Ash Island: New Excerpt

Ash Island by Barry Maitland is the 2nd book in the Belltree Trilogy (Available November 1, 2016).

Detective Sergeant Harry Belltree is back on the job after a near-fatal confrontation with corrupt colleagues and his presence has become a departmental embarrassment. Because of what happened, he can’t―and doesn’t want to―return to his old position with the Sydney Police Department. Instead, he accepts a post with a police department far away and attempts to build a new, quiet life in Newcastle, Australia.

But that quiet life soon eludes him. A corpse has been found buried just offshore on Ash Island and that one body may well just be the first of many. Not only that, Belltree finds himself engaged in some unfinished business from his own past. The car crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife happened not far from Newcastle. Belltree knows it was no accident, but his own investigations lead him to wonder how well he really knew his own parents.

With his wife Jenny now pregnant, a much longed-for event, it’s up to Belltree to decide how he can confront the evil from the past while protecting his loved ones in the present and future.

ONE

ON A NOVEMBER NIGHT in 2013, two kilometres off the coast of New South Wales, a helicopter rises from the deck of a Chinese bulk carrier ship. It has just delivered a pilot to guide the 260-metre leviathan into the port of Newcastle, where it will take on 150,000 tonnes of coal.

The helicopter pilot banks away toward the coast, his last flight for the night, and checks the time. 2:16 a.m. Ahead of him he can see the white figure of the lighthouse on Nobbys Head marking the mouth of the Hunter River and the entrance to the port. To the left are the lights of the city—the city of people, mostly asleep now—while to the right lies the floodlit city of machines that never sleep. Gantries, towers, crawling scoops, and humming conveyor belts, all of gigantic size, gathering up the long ridges of coal that the trains have brought down from the valley and pumping it into the bellies of the ships.

Beyond the machines and their coal mountains the pilot can see a curious blank darkness in the general pattern of lights. It is Ash Island, an uninhabited place of saltwater marshland lying between the two arms of the river that converge in the port basin. As he turns toward his landing ground, the pilot notices one single bright point of light in Ash Island’s darkness. Puzzled, he turns back towards it. There is a three-quarter moon in the cloudless sky and as he gets closer he can make out the paler forms of pools and lakes reflecting its light—Wader Pond and Swan Pond and the meandering line of Fish Fry Creek. And there, in the crook of the stream, he sees again that unlikely spot of light. As he approaches it is abruptly extinguished. He blinks, staring into the darkness, and as he passes over the place thinks he can make out the pale rectangles of two vehicles, down by the edge of the creek.

TWO

KELLY POOL STARES DOWN into the darkness to the glow of white wave caps breaking against the base of the cliff below her. She shivers in the cool wind of Sydney’s late spring. The boom of the surf rises up to her like the rhythmic chant of some primeval chorus, the chorus of the dead.

She really has had enough. For a while she thought she was coping pretty well, brushing off the sympathy of colleagues when she returned to work at the Times; telling them that no, everything was fine. She wondered what version they’d been given. When she asked the trainee journalist under her, Hannah, told her Catherine Meiklejohn had spoken to each of them. Kelly had been savagely attacked, she’d said without going into detail, while fearlessly doing her job. She was an example to them all of what an investigative journalist should be. But that wasn’t how Kelly felt, and as the weeks and months passed her energy and will began to leak away.

The nights were her undoing. Joost Potgeiter had been killed—she’d seen it herself—but each night he visited her again in her dreams. Shredding her sleep, convulsing her in sweaty horror, her own voice screaming NO-NO-NO-NO as she struggled back to consciousness.

And so the days deteriorated too. She found it hard to concentrate, avoided leaving the office. She sat hunched at her desk staring at her computer screen, lost for ideas.

It didn’t help that her flatmate, Wendy, was in much the same state. Wendy walked with a stick now, and they were both seeing therapists, but so far that didn’t seem to have helped. They spent their evenings and much of their nights together locked in their apartment, and drank too much.

And now Kelly really has had enough. Sleep, release, oblivion. Just one step away.

She thinks of Donna Fenning, the pleasant, housewifely woman who drugged her and delivered her into Potgeiter’s hands. Donna has vanished, seemingly without a trace; the police seem to doubt that she ever existed. And she thinks of Harry Belltree, who has also disappeared. She visited him regularly in hospital while he recovered from his wounds. Then one day he was gone, no one could tell her where.

Just one step.

She takes a deep breath, lifts up her chin. Raises her foot.

As she feels her weight tip she hears a male voice behind her roar, “NO!” and her body is checked by a tremendous jerk on her arm which brings her stumbling backwards onto her rump.

Harry! she thinks. Harry!

But she looks up into an unfamiliar face. He looks furious, his saliva sprays as he shouts at her, “What are you fucking doing? Don’t be so bloody stupid!”

He is very agitated, shaking his head and waving his arms. She sees a dog lead in his hand and a small terrier dancing around behind him.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and subsides onto the damp grass. “I’m sorry.”

“For goodness sake!” He takes hold of her arm again and lifts and drags her away from the edge. “That’s so stupid! So bloody stupid!”

THREE

AS HARRY TAKES THE wheel, Detective Sergeant Ross Bramley pulls on his seat belt beside him with an impatient grunt. Ross is an old hand, nearing retirement, pugnacious features crowned by grizzled wiry hair. He has been Harry’s dour partner since he arrived. Instructed, Harry’s pretty sure, to keep a close eye on him, show him how things are done up here. Maybe find out what exactly happened in Sydney.

Two months ago, after the third round of operations—when the doctors finally conceded that he was fit to go—Harry was visited one last time by his boss.

Detective Superintendent Bob Marshall, head of Homicide, got quickly to the point. “So, what are we going to do with you, Harry?”

Harry wondered about Bob, always had. Bluff Bob, Bob the Job, projecting an image of confidence, impatience with bullshit, and care for his troops. But there was a private dimension to Bob that Harry hadn’t been able to pin down. He’d seen him reading novels. Bleak House once. Maybe it was Dickens’ harsh view of lawyers that appealed to him.

“What are the options, boss?”

“Retire on full pension in exchange for a legally binding agreement to keep quiet about what happened three months ago. Then take Jenny away somewhere to have her baby—Tasmania, say—and start again. Make a new life together. Put the past behind you.”

Harry thought about that. “Is there an option two?”

Marshall sighed. “Son, if you were dead set on staying on the force, they wouldn’t kick you out. But you couldn’t stay here, not in Sydney. Wouldn’t square with them at all. Have to be one of the bush commands. The best we could do is Newcastle.”

This suggestion of impersonal forces at work, of “they” and “them,” didn’t altogether convince Harry. If anyone had been embarrassed by what happened it was Marshall himself. He wants rid of me, Harry thought, and who could blame him?

So now Harry is with Detective Sergeant Bramley in Newcastle. It could have been worse—here they’re only two and a half hours by car or train from Jenny’s family in the city. After Homicide, the work here has been very ordinary—teenage bandits, drugs, domestic violence. Lots of domestic violence. It’s their campaign of the month, and it’s where he and Bramley are going now.

They drive uphill, away from the coast, through suburbs of brick and weatherboard bungalows, the gardens growing larger, the verandas and trees more expansive in the headlights. The address comes up, an ambulance and a patrol car outside, neighbours peering over the picket fence opposite.

Inside the house two ambulance officers, a young female uniformed cop, and the victim’s mother are gathered around the injured woman. Her face is puffy, eyes swollen shut. The other uniform is trying to calm the father, who is angrily demanding that they arrest his bastard son-in-law.

This is the fourth time that the parents know about; each time she’s gone back. The police haven’t been involved before. It seems she was picked up by a passing cab as she staggered along Industrial Drive, and brought here to her parents’ place.

While Ross notes the details from the father, Harry gets a rundown from the ambulance officers—suspected broken ribs, nose and cheekbone, multiple abrasions, and blunt-force trauma. As they ease her onto the stretcher, Harry notices the extensive tattooing.

They get in the car and head back towards the inner city to find the couple’s home, one of a row of cement houses in Mayfield. There are lights on in the windows, a white utility vehicle standing outside. When they ring the front doorbell they hear the click of heels approaching inside. The door opens a few centimetres and a set of long scarlet fingernails appear. Through the narrow gap they make out blonde curls and a single eye, dark with mascara and eye shadow.

Ross checks the address again and says, “Good evening, madam. We’re police officers. We’d like to speak to Mr. Logan McGilvray. Is he at home?”

“No, I’m afraid not.” A soft, husky voice. “They’re both out. I don’t know where.”

“What’s your name?”

“Loretta, Loretta Smith. I’m a friend.”

“I see. And you’ve no idea where he might be?”

“No, sorry.” The door closes.

As they walk away, Harry says, “Did you notice the size of that woman’s hands?”

Ross stops dead. “Yeah. And the voice.” They stare at each other for a moment, then turn and head back to the front door. Ross presses the bell again. They wait, nothing happens. Ross gives the door a shove and it swings open.

“Hello? Mrs. Smith?” Silence. “It’s the police again. Are you there?”

Harry says, “’Round the back,” and sets off at a run.

The backyard is deserted, no one clambering over the Colorbond fence. Harry strides over to a pair of sliding glass doors overlooking a small deck and peers into the room inside. The light is off, and it takes him a moment to make out the motionless figure of Loretta Smith pressed against the far wall just inside the open doorway leading into the hall. She looks oddly proportioned, bulky torso and shoulders, thick legs in dark stockings perched on a pair of high heels. One muscular arm is raised above her blonde head, the hand gripping a very large kitchen knife.

Harry reaches for the handles of the sliding doors. Locked. Through the hall doorway he can see Ross moving forward towards the opening where Loretta waits. He shouts but it’s clear neither of them can hear him. He reaches into his jacket for his gun, then notices a small Weber standing nearby on the deck. He grabs it and swings it hard at the glass door, which shatters just as Ross comes parallel with Loretta. Her arm is beginning its downward arc, the exploding door makes Ross jump back as the knife comes down and Harry barrels into the room, throws himself at the guttural roaring figure in the frock.

When they finally subdue the writhing man and the handcuffs are on, the two cops slump back against the wall, gasping for breath. Harry sees blood pouring from Ross’s hand. “You okay, mate?”

Ross pulls out a handkerchief and wraps it around the cut. “Prick was gonna kill me, wasn’t he?”

“Looked that way.”

“Well … thanks.” It obviously takes an effort to say the word. “Yeah, thanks.”

Harry rolls their captive over to get a better look at the face. The blonde wig has gone, exposing a shaved skull covered in tattoos and a sullen male face. Saliva dribbles from between the scarlet lips. The man attempts to spit at him.

Harry gets to his feet and looks through a bedroom door at the shirt and trousers spread on the bed. There are also several packets of white crystals on a dressing table. Lipsticks, bits of makeup. He finds a wallet and checks the drivers licence. Same surly face. He returns and tells Logan McGilvray that he’s under arrest for attempted murder.

When they arrive at the station the custody sergeant looks up briefly from his screen, then blinks and stares again at the bowed figure standing between the two detectives.

“Who have we got here then?”

“Mr. Logan McGilvray, aka Ms. Loretta Smith.”

“Oh yes, I heard. There’s a crime-scene team gone over there.” He peers at the man, taking in the whole ensemble. “Jeez, Ross,” he says at last, “you’re a real chick magnet, aren’t you?”

Ross breaks into a broad grin. “Old bloke’s still got it, mate.”

It’s the first time Harry’s seen him smile.

“But it was Harry made the arrest,” Ross adds. “That dickhead was going to kill me with this…” He thumps a plastic bag with the knife wrapped inside onto the counter. “Harry saved me bacon.”

“Did he now?” The custody sergeant looks at Harry, nods, then goes back to his computer. “So is that Loretta with one T or two, Mr. McGilvray?”

Later, after a doctor has stitched the gash in Ross’s hand, they go to an interview room where McGilvray is sitting hunched at the table. He is wearing a T-shirt and shorts now, but the makeup remains, and the painted nails. Harry sees that he is as thickly covered in tattoos—arms, legs, neck—as his injured wife.

They sit down and Ross presses the ERISP recording switch. “Interview conducted by Detective Sergeants Ross Bramley and Harry Belltree…”

On the other side of the table McGilvray abruptly raises his head and stares at Harry. There is an odd expression on his face, startled. As Ross continues he goes on staring, his mouth twisted into something ugly that could be a smile. He ignores Ross, making not a sound as the questions drag on and finally come to a stop. All the time he has his eyes locked on Harry.

Afterwards Ross says to Harry, “What was that all about, the death stare? You ever seen him before?”

Harry shakes his head. “Never.”

“Must be the drugs then.”

By the time they’ve finished typing up their reports it’s the end of their shift, and Ross says, “Well, haven’t had so much fun in years, Harry. Fancy a drink?”

This is a breakthrough. They cross the road and walk past the terrace of lawyers’ rooms to the Grand, opposite the old courthouse. Above them at the top of the hill looms the tower of Christ Church Cathedral. Ross buys a couple of beers and they go to a quiet corner and try to find some common ground. Ross takes the lead, telling old stories of catching people in embarrassing situations—the naked man locked out by his angry wife, the robber found pinned to the floor by the Coke machine he’d tried to break into. He’s a good storyteller and Harry laughs along, not saying much. Something about Ross’s manner reminds him of Bob Marshall. Same generation, same attitudes, and when Ross gets back from buying another beer Harry tells him one of Marshall’s tales, then asks him if he’s ever come across his old boss. Ross nods, suddenly careful.

“Sure, I knew him well once. We started out about the same time, served in Darlinghurst together for a fair while.” He hesitates. “Both lost our wives to cancer the same year, too.”

That was about eight years ago, Harry thinks. Ross and Marshall have kept in touch. “I’m sorry. Are you on your own now?”

“Sure. Suits me.”

Harry wonders if that’s true. “What are you doing for dinner? Want to come back with me?”

“Oh, your wife’ll have something fixed up for you.”

But he doesn’t sound adamant, so Harry says, “Not a problem. I’ll give her a call.”

He does so, and when he’s finished, Ross says, “Jenny, right? Your wife.”

Harry looks at him in surprise. As far as he knows none of the Newcastle cops have met her or asked about her.

Ross goes on, “I saw her, when she was up here with your folks, three years ago. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To check up on us?”

“What?”

“See if we messed up the investigation into the accident.”

Harry shakes his head. “Ross, I had no say in the matter. They wanted me out of Sydney. Bob Marshall fixed it all up, told me I was being sent up here.”

Ross frowns doubtfully. “Bob told me you still don’t believe it was an accident.”

Harry is angry now. What was Marshall playing at? “I know it wasn’t an accident. I found the bloke that ran them off the road and followed the wreck down the hill with a baseball bat to make sure they were good and dead. Jenny was lucky that she was on the floor in the back and he didn’t see her.”

Ross looks shocked, his mouth open.

Harry goes on. “Does everybody think that’s why I’m here?”

“No, no. Bob contacted me, told me to keep it to myself.”

“But he told you I was coming to check on you all?”

“Well … no, not exactly. That was my take on it, I guess. He just asked me to look out for you, as a favour to him. He didn’t mention anything about someone running them off the road. So where’s this bloke now?”

“He’s dead. A biker shooting.”

“Jeez.” Ross shakes his head. “But why’d he want to kill them?”

“That I don’t know. Probably a court case my father was involved with.” Harry checks himself. He’s said too much, more than he told Marshall. “Ross, you’ve got to keep this to yourself, okay? It’s an ongoing investigation, and what I’ve just told you is confidential. I really don’t want you discussing it with anyone, not even Bob. Will you do that?”

Ross looks away for a moment, then says, “You just saved my arse, Harry. I guess I can do that.”

“Thanks. So why do the others turn away when I come into a room?”

“They’ve been asking what a Sydney homicide cop’s doing up here. Wondering if you’re damaged goods.”

“Great.”

“You do have that look sometimes, mate,” Ross says.

“What look?”

“You know, wearing the mask.”

They reach for their drinks, silent. Then Harry says, “Jenny’s never recognised your name when I’ve mentioned you. She’s lost her memory of the days before and after the crash. You talking to her might help. You know she lost her sight?”

“Yes, I heard.”

They finish their beers and drive over to Carrington, where Harry and Jenny are renting. The inner-city neighbourhood grew up around the docks; its streets once teemed with sailors from the colliers and clippers that thronged the harbour. Now the streets are quiet and tree-lined, the old pubs and houses becoming gentrified, but beyond the rooftops the big grain silos and coal-loading gantries still loom, crowding the nearby mechanised wharfs.

Harry stops outside a small weatherboard cottage built up on brick piers on a narrow plot. They go up the veranda steps to the front door and there’s a sound of barking from inside.

“You’ve got a dog?”

“Guide dog for Jenny, Felecia.”

He opens the door and calls out to Jenny while a blond Labrador circles around them thrashing her tail. Jenny comes out from the kitchen and takes Ross’s hand. As he talks she frowns suddenly and says, “I know your voice, don’t I, Ross? Have we met before?”

“Three years ago. I showed you and your in-laws around when you were in Newcastle.”

Over dinner he tells them about that visit. “It was a Monday, right? You drove up from Sydney and arrived at your hotel by the beach about noon.”

Ross stares at Jenny’s face as he speaks, at the sightless eyes, as if willing her to remember. “It was a bright sunny winter’s day, kids in wetsuits out in the surf. You’d have seen them from your hotel window.”

Jenny’s brow creases in concentration. She says nothing.

“I met you in reception and we took my car to one of the restaurants along the harbour. Seafood—the judge wanted seafood. A big bulk carrier came in, the tugs brought it right past in front of us and away to the coal loaders on the far side of the basin. The ship was from Japan I remember, and the judge was interested. He asked lots of questions about the mines and the ships. He seemed to be quite knowledgeable.”

Jenny shakes her head. “No, I can’t remember.”

“After lunch I left you and Mrs. Belltree to have a look around town. You went to the museum and the art gallery, did some shopping. I took the judge to the courthouse where he was meeting some of his colleagues, then later back to your hotel. In the evening I picked you all up again and took you to the Newcastle Club, up on the Hill next to the cathedral. The Law Society had put on a dinner in the judge’s honour. He told me you’d get a cab back, but the next day he mentioned that you’d walked—it wasn’t far.

“So, Tuesday morning. I came to the hotel about eight. There had been some doubt about whether you’d spend one night or two here, but the judge had finished his business and decided to leave straight away for Armidale. The scenic road across country on Thunderbolt’s Way. We talked about the best route to Gloucester, and you all set off.”

“But hang on,” Harry says. “The crash happened on Wednesday, didn’t it?”

“That’s right. We assume they decided to stop overnight in Gloucester, then set off early the next morning. There were patches of fog on the road, and it was wet, it rained during the night—that always makes the bends tricky.”

Harry thinks back to that time, the first news coming in and the shock that left him numb and unthinking—despite all his years dealing with sudden catastrophes in the police, and before that the army. Later he went to the scene and talked to the investigating team; he never questioned the timeline, or that extra day.

“Do we know what they did in Gloucester? Where they stayed?”

“Well, there were inquiries, but I don’t think we ever found out. Didn’t seem like an issue. The point was they were on the road by seven the next morning and crashed some time between seven-twenty and seven-thirty.”

“We should go back there, take another look,” Harry says. He feels the pressure of Jenny’s fingers on his hand. That word look. “I mean, if you can recognise Ross’s voice now, maybe other things will come back to you.”

“It is changed a bit,” Ross says. “They resurfaced some sections of the road, built crash barriers on the bends like the coroner recommended.”

They move on to other subjects. Ross has become relaxed and open, a different person from the one Harry has been working with. He lives out at Kotara, he tells them, in the house where he brought up a family, too big for him now, alone.

When it’s time to leave, Harry shows Ross to the door. He turns and whispers, “Is she pregnant, Harry?”

“Yes. Four months.”

“Your first?”

Harry nods.

“Magic,” Ross says, wistful. “You look after her, son.”

 

Copyright © 2016 Barry Maitland.

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Barry Maitland is the author of several mystery novels featuring D.C.I. David Brock and Det. Sgt. Kathy Kolla, including All My Enemies, No Trace, and The Raven's Eye. Born in Scotland and raised in London, Maitland lives in Australia. His work has been a finalist for the Barry Award, the John Creasey Award, and the winner of the Ned Kelley Award.

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