Chris Hammer was a journalist for more than thirty years, dividing his career between covering Australian federal politics and international affairs. For many years he was a roving foreign correspondent for SBS TV's flagship current affairs program Dateline. He has reported from more than thirty countries on six continents. In Canberra, roles included chief political correspondent for The Bulletin, current affairs correspondent for SBS TV and a senior political journalist for The Age. Treasure and Dirt is Hammer's second book.
Detective sergeant Ivan Lucic is sitting in the back of the Polair Cessna, staring out the window. There is nothing to see, just an endless plain of clouds stretching to the western horizon, glowing white below the morning sun. Beneath the clouds it will be raining; it was bucketing down when the plane left Sydney, fighting the roiling squalls of greyness, dipping and fighting, engines whining against the weather. But up here the sky is blue and empty, tranquil above the never-ending whiteness. Like a blank page, inviting inscription.
He glances across at the others. The crime scene investigator, Carole Nguyen, is working assiduously at her laptop, tapping and frowning and tapping again, too engrossed to notice his attention. Behind her the forensic pathologist, Blake Ness, is asleep and snoring, the sound harmonising with the engines, earplugs in, eyes shielded by an old airline mask. Ivan doesn’t bother to look behind himself: he knows the seat is empty. His boss, Detective Inspector Morris Montifore, should be there, should be leading the investi-gation, but he called at the last moment, said he couldn’t make the trip. So Ivan is on his own, heading towards a murder scene: an opal miner crucified at some hellhole called Finnigans Gap, up near the Queensland border, miles from anywhere. And that’s all he knows. There was nothing waiting for him at Bankstown airport: no brief, no Montifore, no explanation.
His head throbs, a residual hangover generated more by lack of sleep than too much alcohol. Sunday morning and here he is, woken at five thirty, ordered to the airport by Montifore, only to be left to take the assignment solo. Sunday. He should be in bed, nursing his head and regretting his losses. Or, at the very least, he should be emulating Blake and trying to catch up on sleep. It’s bound to be a long day, draining and confronting. It will be hot at Finnigans, probably very hot; in January, seven or eight hundred kilometres inland, that’s a given. And yet his mind is restless. There was something strange in Montifore’s voice, something troubled. He tries once more to identify it, but the more he tries to recall the conversation, turn it over in his mind, the more nebu-lous it becomes.
The co-pilot wanders back to tell him they’re going to land at Dubbo, to fuel up just in case. He says Finnigans Gap has an airstrip, but that’s all. No refuelling, no control tower, no services. ‘Paved runway, though,’ the aviator says, approval in his voice.
On the ground at Dubbo, the rain is a gentler variation of the coastal torrents, soft and soaking, the landing smooth by contrast with the stomach-churning take-off from Bankstown. Ivan walks across the tarmac, through the drizzle, to the commercial terminal, seeking caffeine and information. The place is deserted, but there’s a cafe open, preparing for the day’s flights. He orders a long black and a pre-prepared ham-and-cheese croissant. It’s given a minute in a sandwich press to impart some warmth, but not enough to melt the cheese. He taps his card, and for a moment his heart does a double beat. But it’s okay, the transaction is approved: there’s enough in the account. He takes his breakfast to the windows overlooking the runways. A couple of backpackers are asleep on the floor, dead to the world. He walks further along, finds an isolated seat, sets his piping-hot coffee to cool and scoffs half his croissant. It tastes surprisingly good; he must be hungry.
The first thing he does is check his bank account. It’s fine. Well, not in the red. He checks the withdrawals from last night: just three of them, three hundred bucks a throw. Not so bad, then. Within the boundaries. He transfers more money across from the other account, the one he’s meant to use for gambling. He knows he should be more disciplined, knows he squanders too much of his own money. Then he takes another bite, sips some coffee and rings Morris Montifore.
‘Ivan? Where are you?’
‘Dubbo. Refuelling. What happened?’
‘The deputy commissioner. She overruled Homicide. I was on the way to Bankstown when Plodder rang me, told me I need to stay in Sydney.’
Out on the tarmac, Ivan can see the avgas truck making its way towards the police plane. He glances at his watch. They’ve already been on the ground fifteen minutes. He looks at his crois-sant, but his hunger has abandoned him, replaced by a bad feeling.
The deputy commissioner and Detective Superintendent Dereck ‘Plodder’ Packenham, head of Homicide, both up before dawn on a Sunday, ringing Montifore.
He attempts to make light of it. ‘Up for another medal then?’ Montifore chuckles at that, dry and humourless, the laugh he knows so well.
‘No, my friend. I think our days of gongs and glory are a thing of the past.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Means I’m being investigated. Professional Standards.’
‘Bullshit. How is that even possible?’
‘Good question. No idea.’
‘Sorry, I don’t get it,’ Ivan says.
‘Neither do I. I haven’t even been told anything officially as yet. Just back channels.’
‘Friends in high places.’
‘Something like that.’
The truck has pulled up next to the plane. The driver is attaching the fuel line. Montifore’s words make no sense to Ivan. For the past six months, he and his superior have been feted: photos in the paper, a distinguished service medal, even a pay rise. They’d solved a slurry of murders: three judges, an undercover cop, a newspaper editor, an American gangster, an infamous standover man. And in so doing, they helped to expose a cabal of influence and corruption centred on a private dining club; the repercussions lasted for months, are still being felt.
This isn’t an opportunity, he realises, this is a test
Montifore has been touted as a future head of Homicide, even a deputy commissioner, Lucic a senior sergeant.
‘What’s changed?’ he asks.
‘Blowback. The revenge of the old guard.’ Montifore’s voice is remarkably matter-of-fact. ‘They resent how we’ve been lionised and they’re reasserting their influence. They want me out.’
‘But how? We did nothing wrong. We played everything by the book.’
‘Best we don’t talk about it. Not now. You don’t know who might be listening.’
The man refuelling the plane is waving his arms at someone over by the terminal, pointing at the back of the truck, as if there is some problem.
‘Is that a joke?’
‘No. It’s not. I’ll call you tomorrow, when I find out more. Good luck up there.’
‘Wait— what can you tell me about this case?’
‘You haven’t received a brief?’
‘Not yet. None of us have.’
‘Who’s with you?’
‘Carole Nguyen and Blake Ness.’
‘You don’t have another detective with you?’
‘No. I think they’re giving me a local.’
‘In Finnigans Gap? Hell. Good luck with that.’ Montifore chuckles again, the same irony-laden sound.
Above the downpour, the view is unchanging: radiant blue above, a field of white below. Finally, the clouds begin to fray, then dissolve altogether, confirmation that the plane is indeed making progress. Ivan is presented with the earth, spread out before him, the great expanse of the interior, out past the last of the hills, where the land is flat and forever, too far inland for the rains to persist. Last time he flew this far inland was in the PolAir chopper, a couple of years back now, out to a small town called Riversend in the Western Riverina. Back then the earth was bleached, barren and bone-dry, in the grip of a terrible drought. Now some mighty switch out in the Pacific has altered its orientation and the rain-clouds have returned, sweeping in week after week, painting the flatness with variations of green, even this far from the coast. Water is spread across the landscape, the sun flashing back at him from farm dams and ephemeral marshes, rivers and creeks.
For a moment it captures him, this panorama of life renewed. He’s reminded, with this aerial perspective, of Aboriginal paintings, the land from above, imbued with spirit, replete with hidden meanings, of unspoken significance. For a moment, the magic of it resonates within him, the magnitude. But only for a moment. He shakes off the idea; he’s a policeman, not a philosopher. There is a job to be done. There’s nothing special to be read in the landscape; painting it a different colour doesn’t alter its essential emptiness. He returns his mind to his assignment. He tries to look at the positives: he’s been hoping to emerge from Montifore’s shadow, to lead his own investigation, to make his own name. He just wishes he had more warning. And more resources. In Sydney, such a murder would attract a whole team: up to a dozen profes-sional and experienced Homicide detectives, with admin support and scientific expertise. Instead, it’s just him, Carole and Blake, with whatever help Ivan can muster locally— hopefully someone competent enough to run errands and complete the paperwork. To expect anything more, real insights and investigative flare, would be foolish. He knows. He started in uniform, spent two years paying his dues in a country town in the state’s Central West: petty crimes, pub brawls and domestic violence. Sexual assaults, car crashes and quad-bike accidents. Not exactly a whetstone for the forensic mind. No, this case is his and his alone; he will wear the success or bear the failures.
He’s run cases before, murder inquiries, but only simple ones: the husband or boyfriend covered in blood, literally or meta-phorically, and soaked through with guilt. He hates those cases: so simple to solve, so grim and sad and tragic. So wasteful and unnecessary. Lives taken needlessly and heedlessly, benefitting no one. Pathetic. Maybe this case will be different. A challenge, where bringing a killer to heel will deliver satisfaction and pride, the community protected, justice served. Nothing compared to what he and Montifore achieved last winter, but maybe enough. Maybe enough for him to start establishing his own reputation. It occurs to him that there will be those who would like to see him taken down a peg, jealous of the success he’s enjoyed working under Montifore. Now, should he fail, he can imagine the whisper campaign: It was Montifore all the time; Lucic was just a passenger.
If Professional Standards are coming for Morris, then they might be after him as well. He hadn’t thought of that. Instead of glory, he should be thinking of keeping his head down and covering his arse. Lord knows, he can’t afford to lose his job. Even suspension would be catastrophic, given his gambling, given his lack of savings or assets. The pay rise was good for his self-esteem but has done nothing for his bank account: the more that comes in, the more goes out. He realises he needs this case: get it right, get it done, do it by the book. His big opportunity, but it might be gone before he knows it. He could be implicated in Montifore’s transgressions, without even knowing what they are, without even being in Sydney to defend himself.
A new thought comes to him: why was a murder way out in the sticks even allocated to Montifore and himself in the first place? Was it a set-up, the old guard conniving to get them out of Sydney while they moved against Montifore? Or was there a more benign reason: the detective inspector’s reputation for getting results while remaining politically astute? Is there something complex or sensitive about this case, something requiring Montifore’s skill set? Or maybe the brass wanted to send a message to the two detectives, not to get above their station. Was that the idea: assign them a shit investigation, out beyond the interest and budgets of the media? But why the last minute change of plan, why keep Montifore in Sydney? The deputy commissioner involved, the head of Homicide acquiescing, Professional Standards investigating. Has Lucic himself been sidelined without even knowing it, sent so far west he’s beyond relevance? He stares out the window. He can’t know the answers to these questions, but he knows one thing: he needs to demonstrate he is not merely an adjunct to Montifore, that he’s his own man, with his own skills. This isn’t an opportunity, he realises, this is a test.
His attention is drawn back to the landscape. A gash has opened in the great plain, black against green, like an infected wound. The pilot seems to take it as a hint; Ivan hears the engines change pitch, feels the nose dip ever so slightly. As the plane moves closer, he can see it’s an open-cut coalmine, vast and deep, with Matchbox trucks wheeling their way to and fro, servicing a line of giant excavators and conveyor belts. A railway snakes away from the mine, heading east to some distant port. From this height it looks like a model, some toy set from a rich kid’s playroom.
A few minutes more and the plane starts to bank. Ivan catches a glimpse of a long ridge stretching west to east, rocky and barren, pale brown and dun above the green of the plain, dotted with sparse trees as if to emphasise the lack of ground cover. As the plane tracks around, losing height as it goes, he can see a small town nestled in a hollow where the ridge dips. Finnigans Gap, dividing the ridge into two.
Now a lake appears to the west, vast and empty, almost completely devoid of water but shimmering with salt, glowing white and shades of pink, ringed by a halo of dark soil, nothing growing, in contrast to the verdant land stretching to the horizon. The ridge grows closer, more defined, like an ants nest: he can see no ants, but he can see their burrows, the piles of rubble extracted by miners. Now he sees the airport, on the flat of the plain but hard up against the town, the runways a skewered cross: the main tarmac runway running east–west, crossing a shorter strip of red gravel at an angle.
The plane dips lower, propellers changing pitch, coming in on its final approach. There’s a small building, presumably the terminal, not much more than a shed, one car parked next to it, a four-wheel drive. Hopefully it’s his assistant. The plane starts to buck in the thermals, and from the window he can see a willy-willy sweep the mine shafts beyond the airport fence.
This is an edited extract from Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer, Allen and Unwin, RRP $32.99, available here.