In Riversend, an isolated Australian community afflicted by an endless drought, a young priest does the unthinkable: he kills five parishioners before being taken down himself.
A year later, journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend. His assignment: to report how the townspeople are coping as the anniversary of the tragedy approaches. But as Martin meets the locals and hears their version of events, he begins to realize that the accepted explanation—a theory established through an award-winning investigation by Martin’s own newspaper—may be wrong.
Just as Martin believes he’s making headway, a shocking new crime rocks the town. As the national media flocks to the scene, Martin finds himself thrown into a whole new mystery.
What was the real reason behind the priest’s shooting spree? And how does it connect to other deaths in the district, if at all? Martin struggles to uncover the town’s dark secrets, putting his job, his mental state, and his very life at risk.
For fans of James Lee Burke, Jane Harper, and Robert Crais, Scrublands is “a gritty debut...sensitively rendered” (The New York Times Book Review) that marks Chris Hammer as a stunning new voice in crime fiction.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)|
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The day is still. The heat, having eased during the night, is building again; the sky is cloudless and unforgiving, the sun punishing. Across the road, down by what’s left of the river, the cicadas are generating a wall of noise, but there’s silence surrounding the church. Parishioners begin to arrive for the eleven o’clock service, parking across the road in the shade of the trees. Once three or four cars have arrived, their occupants emerge into the brightness of the morning and cross the road, gathering outside St. James to make small talk: stock prices, the scarcity of farm water, the punitive weather. The young priest, Byron Swift, is there, still dressed casually, chatting amiably with his elderly congregation. Nothing seems amiss; everything appears normal.
Craig Landers, owner and manager of Riversend’s general store, approaches. He’s going hunting with his mates, but they’ve stopped by the church so he can have a few words with the priest beforehand. His friends have tagged along. Like Craig, none of them are regular churchgoers. Gerry Torlini lives down in Bellington and doesn’t know any of the parishioners, so he returns to his four-wheel drive, but local farmers Thom and Alf Newkirk mingle, as does Horrie Grosvenor. Alf’s son, Allen, surrounded by people more than three times his age, joins Gerry in the cab of his truck. If anyone thinks the men look incongruous in their shooting gear, a strange mix of camouflage and high-vis, no one says so.
The priest sees Landers and walks over. The men shake hands, smile, exchange a few words. Then the priest excuses himself, and enters the church to prepare for the service and don his vestments. Having said his piece, Landers is keen to leave, but Horrie and the Newkirks are deep in conversation with some farmers, so he walks towards the side of the church, seeking shade. He’s almost there when the babble of conversation abruptly ceases; he turns to see that the priest has emerged from the church and is standing at the top of the short flight of steps. Byron Swift has changed into his robes, crucifix glinting as it catches the sun, and he’s carrying a gun, a high-powered hunting rifle with a scope. It makes no sense to Landers; he’s still confused as Swift raises the gun to his shoulder and calmly shoots Horrie Grosvenor from a distance of no more than five yards. Grosvenor’s head ruptures in a red cloud and his legs give way. He falls to the ground like a sack, as if his bones no longer exist. Conversation stops, heads turn. There’s a silent moment as people struggle for comprehension. The priest fires again, another body falls: Thom Newkirk. There is no screaming, not yet, but there is panic, silent desperation as people start running. Landers bolts for the corner of the church as another shot goes screaming out into the world. He rounds the end of the wall, gaining momentary safety. But he doesn’t stop running; he knows it’s him the priest most wants to kill.
Martin Scarsden stops the car on the bridge leading into town, leaving the engine running. It’s a single-lane bridge—no overtaking, no passing—built decades ago, the timber milled from local river red gums. It’s slung across the floodplain, long and rambling, desiccated planks shrunken and rattling, bolts loose, spans bowed. Martin opens the car door and steps into the midday heat, ferocious and furnace-dry. He places both hands on the railing, but such is the heat of the day that even wood is too hot to touch. He lifts them back, bringing flaking white paint with them. He wipes them clean, using the damp towel he has placed around his neck. He looks down to where the river should be and sees instead a mosaic of cracked clay, baked and going to dust. Someone has carted an old fridge out to where the water once ran and left it there, having first painted a sign on its door: FREE BEER—HONOR SYSTEM. The red gums along the banks don’t get the joke; some of their branches are dead, others support sparse clumps of khaki leaves. Martin tries lifting his sunglasses, but the light is dazzling, too bright, and he lowers them again. He reaches back into the car and cuts the engine. There is nothing to hear; the heat has sucked the life from the world: no cicadas, no cockatoos, not even crows, just the bridge creaking and complaining as it expands and contracts in thrall to the sun. There is no wind. The day is so very hot, it tugs at him, seeking his moisture; he can feel the heat rising through the thin leather soles of his city shoes.
Back in the rental car, air-conditioning straining, he moves off the bridge and down into Riversend’s main street, into the sweltering bowl below the levee banks. There are cars parked here. They sit reversed into the curb at a uniform forty-five-degree angle: pickups and farm trucks and city sedans, all of them dusty and none of them new. He drives slowly, looking for movement, any sign of life, but it’s like he’s driving through a diorama. Only as he passes through the first intersection a block on from the river, past a bronze soldier on a column, does he see a man shuffling along the footpath in the shade of the shop awnings. He is wearing, of all things, a long gray overcoat, his shoulders stooped, his hand clutching a brown paper bag.
Martin stops the car, reverses it assiduously at the requisite angle, but not assiduously enough. He grimaces as the bumper scrapes against the curb. He pulls on the hand brake, switches off the engine, climbs out. The curb is almost knee-high, built for flooding rains, adorned now by the rear end of his rental. He thinks of moving the car forward, off the concrete shoal, but decides to leave it there, damage done.
He crosses the street and enters the shade of the awnings, but there’s no sign of the shuffling man. The street is deserted. Martin regards the shopfronts. The first has a hand-painted sign taped to the inside of the glass door: MATHILDA’S SECONDHAND SHOP AND ANTIQUES. PRE-LOVED CLOTHING, KNICKKNACKS, AND CURIOS. OPEN TUESDAY AND THURSDAY MORNINGS. This Monday lunchtime, the door is locked. Martin inspects the thrift shop’s window display. There’s a black beaded cocktail dress on an old dressmaker’s mannequin; a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, hem a little frayed, held aloft on a wooden clothes hanger; and a garish set of orange work overalls draped across the back of a chair. A stainless-steel bin contains a collection of discarded umbrellas, dusty with disuse. On one wall there’s a poster showing a woman in a one-piece swimsuit luxuriating on a beach towel while behind her waves lick at the sand. MANLY SEA AND SURF, says the poster, but it has sat in the window too long and the Riverina sun has leached the red from her suit and the gold from the sand, leaving only a pervasive pale-blue wash. Along the bottom of the window is an array of shoes: bowling shoes, golf shoes, some well-worn riding boots, and a pair of polished brown brogues. Dotted around them like confetti are the bodies of flies. Dead men’s shoes, Martin decides.
The shop next door is empty, a yellow and black FOR LEASE sign in the window, the outline still legible from where the paint has been stripped from the window: HAIR TODAY. He takes out his phone and snaps a few photos, visual prompts for when he’s writing. The next store is entirely shuttered: a weatherboard façade with two small windows, both boarded up. The door is secured with a rusty chain and brass padlock. It looks as if it’s been like that for a lifetime. Martin takes a photo of the chained door.
Returning to the other side of the road, Martin can again feel the heat through his shoes and he avoids patches of oozing asphalt. Gaining the footpath and the relief of the shade, he’s surprised to find himself looking at a bookstore, right by where he’s parked his car: THE OASIS BOOKSTORE AND CAFE says a sign hanging from the awning, the words carved into a long slab of twisting wood. A bookstore. Fancy that. He hasn’t brought a book with him, hasn’t even thought of it until now. His editor, Max Fuller, rang at dawn, delivering his brainwave, assigning him the story. Martin packed in a rush, got to the airport with moments to spare, downloaded the clippings he’d been e-mailed, was the last passenger across the tarmac and onto the plane. But a book would be good; if he must endure the next few days in this husk of a town, then a novel might provide some distraction. He tries the door, anticipating it too may be locked. Yet the Oasis is open for business. Or the door is, at least.
Inside, the shop is dark and deserted, the temperature at least ten degrees cooler. Martin removes his sunglasses, eyes adjusting to the gloom after the blowtorch streetscape. There are curtains across the shopfront’s plate-glass windows and Japanese screens in front of them, adding an extra barricade against the day. A ceiling fan is barely revolving; the only other movement is water trickling across slate terraces on a small, self-contained water feature sitting atop the counter. The counter is next to the door, in front of the window, facing an open space. Here, there are a couple of couches, some slouching armchairs placed on a worn rug, together with some book-strewn occasional tables. Running towards the back of the store are three or four ranks of shoulder-high bookshelves with an aisle up the middle and aisles along either side. The side walls support higher shelves. At the back of the shop, at the end of the central aisle, there is a wooden swing door of the type that separates kitchens from customers in restaurants. If the bookshelves were pews, and the counter an altar, then this might be a chapel.
Martin walks past the tables to the far wall. A small sign identifies it as LITERATURE. A wry smile begins to stretch across his face, but its progress is halted as he regards the top shelf of books. There, neatly aligned with only their spines showing, are the books he read and studied twenty years ago at university. Not just the same titles, but the same battered paperback editions, arranged like his courses themselves. There is Moby-Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Scarlet Letter, sitting to the left of The Great Gatsby, Catch-22, and Herzog. There’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, For Love Alone, and Coonardoo, leading to Free Fall, The Trial, and The Quiet American. There’s a smattering of plays: The Caretaker, Rhinoceros, and The Chapel Perilous. He pulls out a Penguin edition of A Room with a View, its spine held together by adhesive tape turned yellow with age. He opens it, half expecting to see the name of some forgotten classmate, but instead the name that greets him is Katherine Blonde. He replaces the book, careful not to damage it. Dead woman’s books, he thinks. He takes out his phone and snaps a photograph.
Sitting on the next shelf down are newer books, some looking almost untouched. James Joyce, Salman Rushdie, Tim Winton. He can’t discern any pattern in their arrangement. He pulls one out, then another, but there are no names written inside. He takes a couple of books and is turning to sit in one of the comfortable armchairs when he is startled, flinching involuntarily. A young woman has somehow appeared at the end of the central aisle.
“Find anything interesting?” she asks, smiling, her voice husky. She’s leaning nonchalantly against a bookshelf.
“I hope so,” says Martin. But he’s nowhere near as relaxed as he sounds. He’s disconcerted: at first by her presence and now by her beauty. Her hair is blond, cut into a messy bob, bangs brushing black eyebrows. Her cheekbones are marble, her eyes sparkling green. She’s wearing a light summer dress and her feet are bare. She doesn’t belong in the narrative he’s been constructing about Riversend.
“So who’s Katherine Blonde?” he asks.
“Tell her I like her books.”
“Can’t. She’s dead.”
“Don’t be. If you like books, she’d like you. This was her shop.”
They stand looking at each other for a moment. There is something unapologetic about the way she regards him, and Martin is the first to break eye contact.
“Sit down,” she says. “Relax for a bit. You’ve come a long way.”
“How do you know that?”
“This is Riversend,” she says, offering a sad smile. She has dimples, Martin observes. “Go on, sit down,” she says. “Want a coffee? We’re a café as much as we’re a bookshop. It’s how we make our money.”
“Sure. Long black, thanks. And some water, please.” He finds himself longing for a cigarette, even though he hasn’t smoked since university. A cigarette. Why now?
“Good. I’ll be right back.”
She turns and walks soundlessly back down the aisle. Martin watches her the whole way, admiring the curve of her neck floating above the bookshelves, his feet still anchored to the same spot as when he first saw her. She passes through the swing door at the back of the store and is gone, but her presence lingers: the cello-like timbre of her voice, the fluid confidence of her posture, her green eyes.
The door stops swinging. Martin looks down at the books in his hands. He sighs, derides himself as pathetic, and takes a seat, looking not at the books but at the backs of his forty-year-old hands. His father had possessed tradesman’s hands. When Martin was a child they had always seemed so strong, so assured, so purposeful. He’d always hoped, assumed that one day his hands would be the same. But to Martin they still seem adolescent. White-collar hands, not working-class hands, somehow inauthentic. He takes a seat—a creaking armchair with tattered upholstery, tilting to one side—and starts leafing absentmindedly through one of the books. This time she doesn’t startle him as she enters his field of vision. He looks up. Time has passed.
“Here,” she says, frowning ever so slightly. She places a large white mug on the table beside him. As she bends, he captures some coffee-tinted fragrance. Fool, he thinks.
“Hope you don’t mind,” she says, “but I made myself one too. We don’t get that many visitors.”
“Of course,” he hears himself saying. “Sit down.”
Some part of Martin wants to make small talk, make her laugh, charm her. He thinks he remembers how—his own good looks can’t have totally deserted him—but he glances again at his hands, and decides not to. “What are you doing here?” he asks, surprising himself with the bluntness of his question.
“What do you mean?”
“What are you doing in Riversend?”
“I live here.”
“I know. But why?”
Her smile fades as she regards him more seriously. “Is there some reason I shouldn’t live here?”
“This.” Martin lifts his arms, gestures at the store around him. “Books, culture, literature. Your uni books over there, on the shelf below your mother’s. And you. This town is dying. You don’t belong here.”
She doesn’t smile, doesn’t frown. Instead, she just looks at him, considering him, letting the silence extend before responding. “You’re Martin Scarsden, aren’t you?” Her eyes are locked on his.
He returns her gaze. “Yes. That’s me.”
“I remember the reports,” she says. “I’m glad you got out alive. It must have been terrible.”
“Yes, it was,” he says.
Minutes pass. Martin sips his coffee. It’s not bad; he’s had worse in Sydney. Again the curious longing for a cigarette. The silence is awkward, and then it’s not. More minutes pass. He’s glad he’s here, in the Oasis, sharing silences with this beautiful young woman.
She speaks first. “I came back eighteen months ago, when my mother was dying. To look after her. Now . . . well, if I leave, the bookshop, her bookshop, it closes down. It will happen soon enough, but I’m not there yet.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so direct.”
She takes up her coffee, wraps her hands around her mug: a gesture of comfort, of confiding and sharing, strangely appropriate despite the heat of the day. “So, Martin Scarsden, what are you doing in Riversend?”
“A story. My editor sent me. Thought it would be good for me to get out and breathe some healthy country air. ‘Blow away the cobwebs,’ he said.”
“What? The drought?”
“No. Not exactly.”
“Good God. The shooting? Again? It was almost a year ago.”
“Yeah. That’s the hook: ‘A year on, how is Riversend coping?’ Like a profile piece, but of a town, not a person. We’ll print it on the anniversary.”
“That was your idea?”
“What a genius. And he sent you? To write about a town in trauma?”
And they sit in silence once more. The young woman rests her chin in one hand, staring unseeing at a book on one of the tables, while Martin examines her, no longer exploring her beauty, but pondering her decision to remain in Riversend. He sees the fine lines around her eyes, suspects she’s older than he first thought. Midtwenties, maybe. Young, at least in comparison to him. They sit like that for some minutes, a bookstore tableau, before she lifts her gaze and meets his eyes. A moment passes, a connection is made. When she speaks, her voice is almost a whisper.
“Martin, there’s a better story, you know. Better than wallowing in the pain of a town in mourning.”
“And what’s that?”
“Why he did it.”
“I think we know that, don’t we?”
“Child abuse? An easy allegation to level at a dead priest. I don’t believe it. Not every priest is a pedophile.”
Martin can’t hold the intensity of her gaze; he looks at his coffee, not knowing what to say.
The young woman persists. “D’Arcy Defoe. Is he a friend of yours?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But he’s an excellent journalist. The story won a Walkley. Deservedly so.”
“It was wrong.”
Martin hesitates; he doesn’t know where this is going. “What’s your name?”
“Mandalay Blonde. Everyone calls me Mandy.”
“Mandalay? That’s something.”
“My mum. She liked the sound of it. Liked the idea of traveling the world, unfettered.”
“And did she?”
“No. Never left Australia.”
“Okay, Mandy. Byron Swift shot five people dead. You tell me: Why did he do it?”
“I don’t know. But if you found out, that would be a hell of a story, wouldn’t it?”
“I guess. But if you don’t know why he did it, who’s going to tell me?”
She doesn’t respond to that, not straight away. Martin is feeling disconcerted. He’d thought he’d found a refuge in the bookstore; now he feels as if he’s spoilt it. He’s not sure what to say, whether he should apologize, or make light of it, or thank her for the coffee and leave.
But Mandalay Blonde hasn’t taken offense; she leans in towards him, voice low. “Martin, I want to tell you something. But not for publication, not for repetition. Between you and me. Are you okay with that?”
“What’s so sensitive?”
“I need to live in this town, that’s what. So write what you like about Byron—he’s past caring—but please leave me out of it. All right?”
“Sure. What is it?”
She leans back, considering her next words. Martin realizes how quiet the bookstore is, insulated against sound as well as light and heat. He can hear the slow revolving of the fan, the hum of its electric motor, the tinkling of the water on the counter, the slow breath of Mandalay Blonde. Mandy looks him in the eye, then swallows, as if summoning courage.
“There was something holy about him. Like a saint or something.”
“He killed five people.”
“I know. I was here. It was awful. I knew some of the victims; I know their widows. Fran Landers is a friend of mine. So you tell me: Why don’t I hate him? Why do I feel as if what happened was somehow inevitable? Why is that?” Her eyes are pleading, her voice intense. “Why?”
“Okay, Mandy, tell me. I’m listening.”
“You can’t write any of this. Not the stuff about me. Agreed?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“He saved my life. I owe him my life. He was a good man.” The distress eddies across her face like wind across a pond.
“Mum was dying, I got pregnant. Not for the first time. A one-night stand with some arsehole down in Melbourne. I was thinking of killing myself; I could see no future, not one worth living. This shitty town, that shitty life. And he saw it. He walked into the bookstore, started his banter and flirting like usual, and then he stopped. Just like that. He looked into my eyes and he knew. And he cared. He talked me around, over a week, over a month. Taught me how to stop running, taught me the value of things. He cared, he sympathized, he understood the pain of others. People like him don’t abuse children; how could they?” There is passion in her voice, conviction in her words.
“Do you believe in God?” she asks.
“No,” says Martin.
“No, neither do I. What about fate?”
“That I’m not so sure about. Karma?”
“Mandy, where is this going?”
“He used to come into the store, buying books and drinking coffee. I didn’t know he was a priest at first. He was attentive, he was charming, and he was different. I liked him. Mum really liked him. He could talk about books and history and philosophy. We used to love it when he dropped by. I was disappointed when I learnt he was a priest; I kind of fancied him.”
“Did he fancy you?” Looking at her, Martin finds it difficult to imagine a man who wouldn’t.
She smiles. “Of course not. I was pregnant.”
“But you liked him?”
“Everyone did. He was witty, charismatic. Mum was dying, the town was dying, and here he was: young and vital, full of self-belief and promise. And then he became more than that—my friend, my confessor, my savior. He listened to me, understood me, understood what I was going through. No judgment, no admonition. He’d always drop by when he was in town, always check on how we were doing. In Mum’s last days, at the hospital down in Bellington, he comforted her, and he comforted me. He was a good man. And then he was gone as well.”
More silence. This time it’s Martin who speaks first. “Did you have your baby?”
“Yes. Of course. Liam. He’s sleeping out the back. I’ll introduce you if you’re still here when he wakes up.”
“I’d like that.”
Martin chooses his words carefully, at least he tries to, knowing they can never be the right words. “Mandy, I understand that Byron Swift was kind to you. I can readily accept he wasn’t all bad, that he was sincere. But that doesn’t equal redemption, not for what he did. And it doesn’t mean the allegations aren’t true. I’m sorry.”
His words do nothing to persuade her; she merely looks more determined. “Martin, I’m telling you, he looked into my soul. I glimpsed his. He was a good man. He knew I was in pain and he helped me.”
“But how can you reconcile that with what he did? He committed mass murder.”
“I know. I know. I can’t reconcile it. I know he did it; I don’t deny it. And it’s been messing me up ever since. The one truly decent human being I ever met besides my mother turns out to be this horror show. But here’s the thing: I can believe he shot those people. I know he did it. It even rings true, feels right in some perverse way, even if I don’t know why he did it. But I can’t believe he abused children. As a kid I got bullied and bashed, as a teenager I got slandered and groped, and as an adult I’ve been ostracized and criticized and marginalized. I’ve had plenty of abusive boyfriends—almost the only kind of boyfriends I ever did have; narcissistic arseholes capable only of thinking of themselves. Liam’s father is one of them. I know that mentality. I’ve seen it up close and nasty. That wasn’t his mentality; he was the opposite. He cared. That’s what’s fucking me up. And that’s why I don’t believe he abused children. He cared.”
Martin doesn’t know what to say. He sees the passion on her face, hears the fervor in her voice. But a mass murderer who cared? So he doesn’t say anything, just looks back into Mandalay Blonde’s troubled green eyes.