The newest addition to Dorothy Johnston’s sea-change mystery series, The Swan Island Connection (For Pity Sake Publishing) once again brings Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula to life with intrigue and exacting description.
When a shocking murder rocks the quiet coastal town of Queenscliff, local senior constable Chris Blackie and his deputy Anthea Merritt fully expect the investigation to be handled by the Criminal Investigation Unit based in Geelong. But they’re blind-sided by the interest taken in the case by shadowy figures from the secret military training base on nearby Swan Island. Consigned to the edges of the investigation and fearing an imminent wrongful conviction, Chris and Anthea defy their superiors to follow their own lines of enquiry – at great personal risk. The following extract is from Chapter 1.
All children were a mixture of innocence and guile, Chris Blackie thought, but the innocence had been squashed out of Bobby McGilvrey unnaturally young. Chris Blackie, senior constable in charge of the small, some would say redundant Queenscliff police station, was in the habit of qualifying his impressions and his thoughts. He did so automatically; and for the last four months he’d lived mostly in his own company, with only himself to talk to and share impressions with, apart from the small practicalities of daily life. He’d been travelling in countries where, though everyone who dealt with tourists had at least a smattering, English was not a language in which they chose to express themselves. Though politeness ran deep, he’d too often watched the pained expression with which some poor river guide attempted to follow what he was trying to convey. He was sensitive enough not to continue inflicting embarrassment, so he’d given up. He wished now that he’d kept a diary, but it was too late for that.
Rivers of the World, he could have called his trip, and the irony would have been apparent to no one but himself. He’d become fascinated by the Nile, and though planning only to make a stopover in Egypt on his way to Europe, he’d ended up staying in Africa for almost the whole of his leave.
Now Australian rivers looked like trickling drains and Chris was back on the Barwon, a river he’d ignored for most of his life, trying to work out what to do about Bobby McGilvrey.
There’d been a dolphin in the estuary for almost two months. It happened from time to time that dolphins, seals as well, came upriver to fish; but none, in his memory, had stayed so long. Familiarity had led to mischief. Some boys had stoned the dolphin, then tried to run it down with a boat their ringleader Stuart Hocking had ‘borrowed’ from his father. Dealing with the incident wasn’t Chris’s problem thankfully, since Barwon Heads was in the next municipality. But Bobby and the gang lived in Queenscliff, and it was to Chris that Bobby had reported the attacks.
In retaliation, the gang had threatened to kill him. This was not surprising. Bobby was a loner who did not appear to be afraid of making enemies. He did what he pleased and took orders from no one, so far as Chris could tell. He looked young for a ten-year-old, skinny but strong in the arms and legs. He’d been paddling about on the bay and the river in his small red kayak since he was six. He’d rigged up a trailer for the kayak out of a discarded pram and carted it about behind his bike the way other kids carted surf boards. Chris believed he’d stolen the money to buy the kayak. He could pass off the death threat as children’s chatter, but something told him he had better not.
He could pass off the death threat as children’s chatter, but something told him he had better not.
Bobby McGilvrey was not a boy to give away information, and there were aspects of the business with the dolphin that he was keeping to himself. Chris identified with the child’s reserve, but this identification resided in a part of himself that he did not wish to examine closely. Examining uncomfortable emotions had been a large part of the reason for his extended leave, and he was aware that he’d returned with only a small amount of introspection having been achieved.
Bobby appeared without his bike or kayak, his dog Max walking close to heel.
When Chris said hello, Bobby regarded him solemnly and did not return the greeting. ‘I’m worried about Max,’ he said.
Max was a kelpie cross, swift as brown lightning and Bobby’s only regular companion. The boys he’d dobbed in over the dolphin had threatened to kill Max as well.
Chris knew that Bobby’s house had no proper yard. The back gate was falling off its hinges, and even if it hadn’t been, the fence was falling down as well. The boy wasn’t allowed to bring his dog inside.
His father, who’d also threatened to kill Max if he found him in the house, was far too ready to use his fists on his children. Chris had been round there with a social worker more than once.
After reporting the beatings, Chris had alternately tried to persuade and shame Phil McGilvrey into treating not only Bobby, but all his children decently. He knew that none of his attempts had had the desired effect. He also knew that for Bobby to be put in foster care, away from Max, would be a worse punishment than being punched around by his father.
‘I could keep Max at the station for a while,’ he offered.
‘Max wouldn’t stay there. He’d come looking for me.’
‘I could tie him up.’
Bobby looked thoughtful, considering the risks.
Chris said, ‘I expect Stuart and his gang will forget about it after a while.’
He was about to add that boys did get sick of whatever torment they happened to be fixed on; something new always came along. But Bobby’s look of scepticism held him back.
‘Leave it with me,’ Chris said. ‘I’ll work something out.’
After a moment’s hesitation, Bobby nodded and called Max to heel.
He walked away without looking back.
Next morning, a Saturday, Chris was enjoying a mug of tea on the station’s back verandah when he heard shouting and a dog barking wildly. He hadn’t forgotten about Max, but he hadn’t considered the problem an urgent one either.
Max charged up the road pursued by a bunch of boys, their leader out the front, whooping and yelling, waving a flaming branch.
Chris opened the gate and Max ran in.
‘You lot, in my office,’ he told the boys.
He tossed the burning bit of wood into a damp garden bed, kicked earth over it and stamped it down.
Chris locked the five boys in – not strictly legal, but they deserved to be frightened and he wasn’t having them run away. He and Bobby spent the next fifteen minutes soaping petrol off Max; they had to rinse and rinse to get rid of the stuff, and though they used warm water, Max would not stop shivering. Chris gagged on the smell, but Bobby, working with careful concentration, seemed oblivious.
Chris locked the five boys in – not strictly legal, but they deserved to be frightened and he wasn’t having them run away.
He spoke only when necessary. ‘Be careful not to get soap in his eyes, Mr Blackie.’
The boys were subdued by the time Chris got to them. He made them dictate separate statements while he typed. None were allowed to hide behind silence, or their leader. He made each one spell his name, though he already knew them all. These were boys who’d thought it would be fun to stone a dolphin and set a dog on fire.
‘I could arrest you for animal cruelty.’
‘You wouldn’t, Sir!’
This was the youngest, Simon Lee. Though they were all between ten and eleven, Chris knew Simon’s age from talking to his parents. They’d been nervous and apologetic when Chris had delivered his warning.
At a hiss from Stuart Hocking, Simon lowered his eyes to the floor.
The others shuffled and looked sideways, while Stuart stared defiantly at Chris.
‘You can’t arrest us. We’re minors.’
‘Just try me,’ Chris said.
He talked to them about multiple offences while Stuart affected boredom. Another hour or so and he would break that pose, Chris thought; but he had better things to do. He printed out copies and made each boy sign his name on all of them.
Chris would not necessarily have thought of Olly Parkinson as the one to help out with Max, but when he happened to bump into Olly outside the small supermarket, it seemed a sensible solution.
Olly hadn’t lived in Queenscliff for long, and Chris had come into contact with him mainly as his assistant constable’s boyfriend. He knew that Olly’s cottage had a secure yard and that Olly worked from home.
He was a keen kayaker and Chris had often seen him on the bay.
When Chris raised the problem of Max, Olly looked thoughtful.
He’d seen Bobby out kayaking, and they’d said hello to one another. Chris tried to indicate that this was a good start. Most newcomers, unless they went around with their ears gummed up, got to hear things pretty quickly; Queenscliff was that kind of town. Olly had heard about the incident with the dolphin on the Barwon.
Most newcomers, unless they went around with their ears gummed up, got to hear things pretty quickly; Queenscliff was that kind of town.
‘It wouldn’t be for long,’ Chris said. ‘They’ll get tired of picking on Bobby and move on.’
‘You say this gang poured petrol on the dog and were about to set him alight? That sounds serious to me.’
Olly raised dark eyes and waited for Chris to respond. Chris had the feeling that he’d be prepared to wait for however long it took. Olly was the kind of man who did not rush others, and could not be rushed himself.
He was graceful and athletic. A woman passing with a pram turned back to look.
Olly seemed unaware of her appreciative glance, or perhaps he was just good at hiding what he felt.
‘I threatened them with children’s court,’ Chris said. He was about to add that, when it came down to it, they were a bunch of silly boys. But did he believe this of Stuart, though he might believe it of the others? He sensed that Olly would be put off by any excuses he might make for the gang. He didn’t want to make excuses, but hoped that the threat of taking them to court would be enough.
When Olly said he’d think about it, Chris nodded, keeping his expression neutral.
Olly looked older than his assistant by at least five years. The few times Anthea had mentioned him, she hadn’t hinted at the age difference. Chris wasn’t surprised that she’d said very little. She knew he’d disapproved of her former boyfriend, left behind in Melbourne.
Chris said thank you, watched Olly walk away, and told himself he’d done his best.
The Swan Island Connection is available now at Readings.