‘He doesn’t stop running; he knows it’s him the priest most wants to kill.’ Read an excerpt from Chris Hammer’s powerful debut thriller Scrublands
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Read an excerpt from Chris Hammer’s Scrublands – one of the most powerful, compelling and original crime novels to be written in Australia.
About the book
In an isolated country town brought to its knees by endless drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself.
A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don’t fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can’t ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest’s deadly rampage.
Just as Martin believes he is making headway, a shocking new development rocks the town, which becomes the biggest story in Australia. The media descends on Riversend and Martin is now the one in the spotlight. His reasons for investigating the shooting have suddenly become very personal.
Wrestling with his own demons, Martin finds himself risking everything to discover a truth that becomes darker and more complex with every twist. But there are powerful forces determined to stop him, and he has no idea how far they will go to make sure the town’s secrets stay buried.
Read an excerpt:
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 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 metres. 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 flood plain, 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—HONOUR 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 kerb at a uniform forty-five-degree angle: utes 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 grey 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 kerb. He pulls on the handbrake, switches off the engine, climbs out. The kerb 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 OP SHOP AND ANTIQUES. PRE-LOVED CLOTHING, KNICK-KNACKS AND CURIOS. OPEN TUESDAY AND THURSDAY MORNINGS. This Monday lunchtime, the door is locked. Martin inspects the 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 swimming suit 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 swimmers 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 fa?ade 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 bitumen. 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 emailed, been 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 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 blonde, cut into a messy bob, fringe 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.
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