Challis - 01 - Dragon Man

BOOK: Challis - 01 - Dragon Man
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Dragon Man
Challis [1]
Garry Disher
(2005)
Rating:
***
From Publishers Weekly

Australian author Disher delivers an intelligent, atmospheric police procedural, the first of a new series. A serial killer targeting young women along the isolated Old Peninsula Highway has baffled Detective Inspector Hal Challis and his staff. Himself a resident of the Peninsula, as the locals call the sleepy "comma of land hooking into the sea south-east of Melbourne," Challis leads a solitary life. We soon learn that his wife Angela has spent the last seven years in prison for conspiring with her lover to murder him. Nicknamed "the dragon man," Challis in his spare time obsessively restores a vintage airplane, a Dragon Rapide. Indeed, as we meet the other police officers, it becomes clear that they're as interesting, not to mention as complex and morally ambiguous, as any of the criminals they seek. Pam Murphy, for instance, is an idealistic young constable recovering from a car crash and a nervous breakdown, and Sergeant Kees van Alphen raids the evidence locker for cocaine, which he trades for sex. Fans of such gritty yet cerebral crime novelists as Ian Rankin and Jack Harvey should be well pleased.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

A serial killer targeting young women is on the loose on the Old Peninsula Highway, located on a comma-shaped peninsula jutting into the sea, southeast of Melbourne. Detective Inspector Hal Challis is in charge of the investigation, along with a rash of burglaries and arson cases. Two women have been murdered, and a third has disappeared, leading the locals to worry that negative publicity will keep tourists from enjoying the peninsula as their holiday spot. Although the plot centers on the serial killer, other officers work other crimes, including the case of a mysterious woman, part of a witness-protection program, who is terrified when her mailbox is set alight. The beautifully described setting lets the reader feel the oppressive heat of a December summer in Australia, and the characters are well drawn and distinct. Challis himself is a likable, honorable police officer fighting his own demons along with corrupt colleagues and inept superiors. A solid new series from genre vet Disher.
Sue O'Brien
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

* * * *

The Dragon Man

[Inspector Challis
01]

By Garry Disher

Scanned & Proofed By MadMaxAU

* * * *

Prologue

S

ometimes
it felt as if he were prowling the roof of heaven, riding high through the
night, the stars close above him, nobody about, the teeming masses with their
petty concerns tucked safely into their beds. He was as restless as a fox. He
seemed to have a channel through life at times like this, a path through the
broad darkness that was the Old Peninsula Highway, nothing and nobody to beset
him. Down he went, the whole length of the slumbering hook of land, to where it
reached the ocean, and then back again, to the far easterly tip of the city,
where there were lights again, and the stench of humankind, and where he lived
in a loveless house. He turned at a roundabout, headed on down toward the ocean
again.

He came upon her about halfway along
the highway. Other cars at night were almost an affront to him, but they were
always gone in a flash, just a pair of headlamps, scarcely registering. This
car had stopped, parked on the gravel forecourt of a roadside fruit and
vegetable outlet, a massive barn-like shape in the night. He slowed to no more
than a walking pace as he passed. The car looked forlorn, its bonnet up and
steam rising from the radiator. A solitary bulb high on a nearby pole cast a
weak cone of grey-yellow light over a telephone box and the young woman inside
it. She was speaking urgently, gesturing, but seemed to freeze when she saw him
passing, and stepped out to get a better look at him. He accelerated away. The
image he had of her was of the loneliest figure at the loneliest spot on earth.
Worlds end. Amen.

He turned around at the next
intersection, and when he reached her again he turned in off the road, steering
close to her poor, hangdog car. Good. She was alone. He drove past her car
until he was adjacent to the phone box, then wound down his window. He didnt
want to alarm her by opening his door and getting out.

She was hovering in the phone box.
He called across to her: Everything okay? Phone working? Sometimes its been
vandalised.

He sounded like a local. That would
help. He saw her wrap her arms about herself. Fine, thanks. I rang a breakdown
service. Theyre on their way.

He happened to glance away from her
and at her car. He stiffened, looking back at her in alarm: Did you have
someone with you?

She froze, began to tremble, and her
voice when it came was no more than a squeak. What do you mean?

Theres someone in the back of your
car, behind the seat.

She edged toward him. Who? I didnt
see anyone.

He opened his door, put one foot on
the ground. I dont like it. Did you leave the car unattended at any time?

The station car park. Its been
there all day.

There have been cases . . . he said.

He got out then, keeping his door
open. They were both eyeing her car, ready to flee. Look, he said, youd
better hop in with me, slide across to the passenger side.

She weighed it up. He was careful
not to look at her but to let her see the anxiety on his face. Then, as she
came toward him, he moved away, edging around his own car and toward hers.

Her hand went to her mouth. What
are you doing? Come back, please come back.

I want to get a closer look at him.
For the police.

No!

Her fear seemed to communicate
itself to him. I guess youre right.

Just get me away from here!

Okay.

It was as easy as that. Inspired,
really. That first one, last week, she hadnt been a challenge at all. Drunk,
half-drugged, hitchhiking, shed been too easy. At least hed got to use his
head a little tonight. His headlights probed the darkness as he carried her
away, high above the rottenness that was always there under the light of the
sun.

* * * *

One

D

etective
Inspector Hal Challis showered with a bucket at his feet. He kept it
economical, but still the bucket overflowed. He towelled himself dry, dressed,
and, while the espresso pot was heating on the bench-top burner in his kitchen,
poured the bucket into the washing machine. Couple more showers and hed have
enough water for a load of washing. Only 19 December but already his rainwater
tanks were low and a long, dry summer had been forecast. He didnt want to buy
water again, not like last summer.

The coffee was ready. As he poured
he glanced at an old calendar pinned to the corkboard above his bench. Hed
bought the calendar by mail order three years ago, and kept it opened at March.
The vintage aeroplane for that month was a prototype of the de Havilland DH84
Dragon. Then the toaster pinged and Challis hunted for the butter and the jam
and finally took his toast and coffee on to the deck at the rear of his house.

The early sun reached him through
the wisteria with the promise of a hot day ahead. He felt bone-tired. A
suspected abduction on the Old Peninsula Highway two nights agothe
investigation ultimately dumped into his lap. Frankston uniforms had taken the
call, then referred it to the area Superintendent, whod rung at 1 a.m. and
said, Maybe your boys struck a second time, Hal. Challis had spent the next
four hours at the scene, directing a preliminary search. When hed got home
again at 5 a.m. yesterday there hadnt seemed much point in going back to bed,
and hed spent the rest of the day in the car or on the phone.

A little four-stroke engine was
chugging away on the bank of his neighbours dam. Cows once drank there. Now
the cows were gone and the hillside stretched back in orderly rows of vines.
Challis couldnt spot his neighbour among the vines, but the man was there
somewhere. He usually was, weeding, pruning, spraying, picking. Challis thought
of the insecticide spray, of the wind carrying it to his roof, where the rain
would wash it into his underground tank, and he tossed out his coffee.

He stepped down from the verandah and
made a circuit of his boundary fence. Half a hectare, on a dirt lane west of
the Old Peninsula Highway, tucked in among orchards, vineyards and a horse
stud, and Challis made this walk every morning and evening as a kind of check
on his feelings. Five years now, and still the place was his port in a storm.

As he collected the
Age
from
his mailbox on the dirt lane at the front of his property, a voice called from
the next driveway, Hal, have you got a minute?

The man from the vineyard was
walking toward him. Small, squint-eyed from the angling sun, about sixty.
Challis waited, gazing calmly, as he did with suspects, and sure enough the man
grew edgy.

Challis stopped himself. The fellow
didnt deserve his CIB tricks. What can I do for you?

Look, I realise its nothing, but
you know the ornamental lake Ive got, over near the house?

Yes.

Someones been fishing in it, the
neighbour said. After the trout. The thing is, theyre scaring the birds away.

Ibis, herons, a black swan,
moorhens. Challis had watched them for half an hour one day, from a little hide
the man had constructed in the reeds. Do you know who?

Probably kids. I found a couple of
tangled lines and fishhooks, half a dozen empty Coke cans.

Challis nodded. Have you informed the
local station?

I thought, you being an inspector

Inform the local station, Challis
said. Theyll send a car around now and then, make their presence felt.

Cant you . . .

Im very sorry, but it would look
better if you lodged the complaint.

Challis left soon after that. He
locked the house, backed his Triumph out of the garage and turned right at his
gate, taking the lane in bottom gear. In winter he negotiated potholes, mud and
minor flooding; in summer, corrugations and treacherous soft edges.

He drove east, listening to the
eight oclock news. At five minutes past eight he turned on to the Old
Peninsula Highway, meeting it quite near the abduction scene, and headed south,
toward the town of Waterloo, hearing the screams the dying leave behind them.

* * * *

He
could have been more helpful to the neighbour. He wondered what the man thought
of him, a detective inspector and New Peninsula.

The Peninsula. People talked about
it as if it were cohesive and indivisible. You only did that if you didnt know
it, Challis thought. You only did that if you thought its distinctive shapea
comma of land hooking into the sea south-east of Melbournegave it a separate
identity, or if youd driven through it once and seen only beaches, farmland
and quiet coastal towns.

Not that it covered a large
arealess than an hour by road from top to bottom, and about twenty minutes
across at its widest pointbut to a policeman like Challis there were several
Peninsulas. The old Peninsula of small farms and orchards, secluded country
estates, some light industry and fishing, and sedate coastal towns populated by
retirees and holidaying families, was giving way to boutique wineries,
weekender farms, and back roads populated with bed-and-breakfast cottages, potteries,
naturopathy clinics, reception centres, tearooms and galleries. Tourism was one
of the biggest industries, and people with professionslike Challis himself
were flocking to buy rural hideaways. Some local firms made a good living from
erecting American-style barns and installing pot-belly stoves, and costly
four-wheel drives choked the local townships.

But although there was more money
about, it wasnt necessarily going to more people. A community centre
counsellor friend of Challiss had told him of the growing number of homeless,
addicted kids she dealt with. Industries and businesses were closing, even as
families were moving into the cheap housing developments that were spreading at
the fringes of the main towns, Waterloo and Mornington. The shire council, once
one of the biggest employers, was cutting expenses to the bone, using managers
whose sense of humanity had been cut to the bone. The adjustments were never
forewarned or carried out face to face. Challiss counsellor friend now sold
home-made pickles and jams at fairs and markets. There had been a letter,
telling her she was redundant, her whole unit closed down. Just three days
notice, Hal.

It was happening everywhere, and the
police were usually the ones to pick up the pieces.

Which didnt mean that the Peninsula
wasnt a pleasant place to live in. Challis felt as if hed come home, finally.

And the job suited him. In the old
days of murder or abduction investigations hed been sent all over the state,
city and bush, with a squad of specialists, but the Commissioner had introduced
a new system, intended to give local CIB officers experience in the
investigation of serious crimes alongside their small-time burglaries, assaults
and thefts. Now senior homicide investigators like Challis worked a specific
beat. Challiss was the Peninsula. Although he had an office in regional
headquarters, he spent most of his time in the various Peninsula police
stations, conducting investigations with the help of the local CIB, calling in
the specialists only if he got derailed or bogged down. It was a job that
entailed tact, and giving as much responsibility to the local CIB as possible,
or the fallout was resentment and a foot-dragging investigation.

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