Detective John Marchant is initially left cold by the slaying of an addiction counsellor. The killer has been found dead at the scene, having careened himself out of the seventh-storey window of the clinic, and the NSW police are prepared to chalk their deaths up to another ghastly reminder of the lethal repercussions of meth addiction. But something doesn’t add up. And people keep dying. Compelled to launch an unsanctioned investigation, Marchant is soon on the trail of a mystery that will pit him against shadowy national intelligence forces, the violent Sydney underworld, and the true forces fuelling Australia’s ice epidemic . . .
The call came in as they pulled up behind two patrol cars, still flashing their blues, parked at the kerb outside the house on Epping Road. Mason was driving. It gave him something to do, something to occupy his mind. And it shut his mouth. He was a lousy passenger. A loud passenger. Always arguing. Always gesticulating. To himself, mostly. And always about things Marchant had no interest in. AFL. NRL. The Australian Cricket team’s performance on the subcontinent. Mason had plenty of ideas about how to resolve the team’s spin woes. He’d missed his calling. He should’ve been a coach. Certainly, Marchant would have been happier if Mason had swapped careers. But behind the wheel, Mason was quiet. Quieter, at least.
The house was one of the last of its kind on the street. Rapid-fire development approvals had seen its neighbouring edifices dismantled, replaced by holes in the ground, and construction sites enclosed in chain-link fencing. It was only a matter of time until this one crumbled too. It was remarkable how drastically the landscape had changed in the intervening years since Marchant had last been assigned to the Ryde Local Area Command. Back when he still wore a uniform. His familiarity with the terrain had almost entirely eroded. Which reminded him of how much time had passed. And, therefore, how old he was. The buzzing of his phone inside his jacket pocket served as a pleasing distraction.
Marchant took the call as he got out of the car. He didn’t recognise the number.
‘Who’s this?’ He slammed his door, looked across the roof at Mason, signalling for him to wait. As the senior partner, Marchant could dictate. It was one of the few perks of their association. The only one, perhaps.
Mason’s brow creased, and he exploded air from his mouth as he folded his arms. Marchant had become accustomed, though not obliging, to his partner’s displays of petulance. They were not very becoming. Then again, nothing much about the man was. Marchant surveyed Mason now, as he ran his tongue along his right canine, pressing it into the sharpened tooth. A week back, he had pushed so hard he’d pierced his tongue and spent the afternoon with a tissue shoved inside his mouth. The memory still brought a smile to Marchant’s lips.
The tooth thing was just one of Mason’s many tells—the most tangible one, definitely—clearly indicative of his irritation, and frequently the prelude to a blowout. Usually internal—a silent fuming—but sometimes external, his professional façade cracking under too-little pressure. John Marchant could not help but vacuum these observations and process them. He had been doing it subconsciously for almost twenty years.
They had been partners for five months, Mason a freshly minted detective, assigned to Marchant because their superiors believed the younger detective would benefit from Marchant’s ‘vast experience’. Not his words. Because despite the blotches on Marchant’s record and the baggage he carried—proudly, for the most part, for he had few regrets—there were not many in the department who could argue with his ‘investigatory pedigree’. Again, not Marchant’s phrasing, but he liked to use it when Mason challenged a decision. Who had the ‘investigatory pedigree’ in the partnership? Marchant did. Take that, mate. Game, set, match.
It wasn’t their age difference that was proving contentious, or Mason’s greenness, or indeed his volatility. Marchant had worked alongside countless younger investigators, and reckoned he had shaped more than a few creditable investigators. And capriciousness was a trait he had tamed many times; or at the very least, bottled for use when it was required. No, Marchant and Mason, they were simply cut from very different policing cloth.
Marchant believed there were two types of homicide investigators: those for whom it was a mission, fuelled by an inexorable desire to speak for those who no longer could; and detectives who looked at homicide as a puzzle; a grand challenge that enabled them to pit their intellect against those who refused to succumb to societal confines. Mason was of the latter variety, but he didn’t yet have the experience to have masterminded the game. His arrogance and assuredness were unjustified. He had much to learn, a lot of years to compile under his belt. Even then, Marchant wouldn’t like the guy, but at least there’d be a tinge of respect.
The caller said, ‘This is Sergeant O’Dowd. Am I speaking to Detective Marchant?’
O’Dowd’s name meant nothing to Marchant. There were a lot of O’s in the department. O’Rourke’s, O’Brien’s, O’Malley’s. Maybe Marchant had met O’Dowd. The sergeant didn’t give any indication either way.
Marchant said, ‘Speaking,’ as his eyes flicked to the house—single-storey, brick, with a chimney; not far off the kind a preschooler would draw—and then its surroundings. Overgrown lawn, though not yet a jungle; like it was manicured monthly, then left alone until it was absolutely necessary. He took in the coroner’s wagon and the two forensics vans parked ahead of the patrol cars. A smattering of personnel belonging to each clustered together on the lawn, awaiting the detectives’ arrival, alongside two people Marchant assumed were residents; both young—early- to mid-twenties—and both male. They smoked on their doorstep, adding butts to an overflowing ashtray, texting furiously on their phones. Their soured expressions suggested impatience rather than melancholy. Their housemate was dead inside, and here they were, focused on updating their social media feeds.
‘Please hold, Detective,’ O’Dowd said in Marchant’s ear.
‘Hold for—’ but O’Dowd was gone, replaced by a gentle click, then silence. Marchant checked the screen to ensure the call was still connected. It was.
Mason must’ve caught his scowl.
‘What?’ he asked. Intrigued. And possibly a little bit excited. He was waiting for the day Marchant got a call that whisked them away to a high-profile crime scene. He was more than happy to cash in on Marchant’s ‘investigatory pedigree’ if it boosted him into the limelight. Marchant waved him onwards, and they trudged ahead, Mason in the lead. He liked that. Marchant kept the phone pressed to his ear.
Given the collective calmness of the scene, Marchant concluded they were here to validate the patrol sergeant’s initial declaration that the man inside had succumbed to self-inflicted wounds rather than anything suspicious. It was a routine call-out, and Marchant felt a familiar pang of exasperation that he had been consigned to the task. He hadn’t worked a homicide in more than six months since his ‘reassignment’—exile, rather—from the Homicide Squad. And while he had received myriad assurances that his reassignment was temporary, Marchant had begun to think his return to the job was intentionally glacial. So, too, his partnering with Mason. The command staff at HQ were waiting him out, leaving Marchant out in the cold, certain that he would pull the plug on his career, saving them the trouble. Marchant was determined to outlast them. So he ignored Mason. And he accepted the monotony that came with being assigned to general detective duties at a Local Area Command.
A minute passed. Still nothing from O’Dowd. For God’s sake. It was cold out. Early August, Winter in full swing. And Marchant wasn’t dressed for the weather. His wardrobe only facilitated the milder months. Mason, on the other hand, looked snug in the expensive coat he wore over his jacket.
A uniformed sergeant appeared from the doorway. He spotted the detectives and moved to greet them. He strode with the gait of a man keen to impress; who wanted to appear in charge. Marchant motioned for Mason to intercept as the caller’s voice returned.
‘Detective Marchant, you’re still there?’
‘Still here,’ Marchant said.
‘Please hold for Deputy Commissioner Wagstaff.’
His words stopped Marchant cold. ‘Wait, what—’
Another click, more silence, and before Marchant could properly compute the identity of the caller, he was listening to the nasal intonations of Deputy Commissioner Eleanor Wagstaff. His would-be executioner. Who’d pushed Marchant to the edge, had him gazing down into the abyss, but hadn’t quite been able to apply enough pressure to send him toppling over.
As she began to speak, John Marchant wondered if this was her final attempt. One last push.
Simon McDonald is a Sydney-based bookseller, whose writing is as much influenced by Richard Stark, Raymond Chandler and Michael Connelly, as it is the comic book adventures of Superman and Batman.
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