By the fifth hold-up the papers are calling him the bush bandit. An inspector of police, flat, inexpressive, resistant to the pull of the cameras, is less colourful: ‘We are looking for a male person who is armed and should be considered dangerous. His method of operation is essentially the same in every case. He targets a bank in a country town within an area covering west and south-western Victoria and east and south-eastern South Australia. He selects a quiet period when there are few if any customers, then menaces bank staff with a sawn-off shotgun, demanding cash from the tills. To date, we have no reports of an accomplice. I repeat, this person is armed. On no account should he be approached.’
There are things that the inspector doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that the police are at a loss to pinpoint an operating base for the man. Given the area he moves in, the bush bandit might be holed up in Mount Gambier, Bordertown, Horsham, even somewhere up on the River Murray. Or he might be operating from Adelaide, even Melbourne.
The inspector doesn’t say how effective the bandit is. First, the shotgun, its blunt snout, those twin black staring mouths. Everyone knows about shotguns, knows the massive damage they inflict at close range, the spread of the pellets, scattering and cutting like hornets. The dull gleam of the metal, the worn stock, the smell of gun oil. A shotgun spells gaping death, and so you are quiescent before it. You spread yourself out on the floor, you empty the till, you forget about being a hero.
Then there is the bandit himself. Witness descriptions tally for each of the five hold-ups. The man is tall and slender and he moves well. ‘Athletic,’ one bank teller said. ‘No wasted motions,’ said another. Other than that there is no clear description of the bush bandit. He varies his dress from job to job—a suit, jeans and a check shirt, zip-up windproof jacket and trousers, overalls, tracksuit. And something always to divert attention away from his face—glasses, sunglasses, cap, wide-brimmed Akubra, a bandaid strip.
He also speaks in fragments, so that bank staff are never able to get a clear fix on his voice: ‘Face down… fill the bag, please, no coins… foot off the alarm… don’t move… don’t follow.’ It’s a quiet voice, that’s all they can say. Calm, patient, understanding—these are some of the words the witnesses use. And young. They agree that he can’t be more than about twenty-five.
Although they don’t say it, the police believe that he’s probably not a junkie. First-timers and junkies, they barge in screaming, pistol-whipping staff and customers, generally encouraging a condition of panic and instability that can tip over into hostages and spilt blood.
It’s agreed that the man rides a big Ducati. No, a Kawasaki. Maybe a Honda. Big, anyway. Plenty of guts and very fast. Hard to track. On a bike like that he can be miles away before the alarm is raised. You can put up a chopper, send out a pursuit car, but all the bush bandit has to do is simply wheel off the road and under
a gum tree or behind a windmill until the danger blows over.
Where does he store the bike? The police have no answer. Could be anywhere. Maybe their man has a dozen bikes stashed away, all around the country.
‘One thing we do know,’ the inspector says, ‘one day he’ll slip up. And we’ll be there when it happens.’
It was a wheat and wool town on a dusty plain. According to the local paper, the parade would pass down the main street between midday and half past twelve, turn left at the tractor dealership and wind its way on to the showgrounds next to the Elders-GM stockyards. This was the first anniversary of the Australia Day fire that had burnt out an area the size of Luxemburg and almost destroyed the town. In fact, the front actually licked at the edges of the high school, destroying a portable classsroom. Later the wind
had changed, sweeping unseasonal rains in from the west, but not before Emergency Services personnel had lost one unit and two volunteer firemen. The shire president had wanted to run the parade on a Saturday, but feelings were still raw in the town and councillors voted for Australia Day itself, which this year fell on a Friday.
The man known as the bush bandit had never felt welling pride or sentiment for anything, but he knew how to read emotions. He walked down the main street, stopping to buy a newspaper, a half litre of milk, a packet of cigarettes that he would never smoke. A banner swayed in the wind, thanking the volunteer firemen. People were lining the footpaths, yarning and joking, cameras ready. Half of them were farmers and their families, and that’s who the bush bandit was today, a pleasantly smiling farmer dressed
in elastic-sided boots and clean pressed work shirt and trousers. He wore a stained felt hat pushed back on his head. He looked work-worn and weary. He wasn’t alone in wearing sunglasses. It’s just that his were anachronistic, a flash narrow strip of mirrored glass across his eyes. They belonged on a roller-blading kid at St. Kilda or Bondi or Glenelg. If anyone thought about it, they thought the man had eccentric taste. Certainly it was the only thing memorable about his face.
He watched the parade trumpet past: police, firemen, ambulance crews, the two widows in the back seat of a squatter’s black Mercedes. It was over in ten minutes. In ten minutes the main street was deserted, the tail end of the spectators disappearing
around the corner and away from the centre of the town. There was only one bank, and the bandit walked into it at 12.25, removed his sawn-off shotgun from his bag of shopping, and announced that he was robbing the place.
There were no customers, only two tellers. One said, ‘Oh, no.’ The other froze. The bush bandit trained the twin bores of the shotgun on the one who’d spoken. He’d picked her as the likely source of trouble, so he said, ‘Face down. Not a sound.’
He watched her sink to the floor. She stretched out awkwardly, one hand holding her skirt from riding up.
The other teller watched the gun swing around until it was fixed on her stomach. The bandit placed a chaff bag on the counter. ‘Fill it.’
Friday. There would be more cash than usual, though not enough to make him rich. But that was a thought for the edge of his mind, a why-am-I-doing-these-pissy-jobs? thought for the dark hours.
He watched the teller, the shotgun now back on the woman on the floor. The meaning was clear: She gets it if you stuff me around.
At one point, the teller hesitated.
‘Move it,’ the bandit said.
‘Traveller’s cheques,’ she burst out. ‘You want them?’
Hundreds of cheques, crisp, unsigned. The bush bandit could almost conjure up their new-paper-and-ink smell. He’d take them to Chaffey. Chaffey handled wills, property conveyancing and sentence appeals in his front office; in his rear office he’d pay twenty cents in the dollar for anything the bush bandit turned up that wasn’t cash or easily negotiable.
‘Yes,’ the bush bandit told the teller.
When it was done, and both women were on the floor, he said, ‘Remain there, please. Five minutes.’
One woman nodded. The talkative one said ‘Yes,’ but the man was already gone.
The motorbike was on the tray of a farm ute. He’d turned it into a farm bike with mud, dust, dents, a cracked headlamp. He drove the ute slowly away from the town, his elbow out the window, an irritating figure familiar to interstate coach drivers, truckies and travelling salesmen, and soon had faded into the landscape, faded from memory.
He ditched the ute on a dirt track and switched to the bike. This time it was a Honda and he’d stolen it in Preston. He ran into a storm, strong winds and driving rain, on the way back to the city, but by evening was in his balcony apartment, looking out over Southgate and the stretch of the Yarra River between the casino and Princes Bridge.
At eight o’clock he went out into the storm again and made his way to the casino, to see if he could improve on the twelve thousand bucks he’d taken today. By morning he’d have the early edition of the Herald Sun, another bush bandit story for his scrapbook.
The bush bandit, that was his public name. Ray, or Raymond, those were the names his mother and father—both now dead—had called him. What Raymond wanted was simply to be called Wyatt. He liked the whiplash quality of the word.
But his uncle was called Wyatt.
Excerpted from Fallout by Garry Disher. Copyright © 2013 by Garry Disher. Excerpted by permission of Soho Crime, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.