Iain Ryan’s The Student (Echo Publishing) is high-paced, hardboiled regional noir: fresh, gritty, unnerving, with a stark and lonely beauty. Set in Gatton, Queensland in 1994, the story follows Nate, a student dealing weed on the side. A girl called Maya Kibby is dead. No one knows who killed her. Jesse’s friend and dealer is missing. Nate is high, alone, hunted for a suitcase he’s found and haunted by its contents. And as things turn from bad to worse, Nate uncovers far more than he bargained for. This extract begins on page 7.
Dark out through the windows:
‘– Nah, it’s round the other side. Jesus.’
‘All them other vans face that way, I just reckoned…’
‘What? Goddamnit, keep your voice down.’
They sound big. One of them finds the door to my caravan.
It’s locked but the whole thing is so old and rusted that the lock doesn’t mean much.
I sit up and grab the hammer I keep by the bed.
There’s a sound: a key sliding in.
I watch in horror as the door swings open.
The whole caravan creaks and shifts when the first one steps up. In the dark, he looks like a bear wearing a human head. A long black beard, dark vest, hair trailing over his shoulders.
The other one follows. He’s smaller. Shorter hair. Same beard. Same vest.
‘Hello?’ says one of them.
The lights come on. My eyes burn. I focus and find them both standing there smiling at me.
‘This is a new one,’ says the bear. ‘Sleeps with a hammer.’
I can see now that the smaller one’s holding a rifle. It’s not aimed at me. He’s just holding it.
‘Don’t fucking hit me with that thing,’ says the bear. He comes and sits on the edge of the bed. The bed almost collapses under the weight of him. ‘Got anything to drink, kid? I know you’re out of weed because we just bought a key to your place with a fifty bag.’
He dangles the key from his hand.
I throw the hammer on the floor.
Their names are Dennis and Hatch and my caravan looks crowded with them in it. Dennis is the bear. Hatch is the one with the rifle. He stands it against the kitchen counter as I check the van’s little fridge. I have three bottles of a neighbour’s home brew and a half-empty goon bag of red wine. Dennis peers in over my shoulder. He grunts when I pull out the beer. The two of them push themselves into the van’s breakfast nook.
I stay by the fridge.
Dennis says, ‘You seen Jesse?’
‘You know where Jesse is?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘That’s a pity.’
I wait. They look at each other, take a mouthful of beer each.
‘I just sell for him,’ I say.
‘We know who you are,’ says Hatch.
‘You’re Jesse’s partner. One of ’em anyhow,’ adds Dennis.
‘That’s not… There’s no… We’re not partners. He’s more like a supplier.’
‘Well, then I guess that makes you my bitch then, because I’m Jesse’s supplier,’ says Dennis. He waves his hand. ‘I said come ’ere. Sit.’
I do it, squeezing into the tiny breakfast nook beside Dennis. As soon as I’m settled, Dennis grabs me by the back of the scalp and slams my head down into the Formica table. The pain is instant yet somehow his grip on my hair is worse, the skin on my face pinched back. He grinds my head down into the tabletop.
Hatch leans over to my ear and whispers, ‘The way we see it. You go and find Jesse or you cover his debts.’ Hatch slaps the table by my face. ‘That was a question, arsehole.’
Dennis lets me up. ‘You got forty-five grand? You got that on you?’
‘No. I’m waiting on –’
Dennis shoves me out onto the van floor. I slide across the lino until my head connects with the wood panel of the cupboard under the sink.
For a sickly moment, everything stops:
It’s right there.
We all stare at it.
Hatch says, ‘Well, you’re the idiot that threw him that way.’
‘I’m not going to touch that,’ I say. I don’t know what’s happening.
Dennis sighs again, louder. ‘Fuck.’
They drag themselves out of the booth and stand over me. Hatch grabs the gun. He points the barrel at my head, hand on the trigger.
My arms jolt.
‘It ain’t even loaded,’ he says. ‘Just couldn’t leave it out there on the bike.’
Dennis squats down, looking me in the eye. He says, ‘Kid, we know who you all are. You’re Nate. And Jesse’s girlfriend is… that slut with the name like someone’s grandma, she’s…’ and he clicks his fingers.
‘Iris,’ says Hatch.
‘That’s right. Iris,’ repeats Dennis. ‘We know about Iris. We can keep her out of it… if we play our cards right. We don’t need to visit her. She’s a friend of yours, right?’
‘Good. Then there’s the other guy isn’t there? Foot? Shoe?’
‘Sock,’ I say.
‘That’s right, that’s right,’ says Dennis quietly. ‘We been asking around. All the wind’s blowing the same way. Everybody says you know Jesse better than anyone. So now you’ve got a couple of days to dig him up.’
‘Or get our money,’ says Hatch. ‘Forty-five grand.’
‘I don’t even know what this is about.’
‘Then you better find Jesse and ask him,’ says Dennis. He stands up and kicks me in the side, hard. By the time I’m done wiping my eyes, they’re gone. Then there’s just the boom of two motorbikes in the distance.
After a time, I check my watch.
Still early. I get my things and walk up to the shower block because I have no idea what to do next. The hot water pelts down on me. An old man sings ‘Sweet Caroline’ to himself, two cubicles over and it creeps me out. He keeps circling back to the opening verse, never getting to the chorus, never finishing up. I think about jerking off but have to nix it. I can’t concentrate through the singing.
I head back to the van.
I check my beeper. A dozen flashing messages.
It’s a Wednesday night in Gatton.
The dance is on tonight.