The following is the first chapter of my second novel The Twisted Knot (available now).
Set in a fictional Queensland town, Constable Sammi Willis investigates an apparent suicide, uncovering a dark family secret, an unsolved crime and a town seeking vengeance.
Sammi always felt a sense of relief when she saw Bob’s face in the morning at Angel’s Crossing Police Station. With him as shift supervisor, the station felt like a calmer and safer place. He kept everything running smoothly. He kept the staff in line. And her colleagues kept their manners in place when he was in the room. Mostly.
‘Morning, Sammi,’ Bob called out from the sergeant’s office as she passed by.
‘Do you want a cuppa?’ she called from the locker room as she packed her bag away.
‘Yes, thanks,’ he called back. ‘Are you going to look after the front counter for me again today?’
Sammi paused before she shut her locker door. Her utility belt lay curled up at the bottom, like a black snake in hibernation. It had been a year and a half since she had buckled it on and kitted up for a shift on the road. Each day, she looked at it. And each day she shut the locker door on it again.
‘Yep,’ she called back to Bob.
She grabbed her lunch and went into the kitchen. She put her sandwich in the fridge and filled up the kettle. One cup of tea for her, one coffee for the sergeant. Milky with two sugars, she didn’t need to ask. With these small everyday details, she settled herself into the rhythm of the day.
Bob looked up from his computer and smiled at her as she placed his coffee on the desk.
‘What would I do without you, Sammi?’
A lot of the younger staff didn’t like Sergeant Simpson. Discipline had been a lot stricter when he had come through the ranks. You did what your supervisor told you and didn’t backchat. Although attitudes had relaxed, he still expected this standard of behaviour from his junior staff. So the lazy or ineffectual officers at the station didn’t think much of him. But Sammi listened when he gave her advice and, in return, he always helped her out if she asked.
Sammi grabbed her correspondence out of her pigeonhole and spread herself across the desk closest to the front counter as Mel Harris came in, right on the dot of eight o’clock.
‘Hey Sammi. You on the counter?’ Mel asked.
‘Yep,’ Sammi replied. After all this time, it was nice that Mel didn’t assume Sammi would be working at the counter. She was one of the colleagues Sammi also counted as a friend.
As the administration officer, Mel assisted the people coming to the station’s front counter with general enquiries, but there were many things which needed to be attended to by a police officer. That’s where Sammi stepped in. Some days being the ‘counter bitch’ was shit. An endless line of whingers and petty complaints. On a good day, it was quiet and you could help people with things that made a big difference to them. On a bad day, you would end up with more paperwork than you started the shift with.
‘Hey, did you hear the latest?’ Mel asked, perching herself on the edge of Sammi’s desk. ‘You know Tony from the servo?’ She continued without waiting for a reply. Everyone at the station knew Tony from the servo. ‘He’s left his wife for Kelly, the girl who works weekends there.’
‘Kelly with the purple streak in her hair? She looks like she’s about fifteen!’ Sammi shook her head in disbelief.
‘Well, she’s actually twenty-two. But Tony turned forty last year.’
‘Bit early for a midlife crisis, isn’t it?’ Sammi laughed.
Mel had grown up in town, and seemed to have some sort of direct connection to most of the other long-term locals. She always had the latest gossip. And she liked to share it. Her phone made a pinging noise when she received a message and some days it sounded like a pinball machine. Although Sammi often enjoyed the salacious details about the local population, she couldn’t help wondering how often she herself became a subject of the messages pinging back and forth. That was the downside of living in a small town – everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business. She’d sounded Mel out about it once. ‘Work stuff is out of bounds,’ she’d replied, and said something vague about the
‘So Sharlene’s kicked Tony out and refuses to work at the servo anymore, so Tony’s doing double shifts. Or maybe Kelly’s moved into Sharlene’s shifts as well as into her bed.’ Mel giggled. She grabbed her phone and swiped the screen as if she had the answer already pinging into her message box.
The front door opened and the phone slid seamlessly back in Mel’s pocket as she walked around to the front counter. Sammi concentrated on doing some checks on information she had received in relation to a possible drug dealer.
Mel appeared at her desk soon enough. She rolled her eyes. ‘It’s going to be one of those days today by the looks of things.’
‘What have you got?’
‘One of the Hunter brothers from out past the dam. Reckons he got a ticket he didn’t deserve.’
‘Of course. No one deserves their tickets,’ Sammi said, rising out of her seat. Mel handed her the yellow slip, which showed Edward Hunter had been issued with a fine for driving with a limb protruding from the vehicle.
Sammi groaned. ‘Why do coppers issue these shitty tickets?’ she said in a low voice to Mel. She looked at the issuing officer: Sparky, the Crossing’s self-appointed traffic branch. He was trying to get a transfer to any traffic branch within cooee of the coast and issued as many tickets as was humanly possible to improve his resumé. She walked out to the front counter, the ticket in
‘Hello,’ she said cheerily. ‘How can I help you?’
The man at the counter was agitated but spoke in measured tones. ‘I was driving along, within the speed limit, minding my own business,’ he said. ‘There’s not another car on the road. And the next thing I know, there’s a cop . . . sorry, a police vehicle behind me with its lights on. Then the bugger – sorry, the constable – gives me this ticket for $113.’ The man ran a hand through his thinning grey hair, as if to settle himself.
‘Okay. So the ticket is for travelling in a motor vehicle with part of the body outside the window or door. Maybe you had your arm out of the window?’ Sammi queried. She laid the ticket on the front counter between them.
‘Yep. Yep. That I did.’
‘So that’s an offence.’
‘But there were no other cars on the road.’
‘That’s beside the point, I’m afraid. It’s an offence to drive with your arm hanging out of the window. I’ve heard of traffic accidents where people have had their arm ripped off because it was hanging outside the window. Unfortunately, yes, the fine is $113. There’s no loss of points though.’
‘I shouldn’t have to pay it.’
‘You just told me your arm was outside the window.’
‘Yes, I did.’
Sammi thought she may have heard Mel snort from behind the desk.
‘So on what grounds do you think you shouldn’t have to pay?’ Sammi’s patience was wearing thin with this pointless conversation. Her forced cheeriness had completely evaporated.
‘Well, I’ve seen you do it in the police car.’
‘With all due respect, sir,’ she emphasised the title. ‘You did not see me driving in a police car with my arm hanging out. Firstly, because I haven’t been out in a police car for some time. And secondly, because I simply don’t drive with a limb outside the vehicle. Because I know it’s an offence.’
It was the man’s turn to look at her with irritation. ‘Of course I don’t mean you, personally,’ he huffed. ‘I know who you are. You’re that girl who got chased around the bush by the serial killer.’ Sammi hated that everyone knew of her and generally made assumptions from that point.
‘That’s got nothing –’ Sammi began but the man cut her off.
‘I saw an officer from this station driving with his arm out just now, as I was headed to the shops. I thought, why should I have to pay this ticket when it’s okay for you guys to do it? I can describe him to you. Then you can let me off this ticket. Or he can get a ticket too.’
Sammi quickly turned this all over in her mind. She agreed with Mr Hunter, even if he was becoming a pain in the arse. It was hypocritical for police to break laws and then expect to enforce them. But police stuck together; it was an unspoken rule. She did not have the power to revoke the ticket – that would have to be her boss, the senior sergeant at the station, and she didn’t want to pass a minor matter like this upwards. This was a counter job. The boss shouldn’t be bothered with trivial shit. But whoever had stuck their arm out of the police car needed a
‘So what did the police officer look like?’ Sammi asked.
‘He was mid-twenties, with dark hair in a crew cut. And I’m pretty sure he had a tattoo on the arm that was hanging out of the window.’
Aiden. Definitely Aiden. Sammi would be quite happy to see him get into trouble. President of the unofficial boys’ club, he treated Sammi with condescension or hostility depending on his mood. If she got him into trouble would things get any worse? If she got him out of trouble would that make things any better? She couldn’t help herself. The loyalty to the uniform won out.
‘About what time did this happen?’ Sammi asked. She grabbed a piece of paper and started taking notes. The simple act of writing things down usually made people feel they were being taken more seriously.
‘What time is it now? I was so cross when I saw it that I came straight here. It was up in Macall Street. So about ten minutes maybe.’
‘And did you want him to be disciplined?’
‘No. I want my ticket to be waived.’
‘I’ll tell you right now, that’s not going to happen. You’ve admitted that you committed the offence. So that ticket is going to stand.’
‘Then I want him to get the same ticket.’
‘Okay, in order for that to happen, I need to take a statement from you. Because it’s in relation to a police officer, your statement will be reviewed by the senior sergeant. Then if the ticket is issued, you will need to be prepared to go to court and give evidence, should the officer elect to contest the ticket.’ It was all true. And Sammi made it sound every inch the rigmarole it could be.
‘I don’t want him to go to court, I want him to get a ticket,’ the man said, grabbing the ticket and waving it back and forth. Sammi held her nerve.
‘Well,’ Sammi took the ticket and pointed at a box on the back. ‘Anyone can tick that box and choose to have their ticket heard in court. So if we write a ticket for this officer purely on the basis of what you’re telling us, and he chooses to go to court, then you will have to give sworn evidence for the magistrate to evaluate. Otherwise there’s no point in going ahead with it.’
‘I don’t want to go to friggin’ court. My time is worth more than some shitty $113 fine.” He abruptly reached under the pane of safety glass and slapped his hand on the counter. Sammi jumped back despite herself. She drew a deliberate breath and stepped forward again. It was a ticket. He was cross. That was all.
‘Look, sir, I’m explaining the process to you. We can’t write tickets willy-nilly when someone comes in and complains. If we started doing that, the floodgates would be thrown open.’
He was getting cross, but it was looking less likely that he would follow through with an official complaint.
‘Tell your boss to keep his staff in line.’ The man waved his hand in the direction of Sammi’s shoulder and Sammi realised Bob was standing two steps behind her. She couldn’t be sure how long he had been observing from there.
‘You’re the police, you should bloody well keep the law.’ With that, the man screwed up the ticket and smacked the door with an open palm so he could stalk through it.
Mel’s head popped around the side of Bob.
‘Aiden?’ she asked.
‘I’d say so,’ Sammi confirmed. She turned to Bob. ‘How much of that did you hear? I didn’t even see you come out.’
‘Enough of it,’ Bob said. ‘You were handling it, so I stayed quiet.’
‘Fucken Aiden should know better,’ Sammi said, shaking her head.
‘I’ll have a word to him when he gets back in. He and Tom are the 6 a.m. crew.’
‘Okay,’ Sammi replied. She wanted to ask Bob not to mention her in connection with the whole incident. But she held her tongue. If she had a personal issue with Aiden, that was her problem. It shouldn’t affect her work.
Mel pulled a face behind Bob. She knew exactly how Sammi felt about Aiden. Mostly because she had heard the way he spoke to her and because some of the time he treated Mel the same way.
‘You okay?’ Bob asked Sammi.
‘Yeah,’ Sammi said, looking at him deliberately with slightly wide eyes, as if she was confused as to why he was asking the question. Bob returned to his desk.
‘You should have solicited a complaint against Aiden,’ Mel whispered with a grin.
‘Nah. Not my style,’ Sammi answered. Then the front door swung open again and Sammi returned to her desk, hoping it would be something Mel could handle by herself.
A minor traffic accident where the at-fault driver didn’t stop, a father with custody issues and a neighbourhood dispute involving a large tree kept Sammi busy at the counter and progressively worsened her mood. Mel was right – it was one of those days.
About halfway through her shift, she saw Aiden and Tom return, and not long after she heard Bob call Aiden over. She could hear most of what Bob was saying. And then all of what Aiden was saying. He interspersed Bob’s explanations with ‘That’s shit,’ and ‘He can get fucked.’
After the frustrations of the morning’s counter jobs, Sammi had a fairly short fuse, and Aiden’s tone annoyed her enough to walk around to Bob and Aiden. Immediately, Aiden turned on her.
‘You should have told the old fart to get fucked,’ he said loudly.
‘Why would I do that? He was right.’
‘An arm out the window and I’m meant to get a ticket?’
‘You’re lucky Sparky didn’t catch you too,’ Sammi retorted.
‘We all have to play by the same rules,’ Bob cut in, motioning to Sammi with both hands in a ‘settle down’ gesture.
‘Police are friggin’ exempt from traffic tickets anyway,’ Aiden said.
‘Not this one,’ Bob replied. ‘And don’t give me attitude.’
‘I was probably waving to someone, or pointing something out. He can fucken make a statement and I’ll see him in court,’ Aiden said.
‘It’s not going anywhere, Aiden. But you’re a copper. Act like one,’ Bob warned.
‘Yes, Sergeant,’ Aiden said, with only a trace of sarcasm, small enough for Bob to ignore. Aiden looked like he was about to add a remark to Sammi but thought better of it.
‘I did you a favour, I talked the guy out of it,’ Sammi said, sharply.
‘I didn’t say anything,’ Aiden said.
‘Yeah, not even “thank you”.’
‘Thank you for doing your job?’
‘Next time I’ll do my job and take the complaint against you.’
‘Settle down you two,’ Bob interjected. ‘We’re all on the same team.’
‘Yeah, except I actually go out and do some work.’ Aiden had a sly smile on his face as he watched Sammi’s reaction.
Sammi took the bait. ‘Pull your head in,’ she said, her voice louder than she intended.
‘You,’ Bob said, pointing at Aiden, ‘out!’ Aiden shot Sammi another smug smile before walking away.
Bob turned to her, exasperation on his face. ‘You should have left it to me.’
‘He’s got a bad attitude,’ she replied, clenching and unclenching her fists.
‘Don’t let him get to you. You’re bigger than that, Sammi. Save your anger for something worthwhile.’
Sammi nevertheless stewed until the end of her shift. In the locker room, she tried again to ignore her utility belt. After
the abduction, her family and friends had been shocked when she said she planned to return to work. Her mother had stared at her in disbelief. ‘It’s so dangerous. I don’t think I can take any more stress. Please don’t go back,’ Mum had implored.
But being a copper was her career. Why did a bad experience mean she could no longer do her job? If anything, Sammi thought, it would make her a better officer, giving her insight into how the victims of crime felt. Sammi’s training as a police officer had saved her rather than put her in danger.
Any day now, she told herself. She’d choose a case that interested her, partner up with someone she trusted and leave the safety of the station. She’d be an operational officer again.
Today had not been that day though. Today had been one shit counter job after another. The sense of frustration she had been battling all day surged up. She rested her head against the cold metal of the locker. She didn’t want to keep playing it safe, but she wasn’t ready to go out either. She was struggling to deal with half-baked traffic complaints within the safety of the station. Maybe people were right and she’d never be ready to go out again. Maybe she was doomed to hide behind the security glass at the front counter for the rest of her career.
Maybe she no longer had what it took to be a copper. The courage to look a crook in the eye and issue him with a command. The tenacity to search a druggie’s car. The motivation to follow up an assault complaint. The thing that had initially drawn her to policing was now the part she found hardest to deal with – the uncertainty. She wouldn’t still be on medication for anxiety if she had what it took to be a police officer.
She swallowed hard, her mouth tacky like she’d chewed cardboard. It was time to re-assess.