28 October 2019
This week we’re celebrating the launch of our new crime imprint, Viper Books. Every day this week we’ll be sharing the first chapter of a new book on the list. Today we introduce Bitter Wsh Road by Garry Disher.
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Bitter Wash Road
Hirsch is a whistle-blower. Formerly a promising metropolitan detective, now hated and despised, he’s been exiled to a one-cop station in South Australia’s wheatbelt. Threats. Pistol cartridge in the mailbox.
So when he heads up Bitter Wash Road to investigate gunfire and finds himself cut off without backup, there are two possibilities. Either he’s found the fugitive killers thought to be in the area. Or his ‘backup’ is about to put a bullet in him.
He’s wrong on both counts. But when the next call-out takes him to the body of a sixteen-year-old girl, his investigation has disturbing echoes of the past he’s trying to leave behind…
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On a Monday morning in September, three weeks into the job, the new cop at Tiverton 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
He switched gears, telling Hirsch that a woman motorist had called it in. ‘No name mentioned, tourist on her way to look at 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.’
‘This is farming country,’ the sergeant said, in case Hirsch hadn’t worked it out yet, ‘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 was a single-officer police station in a blink-and-you’d-miss-it town on the Barrier Highway. Tiverton. 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 within 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 yellowed community notices. Hirsch lived in the three rooms behind it: bathroom, sitting room with alcove kitchen, bedroom. He also enjoyed a parched front lawn and a narrow driveway for his own aged Nissan and the SA Police fleet vehicle, a four-wheel-drive Toyota HiLux mounted with a rear cage. There was a storeroom at the back, its barred window and reinforced door dating from the good old days before the deaths-in-custody inquiry, when it had been the lockup. For all of these luxurious appointments the department screwed him on the rent.
Hirsch finished the call with Sergeant Kropp, then he 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 signpost to the grain dealer’s down a side street . . . and that was Tiverton. No bank, chemist, GP, 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. Following the custom of the locals, Hirsch lifted one finger
from the steering wheel to greet the oncoming cars. Both of them. Nothing else moved, although he was travelling through a land poised for movement. Birds, sitting as if
snipped from tin, watched him from the power lines. 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 across a fence line, crows rose untidily from a flattened lizard. The road turned and rose and fell, taking him deeper into hardscrabble country, just inside the rain shadow. He passed a tumbled stone wall dating from the 1880s and a wind farm turbine. Someone had been planting trees against erosion up and down one of the gullies. He remembered to check kilometres travelled since the turnoff, and wondered how far along the track this tin hut was.
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. Slewed to a shuddering halt in a hail of gravel.
A gumtree branch the length of a power pole lay across Bitter Wash Road. Hirsch switched off, his heart hammering. Close shave. Beyond, 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 there, in a little cleared area inside the fence and angled alongside a bend in the creek, was Sergeant Kropp’s Tin Hut: corrugated iron walls and roof, mostly rust, 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.