What happens when a drug dealer is forced to turn detective?
Meet Bill Murdoch, the world’s most reluctant private investigator.
Bill Murdoch’s doing just ﬁne, thanks for not asking. He’s dealing drugs for a professional crime syndicate in Sydney and saving for a house by the sea. But what does he think life is – a fairy tale?
As the syndicate puts pressure on him to fill the shoes of his murdered boss, Murdoch is cornered by an equally formidable foe: the Australian Tax Ofﬁce demanding an explanation for his sizeable cash income.
Murdoch spins a beautiful lie, telling tax inspector, Hannah Simms, he’s a private detective. When Simms asks him to investigate the mystery of her niece’s disappearance, Murdoch grabs what he thinks is a golden opportunity to outrun the syndicate. But his arrival in the missing girl’s small coastal home town causes an unexpected stir and the reluctant PI soon realises his troubles are only just beginning.
HEADLAND is noir crime at its best, a thriller to keep you guessing until the very end.
Chapter OneShe came for Murdoch on a Tuesday night, like maybe she knew it was the night he sorted his stock. Later, of course, there was no maybe about it. She knew all right, the same way she knew not to use the lift or bring fewer than six big men.
Murdoch had just turned on the light when they came through his door. Before that he’d stood in darkness, staring out his grubby window to study life in the units across the wasteland. He’d always thought it weird how Australians called them ‘units’, but then maybe it was weird how you called them ‘flats’ back home. Turned out both descriptions were right. In the block across the way, he could watch as many flat units of life as chose not to close their curtains. Couples fighting, children chasing in and out of view, women walking around in towels. He did it too often, he knew, staring down at people most nights while the oven warmed his food and heated the bare rooftop shack around him. He’d thought once or twice of breaking in over there, hiding microphones so he could hear what good citizens talked about, understand what made them tick. He wouldn’t do it, of course, he wasn’t mental and there was a rule about avoiding unnecessary risks. But it would be interesting to know what normal people worried about, what they wanted from life.
On this mid-winter Tuesday night, as a plastic lasagne thawed in the oven, Murdoch watched across the darkness as a young Asian man on the other side moved about his kitchen, choosing, chopping, frying in bursts of steam. A dark-haired woman came into view and said something that made the man laugh, made him reach for her until she danced out of the way. The smell of Murdoch’s own dinner demanded his attention, but he didn’t want to break the spell of the darkness. He wanted to know if the Chinese guy would stop his cooking and go after the girl – maybe they’d leave the curtains open for that too. But then rain spattered against his window, reality determined to get his attention, so he turned with a sigh, crossed to the light switch and flicked it on. Above him, the fluorescents hummed and thought about it, before stuttering the breezeblock shack into brightness.
No one could see into Murdoch’s place – the warehouse roof was higher than any of the units across the way – but always when he turned on the light, he thought about what they would see if they could. A scarred and wiry man, too old for his years, red hair shorn short, dark eyes that unnerved people, he didn’t know why. A man alone in an empty room – a nearly empty room. Apart from the oven, there was only his flimsy camp bed, a small folding table and a chair. The only thing on the walls was his noticeboard, a riot of colour against the breezeblocks. Here, creased facades of comfortable houses struggled with overlapping gardens while badly folded living-rooms fought sleek kitchens. Seeing the mess of pictures now, Murdoch remembered a page he’d torn from a magazine earlier in the day. He pulled it from his pocket, unfolded it, and stared at its picture: a pair of matching sofas in front of broad French doors open to a garden. He was pinning it up with the others when he heard the door being kicked in.
Cynthia always told Murdoch he was built like a cattle dog, all prick and sinew, and not an ounce of fat. He said, yeah, well, most big blokes were all intimidation and slow punches – he’d rather be quick, and a smaller target, any time.
‘You get too big,’ he told her, ‘and some bastard’s always got to prove he’s bigger.’
Most of the guys he’d put down hadn’t seen it coming: they’d thought he was just another runt they could kick out of the way. That was before he got a reputation; after that, people avoided him. But the guys who came into his place that night were not most big blokes. Murdoch had made it less than halfway to his flimsy camp bed – and, more to the point, the Beretta beneath it – before they had him down, one on each limb. They were very professional, none of them firmer than they needed to be. Murdoch swore at them, told them they’d got the wrong man, he’d not done nothing wrong. In reply, they pressed him gently against the cold concrete until, at last, he heard himself; heard his noise was the only noise there was, and heard it wasn’t helping. He stopped then. Listened to his breath instead, heavy and liquid against the hard, grey floor. Closed his eyes and tried to think.
This, it seemed, was what they were waiting for. The guy on his right arm – the only one of the four he could see: a huge Islander all neck and tattoos and perfect teeth, drops of rain glistening on his face – shouted to someone outside the door.
The message was repeated across the warehouse roof so that now there were at least six of them and Murdoch was scared. A second later and he heard the huge goods lift moving toward the ground floor.
‘It’s all right,’ said the Islander, smiling down at him. ‘No need to worry.’
Murdoch knew what he must look like. A dog after losing a fight, eyes wild, but nothing much else able to move. ‘He’s right,’ said the others, heavy men he couldn’t see. ‘We’re not here to hurt you,’ and ‘It’ll be fine, mate.’
‘Get off me, then!’
He’d wanted to keep the fear from his voice and it came out as aggression.
‘Soon,’ said the Islander. ‘Soon, buddy.’
Murdoch listened to the lift working its way up the warehouse floors. Then he felt the concrete beneath him vibrate as it shuddered to a halt, the rumble of cables replaced by a shriek of heavy metal doors. After that there was no sound but the rain until the broken door of the shack whined on its hinges and firm footsteps entered the room. They brought black and business-like shoes around the crouching Islander to stop close to Murdoch’s face. His gaze travelled up the pinstriped trouser legs above them, but he could see no higher.
‘I’m very sorry to do it like this, Bill, really I am.’
A woman’s voice: well-spoken, but so husky it croaked, like she’d started smoking in the womb. Then silence again. She was waiting for him to speak.
‘What do you want?’
‘I want to talk to you, my dear. I want to make you an offer.’
‘Who are you?’
‘We’ll get to that.’
‘Get these bastards off me.’
The shoes adjusted and the pinstripes bent at the knee until she was squatting above him: a big woman with thick hair and strong features. Straight nose, clear skin, bright blue eyes under delicate eyebrows. She leaned her head to one side and examined him – should she put the dog down or spend the money on a vet? – unbuttoned her pinstriped jacket and held it open to reveal a Glock 26, snug in its Serpa.
‘Now,’ she said. ‘You know there’s a round in the chamber. Are you sure I can get them off you?’
This was when you were supposed to give in. Sigh, cry, look at the floor and promise them the world. Murdoch held the woman’s eye and nodded slowly.
The heavies picked him up, sat him on the chair and – boys in a doll’s house they’d promised not to break – carried the table towards the oven. There they stood around it, playing cards they’d produced from somewhere. Murdoch recognised one of them as the big pink guy he did business with most Saturdays, face like a butcher in an ad on the telly. The woman stood apart from them, closer to Murdoch, as she introduced herself as Maria Dinos; apologies again for doing things this way. She smiled and leaned against the wall beside her until she realised it was leaving grey dust on her suit. Brushing it off, she kept a careful eye on Murdoch, but at no point did she look worried about him.
‘First of all,’ she said, ‘I need to reiterate, we are not here to harm you. I’m going to make you an offer. If you refuse we will leave again and none of this happened. You won’t see Tommy here,’ – she indicated towards the pink-faced man – ‘on a Saturday night. If you see any of us again, we will not recognise you, and you will not recognise us. Do I make myself clear, my dear?’
Murdoch held her eye, but said nothing. He could smell his dinner burning, was surprised none of them could smell it too.
Maria smiled. ‘That’s smart, Bill, letting me do the talking. I like that. It’s an example of why we’d like you to work with us. Put that down!’
Murdoch followed her glare to the shortest of the heavies – a cube of a man with dreadlocks and a bulbous nose – who had picked up a beer bottle from the work surface next to the oven. The cube blushed and apologised, said he was just moving it out the way of his elbow, boss, then watched shamefaced as the Islander with the tattoos reached past him with gloved hands, wiped the bottle down on his T-shirt and put it back in its original position.
‘Oven’s on, boss,’ said the Islander. ‘Something burning in there.’
Maria Dinos told him to bloody well turn it off, then and watched him do it before turning back to Murdoch. ‘We will touch nothing else in your home …’
She looked around and seemed to notice for the first time there was nothing much else to touch. Her eyes stopped on the noticeboard and she wandered over to it, not touching as per her promise, but surveying its contents closely before turning back to him.
‘I’m guessing you’d like me to cut the bullshit and get on with it?’
Still he just sat and looked at her, the only noise the slap of the cards on the table.
Maria smiled, a little less easily than before, and continued. ‘The thing is, Bill, I’m here to offer you a job.’