JAMES Brandt didn’t look back when he got away from his rural hometown as a teenager. Now, he’s returned to Kippen for the first time in twenty years because his cousin Tony has been found dead under the local bridge.
The news that Tony has left him the entire family farm triggers James’s journalistic curiosity – and his anxiety – both of which cropped up during his turbulent journey to adulthood. But it is the unexpected homophobic attack he survives that draws James into a hunt for the reasons one lonely Kippen farm boy in every generation kills himself.
Standing in the way is James’s father, the town’s recently retired top cop, who is not prepared to investigate crimes no-one reckons have taken place. James must use every newshound’s trick he ever learned in order to uncover the brutal truth.
A coming-of-age story and crime thriller with a large and gentle heart.
The prologue of Tank Water
Daniel listened to his son’s idiotic answering machine for the fourth or fifth time, waited for the beep, cleared his throat and went to say everything; but when the right words still wouldn’t come, he threw the receiver down and went for another drink.
Bottles rattled in the fridge door as he yanked it open. He twisted the top off one and threw his head back for the first gulp. From that angle the leftover sausages on the top shelf looked like his best option for tea, but their yellowed skin reminded him of his nephew’s bloated body inside the freezer at the police station.
Even after shutting his fridge the smell was there. It’d been hanging around for days, like there was mortuary fluid on his shoes. Whenever he noticed that sickly blend of chemicals, Daniel couldn’t help but picture the photographs of Tony’s remains before they’d removed him from the river below the Kippen Bridge.
He turned to the sink and washed his hands again, but the mossy scent coming down the pipes from the tank didn’t help. What water did to a corpse — filling it with more death than it seemed to have room for — was the very worst thing he’d seen in twenty-five years of police work. The head, shoulders and most of the torso had been submerged, swelling the guts. The legs were broken and lying at awkward angles, entirely concealed by reeds and the thicket of poplars.
Daniel reached for his beer and flicked the radio on. Music he didn’t recognise unsettled him, but the news would come on in a few minutes. Word was already getting around town. He hoped no one had contacted the Kippen station with the worst of the stories. Tony would probably still be lying there if a jogger’s dog hadn’t sniffed him out. The park below the bridge was known for attracting lonely types, and his nephew certainly fit the bill. Every ten years or so, one of them jumped.
He reached into the bread bin. Only crusts left. Everything else was in the fridge, but Daniel wasn’t game to open that again. Nothing much in the cupboards. He wasn’t in the habit of going into Kippen just for shopping, not since he’d finished up at the police station. Anyhow, there were beers left from his retirement party on the back seat of his car.
As he pushed through the screen door onto the verandah, rabbits scurried off the last patch of lawn by the tap. A cloud of dust in the middle distance partly shrouded his brother inside his tractor cabin, heading for home. Beyond that, already out of the sun’s reach, Deloraine’s homestead blended into the dark furrows that would push up Bill’s cheeky early sorghum crop soon enough.
Daniel sucked at his drink and swirled each mouthful around his teeth before swallowing, testing whether it could somehow be right to head over there and hang around for something to eat. For more than twenty years, Doris had told him to come around for a meal whenever he needed. He had a whole unopened carton of beer to offer.
Sitting up in his cabin, Bill was a bloody wonder. He never let the farm go, even after the worst life threw at him. With the chance of frost right through to November it was dicey to plant so early, but Daniel knew why his brother did things that way. It was like they couldn’t lose no matter how much they gambled. Bill planted crops even if the conditions were all wrong. He loved feeling like a winner in spite of the weather reports, and there was no one out here to overlook your failures. It had been a huge risk, but he’d pulled the tough older brother act and forced Daniel into sowing sorghum on every square inch of Deloraine and The Mulgas, less than a month after little Gregory had died.
Daniel gnawed the inside of his cheek, remembering his own dead boy. The hard work of that huge crop had paid off richly for them, but it had been Daniel’s last full season of farming before he’d pulled the skittish younger brother act, sold the land and applied to become a cop. Harvesting his share of nearly five thousand acres in the solitude of his cabin while he’d sobbed for Gregory had done him in. All that was left of The Mulgas’ perfect cropping country was the home yard.
‘Thank Christ,’ he muttered as though someone was there. His colleagues were right. He’d started talking to himself. Former colleagues. Bill changed gears and the tractor disappeared behind the tall pine trees that obscured the machinery shed at Deloraine. As Daniel watched, he felt the air cool and noticed the gloom of his own house stretching over the field between the homesteads. The unmistakeable shadow of The Mulgas’ water tank steadily covered the dried grass, the gravel laneway and the bare fruit trees along the fence.
He shouldn’t go and bother his brother and sister-in-law. The Mulgas had him in its grasp, and staying in was better than witnessing poor old Bill having to go home to Doris. He’d be trying to disappear into the woodwork even more than usual, and she would be busy with funeral arrangements like it was a bloody dance at the town hall.
Daniel heaved a sigh, drowned it with another mouthful, and prepared to sit with the sorrow in the homestead that once rattled with a wife and kids. There was just one more thing to do before he’d put the lock on the top gate, fetch the beers in and call it a night.
He flung the door open, killed the radio, went for the phone and dialed the number he’d circled in the newspaper next to his son’s photograph. While he waited for the comedy act of Jamie’s message, still with that girlish tone, Daniel finished his beer.
‘You’ve reached James Brandt, journalist at the newspaper everyone loves to hate. I’m not available to take your call at the moment, but please leave me a message if you’ve got the scoop.’
Right off the beep, Daniel spoke.
‘Jamie,’ he said and burped. He wasn’t about to let his son imagine anything had changed. ‘It’s Dad. Look, I’ve been trying to catch you for a few days. It’s just that, well there’s no easy way to say it. There’s been a death in the family. Just call me, son. Funeral’s next week. There’s a couple of things to discuss, but you don’t need to be here.’
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.