Mallee locals say you get used to it. The heat never seems to bother them. Not like the tourists coming for the sun during a winter desert holiday and regretting it because of the temperature. The film of sweat smearing skin every day and most nights doesn’t bother the locals.
Red dust cakes most things in the mallee and whenever a flywire door slams, a cloud of fine dust puffs out. There’s never a complaint, just a howl to not slam the door. Whipped up dust from random gusts of parching breeze can turn a squint into a grimace. Town dogs pant in the shade of scarce trees and there never seems to be a cat around, only the snarling ferals out bush.
Locals plonk on heads ridiculous, soft-brimmed hats with weird shaped high crowns full of dust and damp salty stains. Young’uns roll the brim, but most know the value of its shade. Long sleeves, red stained moleskins and dusty boots are standard issue to shield the sun. Town folk shake heads, wondering why cherry pink tourists visit such a desolate place short of water. Locals prefer their holidays in rain country.
No, it ain’t the heat in the mallee; it’s the flies that kill enthusiasm.
Pesky meandering blights fossicking the smorgasbord of faces searching out saliva and mucus and crawling into eyes. Locals use a steady wave to move them on. They are found everywhere and often wallowing in feeding frenzies on the fresh meat of the rotting carcasses as the drought takes a firmer grip on the mallee, strangling the life from stock.
Locals can withstand the wind, the dust, and the heat, but it’s the flies drawing the most verbal abuse. ‘Fuck off’ the common refrain as they try to escape the discomfort. To dent the inevitable invasion, houses and businesses fortify openings with flywire. Strips of gooey plastic flypaper dangle from ceilings and door frames with a massive swarm trapped in its sticky gunk. Some locals use the aroma of basil and lavender to rid the filth, others soak rooms with insecticides in a never-ending battle to be rid of the bastards.
Without flooding rains, the mallee desert becomes what it has always been, a worthless dust bowl. Its vast reddish ochre beset with shifting dunes blown in from central Australia offering little mineral content. Crop yields rely on superphosphate to eek out a living for aspirational grain growers. Farmers still hang onto the future as if it will shine a light of prosperity, but the mallee will never be their pot of gold, unless conditions and the economy change.
Diverting water from the mighty Murray River transformed nearby land into an irrigated oasis. Investment in crops like grapes, fruit and olives transformed the region with more resolute farmers running cattle and sheep. Many farmers further out from the river consider it a waste of time and money but never say it out loud. They would have gone years ago if they had the money.
Locals get used to the heat and learn to live with the flies in the mallee.
Bobby Dowerin recognised the days of a desert farming bonanza were long gone. No water meant no profit for thirsty farmers. He identified financial opportunity trading in real estate, taking advantage of rural despondency. Not just broad acre grain farms and hobby farms closer to town, but also the grand residential properties along the river. He travelled the region using his used car sales charm, convincing locals to surrender and leave the district, often selling to city dwellers seeking escape from the burdens of a big city. His family didn’t know everyone, but everyone knew them. He traded on that legacy to create the gravitas to close deals.
Not everyone enjoys the stillness of isolation, so bigger, broad acre farms with little water were harder to move. The sting of dust was problematic for likely buyers, so he preferred selling property in the urban areas. Especially around Mildura, the large regional city on the Murray where dust doesn’t worry traders.
Bobby cherished the handsome commissions from selling property to the local Iranian community, a mixture of immigrants and refugees settling in the region over three decades. Using government subsidises, the community toiled long hours to set up various commercial operations amassing ever increasing wealth. Community leaders recently directed him to buy unproductive acreages an hour from Mildura. He didn’t know why they wanted the land and didn’t care. Perhaps they knew something about the desert he didn’t know. Or maybe they were crazy. He didn’t care. He only did it for the money.
Money was always his escape. As a teenager, Bobby dreamt of getting out. He believed the prospect of working in the family business a backward step and didn’t wish to be lumbered into a government job like his older copper brother. Could there be anything worse than dealing with crime and justice? Money remained his ambition. He would consider any opportunity to get his hands on it. He needed it. His gambling debts demanded it.
Bobby travelled to Merrinee to talk to a farmer who left a message to come discuss the sale of his broad acre farm. When he arrived at the homestead, the manager told him the boss was holidaying in the rain and wouldn’t be back for days. The manager left speechless by Bobby’s tactless suggestion the property was being considered for sale.
Rather than waste the day, he motored over to Ned’s Corner to check whether contractors erected directional signs for his listed properties on the Sturt Highway. When he hit the first pothole on the dusty track, he questioned the effectiveness of council rates. Did they not spend any money on roadworks on secondary roads? He would raise it with his mother. He questioned his driving choices when he smashed too hard into a second deep hole, sending a warning light into a blinking sequence. He stopped in the centre of what they could describe as a goat’s track.
The hissing up front bothered him when he dropped from the cabin. It looked like steam, or worse, smoke gushing from the front. He hesitated because it would be pointless to investigate. A hissing engine meant nothing to him. Bobby guessed it might be best if he lifts the metal thing to give the motor air. When he popped it, he tried to lift the heavy hood. It didn’t register with him there could be another catch. He tugged the hood enough times before realising he needed a secondary release. As he finally raised it, a white cloud dispersed. He examined the engine, wondering what to do. He shrugged and stepped back.
The cabin had little to offer. The AC was not working, so he dragged open the back hatch, perching on the carpeted tailgate out of the sun. Flies were onto him, caking his shirt. They crowded his open vehicle, hunting for anything. He checked his phone again for reception, dropping it back in his pocket.
The constant buzz and flutter of flies drove him nuts as he waved and threatened them. Each time he slapped his thigh, he wiped out a cluster. Frustrated, he stepped away from his Jeep, thinking the bastards would stay, and most did. A second wave descended, providing little relief from his flaying arms.
He searched out across the sparse dusty acres. He squinted to the horizon, searching for any sign of movement. The shimmering fluid layers of air broke up the perspective, providing little confidence he would see anything. It would be a long trek back to Merrinee, so he’d wait until the day lost its sting.
As he strolled around the car, a distant glint of reflected sun caught his eye. He waved away flies and shaded his hand across his brow, trying to distinguish any hope of movement. Shimmering air distorted his view, but he imagined he could hear something. What he could see was dark and very thin, but a distant noise sounded like a motor. A cloud of dust and a vague shape created a recognisable silhouette. What was once black was now white and what he thought was a truck now a four-wheel drive coming at speed. He smiled, relieved, looking forward to quenching his dry mouth. He blew a cluster of flies away, waving a hand high.
The white Toyota slid to an inevitable stop, kicking up stones with the trailing dust cloud rolling forward, swirling about, forcing him to shy-away, cupping his mouth and nose. When the cloud passed, he moved to the passenger side. The window lowered for him.
‘What a surprise to see you here,’ Bobby said, when he recognised the driver. ‘You’re the last person I expected to see out here.’
The driver didn’t respond, flipping away a towel from the seat, lifting the polished wooden stock of a shotgun.
Bobby didn’t have time to move before his face and much of his head disappeared, throwing him backwards, crumpling him off the track. The flies wasted little time coming for him.
The relentless buzz broke the silence of the isolation. A blue tarpaulin over the corpse didn’t stop them. Peter Dowerin leaned on the rear of his vehicle, waiting for uniformed colleagues to finish assembling a crime scene tent. He gazed out to the horizon, hoping the heat would ease soon. The Jeep belonged to his real estate brother, that’s for sure. He wanted the victim under the plastic not to be Bobby.
He didn’t need another one.
A panicked call came three hours earlier from a passing labourer. He didn’t notice the body until he stepped from his van and heard the frenzied buzz. A little unnerved, he scampered from the area, calling the police when phone reception improved on the bitumen. Police dispatched two uniformed coppers to the scene and informed Mildura’s CIB Detective Inspector Dowerin. It shattered him to recognise his brother’s Jeep, expecting the worst. Now he waited, worried about what to tell his mother.
‘How long will you be?’
A senior constable was tying off a stabilization line to the freestanding tent. ‘Almost finished. Just need to get the fly screen over it.’
‘Try not to get any spray over the body.’
‘We’ve done it before, Pete. It’ll be okay.’
Dowerin nodded, dismissing the conversation with a hand gesture, now more interested in a cloud of dust advancing along the track from the bitumen.
The small SUV drifted to a halt, kicking up a rolling cloud of dirt and grit, forcing him to squint and wave the dust away. He watched as the driver went to the rear of her vehicle, dragging out what looked like a toolbox, which she fastened to a fat-tyre trolley like the ones seen in warehouses. She grabbed a broad-brimmed hat from the rear seat, playing with its headband before trudging towards him, hauling her load.
Dowerin grinned, almost chuckling as he took a lengthy gaze at his visitor dressed in an oversized denim blouse with a leather belt, inadequate strappy shoes and a hat with netting covering her face and shoulders.
‘Don’t like flies?’
‘You could say that. Where’s the body?’
‘Who are you?’
‘The pathologist. I drew the short straw.’
‘Where are you from?’ Dowerin said, scratching his cheek.
‘Mildura hospital. Who are you?’
‘Pete Dowerin, CIB.’ He smirked a hello. ‘Where’s Gordo?’
‘On vacation in Melbourne or Sydney, who knows?’ she sighed. ‘Anywhere has got to be better than here.’
‘Not a fan?’
‘I’m in this god-forsaken place on locum relief.’
‘Yeah, excellent question,’ she replied. ‘Fucked if I know.’
‘Nice,’ Dowerin snorted, peering at his boots. He squinted back and grinned. ‘Did you really draw the short straw?’
‘Look, I’m not here for the chat. Can we get this done?’
Dowerin cocked a thumb over his shoulder towards the tent. ‘They’re getting rid of the flies, won’t be long.’
‘How are they managing that? They’re not contaminating the scene, are they?’
‘They know what they’re doing. Done it before. Couldn’t be any worse than the dust storm you created.’ Dowerin fisted his hip. ‘What’s your name?’
She pointed to the badge. ‘Hammer, Doctor Hammer.’
Dowerin pulled a face and nodded. ‘That figures.’
The senior constable ducked out from the tent. ‘It’s okay now, Pete.’
The tension broken, Dowerin turned and wandered off toward the tent waving off flies, leaving the doctor with her load. ‘How’s the flies?’ he asked.
‘Got most of them, but the body remains alive with wildlife.’
‘She’ll presumably take her own shots, but we should do ours as well. Can I leave that to one of you?’
‘No worries.’ The constable nodded and left the tent for a camera as the doctor came struggling in, hauling her trolley through the grass and sand.
‘Thanks for your help?’ she said, straightening and peering down at the sheet.
‘No problems, Doc. Do you need me to get rid of the tarp?’ Dowerin said.
‘If you wouldn’t mind,’ she frowned, pinching her nose. ‘It may help with my examination.’ Dowerin clutched a corner, flipping it up and off, floating it to a heap to the side of the tent.
‘Christ!’ she said.
Dowerin didn’t answer. He gazed fixated on the body.
The doctor unbuckled her large plastic trunk, yanking open the lid. She plucked out a small, sealed bag, ripping it open, putting on a surgical mask. She tugged two blue latex gloves from a cardboard box, stretching them on as she squatted. She then assembled several instruments and specimen slides and bags, ready for her examination.
The constable crouched, taking photographs. The doctor prompting him to take various perspectives and her preference for certain angles. She stooped over the body, examining the wound, paying particular attention to the insect activity.
‘I would suggest the time of death at mid-morning, around eleven. I will be more precise once I have him back at the morgue.’
‘Any idea of weapon?’ the senior constable said, taking notes.
‘I’m not prepared to say just yet but given the shape of the wound and embedded powder, I suspect a close-range shotgun.’ The doctor bagged samples as she spoke. ‘Get shots from in here, thanks constable.’ She pointed to the neck. The photographer bent in close, clicking several images, fiddling with the lens.
She bagged and tied off one hand and began doing the same with the other when she stopped. ‘This is interesting.’ The others glanced at her, then at what she examined. ‘He’s missing the pinkie on his left hand. Someone hacked it off.’
Dowerin turned and bolted from the tent, stumbling over the excessive fly screen. The doctor watched him go, then smirked. ‘The big guy doesn’t care for the hard stuff?’
‘I wouldn’t say that,’ the senior constable said.
The doctor chuffed a laugh. ‘Oh yeah? Why so quiet?’
The senior didn’t respond until the doctor straightened and tossed him a so what expression.
‘That’s his brother.’
Eight months earlier
The million-bushel silos storing the annual crop on the highway out-of-town offer Wycheproof a monument to the local economy. Wyche is a town folks speed through on the way to Mildura. No one really wants to live on the Calder Highway three hours northwest of Melbourne. Six hundred resolute people do to supply the local farming district. The Royal Mail is the only entertainment if you’re old enough to be served a beer. Otherwise, brushing away flies fills the day.
Curious tourists stop for a delightful choice of pastries at the bakery, before checking out Wyche’s famous mountain, the smallest recorded in the world. It’s a pimple forty-three metres above the surrounding dry plains. Such a pointless thing to do.
Behind Wycheproof’s hospital, Henderson Soils and Transport base its operations. Opened with one truck fifty years ago, now a grandson struggles to make a go of it. Tony Henderson took over from his father a few years back when they had six trucks. Using competitive pricing, he accumulated clients, and the company now runs ten trucks hauling anything local farmers need. The idea of spending his entire life in Wyche doesn’t excite him. He preferred his girls to live in rain country, so worked hard building his business to fund their relocation.
An overlarge black SUV entered the extended lot, parking by vehicles near a workshop close to the front gate. Darius Hassidim and Maisil Ghassab kept the engine idling, enjoying the light flow of air-conditioning as they waited for someone to attend. It didn’t take long for Henderson to appear in greasy blue overalls, squinting against the sun, a blackened hand shading his eyes as he walked towards the unfamiliar darkened window vehicle. When he almost reached it, Darius buzzed the window.
‘Mr Hassidim,’ Henderson replied, holding a hand against his heart.
‘Can we talk?’
‘Sure, what do you want?’
‘I want a quiet place to have a chat with you.’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Darius played with him. ‘Maybe business. How is business?’
Henderson checked around and wiped his hands against his overalls.
‘Good. Getting better, I s’pose.’
‘This is what I want to talk about, so where shall we go?’
‘There’s a work shed over by the soil’s storage.’ Henderson pointed across the hood of the SUV. ‘Follow me.’
Ghassab reversed, then trailed behind, the throaty exhaust purring a deep resonance.
When Henderson unchained the rattling door, a cloud of heat enveloped them. Darius took a swig from his plastic water bottle, following Henderson. A wooden work bench across the opposite wall had various tools strewn over it. Henderson eyed the hammer. He turned, leaning against the bench facing his visitors, sweat forming on his brow. The grimy concrete floor adding to the grubby feel of the shed’s remoteness.
‘Nice,’ said Darius, taking another swig. ‘A little warm for me, but we won’t be long. Please take a seat.’ He pointed to a couple of folded chairs leaning against a wall.
Ghassab handed one to Henderson, as Darius pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket, wiping the other before sitting in front of him, their knees almost touching. Ghassab, dressed in a black suit and t-shirt, stood by the door, hands in pockets.
‘Now, Tony, tell me.’ Darius shoved the handkerchief back and took another swig. ‘What have you been doing?’
‘What do you mean?’ Henderson asked, peeking back towards Ghassab.
‘Let’s see, what do I mean?’ In a blink, Darius slapped Henderson on the ear. ‘I suppose I mean; you were not listening when we explained our commercial arrangements.’
‘What do you mean?’ Henderson cringed, raising his arm. His ear buzzing and burning. ‘I pay you each month,’ he said, hoping to reassure Hassidim.
‘Yes, that’s true, and we are grateful for your donation, aren’t we, Maisil?’
Ghassab grunted. Henderson stifled a scoff.
‘But this donation is not the reason we are here.’
‘What do you want?’ Henderson said, still wary of a sudden lunge. ‘Twenty percent not enough for you?’
‘Twenty is the agreed amount. We never break our agreements,’ Darius answered, leaning forward, resting his forearms on his tailored trousers. ‘Can you say the same, Tony?’
‘How do you mean?’ Henderson said, scratching his cheek with his knuckles. He checked over his shoulder again, shifting back in his chair as Hassidim leaned into his personal space.
‘We explained the rules.’ Darius engaged Henderson’s eyes. ‘We think you have broken the rules.’
‘No, I haven’t.’
Darius jerked straighter. ‘No? Are you sure?’
‘You can check my books if you want.’
‘It’s not the books I’m worried about.’ Darius leaned back. ‘It’s truth I trust most in business.’ He paused for a moment. ‘I’m afraid you have been untruthful.’
‘What do you mean?’ Henderson cleared his throat. ‘I tell you the truth.’
Darius gazed at Henderson, searching his eyes. His own black eyes gave nothing away. As he stared, his face tightened, and said, almost whispering. ‘I loathe when my business partners lie to me, Tony. All I want you to do is tell me the truth.’
Henderson shook his head. ‘I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.’ He glanced back at Ghassab. ‘Do you know?’
Darius snapped his fingers in front of Henderson’s face to bring his attention back. ‘I know you have been unfaithful to us, Tony.’
‘What? No, I haven’t. What are you saying?’
‘You have been undercutting prices to my clients. Why are you stealing my clients?’
‘Who? What are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about you quoting ludicrous prices to my freight company’s clients. I have retained my clients for many years. I have a relationship with my clients, Tony. My family enjoys many benefits from my clients.’
‘But you still get your cut,’ Henderson said.
‘This is not the point.’ Darius continued staring as Henderson averted his eyes. ‘You have stolen my clients, and I want them back.’
‘It’s a free market,’ Henderson said, raising his eyes.
‘Free market?’ Darius nodded, dropping his head. Then smiled before standing in a rush, scooping away his chair. ‘Maisil, please give Tony a free market lesson.’
Crouching like a fighter, Ghassab moved to Henderson. From high above his head, he drove a fist like a pile-driver into Henderson’s face. Then hooked the other flush on Henderson’s jaw, flaying him backwards. Ghassab grabbed him by the lapel of his overalls, straightening, then lifting him back into the chair. He then smashed his right fist into Henderson’s nose, blood now flowing across his mouth and cheek.
‘End of the first lesson, Maisil.’
Henderson rocked back and forward, swallowing blood, smearing his mouth with a sleeve.
Darius resumed his chair, patting Henderson on the knee.
‘In the mallee, my companies run transport. My clients are my clients, and they are not to be touched by my competitors, especially those we allow to operate, like you, Tony. Do you understand?’
Henderson lifted his head, only one eye open, his sight blurred.
‘Do you understand?’ Darius repeated.
Henderson nodded, careful not to move and fall from the chair.
‘This is good; you pass lesson one. Lesson two.’ Darius stepped away again, allowing Ghassab to resume. This time knocking Henderson to the dusty concrete with the first punch, then flogging him with kicks to the chest, back, and head. He finished by stomping on Henderson’s head scuffing it with the heel of his boot.
Darius leaned over him. ‘Tony, I don’t mind you getting new clients. I will help you if I can, but I insist they must not be in the mallee… do you understand?’
Henderson tried to respond but couldn’t.
‘Sorry, I can’t hear you.’
He heaved in a chest full of air, then blew out, struggling to make a groan sound like yes.
‘You now pass lesson two in the school of the free market.’
Henderson tensed for another kicking. He felt his left arm dragged from under him and raised. Darius squatted with one hand resting on Henderson’s chest.
‘You have passed our lessons. Now for graduation. I take the first knuckle after a misunderstanding. I take the second knuckle after a mistake. I take the third knuckle just before termination. As this is your first mistake, I never want to hear from you again, Tony. Is that clear?’
Henderson could feel Ghassab holding his hand tight. He didn’t see him tugging small bolt cutters from his back pocket, springing them open. He didn’t feel them position over then gripping the first knuckle on his little finger.
‘So ends our free-market lessons and your graduation, Tony. Congratulations.’
Ghassab snapped closed the bolt cutters with a flick, and the tip of Henderson’s finger dropped to the floor.
He screamed, more in panic than pain.
Ghassab tugged a gauze cloth from his pocket, wrapping the stump. He then dragged Henderson to his feet, assisting him to the door. Darius rushed through before them, getting to the SUV and opening the hatch. Ghassab was not far behind, pushing Henderson into the vehicle. The men hopped into the vehicle and were off, kicking up dust and stones.
They skidded as they fought for traction when they hit the bitumen. They navigated various turns before rushing into the forecourt of the hospital, stopping outside the emergency. Ghassab went to the back of the SUV, assisting Henderson from the vehicle, and guiding him to the entrance. They were gone before Henderson, clutching his left hand, reached the reception desk seeking medical help.
‘Well, that was easy.’
Ghassab grinned. ‘I’m sure he’ll do the right thing from now on.’
‘I like Tony. He’s a good egg.