Crucifixion Creek by Barry Maitland is the first thriller in a new trilogy set in Australia (available November 10, 2015).
A meth-addicted biker shoots a woman during a police siege. An elderly couple commit suicide on the terrace of their favorite café. An unidentified white male is stabbed to death in the street.
For Sydney homicide detective Harry Belltree, not long out of the military and a grueling tour of Afghanistan, these three deaths appear to be just another day at the office. Until, that is, he identifies the stabbing victim as his own brother-in-law Greg, and journalist Kelly Pool suggests there's a link between the three incidents. It seems Greg and the old couple had ties to the same man, a corrupt money man with a murky past and friends in both high places and low.
Harry Belltree can't get officially involved in Greg's murder, but he's not going to leave it in the hands of others. That's when he goes off-grid to investigate the links between these deaths. That's when things start to get dangerous.
IN SOUTH-WESTERN SYDNEY, on a chilly winter’s night, a siege is in progress. The street is very ordinary—suburban, brick veneer and tiled roofs—and the only thing a stranger might notice is the number of houses that have steel roller-shutters on their windows. They’re all closed now.
Two neighbours have reported a man’s shouts, a woman’s screams and a burst of gunfire. Now everyone is here—ambulance and fire brigade, local area command uniforms and detectives, scene of crime, and Harry Belltree and Deb Velasco from homicide. And the Tactical Operations Unit, the black ninjas, who have parked their big black American armoured Lenco truck, bristling with menace, in the driveway of the house. This has surely given the occupants something to think about.
Nothing is known about the man apart from a neighbour’s hazy description of the female resident’s new boyfriend: bulky, pony-tailed, bearded, tattooed. The TOU negotiators got a single grunt from him before he disabled the house phone, and now they are using the loudhailer, trying to “engage” him. The house backs on to rough ground in the area known locally as Crucifixion Creek, and there are marksmen out there and in the gardens on either side.
“This could go on for ever,” Deb mutters. When Harry doesn’t reply she starts the engine again to warm them up. Outside two uniforms are crouched behind their patrol car, blowing into their hands with misty breath. Deb takes a sip from her takeaway cup. “And why do we need to be here? Nobody’s dead, far as we know.”
She wants conversation and Harry rouses himself, picking up his own cup. She is five years older than him and more experienced. This is the first time they’ve been sent out together.
“Not yet, but when it happens we’ll be right here.”
“Does this remind you of Afghanistan?”
“In a way.” He doesn’t really want to respond but knows he should. Sharing confidences is an important part of team-building, apparently. “Sydney is very like Afghanistan, only here the Taliban wear Armani.”
She gives a croaky laugh and lights up again. The whole car stinks of it. “Not in this neighbourhood.”
Another long pause, sipping as the coffee cools. “They say you died over there.”
Oh dear. He likes Deb, what he’s heard of her—fierce, thorough. But she wants to talk. And smoke. He thinks of Carmen in the tobacco factory and tries to picture Deb dancing flamenco.
“Oh, you know, some of the blokes were talking. Is it true?”
“Seriously? How long?”
“Shit. Didn’t that—?” She stops.
“Leave me brain-damaged?” He smiles and she ducks her head, embarrassed. “No, I was like this before. We had much better A&E than you get around here.”
“Did you … see stuff, like they say?”
“You mean a bright light? Someone dressed in white beckoning at the end of a tunnel? No, nothing like that. Nothing at all. Maybe I was going,” he grins at her, “elsewhere.”
At that moment a bright light from the TOU truck blazes on the front door which is opening slowly. A woman stands there looking blinded and disoriented, clutching a bundle to her chest, perhaps a baby. One of the men in black calls to her, urging her to walk forward. She puts a hand to her eyes against the glare and begins to move, painfully slowly, towards the light. After she has taken four or five steps there is a sharp noise, muffled inside the car, like the branch of a tree cracking, and the woman falls. Then several more shots, and they get a glimpse of a figure in the doorway toppling backwards into the house. “Fuck.” Deb grinding her cigarette out. Black figures are running forward.
They get out of the car and wait. Watch the TOU secure the scene and call the ambos to the victims. Scene of crime join in, filming, and when the last black figure has cleared the house the white overalls move inside. The last one waves from the doorway and Harry and Deb move forward to look at the bodies.
The woman, shot in the back, has fresh bruising all over her face and arms. The bundle she was carrying is a white woollen jacket. In the hallway, stretched out on the floor, lies her killer. They have an ID now. Stefan Ganis: known to police as an armed robber and dealer in methamphetamine. Deb opens his lips to expose the blackened and missing teeth of the meth user. She pulls back an eyelid and looks at the pupil. “High as a kite.” She seems enthusiastic about poking about in the corpse and Harry turns away—not squeamish, God knows, just a feeling, close to superstition, that the dead are out of it and deserve to be left alone.
The TOU men (they are all men) have put two bullets in him, and Harry is thinking ahead. Police shooting, a Critical Incident Investigation Team from another command brought in quickly. When that happens they’ll most likely all be cleared out and interviewed, and he’s impatient to have a look around the house before then. He begins to move off. Deb says, “What’s this?”
She has rolled up the man’s sleeve to inspect his tattoos, and she points to a solid block of black cross-hatching on his left biceps. Harry squats down and makes out a pattern faintly visible beneath the hatching. “He’s inked over another tattoo.”
“Old girlfriend’s name?”
“No, an emblem of some kind, probably a biker logo. Looks like he got kicked out of one of the gangs. You don’t get to keep the colours. Come on.”
They begin to work quickly through the rooms, all of them in chaos as if the place has been trashed. Almost all of the stuff tossed around seems to be hers, except for one small corner with T-shirts and a pair of heavy biker boots. Above them, he has haphazardly taped a spread of photographs to the wall, a little shrine above the Harley boots. There are several pictures of him with some hairy, beefy blokes, all grinning at the lens; a faded old snap of a middle-aged woman, arms folded, perhaps his mother; a photo of a white tow truck.
Harry studies the pictures carefully, making his own record of them with his phone. He can just make out the name painted in vivid letters on the truck door—13 Auto Smash. He peels the photo off the wall and slips it into an evidence bag.
Deb looks over his shoulder. “What’s that?”
Reluctantly he offers her the plastic pouch and she examines the photo inside. “Important?”
She peers more closely. “Why 13?”
“The thirteenth letter of the alphabet is M. Short for meth.”
“Really? The tow truck from hell. Just the sort of thing you’d want in an emergency. Can’t see the rego.”
“I’ll see if the techs can bring it up.”
She starts to ask him why, but he turns and moves on to the mess in the kitchen.
Crime scene will have bagged and removed any drugs, cash and weaponry, and taken 3D laser scans of all the rooms, which will have recorded every dent and scratch and bloodstain. The two of them sift through the debris anyway, without result.
It is after 5:00 a.m. when they are told to leave by the Critical Incident Team. Outside they see the TV cameras and reporters at the barriers, waiting for the local area commander to give a media briefing.
Harry’s phone rings: Superintendent Marshall. Bob the Job. He pictures the old man in his pyjamas, pacing around his living room with his phone at his ear, grey hair awry, his big frame looming over the tiny porcelain ornaments his wife liked to collect. “Sir?”
“Harry, I’ve just had Wagstaff in my ear. What’s the latest?”
Harry fills him in.
The superintendent grunts unhappily. “Deb Velasco with you?”
“Getting along all right?”
“Good. She’s a fine officer, Harry.”
Harry wonders why he needs to say that. Is she under some kind of cloud? As he turns to look at her he sees her face illuminated by the flame beneath her cigarette.
By the time the CIT officers release them, a bright clear day has dawned. The TOU tank has gone, as have the reporters and the TV crews and the sense of menace. Metal shutters are being raised in the windows of one or two of the neighbouring houses. As Harry makes his way to the car a woman, a wild-haired redhead, bursts out in front of him, coat flapping, listing under the weight of a large bag slung from her shoulder.
“Harry!” she cries, as if they are old friends. He tries to place her. Forensics? Domestic violence liaison?
“Kelly Pool, Bankstown Chronicle.” She thrusts out a hand which he ignores.
“You’ve missed the fun,” he says. “They’ve all buggered off.”
“That’s okay, I was at the briefing. Same old speech—tragic death, detectives investigating, appeal for help from the public blah blah. But this is my patch, see. Crucifixion Creek. So what was the guy’s name?” She snatches out a notepad and pen, standing poised as if she seriously expects him to tell her.
“Piss off, Kelly Pool.”
“Oh, Harry. That’s not nice.”
“And how the hell do you know my name?”
“I never reveal my sources. And a very famous name too, Harry Belltree. Son of the judge, right?”
“No comment.” Harry pushes past her and reaches for the car door handle.
“I know this neighbourhood, Harry,” she calls after him. “Maybe I can help you.”
Deb has been listening to this exchange with interest. As she tugs at her seatbelt she looks across at him. “What was that all about? What judge?” And then her eyes go wide and her jaw drops. “Belltree? Belltree! Oh fuck—Danny Belltree! ‘First Aboriginal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court!’ He was your dad?”
“Just drive the car, Deb.”
“How could I have missed that? Nobody told me! How come nobody told me?”
He wonders about that.
Copyright © 2015 Barry Maitland.
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Barry Maitland is an Australian author of crime fiction. After studying architecture at Cambridge, Maitland practised and taught in the UK before moving to Australia, where he became a Professor of Architecture at the University of Newcastle.