the one who mattered, asked. ‘You bring us all the way out here with barely any light and you tell us we’ll hear something cool, and now you don’t know where we are?’
‘Jesus, Evan, I’m going. C’mon, Sez.’
Emma turned, but not before Evan heard the disgust in her voice. She probably thought he was making it up just to impress her, or worse, so that he could . . . well . . .
‘Enough, Evan.’ Emma’s voice was sharp and it made him shrink. She’d probably tell everyone at school he was even more of a loser than she’d first thought.
The girls began walking back in the direction they’d come.
‘Wait!’ he said again. ‘I—’
And then they heard it. At first, a low moan. The girls turned back to him open-mouthed and in the light he could see their horror plainly written. He felt it too, a dark turning in the pit of his stomach. The moan grew louder and the girls rushed to him so the three were almost hugging. Louder still as Emma tried to pull them all back along the track.
‘What is it?’ she whispered. ‘Who’s out there?’
Abruptly – silence.
‘I want to go home,’ Sarah said, and the two girls started walking quickly along the darkened path.
‘Is this some trick?’ Emma turned, vicious, towards him.
‘You think this is funny?’
Her face was not as he thought it would be. Instead of huddling up to him, she was as against him as always. He’d got it wrong again.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, faltering.
‘What was that sound?’
Evan hesitated. ‘I don’t know.’
And then the screaming began. A high-pitched scream, from somewhere out in the bush, and all three started running blindly, away from the noise, the uneven torchlight making strange, panicked patterns on the spindly gums and shrubs. The screaming, it seemed, came from all around, and above it were their own breaths, ragged and panting.
They ran through the screaming bush for what may have been seconds but felt like years, the trees distorted, limbs reaching out and scratching at their faces.
And then, just as suddenly, it stopped.
The teenagers kept moving. Evan thought they must have passed the council lines and were back into familiar territory, when Sarah called out in pain. He turned to see the younger girl lying on her stomach and sobbing.
‘Get up!’ Evan cried, harsh against the wails, but the girl did not move. He gave the phone to Emma and reached down to grab Sarah. He pulled her up in one movement and she stood there, swallowing sobs and wiping snot across her face.
‘Let’s go,’ Evan said, still rattled. The screams had been different tonight. More intense. Higher pitched.
But Emma had not moved. Instead, she was staring down the length of the torchlight’s beam and the other two followed her gaze.
There, curled up in the brush, was the body of a man.
The rain, when it came, was torrential. Fat surges of it, racing into gutters, rivers and streams. No rain for three years, then this.
Young kids marvelled at it, tree-changers had long baths outside in it, and the old farmers muttered about the strangeness of it; the timing, the intensity. Not a drop in winter; now it was almost the end of spring and the clouds were exploding with the stuff every few days.
Jacqueline Matteson lay awake, listening to it pelt on her tin roof. Even if it had come when they needed it, it still wouldn’t have been the right sort. Too sudden, too damaging for pre-harvest. Gushing rain and now the berries ruined, the crops probably flattened.
A sound from outside – not the rain: sludging, running? The porch creaked. Jacqueline sat up in her bed and reached automatically at the empty space beside her. A sound at the front door now, a muffled shout and, was it . . .? Yes – low whispering. Frantic. Her first thought was the girls. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and reached for the chair.
‘Who is it?’ she called, and with effort raised herself off the bed and lowered herself into the chair, manoeuvring the wheels around the bed. The sound was definitely her girls and now she felt a fear rise in her throat, because it’s every farmer’s nightmare: an accident on the farm. Before she could reach it, the door was flung open and her two youngest daughters, Emma and Sarah, stood there drenched. And who was that behind them? Evan?
Sarah was choking back sobs, the other two pale and shivering.
‘What is it?’ Jacqueline asked sharply.
‘There’s a man . . .’ Emma said. ‘Along Stoney Creek . . . he’s . . .’
‘He’s what?’ Jacqueline felt a deep dread – she’d been through this before. ‘Has there been an accident? Where? Tell me!’
‘It’s Aidan Sleeth,’ Evan said. ‘I think he’s been shot.’
Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Ariti stamped his feet hard on the front porch of Jacqueline Matteson’s house. Outside was raven black, rain pelted hard. Inside, though it was barely 2 am, the living room was lit up like a showground and filled with people young and old. Mark recognised no one. Stone Town, barely twenty-five kilometres from where he lived in Booralama, may as well have been another universe. Consisting mainly of old farming families and an influx of tree-changers, the area was known for its mines, remnants of settler stone houses scattered about the bush, and significant wheat yield.
Riveting, Mark remembered thinking, in Year 10 local history. Take that, Machu Picchu.
But the gold from Stone Town was long gone and it had been years since farmers’ sons returned from boarding schools to make a life on the land.
Stone Town now had a different footy team from Booralama, different netball team, different CFA, CWA. But not a different police station.
In the lounge, three girls sat huddled on a couch and a wiry older lady nursed a drink beside the fireplace.
Mark introduced himself to the tired-looking woman who opened the door to him.
‘Morning. Detective Senior Sergeant Ariti, Booralama. I’m here to speak to the three kids who found the body.’
The woman’s face was metal-grey in the bright light of the room. ‘Can’t it wait till the morning? We’re exhausted.’
Mark made an apologetic noise and indicated the notepaper and pen in his hand. ‘Procedures.’
The door from the kitchen swung open, and with a burst of energy an attractive woman in a wheelchair entered the room.
‘Jacqueline Matteson,’ she announced, holding out her hand.
He shook it. ‘Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Ariti.’
‘Well, Sergeant, do they need a lawyer?’ She tipped her head towards the girls, who were now staring up at him with tired and tear-stained eyes.
‘That’s up to you,’ Mark said. ‘But I’m just here to ask a few questions.’
The old lady with the drink piped up. ‘You’re Helen’s son, aren’t you?’ She didn’t wait for a reply. ‘I’m sorry for your loss, dear. Helen was a lovely lady.’
‘She was.’ Mark cleared his throat. ‘Thank you.’
Jacqueline’s face shifted, softened. ‘You can talk to them in the kitchen. Evan’s just gone in there. Girls?’ She nodded to her daughters, gave them an encouraging glance. ‘The policeman here needs to speak to you about what you saw. I’ll be just in here.’
Two of the girls untangled themselves from the couch and walked past Mark into the other room. He said his thanks to the women, and followed.
In the kitchen, a young boy sat at the table, head in hands. ‘Evan?’ Mark asked.
The boy looked up, red-faced and anguished. ‘It was Aidan Sleeth, wasn’t it?’ he said.
‘Yes, I’m afraid it was.’
‘I thought it was, but – his head. It was . . .’
The face remained Aidan Sleeth from the nose down, but the back of his head was an explosion of gore. Bits of brain, skin and bone matter on nearby shrubs and trees, blood soaking into the wet earth. The rest of the body appeared unharmed and strangely comfortable, huddled into the side of an acacia tree, knees up to the chest. Cream chinos, brown brogues, a light blue shirt and a navy Country Road jumper. Wallet in the jeans pocket. Aidan Sleeth, forty-one. Successful farmer and property investor. Ex-wife, on good terms. Beyond that, Mark knew little else. He’d safeguarded the crime scene, set up barriers, taken photos, arranged for the body to be taken away. Tomorrow, Forensics and Homicide would arrive from Adelaide.
The teenagers were frightened. Each had the look of a face not quite put together, features pained and uncertain.
‘Names and ages?’ he asked, pen held high. ‘Just for the official stuff.’
The older of the girls answered. ‘I’m Emma Matteson, fourteen. This is my sister, Sarah Matteson – she’s twelve – and our neighbour, Evan Williams. He’s fourteen too.’
‘That’s great. Now, can you tell me – and take your time – how you came to see the body?’
I stare down at the young man who stands below me ankle-deep in the mud of the banks of the Thames.
Lisa arrived in Southbend in mid-November on a day of gathering storms, when the air dripped with humidity and the huge grey-white cumulus clouds were piled like soapsuds above the line of timber fronting the banks of the Rainsford River.
Could a building sweat? If someone were to ask him, Walter O’Brien would say no.
AnnieLee had been standing on the side of the road for an hour, thumbing a ride, when the rain started falling in earnest.
In a cramped hotel room high above the prayer-flag-strewn streets of Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, Nepal, Cecily snapped her laptop shut.
Eliza has never seen a land that looks so very much like blood.
CARTER VON OEHSON MIXED himself a tall gin and tonic from behind the polished mahogany bar of his father’s billiard room, topping it off with a squeeze of lime.
The first three men came stumbling into town shortly after ten a.m., babbling of dark shapes and eerie screams and their missing buddy Scott and their other buddy Tim, who set out from their campsite before dawn to get help.