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Revenant

By Paul Michael Christison All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Drama

Untitled chapter

PROLOGUE

1

When the end finally came for Jilly White, she welcomed it.

She hungered for it. Ached for it.

She wanted it more than anything she had ever wanted before.

There was pain, then a darkness, deep and black.

And what was the end…

… was only the beginning.

2

Still nothing but static.

Jilly Whites’ fingers danced across the control panel of the old sedans’ car radio, tapping buttons and stroking the auto-tune. She had been out of range of clear reception since diverging from the M1 motorway just south of Landsbrough. There had been a few tantalizing hints at music here and there but once the skyline had become encased in the looming shadows of hills and the last grey bands of sunset had washed from the sky by a starless night, the cramped interior of the small car had been filled by an almost oppressive silence punctuated only by the low, incessant hum of wheels on bitumen beneath the sedans’ chassis.

Jilly sighed wearily, working the stiffness from her slight shoulders back against the small sedan’s high backed drivers’ seat and for a fleeting moment, she caught sight of her reflection in the cars’ rear vision mirror. Even beneath the dim, orange glow of the tiny, overhead light, she could see the dark rims of fatigue which had begun to develop beneath her normally bright, almond eyes. Jilly took a deep, bracing breath and tried to focus on the harsh glow of her sedan’s headlights as they swept the dark, winding corridor of single lane asphalt in front of her. Finally, with her head feeling just a little clearer, she let her gaze fell to the small, Polaroid photograph propped on the dashboard up against the sloping glass of the sedan’s windscreen. She had placed it there when she had left the coast, an image to drive her on. One for the road. Instead, all it seemed to do now was mock her.

In the smooth, matt surface of the print, she sat with her arms around John’s neck, his head leaning towards her, hers on his broad shoulder, her long auburn hair falling like a waterfall down the front of his white shirt. They were both smiling and in love. At least, that had been what Jilly had thought. The emotion was there on their faces but the more she looked at the photograph as she drove, the less she saw of that smile in his eyes. He had just been playing the part. She knew that now and the thing that dug at her most, the thing that she hated more about herself than anything he had done, was that she simply hadn’t been able to see it then.

Jilly reached forward from her tight grasp on the old Cortina’s steering wheel and flipped the Polaroid down so that it fell face forward on the cracked vinyl of the dash. She told herself again that she didn’t need to see it anymore, that she was through with it, with him and the self doubt that looking at it bought, though she knew of course that was a lie, just another lie. She knew that no matter how hard you tried to bury the past, you could never dig quite deep enough to escape it forever.

Jilly gritted her teeth and rubbed at her tired eyes, trying to tell herself that the dry stinging she felt there was just weariness from the long drive. Deep down, she knew it was so much more.

It hadn’t taken her long to find a new place to live after she had moved out from John’s.

Her application for a transfer to the North Valestone State Primary School had been fast tracked by an old university friend in the Education Department once she had found out about Jilly’s circumstances and by the time she had finally received official confirmation that the position of Assistant Librarian was to be hers as of the twenty-third, she had known she would have to act fast.

Her first priority had been accommodation. She had rented most of her life and for Jilly, her previous ‘digs’ had always been the scant collection of usual suspects offered when on a tight budget. Low priced townhouses and cramped, inner-city flats within the immediate vicinity of wherever her work and public transport dictated. There had been all the traditional, stereotypical horror stories a young, single woman could expect when striking out on her own. Leaking roofs. Invasive landlords. Vermin, both great and small. She had even once share-housed with a fundamentalist, new-age vegetarian, though that particular six months of her life had turned her off both the idea of co-habitation and the supposed benefits of a totally vegan lifestyle. This time however, Jilly was determined that things would be different. Her new job offered her the chance of a fresh beginning, one more shot at the independence she craved so desperately, especially now, and she was prepared to embrace it with both hands, even if she had to pin it to the ground kicking and screaming.

She had spent most of the day on her last journey north ‘doing the rounds’ of real estate offices in the district without any noticeable success. The market in the area was, she had been reliably informed by most of the property agents she had called on, at the center of a recent resurgence of national interest as the state of Queensland flexed its economic muscle and affordable living was riding the crest of the wave. She had quickly ruled out a selection of units and suburban flats from the card hand of possibilities offered to her and had discounted another dozen or so due to nothing more than the over-inflated rent. That had left only a disappointing array of poorly tended, coastal bungalows for consideration - a sad and sorry second at best. Then, just as she had been about ready to give in, preparing herself to leave as empty handed as when she had arrived, she had thumbed her way through the housing classifieds of the regional newspaper while consoling herself with a latte` at a local café. It was, to her surprise, a long shot which had paid off admirably.

The house that had caught her eye was a tiny, two bedroom cottage. Two up, two down, with a postcard view of Port Curtis Bay which would be called ‘COMMANDING’ in the general blurb of ‘Estate Agent Speak’. There was a cozy backyard with just enough room for the vegetable and herb garden she had always promised herself. A fireplace (more of an ornament than anything else in the mid north-coast heat, but a fireplace just the same!). And a neatly packaged little front porch upon which she had been able to quite easily imagine herself sitting, with a good book, a bottle of ‘not too cheap’ wine and Bert by her side (’Bert’, Jilly’s only dependant, almost constant companion, was a mottled yellow budgerigar who now sat contentedly on the swinging perch of his cage which occupied the center of the tiny sedan’s crowded rear seat). The bond had been excessive but the rent a little more palatable with an option to buy - an option that Jilly just knew she would be taking up - and she had laid down a year and a half’s worth of hard earned savings on it that very day…

And you haven’t looked back since Kiddo!

She shifted a little behind the wheel, stretching her legs and turning her head to work at some of the stiffness from the long day’s driving once more and reached across into the depths of her handbag on the passenger side seat for her Alpines and a light. The pack was nearly empty with only eight cigarettes left to carry her through the remainder of the night and after a brief equation of time versus distance, she lifted one to her lips and bought it to life. A long, satisfying curl of menthol smoke crept lazily from the comer of her mouth and she smiled.

My house, she thought, tasting the words, savoring them.

My house.

And her smile widened.

The dark band of bitumen she had been following banked off sharply to the left, taking on a steady rise as it went, and a sign reared up out of the moonlit darkness at her, the words……

~ WELCOME TO ROWAN SHIRE ~

Population 3800

PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY!

...barely legible beneath the flare of the car’s headlights as they glanced briefly across its shotgun-blasted metal face.

‘I think we’re getting closer Bert ol’man,’ Jilly said, glancing into the rear vision mirror at where ‘Bert’ was twittering quietly to himself in the back seat. She tapped a length of ash from the end of the cigarette onto the lip of the car’s ashtray, then reached across once more into her handbag, this

time for her road map and travel atlas to get a better bearing on her coordinates. As she did so, juggling the wheel unsteadily with one hand, the old Cortina strayed from the road’s centre line, its narrow tyres kissing the broken edge of the asphalt’s serrated, gravel shoulder….

...and that was when it happened!

The rear driver’s side tyre exploded in a sudden burst of pressurized air which rang out like a gunshot through the small sedan’s cramped interior and the vehicle lunged violently to the right. Jilly jumped, her smile turning to a startled squawk and she slammed upright against the back of her seat, the cigarette tumbling from her fingertips. Shadows sprang from out of the darkness in front of the windscreen at her as the vehicle angled sharply away from the middle of the road’s narrow width towards the steep embankment which fell away to the blackened, moonlit bushland beyond. She planted her foot, forcing the brake to the fire wall and the howl of rubber on bitumen rose from beneath the old Cortina’s chassis, casting a flare of headlights across tree trunks and road side guide posts. The car veered again, stitching its way across the asphalt in a wild, snaking dance from one side of the narrow country road to the other as she fought a frantic battle with the steering wheel. A large washout at the bitumen’s edge loomed beneath the Cortinas’ glare and Jilly gave the small car a sharp, opposing yank on the reins to avoid it, her held breath burning hot against the back of her throat. This time the car responded (albeit grudgingly) as some of the last of its swerving momentum began to die, until finally she managed to bring the vehicle under a struggling semblance of control and ease it to a limping, grating halt on the roadside’s loose stone and sand surface. A cloud of red dust and dirt engulfed the car and, for a time, Jilly simply sat there behind the wheel unmoving, immersed in a kind of stunned silence where the only sounds were that of her heart pounding like a tin drum against her ribs, and the rush of blood filling her ears.

Then…..

…...slowly ….

…...the smile returned.

It was only uncertain at first but it soon set, grew into a giggle and from that into an edge of laughter that came more from nervous relief than from anything else. A long, shaken sigh slipped from between her parted lips as she slowly released some of the white knuckled pressure which she had applied to the Cortina’s rebellious steering wheel in those few spinning moments, and she was about to lean back against the seat’s headrest when she felt the presence of the cigarette which she had dropped, smouldering quietly away in her lap.

‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’

Jilly threw herself up and back, her hand ferreting deep between the crotch of her legs to lift the crumpled butt from where it lay on the seat’s tom vinyl upholstery and stamped it out into the overcrowded ashtray before bending forward to examine the tiny, bullet size hole which it had burnt into the thigh of her jeans.

Damn it! she thought, slamming the dashboard irritably with the flat of her small hand.

Nice going Jilly! What do you do for an encore?

She shook her head at herself, hitting the dash once more just for the hell of it and when the dust had finally settled around the car, the last of it drifting down in front of the headlit windscreen, she pulled the keys from the ignition, killed the lights, and stepped reluctantly out into the warm, summer’s night air.

And there it was! The rear driver’s side tyre sat flat and empty beneath the full moon’s clear, blue glow and it was all Jilly could do to hold herself back from giving it at least one good, hard kick.

‘Great! Just fucking great!’ she muttered angrily, her hands planted indignantly upon her slight hips before she turned to look off along the darkened length of country road which stretched out ahead of her through its still, lonely sleeve of night.

Now what was she supposed to do?

She knew that she was a reasonably capable, new century kind of gal when it came down to the brass tacks of automobiles and their wily ways. She could look under the hood and pull off a better than average attempt at naming most of the machinery she saw there. She knew what to keep an eye out for in the way of general, on-road maintenance. Hell! ...She could even top up or renew the oil in a pinch, but when it came to the simple masteries of changing a flat tyre, that fell more into the realm of an act of strength than anything else and that, as yet, eluded her. (The last time she had attempted that particular feat herself, she had been left with a handful of grazed knuckles and a dented ego from having to ask her next door neighbour to help.)

But you’re still going to have to give it the old college try, Jilly, she thought, turning once more back towards the offending tyre .....

…… Traitor! .......

……..before she shook her head and moved around to the Cortina’s sloping trunk to slide her key into the lock there and lift it stiffly open.

There was something endlessly disheartening about the fact that at twenty-seven her life had been able to be so easily condensed into what amounted to barely enough possessions to fill the trunk compartment of a small, family sized sedan. The rest of her belongings, her C.D. player and television, her microwave oven, most of her clothes, her pots, pans and the odd, mismatched pieces of furniture she had accumulated for herself over the years would all be following in the removal van tomorrow morning, but for the most part, this was it. Meager but important, these were HER things. Her trinkets and ornaments, her beloved books – everything from James Patterson through to James Joyce, the acoustic guitar she had never learnt to play but had always said she would, the collection of tiny, ceramic cats she had amassed ever since she was a little girl. These were the things which truly meant something to her and which spoke of her to others, and now, here they all were, crammed into half a dozen neatly labeled Archive boxes, stranded by the side of some backwater country road in the middle of God –only –knows -where.

A wave of something that was close to, but not quite, depression washed over her as she stood there beneath the glow of the full moon surveying the few packaged trophies of her young life and for a moment, just for the briefest of times, she felt as if all she wanted to do was forget everything. Forget the new house. Forget the new school. Forget the new life. And instead, point her battered old seventy-four Cortina back in the opposite direction to head once more for the comforting, disappointing familiarity of her old life…….but not before sitting down in the dirt next to that godforsaken tyre and having herself a good cry. Then, as she so often did, Jilly drew herself in, flicking her long, dark hair away from her brow in a determined sweep. She was no quitter, she reasoned, giving the very idea a mental slap across the face. Never had been, never would be! And she definitely wasn’t going to let something as simple as a flat tyre or a sudden flash of homesickness stop her from getting to where she wanted to go. Flat tyres can get changed, can’t they?

Damn right!

…They might take a while, and sometimes they might rip the shit out of a girl’s nails while she was doing it, but they DO get changed. And as for homesickness? …..Well!.....

That changes too! Jilly told herself adamantly and with one last stalwart flick of her hair, she set herself to the task at hand of heaving the spare tyre out from beneath the trunk’s crowded clutter and rolling it around to rest against the side of the Cortina’s rear bumper. It wasn’t until she turned to go back for the tyre lever and jack that she glanced up over the top of the vehicle’s rounded roof and saw the headlights glittering far off in the distance as they took the peak of the road’s next rise.

A lot of things went through Jilly’s mind in that one moment as she stared into those dual eyes of light approaching her through the wall of bush land darkness which shrouded the single lanes of that lonely country road.

Hope. Doubt. Relief. Unease.

They were all there but the strongest of these thoughts struck a chord deep down inside of her, in a place where only fear and blind instinct live, and that thought was one of danger. She found herself taking an involuntary step backwards and then, hesitated.

What are you so scared of? she asked herself. It’s just another car coming your way. Just another person doing a little late night traveling. Maybe you’ll even get some help with this damned tyre if they stop.

But the voice inside of Jilly’s head wasn’t so strong any more. It was no longer the voice of the Jilly who could change tyres, or pack up her life to move halfway across the state to start a new job. It was no longer the voice of the Jilly who could sometimes feel that anything was possible and as if she could turn her hand to any task if she just applied herself. Now, the voice was of the other Jilly. The one who occasionally did feel homesick, or lonely. The Jilly who sometimes only wanted to sit down and have herself a cry when things made her blue. The Jilly who occasionally said that if the world was trully her oyster then occasionally it would also give her food poisoning.

And then, as if to somehow deny the unease she could feel steadily building inside at the sound of this voice, she forced herself to try and envisage within her mind’s eye the safety of the face she hoped would be sitting behind the wheel of that diverging, twin glare.

Would it be a family man’s car? A station wagon perhaps, or .....no ...Maybe it would be some old rambling wreck of a truck. Yes! That was it. It would be some rusted old utility that was spending its last years as a farmer’s work horse, traveling its way through the backblocks of a small country shire with a dog and a couple of bales of straw in the tray.

‘Can you help me sir?’ she would say to the man sitting behind the wheel (for although Jilly didn’t know why, she felt assured that it would be a man) when he pulled up next to her on the loose dirt at the side of the road, easing his truck to a comfortingly gradual and totally trustworthy halt amongst the squeak of stiff suspension and old brakes.

’Why sure lil’miss’, the driver would say, favouring her with a warm, reassuring smile. ‘Let me have a look at your car there and see if I can’t getcha goin’ again.’

And Jilly would thank him as she stepped closer, saying she was glad he had come along when he did. .:…

…. ...but what if the car did stop and it wasn’t some kind old man with a reassuring smile? What then? This wasn’t the good ol’ days anymore and, after all and she was a young woman on her own, stuck out in the middle of the ‘Boonies’. How safe would she really be if this approaching stranger pulled up along side of her and saw that she was by herself? How long had it been since she had last seen the welcome glow of life from some farm house porch light set off alone in the night? Who would be there to help her if, God forbid, worse came to worse?

No one Jilly! No one at all.

But what if? ...What if?

She tried to suppress these worries and the cold knot of fear she could feel moving restlessly in the pit of her stomach at the thought of them. She tried to tell herself in a voice that was finding itself struggling hard to retain some semblance of calm and reason, that she was just being plain stupid to let her imagination run away with itself in that direction. The type of things her mind was just beginning to play around the fringes of - the rapes, the abductions, the murders - only ever happen to other people. They only ever happened to people who were just names and faces on the evening news, not to the Jilly Whites of this world who were moving north to start a new job and a new life. Not to the Jilly Whites

who had only just the other day bought a tapestry to cover that small stain of rising damp she had noticed in the lounge room of what was to be her new home.

But they DO happen Jilly. They do happen. Sometimes, when you least expect it, fate, or whatever in God’s name it is that deals the cards which rule and ruin a person’s life, throws up a black ace and drops you right in the shit where those terrible things happen to you.

She stood there like that for a moment longer in the stillness as the approaching headlights grew larger on the night-time landscape, feeling unsure, scared, and for all the world like some small, doe eyed animal caught in the high beam grip of an onrushing truck, before she finally shook herself and decided what it was she should do. She moved back around towards the trunk of the car to pull the tyre lever from its place in the darkness there - not knowing what good simply holding it would do or even if she would be capable of using it if the need were to arise but feeling better for having it just the same - and stole one more brief glance across her shoulder at the looming headlights before turning to quickly scan the shadowy, moonlit roadside for somewhere to conceal herself.

A dozen or so feet from the asphalt’s broken, saw toothed edge where Jilly’s Cortina now rested, the gravel shoulder disappeared over the side of a loosely packed rock and dirt embankment raised up from the bushland beyond. Grass grew only sparsely on this slope, claiming stretches of red earth here and there in dry, stalky masses which reached from out of their place in the blackness of night to greet the roadside. In other places, the ground lay bare save for a cluster of scraggly weeds or the tiny stalks of eucalyptus saplings which struggled to reclaim the man-made wedge of bitumen slicing its swathe through the surrounding bushland. And at the base of this embankment, some eight or nine feet down where the run-off from the infrequent summer rains had gathered, a band of thicker, not quite ‘lush’ scrub grew, now in shadow beneath the pale moonlight, before giving way to the darkness of trees beyond.

Moving quickly, Jilly slammed the trunk shut and rounded the side of the Cortina to carefully ease herself over the edge of the steep, roadside gradient. If the approaching car stopped or even slowed, she thought, then she would at least be able to get a good look at the driver before she was seen. And as she lowered herself onto her hands and knees to lie against the hard ground halfway down the slope of the embankment with her small car just in view, she could only hope that the’ good look’ would show her if there was going to be any danger before she found herself right in the middle of it.

There was a long moment’s darkness. A time for Jilly which seemed to stretch off into an eternity of restless, churning thoughts. Of fears and of doubts, tightly held breath and trembling knees, until-faintly at first, a dull glow began to grow discernibly in the air, reflecting dimly in the rust scarred chrome of her car’s front bumper. She steadied herself, her head cocked to the side, listening for the first low roar of the vehicle as it broke through the curtain of night sounds hanging around her in the still, evening air. Her hand tightened around the tyre lever’s thin metal shaft, her fingers gripping it, releasing it and then gripping it again. She realized she was shaking. The light surged in intensity, filling the night with its brilliance…..

….. and the first she saw of the car through the tall, wispy stalks of roadside grass in front of her face was almost the last.

It shot by in. a high tuned growl of pitched up engine and loud thumping music. Not stopping. Not slowing. The broken line of cat’s eyes set into the middle of the asphalt’s narrow breadth sparkling to life as it sped past. Jilly let her head drop, hissing out a relieved sigh from between her tightly clenched teeth, feeling at the same time both a little foolish and very, very vulnerable. She emerged slowly from her hiding place, climbing the remaining few feet above her with the tyre lever still firmly -within her grasp and looked briefly off in the direction of the vehicle’s tail-lights as it mounted the peak of the road’s next rise, before turning lack to the Cortina, lighter for the unease which had seemingly unchained itself from around her……….

……..She didn’t see the two, angry red eyes of the vehicle’s brake lights flare to life and disappear momentarily from view down the gradient’s other side.

Jilly allowed her grip on the tyre lever to relax somewhat, flexing her fingers painfully as the blood forced its way back into her joints, then lowered herself to kneel down onto the ground next to the small sedan’s empty rear tyre. There was an urgency about her movements now, one which replaced the simple annoyance she had felt earlier and she wiped her palms along the length of her jeans to free them from their nervous sweat before setting the tyre lever firmly in place upon the top lug nut and pressing down.

The first nut came easily, as did the second. The third came free with a little more effort and two scraped fingers where her hand had slid off the lever’s shaft, striking the wheel’s metal rim before finally twisting free beneath her slight weight. But it was the fourth that refused to budge for her. Jilly shifted position a little, moving over the top of the lever and shoved down hard with both hands, the effort telling in her neck and tightly clenched eyes. There was a moment, only the space of a held breath, where she was sure she could feel some give, the slightest play of metal upon metal but. ..

…..nothing.

She stood again, moving back a step from the wheel with the tyre lever still in place upon its stubborn nut, and, using the car’s sloping roof to support her, slammed the heel of her boot down onto it again and again, each angry blow punctuated by an increasingly agitated…….

……‘COME...ON... YOU ...BLOODY...BITCH...MOVE!’……

…...the last kicking off the tyre lever, causing it to fall free on the hard-packed earth at her feet. She stamped her heel into the dirt, the edge of frustrated tears rimming her eyes, and reached down to pick it up and try once more.

That was when she heard the car door slam shut behind her.

And that was when she knew!

Jilly froze, her breath locked within the suddenly strangled confines of her throat. …....

Why didn’t I hear them? Why didn’t I hear them come back? Why didn’t I see their lights?

……...and slowly, fearfully, she straightened and turned around.

Six men, none of them any older than their mid to late twenties, stood in front of a dark green Holden station wagon with painted-out panels, on the other side of the narrow, black-top road. The loud music playing when the car had first sped by (Jilly now only distantly recognized it as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’) had been turned down to little more than a vague, distorted whisper. The car’s headlights were off. One of the six, a thickly set figure with pockmarked cheeks and a long, dark pony tail draped across one shoulder, stood closer than the rest, almost to the broken white line marking the road’s centre, his ice blue eyes holding a cold, predatory smile that showed only fleetingly in the comers of his mouth. The other men standing behind him jostled one another, leering at her from between tugs at the beer bottles in their hands. One of them looked down nervously at his feet, shuffling them on the loose roadside gravel.

‘Ain’t flat tyres a bitch?’ the pony-tail said, casually cocking a thumb into the thick studded leather of his belt as he lifted a beer bottle to his lips to take a long draw. His eyes held Jilly’s, grinning from over the bottom of the rounded glass, narrowing on hers. ..

Murderer’s eyes, she found herself thinking, Cold and soulless. ...and she shivered.

The pony-tail took a step forward, his high biker’s boots striking out ominously against the road’s dark surface and Jilly, fighting for control now more than ever, retreated from him, her legs weak and strengthless, her grip tightening once more around the hard metal shaft of the tyre lever in her hand. She tried to speak, to say something. .. ...anything ...but the words (if there were any) remained frozen within the tightness clutching at her throat. All she could manage was a soft, barely audible whimper which ran like water from between her trembling lips.

The pony-tail moved closer. ‘Yep,’ he continued, the dark smile never once leaving his eyes, ’them flat tyres are a real ‘A’ grade bitch. But I’ll tell you what honey, I’m a real gentleman and hate to

see a woman in distress, especially one as pretty as you, so I’ll change that there tyre for you and all that you’ll have to do for me in return is just one, little thing. Do you know what that is?’ And when there was no immediate response from Jilly to his question, the calm in his voice shattered, erupting into any angry shout. ‘DO YOU!!’

Jilly flinched and shook her head, her almond brown eyes as wide as saucers.

‘Why, all that you’ll have to do,’ the pony-tail continued on, his voice suddenly calm and conversational once more, ‘is put out a little for me and the boys here’. Then, back across his shoulder to those who stood behind him, he called. ..’What do you reckon guys? Does a little poke in the whiskers sound like a fair enough trade-off for helping out a young lady with a flat tyre?’

…….And they laughed.

A soft, shuddering moan issued from the back of Jilly’s throat. She went to stagger back another step when her shin caught the comer of the Cortina’s rear bumper and she stumbled, her hand just managing to find the rounded edge of the closed trunk for support before she fell. She steadied herself as best she could - though her legs felt as if at any moment they would collapse out from beneath her - and said in a dry, hoarse whisper…….

‘J...Ju...Just leave me alone.’

She held the tyre lever out in front of her as if to somehow add strength to her words but her hand shook so much she almost dropped it. The pony-tail saw this and as his smile widened. Jilly started to cry.

‘That’s no way to talk to someone who’s trying to help you, now is it?’ the pony-tail replied, his voice parodying hurt with a hand raised to his chest in mocked offence and he took another slow, oh-so deliberate, step forward, the dark threat in his eyes alive with the fear that he saw on Jilly’s face. ‘In fact, I’d say that that was a damned rude way to speak. What do you reckon guys?’ he called out over

his broad shoulder again as he rubbed at his stubbled chin, his eyes not leaving Jilly’s own. ‘I’d say that we’re going to have to teach this little lady here some manners.’

‘Rude. Yeah.’ One of the young men answered drunkenly from behind.

And another. .. ‘Got to teach the bitch a lesson.’

Someone laughed.

‘Please,’ Jilly pleaded, the tears which streamed down her face telling in her shaking voice, ‘just leave me alone. I only want to go home’. She moved back some more, using the boot of the car to support her every clumsy step. There was no strength left in her now. She felt empty, drained, by the fear, by those soulless blue eyes, and now it was only the boot of the car that held her upright.

Please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt……

Then the pony-tail’s eyes flicked briefly to the space behind Jilly’s left shoulder as if he was looking at someone there readying to grab her. And even though she knew instinctively no one was there, even though she knew that the action of those cold, blue eyes was only a ruse by the man in front of her to allow himself the time to get closer, Jilly felt powerless to stop herself from turning to glance around at the gap of empty darkness. There was a brief, fleeting glimpse of movement, caught in the very comer of her eye from the front and she spun back to the road, knowing in her heart that she was too slow, to see the pony-tail lunging towards her with his arms outstretched, his moonlit shadow spilling out across the broken ground before him. A strangled cry escaped her and she swung her arm around defensively with the tyre lever fully extended in her small hand to catch him across the forehead, just above the eye. The blow was weak and impotent, little more than a glancing shot, but she felt it hit its mark and the pony-tail went down into a heap beneath it, collapsing to the hard ground at her feet. Jilly looked up towards the others, uncertain, as stunned by her sudden actions as they seemed to be, and she felt a faint glimmer of hope break through some of the all-numbing fear. None of the young men standing by the station wagon on the other side of the road moved. They only looked from one to

the other as if they were all unsure as to what was going to happen next and it wasn’t until the pony-tail called out. .. ‘Get the bitch.’ ...from where he lay groaning and clutching his head in the palms of his hands that one of them took a drunken, hesitant step forward.

Everything for Jilly seemed unreal after that, somehow slowed, as if seen from beyond a thick glass veil. Her mind felt detached from the cold reality of where she stood and of what was happening to her. Now it was focused on only one thing. The need to escape. The need to run and run and not stop until she was finally safe. She spun away from them, her breath burning at her insides in hard, fast bursts, and stumbled across the last of the gravel shoulder’s cleared surface to the slope of earth falling away to darkness beyond it-the same slope behind which she had hidden herself only moments earlier. Her legs worked frantically down the loosely packed rock face, skidding and sliding beneath her in a desperate attempt to maintain her unsteady balance, and when she hit the uneven ground at the base of the man-made incline, she landed heavily, her knees coming up at an awkward angle which drove the air from her lungs. She pitched forward, staggering on the very edge of falling as she fought for each aching breath-and when she finally found her feet again, she crashed off into the thick scrub and bracken that crowded in through the pale darkness at the foot of the slope. Branches tore at her soft flesh, cutting into her exposed forearms, scratching at her face as she forced herself on and all the time, through the race of panicked fear filling her mind and the feverish pounding of blood in her temples, the cries and drunken animal howls of the pack in pursuit of her pierced the still night air-very loud, very close. The last of the thickets gave way beneath her and Jilly reeled blindly out over the broken, summered earth on the other side, through long reedy grass whipping and slashing at her heels, past the fire blackened trunks of eucalypts and their fallen sun-bleached shells lying like the ghosts of slain soldiers beneath the eerie, haunted glow which broached the dark canopy of leaves from the full moon overhead. Tears burnt at her eyes, streaming down her dirtied cheeks, each step fighting for an unsure

balance amongst the night shadows which cloaked the ground at her feet, each footfall guided only by her racing, unseeing fear.

And then……

. .. ...her foot caught something. The edge of a fallen branch perhaps or maybe it was a rock thrusting up through the dried earth. Whatever it was, it sent her legs spilling out from underneath her and she went down, arms flailing in a vain effort to try to take the fall. The ground rushed up to meet her and she hit it ... ...hit it hard! Her jaw struck on the peak of its chin and a sharp burst of pain fired up behind her eyes, her teeth scissoring through the meaty flesh at the side of her tongue. Blackness threatened her, washing in at her from the edges of her sub-conscious but she fought it back, pushing herself on as the warm saltiness of her own blood filled her mouth, knowing only that she had to move-to get away. She shook herself, pulling her knees up beneath her and then, in that one sinking moment, realized with a cold and certain dread that the tyre lever, her only weapon, her only defense, had been knocked from her grasp in the fall. In her blind panic she hadn’t realized that she had still been holding onto it but, now it was gone, she felt more vulnerable at its loss than ever before. She searched frantically around her, down on all fours with her hands sweeping wildly through the long grass and weed for its reassuring touch, but it was nowhere to be found. Then there came a crash and a shout from behind and she spun around, her heart leaping up into her mouth.

They were close now, so very, very close and she knew that she had to move. Jilly forced herself painfully to her feet-a terrible ache burning in her ankle from where she had fallen-and she managed to clear no more than a dozen, limping, staggered steps before the ground came out from beneath her once more and she fell, sliding and rolling down another, steeper embankment to come to rest on the soft loamy surface of a dried creek bed.

There was blackness……

……..and for a time…..

. ..all was silent.

She felt as if she was watching herself from somewhere far away, from somewhere off within a long, dark tunnel, buried deep inside of her mind. Then, slowly, through this darkness, she began to become aware of distant things. Distant sounds. There was the sound of her own breathing, coming to her in short, labored gasps. There was the sound of voices, far away and yet so very close. And with these sounds came movement. Long shadows began to sway and shift within the uncertain landscape of Jilly’s dark subconscious. Shapes began to form and condense. And as she slowly opened her eyes……..

…....there was fear, sinking like a knife blade into her chest as she saw the pair of legs astride her own and the ice blue eyes burning into hers.

Jilly went to scream but a hand fell across her mouth, holding her cry deep within her. She tried to raise her arms to protect herself but other hands came down, encircling hers, to lift her painfully to her feet to stand within a circle of dark, leering faces. She was tossed from one to another, thrown between them like a rag doll. She was kissed. Touched. Groped. They tore at her clothing, pulled at her hair, pawed her breasts, thrust their hands down between her legs, and then, when she could stand no more, she was thrown, kicking and struggling, to the ground. The pony-tail moved over the top of her as she lay there, fighting against the hands that pinned her beneath him, his cold eyes afire, his hands working at the thick metal buckle of his belt.

‘Now, you little bitch,’ he growled, blood from the cut above his eye trickling down the side of his face as he undid his jeans, ‘I’m gonna make you pay.’

And as he came down onto Jilly and forced his way into her, she threw her head back to the moon, and she screamed.

And screamed.

And screamed.

3

‘JILLY?’

Peter White woke suddenly, slamming upright in his bed, the sheets falling away from his chest to lie in a crowded bundle across his lap. He had been dreaming.

‘Oh God! Jilly.’

He shook his head, dragging a rough hand down over his prematurely lined features as the last of the nightmare screams echoed away from him off along the lost, lonely corridors of his sleep, and let his tired, unfocused gaze slowly wander across the darkened room to the opened balcony doors of his eighth storey inner city apartment. A gentle breeze shifted the still night air, tugging restlessly at the thin, spidery lace of the bedroom curtains with its passing, and slowly, piece by certain piece, he began to feel his bearings reassert themselves.

‘Just a dream’, he told himself hoarsely. Just a bad dream

He sat that way for some time with his hand across his dry mouth, his mind hovering somewhere in between trying to understand the dream, its moving shadows, its leering faces and only wanting to forget about them, until at last, he eased himself out from beneath the loose cotton sheets and, wrapping a bathrobe around his slight form, made his way across the cold touch of the room’s polished timber floor to the opened, sliding glass panels of the building’s terraced landing.

The city slept peacefully below him, silent in its blanket of night. Cars moved noiselessly through the darkness, their headlights guiding them along dimly lit streets; office towers loomed black and brooding against the clear, starlit sky. ……….

……...and for the first time in his life, Peter White felt truly alone.

A slow, shuddering sigh drifted from between his parted lips and he shivered.

It would be a long time until sleep finally returned.

DAY 1

1

Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan had always had a feeling for trouble. It was something a man developed after as many years as he had spent serving on the force. It was something special. Something to be tended and when that feeling called, then a man was a damned fool not to listen to it.

Now Frank Brannigan was many things (and if you cared to spend a night warming a bar stool in either of the small town of Rowan’s two local hotels, you more than likely would have heard what most of them were) but a fool wasn’t one of them, and on that clear, dry morning, the last in the month of February - Summer in name only - that feeling had tingled aplenty. Hell, it had damned near rung off the hook.

Frank had been out along Donnier’s Road at the old timber mill on his first call-out of the day when the contact about the abandoned car had come through to his unit from the station. Since the turn of the century, Greiner’s Mill dominated the skyline of the small, rural community with its waves of corrugated iron roofs and tall, skeletal wash towers which thrust their way high above the scattered brown-green of low, bush land scrub. To the people of Rowan it was at once both a stark reminder of the pioneering spirit which had claimed the dry, central western landscape as its own while at the same time one of just how harsh this land can be to those who choose to press her limits. In the towns’ embryonic boom years of the late twenties, the mill had adjoined the mines when the pessimism of the great depression and war had given way to a new, postwar optimism and the state’s push to industrialize the countryside had gathered momentum. They had been profitable times then, for both companies as well as for the tiny township of Rowan which had, up until that point, marked the barren earth only as little more than a rest stop on the State rail line. There had been jobs here then for the menfolk in pulling the wealth from the ground, with the mill and Consolidated Silver and Tin (a name now known only by a faded, weather-worn sign on the side of one of the mine’s old washing sheds and in the long term memories of some of the town’s more venerable locals), taking up the slack of the countryside’s able bodied workforce when the crops had failed them – as it often did in those alternating years of flood and drought. Investments had been made, developments pursued and though there had been no shortage of people who had bemoaned the fact that the goods times would have to end sooner or later as all good times must, so they say – in those early years, the small town of Rowan had grown and prospered when it might just as easily have withered and died like so many other tiny farming settlements around it.

New businesses and stores had opened up, seemingly overnight. A highway had been laid north to south. Houses had grown where once there had been little more than native scrub and summered earth baked to red clay tiles. There had been halls built, a hospital in the neighbouring shire of Tarro which, according to the the ‘Mid Coast Inquirer’ – the local newspaper of the day – had been equipped with the most modern, postnatal facilities in the state. The foundations of a new church had been laid (and a Catholic one at that, something which even to this day remained a sticking point in the gullet of a predominantly Lutheran parish). A Masonic Lodge had been constructed, a town hall, as was a rail yard with its depot situated at the rear of the mines foundry (a sure sign, some said, of the town’s growing importance in the economy of the state). And finally, as if to in some way cement its position as a fully ordained and recognized community of worth, a police station had been erected at the edge of town. That had burnt to the ground in sixty-five after a direct lightening strike during one of the north coasts more violent summer storms (the building from which Frank now served the shire had sprung diligently, like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of the old, only this time brick and steel instead of wood and tin).

Then, as if to fulfill the dour prophesies of the town’s resident doom-mongers, after so many years of the good had come the bad.

Consolidated Silver and Tin had gone to the wall in sixty-eight when the earth had given up its last and the profits had soured, the boom finally turning to bust. There had been some talk, the way there always was in small towns, of bad investments and financial mismanagement by the board members, but it had amounted to nothing, the way that ‘Small Town Talk’ often does. Inspite of everything else however, the damage had been done and the mine’s gates had swung shut for the last time, two months shy of Christmas that year, taking most of the small community’s spirit and the better part of its population with it. Stores had run their obligatory closing down sales with no one coming before eventually disappearing to whatever grave yard it is where commerce goes to die, leaving only their deserted shop fronts of painted out glass and wind-loosened awnings behind to show they had ever been there at all. Church attendances had dropped as families either lost their faith or took it to wherever the work was. The Masonic hall closed down except for a special occasion such as the infrequent wedding reception or on a Tuesday night when the local branch of Daughters of Job ran their senior citizens bridge and bingo night. And generally, for what it was worth, Rowan had slipped back into its sleepy, lumbering existence. Barely alive. Small town people with their small town dreams. Only the mill had stayed on as anything close to the community’s lifeblood, rolling on from decade to decade as best as it could, laying off staff under the growing financial burden of a country side stripped of its full growth of timber until only a skeleton crew remained.

‘Scrubbie’ Hollows, the mill’s night watchman and janitor, had called the station house earlier that morning just after Frank had come on duty, complaining across the telephone line in his familiar stuttering drawl about some broken windows which he had stumbled across out in one of the old wood mill’s cavernous storage sheds.

‘P-probbl’y them f-fuh-riggin’ kids again,’ he had bemoaned, his voice harsh and impossibly thick from a long night of sipping at a whiskey flask and smoking his foul, unfiltered cigarettes. Frank had told him he’d head out and have a look around just as soon as he could manage it - expecting it to be nothing more than a case of willful damage caused by a couple of local kids who had been fooling around with nothing but time on their hands - and ‘Scrubbie’, who at sixty-eight looked at least thirty years older, had muttered something else Brannigan hadn’t caught before he had hung up. Frank had rubbed his wide brow and simply sat there in the confines of his small office for a moment longer, staring blankly at the telephone headset, dully contemplating the sour churning in his stomach and just generally feeling like shit, before he had opened the top metal drawer of his Government issue desk and pulled out a pack of Panadol from the scattered layer of paper clips, post-it notes and biros accumulated there. In the corner of the small office, a portable fan rattled weakly from its perch on top of the filing cabinet, struggling against the first of the days’ stifling heat which had already begun to fill the room. A thin bead of sweat trickled clammily down the small of his back and Brannigan had felt his stomach lurch again.

Down boy, he thought without any humor and patted a hand tentatively against the rise of his expansive gut. He had nursed back a dozen beers the night before on the front steps of his quarters adjoining the station house proper, mulling over the trivialities of balancing the station’s fuel and expense accounts against the shire’s increasingly stringent budget and this morning, with ‘Scrubbie’ Hollow’s stutter still ringing in his ears, he was feeling every single one of them. Brannigan had popped two of the Panadols into his mouth as he stood slowly from his chair, groaning with the effort, and walked leadenly across to the water dispenser next to the office door. He downed their powdery bitterness with a sip of luke warm water and it was only really then, as he scrunched the paper cup in his meaty hand, letting it fall into the waste basket at his feet, that he had begun to recognize something of the old, almost forgotten feeling of ‘wrong’ curling through the pit of his bloated stomach.

2

Frank had just eased his patrol car into the red dirt drive of Greiner’s Mill, coming to a grating halt on its loose surface, when the voice of Dottie Millway, who manned - or rather womanned - the station’s dispatch, had come through, crackling and distorted with the first blurred edge of the day’s heat static over the police band two-way radio. She had said that Andy Heise, who ran the early morning milk collection service to some of the shire’s outlying farms, had been coming back into town along Munrow Road with a full load in the tray when he had seen what he had thought to be a car lying in the scrub by the side of the bitumen stretch. Dottie had quickly added that she had asked him if he was sure it was a car he had seen and not something else, and Andy, who was known to run his morning deliveries more than at little ‘in his cups’ from his homemade moonshine, had said that he was.

Brannigan hit the patrol car horn, letting out a long, purposefully sorrowful blare in the still morning heat and strained his gaze off amongst the tall piles of cut timber, wood chip and rusted iron machinery of the deserted mill yard for any sign of ‘Scrubbie’ to come and let him in past the front gates.

‘Come on you old fart,’ he muttered irritably, standing halfway out of the patrol car’s opened door with the two-way held in his sweaty hand, ‘Where the hell are you?’

He hit the horn again, this time its moan striking a little closer to home, rattling threateningly at the thunderstorm clouding the inside of his head, and he let his hand fall away from the steering wheel hub to slump back inside of the vehicle, its cushioned seats folding comfortingly around his full frame.

‘Frank? Are you still there?’ Dottie asked.

‘Yeah,’ he replied with a weary sigh into the radio handset, ‘still here Dottie.’

‘Well,’ she asked impatiently, ‘what should I do?’

‘Look. I wouldn’t worry about it. If Andy Heise reckons he saw anything lying on the road, then the chances are it’s just an old bit of tin or something.’

‘I don’t know,’ Dottie replied, sounding somewhere about as convinced as Frank was interested, ‘Andy did seem pretty certain. And besides, he didn’t say that it was on the road, he said the car or whatever it was that he saw was in the bush beside the road.’

‘He’s always seeing things Dottie,’ Frank said, his gaze still scanning the crowded lumber yard amongst the long morning shadows for any sign of life in the form of Greiner Mill’s ageing night watchman, . ‘God knows, the man drives around the backblocks here as pissed as a parrot on his home made booze most of the time.’

‘FRANK.’ Dottie screeched and Brannigan allowed the handset to fall from his mouth while he pinched at the bridge of his prominent nose in a vain attempt to try and ease some of the ache behind his dry, red eyes. Her voice was beginning to give him a mother-thumper of a headache, one on top of the monster he had been carrying around inside his skull like excess baggage ever since first light. Dottie didn’t like it when he took the Lord’s name in vain, she didn’t like it when he swore ,(which he often did, sometimes just to get a rise out of her but mostly because he just couldn’t give a rat’s arse whether she was listening or not). Come to think of it, Dottie Millway, Rotarian, devout Lutheran and wife of the town of Rowan’s pissant shire chairman, didn’t exactly care for all that much else either.

Frank rubbed at the back of his neck, not surprised in the least to find the first of day’s beaded perspiration building there, and said ‘Okay Dottie. I’ll head over that way now. It looks like I’ll have to wait here all day to find out what Scrubbie’s bitchin’ ...sorry! What he’s complaining about. Out by Munrow Road you say?’

‘According to Andy.’

’All right. I’ll check it out. Oh. And Dottie….”

“Yes?”

“If Scrubbie Hollows wants to ring the station again to make any sort of complaint, you can tell that old bastard to make damned sure he is here when I turn up or I’ll pull his file of D.U.I.’s and he’ll never sit behind a steering wheel again. Over.’

Brannigan lay the headset back into the arms of its dashboard mounted cradle before he slammed the vehicle’s door shut and swung himself around behind the wheel. He gunned the patrol car’s eight cylinders more than he needed to, burning off a little of his mounting irritation at both of the early morning calls as the engine came to life, and rammed the gear stick into second, spinning around in the mill’s wide, dirt drive, cutting up a peel of red dust and gravel as he headed off towards the other side of town.

3

The tyre lay on its side a dozen or so feet in front of him, half concealed in the wall of summer burnt straw grass which grew on the edge of the dark ribbon of asphalt. It was no flat (though that is what Frank had first thought it to be when he had caught a brief glance of its dark shape as he performed a U-turn across the single lane highway’s broken white line and brought his vehicle to a halt on the other side), no blowout kicked off a passing car in the same way a horse would throw an errant shoe. The tyre was still on its rim. Still wholly circular and formed, and even from where he stood, as he stepped out into the dry, busy stillness of the surrounding bushland and eased the patrol car’s door shut behind him, he could see the wheel’s well defined tread gleaming out bright and new in the mid-morning sun from beneath its thick, protective coating of tyre-black.

Frank walked across to where it lay, his size twelve boots, dulled by years of faithful wear crunching out a beat on the loose gravel, and pressed his heel onto the wheel rim. There was a full belly of air beneath his foot allowing little in the way of give under his excess weight and he looked up, letting his pinched gaze follow the road’s faulted line off into the curtain of shimmering heat haze which obscured the world beyond the next rise. A soft, barely discernible breeze whispered , through the summer-parched bush and somewhere further off in the distance, amongst the dry arms of the eucalypts and pepperinas, a Kookaburra began its mocking song.

Okay, he thought, hitching a heavy sigh, so someone’s driving here along Munrow Road, probably as a link-up from the Bruce Highway, coastal bound. They take the rise with the car suspension working overtime on the depressions and potholes that scar this stretch of road and one of them gives the car a jarring that the shock absorbers can’t forgive. The car’s trunk flies open without the driver knowing it and coughs up the spare tyre to bounce and then roll its way to where it now lies.

It seemed a reasonably convenient enough assumption to Frank, and, as if to reinforce it, he tried to remember when it was that he had last heard of a Department of Works road crew doing anything even vaguely resembling maintenance out this way to smooth down the pitted surface of the road. Was it after the last big flood? Ninety-eight perhaps or somewhere close to there?

Whatever. He guessed that it didn’t really matter. In Frank’s eyes, all that mattered, standing there on the shoulder of the deserted length of country asphalt and feeling the first sting of the day’s promised heat beating down onto the top of his balding head, was that it seemed an easy enough step to deduce what had happened next. Andy Heise had come along sometime later in the earlier hours of the morning on his way back from one of his delivery rounds and in the notoriously over active imagination of the man - no doubt fuelled on by some of his equally notorious home grown ’shine, he has seen the above mentioned tyre and like a magician pulls a rabbit from a hat….. Hey Presto! .......concluded from it a car. Case Closed!

Frank squinted his eyes tighter, narrowing them down to hard, dark stones beneath his heavy brow, and turned into the morning sun, allowing his gaze to flow on past the patrol car and over the next rise to the east.

But that’s not right, is it Frank? he thought after a time as he shielded his gaze with the upturned palm of one hand. Or rather; it doesn’t quite feel right. If the trunk came open and a tyre came out, then why not something else? Why isn’t there a ...kid’s shoe or an ‘Esky’ or some such thing lying further off in the heat haze of the road?

Maybe the trunk slammed closed again, he thought, offering the notion up for evaluation. After all, if a pothole or a bump in the road could throw a car’s trunk open, then couldn’t another one just as easily throw it shut again? Maybe, he thought. Just maybe. But he didn’t feel particularly convinced. Not by a long way. And then there was the tyre itself. It was clean, almost spotless in fact. There were none of the scuff marks it should have incurred if it had been thrown free from a passing car. There were no small, road surface stones embedded into its near immaculate tread. There was no dirt on its black pitched rim. For all intents and purposes, the tyre couldn’t have looked any fresher if it had been taken from a show room floor and placed where it now lay by hand.

Frank gave the wheel one more absent nudge with the toe of his boot and hitched his trousers at the knee to go down onto his haunches for a closer look at the ground around it.

The earth here was soft. A shifting, red, loamy soil that had been worn by the wind from its shalestone base into a fine, wind blown sand. In some areas the scrub grass and black-boys came right up from the surrounding bushland to reclaim the dry ground beneath it and greet the road’s edge, but here and there around the tyre, as in dozens of other places along this road, the soil remained bare of everything bar the hardiest of weeds. A web of prints lay trapped within the parched ground at his feet. Of them Frank could see that most were old, worn by the elements of a harsh summer and temperatures that had all too often tipped the wrong side of forty. Some of the wider tyre marks belonged to the big rigs and long distance freight haulers that regularly used the narrow lanes of Munrow Road as a link-up between the Bruce Highway and the cane fields of Bundaberg, others were shallow and used by the wind. Yet amongst them, Frank’s tired, bloodshot eyes could still make out the clearer, better defined set of prints left behind from a more recent vehicle.

He leaned a little closer to the ground, swiping at a blowfly buzzing persistently around his face…..(He missed!) ...and pushed the pad of his broad finger into the soft earth which held the fresher of the tread marks within its shifting grasp. It was from a smaller car, certainly smaller than most of the vehicles that had left their imprints in the dry, giving sand. The tread was narrower than most, perhaps a six inch wheel and if he had to hazard a guess, by the tracks spacing apart from one another, he would say the car that had made them probably belonged in the three to four cylinder range, certainly nothing larger than a sedan. The prints led from the road’s sawtoothed edge roughly twenty feet further on, crossed over the broken gravel and sand surface of the shoulder, past where he now squatted to finally come to a halt a full car’s length on the other side of the lone tyre.

And it was there, for a moment, that he had thought they had ended, almost as if after that point, the car (and at this early, uncertain stage, possibly even the driver) had disappeared into thin air. Then he saw something that made him look twice. Just beyond the point where the tracks came to their abrupt end, there was a sudden and violent gouge carved sideways into the ground almost as if the car had been forced to take a reluctant side step to the left away from the roads edge. From that point on, the vehicle which had left the impression had seemingly turned of its own accord, angled away from the bitumen and moved off through a wide, flattened parting in the long grass to disappear down the sheer slope and into the thick scrub of bushland on the other side.

Frank lifted himself to his feet, his knees grinding painfully beneath his bulk with the effort, and walked over to where the last of the tyre marks lay before they vanished from sight. Imprinted there on the rougher ground, stitched across the last scant traces of the smaller vehicle, were a set of wider tracks, just as fresh and new as those beneath it. They went for no more than a few feet at right angles to the road before they lost themselves in the harder stone base of the shoulder. A dark frown knitted itself deeply across his lined brow as he once again shielded his eyes from the hardening glare of the morning sun, this time to stare off into the road-side densely packed, sun-burnt scrub, straining himself to see in between the blackened trunks and long reaching shadows of the gums towering overhead. A thin rivulet of sweat trickled down into the corner of his eye and he wiped it roughly away with the back of his hand.

But there’s no car there, he told himself. Oh! The tracks said that there was of course, he could see that all right. The tracks said there had been a car here as clearly in the loose dirt as the lines were that lay etched across the palm of his hand. The tracks said that a smaller vehicle had pulled in off Munrow Road (maybe as long ago as three days, though Frank felt inclined to believe they were far more recent than that), stopped for whatever reason in the clearing’s loose soil. …… To change a spare tyre? ...and it had been broadsided by another, larger vehicle that had rammed it over the edge of the road’s drop-off. But if that was the case then where was it now?

Brannigan stood that way for several minutes, staring out at the bush landscape before him in the morning heat with moisture running rivers down his face and back, and just as he had begun to convince himself there was nothing more to see than what he already had, writing off Andy Heise, the tread marks in the loose sand and the whole damned thing as a complete waste of his time, the wind shifted through the long grass below him, chasing a whisper across the dry canopy of leaves and his eye caught something - a brief gleam of metal from amongst the crowded nut grass and lantana. He took a step closer to the gravel shoulder’s rocky edge, craning his neck for a better look…....and that was when he saw it.

A small, rust red sedan lay tilted, nose down on the other side of the slope beneath the grey leaves of a fallen bottle brush that had all but concealed it from view. The car’s rear wheels were lifted into the air a good few feet clear of the ground as if its front bumper were pointing down into a gully or washout that, as yet, Frank couldn’t see, and its rear window had been blown out, leaving a confetti of glass chips sprayed out across the rounded span of its boot.

‘Jesus Christ!’ He hissed out a sharp breath through his clenched teeth and rushed between the last of the long, roadside grass to carefully lower himself down the slope on the other side, following the path that had been cleared through the crowded scrub in the small sedan’s wake.

The ground of the incline here was loose and broken and he slid sideways, working his hands and heels over the slope of crumbling earth before he jumped, clearing the last few feet of thistle and rock, to land unevenly on the rough soil at the jagged base of the drop-off. His breath came in heavy, labouring bursts after the short exertion and when he caught the little of it his smoker’s lungs could manage - his big hands planted on his knees and chest straining - he pushed himself forward. It was only then that he noticed the last fading life of the sedan’s indicators blinking feebly in the harsh, morning glare.

He was about to move around to the washout which had snared the car’s front end, stepping cautiously over a ridge of exposed granite, when a sudden, piercing cry filled the air and he jumped. He turned back towards the road…….

.....the sound coming again …….

…….and through a clearing in the trees close to the road’s last rise, he saw the gleaming silver/white bullet of a Caltex petroleum tanker cannoning its way along the highway bypass, its air horns shattering .the silence. The driver’s bare, meaty arm hung lazily out of the open window of the cab, and Frank acknowledged it with a brief wave.

So that’s where Andy Heise had seen the car from, he thought. He would have been coming back from Don Cleavland’s dairy farm up on the hill or maybe even an early morning call from Marty Wilde’s property further out near Oakridge, when he would have crested the rise in the road, just as the big rig had done, and seen the clearing. It would have been in the small hours of the morning, an hour or so before sun-up, and he would have been clearly able to pick out the car’s indicator light (which Frank would later discover had been triggered into action by an electrical fault when it had been struck from the side by the unknown car that had rammed it from the road) before it had become too much of a strain on the dying battery as it now was, flashing out as bright as a beacon in the pre-dawn darkness. And it was then and there that Frank decided two things about Andy Heise. One, he was to be commended for reporting the car in the first place. And two, he was a damned fool for not doing it a hell of a lot sooner than he did.

Brannigan moved across the last of the broken ground, stepping carefully through the tangle of bracken around his heels, towards the dried gully that firmly held the down-ended front of the small sedan and cupped his eyes to peer in past the dirt smeared glass of the passenger side window. There was no one inside and he sighed, feeling more than a little of the relieved weight fall from his shoulders…..He had dreaded what he might have seen.

He checked his wrist watch, making a mental note of the time for the inevitable report and made his way around the back of the car to the driver side door, lifting the branches of the fallen bottle brush high above his head as he went. The door was gouged by a deep set of furrows which showed clean through the faded, panel marked paintwork to the metal bone and was slightly ajar….

….... Probably thrown open by the impact of coming to an abrupt halt, he thought, lobbing a brief glance down at the sedan’s nose buried a foot deep into the hard dirt of the opposing bank of the runoff it had slammed into.

……...and he eased it slowly open, prying with the toe of his boot under the door’s base.

A sudden burst of colour and the fluttering of yellow feathers exploded in front of Brannigan’s round face from the inside of the vehicle’s dark interior, sending him reeling. He staggered backwards, struggling to retain his balance and dropped quickly to one knee, steadying himself as he looked up to see a small, brightly coloured bird flit away from the wreck and off into the distance between the pale trunks of the ghost gums which surrounded him.

‘Jesus Brannigan,’ he hissed, shaking his head at himself, feeling at once both a little abashed and at the same time slightly relieved, before he lifted himself back to his feet and approached the stranded vehicle once more. The inside was stifling. A small, pale leafed palm lay sprawled out between the body of the bucket seats, its long stem broken and wilted in the thick wave of heat that leapt out at him from the small car’s interior. A bird cage lay smashed and on its side. Several boxes were scattered around the rear seat, their contents still held with their securely taped lids and a large carry bag stood upturned on the passenger side floor.

Frank withdrew a pen from his uniform’s breast pocket and reached in to carefully latch the bag’s thick leather shoulder strap, trying but not being all together sure he was succeeding in leaving the rest of the car undisturbed as he lifted the weighty carry-all from the small car’s confines. That was when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle……

……. and then he knew he was being watched!

He swung around, dropping the bag onto the driver’s seat as he did so and stared off into the long shadows that had gathered between the sun-bleached arms of the eucalypts and pepperinas of the bushland plain before him. Shadows which had become suddenly dark and suddenly very menacing. His hand went to his gun. It was an unconscious thing. Something instinctive. Something he would tell himself later that he rarely ever did, and yet, even when he realised where his hand was resting, he didn’t take it away. There was a strength there in the feeling of the service revolver’s grooved wooden butt beneath his tightly gripped fingers, a security in its solidness and, at that particular moment, he didn’t want to lose either. His gaze went from one shape to the next amongst the dense bushland shadows, searching for a ‘fix’ on the eyes his gut instinct told him were there..…....watching. His ears strained into the sudden shroud of silence which had fallen around him, as oppressive as the relentless heat, listening for the .slightest sound.

Not a bird sang.

Not a cricket chirped.

Not even the softest whisper of a breeze shifted the air, until finally, somewhere off along the far, distant length of Munrow Road, the petroleum tanker’s horn cried out once more in the stillness.

4

John McKinnan had been in the barn working under the chassis of his son’s Holden Kingswood when he first heard about the commotion out along Munrow Road.

McKinnan (known as ‘Big’ John to most of Rowan’s older locals on account of his size, ego but most of all his volatile temper) had bought the shell of the Kingswood from a farm liquidation sale as an eighteenth birthday present for his only son, Ricky, in ’06. At the time he had seen it as the perfect present for the son he felt he hardly knew. There was no parental melancholia about the decision, such feelings were not for a man like ‘Big’ John. He was made of simpler, and he saw it, more honest stock. To ‘Big’ John, the world was governed by certain basic and easily understandable laws. A man needed a beer after a ‘Hard Days Work’ – number one. A woman should be able to cook a half decent meal for a man after said ‘Hard Days Work’ – number two. And rule number three, to be anywhere near a half decent, self respecting man, you needed a car. A car was freedom. It was raw, grunt power. Your wife pisses you off after a ‘Hard Days Work’ and a man can hit the ignition and peel up twenty feet of rubber on a driveway, flipping the bitch the bird as you sail off into the sunset. For a man like ‘Big’ John, life wasn’t difficult to understand, which was why he found it so hard to understand his own son. It didn’t matter to him that his boy had never shown any inclination to stick his head under the bonnet of a car let alone get his hands dirty with a little grease, oil or any other god damned thing that showed a man had done a decent days work. It didn’t matter that his son couldn’t hold a man’s stare let alone keep up a half honest conversation. A boy needed a car to become a man – simple! All boys did in ‘Big’ John’s opinion and he’d be damned if his beer swilling mates down at the local told him he was any less of a father for not providing his only son with the primo opportunity of a little cruising, boozing and back seat smoozing. Not that he had ever thought of a love of these things as too much to ask from his son. On the contrary, it had never even once crossed his mind to expect anything less from a product of his loins. He liked his sport (watching it, of course!) so therefore his son would. He saw the world as a better place when he was head down and arse up under the bonnet of a car, why wouldn’t his son? He worked the farm of his father, and his father before that, his boy would do the same. And why not? After all, all he had ever really wanted from his son was the same lot as most fathers. All he had ever wanted was someone to share in his interests and loves. Someone to pass on a lifetime of experiences to. Someone to sit on the back porch with of an afternoon, sinking a couple of beers and shooting the shit.

Little things.

Simple things.

But what had he gotten himself instead?

He had gotten himself a twenty-one year old son who was shy. A loner. Someone who preferred to sit at home reading books that were so goddamned thick a man could do himself an injury if he tried to lift them. Someone who liked nothing better than to spend his evenings locked in his room drawing and painting pictures rather than going out, getting shit-faced and laid (in precisely that order) like most ‘normal’ young men of his age. He had gotten himself a son who would rather walk around daydreaming and looking up at the clouds than earning himself a good hard day’s worth of sweat putting in some work in the fields. And, as he had once wondered out aloud to Merle, his wife of thirty years, by his reckoning he had gotten himself a son who was probably one of them goddamned ‘faggots’ as well.

What a fucking trade-off, ‘Big’ John thought to himself sourly as he lay belly up on the barn’s cold dirt floor, grunting his way through a running commentary to Ricky, in between curses and long regular silences while he fumbled his way around the fitting of a new set of gas shock absorbers beneath the Kingswood’s raised front end.

He had picked up the set of shock absorbers from a mate of his who worked part time in the town’s rail yards where they had ‘Fallen Off The Back Of A Train’ and had been waiting to get some time on his hands so that he could make his boy watch while he connected them up. (He knew Ricky had no more interest in how shock absorbers were fitted to a car’s front end than he did for driving the bloody thing once it was finally road worthy, but if ‘Big’ John was going to be the one who had gone to all the trouble of doing the work on what was supposedly his son’s car, then, if nothing else, he was going to be damned sure the lad was, at the very least, going to watch him do it). The C.B. radio in ‘Big’ John’s Massey-Ferguson, parked on the other side of the barn, had been on, as it was for most of the afternoon while he had been under the Kingswood’s bonnet, and he had been listening .to the open-band static and occasional ‘Truckie Speak’ as a substitute for the conversation which he had always thought to be more trouble than it was worth extracting from his introverted son.

A driver by the name of Dougy Stewart had been heading back along Munrow Road with a trailer load of poultry destined for the processing plant up at Kingstone when he had seen the police cars lined up besides the long, bitumen stretch.

‘Lights flashin’ like God knows what,’ he had said to anyone within range who might have been listening, his nasally, country twang rising through the stifling heat which filled the barn to its high wooden rafters.

‘Big’ John stopped what he had been doing, planting his big farmer’s hands on the Kingswood’s front bumper and had dragged himself out from beneath the car’s shadow to lie there on the oil soaked ground bathed in the yellow glow of the service light hanging from the chain fall overhead……As was so often the case, he didn’t notice his son or the sudden lack of colour in his otherwise sallow cheeks. Hadn’t Merle come back from town earlier on this morning muttering on about something she had heard was going on out along Munrow Road? he wondered, wishing that for once in his life he had listened to the endless stream of drivel that his bird-faced wife went on about whenever she came back from Rowan with her week’s worth of shopping. Hadn’t she said something about that Millway bitch at the cop shop mentioning some sort of commotion out that way?

‘What’s going on, ya reckon?’ An anonymous voice had replied after a moment and there was a hard, prolonged crackle of white noise before the disembodied voice of Dougy Stewart answered.

“‘Buggered if I know. It ain’t no speed trap though, I can see that much. The coppers are roaming all over the place there in the bush like as they’re lookin’ for something. If a man was to guess, I’d say I that there was at least a good half a dozen of ‘em if there was one.’

’Turn that up so as I can hear them clearer, Ricky, ‘Big’ John grunted from where he lay. He wasn’t a nosey man, not by nature. And as for curiosity. Well, as far as he was concerned, that was only a hop, skip and jump away from the gossip his nattering wife thrived on. But the little that he did possess of both had begun to fire on all cylinders and when there was no immediate response to what he had asked, he looked over to where the boy stood and readied himself to give him a good clip around the ears for daydreaming…….. Be damned if the lad wasn’t forever drifting off somewhere gathering wool.

‘Did you hear what I just said boy,’ he rumbled, his eyes narrowing threateningly as he lifted himself from the ground, and Ricky jumped.

The young man looked nervously across to his father, to the radio and back again, his mouth hanging agape, a sheen of beaded sweat clinging to his top lip. Then, before ‘Big’ John could say anything more, before he could even move, the boy turned jerkily, almost robotically, from him and without a word, bolted from the barn like the devil himself was hot on his heels.

‘Big’ John McKinnan only sighed and shook his head.

“As useless as bloody tits on a bull” he muttered, wiping his hands down the length of his stained overalls as he walked over to the open cab of his Massey, not trying to understand what had just gotten into his son and being long past caring. The only thing that crossed his mind as he turned up the volume knob of his C.B. radio and parked himself down on the tractor’s huge wheel rim to listen to the rest of the drivers’ conversational chatter, was to wonder what in God’s name had he ever done to deserve a boy like his.

5

Ada Carlson was a tiny, withered old woman who lived in a ramshackle house surrounded by bushland on the very fringe of the Shire of Rowan’s sprawling boundary. Most of the locals who knew her, or knew enough of her to recognize her formidable, old country ways and wizened abruptness, called her ‘Crusty’. Some called her ‘just plain out and out mean’. And others again simply referred to her as ‘that old bitch on the edge of town’. All were apt enough descriptions of her in their own way, and there had been more than a fair share of people over the space of years who had crossed swords with her (rather foolishly so) and who would only too readily testify to the validity of most folk’s claims.

’Eat ’em up and spit ‘em out again,’ Ada would often tell Owen Patchette - the son of Dave Patchette, owner and operator of the Pay-N-Save General Store - when he dropped the old lady’s weekly groceries off on the last call of his delivery rounds on a Wednesday afternoon. And Owen would nod quietly to himself as he always did and say something like. .. ‘I bet you do Missus Carlson.’ or... ‘I would’ve reckoned most people would’ve been smart enough not to get on your wrong side by now Missus Carlson.’ ...or sometimes, he would just stay quiet and smile, secretly grateful when the old lady would finally take her week’s worth of brown bagged groceries from him and totter her way home, back along the overgrown garden path to the front door of her run-down house, leaning heavily on the wheeled walking frame that had held her upright these last twenty-odd years since her bowed legs had gone bad.

Ada had always had a way of making people feel uncomfortable like that. Sometimes it would just be in the look she gave people, other times it would be there in the way they crossed the street to avoid her on the few times she ever ventured into town. It was something in her lined, weathered face that made people wary of her, something about her wispy, white hair or in the fiery darkness of her eyes - the way they seemed to stare their way into your very heart and read the secrets that lay buried there. But mostly, what made people uneasy about Ada Carlson was one, simple thing…….

…..She was a witch and everybody knew it.

Everyone in town knew Ada Carlson was a witch because, according to the local bingo hall whisper, it was said she had never been bedded by a man - though in her youth, before the weight of years had taken their toll, it was allowed that her beauty had bought itself no shortage of offers. Everyone in town knew Ada was a witch because she had once knowingly told Susan Howerson, the local grade school English teacher of the time, about the importance of the numbers nine and eleven some two days before the twin towers attacks had been first broadcasted on the radio. And that she could pick the sex of a calf, or a pony, or even a child, just by looking at the belly of its pregnant mother. Everyone in town knew it because she could look up at a starlit sky and tell a farmer a month’s worth of reliable weather for planting just by what she saw up there. And because she had cats, lots of cats, who lived with her in her old house, eating and shitting and fucking and doing whatever else it is that cats do. But mostly, everyone in town knew Ada Carlson was a witch because, unlike much of the ‘talk’ that fills up the ears of small town people over the space of the better part of a day, it was actually true. Not that she worshipped Satan at an altar either - though that, at least, is what some people in town would have you believe (Ada didn’t have herself any time for God, let alone his cloven footed nemesis). She didn’t sacrifice goats or chickens - aside from the occasional victim to a Sunday afternoon roast - and she didn’t dance naked in her walking frame around a blazing bonfire on All Hallows Eve (though, as most folks agreed, that definitely would be a sight to see).

No! Ada Carlson was a witch because, like her mother, and her mother before, she knew things. Things about people. About places. Things about the dark storm she had felt in her dreams building up on the horizon over the sleepy little town of Rowan in the last few days and foul wind she had felt blowing in the air with its coming.

Ada sat out on the front porch of her tiny, ramshackle home that afternoon, moving herself gently back and forward on her cane rocker through the last of the day’s still heat. There was a tall, glass pitcher of unsweetened lemon juice made up on the small wine table standing beside her chair. Next to it lay a deck of Queen’s Slipper playing cards, battered and yellowed from the years of constant padding by her knotted, arthritic fingers. While from the opened doorway of the house, the accusational voice of Doctor Phil filled the dry, summer air, his authorative Texan drawl drifting out onto the narrow verandah through the opened, fly screened front door. Ada liked Doctor Phil, and while normally she would watch his show religiously of an afternoon (though she would have confided to anyone who was to ask her that she never had much time for ‘yanky’ chat-shows or their white trash participants) today, she was hardly listening.

Today, instead, her interest lay elsewhere, fixed upon the wind-chimes which hung from the verandah’s bullnosed, iron awning, her old eyes narrowed to catch their slightest spinning movements, her ears straining for their softest tinkling sound.

Ada had made wind-chimes ever since she had been a little girl and her mother had taught her how to listen to the wind and the secrets it whispered. Some of these chimes she had made out of the pieces of wood she carved and shaped in her bent hands from the knots of old seasoned timber which she often found in the bushland surrounding her home. Others were misshapen lengths of fired clay and shards of broken crockery strung together by fishing line. While others still were made solely from the bones of animals. The bone-chimes were the strongest in their magic, their voices the clearest to Ada’s ears when the wind spoke to her through them, whispering its secrets in their tinkling clatter of other people’s lives, of things to come and things that have passed.

Yet today, even they were silent.

Today, there was no wind and though there had been times before, days and sometimes weeks when the wind did not speak to her through the chimes, today that silence worried her more than ever.

Something’s going to happen here soon, Ada thought, letting her eyes drift slowly out past the still curtain of chimes at the verandah’s crumbling railed edge to stare off into the rippling wall of heat haze that engulfed the bush track which wound its way from her weed choked front yard. Other folks may not notice it but I can feel it in my bones. Something’s coming this way. It might not come today and it might not come tomorrow but it will come. I don’t know if it will be good or bad when it does. Good for some, bad for others I expect but it’s out there, somewhere amongst the trees and the rocks. /t’s out there now. …….. waiting, just waiting for the right moment to awaken and do whatever it is it has to do. And when it does come, good or bad, right or wrong, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to be able to stop it.

She reached across with a withered, leathery hand to the deck of playing cards set on the table beside her rocking chair and selected the one for the top to turn over and lay it face up on the worn felt surface beside the rest of the pack.

The Queen of Spades. The Harbinger of Justice.

A frown knitted its way across Ada’s ancient, sun-beaten brow and she let her steady gaze return to the dry, shimmering bushland there to watch and to wait for the darkness she felt most assuredly was to come while from the opened room behind her, Doctor Phil threw to a commercial break, promising that ‘We are all in this together!’

6

It was late afternoon by the time Frank Brannigan finally rolled across the state railway lines which scored Thompson Street at the far end of town and eased his police cruiser into the angled parking bays beneath the rust stained iron lattice work and white washed walls of the Royal Exchange Hotel.

He had been out along Munrow Road for most of the day, organizing as best he could the search for the driver of the abandoned vehicle, one Jillian Michelle White, female, Caucasian, twenty-seven and potential organ donor (according to the neatly typed information on the back of the young lady’s driving license), and now he was tired, worn around the edges by what he had increasingly begun to tell himself was a young man’s game, and for the first time in a long number of years, he felt old. So very, very old.

When he had returned to his unit after his initial search of the vehicle earlier that morning, he had patched a call back through to Dottie in dispatch to log in his time of arrival at the scene and to give her a rough outline of his investigation of the area up until that point for the files. Dottie of course - being Dottie - had wanted to know more but Frank had put a stop to her questions before she had a chance to get carried away, telling her to get in touch with the State Police, Traffic Division, for an updated listing of stolen vehicles and to send Bobby out. Robert ‘Bobby’ Milne was the youngest of Rowan’s two deputy constables. He was an awkward, nervy boy who fought a continually losing battle with an angry, red raging case of acne, and despite a sometimes infuriating streak of idleness, he generally worked to par. Frank had him run a check on the authenticity of the driver’s license he had pulled from the handbag found on the car’s front floor and cross reference the Cortina’s plates against the updated list of stolen vehicles that had, by then, been faxed from the state office back to base. Both had passed as bona-fide and it was only really then that the true police work had begun.

They had run the standard series of tracks and searches, tracing Miss Jillian Michelle White - an attractive young girl, Frank had thought upon seeing the small, harshly lit photograph on her license for the first time - to her last known address at a block of flats just on the outskirts of the south coast town of Kirra. (A rather over-eager neighbour there had been only too happy to let them know of her new forwarding address and the fact that she hadn’t cancelled either her milk or newspaper deliveries before she left). Failing to find her or, for that matter, anyone else at her new place of residence near Valestone, and feeling that time was a’wasting, Frank had thrown the paper chase to find the girl’s relatives, family, etcetera, into the basket of the state police so that he could concentrate on some of the more immediate problems at hand. (Dottie would patch a call through to his police car on the two-way at just after noon to tell him that the state investigators from ‘Missing Persons’ had uncovered a lead in that general direction and were currently in the process of following it up). An officer from the state forensics squad had pulled up not all that long afterwards to dust, bag and take some castings from the tyre marks on the side of the road before finally organizing the removal of the car from the glove of bushland that held it and tow it back to the station’s impound yard for further tests which would continue for what would be most of the rest of the afternoon. After he had come and gone again, thanking everyone for their time and professionalism - and not meaning it in the slightest - Frank had pulled Rowan’s other young deputy constable, Mitch Gardiner, from his rostered day off. He had Mitch pay a call on all of the surrounding farms and properties in the immediate vicinity to see if any of the landowners had heard or seen anything even remotely unusual in the area the night before, while he sent Bobby packing in an effort to track down Willy Ross and his two boys, Iian and Willy Junior. The three men were seasonal hunters who owned and operated a family tannery on the outskirts of town and were reputed, according to the local rumor mill at least, to own a pack of pit bull terriers with some of the keenest noses in the shire. Bobby would return empty handed an hour or so later, saying that he had spoken to ‘Ma’ Ross who had said that Willy and Co were out on a two day kangaroo shoot at Aaron Miller’s property on the other side of Howard but would be back sometime early the next morning when she would send them straight out, dogs in tow.

And for all of their efforts the day could quite well have ended there and then, had it not been for Bobby and an unaccustomed stroke of initiative which had led the youngest of Rowan’s finest to stop by the local branch of the State Emergency Service on his way back through town from the Ross place to inform them of the situation and request their help. Twenty minutes later, as the first faint pearly washes of dusk began to spill out across the skyline and the day’s long shadows began to soften at the edges, over a dozen orange clad volunteers were combing the bushland with hand-held walkie-talkies and a metal detector, searching for any sign of the missing girl.

………And what did all of this amount to? What was the sum total of the whole exercise?

Nothing. Not a bloody thing.

For all intents and purposes, Jillian Michelle White might just have well walked off the edge of the world and into the mouth of whatever black void lay beyond.

Brannigan sighed, feeling the weight of the day sit leadenly around his broad shoulders, and looked up, his sharp eyes catching the soulless, downcast stare of the war memorial in the middle of Orren Park on the opposite side of the road in the car’s rear vision mirror.

There was a moment where he thought he saw something there. Something in that statue’s unseeing granite gaze. Something that chilled him. And suddenly, irrationally, he found himself remembering the feeling of being watched which had stabbed at him earlier in the morning when he had spun around from the abandoned car to stare off into the deserted bushland, only to feel it staring back into him.

Brannigan felt a shudder work its way through him, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling a little at the thought of it before he wiped a hand over his lined brow, chasing back some small measure of the uneasiness he felt at the memory and looked around amongst the long shadows stretching out across the hotel’s parking lot from its double storied balcony above.

Carl Howson’s road weary F-l00 sat off to his right in the angled parking bays in front of the public bar’s main doors, its chrome bull bar and single roof mounted spotlight beaming hard and bright in the late-afternoon sun. Next to it and a little closer to the dark picket fence which surrounded the beer garden (a canvas banner hanging from its rails proudly announcing in dayglo-orange the presence of ‘Ronny and the Ramblers’ next Saturday night-Cover Charge $10 – first beer FREE!!!) a Ford station wagon, and on the other side of him, a green-grey Subaru with South Australian plates. Frank briefly checked the registration of the Southerner against the recently updated clipboard sheet of stolen vehicles, running his finger down its photocopied foolscap page and tossed it onto the empty seat beside him when he didn’t find the number there. (Not that he necessarily expected it would be but, as he had so often made a point of telling both Bobby and Mitch when they were a little wetter behind the ears, when it came to police work you always cover your arse).

Johnny Kinnane honked at him from behind the wheel of his hatch back postal van as he rounded over the rail lines coming back into town from his deliveries and Frank held up his hand in recognition before stepping out into the faint breeze - all the afternoon had to offer by way of relief. He threw his cap onto the car’s dash, pocketing the keys from the ignition and, feeling a little better at the thought of tasting the day’s first beer, he walked past the ratty old German Shepherd who was happily licking his balls in the curbing, and into the lounge of the Royal Exchange

The place was dark. The room, dim and hollow and smelling vaguely of stale beer, the hangover from the night before. Bob Dylan was mumbling his way through one of his wrist slashing mantras on the battered old Wurlitzer in the corner of the lounge and the chairs had been laid down from the tables in readiness for the late afternoon/early evening rush of locals and station hands from the properties further out west. The publican, Sam Parker (his real name was Donald but the man was a Bogart fan to the very end with a particular passion for ‘Casablanca’, so what the hell!), hailed to Frank from behind the bar, where he was propping a new Johnny Walker into its measurer overhead.

Brannigan tipped him a nod and followed the music across the near empty room to where a young couple - out-of -towners and likely owners of the Subaru with South Australian plates outside - sat talking softly to one another over a couple of unfinished beers, a smouldering ashtray and a pile of coins for the jukebox between them.

Nice looking kids, Frank thought and he picked his way through the maze of empty chairs and tables towards the bar. Sam pulled him his customary long, tall beer with a dash and placed it on the freshly polished bartop, its head spilling over the rim of the glass and onto the gleaming wooden surface before returning his attention to a small, portable transistor radio mounted on the wall behind him which was scratching its way through the second half of a Raiders/Broncos pre-season match. The Raiders were down fifteen points with only a half a dozen minutes left on the clock to play until full time, Carroll with the ball, and Frank found himself dully contemplating the loss of the ten dollars he had placed on them against the ten Mitch had waged. Today it seemed too trivial to even contemplate.

Brannigan lifted his chunky bulk onto one of the bar stools, his well rounded arse hanging over either side, and took a slow, deep pull on his beer, its clean froth clinging in a moustache to his upper lip. It wasn’t long before he became aware of Sam watching him from beneath his bushy salt and peppered eyebrows and he glanced up from his drink to see the man studying him intently as he put a shine a line of whiskey shot glasses laid out before him.

‘A busy day so I hear Frank,’ he said casually and Frank sighed. He rested his glass back on the bartop and wiped his mouth clear with the back of his hand.

‘You could say that Sam.’

He had known that would be coming: the deserted car out along Munrow Road, the missing girl, the police search, they were, and probably would be for a long time, the most remarkable things to happen in the otherwise unremarkable history of the small country town where ’who planted what crop

early and what a damned fool he was for doing it’ usually took precedence over everything else in people’s conversations. And, sure enough, he had expected the questions to flow thick and fast once the word got out. (God knows, he had served in enough communities like Rowan over the last few years to know the wildfire speed that gossip like this could take, with every man and his dog wanting their very own little piece of it.) The only trouble was, he had rather naively hoped he would have been given at least a day’s grace before those questions started to fire in his direction.

He told himself he should have known better.

It wasn’t Sam’s fault, he guessed. The man was all right and, generally, Frank liked him - at least more than he liked most people in this small town where his friendship bordered on a begrudging tolerance at best. There was always a tall glass of beer waiting for him, courtesy of the management, whenever he walked in, on duty or off. Sam would always wipe clean Frank’s considerable bar tab whenever he looked the other way at the end of each month as the truck rolled in out back of the hotel with his cheaper and highly illegal black market booze. And he was probably about the only licensed hotel owner Frank had ever met in his working life who put the welfare of some of his regulars over that of the almighty dollar, taking their keys when they had drunk too much, organizing rides home for those without, and, when all else failed, calling up the station to let the boys in blue know there was a carload of pisspots on the road with a skinful. Unfortunately however, the man was also a talker, only too willing to include his little contribution to whatever rumour was currently doing the rounds and today, of all days, Frank had absolutely no intention of adding anything to what Sam might already have heard. The silence on his part was only a temporary measure, he knew, a band-aid on a chest wound to a subject that, if he didn’t miss his mark, was probably already beginning to take on all of the revering tones of small-town folklore…….Just the same, it was then and there he decided that he’d have to have a talk to Bobby, Mitch and Dottie first thing in the morning about making sure they didn’t let their tongues get away from them.

Sam leaned closer, eyeing Frank with his best ‘Bartender Confessor’ expression planted across his narrow, lined face and Brannigan hitched another inward sigh. After the day he had just gone through, he felt like taking the man by his scrawny shoulders, shaking him until his bones rattled and screaming in his face that he didn’t want to talk about it, and even if he did it wouldn’t be here and it wouldn’t be to him so he could just go and shove his sympathetic ear up his sympathetic arse.

Tempting, Frank thought, lifting the glass to his lips once more and tasting the beer he had been working his way up to since lunchtime. Very tempting indeed.

‘Heard something on the wireless before about it,’ Sam drawled, pushing on regardless. He was one of those old school kind of folk who still referred to the radio as a ‘wireless’, children as ‘nippers’ and sex as ‘…...you know what’. ’People been talking about it ‘round about here and the fellow from the local radio station said that they was looking for the owner of some car that was foun ...’

‘If you don’t mind, Sam,’ Frank snapped, cutting him off as he downed the last of his drink, his voice sounding a little harder than he had intended, ‘it’s been a real bitch today and I’d just as soon forget about it if I could.’

Sam Parker pulled back a little from his lean on the bar, the expression on his face near to, but not quite, affronted before he smiled his ‘I-know-how-you-feel-I’ve-been-there-before-myself’ smile and offered Frank another top up for his glass, moving off to see to the needs of the young couple over by the jukebox when Frank declined. (Later that night Sam could be heard to tell Lane McKee from the video hire store further along the street that, “ ...and Frank sat there, right there on that very stool, lookin’ into his beer for what must have been close on a half a hour and hard man though Frank may be, I’ll swear black and blue and on my mother’s grave that whatever he saw out there on Munrow Road put him damned near the edge of tears, God’s honest truth’.)

Frank put the empty glass back down on the bar top, feeling a little better for the beer than when he had come in, and gave Sam a ‘See you later’ as he made his way back out into the still heat of the afternoon, shooing away the old German Shepherd (who had graduated from licking his balls to pissing on the wheel of the patrol car) before he hopped back inside his unit to fire its engine to life and head the short half-block distance for home.

8

When he got back to the station house, it was mercifully deserted.

Bobby and Mitch were still on point duty out along Munrow Road, keeping the curious and the irritatingly nosey away from the area that had been selected to search tomorrow morning with Willy Ross and his pack of hounds, and Dottie had left her place in dispatch somewhere around three for her weekly visit to the Sandringham Old People’s Home where her silver-haired mother spent her few remaining years in a near permanent state of senile decay. (Dottie would return to the station later on that evening to make up her time behind the front desk. Until then, like now, all incoming calls would be fed directly through dispatch and out to one of the town’s three mobile units.) Frank eased his vehicle down the steep drive beside the Police Station-cum-Post Office-cum-Department of Works and Registration building and bought it to a gradual halt, rolling into the cool, blanketing shadows of the garage set in beneath the verandah of his semi detached quarters. He switched off the radio, killing the channel cross talk he had been idly listening to on his way back into town…….Wilt Keenan was just about to hit full stride with a joke he was relaying to Sandy Parks from the cabin of his John Deere when he was cut short. ... ‘So this old guy, about ninety or so if he’s a day, totters into his doctor for a check up, cause he’s getting married to this seventeen year old girl,’ Wilt had said in between the short sucking pauses of his slipping dentures and Sandy Parks’ polite laughter. ‘And the doctor looks at him shakin’ his head with his steth-ey-scope in his hand and goes, ’Well Mister Smith. I’ve got to tell you that I think that sexual relations with your new wife at this age may have serious consequences. Perhaps even fatal. And the old fellow goes……

‘Fuck it! If she dies, she dies!’ Frank finished in a voice that was both flat and uninterested from having heard the joke relayed almost verbatim across the airwaves over the last few days as it was told by one farmer to another. (Bobby Milne had even made a passing shot at himself at one point but had rather wisely, Frank had thought at the time, given up halfway through when he realised that Dottie was standing in the lunch room doorway.) Brannigan then slammed the car door shut, rounding the front of the building to take the flight of steps there two at a time and stood for a moment on the narrow verandah, looking along its adjoining length of sun-beaten hardwood timber flooring to the station’s side door which led to his office while he idly fished for the loaded key-ring in his back pocket.

He should go in, he thought. There’d be a ton of files and reports coming his way in the morning that would need seeing to. Probably a visit from a state branch detective or two regarding Jillian White’s mysterious disappearance (that was if they hadn’t already been, totally forgotten about by the men in suits - a very real possibility in Frank’s opinion), the local radio station would most likely be putting in an appearance for an interview and some more information on the missing girl for their evening news broadcast, and he already had a mound of backdated paperwork that he had steadily been putting off over the last couple of months, and that stretched from arsehole to breakfast, piling up on his office desk.

But the paperwork’s still going to be there in the morning, Frank, he thought, It’s waited this long. Another day’s not going to kill it. And as for the rest? Well. ...that’ll take care of itself the way it always does. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow! He couldn’t actually remember if that was the correct way that particular little maxim was supposed to go and he guessed it didn’t really matter. The important thing to him at that particular point in time was that was the way it should go….…Danm right!…and as if to reinforce the notion, he found himself suddenly remembering the last remains of the carton of beer he had so diligently worked his way through last night. The remnants of which were still taking up space on his refrigerator’s top shelf.

Fuck it then, he thought, feeling the need for no further convincing and he juggled the key-ring around in his hand until the right one that made its way home in his quarters’ front door found his fingertips. He slid it into the lock, turned it stiffly and let himself inside.

It was dark in the lounge of his small but functional residence. The shades which had been drawn that morning against the day’s first light now fought with the piercing glare and heat of the afternoon sun, the coffee table lay buried somewhere beneath the cluttered, Styrofoam packaged remnants of last night’s takeaway dinner and the faint, slightly unpleasant muskiness of a room crying out for a freshening breath hung heavily in the air. Frank walked across to the old dinosaur of a two-way that had been set up in the middle of the room mantle piece next to the gilt edged frames of his family photographs on one side, and his hard backed copies of Morris West on the other, and reached around to the unit’s back to flick it to life, winding up the volume until the sharp haze of static filled the air. Somewhere off in the white noise of the closed police band he could hear the faint stirring of voices and he hit the receiver’s channel search button, listening to the distant muttering of conversation that came on line as he walked into the built on kitchenette, pocketing his keys.

A six pack waited for him on the meat shelf of the old Frigidaire (as promised) and he removed it from the icy embrace before stepping out through the swinging fly screen door and into the backyard beyond. The Frigidaire gave out one low rumbling lurch in protest at its interrupted sleep before settling back, once more, into its slumbering existence on the comer of the tiled floor, dozing peacefully.

The slight breeze, all that had whispered throughout most of the day as little better than a token effort, had freshened some and Frank unbuttoned his uniform shirt to let his large gut catch some of its

cooling sigh as he made his way across to the old fig tree which dominated the centre of the half acre yard. He pulled a can from its plastic loop and lifted the ring seal, taking a long, slow pull on its contents as he settled himself down against the knotted wood of the ancient trunk, his eyes closed, enjoying the taste of the bitter amber chill finally washing the dryness of the day from his throat that the beer in the hotel hadn’t touched. He sat there for a moment, enjoying the quiet, the hard texture of the tree’s body against his back and when he opened his eyes again, he let his tired gazed roam indifferently across the peeled paint and dirt stained windows of the building that had been his home over the past five years.

I’m like this place, he thought morosely, a sigh escaping his lips with a sound that surprised him with some of its lost strength. Had a bit of promise once. Looked okay. Had a purpose and did it pretty damned well too. Solid and trimmed, that was me. I even weathered a few storms in my time, but somewhere, when I wasn’t looking, the rot set in and that, as they say old chum, had been that. No peeling paint though. His hand went to his expansive gut and patted it. No dirty windows either. Just fifty pounds of extra ballast and a lot of snow in the hair. What little there is left of it of course. He laughed, though there was little humour in it, and then shook his head.

Poetry Frank. Sheer fucking poetry. Two beers down the track and already the man is philosophising. He followed the thought with another taste of the drink in his hand as he lay his head back, eyes narrowed against the last of the day’s brightness as it began its slow wash from the sky, blue becoming white, white falling away to the soft yellow glow of dusk - then shifted his weight a little, trying to get as comfortable as he could on the weed choked ground surrounding the base of the tree when he felt a sharp stab dig into the soft flesh of his groin. He rested the can aside (after only a couple of mouthfuls it was almost empty) and reached into the pocket of his long trousers to remove the source of the problem. The key-ring and his wallet. ……Say, is that a set of house keys in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

He pulled both out, laying them aside on the ridge of one of the old fig’s sun hardened roots to give himself some room to relax and, despite himself, found his gaze drawn eventually to the wallet’s comfortably battered, brown leather face and the memories he knew it to contain.

Jesus, Frank. Give it a rest would you? What’s the matter? An abandoned car, a missing girl and you still want some more? Got to add your own little miseries to the pot just to keep it simmering?

His hand went for another beer and he pulled back its seal. A sharp hiss of pent up gas broke from the can’s mouth and he lifted it to his lips. This time he barely tasted it. For a time, he just eyed the wallet, unsure and looking at it for all the world as if it was a snake rearing up at him readying to strike, before a thought surfaced, reminiscent of when he’d decided not to go into the office earlier and make a start on his paperwork. ……. A resounding Fuck it! ….....and he reached down to open it up.

Buried there, discreetly beneath his credit cards, old receipts, unpaid bills and raffle ticket stubs, was a small, faded photograph, its edges worn and bent from years of handling. Frank withdrew it from the stained plastic of its flyleaf and held it up to the light, discarding the rest of the wallet to his lap. From within the snapshot’s black and white surface, twenty years thinner and in his police sergeant dress blues, Frank beamed widely. To his left, Maggie stood smiling her soft, almost sad smile beneath the shady brim of her sun hat, a thin floral summer dress clinging to her slight form. And between them both, Danny, looking young and strong in his parade uniform and peaked cap, his arm around Frank’s shoulder and the other circling his mother’s waist. A crowd of young cadets milled with their parents and friends behind them, their faces blurred and frozen in time. Their last picture together.

Frank closed his eyes and smiled.

He could remember...he could still feel the pride he had felt on that day of the police academy’s passing-out parade, the day that had been a fulfillment of a dream for them all. For Frank, in seeing his only son take his place as the fourth generation police officer in a family that had taken law enforcement as it tradition. For Maggie, hanging on tightly to his arm as they sat in the stand of the

academy’s auditorium, dabbing her moist eyes with the back of linen gloved hand like so many of the other parents around them, and watching her child with a mother’s pride. For Danny…..

……. .. For Danny

……. and the way he had stood so tall amongst the line upon line of promising young cadets in their dress blues, the light gleaming off their uniforms’ polished buttons and spit shined shoes.

………..For Danny who had wanted to be a policeman ever since he could garble his first words.

………For Danny, who had been killed by a car load of joy riding teenagers only months later.

Frank leaned back against the rough, immovable solidness of the fig tree and allowed the tiny photograph to drop from his hand to his lap where it rested next to the opened wallet. Even after all of these years of trying to forget, he found himself slightly in awe and, at the same time, slightly afraid of the clarity with which he could summon up the images of that last night. A clarity that seemed only to ever come of tragedy and deep personal loss.

The chase had been a long one, starting at just past dusk on the outskirts of the city and covering a hundred and. twenty kilometers of bushland highway before coming to its fatal end. A half dozen kids, none of them old enough to shave, had been tanked up on cheap wine and pot and had been in the process of holding up a small, suburban pharmacy after prescription drugs when a patrolling unit had interrupted them. They had slashed the counter girl with the knife they had been using to threaten her and had all bolted from the store to pile into a white, Holden sedan - later discovered as having been hot-wired at the parking lot of the local cinema - running a red light and gaining two blocks before the police car had been able to give chase. The call had gone out and Frank had responded along with four other units to pursue the speeding vehicle through the rain slicked city streets in a snaking

line of howling sirens and flashing lights, driving them eventually out onto the highway overpass and off into the hazy, misted night.

Frank still told himself, even now, that if it hadn’t been raining, maybe things would have been different. Maybe they would have stopped in time and maybe, just maybe, his boy would still be alive. The rise hadn’t been all that steep but on the other side of it, the road had banked sharply off to the right …….and that was what had ended it. Pushed on by the police pursuit, the white sedan had crested the hill that carved its parting through the blackened bushland doing a hundred and forty (the few survivors of the car crash who would eventually make it to court a year and a half later would, under oath, swear they had pleaded with the driver, a kid by the name of Alex Gipps, to slow down) and fishtailed around the bend on the other side, the driver finally losing control on the wet surface and broadsiding it into the police car which had been speeding in the opposite direction to join the chase. Both cars had spun in a macabre dance of smoking tyres and screaming metal across the slick asphalt and broke apart only when they hit the guard rail on the other side of the highway. Frank had thrown open the door of his cruiser almost before it had come to a halt and run through the steadily falling rain, past the two dead gangbangers that had been thrown from the sedan and one who would die later in hospital, to the wrecked cars, then lying side by side as the flames from their cracked petrol tanks licked up around them.

And then…..

……..that one terrible moment, etched for all time into his memory by the searing point of absolute and total shock as the driver of the police patrol car, still alive within his coffin of twisted metal and shattered glass, had turned towards him and he had seen Danny’s face, seconds before the vehicle exploded into flame. He had stood there in the rain-time frozen—oblivious to the cries and the shouts of those around him, as fragmented metal cascaded down onto the bitumen, until, at last, he had screamed.

………….‘DANNY!’

After, nothing had been the same. (Had he honestly expected that it would be?) Maggie had drifted away from him, never going so far as to say she blamed him for their only son’s death, but never actually having to either. It had been in her eyes, that distance, that accusative finger of guilt pointed at him.

……….You were the one who wanted so badly for your son to be a cop.

……….You were the one who pushed him to join the police force.

……….You. Why hadn’t it been you who had died instead of my baby?

She had left him eventually, as he had often told himself afterwards he had known she would. Never quite finding the strength within herself to struggle beyond the grief, never quite finding the immunity she needed as a cop’s wife to survive all of those long, sleepless nights, never quite forgiving him. She had gone and, after all this time, he still couldn’t find it within himself to blame her in the least. No matter how hard he tried. In a way, he supposed he was glad. Maggie at least had gotten out and when she had gone, she had taken the best part of him with her; the only part that hadn’t been broken apart by Danny’s death. All that had been left for him after that had been the memories, an empty house and a huge void - the gap where his life had once been.

And the only solace he had been able to find from the pain of that gap in his life had been in a bottle. It had never been all that uncommon an occurrence in his life before those dark days to hit the bottle from time to time. He came from a long line of cops and drinkers (the two often going inexorably hand in hand), men who like to work hard, play hard and drink hard. At least, that had once been the excuse he had used to justify it to Maggie. He used to like the idea of justifying it once, almost as a reward for a hard day’s work. It legitimized it in his eyes, made the occasional times of drinking to excess almost acceptable - and by the time he had realised just how much he was tugging the wick to believe it, it had been too late. The few beers after work with the boys had become a few more. They had turned to a couple of extra scotches when the pubs closed down for the night and, as the wheel came full circle, they had become that extra nip in the morning and at lunch time. Just to help him see his way clear through the day.

But had he ever been an alcoholic?

No. He didn’t think so.

He had never quite seen things as being that bad, never quite that obsessive. They had been close though. So close there were times when Frank found himself breaking out into a cold chill just thinking about it. But an alcoholic? No. Oh. He knew, had known (whatever) that there would have been no shortage of people who would have been willing to say he was, of course.

And let’s face it, Franky, all of the symptoms were there, but it all felt too easy for him, like too much of a cop-out after what he had been through with the loss of his family, to label himself by the measure of other people’s yardsticks. Other people would have had no qualms in labeling him as a classic alcoholic depressive in the same grain of that bullshitty chat show psychology of recognizing your weakness and therefore gain strength over it. They would have said he was an alcoholic when what he really was sick. ..sick to his very soul. The booze was the symptom, the cause lay much deeper.

Cure me from my life, doctor and be my friend forever: Frank smiled and took another pull on the can. He had tried to curb his drinking problem once he had seen how close he had gotten to the edge, for he was nothing if not a man who hated weakness, in himself as much as in everybody else, but by then it had been too late. The slide in his career had already taken root. It had started off small at first, with a mark against him for using excessive force in the arrest of a purse snatcher in an inner-city park. That had been followed by another, a tribunal hearing that would eventually return a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict into allegations of misconduct and verballing during the police interview of a suspected rapist; and finally, the straw that had broken the camel’s back, a charge of insubordination levelled against him by a superior officer (the charge itself seemed almost insignificant against the near immaculate length of his career up until that point but anyone who cared to check into the fine print of his service record would see that the actual act of insubordination itself had put his superior officer in hospital for a fortnight with three fractured ribs and a wired jaw). All of this adding up against him like points clocking up on the score board of an RSL club pinball machine.

The inevitable transfers had come from one town to another, each time further and further out to a smaller and smaller township, each time another light flashing and more points ringing up against him until, finally, he had landed himself here in Rowan, and for the last five years, it had been here he had stayed.

Frank rubbed the rim of moisture roughly from around his eyes with the back of his hand and pulled another beer, allowing himself the small but soothing luxury of becoming a little lost in its taste. He gulped it down, gently at first and then with increasing anger, trying to wash away the guilt he still felt and which still haunted him in its bitter, amber taste.

And when he had finished that, another and then another, watching through slowly blurring eyes as dusk fell away to night and hearing Maggie’s unspoken accusations hanging in the still, evening air.

Why wasn’t it you Frank?

Why wasn’t it you?’

DAY 2

1

When Frank Brannigan woke the next morning, his emergence from the hold of sleep was slow, begrudging, and so very, very painful.

At first there was no clear sign he was awake - at least, none that became immediately apparent to him. However the first things to form any sort of actual recognition of awareness within him as he lay there in the still, morning heat of his bedroom with his sheets draped loosely across his round form and looking blurrily at the mould stained roof of his bedroom through partially closed lids, came as the sour, slightly used taste in his mouth and the uncomfortable feeling that his eyes were a pair of size ten feet squeezed into size six shoes. His breath escaped him in huge, labored gasps, the old bellows shuddering in his chest (a sure sign he had smoked as much as he had drunk the night before). The creeping caress of beaded sweat trickled sickeningly across his clammy brow. And behind all of this, he had the distinct impression that somewhere back in the last misty blur of the previous night’s near comatose sleep, a freight train - the old and faithful Brannigan Express - was cannoning its way along the tracks under a full head of steam……

‘The Morning After The Night Before. One Stop. Everybody Off.’

Frank lifted himself gently from the sweat soaked linen of his pillow, pulling his elbows up beneath him an inch and a groan at a time, and gazed uncertainly around his room, not sure in that one barely awake moment if it was day, night, or somewhere mercilessly in between. His only awareness at that point - if awareness was the right word to use in describing the currently fragile state of his thought process in this lost world of milky-greys - was a tenuous thread of consciousness he felt himself dangling from the end of it.

‘This is bad,’ he groaned hoarsely to the empty room, marveling a little at his unerring knack of being able to state the pure, bloody obvious.

Jesus. This is so fucking bad!

He swung his legs slowly out over the edge of his metal framed bunk, and, with all of the balletic grace of a beached pilot whale, rolled onto his side to steady himself with one hand pressed up against the cracked plaster surface of the bedroom wall, the other cradling his aching brow. A cold chill shook its way through him, his stomach balling up into a savagely knotted cramp with its passing and he sat for a time on the hard edge of his orthopedically disastrous mattress before reaching across to the bedside table and pulling a cigarette from the pack next to the ashtray. The packet had been full yesterday afternoon, his second for the day, but now it had been reduced to less than a half a dozen coffin nails, all of them bent out of shape by the cramped confines of his shirt pocket, their discarded dregs of tobacco lying scattered at its bottom. Frank straightened a smoke out between his two pinched fingers and lit it, his hands shaking more than just a little as they cupped protectively around the match. He drew back deeply, his head swimming with the cigarette’s inhaled warmth, and it was only as he sighed the smoke from between his loosely held lips that he began to become aware of other sounds in the room as they diverged from the singular roar of blood throbbing away at his temples into their own, separate and distinct identities.

The alarm on clock radio sitting on the table by the head of the bed was buzzing ......Probably had been for some time, he thought, and though he couldn’t exactly remember at what time he had set it to wake him up (at this particular point in time it seemed even remembering his own name was a feat all its own), he knew that it would have been going for some time as it was now eight-thirty according to the green blur of it’s digital face, and a full half an hour past when he was due to commence his morning shift. The Fridgidaire in the kitchen had lurched awake from its periodic slumber, its rumble vibrating through the adjoining wall. While somewhere off in the background, softly at first and then increasingly louder, he became aware of another sound, a trilling (and unnecessarily happy, he thought) chirp piercing the still morning air.

He turned around (too fast, the sudden stabbing pain behind his eyes told him) and finally noticed a small black wagtail sitting on the broad, sunbaked wood and peeling paint of the bedroom’s window sill, its tiny feathered form bathed in the hard glare of morning light. Frank took another drag on the cigarette in his hand and strained himself to focus on the flitting form of the tiny bird, grasping after it with the little function his body seemed currently capable of mustering, to watch the dark, fleeting outline gradually define as it hopped along the wooden ledge towards him. The small bird stopped halfway along the sill and eyed Frank warily from the other side of the dirt-streaked glass of the station house bedroom window before finding itself a meal in the way of one of the many black house spiders which had made their home in the webs cloaking the window at its edges. It quickly gobbled the insect down and promptly displayed its pleasure at the catch by singing out in loud, teeth chattering delight.

‘Bastard,’ Brannigan mumbled miserably. He went to stand, still struggling a little with the complicated mechanics of movement, when he felt the sourness of his stomach rose in a stinging, bitter flush against the back of his throat. Frank clamped his fingers quickly across his mouth and, moving with surprising speed for such a big man, took the width of the room in a couple of long strides, making it through the bathroom door just in time, his large hands gripping the toilet bowl with his head down, looking at the dark brown stains of the S-bend when his eyes were open and the bright flashes of color behind his lids when they weren’t.

It was a rare thing these days for Frank to throw himself a bender like he had last night. These days, the drinking to excess took too great a toll on his body under the burden the years had exacted upon him in the form of a burnt out metabolism and a stomach buckshot with ulcers. Where once he had been able to simply shrug off the effects of an all night drinking session, in the same way one would shrug off the effects of a common cold and still make it through the day with a clear head and a steady hand, now those same effects - often brought on by what was a considerably lesser amount of alcohol - came damned near to incapacitating him. The urge was there to still drink heavily of course, the wisdom that had supposedly come to him, as it reputedly did to all people with age, had never quite managed to cancel that out - but as was so often the case with getting older, where the spirit was willing the body was rarely able. On most days, he would have managed to hold the ‘urge’ in check adequately enough that three drinks (okay...maybe four) would have been ample to settle the dust and it would have ended there (except for the possibility of a wee dram of scotch later on in the evening as he settled himself down in front of the television set for a night’s viewing). He would have, on most days, stood up from the cool shade of the fig tree when he had finished his last beer and come inside to fix himself some dinner, folding away the thoughts of his lost son, his ex-wife and his ex-career just as easily as he folded the tattered photograph back into the leather folds of his wallet.

Your last one together Frank. Let’s not forget that.

But it hadn’t ended there last night. No way Jose`! The day before hadn’t been just any other three beer day with a nip of scotch at the end of it. And the faces of Danny and Maggie hadn’t been alone. They had been joined in Frank’s thoughts by the face of the still very missing Jillian White and, together, the combination had been lethal. After his last beer had fallen by the wayside, Frank had gone into the kitchenette, staggering just a little under the influence of the foaming ale, and had pulled down the last two thirds of a bottle of Glenfiddich - a present to himself on his birthday a month earlier- from its place on the shelf above the old Frigidaire before reseating himself, this time down on the back steps, where he proceeded to drink himself into a weary daze as night fell away to early morning.

Frank wiped the last of a long line of spit away from the corner of his mouth, still uneasy on his feet but feeling a little better for having emptied his stomach, and lumbered across to the cracked porcelain rim of the hand basin. He wound on the faucet, the building’s old pipes screaming out their hollow, echoing protest as they spurted haltingly to life, and cupped a handful of cold water to throw bracingly across his face. His hand went erratically for a towel before he remembered there weren’t any (washday came around for him only every second Sunday and only then if he found he had nothing better to do) so he dragged the back of his arm across his lined brow and looked up at the reflection staring back at him through red-rimmed eyes, from the medicine cabinet’s smeared, mirrored surface.

There wasn’t a lot of joy in what he saw there.

At fifty-seven, eight years off retirement and the hand-out of the state pension, he told himself half-heartedly that he could have looked a damned sight worse. The real truth of the matter was that he should have looked one hell of a lot better. He had been handsome once, in an age which now seemed like another lifetime away (and someone else’s life at that). At least, that had been what Maggie had often told him. And there had been enough women in those few short years before they had met and married to suppose she was at least partially right. Now however, any of the last traces of those youthful good looks that may have still been with him lay hidden somewhere beneath the fifty pounds of excess weight he carried (these days it may even have been more - he had last weighed himself a year ago for the annual staff fitness report he had had to submit to head office and had banished the bathroom scales to the hallway linen closet in disgust when the truth had been too hard to bear) and what extra poundage didn’t show in his ever expanding gut or arse, hung in the heaviness of his broad, once athletically chiseled face. His eyes were lined and dull, and they carried the years tellingly in the bags which now pulled at his lower lids to reveal a redness that had been present in the comers of his eyes too often to simply be passed off as the after effects of a night on the booze. Where once his hair had been a wavy copper red (the birthright of his Irish ancestors) it was now grey and receding sharply in widow’s peaks which exposed a blotted nest of sunspots on the pale skin which had once been hidden from view. And his sagging jowls and cheeks. …

Let’s not forget those victims of gravity, Frank thought without much humor.

...were lined and crisscrossed with a road-map of fine, broken capillaries. The drinker’s tattoo.

He leaned over the bathroom sink, a little closer to his aged reflection, feeling for all the world like the painting in ‘Dorian Grey’ (Somewhere in the world there was a Frank Brannigan look-alike who would stay young forever.) and studied himself with the same distracted interest that a man would scrutinize a moist dog turd which he had almost stepped in, before he sighed at what he saw and wavered out into the kitchenette to fix himself a cup of coffee so strong and black he could almost stand the spoon up in it……All praise the mighty brown bean. He dressed clumsily, finding his belt and holster beneath his bed where he had discarded them both the night before and when he finally felt somewhere close to a passing attempt at being human, walked out along the narrow verandah through the still morning heat and into the station dispatch via the side door, the mug of Java clenched tightly in his still trembling hand.

Dottie Millway met him at the door, shuffling briskly in his direction from her place within the glass pane confines of the police station dispatch. She whispered something conspiritally at him from behind the thick glass of her savagely horn rimmed spectacles as he entered the cool surrounds of the station’s small, air-conditioned foyer, her sharp eyes darting over her slight shoulders to see if they were being overheard.

Brannigan neither heard nor responded, he quite simply couldn’t. Whatever Dottie had just said was smothered beneath a quick double take which he felt powerless to stop, his eyes darting from her powdered face to her high, coiffured hair and back again. A smile worked at the edges of his dry mouth and he had to bite his top lip to stop it from spreading further.

Dottie Millway was nothing if not a creature of habit, and with yesterday being her weekly trip to the old people’s home to visit her ailing mother, Frank knew, as tradition dictated, she would have called in at ‘Stella’s House of Hair and Beauty’ on the way back into town for a rinse, set and blow-wave. When she had left the station the day before her hair had been a chemically enhanced yet strangely dignified gun-metal grey. Today it was a bright lavender blue that had been sprayed and teased into a high crest of curls sitting awkwardly atop her four foot nine frame, making her, in the process, look more like a sixty-eight year old stick of carnival fairy floss rather than a sixty-eight year old grandmother of four.

Stella must have had a good old chuckle to herself when you paid her for that one and walked out, Dottie, Frank thought and he was a little shocked to find out he was almost on the verge of opening his mouth to say just that. Dottie Millway would not have been amused and he managed to catch himself in the nick of time. He simply stared at her with a blank expression planted across his face for a moment longer, not really being all that sure if he was going to laugh or puke (perhaps both?) before he shook his head, grinning just a little, and stepped past her into the long hall that ran from the dispatch and bull-pen area towards his office at the far end.

“I said there’s someone here to see you Frank,” she repeated, louder this time as she came up behind him, her voice loosing any semblance of its initially confidential edge, “It’s the missing girl’s brother’.

This time Brannigan did stop.

He looked up from where he had come to a halt halfway along the hall to freshen his mug with more coffee from the Cafe-Bar stationed there and glared over at her as she hovered by his side. She was smiling a small, triumphant grin to herself at having made him take note and listen, and the not all together unattractive thought crossed Frank’s mind about how much he would like to wipe that smug, tight lipped grimace off of her smug, tight-arsed face.

Bobby Milne looked up from behind his desk at the start of the hall where he had been busy squeezing pimples with the aid of a small, hand-held shaving mirror. His eyes followed them both as they walked past and he did his level best to try to appear busy, shuffling papers and opening drawers whenever his sergeant glanced up over Dottie’s shoulder in his direction.

‘Did you hear what I said?’ Dottie asked, knowing full well that he had and Frank turned abruptly away from her direction to look at the closed office door finishing the corridor. It suddenly occurred to him that despite all the drinks he had consumed last night, and which still clung doggedly to him, he might not have had enough after all.

So the girl’s brother is here, he thought, feeling a little apprehensive and trying to make himself feel indifferent. He guessed he should have expected as much. The state police branch of Missing Persons, which had taken over the task of tracking down Jillian White’s relatives in an effort to find the girl, had something of a Canadian Mounties’ type of reputation of being almost always able to get their man - just as the relatives, when they were finally contacted, Frank knew, could almost always be counted on to turn up at the scene of the crime under the misguided notion that they might be able to affect the end result. Knowing this, however had never once made it any easier to handle and of all the shitty jobs a cop had to deal with in his working life, experience had long since taught Frank that by far and away the worst was fronting up to people, hat in hand, to tell them a loved one was dead.

Telling them that you don’t know whether they are dead or alive came a close second.

“Frank?’

‘I heard, Dottie,’ he snapped, turning around on her and she pulled away from him with a quick, defensive backstep. The freight train inside his head stoked up its engine again and he rubbed soothingly at his temples, aware all the time of Bobby Milne watching him from beneath a lowered brow. ‘I heard, okay?’ he repeated, only this time he held up a calming hand, his voice softening at the edges.

Dottie glowered up at him, her made over face lined with disapproval, and looked once more at the door to his office (almost as if she had expected to be invited in while he told Jillian White’s brother what they did, or rather, didn’t know about his sister’s disappearance, Frank thought) then back to his steady gaze before she turned and huffed her way indignantly back along the narrow corridor.

No points scored there, he thought as he watched her dumpy form retreat once more behind the thick glass partition of the police station’s front desk. Then, taking a deep, bracing breath, he turned towards his office door and with his hand firmly grasping the cool, metal handle - as much to steady himself as to summon the air of efficient authority he wanted to convey to the person within - he opened it briskly and stepped inside.

2

If the Rowan Shire police station had been a living, breathing entity, then Frank Brannigan often thought his office was situated somewhere in the lower intestine where the cheese binds. It was a small, cramped room - impractically hot during the summer months when the noon day sun reached its peak - and was filled to breaking point with furniture misfits and a ceiling high range of dented, battleship grey filing cabinets which claimed most of the available wall space and held the bulk of the station’s records. Only the desk was anything close to new, a fact which remained hidden beneath the piles of paperwork he had allowed to accumulate there. A well dressed young man sat in the centre of the room with his back to the door, studying the faded and push-pin scarred surface of the shire map mounted above and behind Frank’s empty chair on the opposite side of the desk. He craned his head around as Brannigan entered and stood, offering a wane smile and his hand. Frank returned the smile as best he could before he brought the office door closed behind him and walked the short space across the room to introduce himself.

‘Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan,’ he said, shaking the young man’s hand firmly.

‘Peter White,’ the man returned. The young man’s hair was just above shoulder length and a dark, rust brown which framed his pale face. A set of fine, wire rimmed glasses that Frank thought may have been for either reading or driving sat perched upon the brim of his hawkish nose and he was dressed in an expensive pair of fashionably battered Levis, a loose shirt and a sports jacket that showed all the telltale hallmarks of having been personally tailored, the sleeves of which had been pushed up briefly on his pale arms as his only concession to the stifling heat that filled the room.

He looks tired, thought Brannigan. He looks like a man who has spent the better part of the last week with only a passing acquaintance with sleep and who would give anything to renew the relationship. Frank felt his stomach lurch threateningly again at the first uncomfortable touch of his shirt sticking to his clammy skin and he moved past the young man, setting his coffee cup down on the edge of the desk as he did so before walking across to the office window and throwing it open.

‘Can I offer you a cup of coffee Mr. White?’ he asked, turning back around to the room.

‘Peter will be fine,’ the young man replied, wearily reseating himself. ‘And no. Thank you but no. I think I’ve drunk enough coffee since yesterday morning to last me a lifetime.’

Frank started to smile. It somehow seemed very important to him that he should, as if to make this meeting with the girl’s brother as easy as possible, but the heaviness of the night before was still relentless in its hold upon him and the best he could manage was a kind of uneasy grimace. Peter White appeared not to notice. The lad’s own smile faltered in time under the strain he was feeling inside, a strain which showed so tellingly upon his narrow face and in the sudden gleam of moisture in the corners of his eyes, and he looked from the country sergeant down to the hands resting awkwardly on his lap as if they had become of great and absorbing interest to him.

Frank sighed. Christ. But how to start?

He felt his heart go out to this young man before him, he couldn’t deny it. But at the same time he couldn’t quite find it within himself to reach and comfort him. Frank knew what he should do of course, he knew what the decent thing to do would be. He should walk quietly over to this man’s side, lay a fatherly hand on his shoulder and tell him, in a voice reeking with confident authority and control, that everything was going to be just fine. That they were going to find his sister safe and well and that everything would be once more as it was before. The thing was however that he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. The years of living alone had conditioned him out of that kind of response to another’s inner turmoil. It asked too much from him to lend that type of humanity to another fellow being. And there was another reason, one he recognized but refused to allow himself to dwell on. He couldn’t tell this young man everything was going to be all right because he felt, deep, deep down in the very centre of his being, that things might never be ‘all right’ again. The strength of this thought disturbed him as much as did Peter White’s all too evident distress and, as had happened so many times before in his life when confronted with situations such as this that made him feel every shade of discomfort imaginable, the barriers went up. There was only one way to deal with this, he told himself in a hard, no nonsense voice, and it was the way he dealt with all things. He needed to get straight to the point. The direct route to the heart of the matter. No detours. No bullshitting around.

‘I should start by saying, Mr. Whi…...Peter, that we are doing everything we possibly can at the moment to find your sister.’ Frank walked back around his side of the desk to seat himself, the hard backed wooden chair groaning out unsteadily as he did. He leant forward over the desk, offering Peter White a cigarette and, when the young man declined with a wave of his hand, lit one for himself. ‘We have every man we can currently get our hands on following up leads of one description or another,’ he continued, a thin curl of smoke snaking its way lazily from the comer of his mouth as he spoke, ‘and we’ve had volunteers searching the area around where her car was found since yesterday afternoon. Now, Rowan is a small town and as you can probably imagine, our resources here are fairly limited,’ Peter offered a smile drained of all its strength and nodded. ‘but the State police are backing us on this all of the way. We have a promise from them of some more men who will be arriving here in town sometime today to help the investigation along,’ (the ‘more men’ were a group of police cadets, twenty in all, who had been rerouted to Rowan from a weekend fitness and orientation camp out at Blackwater. By the time they arrived on the scene around mid morning they would take the number of men and women involved in the search to well over fifty - a large scale operation by the reckonings of most local townspeople) ‘and we hope to have some dogs bought in before too long.’

‘Dogs?!’ Peter looked up suddenly.

‘It’s just a precaution,’ Frank quickly replied, catching some of the worried inflection in the young man’s voice and he raised a hand to still it. He reached across the desk top to pull a fired, clay ashtray laden with crumpled butts and match stems from beneath a mountain of manila folders and tapped the smoldering end of his cigarette to its clumsily moulded rim. ‘The bush here around Rowan is a big place, Peter,’ he continued, leaning back in his chair once more, ‘and it’s a dangerous place. It runs pretty much unhindered towards the coast over some fairly rugged terrain. Cliffs, hills, washouts, it’s got them all and it’s swallowed up people whole for as long as there have been people here in the district. The history of this town is filled with folks just wandering off and getting themselves lost. I could probably even pull you the names of a dozen people who have done just that in recent years from the files here in this office. The dogs are just a guarantee on our part to make sure your sister isn’t one of them.’

‘Yes. Of course. I’m sorry.’ Peter sighed in reply and let his eyes fall away from Brannigan’s own to resume their absent concentration once again on the hands knitted together on his lap. Frank noticed that his thumbs had started to wrestle vigorously with each other, neither of them gaining an upper hand. ‘I guess I just thought of the whole idea of tracker dogs as being…..well, a last resort. You know, when people have given up all hope of finding someone.’ Peter shrugged to himself and when he looked up again, he caught Frank’s eye. ‘Have you given up hope, Sergeant?’

There was a real plea in his voice, one that Frank couldn’t ignore and he smiled reassuringly. This time the smile must have worked because he thought he could see some of the weight fall from the shoulders of the young man sitting opposite him.

‘No. I haven’t,’ he said, surprising himself by just how much of a lie that felt, ‘and I won’t. So far as we are concerned here, we are operating on the premise that your sister, Jillian. ..’

‘Jilly!’ Peter cut in abruptly.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Jilly,’ he repeated and when he saw Brannigan raise his eyebrows questioningly, he explained, ‘she hates to be called Jillian. She always said that she thought it made her sound like a bitch’.

He shrugged again, looking slightly embarrassed at feeling the need to interrupt with something so trivial and Frank nodded. ‘Okay then. Jilly it is. We are working here on the premise that Jilly simply found herself stranded by the side of the road at sometime on the night of the first, or perhaps in the early hours of the next morning. Her car was found with a blown out rear wheel and a spare tire matching the same make as her vehicle was found by the side of the road nearby. So, it seems a reasonable enough assumption that she pulled over with the intention of changing the flat tire and getting on her way. Now, after this point, things become a little hazy but by the evidence we have been so far able to glean from the area, it looks like she may have had some trouble with the replacement of the wheel and had to flag down a passing motorist for a lift to get some help, or, more probably, walked off to one of the nearby farms and got herself lost in the process. Hence the dogs.’

He left out the fact that she hadn’t taken either her bag or her purse, he left out seeing the tread marks of both her car and another larger vehicle that told their own, different story in the soft dirt by the side of the road; and he left out the details of where his sister’s car had finally come to rest after being rammed down the embankment and into the overgrown scrub. They were all important parts of the jigsaw puzzle they were attempting to piece together, sure enough, and the man had every right to know about them but, until he asked specifically, Frank had every intention of keeping them to himself and sparing the worried man the extra concern they would most assuredly bring.

And was Peter White convinced? Frank wondered. He didn’t think so. Not completely at least, but he pushed on regardless. ‘We’ve also put out a description of your sister over the open band in the hope that someone may have seen her thumbing for a lift, and we’ve circulated her description and a photograph taken from her driver’s license around to most of the garages and truck stops along the highway. The chances are quite good that we may turn something up out of either of these because the road on which her car was found is something of a well known short cut used by a lot of semi-drivers in the area to take some time off their trek to the coast.’

Peter White smiled and this time it came a little easier. It was still resigned, Frank knew, to the fact that as far as things went, they were out of his hands, frustratingly so, but as least the smile was there. Brannigan felt a little of his own unease and discomfort at the situation slip away for the first time since he had entered the room and was surprised to find that, in spite of himself, he had taken a liking to the lad.

‘I realize everything’s being done to find Jilly, Sergeant, and I‘m grateful, believe me I am. I just wish there was something I could do to help.’

‘There is,’ Frank said and when he saw the hopeful look suddenly spark in Peter’s eyes, he quickly added, ‘not directly. But now that you’re here, I’d like to know anything you could possibly tell me about Jilly that may give us another angle as to her whereabouts. Friends in the area. Relations who she may have been in touch with. Anything at all like that may be of help.’

Brannigan reached over to the top drawer of his desk and pulled it stiffly open to retrieve a small, leather bound notebook from its depths. The pen he was looking for that went with it was somewhat harder to find amongst the clutter he had allowed to accumulate there and, in the end, he settled for the last few remaining inches of a H.B. pencil. He opened the notebook with a well practiced flip of his wrist and touched the rounded nib of the stub to his tongue before beginning to write.

’There are no relations besides myself, Sergeant. Jilly and I are twins, both orphaned at a fairly early age and we spent a lot of our time in and out of foster homes around Melbourne. And as for friends in the area. No. At least, none that I know of. Jilly had just received an appointment as an assistant librarian at Valestone and had rented herself a little house up there overlooking the bay. That was where she was heading. It was a fresh start for her. She called it her ‘new beginning’. Peter stopped and then smiled reflectively, his eyes suddenly distant and far away.

‘Was there a reason for this new beginning?’ Brannigan asked, jotting down a brief, barely legible version of what had just been said on the feint ruled pages and Peter shook himself as if he had just been woken from a day dream.

‘I’m sorry?’ he asked. ‘I’m not necessarily sure I follow you.’

’It’s just the phrase ‘A new beginning’. It has the connotations of there having been something wrong with her life before. A failed career? A broken marriage. That sort of thing?’

Peter sighed. It was a reluctant, almost painful gesture for the young man, but after a time, he continued, looking down at his hands, his fingers intertwined, his voice controlled and carefully measured. ‘About two months ago Jilly and her fiancé separated. They had been together for quite a while and the whole thing hit her pretty hard. I guess it really rattled her. She just needed to get herself sorted. You know, get herself away from all of the old places and friends that bought back painful memories. Find a new job. Somewhere to live that would just be her own space. That sort of thing.’

The young man shrugged in apology as if his response was somehow inadequate and Frank simply nodded, waving it away.

Been there, done that, my friend, He thought.

‘That’s okay.’ Frank said finally. ‘I have to ask, you understand. Procedure, nothing more. I’m just grabbing at straws really. Just trying to tie up a few loose ends.’

A few loose ends? That was laughable, Frank old boy!. And I suppose you think the Bubonic Plague was just a little rat infestation problem. A few loose ends! Give me a break! When it came to the disappearance of Jilly White, it seemed that no matter in which direction he looked, there was nothing but loose ends.

A telephone started to ring on one of the desks along the hallway outside of his office, its trill slightly muffled through the closed, glass partitioned door, and Frank found himself counting off the chimes until it was picked up. Seven, and in the Rowan Shire Police Station, where the pace seemed at most times as slow as the thought process of most of the town’s locals, that was a level of efficiency which bordered on the miraculous.

‘Anything else?’ he continued. ‘ Was she happy?’

‘If you mean was she depressed enough to do something stupid,’ Peter replied, intending the word ‘stupid’ to encompass everything from suicide right through to simply parking her car by the side of the road and wandering off into the bush to go walkabout, ‘then the answer would have to be no. That just isn’t Jilly. She never lets things get on top of her to that degree, it just isn’t in her nature. Sure she was upset about what had happened with her fiancé but not like that. Never like that. And, like I said, Jilly thought of this new job of hers as a new beginning. She had plans for herself. She looked on this posting at the school as a chance to advance herself and, as for the house she was going to move into - she was over the moon with it. It was to be her first real home, you see, a place of her own. I mean, it is her first real home.’ Then, Peter White shook his head and briefly pulled both hands through his dark, shoulder length hair. ‘Christ, why do I keep talking like she’s gone? She was already planning out the colour schemes for the rooms and selecting swatches for the curtains. All up, I’d say she was probably the happiest I had seen her in a long time. Possibly years.’

Then there was a soft, almost tentative knock, doubling up over Peter’s last words and both men looked around to see the dull outline of Constable Bobby Milne standing on the other side of the frosted panel of glass set into the upper half of the office door, the letters making up the title ‘Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan, Station Head’ emblazoned in reverse across his thin, hazy silhouette.

Frank folded up his notebook, setting it on the desk top in front of him, and called. ‘What is it Bobby?’ Trying and not wholly succeeding in keeping the irritation he felt at the interruption from his voice.

‘We’ve had a call-out Sarge.’ Milne said meekly opening the office door. He was breathing heavily as if he had just run the length of the building. Bobby started to add something more then hesitated, choosing instead to hang back in the doorway.

‘Well, take a message and tell whoever it is that I’ll get back in touch with them when I’m done here.’

Milne nodded, made as if to walk away and then stopped again. He pulled in a deep breath (an action both Frank and Peter could clearly see through the doors half ajar frosted glass window by the puffing out of his wiry chest and dramatic rise and fall of his predominant Adam’s apple) before he pushed the door fully open and leant furtively into the office, his nervous gaze jumping between the two men.

‘It’s from Mitch out on Munrow Road’, he said, his gaze trying at all costs to avoid any contact with that of Peter White, but instead going directly to him and telling him in one brief moment of exchanged glances, everything he needed to know.

‘It’s Jilly, isn’t it?’ Peter exclaimed, his eyes widening with alarm as he spun back towards Brannigan, lifting himself half up and out of the chair. ‘They’ve found something to do with Jilly, haven’t they?’

Nice one Bobby, Brannigan thought, next time why not just send him a fucking email!

‘Take it easy, Peter.’ Frank stood up, stamping the last smoldering end of his cigarette out in the ashtray and rounding the desk to stand in the space between the two young men, his back purposefully towards Peter so as to give nothing away. When he spoke again, it was with a voice that was low, controlled and barely audible. ‘What is it, Bobby? What have they got?’

‘Some clothing. A pair of denim jeans and a top. Mitch said that Willy Ross and his boys came out at first light with a couple of his dogs and they led him straight to them.’

Brannigan hissed out a sharp ‘Christ!’ from between tightly clenched teeth and then shook his head. He closed his eyes in an effort to clear his thoughts and dragged a large hand through the few remaining remnants of his grey, thinning hair. He had felt a deadening certainty growing within him throughout the long day. But after having met her brother face to face and seen the personal side of grief, this was one time in his life when he had hoped the gut instinct that had lain dormant for so long had lied. Now it seemed even that small hope had faded.

‘All right,’ he said finally, ‘tell them I’ll be right out there.’ Then he moved back across the room, not looking at Peter, not wanting to see the emotion that would be there in his eyes, and lifted his cap and car keys from on top of the filing cabinet next to the open window. ‘Put a call through to Mitch’s unit and see if you can reach him.’ Frank called back over his shoulder to Bobby as the young constable turned from the room and retreated back down the hallway to the desk at the far end. ‘Tell him to stay right where he is and to keep everyone well back from the area.’

Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, ‘And tell him not to touch anything for Christ’s sake. You get in touch with Clarke Hennesy at the state forensics lab and see if he can’t spare us a team, the same one as was out here yesterday if he can manage it. If he gives you any lip, tell him he still owes me a favour or two from the old days, and then you get out there yourself and tape off the area. Dottie can run things back here at the station for the time being. It looks like she’ll be in for some overtime tonight.’

Peter White was standing now, as he had been throughout all of this, with the battle waged by his own thoughts showing plainly on his face (it was a pain with which Frank thought he could only too readily identify) and watched in silence as the police machine, on whatever small scale it worked here in Rowan, began to roll. It only when they were alone again that he said. ‘I’m coming too.’

‘No,’ Frank stated firmly, turning around at him with a stab of his finger, ‘I can’t allow you to do that Peter. I’m sorry but that’s just the way things have got to be. Just stay here, please. The less people we have wandering around out there who don’t know what they’re doing, the better.’

‘But it’s Jilly!’

‘It could be Jilly’, Frank corrected and then he took a deep breath, sighing it out and for the short time being, at least, he felt himself bury a little of the urgency for action that was building up steadily inside of him. He walked back across the small room to where the young man stood and laid a large, calloused hand on his shoulder. The gesture felt uncomfortable, even awkwardly paternal and it wasn’t long before he let his hand fall once again to his side. ‘It could be Jilly’, he repeated, ‘or it could just be some clothes have been blown into the area on the wind, maybe even some cast -offs from a passing car. Either way, I won’t know which until I get out there and see for myself, but whatever it does turn out to be, I want you to stay here in town. I’ll come back in and let you know whatever is going on as soon as I know myself. Okay?’

Peter opened his mouth to say something, perhaps to protest, then shut it again, thinking better of it. He closed his eyes and nodded.

‘Now.’ Brannigan continued, satisfied, ‘have you got somewhere to stay here in town?’

‘No.’ Peter shook his head. ‘I just got into town this morning before I came here to the station. I guess that apart from packing a suit case, I didn’t really plan that much ahead.’

‘Okay then, here’s what you do. You go across the road to the Royal Exchange Hotel, it’s the pub on the comer just before the rail yards, and you wake up the publican there. His name’s Sam Parker. Tell him to set you up with a room for the night. He might look at you like you’re a piece of dog shit stuck to the bottom of his shoe at first but it’s only because his working day doesn’t start until well after noon. Just tell him I sent you over.’ Frank planted his cap on his head, tapping its peak down over his brow and he hitched up his expansive gut with a twist of his belt. He continued. ‘I’ll go out and have a look around and when I know what’s going on, I’ll come back into town and let you in on it. Okay?’

‘Okay.’ Peter nodded finally seeing no apparent merit in arguing the point any further and he offered his hand. Frank shook it, feeling it strangely cold and strengthless in his own and resisted the urge once again to tell him everything was going to be all right as he turned and walked out into the hallway, closing the office door behind him.

3

Earlier that morning, while Frank Brannigan was just beginning to exhibit the first signs of a waking re-emergence from the grips of the drunken sleep which he had inflicted upon himself, and while Willy Ross’s hounds were picking up the initial faint traces of the scent which would eventually lead them to the clothes later identified under spectrographic analysis as having belonged to Jilly White, Steve Duncan had been out along the dried creek bed of Shailier’s Gully on the back of Nobby, his father’s seven year old Clydesdale bay gelding.

It was a warm, dry Saturday morning and as was the case on most Saturdays, Steve had risen early from his bed to herald in the new day. He wasn’t a morning person by nature. No way! In fact, as his mother would be only too willing to tell you, a person would be hard pushed to stir him before eight on any given school day. But, when it came to weekends. ..well, as any young lad worth his salt would know, they were a different matter altogether. Part of the reason for this was easy enough to understand, grounded in a basic, homespun truth as it was. Steve was a country boy, born and bred, the twelve year old son of a man who owned and worked one of the largest cattle fattening spreads of freehold land in the whole of Rowan Shire. Due to this fact, he wanted-and needed-some time to himself to tool around (as was a young boy’s wont) before his father woke and the long day’s list of chores began. There was however also another, stronger motivation this particular morning for his dash from beneath the sheets, one that was so much simpler than anything so elaborate as the concept of having some ‘Quality’ time to himself, and that was because he wanted to beat his little baby brother Paully ... The arsewipe. ...in the race to claim the Duncan family household’s one and only television set.

By Steve’s reckoning it was because of Paully and Paully alone that he was here now, riding Nobby and looking for a handful of runaway cattle instead of being curled up on the lounge room floor watching the ‘The X-Men’ on what his father often referred to as ‘The Cathode Eye’ (Steve didn’t know exactly what a ‘Cathode’ was but by the way that his father said it, it sure did sound extra-neat). In the Duncan house, the television rule between the two young brothers was a basic one and the same which his father applied to his herd of cattle at feeding time when he rolled the bales of lucerne and chaff from off the back of his open-tray Valiant ute-’First Come, First Served’-so when Steve had woken that morning at first light, he knew that he would have to act fast. Paully would want to watch Dora the Explorer on the morning cartoon shows just the same as he did every Saturday morning, but Steve had other ideas, intending to claim the viewing time for himself and the adventures of Wolverine on Channel Eight. (In Steve’s opinion, the ‘The X-men’ were cool with a capital ‘K’ and would stomp all over those repetitive, bug-eyed little back-packers that his toe-rag baby brother loved to watch - at least that was what he could be often heard to tell his playground pals at school when their lunchtime conversations turned, as it so often did, to the subject of superheroes and their superhero adventures. What he wouldn’t tell his friends was that he secretly had a GI-NORMOUS crush on Mystic and her perky blue, nippleless breasts!)

He had slid out from beneath the covers of his single bed, instantly awake in his pajama bottoms and had moved off silently along the hallway of the old farmhouse towards the lounge room (being careful as he did so to avoid the loose boards that were lifting away from their moorings in front of the closed door of his parents’ bedroom). The house had still been within the folds of its own sleep at that early hour, the rooms silent around him, and so, with his hopes high he had made his way through the hallway arch and into the lounge room a small, victorious smile etched across his tight lips. It was a smile that soon turned into a scowl when he had seen Paully already curled up on the edge of the sofa, wrapped in his care-bear doona cover, watching the television with the volume turned down to a whisper as Dora and her faithful monkey tried to teach him the Spanish word for crocodile

. It wasn‘t fair, Steve had told himself as he stood there looking at the back of his baby brother’s head, the young boys sleep tussled hair swaying rhythmically to the cartoons beat, gaze transfixed upon the flickering, coloured glow of his little jungle world.

It just wasn‘t fair! He was always watching whatever shows he wanted to on the television and he didn’t even do any work around the farm to deserve it. And then, Steve had done something that at the time he had known he shouldn’t have, that he had known would get him into trouble, but at the same time something that he had seemed incapable of stopping himself from doing. He had stormed across the length of the room, oblivious to the noise that he was making on the bare wood of the home’s aging floorboards, filled instead with only a kind of dull, indignant rage and had reached for the television to drag the channel switch across until he saw the opening credits for ‘The X-men’ roll across the screen. It was then that Paully, being the little sook that he was, had begun to squawk. Steve had tried to shut him up, suddenly horrified at what he had just done and, forever aware of the terrible wrath that his father’s hand could wreak across his backside. He had tried to explain to his little brother as reasonably and as soothingly as he could, that he could watch Dora any old day of the week and that the his show was only on television on a Saturday morning, but Paully wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted Dora and he wanted her NOW! There had been a scuffle over the remote control - the extra eight years of growth which Steve had over his little brother winning out easily - and the next thing that he had known was happening, there had been gruff, muffled voices from his parents’ bedroom and Paully had gone running off, bawling like a baby into his mother’s arms.

Steve had tried to tell his mum that, no, he hadn’t hit the little dick. Not really. Well. ..Okay. He had given him a little Chinese bum (one of the specialties he had developed into an art-form over the course of the six odd years that he had spent involved in Primary School punch-ups) but it was only a soft one.

‘See’, he had said, pointing indignantly to his little brother who had stopped crying as suddenly as he had started and who had then been poking his tongue out from behind the protection of his mother’s quilted nightgown, ‘His arm ain’t even red.’

But had she been convinced? No sir. No way. She had looked at him evenly from beneath her hair net full of rollers and had pointed towards the kitchen door, telling him to get out and earn his keep and to not come back in for breakfast until he had rounded up all of the cattle from the back pasture for their morning milking. Steve had tried to protest of course, but his mother had been adamant, seeing straight through his pleas and the exaggerated pouting innocence that he had thought to be just too convincing to be disbelieved.

“S’not fair’, he muttered sourly again from the saddle astride Nobby’s broad back. If it hadn’t been for Paully and his whoosey cartoons, it would be him that was now curled up on the edge of the lounge room sofa instead of out here picking his way through the gully’s hanging undergrowth and getting his twelve year old balls flattened against the hardened leather curve Noddy’s wide saddle.

Well. Paully’s going to get it, he thought. He was sure of that. He didn’t know how yet, but he did know that he was going to get back at dear little baby brother and in the finest traditions of big brothers the world over, he had already begun to set his mind to the task of devising some cruel and totally inhuman torture to inflict upon him, when neither of his parents was around, of course!.

Steve smiled a small, self satisfied smile to himself at the thought, then glanced down past the coarse hair of Nobby’s sandy coloured mane to the soft, loamy ground of the creek bed at his feet and the tracks that he had been following ever since the edge of the farm’s last cleared acre of pasture land. The cattle his mother had sent him out to round up as a punishment for what he had done to his little brother, a hundred head in all roaming the farm’s bottom fields, had split up during the night into two distinct groups. The largest of these containing around seventy or eighty head (Steve couldn’t tell how many for sure and he had neither the time nor the inclination to stand about and count them), were still grazing contentedly in the breathless, morning haze over the dozen acres of soya meal that had been set aside for them and their night time feeding. But the rest had apparently developed the taste for something a little different in the way of ‘cud’ at some point during the night and had wandered off through a trampled section of barbed wire fence to go walk-a-bout in the farm’s dense border line of uncleared scrub. There was little chance of them roaming too far Steve knew, the entire area of bushland beyond the cleared field was marked off by a second line of fencing wire for just such a reason. It was small consolation. To young Steve Duncan’s mind, anywhere but where the cattle were meant to be was what he considered to be an unfair waste of his time. And to add fuel to the fire, he knew-he just knew!-that when his father finally woke, the old man wasn’t going to be satisfied with the rounding up of a hundred head of cattle as a fitting punishment for his lost sleep, he was sure as the sun shone out of Paully’s arse going to send Steve back down to mend the fence line they had gone through in the first place.

“It’s jus’ not fair.’ Steve craned forward in the saddle, his round face close to the thick, muscular support of Nobby’s neck as he ducked low beneath a twisted grey bough of bush wattle, and allowed his gaze to wander off though the tenebrous shadows of gum trees cast by the early morning light across the trail of deeply cast hoof prints and fresh, fly-blown cow pats which peppered the dry, sandy soil of the gully basin. He was close to them now and he knew it. Of the dozen or so head of prime, Poll Hereford beef that had made good their escape through the flattened section of five band wire fence the night before, he had managed to comer three of the smaller yearlings where they had stopped to browse amongst the bracken and scrub grass not far from the field where they had originally been penned. A half an hour later, the loud, mournful bleat of a calf in the early morning stillness had led him to a clearing less than a half a mile further on where he had found two more. It hadn’t taken him long to round the strays back to take their place with the rest of the herd and it was only then, after he had blocked off the opening in the fence to prevent any further wanderings, that he had gone back to pick up the tracks of the remaining cattle, perhaps six or seven head if he didn’t miss his guess, still roaming free along the summer dried soil of Shailier’s Gully. It was these tracks he was carefully following when he saw something that made him look twice.

Around a dozen or so meters further on, the snaking corridor of the creek which Steve slowly guided his mount along, hung a sharp right. The thin ribbon of moisture which traced its line as a dark stain only beneath the surface of the sandy bed and which would not run as a waterway again until the expected ‘Big Wet’ rolled around next season, disappeared abruptly from view behind a knife edge wall of red earth which stabbed its way out from the gully’s sheer bank. Atop this high blade of ground, a dead, fallen ghost gum lay on its side, its massive sun bleached trunk and tangled mesh of roots torn free from the earth to hang out over the dry creek bed. It was here where the hoof prints of the strays that had previously followed one another in the orderly chaos that only cattle ever seemed able to muster, suddenly scattered.

‘Looks to me like somebody farted’, Steve muttered and Nobby snorted. He bought the old chestnut to a reluctant halt - unaware of the sudden prickling of the big Clydesdale’s ears or the flare that had set wide into his nostrils - and slid down from the hard leather saddle, reigns in hand. A slight frown knitted his otherwise smooth features and he knelt down against the cool, loamy soil at his feet, his eyes straining amongst the deep morning shadows to examine the suddenly erratic lay of the cattle prints. His father had taught him enough about tracking for him to know what he was looking at. Cattle were the smartest of God’s creatures, a boy didn’t need to grow up on a farm to know that, and they liked to follow. Give them their lead and a herd would follow a direction unerringly with little more than a whistle of a shout to keep them on track. Even more so in a natural corridor like that offered by the gully’s high, earthen banks. Here they had been contained in close to singly file as they had followed their lead, drawn on by the smell of the water which lurked just beneath the soft, sandy soil of the creek bed. Occasionally, one would stop to graze of some grass or the overhanging foliage of a gum, but generally, their path was unerring. Then, it changed, or something changed it for them. Up head, written in the ground, the previously almost ordered line of hoof prints suddenly fell into disarray. The half dozen head of cattle had suddenly bolted in every direction as if startled. Some charged ahead, some rapidly retreated. One had even crashed up the steep escarpment of the bank and charged off through a flattened clearing the thick scrub which loomed above where Steve sat, squatted down onto his haunches, a small hand tentatively touch the indented ground. They had run, that much was obvious, but from what?

He looked up from the scattering of prints around him, following their path through the soft earth until they broke apart to move erratically in all directions at the base of the fallen ghost gum’s exposed roots and tried to conjure up a mental image of what could have happened to them to have frightened them in such away. Nobby snorted and stamped restlessly at the ground behind him and Steve stood, still scanning the soil at his feet, expecting perhaps to see the paw print of a feral dog or maybe even that of a dingo embedded into the soft earth around him. He went to move forward, managing to clear no more than a half a dozen steps before he felt a resistance on the horse’s reigns from behind.

‘What’s your problem?’ he said, irritably turning back to the old Clydesdale who stood at the edge of the rough circle where the cattle tracks had broken, refusing to move any further. He went to curl the leather strapping of the reigns around his hand in a tight ball and give the horse one good, hard tug-just to show him who was boss, when Nobby suddenly reared up, pulling violently away from him, eyes as wide a saucers, and broke free from his grasp before he had a chance to hold him. Steve fell back, his feet coming out from beneath him as he tried to retreat from the horse’s hooves pawing at the air in front of his face and he landed leadenly onto the ground to watch dumbfounded as the full eighteen hands of Clydesdale turned and bolted back along the snaking line of the dry creek bed, there to disappear from sight leaving only its distant, fading cries in the silence.

‘What the hell’s gotten into him?’ he wondered aloud as he indignantly lifted himself from the ground, dusting off the seat of his pants and thinking of nothing more than how long it was going to take him to get back to the house and in front of the television set without a ride.

That was when he felt it too.

It was a sensation like nothing that he had ever felt before - at least like nothing he had ever been able to consciously put words to - yet there, in the background of his suddenly stilled mind, somewhere within the shadows which lurk within us all, he felt the presence of.......something.

Something……close.

Something…..watching.

It was invasive. Violating.

It seeped through him, its cold, certain tendrils clawing at his heart unleashing everything that gave birth to the dark, cancerous fears which haunted his young boy’s mind.

He turned slowly around, feeling the hair bristling against the back of his neck and he caught the brief flash of something sparkling amongst the fallen ghost gum’s network of exposed roots halfway up the gully embankment to his right. He strained himself to look closer, eyes narrowing to catch the gleam of light again. And it was then that he saw the woman’s bare and bloodied arm for the first time, partially concealed within the deep morning shadows which lay there, intertwined amongst the sun bleached mesh of twisted, writhing wood. Steve’s heart leap into the back of his throat, threatening to take his breath and staggered a little to the side, the strength draining from his shaking legs before he managed to catch himself. His whole body felt suddenly weak and emptied. His hands shook. Sweat beaded on his upper lip. Instinct told him to run. Those years of an ingrained fear of strangers and the strange, piled into him by his parents, teachers and friends all cried out to him in that one moment, telling him that he should turn and flee just as fast as his legs would carry him and not to stop until he again reached the front porch of his house. He heard this voice, he understood it, but in the end, he listened to it no more than he did to the voice of his parents. In the end, he did what most young boys of his age would have done when the sudden fear slowly fell away to a mild shock, and in turn grew into a far more addictive, morbid cocktail of adrenaline and curiosity to form an intoxicating soup inside his churning stomach. In the end he took a slow, cautious step forward for a closer look.

It’s a girl! he thought, his mouth wide and moving clumsily around the silent, unspoken words as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness of shadows which shrouded the unmoving figure all but concealing the form within the dead ghost gum’s curtain of matted roots. It’s a naked girl! And despite himself at the sight of her smooth, prone form and pale, blood soaked thighs, he felt an erection grow small and hard in the tight confines of his jeans.

Steve moved slowly around to his left, his knees shaking ever so slightly with each carefully paced step and he peered up warily into the dark cavity which opened up like some animal’s hollowed out lair in between the near vertical plane of the gully’s steep bank and the dirt encrusted network of roots which hung out ponderously over it from above.

The girl’s naked body had been thrust up into the shadowy pocket of earth that had once held the living base of the now dead fallen tree firmly within its grasp before the long years of erosion had taken their toll. Her dark hair (if Steve had been asked at that moment, he would have said that he thought it to be brown though, in the dim, morning light, he could be nowhere near sure), hung lankly across her face in long, matted strands which clung to her pale cheeks barely concealing her closed eyes. One arm lay draped across her bare lap, the other (along with the ring on her index finger that had caught the first of the day’s light, and Steve’s eye) ensnared within the snaking net of roots to hang exposed in full view. And were it not for the long, dark river of dried blood which ran from the wound hidden by shadows at the base of her skull, following a path between her small breasts and down the dirtied, waxen skin of her body into the coppery curls of hair nestled between her splayed legs, in that first, brief moment, Steve Duncan would have sworn upon a stack of Bibles that she was asleep.

He stepped closer, knowing that he shouldn’t, feeling every nerve in his small body crying out to him not to, and he reached out with a shaking hand to touch tentatively at the lifeless flesh of her outstretched arm. It moved a little and he nudged at it again, this time with a little more effort. The flesh was cold, strangely stiff, yet still pliant beneath his nervous probing and he looked back to her face. A face that was so beautiful, so peaceful, bathed within its veil of netted shadows, a face that would return to him in his nightmares for years to come when he realized in that one split moment in time, that before, where her eyes had been shut behind the blood matted tresses of her long hair, reinforcing to his mind the image of the girl being somehow asleep, now they were open, dilated in black pits of fiery hate……

……and they were fixed upon him with dark, unflinching intensity.

Suddenly he forgot about the X-men. He forgot about his little brother and the revenge that he would have delighted in extracting from him. Suddenly he forgot about everything save the scream that was trapped within the strangled confines of his throat and the warm, spreading wetness that had suddenly seeped into the crotch of his jeans. He staggered back away from her, away from her cold soulless stare, his feet moving clumsily beneath him. The toe of one of his sneakers caught the heel of the other, striking it hard and his balance faltered, his arms flailing uselessly at the air as he fell backwards, crashing heavily to the ground.

His breath came out in a loud……

’WHOOF!

.......emptying his lungs, and he rolled from his side onto his seat, his hands and feet working feverishly beneath him as he drove himself away from the bank, ploughing his way through the soft, creek bed sand. His breath came hard and fast, burning acid in his lungs, his heart galloped at a furious pace within his wiry chest, until, at last, he found the strength to throw himself upright and he ran.

He ran .....

……and he screamed.

……and he didn’t stop either until he finally collapsed back into the safety of his mother’s arms.

4

‘Fuck me Sarge!’ Bobby Milne exclaimed, shaking his head as he walked across to Brannigan’s side and Frank grunted ‘What a mess!’

Yes, Brannigan thought, What a fucking mess indeed. He lifted a cigarette to his lips from the crumpled pack of Marlborough’s which filled the breast pocket of his uniform shirt, his big hands cupping a match to its end, starting it to life. It was his eighth smoke for a day that was, for him, as yet only a few hours old, but as was the same with his drinking, he had long since ceased trying to make himself accountable to any self imposed limit. At the moment, it seemed that there was plenty else to occupy his mind. Frank killed the match with a savage snap of his wrist and looked over at the young constable standing next to him, exhaling a smoke filled sigh into the space between them both. He just had Bobby plant a line of a dozen star picket stakes in a wide semicircle around the partially concealed body of Jillian White….

Sorry Peter, he thought. Not Jillian, Jilly. She always thought that Jillian made her sound like a bitch!

…..as a support for the strip of blue and white checked crime scene tape which had been stretched between them and the boy had earned himself a light sheen of perspiration in the still morning heat for his efforts. Even beneath it, Frank fancied that he could see that the lad looked pale.

He looks like a man who’s just woken up from a bad dream and realized that he’s pissed the bed, Brannigan thought gruffly. The small country town of Rowan was Bobby’s first station duty since he had graduated with passable credits from the academy at Oxley where, in Frank’s opinion, they taught you everything but what real police work was all about. Now, with only another two and a half months left to serve in his probationary year, Frank knew that the lad would be filing for a ‘Request For Transfer’ at the end of it. Twelve months in a pisswater country town like Rowan was just about all that most of the young, virginal police constables who had come his way over the years for their initial posting could stand. There were only so many fights at either or both of the town’s two hotels that could be broken up and only so many complaint forms to be filled out between feuding neighbours after one neighbour’s dog took a dump on the other’s front lawn, before cabin fever set in and the big city lights beckoned. And though Bobby was competent enough at his job, Frank had never once seen anything in his ‘Go-with-the-flow’ nature to convince him that he was any different. By the time the change of season rolled around, Frank thought, the boy would more than likely be back in the city cleaning out the junkies from the public toilets in parks and handing out summons until he earned himself a stripe or two.

And hell, why not! After this, if I hadn’t spent so many years in a concerted effort at burning my bridges, I might have even joined him myself. Frank pinched the bridge of his prominent nose, working at the ache from the previous night which still ground away persistently behind his red, red eyes. Man! He could kill for an aspirin. Or a drink. Or probably both! He tucked the front of his shirt into the belt below his ample gut before he turned away from Bobby Milne and his pale, pockmarked cheeks to let his gaze drift across to the toppled ghost gum atop the creek bank and the last, tortured remains of Jilly White held within her coffin of tangled, twisted roots and deep, morning shadows. It was now a quarter to ten and twenty minutes away from the call that Dottie had relayed through to Frank’s unit from the station dispatch as they had been on their way out to Munrow Road and the clothing that Willy Ross’s dogs had reportedly sniffed out. She had said in a voice that was still prim and ever so slightly offended by their small tete-a-tete in the station hallway earlier that morning, that Angela Duncan had telephoned the station in a fine state not long after they had left, saying that her boy had just come running back from Shailiers Gully like the devil himself was after him, crying about some naked lady that he had seen there. (At least, Angela had said, that was what she had thought the boy was going on about, though given the state that he was in, she couldn’t be anywhere near sure). Her husband John however, apparently hadn’t been so convinced and had gone out to investigate shortly after the boy had come home, only to find the horse that he had been riding grazing contentedly away on a field of scrub grass and nothing more. According to hubby, Angela had said, the boy had probably just been ‘Dickin’ around in the saddle and had fallen off, crackin’ his head some.’ The boy however, in spite of his alarmed state had been adamant and his mother had been inclined to believe him. Could they send a car out for a look see?

Frank knew the area of course. Not well, but near enough, and he had had some few dealings out that way over the term of the last five years that he had spent serving the shire to know that the Duncan family farm, a huge spread of land that went somewhere near to three hundred acres, bordered along Munrow Road for almost a half a mile near where Jilly White’s abandoned car had been found the day before. Normally, he would have done what he did best and designate the call out to one of his junior officers but this wasn’t just any normal day and more importantly, that cold, knife blade certainty of ‘WRONG’ that he had felt curling in the pit of his stomach as he listened to Dottie’s voice told him that this wasn’t just any normal callout. He had said that he would respond and had then flashed his lights at Bobby-who was traveling in the patrol car in front of him-to follow.

‘Have you still got that camera in your car Bobby?’ Brannigan asked, and the young constable jumped at the sound of his superior’s voice as if he had just been slapped. He looked blankly over at where Brannigan stood, his eyes moist and glassy, and the best response he seemed capable of mustering as an answer to the question was a vague, questioning stare. Brannigan sighed inwardly. The lights are on but nobody’s at home. He asked again, an edge of annoyance telling plainly in his voice and this time he received a response that was a little easier to interpret.

‘Yeah. Sure.’ Milne replied shakily. His eyes widened a little, going to the pale, lifeless arm of Jilly White which caught the morning light filtering down from the canopy of leaves overhead as it hung limply out from between the roots of the fallen gum, before he managed to wrench his gaze away and force himself to look elsewhere along the creek’s red, earthen banks. Then, almost as an afterthought, he asked why.

‘Because I want to take some snap shots of the dead girl for my family album Bobby. That’s how I get off!’ he snapped. ‘Why in God’s name do you think?’

Bobby shrunk back a little from his sergeant’s temper (a temper that even now, after ten long months into his posting at the station, he still found to be as unpredictable and as frightening as he had done on his very first day) and he was about to open his mouth to say something when he wisely thought better of it.

Brannigan sighed. It was the last, lingering traces of the hangover talking and he knew that he had no right to take it out on the lad. The boy was only trying to do his job and it wasn’t his fault that his superior officer, the man who was supposed to be responsible for a young cadet’s real life education over the course of the year of his initial station duty, felt like tearing a strip off of anyone who crossed his path just because he had spent most of the night before and the better part of the next morning nursing back a bottle. Frank shook his head wearily and finally, reluctantly, he explained.

‘Because in an hour or two, this place, the creek and the whole bloody farm is going to be swarming with state police in expensive suits who call themselves detectives, lab. technicians and if I don’t miss my guess, probably even a handful of their own tracker dogs. And all of them are going to be looking for answers as to why this girl is dead.’ He jerked his thumb off in the direction of the creek bank where Jilly White’s body had been hidden, and Bobby went to follow it before he caught himself and looked back at his sergeant. He knew what Brannigan was going to say next of course. He was going to say exactly the same thing that he had a hundred times over the last months that he had been stationed here at Rowan and it was all that Bobby could do to stop himself from opening his mouth and mimicking the words for him. In Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan’s current mood, that would not have been an auspicious thing to do.

‘Now; if there’s one thing that I’ve learnt after all of these years,’ Brannigan went on, unaware that at that moment, he had developed all of the endearing charm of a cracked record in his young offsider’s eyes, ‘it’s that you always cover your arse when you’re involved in an investigation like this, even when you’re involved in a small way like we will be. And believe me, when the state boys turn up, the only thing that we’ll be doing for them is making cups of tea and wiping their noses. I want the camera to document the original position of the girl’s body and some of the surrounds for the report and to show that all we did was to respond to the call out and secure the scene. The rest is up to them. They may not care to take a look at any of the shots that I take, but I want a record just in case. The last thing that I intend to do is to give some snotty nosed, little boy detective the chance to say that we’ve fucked up in some way.’

Bobby looked down at his feet, feeling more than a little abashed and for all the world like someone who had failed to grasp what was for everyone else a very basic lesson in police procedure. He then shrugged and walked back across to the other side of the wide creek bed to climb up the bank at the low point that they had initially come down through, parting the thick curtain of bracken growing there before making his way to the patrol car parked on the other side.

They had followed a rough dirt cattle track down from the farmhouse after talking to a very worried Angela Duncan and a less than impressed husband John upon their arrival. Both Frank and Bobby had tried to interview the boy Steven, but the best that they had been able to glean from him in his current state was a sketchy direction at best of where he had seen his ‘naked lady’ and the rest had been up to them. Frank had called for a doctor on the car’s two-way after he had talked to the lad and had noticed the first obvious signs of post-traumatic shock that he had been exhibiting and he had told both parents that he would send Mitch out for a statement later on when they had been given the all clear from the local G.P. Throughout all of this, the boy’s father-whom Frank had taken an instant and very satisfying dislike to—had looked on unconcerned, apparently more worried about the loss of the day’s chores that he had lined up for the lad than he was about the boy’s wellbeing.

Bobby handed him the camera which he had lifted from the police car’s glove box when he returned to Frank’s side and Brannigan took it from him, moving closer to the girl’s body and holding it up to the light as he went to check on the number of exposures still left within. A small ten showed behind the tiny glass face next to the auto rewind button and he switched it on, opening its shutter to check the focus. He had acquired the camera-a small, pocket sized semiautomatic five years ago—when he had first been transferred to Rowan. ‘Confiscated’ had been the word that he had used at the time. He had been attending a three car pile up on the highway, the first and unfortunately not the last of his new posting, and, as was his way, he had taken offence to a passer-by who had thought it necessary to record the mess of broken bodies and twisted metal for the posterity of the family slide show night. The end result of the whole episode? One dead, three admitted to the hospital in Tarro with injuries ranging from minor right through to major and a near new camera for the glove compartment of what had then been Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan’s patrol car. He only hoped that after all this time, the damned thing still worked.

He knew that he didn’t need to take these shots of course. Not really. It was true what he had just said to Bobby about covering one’s own arse when it came to involvement in a major crime such as this, just as it was true that the state detectives would probably not even care to look at them when they were finally developed, it was only his aversion to feeling left out when the police machine turned up at the scene and started to roll that made him want to do it. He didn’t want to feel obsolete in his own shire. He just didn’t want to feel like the only member of a brass marching band that had forgotten to bring his instrument. But there was another reason also, one that he could find no explanation for, and that was that he needed to feel like he was doing something for the dead girl’s brother. Again, he found his thoughts turning-as they had since they had first left the station house that morning-to Peter White. To the fact that he felt a liking for the lad. To what he was going to say to him when he went back into town to tell him the bad news and of how he was going to say it, before he pushed these thoughts from his mind. Time enough to think about them later.

‘Come on Bobby’, he called back over his shoulder as he ducked beneath the thin line of crime scene tape shifting noiselessly in the slight breeze and made his way over to the creek’s far bank. ‘Earn your keep.’

Milne followed reluctantly, not being exactly sure what it was that his sergeant had in mind for him and not being all that keen to find out. He moved carefully across the soft, loamy soil of the creek bed, tracing Brannigan’s own steps as he picked his way cautiously amongst the cattle tracks, pats and other tell tale prints which had been left shallowly embedded into the ground around them both.

Forensics will be working overtime with their plaster castings when they turn up here, he thought and he allowed his sergeant to roughly position him as a size comparison off to the side of a collapsed section of the creek’s meter high bank nearby. Bobby knew from the few lectures he had attended at the police academy on ‘Crime Scene Terminology’, that the slide of earth would be tagged in the reports as the ‘Point of Entry’. It was a phrase usually reserved for broken windows or forced doors as an access point to a committed crime within a building but he guessed that when you got right down to the brass tacks of the situation, the intention was just the same.

Brannigan had pointed out to him earlier when they had first located the body of the girl after following the Duncan boy’s rough directions, that it was at this point that the body had been dragged down into the creek. Even now, more than a day after the first reported sighting of the abandoned car, he could still clearly see the marks left in the loose soil by the dead girl’s heels where she had been half carried, half dragged towards the fallen ghost gum by her killer.

Or killers, Bobby thought morosely, trying in his own imagination to put faces to the unknowns who would be collectively known as ‘HIM’ or ‘THEY’ in the conversations of those investigating the crime until they knew better. Bobby felt the chill that he had worked himself up into trace its way slowly up his spine and he glanced up to where Brannigan was backing away from him, the uneasy grimace set upon his face and the collapsed section of creek bank next to where he stood, the older cop trying to get both in focus within the small camera’s lens. Frank took the shot, the camera’s auto-flash slashing a bright flare of light through the long shadows crowding in around them and Bobby blinked against it. When his vision cleared again, the last of the bright flares of colour fading from in front of his eyes, Brannigan was a half a dozen feet closer with the camera lifted once more to his face for a close up of the same. The small camera’s drive wound on sluggishly to the next exposure. He recognized that the flash was draining the last of its life. Not surprising in the least, he thought, knowing how long it had been sitting unused in the glove compartment of his old police unit before he knelt down onto the soft surface of the earth at his feet and, waving Bobby impatiently out of the way, took one more for luck.

‘Okay’. He grunted, straining with the effort of lifting his weight once more to his feet.

‘Now for the girl?’ Bobby asked, finishing for him without the slightest bit of enthusiasm in his voice and Frank nodded.

‘Right. Now for the girl.’

In all, Frank took just over a dozen shots before the film rolled onto its final exposure and the last of the life died away from the camera’s tiny, aged battery. Of them, two were of the clearest boot prints that he could find, scuffed into the soil at the base of the tree roots which had almost concealed the girl’s body from discovery, left and right feet. (Their distinctive, size ten tread would later be matched by police castings taken from the scene with a brand of bikers’ boots known as ‘Easy Riders’, commonly available at most riding gear and ex-army surplus supply stores throughout the state). Two were of the positioning of Jilly White’s lifeless hand as it hung out in the clear morning light over the summer parched bed of Shailier’s Gully. One was of a small, smeared blood stain which had been wiped across the jagged edge of one of the ghost gum’s further most outstretched roots, and the rest were of the girl herself and her dead, unseeing eyes…..‘She looked at me!’ Steve Duncan had told them in between frightened tears and his mother’s night dress covered breasts where he had buried his head as they spoke. ‘I thought she was dead but she opened her eyes and looked at me.’ Frank then handed the camera back to Bobby - who then went off to replace it back into the glove box of his patrol car - and sat himself achingly down against the opposite bank to sketch himself a rough layout of the area on the small pages of his leather-bound notebook while he waited for the unit of state branch detectives to turn up at the scene.

Mitch Gardiner led them out three quarters of an hour later, both vehicles cutting the life from their roof mounted bubble lights simultaneously as they rolled to a grating halt behind Brannigan’s own patrol car on the farm track’s loose river stone surface. Frank made Bobby take a note of the time of their arrival for his report where it would be logged in amongst the other official paperwork as the ‘Authorization of Handover’. The team of three consisted of a paunchy, middle aged detective by the name of Ray Dorniea who was to head the investigation, and two other officers, whose names Frank had missed and weren’t’ offered again. The men had been returning from Rockhampton where they had been testifying in a civil action case against a football player who had been bought before the courts on a charge of aggravated assault when the call had come through and they had re-routed immediately to the station house at Rowan to contact Mitch who had lead them out. Dottie had patched through a call to Frank’s unit to let him know that they were on their way and, as with the day before, he had cut her short before the inevitable questions had begun to flow, telling her that he wanted all of the airwaves cleared. He had thought that she was canny enough to have developed a reasonably accurate picture of what was going on by the radio traffic that she would most assuredly been listening in to and he only hoped that for once in her long life, she had the good horse sense to keep it to herself.

He had shown the head of the state C.I.B. team….. (‘Just call me Ray’) …...around the area where the body had been found, pointing out the slide of earth near the dead fallen tree which Bobby Milne had referred to as the Point of Entry (and what Frank had called ‘Where the bastards that did this to the girl had come down’), the tread marks of the boots as well as those made by the young Duncan boy and his faithful mount ‘Nobby’, and the small stain of blood smeared onto the root system where the body had been hidden. All of this, Detective Inspector ‘Just-call-me-Ray’ Dorniea had listened to quietly, nodding where he thought it warranted and jotting down some brief notes in an impressively bound, guilt edged leather note book, produced with professional flair from the inner coat lining of his expensive suit, before he had excused himself to confer with his two partners (who by this time Frank had already tagged as ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledumber’) in whispered tones. Apparently, Brannigan had thought sourly at the time, they had already decided by an empathy all of their own that as the ‘Small Town Cop’, he was not to be considered as one of the team. Bobby had returned from his car some short time later, carrying a plastic body sheet as requested by ‘Just call me Ray’, telling Frank while in the process of nervously dragging it across the root base cavity of the tree which contained Jilly White’s body that Dottie had just called through again to his unit with an E. T.A. on the arrival of the forensics team of fifteen minutes. Frank had passed the message along to one of the Tweedledum pair (by this time he didn’t care enough to note which one. They all began to look alike with their suits, spit shined shoes and skull tight crew cuts after a while) and the three had again gone into another huddle. That had been just about as close to the last straw as he had wanted to come and his aggravated hangover would allow, and he had excused himself, feeling a distinct need to beat a hasty path out of the area before his hot blood boiled cooked any further. He had passed on his unit’s recall number to ‘Just call me Ray’, as well as that of his home telephone number should they need it. (He would have been more than a little surprised if they did) and had driven out of the front gate of the Duncan family farm on the long journey back into town - and to Peter White - just as the coroner’s van, followed closely by that of the forensics unit, had arrived and the first, whirring sounds of a television network helicopter had begun to cut the air.

6

An easy peace settled across the small country town as Saturday morning slowly meandered its way into a lazy Saturday afternoon. Its wide, tree-lined streets lay deserted beneath the high, punishing heat of the noonday sun. Shadows spilt out in broad bands across sparce, neatly trimmed lawns and the bleached checker board concrete of roadside pavements. Stores stood silent and empty after the hum of their mid-morning trade. A lone pickup truck, the only car in the street, sat squarely infront of the closed hardware store opposite, an itinerant mutt sleeping peacefully in its canvass covered tray.

And if the world ever needed and enema, Peter White thought as he sipped gently at the tall glass of iced lemon tea in his hand, then the chances are it would be administered here in Rowan, population 3800. He leaned out over the second floor balcony of the Royal Exchange Hotel where he had taken a room, and let his over tired, red rimmed gaze fall from the sunburnt colours of the surrounding bushland to the black, shimmering heat of the main road which dissected the heart of the tiny, slumbering community like some perfectly formed lava flow.

The Pay ’n Save general store stood on the other side of the street, squat and sheltered from the afternoon glare beneath the wind loosened tin of its bull-nosed iron awning. Next to it, and set back a little from the footpath was Haggarty’s, the town’s real estate office. (‘Listings required urgently’-the chalkboard sign above the door” stated). Next to that, the local branch of the Commonwealth Bank, Sandy’s Fish and Chip Take-a-way, Hayman’s Haberdashery, then Poulsen’s Saddlery and Produce Supplies with its proudly advertised sale of ’20% Off All Camping Goods’ locked up behind a wall of shuttered glass and security mesh. After that the town’s newsagency and Martinelli’s Garage, both buildings separated by a sloping dirt driveway and then, finally, as the dark river of asphalt rounded onto the rail lines at the far end of town, the post office and police station, both blanketed beneath a deep shroud of jacarandas which grew in a towering wall of green around the building’s low, red brick entrance. A faint breeze, only the softest of sighs, shifted at the thin afternoon air and at that one moment, as Peter White looked over at the post office clock tower with its single face barely visible above the lush canopy of sweeping in leaves, he felt the weight of something cold settle within him. He shivered unconsciously and rubbed his hands briefly up and down the length of his arms. His gaze fell finally to the feint ruled pages of the old journal lying open on his lap as he sat with one leg bent across the wrought iron of the balcony railing, his back flat against its columned support, and he flexed his fingers back and forward at the crawling chill which he could feel building there, seeping through his body.

He had been trying to write for some time now. Trying to find the words to express what it was that he was feeling. The pain. The sense of loss. And yet no words came. How could he possibly put into words what it was that he felt when he couldn’t even explain those same feelings to himself. And how hollow, how empty would they seem if he did manage to put them down on paper? How impotent would his clumsy slashes of ink across the journal’s pages be when compared to the sheer magnitude of the loss that he felt? Would they cheapen the hurt, the ache that filled him? Would they ease his loneliness? He didn’t know the answer to any of these questions that he posed himself, yet he knew just the same that he had to try to get these feelings out. He knew that he had to try to exorcise them from him and expose them to the light of day where he could re-read them, study them, dissect them, and then finally, he hoped, understand them. He doubted if he had the strength within himself at the moment to do this properly and yet he knew at the same time that he had to try. Putting the glass of iced tea aside, Peter flexed the persistent stiffness from his fingertips, and reached down to lift his gold plated pen from its resting place within the fold of his ledger’s opened spine. He touched its nib once, meditatively to the tip of his tongue, let his gaze stretch briefly, distantly towards the far western horizon once more and then, at last, when he felt some semblance of center in his thoughts, he lay the pens nib to the top of the opened page and began to write.

March 1st:

Jilly is dead now. I know it. I feel it. What was my worse fear - and my worse fear only -confined to those weak moments when I would allow myself to become submerged in an unadulterated and totally self indulgent dread, now feels so real for me, so certain, that I can no longer deny it. Now, telling myself that everything is going to be all right, that they are going to find Jilly safe and well, has lost its magic for me. The words, the hopeful thoughts now all seem so hollow and meaningless, just empty promises to myself and it’s all that I can do not to tell myself that I was a fool for having ever believed them in the first place.

Did I ever?

No. You know, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think that I ever really did.

Oh! Telling myself that things were going to turn out for the best and that Jilly was going to be okay was a comfort - all be it a shallow one. I can’t deny it. But I don’t think I ever truly believed it. Not really. Not if I want to be truly honest with myself And let’s face it, when you’re in a small town like Rowan, where men are men and sheep are nervous, there’s not a whole hell of a lot to do but be honest with yourself.

N.B: I’ve just scanned back over what I’ve written and I don’t for the life of me have the slightest idea of what it was that I meant in those last few lines. I suppose that I was just trying to be funny. (It didn’t work). What’s that old saying? ‘In times of turmoil, humour is the last refuge of cowards.’ How true.

Peter felt lost for words for a moment and took a break from writing. He closed the journal on his lap and stared off past the curved shade of the hotel balcony’s bullnosed iron awning, out into the clear, pearly blue afternoon sky as he tried to arrange his spinning thoughts. A wedge tailed eagle flew into view, catching his tired attention as it pinioned and wheeled in the high, crosswind thermals and he watched the large bird for some time. A smile spread across his lips as the bird disappeared, circling into the horizon and, at last, he felt as if he could continue.

Christ! I don’t feel like doing this, but I guess that at the very least, I do owe it to you D.D. (Dear Diary) to fill in the last few pages here on the journal which I have left blank over the course of the past day and a half since everything happened. I guess that I also owe it to myself.

A wise man once said….. ‘What the hell. Go for it.’

I might even feel a little better in my self for trying. So bear with me D.D. while I put a little lateral thought into action. (After all, that was what Jilly .always said I did best). You’ll have to excuse the fragmentation of my memories, so much now seems lost in the haze of the last thirty odd hours, but be patient with me while I try to start at the beginning and work my way through to the here and now. It may take some time for me to fill in the gaps and it may take some effort, but maybe -just maybe-it might also be worth it.

It’s said that just about everyone who was alive at the time can remember where they were and what they were doing at the exact moment when they heard about President John F. Kennedy’s death in Dallas at the supposed hands of Lee Harvey Oswald and his magical bending bullet, Armstrong placing a footprint on the moon or maybe even those same people even know where they were when they heard the news about Elvis O-Ding on the floor of his Memphis mansion bathroom. For my generation it’s more of a case of where were you when you heard about the death of Princess Diana in a Parisian tunnel with a pissed Frenchman behind the wheel or what were you doing on the morning of September 11th, 2001. In almost every case, most people would have an answer. I often wonder however if you were to ask those same people where they were when they found out about the death (or disappearance) of a loved one, someone who was not some elusive icon or the product of a national obsession with celebrity worship, but rather a person who was a part of their life and heart on a day to day basis, then I think that, in truth, most would be hard pressed to answer you. Shock can be like that. It can scar and it can stun, but no matter what it does, it’s the shock of the loss itself that a person never forgets. It’s that feeling of emptiness inside that a person carries with them to the grave.

I suppose that if there were any real point for me where I felt that things had truly begun their spin out of my control, it was with that first dream in my apartment two nights ago before I’d even known that Jilly was gone and even now, after everything that has happened, I can still remember it with a clarity that chills me to the bone. I don’t really want to think about it - my hand shakes as I begin to recall its images as clear now in my mind as they were when I woke from my sleep yesterday morning. I just want it to go away. I just want to forget about it as I have done with other dreams before, but I can’t. I can still see in my mind’s eye those dream images of men coming after me (or were they chasing after Jilly? In the dream it felt as if we were truly one and the same), I can still hear their shouts and cries , ringing in my ears, but more than all of this, I can still feel the fear.

Was that what Jilly felt?

Yes. I think or feel or whatever, that it was. I pray that I am wrong of course. (At least I pray as much as my fallen Catholic conscience will allow me to) but, God yes. I feel certain that it was.

After I woke, I guess that I just hovered around the apartment for most of the next day, (was all of this only yesterday? God but how time flies when your whole world turns on its head), not really sure what to do or even if I should do anything at all. Most people would have simply dismissed the dream I suppose. It would have still troubled them but I truly believe that most people would have paid it no more heed than if they were to walk under a ladder or if a black cat had crossed their path, and I guess that like most people I tried to shake the feeling of dread that the dream had left me with, to tell myself that it was nothing, just mind games, but despite this, the feeling had clung and no amount of good old, common sense logic was going to make it shift.

Something had happened to Jilly, I was certain of it. Something very, very bad.

In the end, I had called Cynthia at the office to tell her to ~reschedule my appointments for the day as I wouldn’t be coming in. I know that I should have put in an appearance at the office. It may have taken my mind off the unsettledness (is unsettledness a word?) that I felt instead of simply sitting around the apartment stewing on things. I had the second stage draft plans for the Rodgerson Building to present and a financing meeting with K.B. but I couldn’t face either and I know that I wouldn’t have been of use to anybody, least of all myself. I guess that if I was to try and use an analogy for the way that I felt, I would say that it was like standing out in an open field waiting in the calm before a storm or even better, wading into the surf at the beach, feeling the undertow pulling at my legs and looking up to see it dragging me towards some dark, towering wall of water which was breaking overhead.

N.B: I’ve just re-read that again and it’s not quite right. It’s close but something in the analogy is missing. Why is it, I wonder; that I can string together a thirty million dollar building proposal that all but sells itself on paper and yet I can’t find a few, simple words to describe how I feel? ... ...God save the world from illiterate architects.

Peter put down his pen and wiped the palms of both hands along the length of his jeans, again flexing his aching fingers before continuing.

The voice on the other end of the line was cool, clipped and impossibly formal.

‘Mister White’ it said. ‘Yes,’ I replied, my mouth feeling almost immediately dry and thick as if it were stuffed with cotton wool. ‘Mister Peter White? Do you have a sister, one Jillian Michelle...?’

’Look. Who is this. Is this some sort of fucking joke?”

‘No Mister White’, the voice said calmly and full of authority. ‘I can assure you this is no joke.’

And that’s when I think for the first time that I knew, I actually knew, that something was wrong. The voice on the other end of the line - one that I was to find out belonged to a detective from the Homicide Branch of the State Police - then proceeded to tell me about Jilly’s disappearance. It told me about her car and where it had been found abandoned and then it asked me some questions. All of the time, I sat there on the sofa, listening to but barely hearing what was being said, offering only an ‘Uh-Huh’ or a ‘Yes’ where I could, and all of the time feeling like a man who had just had the rug pulled out from under his feet. The detective (whose name I still can’t for the life of me remember) finished up by saying in a voice which brimmed with a carefully conditioned compassion, that he would be of whatever help he could if I had any more inquiries and gave me a contact number for his desk at the station before I hung up. I stood there in the centre of my lounge room floor for a moment longer; looking at my oh-so-chic telephone like it was a piece of alien technology before something in me clicked, some realization slotted into place and I had run off into my bedroom to pack myself a bag, not thinking, just grabbing clothes blindly and shoving them into a suitcase (I am now the proud owner of four pairs of jeans, a dozen pairs of socks and no shirts aside from the one that I am wearing).

The drive up here to Rowan was long and drawn out, the way that traveling by road only can be when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere. Every set of brake lights was time wasted, every set of headlights an unwanted obstacle. All that I can remember was that it was dark or damned near it when I left the apartment and the drive, for what it was worth, had only been punctuated by a stop for petrol or food. (I called Cynthia from my mobile to tell her in as controlled a tone as possible what had happened and got no more than a dozen or so words into the conversation when the unflappable secretary in her kicked in and she told me not to worry. She said that she would reschedule all of my appointments for the next couple of days, field and inquiries into ongoing projects and contact personally those clients that she could to express my apologies………… Bless her

It was at least six in the morning before I arrived here in town. I tried to catch some shut-eye in the car while I waited in front of the small police station for it to open but I got no more than ten minutes worth before I woke up with a stiff neck and feeling worse than I did when I dozed off to sleep. (If you can call those ten of the promised forty winks sleep. All that I can remember is that I jolted awake feeling like ten shades of shit, with the strange idea buzzing around in my head that I had been dreaming about a boy on a horse. Must be the country air! Rowan is a small country town. Typical in many ways I suppose of a thousand others like it that are dotted around this wide brown land of ours. You know the type D.D.- wary of outsiders, sideways glances, that sort of thing.

The cop here, an old, beer bellied fellow by the name of Frank Brannigan has been nice enough though (if perhaps a little abrupt at times). He made some time for me this morning when I rolled up, though God knows what he must have thought of me after eleven hours spent on the road in stale clothes. He asked me some more questions, told me a little though I had the feeling that he knew a lot more than he was prepared to let me in on. I guess he just didn’t want to concern me with any unnecessary details of the investigation. Cops like him must become fairly attuned to a relative’s needs when it comes down to information after as many years as it looks like he’s spent serving on the force. It’s probably a good thing too though I do wish that I knew more. He got called out while we were talking, an A.P:B. or whatever the hell it is that they call it when they have to go and look at something, and I knew then that it was about Jilly. I just knew it. He didn’t say as much but I could see it in his eyes that he knew it too. I had wanted to go out with him but, of course, he had said no. He was nice enough about it, fixed me up with a room at the local pub where I am now and asked me to wait here until he got back when he said he would tell all - fair enough I guess!

I tried again once here in my room to catch myself some more sleep in a vain attempt at making up for what I had lost but I couldn’t manage anything more than a light doze before I got up. I suppose that I’m just too restless at the moment to settle and I’m starting to feel like I might be coming down with something, my neck aches to high heaven (the last remnants of the long drive is my guess) and I can’t seem to shake this bout of the chills that has been with me since I woke up yesterday morning. Hardly surprising I guess, given how strung out I’ve been lately but I……

………… I’ve just seen Brannigan’s car round the corner at the far end of the town’s main street near the Salvation Army Hall and I can see him behind the wheel heading up towards the police station opposite. Please God, let it be good news. .....but I think .,. No!

My poor Jilly!

Peter slashed his signature briskly across the bottom of the page and stood from the balcony railing which supported his weight laying the closed journal down by his feet against the verandah’s old, wooden floorboards as he did so.

My poor Jilly!

He watched silently as Brannigan eased the police car to a gradual halt beneath the long shadows spilling out across the street from the police station’s tree crowded front yard. He watched as the old cop stepped out into the high afternoon heat and inclined his head to look solemnly across through the shimmering haze of the main road to where Peter stood, studying him mutely from the shadowed, second storey balcony of the Royal Exchange Hotel. He watched as Brannigan held his weighty gaze and slowly pulled the peaked police cap from his balding head to hold it against his barrel chest. And finally, when he could watch no more, Peter White lowered his head and began to cry.

7

It was just on dusk when Ricky McKinnan emerged from the dark, tree-lined wall of silhouettes which grew along the edge of the farm’s last open spread of cleared acreage. The air around him sighed with the soft papery murmur of the evening breeze, seed fairies alighting into the evening sky around him as he wound his way gradually up the slight rise towards the lights of the farmhouse at the front of the property, his slight form shifting restlessly through a field of straw grass turned golden by the slowly setting sun.

His stride was slow and sober.

His head was down.

His hands were in his pockets.

He was lost in thought.

He had left the farmhouse earlier that afternoon at around five He had needed some time away from the walled confines of his bedroom where he had spent most of the day. He had needed some time just to lose himself within the dry, barren stillness of bush land which surrounded the sprawling property on three of its four sides. But most importantly, he had needed some time to think and that was something he had always done better when he shared no one else’s company but his own.

He stepped carefully across the rusted iron rails of the cattle grate which divided the ‘low’ field off from the rest of the farm’s expansive acreage and reached over to draw the sagging wooden gate stiffly closed behind him. The last of the farm’s saleable livestock, forty head of low grade beef and another dozen of dairy which had occupied the pasture earlier that morning, had all been herded out onto the run on the other side of the farmhouse but he wound the fence chain securely around its post just the same and hefted himself up onto the fences top railing, its weathered timber support groaning unsteadily beneath him.

Ricky smiled. It was a soft smile, almost melancholy, and it played only fleetingly across his pale, finely boned features before it soon fell away as his gaze settled slowly upon the gentle rise and fall of the surrounding fields, their swaying grasses claimed by the darkening, claw-like reach of late afternoon shadows.

It had all been good land once. Hearty land. His own grandfather had even once told him that it had been the best grazing land for miles around and the envy of many a neighbour. Now however, a decade of years later, any such envy had turned to snide derision, the land and its once profitable goodness now buried beneath a thick layer of scrub grass and bracken – what his Pop would have called ‘Feeding Cud’ but what his own father now called ’Shit ‘n Weed’.

It hadn’t all been lost of course. There was still a firm stand of orange and mandarin trees which his grandmother had planted in a grove behind the barn and on the rare occasion whenever his father’s plough hit the ground, it would still reveal an untapped richness locked within the black, clay soil, but for the most part, any promise the farm had once had was now gone. Ricky’s father had turned his hand to the land as best as he had been able to with his grandfather’s passing but the man had no feel for it – any more than he did for his only son – and in the long years since, the McKinnan farm had died a slow, agonizingly painful death around them.

Ricky shifted his weight a little on the fence-line’s split post railing, his gaze drifting across his shoulder and up towards the rapidly darkening outline of the farmhouse which dominated the crest of the hill at the front of the property. There was a light on in the kitchen. His mother would be preparing the evening meal in readiness for his father’s return with supplies from town. Today was Saturday and McKinnan family tradition dictated a roast. It would be the usual fare. Leg of Lamb, watery gravy, potatoes and an assortment of other vegetables boiled to within an inch of their life. Add to that the thought of spending a half an hour sitting at the table in mutted silence as his parents grunted at one another in their mockery of conversation about the events of the day and it was enough to dull anybodies hunger. Today however, Ricky’s appetite was the last of his concerns. After what had happened, he thought he might never eat again.

Ricky found his thoughts turning, as they had consistently done over the last two days, to the girl and he tried to snatch them back. He didn’t want to think about her, or remember what it was that they had done to her. He only wanted the image of her face…..

Her pleading face!

….to leave him. To remain hidden within his dark subconscious where he had tried so hard to bury it. Yet the guilt would not let him forget. It would not let his memories of what had been done on that terrible night which at once seemed so close and yet, at the same time, a lifetime ago, lie. The guilt was his to own. It bought those memories up to the surface, threw them at him, rubbed his face in it. And as the images in his mind, disjointed though they were, slowly began to fall back into place like the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle within his mind’s eye, it was his guilt which was their guiding hand and his conscience the glue which bound them together.

Ricky turned away from the dark shape of the farmhouse set against the colored washes of sunset which spread out across the wide, western skies as it’s backdrop and slowly – ever so slowly – he closed his eyes and remembered.

He had been lying on the unmade bed in his room, immersed in the hard covered library copy of H.G. Wells ‘The Island of Doctor Moroe’……

What is the law!

.....when Scott Berlin, one of Ricky’s oldest and only friends, had called him up to ask if he had wanted to go out to Murphy’s Tavern on the highway for a drink. Scott had barely been able to contain his excitement at the fact that he had just received a letter of confirmation that he had been a late acceptance into the arts course at the Q. U. T. to study for his bachelorship and that he was in the mood to do a little partying on down. Normally Ricky would have declined such an offer of a couple of beers at a pub. He had no taste for the drink or for the idiocies of the bar regulars where the conversation usually revolved around cars, sport, women (and what to do with them, presumably after the match on television was over!) and where every second word usually began with an ‘F’ and ended with a much louder ‘UCK!’. And he had just about been on the edge of saying exactly that when he had caught himself, hitched a deep breath and accepted. He had served time with Scott Berlin during the melting pot of puberty along with all of the uncertain pain that it had entailed at what passingly served as the shire’s high school and he had valued the friendship offered by him when there had been no other. But perhaps more than this, Ricky had said yes because he was glad that Scott was getting out. A person didn’t have to live in a shit-hole like Rowan to understand that there were no walls around a small, country town. Not physically at least - but the barriers that small town life instilled within a young man’s mind were just as limiting and it seemed that Scott at least, by being accepted into university, had found his way over them. At first he had remembered nothing about what had come next, almost as if he had pushed all of the memories of the night deep down into the shadow of himself, the images of what they/he had done being too horrible to conceive.

The radio conversation that he had overhead on his father’s C.B. in the shed the morning before had changed all of that. (The girl’s face. ..so beautiful. ..so scared. Her pleas so terrified.) Scott’s wallet, flush with the notes of his severance pay from the timber yards where he had worked these last years since leaving high school had been an open invitation at the bar with the few intended beers quickly turning into a few more and it hadn’t been long before Ricky’s head-unaccustomed to the seductions of alcohol-had begun to spin. That night wasn’t the first time that he had been drunk. He wasn’t quite that virginal when it came to a bottle and its alluring ways. There had been the time in eighth grade at the end of school break up when the punch bowl had been spiked by a gang of local roughs and one glass of Fruit Cocktail Delight had made him giggly. And then there was the time when he, Bradley Glenn and James Bond (a name that had cursed the boy all through his formative school years), had camped out overnight on the banks of Millers Creek and Brad had pulled a bottle of Jack Daniel’s out from beneath his padded, sleeveless jerkin. (The pact between them at the time had been that they would all bring a bottle of their respective old man’s booze, but Ricky had chickened out at the last mInute and Jamie Bond hadn’t been smart enough to know the difference between a bottle of soda water and the real thing.) They had spent the rest of that night laughing, peeing in the creek and falling over and most of the next morning heaving their up cookies against the nearest tree. But for all of that, the other night , with Scott, had been the first time that Ricky had shared a social drink in the truest measure of the word and the first time that he had ever been able to see some of the enjoyment from it that his father had always seemed so reliant upon.

There had been faces around him at the bar, some nameless, others that held only the foggiest of recognition for him. There was the fellow who worked for the council cleaning the park and the one he had often seen sitting in front of the post office on a hot day with his shirt unbuttoned to catch the breeze. The old man who drove the backhoe for B&K Hire was there, as was the Johnstone boy from school who was the English teacher’s oldest son. And over by the billiard tables, Scott had pointed out Allan Keiges to him, State Under Twenty-five Rugby League representative and about as close to a sporting hero as the small town of Rowan had ever been able to produce. Conversations had hung in the air around him, laughter, music, and throughout all of this as the pleasantly warm buzz which had slowly but certainly filled the inside of his head Ricky had begun to feel the joy of being accepted as just another guy by people who knew little or nothing about him (even if that equality came at the price of a beer). Hands were thrown in his direction, voices came at him that sometimes matched the faces but more often did not, there were punch lines to jokes which he had missed but had laughed at anyway.

’Another beer?

Yes sir! You just keep ‘em coming.’

’It’s my shout!

‘Matey, matey, matey!’

His normally tightly held inhibitions had begun to fall away one by one as the beers had flowed and at some point after that —or maybe it was before - he still couldn’t remember exactly when, Scott had gone. Had they had an argument? Perhaps. He had never drunk enough over the time in his life to know whether becoming an arsehole while under the influence was beyond him or not, but he had been on the receiving end of his father’s long, drunken tirades of abuse often enough to know how it felt. Whatever had happened, Scott had gone and just for the briefest of moments as he had sat there alone, he had become suddenly aware of just how far out of his depth he was, in those unfamiliar grounds surrounded by those unfamiliar faces. And in that one swimming, spinning moment, he felt like he would drown.

That didn’t matter, he had told himself, shaking off the thought in a voice which at the time had sounded more like his father’s than it did his own. He didn’t need any old school chum to have a good time. Not when he was in the company of so many new found friends. Nothing mattered when you had your drinking pals. Hadn’t his father once said something like that? he had wondered. And for what was probably the first (and only) time in his life, he had thought he had seen some of the truth behind the slurred words of his old man’s bottle fed wisdom.

‘Another drink bartender!’

Then, after a time that could have been minutes or hours - or somewhere in between - the bar crowd had begun to thin and he had found himself standing on the edges of a conversation between a group of ’The Guys ’with a tall pony-tailed figure in the middle who possessed a pair of the most dazzling pale blue eyes that Ricky had ever seen, throwing up the idea of rocking on back into Rowan to pick up a slab of beer for a party out at his place on the other side of town.

Man! Those eyes! So fucking blue!

‘Are you coming Ricky?’

‘Damn right I am.’ If I can just get my fucking legs to work properly, he had thought, and before he had known what was happening, it had been ‘Gentlemen, start your engines!’, and he had found himself hurling along a darkened highway in the back of a car - a car that he thought may have been a station wagon, though he couldn’t be anywhere near sure - sharing a bottle with five others and listening to heavy metal music played loud enough on the car stereo speakers to make him think that his ears were bleeding.

He hadn’t seen the girl’s car at first, and it wasn’t until they crested the rise and laid down a strip of the station wagon’s wide-wheeled rubber across the narrow width of the road to head back in the opposite direction, that he had seen the young woman kneeling next to it.

Ricky wanted. .. ...needed….. to tell himself that he had no idea about what was going to happen next. He needed to feel like he was somehow innocent, or ignorant, or both of the dark, unspoken knowledge that had passed between the young men in the sudden silence that had filled the vehicle at the sight of the girl, alone in the bush land darkness by the side of the road. But it wasn’t true. Not at all. He bad known what was on the minds of the others when they had seen the girl hunched down beside the car at the side of the moonlit road. He had known because ‘taking’ her had been there within his mind too.

Ricky felt a long, pained breath escape his lungs, shuddering with the shame filled tears which burnt at the corners of his eyes and he hung his head. He didn’t want to remember any more. He didn’t want to feel the suffocating guilt for what he had done and allowed others to do as he stood by and watched. He only wanted to push it all away, to run and hide from the faces, the shouts, the pleading cries that had filled the night. He only wanted to ......

What you want Ricky! A mocking voice that at once sounded so much like his father’s and yet so different said from deep within his soul. What you want! What about the girl? Who cares what you want after what you did to her. What about what she might have wanted? What about that? Do you think about that Ricky? Do you? She might have had a family, children, a husband or a boyfriend. She had a life and you took it all from her. You took everything from her and you don’t even know what her name was. You took it all Ricky, you and your mates, your drinking buddies. So who cares what you want. Who…...fucking... cares!

‘LEAVE ME ALONE!!!’ Ricky screamed, his shout echoing out across the rolling, evening lit fields as he slammed his balled up fists against the sides of his head again and again, trying to drive away -the nightmarish images that haunted him.

‘Please. ..just leave me alone. Leave me al …...’ His voice at last trailing off to nothing more than a feeble whimper. Eventually, these images, this voice, did leave him, fading away to little more than a ghost of distant laughter echoing back along the darkened corridors of his mind. They did not vanish entirely however, that would have been too easy, too unnatural for the sheer magnitude of the guilt that racked him, but there, within the shadows, at least for a time, he managed to contain these voices, there to feed and ultimately grow. Finally, Ricky McKinnan began to feel some tentative semblance of control return to him, like a man grabbing for a life-rope in a wild churning sea. He wiped the tears roughly away from the corners of his eyes with the back of his hand and, at last, slid down from the splintered wooden fence railing to trudge the remaining distance up the hill towards the farmhouse, now little more than a savage black wedge against the last pale washes of dusk in the far, western sky.

8

‘Do you know what shits me off Sergeant?’ Peter White asked, turning back from where he stood looking out over the balcony railing of the Royal Exchange Hotel to glance across at Brannigan.

Frank sat within the soft, canvas folds of a deck chair on the narrow, second storey balcony opposite the young man. His back was pressed up against the cool glass of the opened bay doors which led into the room behind him, now dark and forbiddingly cavernous in the dim evening light. His aching feet were bare of boots and he had a can of beer in his meaty hand though he didn’t feel much like drinking it. It was warm and flat and doing what had needed to be done that afternoon had left a sour taste in his mouth.

‘I mean, do you know what really shits me off?’ Peter asked again, swaying just a little under the influence of the half a dozen rums which he had downed in quick succession since returning from the hospital in Tarro earlier that evening. Frank shook his head silently in reply.

‘This.’ The young man said simply. He held up the near empty can of Coke which he had perched upon the hotel balcony’s broad timber railing as a diluter for the double nip of spirits which filled his glass and waved it slightly in his hand. Brannigan watched the can for a moment from his reclined position on the other side of the darkened verandah but paid it little notice, his attention instead remained fixed on the young man and the strained emotion that he could see sitting there behind his over tired eyes.

‘Coco-Cola?’ He asked questioningly and Peter White nodded.

“Yep.” Peter agreed, somehow making, in his current state, even that short statement seem slightly slurred around the edges. “Coca-Cola. Black gold. Yuppie tea. And do you know why it shits me off?’

Frank simply shook his head again and, as had been the case earlier that morning when both men had met for the first time, he was more than surprised to find himself feeling a curious mixture of pity, sympathy and something which came disturbingly close to kinship for this young man whose only relief from the pain which the day had bought him was to be found in the bottom of a glass. Brannigan looked down at his large hands crossed around the can of beer in his lap and shifted uncomfortably.

‘Well, I’ll tell you. I can remember when I was a boy I read – or maybe I just heard it somewhere , I don’t remember which now - that only three men in the world know what it is that goes into a can of Coke to make it what it is. To give it its special zing if you like. You see, in each one of these….’ He held the near empty can of drink in-front of his face and waved it again ‘ ….there’s supposedly a dash of a special additive that makes it what it is. Sort of like the colonel’s eleven secret herbs and spices. People have tried to buy it. Imitate it. Steal it. Even fucking discredit it but no luck. Christ, as far as I know, people have probably even died for it. Now is that fucked up or what?’

Frank cocked a dry smile and wondered absently where this all was going. In the bigger picture of things, he guessed it didn’t really matter. All that really mattered now was that the lad needed to talk, about what seemed irrelevant. But more importantly, he needed someone to listen and though it wasn’t a role which Frank Brannigan wasn’t entirely comfortable with – never had been – it was one which, for this young man at least, he felt prepared to play.

‘Point is,’ Peter continued, ‘any prick in the world with enough money can buy or build a nuclear bomb with enough pop to make the one dropped on Hiroshima look like a fart on a windy day but only three men in the world know how to make a can of Coca-Cola. Jesus, they aren’t even allowed to travel on the same plane together in case it crashes!’ Peter stopped abruptly. He had been babbling and he shook his head to try and clear his spinning thoughts. His eyes were becoming moist with bitterness and he turned away from Brannigan to lean against the balcony railing, pulling a hand down across his drained features. A silence settled between them then, one which was both heavy and stifling, and through it all the young man sipped slowly from the glass in his hand, his eyes set fixedly upon the final glow of dusk fading from the far western horizon. Frank let his own gaze go out, following it.

They hadn’t said much to each other in the car on the way back from the Tarro Community Hospital where he had taken the young man through the soul destroying necessities of identifying the body of his sister. Peter had struggled to ask the few questions he had been able to manage, his inquiries short and to the point with Frank telling him all that he could - all that he dared, his answers being more an ordered recounting of details to varying degrees than anything else. Only the silence, then as now, had been constant. Jilly White had been raped and murdered, he had told Peter in a voice manufactured by years as a police officer and devoid of any human emotion. The possibility existed that the assault may have involved more than one man, though, as yet, there was nothing concrete to go on. After the attack, the assailant – or assailants - had attempted to conceal the body in the overhang of a nearby creek bed where it had remained, according to initial information supplied by the attending coroner at the scene, for possibly twenty to thirty hours before discovery. An autopsy, which Frank would be attending the next day would establish the exact cause of death, though it seemed most likely to have been caused by a blow to the back of the head with what appeared to be - by the wood splinters embedded into the flesh around the wound - a large tree branch. (The continuing search of the bush-land in the immediate area of where the body was found by the S.E.S. volunteers the next morning would uncover a large, twisted knot of old seasoned wood believed to be the murder weapon, smeared with the dark, sun-dried blood stains and shattered bone fragments of Jilly White’s skull. These same blood samples would later be matched up with those smaller traces found upon the clothing discovered by Willy Ross and his pack of hounds earlier that morning.) And after the attack, the assailant (or assailants Frank had to keep reminding himself) had run Jilly White’s rust red, seventy-four Cortina off the road and into the scrub in an attempt to hide it from view before leaving the scene.

Through all of this, Peter had nodded, taking in the details of his sister’s murder in a grim silence as a man often does when on the edge of shock and when Frank had finished, Peter had said quietly and simply that he was glad it was all over.

But was it Frank? Was it allover? Could this inoffensive young man whom he liked so easily, with his soft spoken voice and quiet, studious manner, simply take the body of his sister along with the knowledge of what had been done to her, bury them both and then return to whatever life he had belonged to before? Was he that strong within himself? Could he possibly be so resilient? I hope so, Frank thought, though his inner voice was skeptical. For the lad’s sake, I truly do hope so. And it was then, for the first time, that it occurred to Frank Brannigan just how much Peter White reminded him of his own lost son, Danny.

‘I knew that she was dead you know’, Peter said finally, breaking through some of the uncomfortable silence which had filled the air of the open verandah between both men and Brannigan looked up, the long, lonely trail of his thoughts dissipating with it. He was glad to let both go.

He turned his head to look back at the young man whose gaze remained fixed upon the rapidly darkening horizon as he spoke, his hawkish face little more than an outline against the dense shroud of shadows which crowded in at them from beneath the hotel’s bull-nosed iron awning. His gaze sharpened a little in the dim light and he noticed Peter nodding to himself as if confirming the validity of those same memories by a silently held agreement.

When he spoke again, his voice was a dry, barren whisper in his throat.

‘I think that I knew Jilly was dead from the first moment I arrived here in Rowan,’ he said. ‘I was thinking about it earlier you know, writing in my journal about just when I knew that she was gone for the first time. Really gone. I supposed the feeling was there with me as soon as I got the call from the state detective yesterday morning but it wasn’t until I got here in town that I really felt. ….felt…..’ His voice faltered a little here, and Frank looked down once again at the can clutched in his lap before he sighed and took up a well practiced cue.

‘That’s only natural Peter,’ he said. ‘When something like this happens to you, it’s a lot easier to think of the bad rather than the good. It’s human nature.’

‘No!’ Peter shook his head adamantly and turned from the slowly darkening horizon to walk back across the hotel’s wide verandah and slump wearily into the arms of the canvas deck chair on the other side of the opened bay doorway opposite Frank’s own. ‘It was more than just that,’ he continued. ‘It’s always been more than that.’

More than that? It’s always been more than that? Something in that phrase caught Frank’s attention and though he showed no sign, held it. Perhaps it was just grief talking, he thought. Perhaps. But he couldn’t quite shake that feeling, that instinctive gut reaction that the years as a cop had allowed him to develop when dealing with people, that there was something else intended, something else which lay hidden beneath the surface of those few words. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket while he mulled over these thoughts and lit it up, his big hands cupped protectively around the lighter’s small flame as he brought it to life. Frank drew back on a deep breath, his eyes closed, savoring the moment as the nicotine took effect, and when he opened them again, he saw that Peter was looking over at him.

‘May I’ he asked, indicating the smoldering cigarette held tightly between the tips of Brannigan’s knotted fingers.

‘I didn’t think that you smoked?’ Frank replied with a slight smile, thinking about the smoke that he had offered - and that had been turned down - in his office that morning and when Peter said, ‘No time like the present to start’ ...the smile grew into a broad grin that both men shared.

Frank ferreted the crumpled pack of Winfield’s from his breast pocket once more and passed it across for Peter to take one of the cigarettes by its butt, then reached over to light it for him when he did. He slumped back into the canvas slope of his deck chair and for a time at least, the silence returned, though it was easier this time, without the weight of the grief that had been borne upon it before and both men allowed it to swim around them in the still evening air, this time savoring its peace.

‘You know,’ Peter said finally, thoughtfully with the smoke drifting lazily from the corners of his mouth as he spoke, ‘I can remember when we were kids, Jilly and I. There was this tree at the back of the house on one of the farms that we were fostered out to. I forget what it was, a gum tree of some kind I guess, with these big smooth, white branches that just seemed to go on forever. You know how it is when you’re a kid, how things seem to be about a hundred times bigger than they really are.’

He looked across at Frank, smiling a little with the memory and Brannigan nodded.

‘We were living there with this family. Nice people they were too. They had their own kids, two of them if I remember correctly and another, older Downs Syndrome girl called Marina who they had adopted a few years earlier.’

‘Sounds like quite a tribe’, Frank said, drawing back a deep pull on the cigarette in his hand, the smoke drifting from between his parted lips in a slow, snaking curl as he exhaled.

‘Sure was’, Peter agreed. ‘I guess they were just the kind of people who had a lot of love to go around. Anyway, this tree had always been sort of a gathering place for us kids over the time that we were there. Sort of a playground and a home away from home all rolled into one. The kind of place that kids just naturally seem to centre around. If you were playing cricket, it was the stumps. If you were playing hide-and-seek, it was either home base or where you were certain to find someone hiding behind. That sort of thing. This one day. ..Christ!’ Peter gave out with a slight laugh, ‘I can still remember it as clear as if it were yesterday. We had been playing out in the yard and Marina, the Downs girl, had been flying the kite that she had been given for Christmas. It was one of those box kites, you know, the type you don’t see all that often anymore, the ones that looked like they should never be able to fly yet always seem to manage to do it somehow. Marina had been told not to play with it in the yard near the trees but our foster parents had been out at the time and. ..well. ..kids will be kids. The next thing that any of us knew, Marina was crying and we had all run over to see what the commotion was about. It seemed like she had either gotten too close to the tree with the kite or a gust of wind had picked it up, but whatever it was, it had ended up snared in one of the branches. I suppose now that it was only a couple of meters above the ground but back then it seemed like it was miles. Well, we had all stood around the bottom of the trunk, wondering how we were going to get it down so that Marina didn’t get her arse tanned for not doing what she was told when our foster parents came home. The next thing any of us knew, Jilly was up into the first fork of the tree and well on her way to the second. We tried to get her to come back down. Yelled at her. One of the older girls, Suzie, even went up after her but couldn’t catch up. Jilly would have only been eight then you see, she was small for her age…..we both were, but fast, and she was forever pushing herself to go just that much further.’

Peter stopped at this point and flicked a long line of ash from the cigarette’s end. He drew back another pull, finishing its last gasp, then let it fall to the verandah’s aged wooden floorboards to stamp the life from the smoldering butt with the heel of his boot.

‘Anyway. The branch that had grabbed the kite wasn’t all that strong. It was thick enough but when it comes to eucalypts, looks can be as deceiving as all hell. The next thing I can remember is the sound of wood popping and groaning inside the tree trunk and Jilly screaming as the branch came away from its moorings and crashed to the ground. I felt her leg break you know’, Peter said finally after a long pause, turning towards Frank once more and away from his memories, his face suddenly hard and set.

Like a prize fighter waiting for a sharp right uppercut to the jaw, Frank would think later on that night when he would replay the entire conversation and particularly that one moment over in his mind again and again.

‘I felt it in here’, and he tapped his left shin through the trouser leg of his jeans with the white, drawn knuckle of his balled fist. ‘Everyone there heard the crack of Jilly’s leg breaking when she hit the ground, but I felt it. I swear I did. The next thing that I can remember, I was lying down on the ground holding Jilly’s hand with this hot, stabbing pain firing up into my hip. The doctor who took care of us shot some X-Rays and said that I must have fallen over when Jilly came down and landed badly. It was only a hairline fracture, I can remember him telling my foster parents at the time, nothing to be overly worried about, nothing compared to the clean break in Jilly’s leg. But you want to know the strange thing about it all Sergeant? Jilly and I found those same X-rays years later when we were going through some old boxes and we overlaid them. Even just holding one on top of the other and up to the light, we could see that the breaks were in exactly the same spot. Not just near to one another mind you, but exact. Below the left knee. Three and a quarter inches down the shin.’

Then, suddenly, Peter stopped himself as if he had just remembered were he was and looked away, feeling slightly embarrassed and vulnerable under the questioning expression on Brannigan’s face. He realized that he had been talking a lot, more than he had in a long time in fact. And he also knew that it was the pain of the day which had just passed that had bought it on, taking him to the edge of rambling to this man that he hardly knew. His eyes fell meditatively to the glass of rum in his hand watching as the last of the ice dissolved in its dark, promising depths and let his finger circle slowly around its smooth rim.

‘Coincidence can be a funny thing like that sometimes’, Frank said finally and Peter abruptly cut him off with a shake of his head, his words doubling up over Brannigan’s last as if he were expecting to older man to say nothing other.

‘It was no coincidence Sergeant’, he said firmly. ‘Coincidence like that happens maybe once in a person’s life, twice if you’re born ...I don’t know. ..under the wrong star sign or something I guess. The point is that that sort of thing was never just a one off for Jilly and me. Not at all. It’s probably about the most dramatic example of it happening but it was certainly not the last. There were no more broken bones after that and I suppose in most respects we were pretty lucky in that way. Most kids I know of these days seem to spend more time in plaster than they do out of it, but it didn’t end there.’ ...And then, apparently from nowhere, Peter asked. .. ’Have you ever heard about the ‘Jim Twins’, Sergeant?’

‘No,’ Frank replied, shaking his head, ‘I can’t say that I have. And for God’s sake Peter, call me Frank why don’t you.’

The young man smiled and inclined his head acceptingly.

‘Okay then. Frank it is.’ The smile widened and Peter drained the last of his rum - a full two finger shot - before putting the emptied glass down on the floorboards beside the foot of his chair.

’The ‘Jim Twins’, he continued, ‘were a couple of guys who were born in America in the late nineteen thirties. Both were adopted out at a couple of weeks old to different families who, for whatever reason their parents may have had at the time, told the children that either the other twin had died or had never existed and it wasn’t until the late seventies. ..seventy-nine. ..I think, that they finally met again. The synchronicity between the two men’s lives up until that point was nothing short of startling. They shared the same likes and dislikes. They both married women with the same names, called their children the same names, worked in the same type of jobs, similar medical problems and even put on and shed weight at the same time. Everything exact, often down to the tiniest of details. Two sides of the same coin I think is the phrase. And they aren’t the only ones. Medical journals the world over have within them detailed studies of twins whose case histories are just like theirs.’

‘Sounds to me like you are a man who’s been doing his homework,’ Frank said, taking a tentative sip on the can of beer that had been in his hands since dusk. Its contents were now reaching the point where ‘Warm’ became ‘Warm and flat’ and he grimaced a little at its tinny amber taste.

‘No, not especially’, Peter replied. ‘I had an interest in it when I was younger and I realized that Jilly and I shared in much of the same sort of thing but it was only a mild curiosity at best. Nothing more.’

‘So what about you and your sister then?’ Frank prompted. ‘You said that the broken leg wasn’t the only time that sort of thing had happened to you both.’

‘No. It wasn’t the only time, but like I just said, it was certainly the most dramatic. For the most part, the rest were little things. We always knew when one or the other was feeling blue. When we are …. were, together, we would often say the same thing at the same time. Sometimes I would get stomach cramps just before her period began and she once told me that she knew at the exact moment, down to the minute, when I got laid for the first time.’

Brannigan raised his eyebrows at this last and grinned. He had of course heard of such cases as these between twins and even sometimes between long-term husbands and wives. It was the stuff of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Phantom pregnancies, headaches when one twin was in trouble, old folks dying a year to the day that their spouse had passed away on, that sort of thing. But they gave him no great cause to stop and ponder, any more than he would if he had just been told about spontaneous human combustion, Bigfoot or the Min-Min lights. When it came down to the wonderful world of little, unexplained mysteries which life had to offer, Frank Brannigan lived by one principle and one principle alone. .. Prove it! Show me medical reports, show me photographs. Let me see it with my own two eyes and if you can’t, then go sell your story to the’ People’ magazine or the’ National Enquirer’ and get out of my fucking way! It was a simple view, he knew. Safe, even if it was a little blinkered - okay, even if it was a lot blinkered - but it allowed him the luxury of keeping his feet firmly anchored on terra-firma and there had been more than enough times in his life when he had needed that more than anything else. And as for what this young man was telling him? Coincidence! Nothing more. Sorry Pete, but as far as I’m concerned, the world is still round, babies are still born as victims of their mothers’ addictions, God is dead (if he were ever really alive in the first place) and life is cheap. Anything else is just nothing more than wishful thinking.

Perhaps that cynicism was what Peter saw there in Frank’s eyes as he spoke, or perhaps it was something in the sympathetic smile which lined the older man’s age wearied face, but whatever it was when he spoke again, his voice was soft, almost apologetic. ‘I guess that’s what comes when you’re born Siamese. You share a lot beside the same body and the same blood. For a while there in your life, you have shares in being the same person.’

That was not something that you expected to hear during the course of a conversation and it was certainly not something that Frank expected to be mentioned with such an off-the-cuff blandness. It took Brannigan by surprise and it showed.

‘You and your sister were born Siamese?’ he asked, his voice sounding more incredulous than he had intended and the younger man nodded.

‘Joined at the base of the skull’, he answered, inclining his head around and parting his dark, shoulder length hair to point to a spot of bare skin roughly the size of a fifty cent piece about an inch or so above the nape of the neck. ’Sort of a medical mystery at the time as Siamese have traditionally always been the same gender. In our case however a growth like breech tumor had spread through each of the membranes of the placental sack, fusing us together. There’s nothing in the way of a scar now. It was apparently a simple enough operation even back then when the separation was performed. No complications, but at the time that it was done it was still a fairly big deal in the eyes of the public, and for a while there, some of the southern newspapers ran with the ball. You know the kind of thing. Human interest, ‘Medical Wonder’, and all of that sort of bullshit.’

Frank lit himself another cigarette. ..Jesus! ...Siamese! ...and nodded. He offered one to Peter again but it was waved away with a shake of his head, the young man wincing a little as if some stiffness had just then pained him at the movement. He rubbed his neck as he continued.

’Our mother even kept a scrap book for a while on some of the newspaper stories that had been written up about us. Had them all pasted in and dated. She was a neat woman. Most of the stories were pretty much tabloid orientated stuff as far as good, investigative journalism goes, and they ran with some pretty sensationalist headlines, even by today’s standards. One of the articles I can remember reading ran under a by-line that tagged Jilly and myself as ‘The January Twins’ after the way we were joined. I guess whoever wrote it was comparing us to the Roman God Janus, one face pointing forward into the new year, one looking back on the old. The fact that we were born mid way through December didn’t seem to concern the bright spark at the news desk that came up with that headliner.’

‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,’ Brannigan agreed, having had some experience himself after all of his years on the force of dealing with the by-lines that reporters loved to run with. Give them a serial killer and they’ll give you some catchy moniker to tag him with. ‘You said that your mother kept a scrap book on you both. Didn’t you mention earlier on in my office this morning that both you and your sister were orphaned?’

‘Always playing the cop Frank?’ Peter asked good humouredly and both men laughed.

‘Call it an occupational hazard if you like.’

‘Our mother died in eighty-one’, Peter went on finally when his laughter had died away. ‘It was cancer. Ate her to the bone so we were told, though neither of us knew her apart from a few fleeting memories that we both have. Our father died a year later when we were four. An accident on the building site where he worked. There was some loose scaffolding, badly assembled and it collapsed under him, dropping him and two others a dozen stories to the ground. An inquiry at the time said it was all as a result of negligence on the part of the site safety officer who coincidentally just happened to be my dad, though nothing was ever proven.’ He shrugged.

‘And you said that you were fostered out?’ Brannigan asked, the words drifting out of his mouth in a cloud of cigarette smoke to hang as a floating silver mist in the still air of the verandah’s open space. ‘Were there no other relatives to look after you?’

‘Not that we ever knew of’, Peter replied, shaking his head. ‘There was an uncle around when we were younger. One of dad’s older brothers I think, but from what we could gather, or rather what we were told about him, he wasn’t at all a well man, a bit of a drinker and barely able to care for himself let alone for two young kids. So there was nothing else left for us but to become wards of the good old State of Victoria.’

‘It must have been hard on you both’, Frank said and then winced internally at saying such a thing. He had always been one to hate statements of the bloody obvious like that but, just the same, he allowed himself that there were times when they were the only things worth saying. He came from a big family himself where, for better or worse, there was always someone around. Good, traditional Irish Catholic stock. Five boys, four girls, all of them red hair, green eyed Micks to the very core with him as the baby of the clan. He knew enough however of the lives of the kids who he had come across over the years as a cop to know that most did not share his good fortune in such a strong family background. Many of them having been chewed up in the un-giving teeth of the bureaucratic welfare machine long before they had ever been given a chance to find out what life was really all about.

‘Hard enough I guess’, Peter agreed, ‘but in a lot of ways we did have it better than most. At least we did manage to stay together. We weren’t much of a family, Jilly and I, but we were all that we had. These days it seems that there’s a lot more of an effort put into keeping families of orphaned siblings together, sort of as a packaged deal to anyone willing to take them on as foster children, but there just wasn’t always that kind of concern back then. If they found you a home, you went. No questions asked and if they didn’t want to take your brother or your sister, well, tough shit! Like I say, we were lucky, Jilly and I. We were never split up, not once and it always seemed to us that whenever we had to leave one place for whatever reason, there was always another home there waiting for us to go to.’

‘I knew of enough kids over the years that I’ve dealt with as a cop who weren’t so lucky’, Frank said. ‘It sounds to me a bit like someone was watching over you.’

‘Not quite.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well’, Peter explained, ‘not all of our homes were straight out of the pages of a Brady Bunch script. Some of them were pretty crappy and as for some of the institutions that we were billeted into when we were younger…...well, you must know what they’re like well enough’.

Frank nodded. He knew all right. There had been enough times of hauling runaways and homeless kids off to these places to know of the conditions in which some of them were kept and that not everyone who has the responsibility of caring for kids was necessarily going to do the right thing by them. Some people tried their best and just couldn’t handle it, some people never tried at all, and some were just plain, bloody mean.

‘We were all sort of thrown in together’, Peter continued, ‘kids waiting for adoption, abused kids who had been taken away from their parents, juvenile criminals too young to be put into the main-stream prison system, the mentally and physically handicapped. Christ! They were real hell holes’.

Then there was a lull in the conversation, a time where neither man spoke and the silence, neither as uncomfortable nor as easy as before - just a silence-returned. During this time, Frank eyed the young man intently, his wizened gaze trying to pierce some of the mask that had suddenly fallen across his face, sitting like a brewing thundercloud in the heaviness set between his fine brow. Peter felt some of that intense examination under the older man’s weighty stare and he turned back towards him self-consciously. He then looked briefly down at his hands and sighed.

‘There was this one Catholic school where we were put into between homes while we were waiting for a new foster family to step up,’ he explained. ’It was. ..oh ...I don’t know, a seminary or a nunnery or whatever the hell the church calls those grey-stone places. Just a big collection of buildings I guess. The type that the Catholic church owns just about everywhere that you look. Big granite walls, archways, wrought iron gates, that sort of thing. Whatever it was, there were nuns and priests there from time to time, taking care of our schooling and trying to make sure that we all turned out to be good little Christians. There was this one priest, Father Moihan, a real big man. I’d guess that he stood well over six foot three if he was an inch with a big round face and a thick neck that looked like it had been carved out of the same stone that made up the buildings around us. All of us kids were wary of him. There had been some talk amongst some of the older kids of him. ..you know. ..touching them from time to time, but, thinking about it now, I’d say that the fear that we all had of him was more of an instinctive thing, the way kids feel deeply but adults dismiss easily. You never felt it whenever there was another priest or nun around. In those times it was all smiles and hand shakes and best behavior, but when it was just him…..Christ but he gave you the creeps!

’Jilly and I had been at this place for about three or four weeks when it happened. This Father Moihan had always watched us, we used to see him standing there sometimes on the edge of the playing field or in the halls, not doing anything, not moving, just staring at us like there was something different about us from all of the other kids. This one day, the lunchtime bell had rung after class and we were all filing into the food hall for our dinner when I couldn’t find Jilly. We used to sit together all of the time and, like I said, being twins, and orphaned ones at that, we were never very far away from each other, so it didn’t take me all that long to see that she was gone. I snuck out of the lunch-hall and went looking for her, I guess thinking that she had probably gotten herself lost in one of the rooms or corridors. It was a big place, built like a maze, so I didn’t really think twice about it and I just wandered off. I can remember walking along the hallways, all quiet and deserted with everyone being down stairs in the hall eating, passing all of these closed doors and going up flights of stairs like…...I guess like I wasn’t so much trying to find where she was, but like I already knew where she was, only I didn’t. It was almost like I was being guided to her, I suppose that’s the best way to describe it. Like I had been given the directions by someone to where Jllly was, even I though, for all I knew, she could have been in any of the rooms that I passed by.

‘Then I came to this doorway on the fifth floor about halfway along the corridor. There were probably another dozen exactly like it along the hallway but for some reason I stopped at this one like I knew Jilly was in there and I reached up to open it a little and look inside. It was Father Moihan’s room. There were lots of books lining the walls, a bed in the corner, a desk over against the window and that was when I saw them. Moihan was sitting on the edge of the desk with Jilly perched on his lap. I didn’t know much at the time, I was only six and I knew that you were supposed to be able to trust priest and nuns but I did know straight away what he was doing to her. I don’t know, I guess that I just lost it after that when I walked in on them. About all that I can remember now is just snatches really. I can remember opening the door and seeing them there. Jilly was on his lap crying with her dress hitched up and her knickers down at her ankles and him with his hand sort of moving up and down between her legs. The next thing I can remember after that was that I was being pulled off this bastard by the school janitor and the priest was lying on the floor with blood pouring out from a cut above his eye. Apparently, Jilly told me later, I had picked up a paperweight from his desk as I ran across the room - it was a big slab of polished quartz - and I hit him across the face with it.’

Through all of this, Peter’s gaze had become distant and glassy. Part of this, Frank had suspected at the time as he watched the young man recount his past could have been the effect of the drink, settling like a pleasant blur of fog across him, but another part, one that he felt was closer to the truth. was that it was the strength of the memory which held him fixed. Then, all of that changed. As suddenly as it had appeared, the distance, the memories from the past, had all gone and he turned towards Frank, his face black and unreadable in the night-time shadows which cloaked the hotel balcony, his eyes holding within them a dark fire which Frank found both unpleasant and disturbing. No longer was he looking at the young man who was living through the painful memories of his youth, memories of a hard, often uncaring life as a boy. Now, he was looking at a young man who had just gone through the horrors of losing his sister, the last of his remaining family in the worst possible way.

‘I would have killed him you see Frank’, Peter said, eyeing Brannigan levelly, his voice strangely flat and cold ‘If they hadn’t pulled me off him when they did, I would have killed that prick for what he had done to Jilly. And I’ll tell you now, if I find out who did this to Jilly, if I find out who raped and murdered my sister, then I swear to God, I’ll make them wish they had never been born!’

9

Ada Carlson sat quietly within the darkened kitchen of her tiny, dilapidated old house that evening, staring with a pure, focused intensity into the small, flickering flame of a candle set into the neck of a ceramic whisky jug in the middle of the wooden table before her. Her breath came shallow and evenly paced as if sleeping, her bent shoulders were slumped forward, her dark eyes open, clear and alive beneath the candle’s soft, dancing glow. She did not move. She did not see the fine rivulets of molten wax tumble their path down the side of the earthen-ware jug to drop to the aged scarred plain of the kitchen table’s unfinished wooden face. She did not notice the candle’s shifting luminescence cast its shadow phantoms across the peeling paint of the room’s wide, tongue-and-groove walls. She did not hear the steady plunk! ...plunk! ...plunk! of the dripping tap strike against the deep metal basin of the crowded kitchen sink. And she did not sense her many cats perched within the small room’s fleeting darkness, concealed upon the cupboards and bench tops, window sills and chairs which surrounded her, their green eyes afire with an instinctive primal knowing, silent spectators to what was about to unfold.

All at once, Ada’s tiny withered body seemed to draw up on itself, her bent form straightening within the rigid framework of the kitchen table’s only high-backed chair and she uttered a long, ragged sigh which rattled at her ancient lungs. Slowly, with a hand bent by the years into a tangled, knotted claw, she reached across to the deck of time worn ‘Queen’s Slipper’ playing cards set in a single pile in front of her. For a time, she simply let her palm rest there, as if somehow hesitant of what it was they might show her, before, with a deft sweep which defied the arthritic rigidity of her fingers, she splayed the cards out in a fan across the table’s rough, wooden surface. Gathering them together once more with a well practiced action, she divided the deck into three smaller, uneven mounds before turning over the very top card belonging to the pile at her left.

The very air around her seemed to draw in, somehow tightening, constricting. Shadows drew back into the room’s furtherest recess, becoming black and impenetrable. The cats which watched her from their lofty perches retreated on their haunches, eyes widening, ears flattening, fur bristling.

‘Here it comes’, Ada simply, looking down at the face of the card which she had exposed on the table before her and in that one moment, as if her croaked words carried with them an ancient, unseen energy, the night of the room appeared to swell as the candle’s fragile light fluttered briefly then died as if stirred by a sudden breeze.

The card was the Eight of Spades……

……The awakening of darkness.

10

He started at the far end of the corridor, working his way along its long, grey tiled length in slow, rhythmic passes of the floor polisher, the service elevator murmuring softly to itself behind him as its chrome steel doors slid efficiently shut, leaving the hospital’s basement level for one of its other four floors.

Wes Davies barely heard it. His thoughts were elsewhere and his ears filled with the buffer’s low, monotonous drone as it echoed hollowly through the deserted space around him. He swung the polisher hard, the dull vibration of its heavy, cumbersome body shuddering its way up along the length of his wiry arms as it hit against the base of the corridor walls and it hovered there for a time before its momentum caught and sent it skimming like a ball in a pinball machine, back across to the other side of the wide hallway once more, a slick sheen of floor tiles gleaming starkly in its wake beneath the hard white glare of fluorescents overhead.

As night janitor of the Tarro Community Hospital and Aged People’s Home (Visiting hours 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. six days a week, Noon to 3.00pm on Sundays) there weren’t all that many jobs that Wes Davies hated. Generally, on night duty he was left to his own devices. He’d clock on at five in the afternoon as most of the day staff were on their way home to their respective families and aside from a quick conversation with the day shift janitor and picking his work roster up from the head nurse, he was left pretty much by himself. It was an arrangement which suited him perfectly. He had never been much of a people person, some people even rather flatteringly, he thought, referred to him as a loner and that was okay too. To Wes most people were little more than pure fools and he had always felt he had little time for their company.

Except, that was, on nights like tonight.

When the shift roster said ‘Basement Duty’, it was a night when Wes would gladly have paid for someone else’s company. In fact to Wes Davies, fifty-two, and a self proclaimed, long term bachelor, it rated up there on his ‘List of Things in Life to be Avoided at All Costs’ right next to laundry duty, the incinerating of the amputated limbs, going through the inventory of the janitorial supplies at the end of every month for stock-take, and the cleaning out of the male patient toilets. (The ladies rooms were okay. Always good for a laugh when you burst in suddenly and caught one of the nursing staff with her pants down, and they were none too much trouble when it came to keeping clean.) Wes had long since discovered that by one of nature’s weird little laws. women-whether they be terminally ill or not-were generally always the most fastidious of creatures. The male of the species was something else again. It had long since ceased to amaze him how men with an illness, whether it was the terminal ‘two-weeks-to-live-better-make-out-your-will-mate’ kind of cancer, right down through to the banalities of an ingrown toenail, would use that as the perfect excuse to piss just about anywhere they damn well pleased as long as it wasn’t in the general direction of the urinal provided. He had even been pushed so far once, after months of frustration at the task, to put up a sign in the Male Toilets on the second floor which said “My aim is to keep these toilets clean. Your aim would be appreciated”, to which, some bright spark had promptly urinated on it in protest.

Swabbing piss was one thing, unpleasant but do-able. It was the hospital basement that was Wes’s biggest gripe. And it wasn’t so much the job of shining floors that he disliked down here either. Not really. When it was something that a man had to do, hour upon hour, day upon day, it didn’t pay to take too much of a grudge to the work. You simply got on with it and made yourself like it as best as you could. No. The polishing was okay. Basically. Dreary but. ..well. .. okay! What Wes Davies didn’t take too much of a liking to was the rooms which it, by necessity, needed to be done in when ‘Basement Duty’ rolled around.

Those rooms being one in particular.

That one room being the hospital’s morgue.

Wes pulled the polisher across to the corridor’s far wall and flicked off its handle mounted switch, watching intently as its brushes slowly wound down in ever decreasing circles, filling the hallway with a deep, echoing silence in its wake. He stole a brief glance back once more along the corridor’s length towards the lift to check the floor it was servicing by the tiny red numbers set into the wall above its closed steel doors and ferreted a crumpled sliver of foil from the back pocket of his overalls when he was sure that it was safe. The hallways were off limits to all smoking of course, but tonight, of all nights, Wes didn’t care about hospital health restrictions. Tonight he needed a smoke – needed it bad! Just to steady himself and to keep ahead of the nerves. And why not!, he thought, after all, he was alone….

Except for whoever it is that’s laid out on the slab there behind the morgue door, Wes ol’buddy!

‘Oh. Shut up!’ he muttered and offered himself a nervous little smile at the way his voice resounded along the corridor in the empty stillness. ‘Just scaring yourself, Wessy m’man’, he told himself, popping the reefer into the comer of his thin, dry mouth and straightening it out with one hand while the other retrieved a box of matches from his inside shirt pocket. He glanced back up and down the hallway again…..

Once more for luck!

.....and lit up when he was finally sure that the coast was clear, pulling back on a sharp, hissing breath from between his tightly clenched teeth. When the thick, acrid warmth of smoke filled his lungs, he smiled.

‘Be shitting in your pants soon if you keep this up’, he told himself - secretly glad this time that his voice sounded a little friendlier and more at ease in the silence of the basement corridor and he reached down to lift a small sponge bucket from the polisher’s service tray, flicking the ash from the joint’s end into its murky depths. Wes then drew back on another breath and let his weight rest up against the cool surface of the hallway’s grey plaster wall, his eyes going reluctantly to the dark red lettering set onto a single square panel of frosted glass further along the corridor on the opposite side. From where he stood, he couldn’t see the words clearly, the angle was all wrong and the room behind the door was dark, but he knew what it said well enough.

TARRO COMMUNITY HOSPITAL MORGUE

AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY!

A slight chill shook its way through him and he wrenched his gaze away from the door, letting it drift back up the length of the corridor once again to the elevator and its tiny floor indicator light fixed at two levels above its closed, stainless steel doors.

Yep! This was definitely the last place that he wanted to be tonight.

Come on Wes! he scolded. Stop fucking around and bite the bullet for god’s sake! The sooner that you get this done, the sooner that you can get the hell outta here!

He drew the very last from the joint, savoring it, before he let it fall from his tapered fingertips into the half-filled bucket of wash water in front of him - a soft hiss as it died - and when he finally felt a little steadier in himself, he moved around behind the floor polisher and wheeled it slowly through the morgue single swing door into the darkness on the other side. His hand went erratically across the wall for the light switch, found it and flicked it on to flood the large room in a blanket of white, sterile light as the lines of fluorescents overhead blinked haltingly to life.

It was cold here with the air-conditioning unit set into the far wall murmuring softly to itself, and although he was used to it to some degree (working in a hospital night after night, a man tended to develop an immunity to the chill) tonight, more than any other, he felt it. He shook it off as best as he could, raking his hands briskly up and down the grey, denim lengths of his overall covered arms and he glanced around the opened space of the morgue’s autopsy room There were five bodies laid out, almost a full load by the modest standards of the small hospital which only rarely ever saw the passing of an old timer from the aged people’s home adjoining the hospital grounds or the even rarer road fatality. Two of the bodies lay on the dual set of polished steel autopsy tables in the centre of the room, each supported by a single hydraulic leg and foot pedal which thrust their way up like metal tree trunks from the otherwise bare, grey tiled floor. The other corpses three lay on foldable gurneys which had been pushed up against the theatre’s outer walls.

All of them. ..mercifully! Wes had thought as he pushed the lumbering weight of the polisher reluctantly into the centre of the room, were covered. Of these bodies, covered in white plastic spread sheets, Wes knew that two were silver-haired senior citizens from the old folks home who had passed away over the space of the last couple of days. (You could always count on a couple of old timers to bomb dive face down into their porridge whenever the temperature hit the high thirties as it had over the space of the last couple of weeks). One was the young Sear’s boy who had drowned in a dam the day before while out on a church social, another was an out-of-towner who had been scraped up off the main highway overpass near Childers the other night after he had come off second best in an altercation between his motor cycle and an eighteen wheel, long haul semi-trailer. And the fifth and – mercifully - the last, was the young woman. He had of course heard the news over the past two days about the missing girl whose car had been found abandoned on the outskirts of Rowan’s shire limits. Tarro was a small town, not unlike Rowan in so many of its deep seated ways and the news about the discovery of the girl’s body earlier that morning had spread like a brush fire throughout the tiny farming community and its surrounds. A domestic homicide, some had said, eagerly throwing around the supposed theory of a jealous lover or some such thing. Others had been more naturally inclined, at least until the discovery of the girl’s body earlier that day, to take the whole idea of the girl’s disappearance as a set up to throw police off the fact that the young lady in question had simply run away and had not wanted to be found. While others still had said that both were quite obviously wrong, suicide was the answer. Polly Andrews had other ideas. Polly Andrews (known as ‘Turtle’ by most of the hospital’s male staff ‘On her back and she’s fucked’) was a young trainee nurse with small, perky breasts and braces, who worked the afternoon shift in casualty, and while normally she wouldn’t give Wes so much as the time of day, that afternoon she had been so eager to share the news about the discovery of the dead girl’s body that she had come right up to him as soon as he had clocked on for duty. She had told him that the girl’s body had been bought in earlier that afternoon.

‘Through the servicemen’s entrance if you please,’ she had said, leaning close and tipping him a knowledgeable wink. ‘Too many people in admittance to bring her through the normal way. Too many questions to be answered.’ The police had shown up not long afterwards, apparently. And not just any old police, Polly had told him with a discernable trace of awe in her voice at the thought of their arrival. Not just the local boys but state detectives if you please. Suits, badges and the whole kit and caboodle. And then there had been the press. ‘Nope. Wasn’t any suicide or domestic,’ Polly had finished, raising one finely plucked eyebrow as if to emphasize the point. ’It was a sex-murder. Like the kind that you hear about on ‘Hard Copy’ “ and near here, in a small town like this. Shocking!’

But Wes had been able to see that in Polly Andrews’ eyes, it was anything but shocking. In her eyes, as in the eyes of most other locals whom he had spoken with since the news of the girl’s disappearance had first hit the streets, it was fascinating, intriguing, ghastly maybe, but more than any of these, it was the most interesting thing to have happened in the small country town for longer than anyone cared to remember. And now, like so many others, Polly Andrews was getting off on it. Getting off in a big way.

Wes pushed the floor polisher forward in a wide berth around the outskirts of the two central autopsy tables which claimed most of the space in the heart of the room and wheeled it across to the power point set into the far wall, his galvanized iron wash bucket clanking out a noisy beat against the machine’s metal handle as he went. He unraveled the long cord from its place around the polisher’s motor and bent down to pu…….

……. He stopped. Wes Davies didn’t necessarily recognize that cold kiss of air which had caressed the bare skin at the nape of his neck as the feeling of being watched. Not at first. He was no Frank Brannigan who had spent the last twenty odd years of his life in a job where his gut instincts had been honed to such a pure and certain ‘knowing’. But what he did recognize straight away was something that a particular country sergeant would understand only too well. It was a sensation of ‘wrong’.

He straightened slowly, stiffly, his breath sitting as a lump in the back of his throat and he cocked his head a little to the side to listen to the strained, suddenly threatening silence of the room around him. Off in the distance, behind the closed door which led to the hallway outside, he could vaguely make out the faint whine of the service elevator as it moved once more between floors. Closer, the gently muted rush of sterilized air shifting through the tubular cooling ducts which crisscrossed the morgue’s fluorescent lit ceiling overhead. Nothing more. (Nothing more that was except for the pounding of his heart. He could hear that all right, as clear as a church bell hammering out its call to service from within the abruptly restricted confines of his chest.)

It’s nothing Wessy, he told himself, Nothing at all. And for once in his life, he wished he hadn’t taken the half a dozen drags on the joint that he had before to still his agitated nerves. What you need now is a clear head mate! All hands on deck. You should have saved yourself the roach until after you finished the room.

He tried to shake off these thoughts, and the hazy yet disturbingly real feeling of being watched, of not being alone as he should be and, for a moment, as he reached down to plug in the polisher, it seemed that he had managed to do just that. Then it came again. He jerked as if someone had just spoken and swung around to face the room behind him, a gasp of hard air slipping from between his tightly drawn lips.

‘Who’s there?’ He wanted to shout out these words. To make himself sound angry and maybe just pissed off enough to tear someone a new arsehole for stuffing him around, but the best he felt he was able to muster was a weak, shuddering moan which echoed hollowly around the room’s bare, faceless walls.

It’s no one Wessy! a small voice said inside of him, sounding both distant and unsure. Just you, me and five dearly deceased.

He swallowed dryly, his mouth devoid of spit and, drawing himself up, walked back across the room’s grey tiled floor to the door. Once there, he listened briefly again, an ear pressed against its cold, hard surface before he pushed his way through the swing door and stepped out once more into the corridor. Had to be a night duty nurse, he thought, or perhaps even Miller, the hospital supervisor, stepping out of the elevator at the far end of the hallway and mincing his way along to the morgue to check and see if everything was in readiness for the big, hot-shot coroner who it was rumored would be coming up from the city in the morning to perform the autopsy on the girl. But the corridor was empty, as empty as it had been before, and the service elevator doors remained closed. There was no nurse. No hospital supervisor with his prissy little walk. No nothing!

A dark frown knitted its way across his narrow brow, balling up into a mesh of wrinkles between his small, grey eyes and he stood there in the deathly silence of the hallway for a moment longer before shaking his head and turning back through the swing door into the room.

What he saw there knocked the air from his lungs and froze him in his tracks.

Two bodies had lain upon the central tables when he had first entered the room, he was sure of it. He hadn’t paid much attention to the fact when he had come in - in fact he had been scrupulous in trying to avoid noticing anything at all about the room’s five horizontal occupants – but…....yes! There had been two bodies there, damn it! The one to the right was still laid out upon the table, the large, ponderous stomach of a man clearly visible in shape if nothing else beneath the semi-opaque plastic body sheet which covered him, but the table to the left was now empty, the sheet which he was sure had covered a body there now lay crumpled on the floor at its base.

Wes went to step forward, trying to tell himself that. .. No. There had been no body on the table when he had come in as he had first thought. There can’t have been, not if it wasn’t there now.

Just a trick of the light! The sheet must have just been lying on the table and I must have brushed it off when I walked past to come to the door. Yes! He was about to tell himself, That was it! ......when he heard a dull, leaden thump on the floor behind him and he felt his stomach lurch violently on its side, any last strength he may have still held fading from him just as the light began to flicker and fade from the long banks of fluorescents overhead.

The noise again. This time closer.

She was behind the door! His mind screamed, knowing somehow amongst the rush of panicked thoughts which filled his head that it was the girl who was standing there. He didn’t need to turn around. He didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know. He knew already. It was the girl! It was Polly Andrews ‘Sex-Murder’ victim. The girl who had been wheeled in through the serviceman’s entrance on a foldable gurney from the back of a coroner’s van earlier that afternoon - ’Too many questions to be answered!’ The girl who had gotten up from the autopsy table when he had gone to the door and was now standing there, naked, with her dark, dilated eyes staring lifelessly at his back as he felt the flesh along his arms curl and ripple with goose-flesh beneath the thick, protective covering of his overalls. She’s not dead, a voice said inside of him, sounding somehow level and impossibly rational amongst the turmoil of his other spinning thoughts. She’s not dead because there’s that sound again.

There! Can you hear it Wes? That sound of her bare feet on the tiled floor as she gets closer. ..and closer.

Wes felt his fists tighten up into hard balls by his side, his fingernails biting in what was only a distantly felt pain into the soft, giving flesh of his palms, sure in the knowledge that any minute, he would feel her dead, waxen hand fall leadenly upon his shoulder. His eyes remained wide and fixed upon the empty autopsy table in front of him, his ears peeled, not wanting to turn around, not wanting to see what it was that his mind was telling him was standing right there behind him and when the noise came again, he was sure that he was going to faint dead away.

But there came no dead woman’s hand resting upon his shoulder. There was no kiss of foul breath upon the back of his neck. There was only the sound of a dragged, shuffled step and the soft whoosh of the self shutting morgue door swinging closed behind it. And as Wes Davies felt a shudder slowly work its way up along the length of his spine, again becoming only dimly aware of the lights of the room flickering and growing once again bright and clear overhead as if the drain on its power had passed, somewhere off in the distance, he heard the haltered, staggering sound of footsteps, echoing off along the deserted length of corridor beyond the morgue’s door, drowning him within the silence of their wake.

He didn’t move.

He didn’t scream.

He stayed that way for a long, long time.

11

Tommy Ham wasn’t a terribly smart man.

If he was, he wouldn’t still have been within a tight twenty kilometers of the spot where Jilly White’s car had been found abandoned the day before and where her body had been discovered only that morning. He wouldn’t have been sitting within the same bar - in fact upon the very same barstool where he had been seen two nights earlier in the company of a much sought after group of certain young men. And he wouldn’t have been drinking heavily (for he was not a man with a reputation for being able to hold either his tongue or his temper when the booze started to flow).

But he was.

On all counts.

So that says it all.

He hadn’t been able to remember all that much about the time, two nights earlier, when they had taken the girl. Not at first. At first, all that Tommy had been capable of remembering through the hazy blur of the hangover which had clung persistently to him through what had turned out to be most of the next day, had been little things. Unsure things. Images. Sounds. Faces. All of them broken and fragmented like the half remembered shards of a bad dream.

He had been able to remember shouting a round of drinks for a company of strangers with whom he had found himself that night - a rare and therefore totally memorable experience in the otherwise short armed and long pocketed history of a confirmed bar-fly such as himself. He could remember staggering out into the warm night air with his arm over someone’s shoulder just before closing time. And lastly, he could vaguely recall everyone…..whoever the hell ‘Everyone’ was!...all piling into the back of his dark green station wagon with him assuring them that he was all right to drive. (Drive where?) as he went through the complicated maneuvers for fishing the car keys from his jeans rear pocket.

After that, nothing had been certain.

This fact alone did not overly concern Tommy Ham. At twenty-five going on twenty-six, he had long since begun to exhibit all of the early telltale signs of paraplegic alcoholism which, accompanied by its almost regulation memory loss, would eventually lead him to liver failure, possibly a brain embolism or two and almost definitely an early grave. What did concern him however was the feeling upon waking from the night before that he had done something bad. Something very, very bad. It was a feeling which was confirmed and then condensed like a well cooked stew into a cold, sinking dread when he heard the story about the discovery of the abandoned car and the search for the missing girl on the regional radio station’s news bulletin later on that afternoon.

Now Tommy Harn still had the last shares of a basic human morality which hadn’t quite been conditioned out of him after most of his adult years as a runaway spent eking out an existence on the streets, and when he had realized what it was that they had done to the girl - a realization which had dawned upon him with all of the subtly of a charging bull elephant in a prize china shop - he had found himself feeling something that came close to pity and perhaps even real remorse. They were however feelings which had soon been supplanted by what in Tommy’s mind had been a far more pressing concern……

…….Fucking hell! What if I get caught!

Most of that first day – Christ! Was it only yesterday? - had been spent hiding out in his rented motel room at the rear of Murphy’s Tavern, his home for the last five months, nursing his hangover. Feeling both guilty and sorry for himself and expecting, in the overworked and undernourished ground of his, imagination, to see at any minute through the parting of his room’s tattered lace curtains, a squad of police cars descending to a screeching halt on the loose surface of the tavern parking lot out in front of his door, lights and sirens blaring. ‘Thomas Vincent Harn! We have you surrounded! Come out with your hands up!’ But there had been no police cars. There had been no detectives dressed in expensive suits at his door, flashing badges, reading him his rights and asking him to accompany them down to the station for questioning. There had only been the gnawing fear of being discovered for what it was that he had done to the girl and the guilt that came with it. Though in time, along with the memory of that night, even that began to fade. Such was the nature of Tommy Harn.

At nine-forty five on a hot and still Saturday night, the front door of Murphy’s Tavern on route 24 out of Tarro swung open and Tommy Harn staggered out. He had been in the cool, air-conditioned comfort of the bar’s public lounge since opening time that morning, drinking away any last lingering traces of the night before as he formed a deep and meaningful relationship with a high backed bar stool and a bottle of Kentucky’s finest, and now he was drunk…..full……pissed…..and well and truly plastered. He hadn’t necessarily wanted to leave the bar just yet. There was still another hour and a half worth of drinks to consume before the publican called ‘Time!’ and he had the last remnants of his fortnightly dole payment jangling away as loose change in his jeans back pocket. But he had been persuaded, most forcibly by one of the tavern’s bouncers (a big burly blond with mullet and an arms reach of gang tattoos) that it might be particularly fortuitous of him if he were to depart the premises at that present juncture in time before an altercation were to ensue.

‘Why?’ Tommy had whined, his voice full of all the indignant hurt of a school boy sent up before the headmaster. ‘I didn’t do nothing. I was just sitting here having a quiet drink.’

‘Mister,’ the big blond had replied stonily, ‘there was nothing quiet about the way you were drinking.’ And, as if to emphasize the point, he turned from Tommy and nodded in the direction of the television set propped up on the wall at the far end of the bar, its volume turned up a notch above the noisy chorus of patrons’ chatter which filled the room. The late night news was on and the story about the discovery of the missing girl’s body in the surrounding bush land outside of the town of Rowan had run second in the bulletin after a report about another blowout in the country’s trade deficit. A blurred, greatly enlarged holiday snap of the young lady smiling into the camera with the words……BODY FOUND! ...slashed diagonally down in bold, yellow lettering across her pretty face had given way on the screen to an aerial view, taken from the network helicopter with the reporter’s voice droning on self-importantly in the background, of the police search of scrubland near the creek bed where the girl’s remains had been discovered. There had been some shaken heads amongst the gathered bar patrons at the end of the bar. Some sullen voices asking one another ‘How something like that could have happened in a small town like this’, followed in turn by more empty words about how things were starting to get as bad in the country these days as they were in the city. Throughout all of this, Tommy had shaken his head and laughed to himself before he had heard himself drunkenly speak, the words-like so much that he said-coming out suddenly and without any apparent warning. .. ‘The bitch had it coming to her.’ He had looked up, his eyes as wide as saucers, horrified with himself at what he had allowed to slip out and hoping beyond all hope that he hadn’t been overheard. Of course, his hopes were in vain. Heads had already begun to turn in his direction, eyes looking up warily at him from over the rims of their respective drinking glasses, and he had heard -not to mention felt- the room fall suddenly silent, oppressively so, around him.

Shit! Nice one Tommy you stupid dickhead. Dad always said you weren‘t smart enough to keep your big mouth shut when your brain wasn’t in gear Real fucking clever! That was when he had heard the deep voice behind him asking him if he had some sort of problem and he had turned around on the barstool - almost falling off in the process - to see the big blond standing over him, his huge hands folded across his equally huge chest.

‘I think that you might have had enough to drink pal,’ the big blond had said, his steely blue eyes fixed levelly upon Tommy’s own slightly blurred grey-greens and Tommy had been about to open his mouth to protest before he had caught himself, deciding instead to say nothing. He had wanted to tell him that he didn’t really give a flying fuck about what a big, blond faggot like him thought, but he held it back. For the first time in a long number of years, he actually managed to do what so many others had often told him and had kept his mouth zippered. He was too drunk to fight but not too drunk to know it and he was also greatly aware of the fact that if he did say anything, the conversation would have ended with him lying belly up on the bitumen of the parking lot while the big blonde’s boot did a little reconstructive tap-dancing on his face. Besides which, he had never been all that good with his fists-not to mention any other part of his anatomy-when it came down to the real life nitty-gritty of standing up for himself and this guy standing there in front of him looked to his mind like exactly the type of bastard who had a weighted piece of lead piping or a baseball bat lying around somewhere close at hand with the word ‘PEACEMAKER’ etched into its hard surface. Tommy did however make an attempt at offering some defiance in the face of what he considered to be grossly unfair persecution by holding the big blonde’s weighty stare for as long as he could until his own weak, blurring gaze faltered and he slid down from his bar stool to be reluctantly escorted through the silent stares of the room and out into the warm night air, the double doors of Murphy’s swinging noiselessly and finally shut behind him.

‘Mother-fucking numb nut cock knocker!’ Tommy muttered sourly to himself, stretching his grade five remand school English to its outer most limits once he was securely on the other side of the tavern’s closed doors.

It wasn’t fair, damn it. He had spent his whole life being told what to do and where to go by bastards like the blond inside and he was sick of it. His money was as good as the next man’s, wasn’t it? Fucking oath it was! And he had been handing it over steadily since the tavern had opened up for trading that morning. That made him a valued customer, didn’t it? Fucking oath again! So what right did the big blond prick have to tell him to get lost? Absolutely none at all! After all, a man was entitled to a quiet drink without being hassled so long as his money was good. This wasn’t God damned Nazi Germany!

‘Damn right!’ Tommy grumbled miserably as he turned away from the closed doors in front of him - not before flipping his middle finger in a bird up at the bright neon sign above the entrance - and then proceeded to go through the complicated motions of clumsily weaving his way back across the crowded parking lot to the low line of single storey brick units at the rear of the tavern where he was rented.

Tommy didn’t even notice that the front door to his motel room was ajar as he neared the building, stepping and staggering up onto its low, timber verandah. Not at first anyway. At that particular point in time it seemed that all of his limited concentration was being absorbed just in the effort of simply trying to remain upright. But when the fact did finally register with him in some form or another, he lumbered up across the building’s front porch beneath the flickering glow of dull, overhead fluorescent lighting and reached over to push the door further open into his room with an unsteady hand. His focus strained on the solid wedge of darkness which filled the room in front of him as he tried to groggily figure out just what in the hell had happened.

Had he left the door opened himself, he wondered drunkenly?

Nope! He had locked it as soon as he had left his room for the bar earlier that morning, he was sure of it, at least, he was as sure of it as he could be of anything in his present state. Maybe, he thought swaying just a little as he leant up against one of the verandah’s columned railings for an unsteady support, just maybe it had been the wind?

Nope! There was none tonight. Not even a breeze.

Perhaps then someone had broken in while he had been in the bar boozing it up?

Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh! BINGO!

A light bulb went off inside of Tommy’s head (not a very bright one) and he thought that was probably right on the mark. Someone, some kids more than likely, had probably been working the tavern’s parking lot, sizing up the patrons as they left their rooms or cars and waited until they had strolled into the public bar for a well earned beer, or a meal before they would hit. Tommy knew the scam well enough. It was an old one as far as scams like that went. Damned near as old as the hills and he had even worked something similar to it himself not all that many years earlier when he had spent a few wayward hours one night cruising the parking lot of what had then been a major regional shopping centre. That little escapade had earned him four years in a boys’ home courtesy of the state’s juvenile judicial system where he had graduated at the end of his time with a dozen scams just like it learnt on the inside, an attitude problem and a size eleven arsehole.

Well, if I find the little fuckers, Tommy thought, stepping back from the darkness of the opened doorway of his room to turn and stare clumsily out over his shoulder across the gleaming bonnets and hoods of the dozens of cars which filled the tavern parking lot beneath the flickering glow of the road fronted neon sign, then I’ll make damned sure that they wished their father had never had an itch in his pants.

A slight, twittering trill drew Tommy’s unfocused attention clumsily to the left and he swayed, then strained to focus upon a small, still shape perched upon the hotel verandah’s railings two doors up from his own. As his vision swam and then finally aligned, he noticed a small, yellow speckled budgerigar looking intently at him from where it sat on the curved, wooden hand rest, its tiny head cocked inquisitively in his direction.

Tommy Harn smiled his last smile. It didn’t seem at that moment to be all that unusual to see the small bird there at night outside of his own room, staring at him. Forget the pink elephants, shit, when you were as drunk as he was, almost anything seemed possible. Probably someone’s pet, he told himself, not really caring in the slightest, Little Polly got out of Grannie’s cage and went for a spin around the block.

‘Wann’a cracker?’ He slurred at the tiny bird as it moved a few carefully paced steps along the railing towards him and he grinned inanely, laughing to himself when it chirped a quick response before he dismissed its presence and turned back to the opened door of his room. Tommy leant forward into the gaping blackness of the opened doorway, stretching himself to reach out blindly out across the wall for the light switch and his hand brushed against something. Something that was uncertain and vaguely unpleasant in the blackness beneath his touch. Something which registered with him on an instinctive level only and no where else before he found the smooth plastic face of the switch and flicked it on.

Nothing!

He tried it again, jumping the switch up and down in the darkness. On then off again.

Still nothing!

‘Bastards.’ He mumbled bitterly to himself, now feeling hounded and unfairly persecuted by what was even the most menial aspect of life - or rather, the lack of it - the simple need of light to see by. ‘Goddamned little bastards!’

Everything was against him. There was no goddamned light for a man to see where he was going. A man’s door is forced open while he goes out for a drink. And then, to top it all off, as the final piece-of-resistance, some blond fag gives him the old bum’s rush to the door when all he wanted was a quiet beer. Where was the goddamned justice in the world these days? He shook his head and threw one more spiteful scowl across his shoulder at the neon lit parking lot behind him, muttering a long stream of curses as he did so which when strung together made absolutely no sense at all, before he turned and finally staggered into the pitch black night of his room, aiming himself roughly in the direction of the spot where he had last remembered his bed as having been.

There were two unsure steps and a beginning of a third throughout which the vertiginous feeling of having become lost in the short space of darkness between the front door and his bunk rushed in at him, when suddenly, painfully, his leg slammed into the corner of the room’s small two-seater divan and his foot came out from beneath him spinning him around in an exaggerated pirouette and landing him heavily upon his backside with his tailbone jarring numbly as it connected against the hard, carpeted floor. Tommy clenched his eyes firmly together, grimacing-half in laughter, half in pain-as he clutched at his aching shin, immersed within the simple, almost childlike hurt of the moment.

It wasn’t until he finally opened his eyes once again that he saw the dark outline of the form standing over him.

‘Jesus Chri….’

Then he knew! .Opened door! No lights! It wasn’t any kids who had broken into his room. It wasn’t kids at all because whoever it was who had smashed open his front door wasn’t just after money as he had first thought. Whoever it was who had broken in was after more than just that and whoever that person was, they were still here in the darkness. .. waiting.

‘Here! Here!’ Tommy whimpered from the floor where he sat, his hands scrambled feebly at the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet, now trapped beneath him. ‘Here! Take my wallet! There’s not much in it but it’s all that I’ve got. Just don’t hurt me! Please, don’t hurt me!’

The figure - for that was all it was to Tommy’s eyes at that moment, only the vague, outlined form standing over him in the night shadows which filled the room, nothing more, took a carefully measured step towards him. Tommy threw himself backwards from its approach, hands and feet working feverishly beneath him as he scrambled back in an unseeing panic across the room’s worn, carpeted floor. The wall came up behind him and he hit it- hit it hard!-cracking the back of his head against its painted, plastered surface. He slumped forward, momentarily stunned and when he shook himself clear of stars, his hand went to the bed beside him, clawing unseen through the darkness at the heavy sheets in an effort to bring himself to his feet. The figure took another step closer, moving from out of the thick, blanketing shadows into the starkly flashing blue and pink light which stabbed into the room from the neon sign of the tavern outside. ....and he stopped, the breath coming suddenly free against the back of his throat, his eyes narrowing down to hard, dark stones as he strained himself to peer into the uncertain light.

It’s a woman! he thought, feeling the fear abruptly melt away to nothing inside his chest. A Goddamned woman! He carefully pulled his legs in beneath him, using the bed’s low wooden headboard to lift himself slowly to his feet. The figure of the woman stood unmoving at the other end of the room’s double bed, naked! Her gently curved shape barely illuminated in the hard, blinking glow of neon light flashing across the small room’s plastered walls. Her smooth face was half in shadow. Her long, wet hair draped lankly across her slight shoulders, running in a river of dark tresses down over her smooth milky skin to caress the rise of her small but full breasts. Her arms hung heavily by her side, fingers curling and uncurling. Tommy let his wary gaze linger briefly over her body, running down across the rounded shadows of her chest, following the curve of her naked form through the dancing blue and pink light, across her waist there, to the soft, gentle slope of her bare hips and the darkness of fine hair between her legs.

‘W-w-wh. ..Who are you?’ he asked, clearing the last of the fright from his voice with a nervous cough. The uncertainty remained naturally enough - Who was she? What was she doing here in his room? - but Tommy did at last manage to draw himself up a little, feeling stronger in himself now that this person, this unknown, before him had turned out to be a woman. Just a woman!

‘I said, who the fucking hell are you?!’

‘Do you want me?’ A willowy voice returned through the blanketing night, sounding somehow to Tommy’s ears as if it had been spoken from far away behind the woman’s full, parted lips, its tones issuing from a deep, dark pit with, and he blinked.

‘What?’

He was sure that he had heard her right but he lifted his head a little to the side as if to hear her again. As he did so, a car’s headlights arched their way briefly across the room through the curtained window from the parking lot outside, catching the side of the woman’s face in its shifting glare. There was a second in time as the headlight’s brightness seared its way across the motel room’s walls, chasing back at the shadows as it went, where Tommy thought that he recognized through the last traces of the alcoholic blur which hadn’t as yet been frightened out of him something familiar in the woman’s face. Then the light was gone, the brief recognition with it and as the room was once again consumed by a blinking neon darkness, it was only in her eyes that the ‘knowing’ remained.

‘Do you want me?’ The voice came again and the young woman stepped forward from out of the flashing wedge of light which split the blackness of the room to stand before him, naked and clothed only in shadow. There was a smell about her. More of a scent than anything else which rose to Tommy’s nostrils from this woman. It was a vague odor, unpleasant and yet somehow sexual. It was a smell which he could only distantly associate with ‘Wild Things’. It was a smell of musk, of sweat, of blood, and of everything else that was dark and primal. The smell of the animal. It curled tantalizingly around them both and he felt himself grown hard at its strange perfume.

The young woman reached down, gently taking Tommy’s left hand in her own. He felt himself want to instinctively pull away from the cold, waxy caress of her flesh upon his but he resisted and she lifted it to her breast, her lips parting to allow a soft, almost inaudible moan of pleasure escape her at his touch, her eyes narrowed levelly upon his.

There was a promise in those eyes, Tommy thought, finding himself drawn to the exclusion of all else into the fire that he saw there, burning in the bottomless darkness within. There was a promise of things that she would do for him and let him do to her. A promise of a pleasure that would make the few clumsy rumblings at love making which he had experienced in his life pale into insignificance by comparison and he allowed himself to become lost within her dark, diamond eyes at the thought of it. He cupped her small breast more forcibly in the palm of his hand, pinching her hard nipple between his thumb and his forefinger, the sigh of the touch hissing from between his clenched teeth, and slowly, she reached down to take his other hand in hers and lift it to the cool, soft promise of her mouth.

‘Do you want me?’ she asked, softer this time, her voice huskier.

Tommy’s response was a mute one, a nod of his head all that he felt able to manage, but it was enough because she smiled at it and took his thumb in between her parted lip, drawing it gently into the gentle wetness of her mouth. She moved closer, pressing herself against him. Her hips began a slow, rhythmic grind against his own, her tongue working its way teasingly around his thumb’s knotted length, and as Tommy let his hand fall away from her breast to circle around the smooth flesh of her waist, drawing her closer, her hands moved together down the front of his shirt, feeling through the tight space of darkness between them for the belt buckle of his jeans. There was a touch, a stroke, and then, Tommy felt the pressure , which had grown hard and stiff in the crotch of his pants release as the young woman’s fingers unzipped his fly and slowly encircled the shaft of his enlarged penis, gripping then freeing, gripping then freeing, sliding with an agonizing slowness along its thick length in time with the movement of her mouth around the length of his thumb. The rhythm increased, her hand working faster beneath his belt. Her mouth moving with a greater urgency, up, down, and around his thumb, and as Tommy felt his testicles tighten with the warm, almost unbearable pressure of his climax shuddering through his groin……

…….there was pain, searing like a white hot bolt of fire, sharp and intense through the darkness of his pleasure.

His eyes shot open, uncomprehending of the agony which had suddenly exploded along the length of his arm and he looked down at the woman’s face before him. No longer was there the promise which he had seen lingering there in her dark, almond eyes. In its place instead was a look of pure, unbridled hate as her lips parted in a malicious smile and he saw the white of her teeth buried deep into his thumb’s knuckled joint. Tommy tried to push himself away from her, to escape the pain, the burning agony as his blood streamed dark and glistening down the woman’s chin from her snarling mouth, but the hand which had bought him so very quickly to the peak of his orgasm now held him firm, tightening like a vice around the swollen shaft of his penis. He went to scream but before it could come out, the woman’s hand came up to ensnare itself within the curls of hair at the base of his neck and pulled his head towards hers. Her bloodied lips came up to meet his and he felt her teeth again, this time as they sunk into the soft, giving flesh of his lower lip, cutting off his cry in the back of his throat.

Her teeth gnashed with his, swallowing the last of his scream as his mouth became engorged with the stinging saltiness of his own blood. She chewed at him, tore at him, rendered him, her head whipping from side to side in a frenzy of feeding like some animal trying to tear a meal of flesh free from a newly killed carcass as his ears became filled with a sickening, slurping noise that he only distantly was aware of as the sound of this...this. ..this woman-thing drawing his blood into her.

He tried to fight her off, to push her away, but the hand around his red, swollen penis held him tight, bringing fresh tears of agony welling up behind his eyes as she forced herself on top of him, driving him back once more against the wall. His hand fell behind him in a vain effort to try and take the impact as he slammed into the hard surface and instead, it found the solid, molded plastic shape of the motel room’s telephone seated upon the bedside table. There was a second where he felt the table rock out of his blind, searching reach as if it would tip and fall to the floor, but somehow he managed to hold a grip on the phone’s headset and he lifted it high above his head, bringing it down with the full weight of the strike in a savage snap against the side of the woman’s face.

The woman’s head recoiled away from him to the side from the force of the impact of the blow and Tommy felt some small measure of the pressure around the shaft of his penis retreat. He then brought up his other hand and slammed it open-palmed into the woman-thing’s bare shoulder, shoving her away from him and back into the centre of the room where she fell instantly into a cat like crouch in the darkness at the foot of the double bed. Her wild eyes afire with rage and hate. Her bloodied mouth peeled back in a low, baleful hiss.

Tommy Harn staggered back against the narrow doorframe next to the bedhead with the telephone headset still firmly held in his grasp and lifted the back of his free hand to what was left of his lower lip which now hung in a dead, useless roll of flesh torn from his gum. The pain was sharp and intense beneath his touch and when he saw the dark glistening slick of moisture spread across the back of his thumb as he pulled his hand away, he looked over at the crouched form of the woman-thing before him and held out his bloodied fingertips towards her as if to show her what she had just done.

‘You fucking bitch!’ he mumbled, hovering somewhere dangerously close to the edge of shock, his words coming out distorted from his ruined mouth and sounding something like, “Ou ‘uckin bwich’.

The woman-thing let out a low catlike growl which rumbled deep within the strangled, tenuous confines of her throat and she sprung at him again from her predatoral crouch, leaping in one fluid movement across the space of the room between them both with her fingers extended like talons out before her towards the exposed flesh of his neck. Tommy bought his arm up in front of his eyes, shying away from the strike as the shape of the woman slammed into him, driving him yet again back into the wall, the telephone receiver falling from his hand as he hit.

That was when the last of any strength that Tommy possessed ran from his legs. He felt his knees readying to buckle beneath him when the woman-thing’s hands tighten around the collar of his denim shirt, holding him upright. She drew herself back to one side, close towards the edge of the bed like an athlete ready to pitch a ball and then, as if he were nothing more than the weight of a feather (and a very small one at that!), she picked him up and threw him effortlessly through the air to crash across the low-boy cabinet which divided the room in two, rolling and then sliding to an abrupt halt on the cold tiled floor of the darkened kitchenette.

Tommy shook his head, fighting hard to push back at the cold wash of blackness which threatened to claim him and he struggled to desperately regain some of the breath that had been thrown from his lungs as he landed. He kicked himself free from the legs of the kitchen chair which had fallen across him and lifted himself unsteadily to his feet.

He knew he had to think fast. His eyes went around the room, looking for something, anything, amongst the darkness to defend himself with, before his frantically searching gaze fell upon the closed drawer set into the dark imitation wood cabinet beneath the tiny double dish sink…..Of course! He scrambled across the floor, still unsteady on his legs, to the low, squat range of kitchen cupboards and pulled it open, his hand diving blindly down into the drawer’s compartments to search through the tinny clutter of cutlery within as the darkened outline of his attacker stalked slowly towards him around the edge of the divan.

Then, he had it. His fingers found what it was he had been looking for and he withdrew a long bladed bread knife to hold it out defensively in front of him as he turned back towards the room.

A strange thing happened to Tommy Harn then. Standing there in the darkened kitchenette of his rented motel room with a knife clenched tightly in his bloodied hand as his assailant approached, Tommy Ham actually got angry. Angry at this woman who had made him feel so weak and afraid. Angry at the tattooed blond in the bar. Angry at the thought of everyone and anyone throughout his life who had ever made him feel small and insignificant. He still felt afraid of course, so afraid in fact that he could hardly stand without the support of the kitchen sink that he now leant against to hold himself upright. But now, after so many long years of being put down and scared by others around him, he actually wanted to fight back and regain some of the simple dignity that the course of his life had taken from him.

‘Come on then you fucking bitch!’ he growled (‘Coe o thwen ou fwuning ich!’) hunching his shoulders low over the knife’s dulled metal blade, ‘Let’s see how tough you really are!’(Ets ee ow twough ou ealle war!) But if Tommy Harn’s attacker heard any of the threat in what it was he had said, she didn’t show it. The silhouetted form of the woman-thing took another step closer, her bare feet stepping out onto the cold, tiled surface of the kitchenette floor before him and Tommy lunged at her with the knife, stabbing it through the short space of shadows which existed between them both, burying it deep into the soft, giving flesh of his attacker’s stomach. The woman-thing staggered back from him, rocking on her heels as she doubled over the wooden handle of the blade protruding from her midriff and, seeing this, Tommy let out a triumphant howl.

It was a shout that was soon cut short in the back of his throat as he watched in stunned silence as the darkened figure before him straightened, drawing herself upright and reached down with a bloodied hand to encircle the handle of the bread knife and pull it free from her flesh in one effortless movement, her dark, soulless eyes not for a single moment wavering from Tommy’s own.

That was when the little nerve that Tommy Harn possessed finally broke. He turned from her, not thinking, only trying to escape somehow and ran face first into the kitchen cabinet that he had allowed himself to be backed up against. He pushed himself back, blood trickling from his nose, wide, panic stricken eyes darting through the darkness but there was nowhere left for him to go. His hands scrabbling fruitlessly over bench tops and cupboard doors for some way out as the figure of the woman-thing loomed in behind him. A hand came down upon his shoulder, the feeling of coiled strength beneath cold flesh biting into his collar bone, and he was turned, literally dragged around, to face his assailant.

‘Please don’t hurt me,’ he whimpered feebly to the darkened face before him, the chewed, bloodied remains of his bottom lip flapping uselessly around the words as the painful sting of tears built up behind his eyes and ran unashamedly down the blood smeared slope of his cheeks. There was no fight left in him now. His strength, on whatever tiny level that it had existed within him, was now gone, withered away beneath the dead, piercing gaze of the woman-thing in front of him, and it was only the sound of her voice as she spoke, breaking distantly through the all powerful fear which numbed every part of his body, which prevented him from falling limply to his knees before her.

‘Look at me’ it commanded, low, primal and guttural.

He did, and as he stared into the face of the woman, her hard, hateful gaze anonymously illuminated by the starkly flashing light from the neon sign in the parking lot outside, that brief moment of recognition that he had vaguely sensed when he had first seen her standing there in the shadows of the room by the foot of his bed, now condensed into a firm and certain surety as to who she was.

‘You!’ he gasped disbelievingly, the words having barely enough time to escape from the confines of his throat before he was picked up - actually, physically lifted - and thrown against the cupboard door behind him. The woman-thing moved around in front of him, her hand going from the collar of his jacket to form a vice like grip across his mouth, and she lifted the bloodied knife blade pulled from her own flesh, holding it up in front of his eyes, her fingers tightening around its wooden handle as she turned it slowly in the space of darkness between them. A vague, unearthly gleam of reflected neon light danced across its serrated blade, her black, bottomless eyes going from it, to Tommy’s own widening gaze and she smiled.

He tried to make a noise, any would do, but none came from behind the cold flesh of the woman-thing’s hand tightening its grip around his jaw as she held him firm and the only sound that he was able to make was the strangled retching of his breath as it struggled for escape from his burning lungs. There was a moment’s stillness between them. A heart beat in time where nothing sounded, nothing moved, a time where their eyes locked, attacker and victim, hunter and prey, and the true horror of the darkness within this thing, this woman-thing, unveiled itself to him. Then, suddenly, the knife swept down, slicing through the room’s shrouded silence and slammed with a sickening, jarring thud into the parted muscle and tissue of his exposed throat, cutting the life from Tommy Ham in one last rush of gurgled, strangled air.

12

He saw everything in the dream…..

….. then came the words!

‘Do you want me?’

These and others.

-o0o-

The glass which Peter White had been holding in his hand, the same one which had cradled the rum he had been drinking so purposefully earlier on that evening as he and Brannigan had talked, slid from his loose grasp and fell at his feet, the last of its contents spilling out across the unpainted surface of the hotel balcony’s weathered, wooden floor boards. There was no sudden awakening as he emerged from out of the swirling darkness of the dream and into the light. No eyes thrown wide to stare around lost and uncertain in the unfamiliar shadows which crowded in at the opened verandah where he sat. There was only a slow, dawning awareness of himself and who he was, and the realization that the images that had filled his head with such a painful and graphic clarity, belonged only to a dream. Nothing more. Peter allowed his eyes to flit tentatively open and slowly, in the same way that a man’s eyes might adjust to the light in a darkened room, small, distant points of light began to swim into a reluctant focus.

Blue light. he thought, hearing the words in his ears before he even knew that they were there, Blue and pink lights flashing on the walls while I wait.

He shook his head, clearing his churning, overtired mind from the last of the dream and turned - wincing as he had before only this time at a far more noticeable stiffness of the muscles in his neck - to look out over the balcony’s wrought iron railings at the blanket of night which had enveloped the small, rural township.

Rowan lay still around him. The hotel bar stood dark and silent beneath the cover of the wide verandah awning. Shop fronts sat faceless and empty as insects, drawn from the surrounding bush-land , by the stark white, sodium glow of street lights, danced and flitted in the thin evening air. The sky was black and starless.

Peter sighed, an easy breath parting his dry lips and he went to drag the back of his hand across his lidded eyes to chase back at some of the fatigue which filled his tired body. ….

…….it was then that he saw the blood!

A startled cry grunted from the back of his throat and he threw himself up and forward in the deck chair with his arms fully outstretched in front of him as if to push himself as far away as possibly from the dark, glistening stain of wetness which ran in rivers down the length of his bare forearms to the creased fold of his sleeve cuffs. As he rose, his foot caught in the bottom supporting rung of one of the chair’s legs and he pitched off to his right, overbalancing as the foldable frame came out from beneath him to tip him out across the bare, timber floorboards in front of his room’s open doorway. He shoved himself upright as quickly as he could manage, barely aware of the sudden white flash of pain which seared a path up the length of his spine to stab into the bone at the base of his skull at the sudden movement and held his splayed hands out in front of him as he stood, his balance unsure, his shoulder pressed up against the verandah’s paneled wooden wall for support.

Nothing!

There was no blood on his hands now. No dark threads of moisture staining the white linen of his rolled up shirt sleeves. There was only the shadow of the balcony’s bull-nosed awning drawn across his clammy skin and the flash of colored neon from the flickering sign mounted on the shop front of the Pay On’ Save general store on the opposite side of the street. Peter shook himself and a small, nervous laugh parting his lips.

How in Christ’s name could he have been so stupid?

It was just a dream Peter, he told himself, Just a tired man jumping at shadows. It then occurred to him just how much noise he had made as he had toppled from the deck chair which now lay, folded dejectedly at his feet. Years of living in the city had conditioned him to the confines of others and he cocked his head to listen coyly to the darkness behind the shuttered doors of the hotel’s other rooms which opened out on to the balcony to see if he had woken anyone. When there were no lights turned on, no muffled, questioning voices, he hung his head and turned to re-right the deck chair, picking up his glass as he did so before stepping into his room through the verandah’s open bay doors.

A large double bed draped in a flannelette sheet cover that was still unruffled after a day of no sleep and restless pacing, claimed most of the available floor space between the darkly painted walls of his small, rented quarters. On either side of its plain wooden headboard, a single drawer night stand had been placed, each topped by a shaded reading lamp and set far up onto the room’s high walls between them both, a huge, artless print of snow capped mountains and sweeping pine forests hung within a molded wooden frame. Peter rounded the foot of the bed, staggering just a little and he made his way across to the wash hand basin mounted into the wall next to the room’s hallway door. The taps were stiff and encrusted around their heads by the mineral salt deposits and algae growth which accompanied the bore water which supplied the needs of the small, country town, and he had to work their stiffness back and forth until the disuse in them finally gave way and the stained porcelain sink began to fill. He cupped a handful of cold water (he had been told by the publican when he had first been shown the room that if he wanted hot water then he would have to use the communal washrooms at the end of the hall) and threw it briskly across his face in an effort to wash away some of his tiredness before he reached up and flicked on the small fluorescent light sat into the wall above the sink mirror.

There was a blink, a hum, and then an explosion of hot pain firing into the back of his eyes as the room seemed to flare with brilliant white light. Peter recoiled backwards from the sink as if he had been physically struck and he threw the crook of his arm up as a shield up in front of his face, a muttered…..

…… ‘Jesus!’….

……..escaping him. His hand went unseeing to the wall, searching across its peeling tongue and groove paneling for support and when he found it, he stood there next to the hand basin, head bowed, until at last his aching eyes began their slow adjustment to the incandescent glow. Gradually, after some time, he lowered his arm from in front of his face, blinking rapidly at the multitude of colored patterns dancing before his eyes. As the last of them in turn faded and his vision began to swim back into a reluctant, all be it overexposed focus, he leant close beneath the fluorescent glare of the small tube overhead to study himself in the mirror’s stained and scratched rectangular face.

Something was wrong with him. Seriously wrong!

He had known that as soon as he had arrived back at the hotel that afternoon from his trip to the hospital in the nearby town of Tarro where he had identified Jilly’ s body. Brannigan had dropped him off at the front door of the hotel public lounge, telling him that he’d come over and join him for a drink just as soon as he had parked his patrol car and locked up the station-house for the night.

‘Getcha self a shower Peter,’ the old cop had said, leaning out of the police car driver’s side window with an arm cocked lazily across the steering wheel, ‘You’ll feel a hell of a lot better when you’ve washed off a day’s worth of dust and had yourself a shave.’ And then the country sergeant had looked at him, really looked at him, with a sharpness in his eyes that had made Peter feel almost naked beneath its intent.

Had Brannigan seen something then? He wondered. If he had, then he hadn’t mentioned it when they had sat together later on drinking and chatting. There had been concern on the old cop’s face, he had been able to read that much, but had it been for what he had gone through over the course of the day or was there something more to it? Had he seen then what Peter only saw now? Then that look had gone - if it had ever been there at all - and Peter had thanked him before the car had pulled away from the curbing and he had mounted the high flight of stairs to his room, to shower, shave and put on a fresh change of clothes.

At first he had been inclined to dismiss the heaviness that he had felt in his limbs, the darkness he had seen under his eyes whenever he had glanced up in the rear vision mirror over the course of the long drive up to Rowan from the city that morning, and even the chills which bought a numbness to his hands and feet whenever they came, as nothing more than the first signs of what was probably going to turn out to be a particularly nasty summer cold. Nothing to be overly concerned about, he had thought at the time. He had just lost his sister, he was tired, wrung out and down by the stress of it all, what could he expect? A man hardly feels like tap-dancing or doing a twenty yard dash when he loses a loved one, now does he? But it wasn’t until he finally emerged from the hotel’s wash-room, feeling just a little better for its soothing heat, and had dragged a hand across the steam beaded surface of the bathroom mirror to shave, that the small doubt over the way that he had felt began to set and strengthen into something approaching a very real concern. He hadn’t been so easily able to dismiss the purplish bruising that he had seen there beneath the two days’ growth of whiskers around his jaw-line as he had inclined his head, razor in hand. Nor had he been easily able to explain away the sallowness he noticed in his cheeks and beneath his eyes. He had tried of course, telling himself that it was all simply a trick of the light, a shadow or at the very worse some sort of allergic reaction to the water. He had told himself that he was just being selfish to worry about something as insignificant as not feeling or looking one hundred percent when his sister’s body was laying on a slab in a hospital morgue not thirty miles away on the other side of town. Yet still that concern remained and it wasn’t until now, not more than a handful of hours later, as he studied his reflection once more in the small mirrored surface of his room’s convenience that he saw just how sick he really was.

Whereas earlier, the discoloration beneath and around his jaw-line had been there, but, at best barely noticeable, now, even with his eyes pinched down to slits as they were (they were still as yet to properly adjust to the hard light as they should have), Peter could see clearly the darkness of flesh which seemed to encircle his throat like a collar. He lifted his head, craning his neck from side to side as he had done when he had first noticed the blotching earlier that afternoon and touched his fingers gently against the seemingly bruised skin.

There was no pain there, no tenderness and he lowered his gaze once more to look across the porcelain rim of the sink, his face close enough to the mirror for its glass surface to frost with his breath. His skin seemed somehow…...thinner! As if it were almost transparent enough to expose a fine network of capillaries and veins hinted at beneath the flesh of his cheeks and temples. At first the temptation was there to tell himself again that it was just a trick of the light, but there was a moist waxiness accompanying its touch that he found to be both unpleasant and not so easily explained away. Peter shook his head, his tiredness clearing his mind of these I concerns (at least for the time being), and he drew his gaze away from the glassy, dilated depths of his reflected stare to reach up and switch off the basin light.

There was darkness, an almost instantaneous relief from the sharp daggers of light which had stabbed into the back of his eyes, and he made his way carefully back towards his bed, telling himself as he lay against the soft cushioning of his pillows and pulled the linen sheets across him, that he would be fine in the morning. That the heaviness, the lethargy that he felt would all be gone by sunrise and that he would feel just as right as rain once he had a full breakfast inside of him.

‘Just a cold Peter’, he said softly into his pillow in a voice that was leaden and all too weary. ‘Just a damned cold.’

He would lie there like this for some time before sleep finally found him once more in those few short hours until the grayness of dawn first broached the eastern horizon. Not thinking, not moving, just staring at the inside of his eye lids and listening to the distant, shallow rasp of breath in his lungs. And when sleep did finally come and he slipped back once more beneath its blissful black surface, he would dream. In these dreams there would be no pain as there had been before. There would be no bloodied, violent images begging for mercy, no faces stretching in cries of agony. In these dreams there would only be the need of places to go and of things to do. In these dreams, there would only be the faces of people that he was yet to meet.

And in these dreams, when he saw these faces, there would be the rage.

Day 3

1

Frank Brannigan stepped carefully through the motel room’s opened doorway and stood silently beneath the partial cover offered by the columned awning of the low bank of flats with his head hung low, his broad shoulders bowed by the weight of what lay within the shadows of the darkness behind him. He closed his eyes, pinching for a moment at the bridge of his prominent nose in an attempt to clear his thoughts, and when he opened them again, he looked levelly around the tavern’s parking lot, his gaze strained in the dim, pre-dawn grayness.

A crowd was beginning to gather.

Most of them were the motel’s lodgers and a few over-curious neighbors…

If the mis-matched pajamas and bathrobes are anything to go by, Frank thought.

…..people who had been drawn from their beds by the commotion of the police sideshow, their desire for sleep at this early hour of the morning no match for the need to satisfy their own curiosity.

Some, Brannigan recognized by their faces, were the locals who etched out a meager living for themselves on the few properties which were dotted throughout the nearby bush-land. A few were truck drivers and shift workers who had rented rooms to catch a couple of hours before their next long haul. And the rest? Passers-by who had pulled in from the highway ring-road which ran past the front of the tavern, drawn from their travels to the blaring sirens and flashing police reds and blues as surely as if they were moths drawn to a flickering flame of a candle. Some held cameras.

A little something to show the kiddies, Frank thought bitterly. One for ‘Show and Tell’ at school.

Of all of these people - a full score, with more arriving every minute as the word of the stabbing spread across the town grapevine - only the motel’s tenants were allowed past the blue and white checked crime scene tape which had been hastily strung up around the car park bitumen edge, to collect whatever it was that they needed from their rooms (be it a fresh change of clothes or their wallets) before they were hustled out again and only then after they had supplied a name, identification and the registration number of their vehicles. It was strongly suggested that none of them leave.

Frank allowed his gaze to scan across the gathering mob of eager faces which craned and chattered animatedly to each other, looking for Mitch Gardiner from beneath the upturned palm of a hand wiped across his clammy brow. If he had cared to look up at the aged worn face of the chunky Timex strapped to his wrist at that particular point, he would have seen that it was ten minutes past seven, the still, morning air already beginning to swim with the first threatening waves of the day’s promised heat. When he saw the young constable walking a line in front of the burgeoning crowd, he waved him over. Mitch acknowledged him with a brief nod and turned back one last time to the gathering of spectators behind the line of police tape to say something just loud enough to sound forceful without appearing overbearing before walking across to the narrow porch in front of the motel room where his sergeant stood.

And just try it! Brannigan thought, his steady gaze fixed on no one in particular amongst the crowd of eager faces but rather at anybody amongst them who may have been foolish enough to transgress the marker-line after they saw the young constable moving away as the perfect opportunity to get a closer look. Just you bloody try it!

Mitch stepped up onto the building’s landing, moving past the dark green station wagon with its painted out panels and dented front bumper which had been parked squarely in front of the motel room’s open doorway, and sauntered self-confidently across to Brannigan’s side, his hand resting casually upon his belt and the butt of his holstered service revolver.

‘What is it Boss?’ he asked, looking again from his sergeant to the line of people, steadily growing in number, along the loose bitumen rim of the parking lot. Another car load of locals had just rolled in.

‘Did the C.I.B. give you an estimated time at all about when they were going to turn up out here?’ Frank asked, clearing the edge from his voice with a gruff cough.

‘Nope! Not a thing. The state boys only said that they’d get here when they got here. That’s all.’

‘Great! So we just get to stand around here holding our dicks in our hands until some white collared warrior with a clipboard decides that they should turn up and show us all how it’s done. Is that it?’

‘Hey! Jeeze Boss!’ Mitch exclaimed defensively, taking a backwards step with his hands held out placatingly in front of him, ‘Don’t bitch to me about it. I only pass the messages on. I don’t make them up.’

‘Yeah, yeah! I know,’ Frank sighed and he rubbed his large hand down across the corner of his mouth. His dry, dry mouth. ‘I’m just getting sick and bloody tired of all of this waiting around. First the car, then yesterday, and all that we can do in the meantime is sit around here on our arses while we wait for a car load of prats from the state police barracks. What I need right now is a fully equipped homicide unit, a coroner’s van and a couple of extra cops to be bought in as backup to help with crowd control. Not the promise of a goddamned A.S.A.P.’

What you really need right now Frank - what you really want - is a drink. A long tall rum with a can of ginger beer waved over the top of it or perhaps a double shot of Scotland’s finest. No ice. Straight up. Just a little something to settle the dust. He looked across the busy parking lot towards the closed double doors which led into the cool comfort of the tavern’s public lounge, the large neon sign set into the wall above them still some five hours away from coming to life, and rubbed again at the dryness of his lips. This day was going to go one hell of a lot smoother for him, he knew, if he could get his mouth around a cold one before things got into too much of a spin.

Brannigan tried to push this thought aside when he realized just how close he was getting to seriously considering the idea. When it did finally abate somewhat, he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of Marlboroughs, cocking one into the comer of his mouth. The cigarette taste did little to still that urge for a drink from returning to (as it would throughout the rest of the day and well into the night), but it did allow it to take a back seat to some of the more pressing concerns at hand. He drew on its filtered butt only twice more before he stamped the last of it out against one of the motel awning’s rounded wooden columns and flicked its crushed length off into the parking lot, well away from where he stood. Brannigan then turned to look back across his shoulder into the darkness of the opened doorway behind him and let out a heavy sigh.

Mitch had been the first on the scene, arriving not long before both Frank and Bobby, and in that short space of time, the young constable had done his best to secure the area around the room, given the number of people who, by then, begun to gather. He had parked his police cruiser off to the side of the parking lot which the motel shared with the tavern, blocking off any further vehicle access to the scene before making a brief sortie into the room himself. By the time Rowan’s two other police units had left the highway and turned into Murphy’s wide, angled drive a mere dozen or so minutes later, he had been waving the crowd of onlookers back from in front of the open door of the building. With their arrival, Bobby had taken over on the duty of crowd control - having noticeably less success than his young workmate in keeping the spectators back at a safe viewing distance - freeing Mitch in the process to move around to the boot of his car and remove a roll of tape from the clutter there, the words ‘CRIME SCENE. DO NOT CROSS’ unfurling in large, formidably black letters across the middle of the tape as Mitch proceeded to lace it through rails, around trees, lamp posts and just about anything else that had gotten in his way. Frank had watched him distractedly, silently glad that the tape only came in fifty meter rolls, (If it hadn’t, he had thought, then the lad would have the entire place wrapped up like a Christmas present) before he turned and walked through the opened motel room door into the darkness beyond.

It was the smell that hit him first. There was something about it, something strangely familiar that the years spent away from the city’s streets had allowed him the small luxury of forgetting. It swam thickly in the early morning shadows of the small room, filling the stale air with the heady, musky aroma of what he had been only distantly able to identify as wet fur, the stuffy feral scent common in an animal’s den and he found himself wanting to gag a little at its unpleasant taste until it at last began to fade. The lights had been out and although some small measure of the morning’s pre-dawn glow had begun to filter into the room through the thick, unfashionably brown curtains of the kitchenette’s rear window, it only served to make the shadows deeper, the darkness all that much more impenetrable.

Brannigan’s hand had gone instinctively for the wall just inside of the door frame where he had known the light, switch would have been mounted before he had caught himself, his fingertips barely inches from it. There had been a time once in his life - in a time that now seemed to him to be lost far back in the distant haze of his youth - when that natural caution about not disturbing the line of possible evidence at a crime scene would have come easily to him. But standing there in the watery wedge of morning light which breached the darkness through the room’s open doorway, the uneasiness that he had been able to feel curling in the pit of his stomach over what it was that he might discover lying there in wait for him in that blackness, had been momentarily supplanted by the simple fact that he had then found himself having to struggle to remember what was, for all intents and purposes, one of the most basic of all police procedures.

He had pulled his hand down from the switch, hoping as he did so that Mitch would have had the good sense to have done the same and allowed it to fall to the side of his service belt, there to lift the torch from its sling and flick his thick thumb along its length near the base of its solid metal head, bringing it to life and illuminating the room in a circular shaft of its clear, white light.

There’s been a struggle here. That was Frank’s first impression as he swept the wide disc of torch light back and forth across the room’s carpeted floor. Some of the signs which led him to that initial conclusion were obvious ones - ones which Frank honestly believed even the toy store detectives from the city would be able to recognize but for the most part, it was an instinctive response only that he had of the room in those few first moments and there were two things that he had long since come to recognize about such ‘Impressions’. One was that, like instinct, such impressions only ever came from a lifetime such as his spent on the ‘beat’. And two, also like instinct, he had found that these first impressions were rarely ever wrong.

Brannigan shifted the torch across the narrow width of the room to the far wall, eventually bringing it to rest against the foot of a double bed before he angled it up, watching as the orb of white light bent and rippled like a reflection on the surface of a pond as it rose up and over the thick, flannelette sheets. The bed itself was unmade, and though the covers, on one side at least, had been pulled up across the pillows at its head in an effort at some semblance of neatness, they had been yanked back on the left to hang loosely over the side of the bed, almost to the floor, exposing the crumpled linen beneath. A small bedside table, similar to the one which stood beneath the window opposite the bed, lay upon its side diagonally out from the wall, its single drawer’s contents scattered out across the carpeted floor around it. The telephone which had once sat atop, also lay upset on the floor with its head piece dismounted from its cradle and its dial tone trilling out distantly like a lone cricket somewhere off in the tomb-like silence of the room.

Frank tipped the torch’s beam back across the room, guiding it like a surgeon’s scalpel towards a squat three seater sofa which had been kicked out slightly askew from its regular position flush with the opposite wall (a position indicated to him by the tell tale prints of the lounge’s broad wooden feet left behind in the worn shag pile carpet over which it had once sat) and he was about to move across to it when his eye caught the hard edge of a shadow probing at the darkness just beyond the reach of the torch outer-most glow. He lifted his hand up in line with his eye to shine the light past the low-boy cabinet which divided the room in two and edged his way forward, stepping carefully across the carpeted floor of the room as he moved through the near-darkness over towards the unit’s small kitchenette. The table setting which took up most of the space in between the ‘V’ formed by the low-boy cabinet and the room’s rear wall, sat askew on the patterned, tiled floor. Two of its four chairs lay on their sides while another had been pushed roughly up against the moulded metal rim of the kitchen sink. A drawer stood opened next to this with some small amount of its contents scattered beneath it-forks, tea spoons and something which looked to Frank like a cross between a cattle prod and an egg whisk-and it wasn’t until he angled his torch down over the top of these that he saw the darkened form of a man seeming to stand slumped against cabinets in the comer of the small room, the glowing shaft of light catching a pool of dried blood, black and glistening in the morning darkness, which had spread out across the tiled floor at his feet. There was a moment, the space of a held breath only, where he felt his heart skip a beat as the darkness appeared to retreat and the shape became defined by the shadows which had all but hidden it from view, before he drew himself up ...

Just a body, Frank. Just another body! .

...and allowed his torch-lit gaze to trace its way up over the length of the limp yet upright form like the theatrical spotlight on some macabre vaudeville entertainer.

At first, Brannigan’s attention went to the askew droop of the dead man’s feet, hovering a few inches above the kitchens linoleum covered floor. Then, up and across the length of his jeans to the dark, bloodied gap of his opened fly. From there Frank angled his torch’s piercing eye to the glittering blackness which had spilt down in a drying stain across the front of Tommy Harn’s once brightly coloured shirt before finally settling, as the clear, circular glare upon the dead man’s face, his ruined lower lip and the long, wooden handle of the knife which protruded from his throat, nailing him to the cupboard door which held him on his feet.

Frank let a sharp breath hiss slip from between his tightly clenched teeth at the sight before him and was about to move forward and perform the perfunctory obligations of checking for a pulse (even though he had known by the state of the body that it would have ceased long ago) when he heard a dry, rustling noise of movement from behind him. He spun around suddenly, the light of the torch darting across the darkened face of furniture, walls and floor, before falling to rest upon the toppled bedside table and its scattered contents. Through an open door, the grey haze of dawn ushered in the soft whisper of a morning breeze to gently stir at the cover of a magazine (one of many which lay strewn out on the carpeted floor next to the bed head) slowly turning its pages as if by an invisible hand. Brannigan made his way back across the narrow room to where it lay, once more sweeping the torch light before him as he stepped carefully so as to avoid trampling any evidence there may have been beneath his worn size twelves, and hitched his pants at the knees to kneel down next to the night stand’s impaled form. On one of the opened pages of the half a dozen or so magazines spread out on the floor in front of him, a young woman was fellating a middle aged man with thick sideburns and a Mexican bandito moustache, and on the other page opposite it, a teenage girl, fifteen if she was a day, sat astride a deck chair with her legs spread showing the camera everything except what it was she had eaten for breakfast.

Frank changed his grip on the torch, angling it down to allow its now small eye of light to scan across the covers of the other publications around him. There was kiddie porn, all-girl, inter-racial with a free sample (and thankfully unused) condom affixed to its front cover, and beneath these a handful of the more middle-of-the-road magazines like Mayfair and Qui, all of them showing photographs of lips parted and backs arched, all of them with faces contorted towards the camera in mock ecstasy. Next to these magazines but a little closer on the carpeted floor towards the opened drawer of the small, upended night table which had disgorged them, lay a bottle of cheap aftershave, a wallet, a set of car keys on a bullet casing ring, and the last remnants of a broken bottle of Jim Beam. A dark stain of the spilt liquor had seeped out in a halo of moisture around the bottle’s fragmented shards and Frank leant closer, pressing the tips of his fingertips into it. There was still a wetness there beneath his touch. It wasn’t much but the traces of it were still discernible and even allowing for the evaporation of the alcohol itself and for the warmth already pervading the thin morning air, he guessed that it would have been at least five hours say six to be on the safe side-since it had been spilt. It wasn’t much to go on ...yet, but it did at least give him a time frame to work around when they began taking statements.

Brannigan then hitched himself across to the wallet on his haunches, and pulling a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket, he reached down to turn it around to face him beneath the torch’s clear spot of light. He flicked the wallet’s metal clip with the nib of the pen and carefully levered it open. The money was still there, fifteen dollars in notes tucked neatly away in its leather folds. Perhaps as much again in change if the bulkiness of coin which bulged from within the zippered section of the purse was anything to go on. And when he was as sure as he could be that the wallet had been untouched by whoever had trashed the room, and its unfortunate occupant, he dragged it around some more and began to flip through its plastic leaves, past credit cards, a driver’s license, until he had finally stopped at the faded face of a small, slightly blurred colour photograph.

A deep frown knitted its way across Brannigan’s age-lined brow and he leant a little closer, straining himself to study the faint gleam of recognition that he thought he saw in between the savage lines of the years of wear and handling which had split the snapshot’s greying surface. The frown turned to a scowl, then a sigh, and he realized then with a truly deep regret that he would have another call to make today after things at this end had been wound up. A call that was the hardest of all.

‘Any I.D. on him Boss?’ Mitch asked, dragging Frank’s attention from the opened darkness of the room behind him and he looked around, glad to let the many thoughts which came to him from within that darkness go. He knew that they’d be back.

‘He’s Cec Harn’s boy’, Brannigan replied flatly and Mitch shook his head.

‘Jesus! The poor old bastard.’

Frank nodded. Cec Harn was something of a local identity in the small country town. Seen by many as a kind of venerable grandfather figure amongst those town folk who had grown up in and around Rowan during the late fifties and early sixties, and as a doddering old fart by those of the next generation who had come after them. Up until three years earlier, when a stroke had claimed most of the function in the left side, he could be spotted on most days of the week, shuffling along in his old man’s clothes as he swept the town’s footpaths clear of their days worth of dead fallen leaves and trash, or cleaning the local store front windows for the price of a cup of tea and a chat from the owners. On Thursdays, it had been the police station’s turn.

‘Who found the body?’ Brannigan asked, trying but not wholly succeeding in dragging his mind away from Cec Harn and back to the work at hand. He was going to have a hard enough time telling the old boy that his son was dead without letting himself play on the fact.

Mitch pulled out his police department issue notebook from his back pocket and flipped it open, letting his eyes and a fingertip run down the small page of his rounded, handwritten scrawl. ‘A Douglas Carrigan. He’s the part-time publican here at Murphy’s. Bobby took part of the statement from him while you were in the room’, Mitch said finally, nodding Frank’s attention across the carpark to where Rowan’s other young police officer was hunkered down over the bonnet of his vehicle with one foot upon the front bumper as he transcribed notes from his small pocket pad onto a clipboard of foolscap sheets. Bobby’s tongue poked out from the comer of his mouth as he wrote. A sure sign, Frank knew, that he was seriously concentrating upon the work at hand.

‘Why only part?’ Brannigan asked, reaching into his pocket for another cigarette.

‘Carrigan had to excuse himself halfway through when he had to go and settle the cash register balance from last night’s trading,’ Mitch answered, then, added with a sly smirk. ‘I guess that making a buck doesn’t stop for anything, not even murder.’

Frank nodded as he lowered his head into the cup of his hands, lighting the end of his cigarette. He drew back on it deeply, and hissed a thin curl of smoke from the comer of his mouth as he spoke.

‘How’d he come by the body?’

‘He reckons he was walking past the room here on the way into the bar and he looked in, seeing the opened door and thinking maybe the place had been turned over by burglars or something. He saw the body and called us.’

‘Did he touch anything?’

Mitch scanned the page of the notebook which he had opened, flicked it over to the next and then nodded. ‘Ahhhhhhh ..Yeah! He said that he had a go at the light switch but that it wasn’t working. Reckons he went in to call out and see if anyone was there when he got a look at the stiff and took off. I guess that he didn’t want to stay and check to see if the guy was still alive or not.’ Mitch then looked up at Brannigan and the smirk grew into a wry grin that stretched across his freckled face. He shrugged, ‘I can’t say as that I can really blame him on that score.’

‘And he said that the lights were out?’

‘That’s right. Why?’

‘It’s probably nothing’, Frank replied absently, more as a thought spoken aloud rather than anything else, and he allowed his meaty hand to play thoughtfully across his chin. ‘But it could be that whoever nailed Cec Harn’s boy to the wall in there may have been waiting for him to come back into the room.’

‘How do you figure that?’ Mitch asked.

‘Well. Look at the fact that the light doesn’t work for a start. Maybe the bulb is blown or maybe it’s been tampered with so that it wouldn’t work, either way, we won’t know for sure until the boys from forensics turn up. But let’s say for argument sake that it was tampered with. There’s been some disturbance of the furniture but apart from a turned bed and a kicked over night table there’s not a whole hell of a lot else that’s been shifted. No cupboards appeared to have been rifled, no drawers opened. There’s not much in the way of money in the boy’s wallet but there is still some there along with his credit cards. So in my book, I think that we can probably safely rule out robbery straight off the bat.’

‘Maybe he walked in on someone who was going through his stuff before they got a chance to get started in really trashing the place’, Mitch offered.

‘Possibly’, Frank nodded acceptingly, ‘but doesn’t the fact that the light switch doesn’t work strike you as being just a little too convenient?’

’Well. Like you said Boss!’ Mitch cut in, ’It might have been tampered with or it might have just blown by itself. But the point is that we don’t really know one way or another. Now just say that someone was sprung going through the place halfway into the action. This fellow walks in on whoever the hell it is going through his stuff and there’s a fight where Tommy Harn comes off second best. Maybe then whoever did it thought ‘Oh Shit. I’ve really fucked up big time,’ and ran, deciding to put as many kilometers between them and the murder scene as possible before we turned up.’

‘Did you get a good look at the body Mitch?’

‘No. But I ...’

‘No buts!’ Now it was Brannigan’s turn to cut in, ’Whoever nailed that boy in there to the kitchen cupboard wasn’t the type of person who suddenly gets frightened by what they’ve done. That’s not a mistake in there Mitch. That’s cold. Damned cold. Whoever it was did that went hell bent for leather at the boy and didn’t stop until the job was done. People like that don’t just think ‘Oh Shit.What have I done’ and take off. People like that just wash their hands and go out somewhere for a nice, quiet drink and a meal afterwards.’

‘Well if it’s not just some random stabbing, what have we got then?’

‘What we’ve got’, Frank said hitching his belt beneath his overhanging gut, ‘is one hell of a lot of unanswered questions. Was it an intended burglary gone wrong or was it someone with a grudge? Did Harn know his killer or was he ambushed in his room by someone waiting there for him in the darkness? But more than anything else, I want to know what in God’s name that boy in there did to deserve what he got.’ With that, Brannigan stamped out the last smouldering embers of his cigarette against the support of the verandah awning railing and stepped down from the narrow porch, crushing the stub underfoot as he went.

‘Where are you going?’ Mitch called out after him as his sergeant walked past the dark green station wagon parked in front of the room’s opened door and across the loose gravel surface of the car lot towards the closed doors of the tavern’s public lounge.

‘I’m going to talk to the man that found the body?’ Brannigan called back across his shoulder and by the look that he saw then in the young constable’s eyes behind him, he could see that the very idea of being left in charge of what was, by all accounts now a major crime scene, even if it was only for a few minutes, didn’t appeal to him in the slightest.

‘There are too many questions here Mitch - too many by half and I’m as sure as hell going to find out the answers to at least some of them before this day is out.’

2

The following is a selected section taken from an entry made in the journal kept by Peter White, dated Sunday the fourth of March.

There is a dog here at the hotel where I’m staying.

It’s an old dog. A German Shepherd cross I think though I can’t really be anywhere near sure. Whatever its tail may have once looked like has now been whittled down by the years to a stub of flesh and bone that barely covers its balls and any of that typical Alsatian sandy brown fur has now given way to a pale, smoky grey which stretches like a melting snowfield from its muzzle to its hind legs. About the only thing that I can be sure about is that the dog’s name is Tinny. .. (As in Rin- Tin- Tinny)

That and one other thing.

The animal is absolutely terrified of me!

Everything was fine yesterday. It came tottering up to me first thing in the morning when I came over here to the hotel for a room after my initial meeting with Brannigan, just as friendly as you please, walking its old dog walk in the way that all old dogs in all small country towns always seem to do. It sniffed at my hand with what passed for its stub of a tail hammering out a beat behind it and when it seemed satisfied that I was no threat and had no food (I would say the latter of the two being the most important) it meandered its way back to its place under the hotel’s bus stop seat and lay back down with its old head in its paws to watch the world go by.

A nice dog.

A good dog.

Simple, old, inoffensive.

But as they say, that was then . . .

. . . this is now.

I was down in the hotel beer-garden this morning sitting alone on one of the long wooden park type benches that they have there. It was still fairly early, the pub was shut up around me and the morning sun still carried that pleasant warmth to its glow that you just knew would turn into stinging by noon. I ’d say that it would have been around seven at the time though it would have only have been a rough guess at best.

I hadn’t slept at all well last night. I’d tossed and turned and twisted beneath the sheets that I’d thrown around me. (There’s a thermometer on the wall here in the room next to the bed as I write this and its reading last night put the room at a very humid 29 degrees, yet for some reason, I felt cold as if even the two blankets and the bed sheet that I had around me weren ’t enough to warm me from the chill that I’ve felt ever since the morning of the day before), and when I woke, I felt worse than I had when I had gone to bed the evening before.

’All right, I had told myself. . . as I do now that. . . ‘you, my boy, are going to see a doctor’. . . , and yet I know that I won’t. It’s as if something is holding me back. I don’t know what, just this feeling I guess that if I do go to some G. P. with whatever virus or bug or whatever the hell that it is that has gotten a hold of me, then . . .

... then what? I don’t know, I just get the feeling like something will happen and that would be bad. I think.

I know that none of this is making sense D.D., not even to myself. Christ!! Can’t even seem to think straight at the moment. I try to get my thoughts in line or to go and do something, and the next thing that I know, I’m doing something else or writing down something totally different to what I had intended. It’s almost like I’m listening to two conversations at once. Like I’m hearing two sets of voices inside of my head, one mine and another coming from somewhere else. Not exactly from outside, but rather from . . .

There I go again. Wandering off.

Now. Where was I?

Oh. That’s right. The dog.

Like I said, I hadn’t slept well and I had gone down into the hotel beer-garden before anyone else in the pub had woken up to catch myself some early morning rays.

I had been sitting there for what I guessed must have been near on an hour, just thinking about things, about Jilly mostly (naturally enough!) remembering the good times that we had once shared and generally feeling like someone had reached inside me and pulled out my guts, when I saw the dog again. It had been meandering its way across the beer-garden courtyard to the bins which were set up to the side of the hotel kitchen door (most probably looking for a morning meal of scraps from the hotel meal leftovers of the night before) and I had called out to it, stiffly clicking my fingers and trying like hell to remember its name until it had finally seen where I was (the poor old thing’s eyes are milky as all be-Jesus with cataracts) and it had changed direction to totter over towards me.

I don’t know why it was that I had really called out to it. I’m not a dog person by nature. Cats are more my bag. I like their independence, that look in their eyes that says ‘Hey Jack. I go where the food goes’. Cats have an attitude like that, someone once said that cats were once revered as gods and they don’t like us to forget it.

Dogs don’t have that attitude(at least not for me). What dogs have is a loyalty that borders upon stupidity. You can kick a cat and that’s it. It’ll go somewhere else and find itself another lap to sit upon. You can kick a dog and it’ll just keep on coming back for more. But I guess that more than anything else, I’d just called out to ‘Tinny’ because I felt like the company.

Anyway, it came across to me, walking a little warily but coming over just the same, (I guess that it had been around people long enough in its role as official pub-dog to figure ‘What the hell’) and went to sniff my hand as I held it out for it.

That was when all hell broke loose.

There was a second where it just stood there, wet nose to my fingertips, I suppose trying to recognise my scent, when all of a sudden, its stump of a tail stopped its wagging and I thought that I raw something, some recognition in its eyes. I don’t know what it was, just a widening I guess, but I’m sure that it saw something of me in those cataract clouded depths. A recognition of me perhaps, not as a person that it had met yesterday morning, but rather on a deeper, more instinctive level (I know that sounds melodramatic D.D. but that’s exactly how I felt at the time) and I thought. . .

Oh Shit. Here It comes. It’s going to sink its teeth into your hand Pete and you can kiss goodbye to your fingers

. . . But it didn’t bite me.

It didn’t even growl at me. It simply took a step backwards, lifted its head and let out a howl that cut straight to the bone and made my teeth rattle. I went to stand and try to shut it up, aware all of the time how early it was in the morning and of all the people who were still asleep in their beds behind the closed doors and shuttered windows of the hotel’s other rooms, and the dog backed away from me some more, the howl trailing off to a pitiful whimper in its throat.

‘What’s the matter boy?’ I said, holding out my hand again, palm up as I moved closer to it and it cowered back perhaps another half a dozen steps or so away from me before it turned and bolted back across the paved court of the beer garden and out of the side gate.

All that I could do was just stand there, looking off after it and wondering just what the hell had frightened it so much (and remembering at the same time the blood that I thought I had seen there upon my fingertips the night before for no good reason) when I heard the screech of brakes from the road outside and a sickening thud following it that bought a cold, sinking dread to the pit of my stomach. I had run out to see what had happened or if there was anything that I could do (as if I hadn’t already done enough) and I saw this old aboriginal man with a white stringy bread standing out of the opened driver’s side door of his car in the middle of the town’s main road and looking off in the shadows of the War Memorial park opposite where ‘Tinny’ had run.

‘Is he all right?’ I called out.

‘Yeah’, the old fella had said, ‘I just clipped him I think. What got into hi. . .’

He turned around to look back across his shoulder at me and I’ll swear to god, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a more terrified look on a man’s face in my life as I did in that one moment. . . I stepped forward to ask him if he was all right (thinking that in all likelihood he was going to have himself a coronary as a result of hitting the old dog and keel over on the road right there in front of me) before he shook himself. . . and I mean visibly shook himself. . . and then did the wildest thing.

Something that I am still trying to understand.

He forked the sign of the cross at me, jumped back in his car behind the wheel, and sped off with the driver’s side door still open before I could say so much as another word.

3

Small town death was always big town business Frank Brannigan thought with a weary, inward sigh as he looked up towards the crowd of Sunday-serviced parishioners spilling out from the arched stone entry-way of St Paul’s Catholic Church into the first of the day’s still, morning heat.

It hadn’t taken long for the word to spread about the discovery of Tommy Harn’s tortured body in the darkness of his motel room a mere twenty kilometers away on the other side of town, a flurry of eager, excited telephone calls across the town’s party line had seen to that soon enough. By the time that Frank had finally left the driveway of Murphy’s Tavern with the coming of the first responding unit of the state homicide division and arrived in the air conditioned waiting room of the Sandringham Old People’s Home a quarter of an hour later to inform Cec Harn of the death of his only boy, the old man had already been through the little grief that he could manage to allow himself at the loss of his son and had been sitting in his wheel chair, decked out in his Sunday best for church with a cup of sweet, milky white tea held in his shaking, leathery grasp.

‘Worship to our Lord doesn’t wait for any man, grieved or not,’ he had told Frank from the metal framed confines of his wheel chair when Frank had first walked across the old folks home’s crowded waiting room towards him, past a sea of silver hair and lined faces, the air around him suddenly stilled of its incessant, old people’s chatter. He had tried to ask a few questions of the old man but they were formalities only when he had been informed by the attending nurse that neither the Ces Harn nor his wayward son had shared so much as a civil word between them in the past several years, and that against her own advice, the old boy had every intention of attending the regular Sunday morning services at his church to, in his own words ‘Ask God himself why he had taken his boy.’

As a mute gesture of respect, Frank had driven him there.

The sermon itself had been short but poignant with the larger than usual congregation respectfully silent throughout—all of them, including the priest, aware of the buzz that had set up across Rowan’s grapevine that morning about Ces Ham’s tragic loss and the very few details available about the circumstances surrounding the young man’s death. The priest, a young to middle aged man with a sharp angular face and steely grey eyes, known simply to his parishioners as ‘Father Mick’, had spoken quietly throughout the morning service, talking in comforting tones about the pure immortality of the human soul, about the pain of living in modern times. About the careless disregard for human life and finally, as the organist began to prime the pumps in preparation for the end of service hymn, he had spoken about the grief and silent suffering of those left behind.

There had been an ‘Amen’, more muttered than anything else, a scripture reading, and then, as the mournful notes of ‘Gladly the Cross I Bear’ began to drift out through the church building’s open doorway and across the surrounding valley’s wide, rolling hills, the service had broken up with the parishioners paying their respects to the old man and offering their condolences as they all filed out past him and into the dry, summer air of the morning.

There were the Hanlons, the Muirs, the Cartwright family, Liam Crowley and his hatchet faced wife Heather from further out along Miller’s Creek where they managed a cattle and sheep station, Johnny Kinnane (looking marginally more awkward in his best civilian threads than he had ever managed in his postal uniform), Dottie Millway and her hen pecked husband George, the Shire of Rowan’s council chairman. There was the Evans clan, the Michaelson family minus their eldest daughter Valerie who had spent some time working with street kids in Sydney and who had long since discovered that God doesn’t always hang out where he is needed the most. Steven Parsons was there, as was Harry Buckner and his two boys Matt and Kerin (Matt Buckner had been in the same grade as Tommy Harn at Rowan State Primary School and had come home over the years more times than he cared to remember with the knees out of his pants and one eye blackened after some school yard scrap with the lad. That may have been some years earlier, Frank knew, and a lot of water had passed under the bridge for both young men in the time since, but he also suspected that Matt Buckner was going to have one hell of a time keeping the smile from his face now that Harn was food for worms). Sharon Campbell was there with her two elderly parents, as was the Bloomfield family and their neighbours the Earns.

There was Andy Heise (who was still revelling somewhat in the attention that he had gained for himself around town by being the man who had found the missing girl’s car in the first place, sparking off the entire investigation which had so much caught the small town’s limited imagination), the Mullers, the Katerns were there, all of them having piled into Vance Hauser’s mini-bus for the short journey from their respective farms around the shire’s sprawling rim to the churchyard. The Rees, John Abbott (he had been Tommy Harn’s old state school teacher and, as was fitting for the day, had remained respectfully silent throughout about just how much of a thorough going shit the boy had been as a student), Josh Owens and his cousins Annette and Neville Clarke, Scrubbie Hollows and finally, as the last to step out from beneath the church foyer’s open doors and lean close to the bent, wheel chair bound form of Cec Harn and shake his frail hand, Sam Parker and his over plump wife Vera.

Sam had held up the offer of a keg of beer, courtesy of the establishment, at the Royal Exchange later on that morning after the service as a kind of premature wake for anyone who might have cared to drop in at the bar and mull over the violent death of Tommy Harn. And though there had been plenty of nods and words of acceptance from the men of the assembly, Frank’s voice hadn’t been amongst them. He had been to occasions such as that before. Gatherings where small town folk tried, usually in vain, to reconcile themselves with the death of a young person from amongst their number almost as if it were some unwelcome infringement by the outside world upon their simple lives. They were times of shaken heads and sullen faces. Of conversation about—‘How the lad still had so many good years left ahead of him’, and of ‘How it was such a shame to see a man die without setting himself down some roots’—and as local cop-in-attendance at the scene of the boy’s death, he had known that he would have been looked upon by most of the town’s menfolk who had gathered together at the bar, for a major part of the conversation.

But there was also another reason for Frank’s refusal. One which sat at odds with the dry thirsty voice inside of him that said that maybe one drink wouldn’t matter (in fact that it might be just the thing to see him through the rest of the day) and that reason was the troubled play of his thoughts. There were just too many questions to be answered to allow himself to become distracted by the enticing amber taste of a beer. Now, there was something else which troubled him. Something else which had developed in the space of time between leaving the scene of the murder and driving to the old folk’s home on the other side of town. It was a vague, disconcerting, albeit commanding sense that he was missing something. That there was some essential element in Tommy Harn’s murder waiting right there in front of him to be seen which he has yet had failed to notice.

Brannigan shook his head at himself as he leant up against the bonnet of his patrol car parked at the bottom of the churchyard’s sweeping gravel drive, and let his gaze wander out over the sculptured, wrought iron gates of the adjoining cemetery with its maze of headstones and concrete angels beyond. His thoughts turned back to the call on his car radio which had pulled him from his place in the church as the service had begun to wind up.

‘It’s really quite simple, Sergeant Brannigan’, the voice on the other end of the relayed telephone line belonging to the hospital supervisor at Tarro County Hospital, a Doctor Anton Miller, had said officiously. Miller was a small prissy man with a comb-over and a Napoleon sized ego whom Brannigan had never been able to work well with. ‘The body has been stolen.’

‘Wait a minute,’ Frank had replied into the car radio hand held set, a deep frown creasing his wide brow, ‘run that by me again. Did you say that a body has been stolen?’

“That is exactly what I have just said. One of my staff discovered that the girl’s cadaver was missing from the morgue at arou . . .′

‘Whoa! Hold it right there. Girl’s body? Which girl’s body are you referring to exactly?’

‘Why the one which was bought in just the other day of course. The murder victim. The late Miss Jillian White.’

And Frank had let the radio handset fall away from his mouth hissing out a sharp . . .‘Shit!’. . . from between his suddenly tightly clenched teeth. ‘Are you sure that it hasn’t just been . . . misplaced?’ he had asked finally and the answer from the voice on the other end of the line had been prim and bristling with professional offence.

’We are not in the habit here at Tarro of ‘Misplacing’ bodies Sergeant Brannigan. Now as I was saying before you cut me off, one of my staff discovered that the body was missing from the morgue here last night at around ten o’clock and in the time since then we have searched every square inch of the hospital and its grounds. It is quite simply not here. But I must also say at this point, as I had told the attending coroner when the cadaver was first bought in, that we have neither the facilities nor the . . .′

And basically from there, the entire conversation had degenerated into what amounted to a fine example of bureaucratic buck passing as to just who was going to take responsibility for the apparent theft of the dead girl’s remains. Frank had notified the state coroner’s office of the problem independently of the detective inspector handling the case (it would be a gross understatement to say that they were somewhat less than suitably impressed by the whole affair) and by the time that he had signed off and turned back once more to the small stone church at the top of the hill, the first of the assembly had begun to issue out from between its wide wooden doors.

Father Mick leant close to the old man as the last of the gathered congregation moved away from the deep shadows which reached down from the building’s tall steeple and whispered his respects before Ces Harn said something from the confines of his wheel chair that made both men turn and look down the churchyard’s grassy slope towards where Frank stood against his car, watching. The priest then stood, nodded briefly before turning and waving Frank close, and when both men met, it was halfway in front of the ornately scrolled iron arch of the cemetery gates.

‘He’d like to see you Frank’, the padre said taking Brannigan’s hand in his own and both men then turned to look once more up at the ancient bent form of the man seated alone in the long, yawning shadows of the church’s sheltered landing. There was a brief, heavy silence between the two before Father Mick shook himself and turned back towards the old cop standing off to his side.

‘I haven’t seen you around here lately Frank’, he said, a slight but weary smile playing across his sharp features. ‘I do hope that you haven’t gone and changed sides on me?’

‘No’, Brannigan answered laughingly though still apologetic. ‘You know how it is. Police business.’ And he shrugged as if that was all that he needed to say to explain things.

‘No rest for the wicked, is that it?’ the priest parried and with that the slight smile slipped from the corner of his mouth. He may only be young as far as parish priests go, Brannigan thought then, and he may only be a half a dozen years fresh from the Seminary, but he feels the loss just the same as everyone else here in town does. He nodded, shook the priest’s hand once more and then stepped past the younger man to walk up towards where Cec Harn sat in his wheel chair, staring off distantly out over the gentle rise and fall of the surrounding fields with his pale, cataract clouded eyes.

‘I’m sorry Cec’, he said at last, laying a large hand on the old man’s slumped and frail shoulder and Cec Ham waved it away, shifting awkwardly in his wheelchair to rum and look out over the headstones dotted over the neatly trimmed lawn of the church’s graveyard. A grey stone Jesus with arms outstretched stared back at them from beyond the rust streaked iron fence—his once artistically kind face now worn away to nothing but a mask of its former self by the years of wind and rain. Brannigan felt himself shudder at its now dispassionate gaze before he shrugged the feeling off and looked away.

‘My family’s been here in this valley for six generations you know Frank’, Cec said, his voice as dry and as brittle as the early fall of golden leaves scattered on the ground around their feet. ’One hundred and thirty years in all and every single one of them spent here in Rowan. Clearing the land, sinking bores, planting the first crops. Old Willem Harn is buried over there near where my Tommy will join his mother in her plot and where an old bugger like me will be soon enough with them.

‘They called him ol’ Willy back then, back then when he first came here to this valley with his wife and his five kids before Rowan was even a speck of flyshit on a map. All of them crammed up into some ship to sail halfway round the world with a hundred other families of pioneers just like ‘em. All of them looking for a chance at a new life and a little peace, all of them . . .’

The old man’s voice faltered a little here, crackling around the edges with emotion and when he turned around to again face Brannigan, his old graying eyes were rimmed with silent tears.

′ ... He was a bad boy, my Tommy was. I know that Frank. Just the same as everyone here in town knows it. Oh! They say how much of a shame that it is that he’s dead and all, but they’re just words. I may be old but I’m no fool when it comes to people and words. People say that they’re sorry that he’s gone for me but I know for a fact that most of them breathed a sigh of relief when he up and left all of those years ago to try his luck in the city. I know that most of them thought that this town was better off without the likes of him around and God help me, I think that they were right. There were even enough times when, though I hate to go and admit it, I cursed the day that the boy was born. What kind of a father thinks that way about his own flesh and blood Frank, I ask you?

‘Maybe it was all my fault the way that he turned out. Maybe I was too quick with my belt or the back of my hand, or maybe I should have remarried and given him another mother after my Sarah died. I don’t know. But I do know one thing Frank. No matter what my boy did, he didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to die the way that he did.’

And then, the old man’s hand came up and gripped Frank’s forearm with a strength that was surprising, holding him in a firm almost vice like grip, his eyes set upon Frank’s own. The tears were still there in those old, lined eyes only now they were fiery and hard, and through the thin cotton of Frank’s shirt sleeve, he could feel the years of calluses and dry leathery skin of his grasp. He fought hard to resist the urge to pull away.

‘I want you to find whoever did this to my boy Frank. I want you to find him and make damned sure that he gets what’s coming to him.’

‘Cec. I can’t get involved. Tommy’s case is a state thing now. I can’t do a thin . . .’

‘Promise me Frank,’ Cec pleaded, the grip on Brannigan’s arm tightening with the words. ‘Promise me that you’ll catch whoever it was that did this to my boy. Promise me that you’ll get them and make them pay. Tommy didn’t deserve much in his life for the way that he was and the way that he treated people but he did at least deserve that much. Promise me Frank that you’ll get them. Promise me.’

…… and slowly, as the old man’s grasp fell away and the last of his bitter tears came, rolling like rain drops down the contours of his age weathered face, Frank Brannigan looked away and slowly, he nodded his head.

4

Ricky McKinnan sat alone in the cab of his father’s seventy-eight Valiant utility immersed within a swirling thundercloud of fear and guilt as dark and as brooding as the shadows of the family bam beneath which the vehicle was parked. His hands shook even though he had them encircled around the moulded plastic of the ute’s newly serviced steering wheel tight enough for the knuckles to show white through the skin. His foot tapped out a furious machine gun beat on the bare metal firewall next to the brake pedal. A moustache of nervous, beaded moisture sat in a rim around the top of his tightly drawn lips.

He would often come here to think or just to be here by himself as he was now. Only here in the darkness to be found amongst the jumbled collection of rusted car parts and farm machinery, old timber and empty oil drums, could he find any solitude from the turmoil which raged inside of him, just as the farm’s livestock had once found protection here from the cold winter winds howling around the eaves of the building’s high, corrugated tin roof. And it was only here, within the shadows of the barns store loft where he had once played his lonely games as a boy—the darkness split by narrow beam of light which peered in from outside through the aging wooden walls-—that he felt safe.

He lifted a trembling hand free from its place atop the Valiant’s steering wheel and dragged it over his face, rubbing at the clamminess which clung to his soft features in the stifling midday heat which filled the barn’s cavernous interior, before letting it fall to his lap, there to lie twitching spasmodically on his thigh. He looked down at his hand dispassionately for a time, studying its erratic, jittering movement in the dim light almost as if it were another creature separate from himself—the thumb clenching and unclenching, the fingers drumming an unconscious beat on the stretched denim of his jeans—until he bought his other hand down to still it and glanced up to look at himself in the deep shadows of the ute’s rear vision mirror.

There was little recognition of himself in the eyes that he saw staring back at him from beneath the surface of the mirror’s cracked glass.

They were distant eyes.

Haunted eyes.

Not the eyes of the young, introspective man that he had been only days before. That young man was gone, Ricky knew that now. Gone, never to return. There was no life left in his eyes now. No soft smile as there had once been. Now they were only dead eyes, afraid, tortured pools of darkness which only hinted at the pain which raged inside. . . and what he saw there within those eyes terrified him.

A lot of things frightened Ricky lately. The dreams, they would frighten him. Dreams where he would wake, wide eyed and gasping for breath to stare like a dazed, terrified child into the night shadows which crowded the comers of his bedroom. The sound of grating tyres made by an approaching car on the long dirt drive which led up from the roadway to his house, they were another. Times when he would run to peer out through the split in the curtain of his bedroom window, sure in his rapidly beating heart that it would be the police come to arrest him. The sound even of the telephone chirping out a call from its place mounted on the kitchen wall.

Yes! All of these things frightened Ricky. These and others. But more than anything else, Ricky was frightened of the voice

He didn’t want to think about the voices, just as he didn’t want to think about the girl, but they were there. They were always there. Talking to him. Cajoling him from within the darkness of his own mind as he slept. Telling him how easy it would be to make everything right again.

’Just take the gun Ricky.”

‘Your father has lots of guns Ricky.’

’He keeps them on the wall in the wood shed remember Ricky. And you know how to use them don’t you Ricky. Sure you do. You know because ‘Big’ John made damned sure that his son knew how to use a gun. Remember how he used to yell at you when you missed a target whenever you went out shooting with him, and do you remember Ricky, that time that you got sick and threw up when you shot that wild boar that had strayed onto the farm’s back pasture? ‘Big’ John yelled at you then, didn’t he Ricky? He shook his head and walked away and all that you could do was bring up your breakfast down the front of your shirt. ‘Big’ John hated you that day Ricky. He despises you. He thinks that you’re weak. Well, you can show him Ricky. You can show him that you’re not weak. You can show him that you know how to use a gun and make things right again. Go on Ricky. Take a gun. Put a round into the breech and a couple more in your pocket, three should do—no need to be greedy now is there—and go and show ‘Big’ John that you can use it and while you’re there Ricky, why not show, your.mother too.′

He would try to shut these voices out, to push them away. Sometimes he would bury his head in his hands and drive his fists into the side of his head again and again to stop himself from hearing them but still they went, on. They always went on, calling to him because they came from inside of him and they just kept going on and on at him until he would catch himself nodding his head or even saying yes to what it was that they wanted him to do. Only then would they leave him alone ... until the next time. But always, if he listened very, very closely to himself when he was still and all around him quiet, he could hear them there, far off in the dark distance of his mind—calling !

Ricky drew in a deep, shuddering breath in an effort to steady, himself and let his haunted gaze fall away from the rear vision mirror, across to the empty passenger seat beside him and the neatly folded square of cartridge paper which lay upon its cracked and sun bleached vinyl. He reached across for it with a still shaking hand, picking it up and he held it there, uncertainly for a time in his fingertips before he unfolded it and lay it like a napkin across his lap.

The drawing etched across the single sheet of paper in widly drawn pastels was dark, both in mood and tone. A flurry of colours, now reduced to the deepest of hues in the hazy light of the barn, were slashed violently around the surface of the page, each colour drawn in a single, abrupt line which crossed with another and then another again to form a darkening spiral which pulled the viewer’s gaze hypnotically into the centre of the creased page as if to lead them along a long dark tunnel, light falling away to blackness, browns and greys becoming black. At the very centre of this tunnel of deep colours (a point now cracked and seamed by Ricky’s meticulously exact folding of the sheet of paper) a single almond shaped eye—a woman’s eye—stared out from the blackness. And from within this eye, replacing the pupil which would have otherwise have been there, a moon had been drawn, bright and full and exact in every detail of its cratered surface. Around this eye, mingling in and out of the vortex of colours which swirled and drew one’s gaze towards its source, six large dogs drawn only as outlines in browns and blacks, ran in a circle, their savage eyes red and on fire, their jaws biting the tail of the dog in front of them just as in turn, their tail was being bitten by the beast behind. And across all of this, a series of dislocated lines arid dark shadows of the background of colours came together to form a single, obscure word …….

Revenant

It wasn’t the first time that Ricky had ever done a drawing such as this. He had been drawing such pictures (or ones similar to it) ever since he had been a young child and had picked up his first set of coloured crayons and lain their flat, promising tips to paper. For Ricky, these drawings had always gone beyond the simple scribblings of a child in the throes of developing their artistic skills to whatever level their meager talents would allow them. For him, drawing, and at times painting, were emotional outlets which allowed him an expression of his thoughts and feelings denied by the words which all too often failed to express his emotions. They were pressure valves for him. They allowed him to unburden his conscience of emotional luggage in much the same way as someone might keep a journal or a diary. And when he would finish them, exhausting the last of his creative energy across the paper—he would file them away in a drawer, purged of the emotion which had given them their birth.

There had even been a time not too many years ago when he had assembled a portfolio of what he had then considered to be some of his better sketches and, drawing himself up for what he had seen as the inevitable scorn, he had sent them off to one of the smaller art galleries in Sydney for their critique. Time had gone by, days turning into weeks, weeks into months, until at last he had finally received a reply from the Gallery director, praising his work as being ‘Unusually mature in their emotional depth and honesty’ and as showing an ‘intrinsic understanding of the human psyche,’ though he had pursued neither the favourable response nor the flowery phrasing of the letter any further. Instead he had simply done what he had always done and had filed the drawings back away into the darkness of his bureau where he would occasionally take them out……

…….. and wonder.

No. This: wasn’t the first time that Ricky had done a drawing such as this, but it was the first time that one of his drawings had unsettled him as much as-this one did.

It was also the first time that he had been in a trance when he had created it.

At least, that was what Ricky had thought himself to have been in when he had pulled himself out from beneath the sheets in the very early hours of that morning and had paced his way, bare foot, through the night shadows across to where his easel stood on the other side of the room. He could remember standing there in the darkness, hovering in the half-land, awake but hardly feeling the night chill of the room’s naked floorboards upon the soles of his feet. He could remember reaching down and tacking a piece of cartridge paper to the sloping pine frame before him. He could remember reaching for the ice cream container which held the whittled stubs of his pencils and pastels. Yet after that, he had been able to remember nothing more. It had almost been as if after that point, he had fallen back into the arms of sleep and his body had continued to move and operate on autopilot, his hands grabbing blindly for pens and crayons, working them across the surface of the page until they became blunted, then reaching for another one. His movements unseeing, wild and yet somehow controlled and purposeful as he struck at the paper, punching and slashing it with colour.

It hadn’t been until he had fully awoken later on that morning as the dawn light filtered in through his bedroom window that he had truly seen what it was that he had done.

‘Revenant,’ Ricky uttered the word croakily, almost as if it were forbidden. Sounding it to the dry, afternoon stillness which filled the inside of the barn, his fingers idly tracing the lines of the drawing just as his mouth traced the outline of the single obtrusive word scratched across its face.

‘Revenant.’

That one word had been the only thing that remained with him when he finally woke that morning. That one meaningless word and nothing else.

After he showered, washing way the thoughts of the night before, he had emerged from his room and gone to the coffee table where his mother stacked the monthly women’s magazines to which she had seemed permanently addicted, pulling from amongst them the small Webster’s dictionary which she sometimes used to aid her with the crossword puzzles that each publication carried whenever her small town literacy failed her.

Revel.

Revelation.

Revenge.

Revenue.

Revere.

But no Revenant. What was it about that word? Why did it feel to him so strange, so alien and yet at the same time so familiar? He had tried to fight the word, he had tried to understand it, dissect it and in the end he had even tried to forget it. But no matter what it was that he tried or however he attempted to occupy himself (and with the thoughts of Jilly White, his hungry guilt and his nocturnal artistic endeavours still fresh in his mind, there was a lot else to think about), he could not stop himself from dwelling upon that one simple, apparently mindless word.

It wasn’t until he had ventured into Rowan later on that morning in his father’s utility to buy his dad a copy of the Sunday morning paper and its eighteen page pull out racing guide from Hartwig’s Newsagency that he came to anything approaching an understanding as to just what that word meant.

The paper stand which carried most of the Sunday regulars as well as the People magazine, Post, Picture and any other number of the tit and bum weekly tabloids, stood at the far end of the long, narrow store. Mister Hartwig, an old man with arthritic hands and a set of Mister Magoo glasses perched upon the end of his bulbous nose, who had hailed Ricky heartily as he entered the front of the store. . . .

(‘Big’ John gonna win some dolla’s on tha gee-gee’s t’day Ricky?’)

. . . had once told him that his boy had attended one of those flash, big city sales seminars a couple of years earlier. The kind (Mister Hartwig had reliably informed him) where men wore expensive suits and had teeth so white and polished that a man needed a pair of sunglasses on whenever they smiled (which was damned near all tha time), and that about the only even half useful idea that his son had come back with was to make the customers that wandered in every morning for their daily papers walk past everything else on offer in the store before they wandered back out again. Mister Hartwig had told Ricky at the time that the tramped up car salesman that had held the seminar had called it ‘Maximizing Your Full Saleable Potential’, but he just called it good, old fashioned common sense.

As was always the case when arriving at the newsagency on a Sunday morning to pick up his father’s papers, Ricky’s first port of call amongst the many long, tiered shelves of monthly magazines and periodicals, had been to a section slotted in between the craft-type publications (Doll Digest, Folk Art Monthly, Australian Artist etc.) and those others which fell into the ‘House and Garden’ mould, a section of magazines tagged by a small red and white header card as ‘Special Interest’. In most small town newsagencies, the heading of ‘Special Interest’ magazines usually encompassed a wide and varied range of what was thought to be on the far outer fringes of what was considered by most locals as acceptable reading matter (acceptable reading matter in most outback towns such as Rowan being Rugby League Weekly, Guns and Ammo, and Penthouse) but here in Hartwig’s agency, where the range of reading material was as diverse as it was in most of the larger city stores, the category of ‘Special Interest’ was somewhat more refined. They included such publications as self sufficiency magazines, magazines on alternative medicines and alternative lifestyles, books on organic garden (Greenie shit, ‘Big’ John McKinnan called these, the idea of apparently living with the land rather than against being too radical for a farmer like him to comprehend), natural health and even those belonging to the new age freelance press.

These were Ricky’s favourites. They were often small, modest publications with no glossy covers, unlike those others around them, and only a cheaper quality newsprint page inside instead of the more regularly acceptable matt art paper. But it was their contents, articles on aura reading, channeling, reincarnation and crystal healing, which truly differentiated them from those around them.

Of these magazines, Ricky had a large collection. It wasn’t that he necessarily believed in all of these things—after all, he had been raised in a household where skepticism and sneering at anything which existed outside of the norm were inherent traits, but he wasn’t totally closed to them either. He liked the idea that there might be something more to life, a different view to things outside of the way that he had been taught to look at life by his parents and which was reinforced by those of a like mind around him. He had always needed to feel that there was something else out there instead of an uncaring world and an equally uncaring god ruling over it and it seemed that, in these oft-times cheap, often poorly produced publications, with their stories of alien abductions and alternate realities, shamanism and spirits, there might be some glimmer as to just what this ‘something else’ was.

‘Got a new copy of Wisdom of the Ancients in for ya Ricky,’ Mister Hartwig had called out across the store from over the rim of his thick, Coke bottle glasses, from his place at the front counter where he was writing out a casket ticket for an elderly grey haired couple. ‘It come in earlier on in tha week but I kept it aside for ya just in case ya’ cared to have a look at it.′

Ricky had smiled wanly, thanking him with a nod . . . (he had neither the extra funds nor the inclination to buy such a magazine at that moment but he guessed rather resignedly that now that Mister Hartwig had said that he had gone out of his way to keep the periodical aside for him, he was going to have to buy it. Ricky McKinnan was just that type of inoffensive young man)... and he had just returned to his idle scanning across the faces of the monthly magazines before him when he came across a new publication that he hadn’t seen before.

The Aquarian.

There was something different about it that caught his eye and that made it stand out from those others around it. It was no bigger, no thicker than those other, similarly veined magazines which he had bought before. Its pages appeared to be printed on the same cheap stock, even its cover art, a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper capped by the bold headline ‘Jesus had a twin brother. Startling new evidence’ did little to attract his attention. Yet his interest was drawn to it just the same.

Ricky had gone to lift it from its place in the rack, intent upon giving it a cursory read (and expecting to see only the usual sensationalist stories about how Merlin was alive and well and living beneath the Himalayas and how flying saucers were really piloted by angels, God’s own private airforce) when a small booklet, no bigger than a novelette slid out from between its pages and landed on the spotlessly clean tiled floor at his feet. He had stooped down to pick it up (throwing a quick glance across at Mister Hartwig in the process as he did so. Ron Hartwig was notoriously protective about his business and had several signs around the store, all of them proclaiming the same thing . . .

Lovely to look at—wonderful to hold.

But if it gets damaged—consider it sold.

... and had turned it over in his hands as he again stood, to read the text printed in red ink across its small face over a black and white reproduction of a seventeenth century wood cutting showing witches being burnt at the stake, surrounded by their families.

THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FOLKLORE AND MYTH

PART 4 WESTERN EUROPE

He had glanced back once more over the cover of the parent magazine and seeing at the bottom of one of the disciples feet, a small box of text saying that the booklet was a free offer, one of twelve in a series, he flicked it open and scanned briefly across the pages of dictionary like format, listing demons names, mythical monsters from medieval folklore and spirits, each followed by a brief descriptive passage and reference listings.

Then, he froze ... his eyes widened a little and he felt his mouth come open on its hinges to gape at the page.

It was close to the back of the booklet, under R and in between Red Pigs and Rhabdomancy, and though he hadn’t been in anyway consciously looking for the word, his gaze caught it firmly and refused to let it go.

Revenant.

It had been spelt differently from what he had thought and what he had written himself as he had ‘sleep-drawn’ that previous night— an E instead of an A—but he was sure that it was the same word. It had to be.

He mouthed it silently to himself, moving his lips slowly around its edges, tasting it, and he felt his stomach tighten into a tight ball as he folded back the page on the small booklet’s spine and craned it close to his face to read its tiny, condensed text.

Revenant; (rev-en-ent) Vengeful spirit from ancient Celtic/Gaulle folklore pre-daling Christian influences of the early middle ages. Believed to inhabit the body of a murdered man or woman on or about the time of the full moon with the purpose of exacting a retribution upon those responsible for death. See also: Herne, master of the hunt.

Suddenly, in that one pure, prosaic moment, Ricky thought that he understood everything which before had seemed so vague to him, so strange. Now he truly thought that he could see clearly for the first time, the meaning of the message which had lain hidden in his drawing. The full moon replacing the pupil in the woman’s eye! The six black dogs which formed a circle around its centre.

Yes! Now he saw it all.

Six black dogs. The six of us there that night! And with that thought, that realization, a cold knife of certainty stabbed deep into his chest, sinking into his pounding heart as these words formed within his mind.

He went to place the booklet back into the magazine with a trembling hand—almost dropping it again and bending several of its pages back upon itself as he did so and he struggled with it until at last, he finally managed to slot it back into its place between the pages, returning the magazine whole to its place on the rack along side with the other publications of its kind.

‘She’s coming to get you Ricky.’ A voice said from behind him, (he was sure that it came from behind him. Close behind!) and he jumped, a startled squawk escaping his throat as he spun around to see whoever it was there that had spoken. But of course, there was no one there—only himself and the voice inside of his head. Mister Hartwig looked up briefly from the counter in his direction before he resumed his conversation with Stan Hauser and Mick Henry about the Rabbito’s versus Bears match, while Missus Simpson from the state school’s P & C eyed him warily as she lifted a magazine from the rack beside him and then made her way across to the newsagency’s counter in a wide, cautious path.

‘She’s coming back for you Ricky. She’s watching and she’s waiting and when she’s ready, she’s going to come back and take every single one of you in the same way that you took her.’

‘No.’ The word came hoarsely out from between Ricky’s lips, almost a whisper as he tried to shut this voice out. Yet still it went on.

’Yes Ricky. She’s out there now, waiting, somewhere off in the shadows until night when she’ll come back. Maybe she’ll come for you tonight or maybe she’ll come for one of the others but she will come. Maybe you ’II see her tonight Ricky, standing off in the shadows when you go out onto the front porch when all of the rest of the house is asleep, or maybe you ‘II see her face pressed up against the glass of your bedroom window, white and ghostly beneath the moon’s milky light, her dead eyes burning black fire.’

‘No!’ he said, louder this time, as he backed away a step from the rack, slamming his palms up over his ears in an effort to block out the voice. He was only distantly aware from out of the corner of his eye of Mr Hartwig moving around the front counter towards him, a knot of concern furrowing his age-lined face as he said something that was lost to the voice inside of his head—a voice which seemed to call to him alone yet at the same time to be one of many—a choir of voices, high and low, speaking to him together as one.

The faces of other customers around the store turned towards him, seeming to loom over him, leering in at him omnipresently. He staggered back another step, bumping into a rotating book stand behind him. The stand teetered precariously on its single leg before toppling to the floor, spilling a score of books from its wire frame around his feet.

‘Then make things right Ricky.’ The voice continued, drowning all else out. ’Make things right. Remember the guns Ricky. Show ‘Big’ John how you can use the guns.′

A hand fell upon his shoulder, spinning him around and he stared uncomprehendingly up at the large face of a man aside of him, his features seeming to swim in and out of focus before Ricky’s eyes . . . the man spoke . . .‘You all right there, boy?’,

... barely registering with him as anything more than a distorted blur in the spinning, churning maelstrom of thoughts and sounds and laughter and voices filling the inside of his head……‘Yo u wla llrig h t tth e reb o oyyyyy’

Other faces came in upon him as some of the store’s customers moved in closer to see if they could be of help (Mavis Simpson would tell her husband of thirty-seven years, Percy, later on that night that she was sure the boy was having some kind of fit. Percy would reply in his usual offhanded way that it was ‘prob’ly drugs’).

He needed to get out.

He needed to escape from them—from these faces and these voices.

Ricky pushed his way through them, swinging his arms and sending a cardboard display stand holding Bryce Courtney’s latest book scattering across the floor, and knocking Mike McKenna—who had moved from his place at the counter to block off the doorway having caught only half of the commotion from out the corner of his eye and thinking Ricky was trying to do a runner with some of the stock—into the Easter egg display set up next to the card stand against the wall as he had run out into the warmth of the mid-morning sun pursued by the laughter of voices ringing mockingly in his ears.

A chill shook its way along the length of Ricky’s spine and he brought his hands together, intent upon screwing the sheet of cartridge paper, and the drawing it held-upon its white face, into a tight ball when he caught himself, his palms held apart as if they gripped a football, with the leaf of paper accordioned between them. He opened his hands again, his indecision giving the drawing one last glance, then he folded it neatly on his lap following the same crease as before and thrust it into his shirt pocket.

Revenant.

He shook his head wearily.

Did he really believe that somehow, some way, the girl was still out there, her dead body possessed by the force of some spirit intent upon revenge? Did he honestly think she was going to come back for him and the others who had been there that night, just as the passage in the magazine booklet had said?

He wanted to say no to these thoughts, but only a part of him (he wouldn’t admit it to himself then how small a part it was) believed that, yes, it was foolish to believe such a thing. Of course it was childish to give weight to such an absurd notion as the dead coming to life.

Just superstitious folklore, Ricky, that part of him said, myths and legends created by men who still believed the earth was carried upon the back of a turtle and that earthquakes were caused by dragons turning in their sleep. The girl is dead. You were there when she was killed. You wanted to look away but you saw her die. She’s not coining back.

But these were hollow words only. They sounded reasonable of course, full of a simple common sense logic but they held no conviction for him. How could logic, common sense or otherwise, explain the details of the drawing he had completed the night before while he was in what he could only believe was some kind of somnambulistic trance? And how could it explain the new magazine just happening to be there on the shelf for him to find that morning, the magazine with the booklet which just happened to fall out at his feet? What about that one Ricky? And how could common sense logic explain opening the booklet at almost the exact page and finding almost the exact word he had scrawled across the face of his drawing? How about that?

It wasn’t simple enough for him to label these things under coincidence, blind chance. Those words sounded as weak and as hollow as simple, common sense logic often did.

No. She was out there all right, Ricky thought, and the sound of his own voice echoing in his head scared him more than anything else. She’s out there and she’s waiting, and one by one she’s going to get us all.

And once again, Ricky found his thoughts turning to the gun.

5

It was late that evening on what had turned out to be a long, long Sunday, perhaps the longest recorded Sunday . . .

No . . . Strike that. The longest recorded any day of his entire twenty-nine year career,

…… before Frank Brannigan had finally had a chance to rest and to listen, really listen, to the run of his thoughts. He sat alone in the darkened office, his large form just beyond the reach of the circle of light cast out across the width of the small room from the shaded globe of his desk mounted reading lamp. His gaze fixed contemplatively on the night beyond the office window and the bugs and moths that flitted across its dirt streaked pane.

The moulded clay ashtray which he had placed within an easy arm’s reach at the edge of his cluttered desk was now crowded with the crumpled butts of the many cigarettes he had smoked since returning from Murphy’s Tavern at just on dusk, the remnants of the long hours since, and he had another perched, alive and smouldering, between the tips of his chunky, nicotine stained fingers. He raised the cigarette to his mouth, drawing the last from its length before stubbing it out on the ashtray’s rim with a nicotine stained thumb and he eased himself back into the stiff wooden form of the office chair, dragging his hands through his thinning grey thatch, a curl of smoke drifting lazily out from between his parted lips. A small portable fan rattled noisily from the corner of the room where it sat propped on top of a filing cabinet, its breeze doing little to abate the still, evening heat. Frank closed his eyes, allowing his thoughts to go out past its tinny hum, to the silence of the building beyond the closed office door.

He had sent both Bobby and Mitch home early for the day once the scene out at the tavern was as secured as it was going to get and the state C.I.B. team had arrived to take over the nominal operations that had been established up to that point. There had been, and was still, work to do, plenty of it….

There goes the monthly overtime budget, Frank had thought when they had first received the call about the stabbing that morning.

…..and the boys had handled themselves well enough in the face of what was a very trying situation for them all. But an edge had begun to creep into their voices when they had talked amongst themselves, one which he hadn’t liked and their tempers had started to fray around the fringes with the crowd of onlookers as well as with each other, so he had told them to beat it. Call it shell shock, call it fatigue if you wanted, but experience had long since taught Frank that day two of an investigation was always the worst—when things first started to come together for the investigation team and the initial confusion of trying to figure out just what the hell had happened began to fade. Although the part they would be playing as a small town cop-shop in what was now a wholly owned and operated state murder inquiry was going to be minor to say the least, he wanted his deputy constables rested and ready to go. Tomorrow it would be a case of all hands on deck and the last thing he either wanted or needed was for one or both of his young off-siders to ring him up in the early hours of next morning suffering from a case of delayed stress and calling it a sudden bout of the flu.

He had stayed on longer, of course, watching on the fringes of the entire operation like some understudy watching an ongoing play from the wings, until the state forensic unit had packed up its array ’of technical toys and the body of Tommy Harn, along with the door of the cupboard that the knife through his throat had nailed him to, had been loaded, enclosed within the dark green plastic of a body bag, into the back of the coroner’s van.

Frank had then set about the task himself of interviewing the bar staff as they turned up for the morning shift of the new day’s trade, taking statements from those few who had been present the night before (apparently, according to the hotel janitor, Harn had lived in the motel room for some months since he had arrived back in Rowan from the big city lights, broke and without a place to stay now that his old man had been put into care and the family home had been sold to pay for his upkeep). When everything else was finally said and done, and the last of the state police had rolled their cruisers back out onto the bypass, he had handed the keys of the scrupulously cleaned and sterilized motel room back to its decidedly wary licensed owner and had hit the road himself to drive the score of miles back into town as the first golden washes of dusk had begun their sweep across the towns sprawling, far western skyline.

And throughout all of this, ever since returning from the churchyard earlier that morning, he had never once forgotten the reluctant promise he had made to Ces Ham, nor the unpleasant, leathery firmness of the old man’s hand on his arm.

Brannigan leaned forward in the chair once more, his big features emerging from the darkness of night shadows into the dull yellow circle of light from the lamp and rubbed some of the tiredness from his red eyes before he glanced down at the desk’s cluttered face. Over two dozen enlarged police photographs were scattered across the desktop in front of him, lying on top of the usual neglected muddle and he sifted his hand idly through them, selecting one and holding it up to the light. Trapped within the hard and unforgiving details of the print before him, the young man who had once been Tommy Harn, with a life and a future, was shown in a cruel parody of standing, staked to the door of the motel room’s kitchen cupboard by a knife showing only as a rounded wooden handle protruding from the bloody mess of his throat, his dead, unseeing eyes staring out fixedly through the photograph’s glossy surface.

Frank felt a small shudder work its way up along the length of his spine at the sight of those wide, lifeless eyes which held within them the shock of the moment of death, and he dragged a weary hand across his lined and pitted brow. Promise me Frank, the voice of Cec Harn said again inside his head, promise me you’ll catch whoever did this to my boy. Tommy doesn ’t deserve much for the way he was or the way he treated people in life but he deserves that much at least.

‘I couldn’t agree more with you old boy,’ Frank muttered quietly to himself in the rooms cavernous stillness and he dropped the enlarged print back on the pile.

He had worked the phone double time earlier in the evening once he had figured out how to bypass the empty dispatch (Sunday afternoons, emergency or not, were Dotty’s times off and God help any man who tried to take that away from her) to call up an outside line direct from his office telephone. The first of these calls had been a mere formality—he had got in touch with the Tarro Community Hospital once again to either confirm or deny whether the misplaced body of Jillian White had, as yet, become officially ‘Placed’. The answer to his inquiries had been a resounding negative and, once again, Frank had found himself having to reign in his temper when talking to Miller, the hospital administrator who had continued throughout to insist that the blame for the disappearance of the dead girl’s remains obviously lay with someone other than him or any members of his faculty. The second of these calls had been to Sam Parker at the Royal Exchange Hotel across the road to ask if he could pass a message on to Peter White as soon as possible and ask him to come across to the station house ‘Is it important?’ Sam had asked and Frank had replied with a gruff, ‘Of course it is’. Not only does the boy not have a sister any more but now he also has no body to bury and I get to be the chump who has to tell him.

. And the final calls? The third, fourth and fifth of these had been to Joseph Pittman, head of the State C.I.B., Homicide Division, in Brisbane. Pittman had been Frank’s partner on the streets in those last few years before Danny’s death had taken its toll, and he had been a man who had carefully nurtured his rapidly burgeoning career in the force while Frank had just as rapidly flushed his down the toilet. The two men had kept in contact over the years, sparingly so in the last few, but the old ties which had formed between both men on the street were still there. Or at least, Brannigan hoped they were!. Frank had thought that with the deaths of both Jillian White and Tommy Harn coming one after the other on his turf, there would be no better time to renew old friendships. If the matter of the two murders just happened to come up in conversation, and Pittman could happen to see his way clear to supply him with some of the information Frank wasn’t privy to as a small town cop, then all the better.

Brannigan had tried without success to get through to Pittman’s office, striking only a prolonged session of Musak while he was transferred through from inquiries each time and managed only to leave a short, eight second message on the man’s answering machine. In the end he had resigned himself to the probability of a long night of his own doubts about both cases and the possibility of a no ‘returned call’ until next morning, if at all. He had almost been knocked over with the proverbial feather four and a half hours later when a security express courier had turned up at the darkened station’s front door with a brown manila package marked ‘Confidential’ and an envelope postmarked from the Brisbane C.I.B. The package had contained several manila folders, each holding within their covers a set of enlarged digital prints of the police photographs of Tommy Harn’s body taken at the motel room and the copies of those taken a day earlier of Jilly White’s body concealed in the dead fallen tree at Shailer’s Gully. Along with these were photocopies of the official crime scene grids, duplicates of the initial coroner’s report as well as those of the statements taken at the scenes, and a set of blurred fingerprints lifted from the knife handle which had skewered Tommy Harn’s throat.

A hand written letter contained within the small, attending envelope taped to the outside of the package read:

Joseph K. Pittman. Homicide Division

Frank, you whorey old bastard. Jesus but it’s good to hear from you again. It’s been too long old chum, way too long by half.

I’ve just caught the arse-end of your message on the answering machine as I came on duty this evening and have sent you just about everything that I can currently get my hands on regarding the two murder inquiries you mentioned.

Truth be known, I had already started assembling what I could about both to send out to you once I saw your name and the Rowan Police Station mentioned on the reports. I figured that it wouldn’t be too long before you started to raise the hackles at the state boys coming in and stomping all over your patch out there in Hicksville, so here it is! Looks like things sure have been busy out your way old friend. I had to kick some arses to get you what you’ve currently got in you’re hot little hands. It’s not much I know but it’s just about all that I can get for you at the moment so hang in there. I’ll check up on the spectratests etc. on the White killing for you ASAP and I should have something more for you on the stabbing at the motel tomorrow morning. No promises on that one though. Like I say, it’s not much but at the moment, what you have there in front of you is about the same as we have here.

Talk to you soon.

Needless to say, you didn’t get this information from me or anyone in my office!!!

P.S. Are the fish biting?

Frank smiled at this last line and looked up towards the far wall of his office where a gallery of framed honour certificates and black and white photographs stared out from their dusty glass enclosed faces into the still, near darkness of the room. Amongst these, below the cracked Timex which tolled out its faithful beat of seconds and next to a framed copy of Danny’s Academy Entrance Diploma, a hand tinted polaroid showing both Joe Pittman and Frank, twenty years and a fistful of pounds younger, proudly displaying a thirty pound flathead between them for the camera.

There had been a time once, when both men had been fresh and still with their careers stretching out far before them, when they would while away the idle hours of city street beats, talking about what they hoped for their futures and what they dreamed of as their ideal assignments. Joe Pittman’s had been to head his own department and Frank’s had been to land a station posting out on one of the many tourist island destinations dotting the coastline. Over the years that had passed both men by, these dreams had become, like all dreams, phantoms of their former selves. For Joseph Pittman, he had got his own department, all be it too late in his career to make anything more of it but a secure stepping stone into retirement. And for Frank Brannigan, the fantasy of spending his days patrolling coastal beach strips had blown away like so much sand in the wind along with his career. Only the memories of the dreams had remained and the half hearted reminder of them in the phrase ‘Are the fish biting?’ A bitter catch-cry shared by both men.

Brannigan sighed, letting his gaze fall once more to the clutter of photographs and grids, forensic tests and reports which lay sprawled out across his desk and shook his head. Even now, after reviewing the information before him—information other cops in his situation wouldn’t be privy to—the strange feeling that had nagged at him all day still remained.

What am I missing ?

Was it just simply a case of looking for more than there was to be seen when it came to Tommy Harn’s brutal murder? Was it nothing more than a case of the boy being in the wrong place at the wrong time, just as Jilly White .had been only two days earlier? Could the entire Harn killing be put down to the simple brutalities of a burglary gone wrong as Mitch Gardiner had suggested earlier in the day and as most of the state detectives.at the scene had been inclined to believe?

Maybe, he thought, lighting himself another cigarette and easing himself back once more in his chair to rest his balding head against the smooth plaster of the office wall, his gaze firmly set upon the array of photographic prints.

Just maybe. But his gut instinct said otherwise.

And there it was again.

His gut instinct.

Why in God’s name was he so willing to go against the simple logic and inelegant facts of Tommy’s death on nothing more than a whim coughed up by his subconscious? Why was he so ready to fly in the face of what was, by all accounts, a sad but brutally typical stabbing because of an uncertainty drawn out by the blunted edge of what had once, long-ago, been an innate feeling for trouble?

Because it just doesn’t fit, Frank, he told himself as he craned his head back to stare off into the darkened corners of the room’s cobweb encrusted ceiling.

What other reasons do you need? There are just too many grey areas in what had gone on in that motel room the night before to get an accurate idea as to what led up to the knife going through Tommy Harn’s neck and into the door of the kitchen cupboard behind him. I can see that, even if none of the crew cuts in fresh suits who attended the scene could. Just cross these off your check list Frank, ol’ buddy. There were no obvious signs of a robbery. Sure, the front door to the room had been forced and sure, it pointed to all the traditional trade marks of a break and enter but lets look at point number one right there. No instrument of any kind was used to pry it open. There were no marks pushed into the soft timber of the doorframe where a lever of any kind was used. The lock wasn’t picked. Granted, there were signs of the typical scarring of the male lock wedge where it had been forced against the female frame so whoever had done the dirty deed had gotten inside the room with either a shoulder shove or a well placed boot. Now, as far as I’m concerned, that meant whoever the person was, he wasn’t all that fussed about whether anyone heard him or not. Not very smart for someone intent on knocking over a room for cash and making a getaway without being noticed.

Next point.

The light was off. Had blown, according to one of the boys from forensic but when you placed that fact up against what else had happened there that night, any coincidence surrounding it began to take on decidedly sinister under tones.

Nothing for sure.

Next point. There was still some small amount of money as well as a couple of credit cards left in the boy’s wallet. Why? There were also no other signs of anything else’ in the room having been rifled outside of the struggle. Why, again?

And then, last but not least, there was Tommy Ham himself and the way he had been killed.

Savage.

Brutal.

Effective.

Hung up by the knife in his throat for all to see like he was a carcass in a butcher’s shop.

What about them apples Frank?

And he guessed then and there that that was the one point sticking in his throat the most. If Harn did walk in on someone going through his room, and he did try foolishly to take him on in a little mono-on-mono, why in God’s name did the intruder finish the boy off the way he did? Why not just clip him a good one over the back of the head, maybe land a boot into his gut for good measure, and get the hell outta there? Why turn yourself from being a petty criminal up on a charge of theft and aggravated assault into a member of the state’s most wanted club with a charge of first degree murder and the possibility of life imprisonment hanging over your head?

Nope.

None of it fitted.

Not even close.

For the time being at least, one possible scenario hovering close to the edge of what Frank considered acceptable, was that of drugs.

Imagine, if you will, a man in dire need of a fix or better still, already riding high on a veritable pharmacy of illegal substances floating in his veins. Imagine also, said man breaking into a room which just happened to belong to one Tommy Harn, in search of cash, pills or perhaps something pawnable so he could acquire one or both of these, and then being interrupted midway through his rummaging. A fight breaks out, a slightly intoxicated Harn who, the manager of the tavern had said in his statement that the boy had been drinking steadily since noon, would have been no match for someone flying high on drugs, and ends up nailed to his kitchen wall. The intruder then has a flash of something vaguely resembling a sober thought, no doubt brought on by the adrenaline surge of the fight, or perhaps the more mundane downer of a rush of conscience, wonders what in the fucking hell has he done and high tails it, bloodied and panicked, off into the night.

There was a certain logic there and for a time Frank allowed himself to come close to believing in it, allowing it some room to bounce around before he dismissed the entire notion for no real reason at all besides the nagging doubts.

Yep, he thought, he was definitely missing something. Something very, very basic. Something that would shine a little light on those grey areas he could see before him and he knew that, until he found out what the something was, those grey areas were only going to get darker. The station’s front doorbell rang, shattering the near silence of the office from its clarion placed halfway along the hall and though Frank didn’t jump at the sound of it, he did start enough for his feet to slip a little underneath so that the chair he had rocked backed upon came crashing down. There was no moment of wondering who would be ringing the door bell at this late hour on a Sunday night, no moment of wondering what emergency would need his help or who he was going to be called out to scrape off up the road. He knew immediately it would be Peter White here to answer his call and he spread his beefy arms out over the desk to hurriedly round up the photographs and reports on Harn and Peter’s dead sister, stuffing them beneath a mountain of paper occupying the ‘IN’ tray. He then stood up from behind his desk, killing the unsmoked length of his cigarette in the over crowded ashtray.

Another carcass for the boneyard, he thought idly as he headed across the room to walk along the darkened hallway and out into dispatch and the deserted foyer.

Peter White stood with his back towards the frosted glass of the closed double doors, staring off into the night time shadows crowding between the trees that dominated the station’s front yard, his elongated silhouette spilling out across the white tiled floor of the foyer. He turned around slowly at the sound of Brannigan’s heels approaching and Frank felt his breath catch in the back of his throat at the sight of the young man’s haggard, seemingly aged features beneath the blue glow of the ‘POLICE’ light set off to the side of the overgrown front path. He was reminded in that one instant of a body he had discovered during his probationary year, his first, and the image of it had never left him. He had been walking the pavements of his beat, checking out the local night spots with his partner of the time, when he had seen a pair of bare feet sticking out into the night from behind the shadows of an industrial bin that all but filled a narrow, downtown alley. He had walked around, sure the feet would belong to a derelict who had found himself a warm place to kip out for the night and he had clipped them with the toe of his boot telling whoever the feet belonged to too move on. There had been no response and when he had nudged the old man’s shoulder with the edge of his baton his head had lolled into the wedge of light thrown down from the overhead street lights. Eyes wide open and dilated, skin pale, the lips, beneath the straggly hair of his grey, matted beard, a deep lifeless blue. Frank had been told later when the ambulance had arrived to haul the body away that the man had been dead for two days, maybe three.

No one ever found out who the man was, if he had a family or even where he had come from and after all these years, Frank still remembered the waxen face and those dead, unseeing eyes with the same clarity of moment, and a deep sense of sadness, as he had when he’d seen them for the first time.

But, of course, now it wasn’t any anonymous derelict he was looking at and he wasn’t any wet-behind-the-ears rookie cop. It was Peter White there in front of him and even though he looked bad . . .

Hell! Forget about looking bad, Frank thought, staring at the gaunt, drained features of the young man before him, the boy looks as if he’s just been put through a tumble dryer . . . ... he was still very much alive.

‘Jesus, Peter,’ he said when he finally shifted the double dead bolt to open the door and step out into the warm night air. Moths droned lazily against street signs and a car glided its way along the length of Tompson Street, outward bound. ’You look like shit!”

‘Thanks a lot,’ Peter White tried to laugh, his smile getting no further than a slight sharpening in the corner of his eyes before it fell away and, for the first time, Frank noticed the savage depth of some of the premature lining which seamed and carved the once young looking, angular face.

‘I’m serious, Peter,’ Brannigan replied and Peter nodded gravely in agreement from the top of the station’s front steps.

‘I know, Frank,’ he said, trying to shrug off the old cop’s concern, ‘I’m just tired I guess. Haven’t been able to sleep much since I got here into town. Blame it on too hard a mattress or the water if you like.’ Then, in a valiant effort to change the subject, he asked ‘You left a message? You wanted to see me?’

Frank nodded but he wasn’t swayed in the least from his concerns at the young man’s gaunt appearance. He watched Peter step past him and walk haltingly down the hallway towards the dim glow of light showing from his partially ajar office door. It was then that he became set in his mind for the first time that, like it or not, tomorrow he was going to take the lad in to see a doctor even if he had to drag him there every step of the way kicking and screaming.

6

He felt……. cheated.

He felt other things of course.

Gutted. Sick to his stomach. Miserable and more.

But above all of these, it was the feeling of being cheated which stuck in his throat the most.

Jilly’s gone now. Not just dead. That was bad enough in itself, unbearable almost, but now even her body had been taken, like so much else, from him. How could he say goodbye to his sister and lay her memory to rest when even that small mercy had been torn from his heart?

Peter looked down at his hands, his head bowed as he tried to comprehend, even on some small level, what had just been told to him.

No.

Of course Jilly ’s body isn’t missing from the hospital, he tried to tell himself without any real trace of conviction in his voice. Why would anyone in their right mind want to remove a body from a morgue? It just didn’t happen, couldn’t happen, at least not since Bourke had swung from the gallows. This whole fucked up state, was obviously just some sort of perverted mistake.

Yet in his heart, a voice cried out from deep within and he knew this wasn’t any mistake. He could tell that easily by the look on Brannigan’s face and the certainty in the older man’s eyes that he wouldn’t have even dreamed of making this call to him if there was any thread of doubt, no matter how slight, that the whole sordid mess wasn’t one hundred percent kosher. Men like Brannigan do not make those kinds of mistakes.

‘When?’ was all Peter could finally croak. As if it mattered.

‘Word first came through from the hospital supervisor earlier this morning,’ Frank said from where he had stood at the window while he told Peter, in a solemn apologetic voice, about the calls he had caught during the day. ‘Though the man seems to think it’s quite possible that the disappearance of Jilly’s remains could have taken place at just about any point through the previous night.’

‘Why would anyone want to?’ Peter stopped and coughed the emotion from his throat.

He said no more.

‘To steal a body?’ asked Frank, finishing for him, and then shrugged. ‘Well. Basically, as yet, there’s no one at the hospital really prepared to say anyone did. Miller ... er ... that is, the hospital supervisor out there at Tarro said they have nothing but the best security arrangements in line with those of the other hospitals in the state. Reputation and that. I guess if the word got out that a body had been taken from the morgue of a hospital he was in charge of, he’d be laughed off the board and all the way out of the medical profession. By the same token he wasn’t prepared to say they’ve misplaced her. The result for him would be just about the same. Whichever way you want to look at it, it’s incompetence on their part of a pretty high bloody order.’

“I am sorry, Peter,′ Frank said finally and was struck with a vague feeling of deja-vu, standing there as he was and looking at this same young man with his head bowed as if had been yesterday morning. Watching as he took yet another full-on kick in the guts and bear it with the same quiet grief and dignity he had shown at the news on his sister’s disappearance and then of her death only a day earlier, Frank couldn’t help but feel a growing admiration for him. This time however, shrugging off the feeling of sameness from the day earlier, there was no reluctance of his part to offer the young lad at least some small measure of comfort. Frank walked across to Peter, slumped in the office chair, his head cradled in the palms of his hands and he placed his large hand bracingly upon the boy’s forearm.-

‘I’m truly sorry,’ he repeated, and Peter White quietly nodded his head.

It was then that he noticed for the first time the dark red stain of bruised skin at the back of the lad’s neck and the puffy blotchiness creeping around in a collar beneath. his jawline. The knot of concern he had felt before at his first sight of the man’s haggard appearance returned to his brow.

He walked around the edge of the circle of yellow light thrown across the room by the reading lamp, crossing to the other side of the desk and opened the bottom drawer to pull out a-small silver plated flask, from which he poured them both a three finger shot of whisky into a couple of glasses he kept on top of the filing-cabinet.

‘Here!’ Frank passed the small glass across the desk towards Peter.

The young man tried to wave it away but Frank was insistent and he took it in a trembling hand, a grateful smile stretching across his drawn features.

He looked into the glass held there infront of him for a moment, almost appearing to study it and the promising golden liquid held within and then, faintly at first, a barely perceived shudder began to rock at his hand, building rapidly until at last his feeble grip slackened, and the glass slipped through his limp grasp tumbling to the floor. Both men made to move for the glass as it fell, Frank being the faster of the two and he managed – just - to catch it before more than a nip of Scotch had spilt. Peter’s movements were more clumsy, hindered as they were by the stiff weakness he felt wracking his body and he lumbered out of his chair in an attempt to also catch the glass, his arm moving around in a wide sweep, missing it entirely, but slamming into the tall pile of folders propped up in the rack of plastic-trays sitting on the corner of the desk nearest his side. They teetered precariously for a moment, and then a slow, deliberate slide set in as one by one they toppled to the floor, taking the full ashtray with them.

‘Jesus!’

‘It’s all right, Peter’, Frank held up a hand for the young man to seat himself, while he placed the glass back once more in front of him. He knelt down on the tiled floor to collect the fallen paperwork, shuffling them into a roughly collated mass and piled them on desk edge. His eyes held Peter’s, who looked away, feeling the weight of concern within the older man’s stare.

‘Peter?’ Frank asked gravely as he placed another handful of gathered paperwork back on the desk above him, ‘What’s the matter? And don’t give me any bullshit about being tired.’

Peter White slumped back in his chair, just beyond the reach of the desk lamp’s widely cast circle of light so he became nothing more than a barely defined outline in the shadows and he sighed.

‘I don’t know,’ he said finally, his breath coming in slow, laboured gasps after the sudden effort he had just expended in movement. ’It’s true that I am tired though. I haven’t slept, like I said to you before, since I came here to Rowan yesterday morning. At least, nothing worth talking about. I’ve managed to catch of couple of hours here and there but I keep having these bad dreams and I wake up feeling worse than I did when I dozed off.

‘But you’re right. That is only part of it. There’s something else going on here. With me. Something else that’s... I don’t know, making me sick or something. At first I thought it was just the flu or being stressed out by what happened to Jilly, but now I just don’t know.’ He shrugged but winced at the action as if it caused him a great deal of pain just to move his shoulders and neck.

‘I want you to come with me to see a doctor tomorrow morning,’ Frank said adamantly from the floor where he was still upon his knees cleaning up the last of the papers and police photographs scattered about hi feet.

‘No!’ Peter replied sharply, almost shouting, and this time, there was a strength in his voice which hadn’t been there before and which cut short any protests that the older of the two men could immediately offer.

Brannigan looked up at him, concern etched across his broad features, and Peter closed his eyes.

‘No Frank,’ he said again, sighing this time. ‘No doctors. Look. I appreciate your concern and everything, really I do. But I don’t want to go and have someone sticking needles into me. I don’t know why. God knows, I realize that I should. I feel like shit and I know that I look like it too, but I also know for some reason that I can’t explain to you or even to myself for that matter that it would be the wrong thing to do.’

He shrugged with this last, the action looking pained and awkward upon his slumped shoulders and looked down at Brannigan, hoping that he would understand.

‘Peter,’ Brannigan sighed, ‘I know that a lot of . . .’

Then, he stopped.

He was going to tell Peter that he knew how he felt. That with the worry of everything which was happening around him surrounding the death of his sister and the unwarranted cock-ups which had ensued on the discovery of her body, he could understand his need to remain clear and focused, but that he was going to do no one—especially himself—any good if he wasn’t going to look after himself. Frank was going to say all of this and, indeed had been upon the very point of doing just that when he had seen something in the police photographic print held in his hand (one of the last which he had retrieved from the floor). Something which made him lose the track of his thoughts and instead drew all of his attention to the details held in black and white within the print’s glossy surface.

He stood slowly and angled the enlarged police photograph over the surface of his desk so that it caught across its glossy surface most of the yellow light from the reading lamp opposite.

He hadn’t given more than a passing glance to the dozen or so photographs which had been taken by the police photographer of Jilly White’s body in Shailier’s Gully with its discovery the day before. His thoughts had been concerned in the main with the apparently motiveless slaying of Tommy Harn in his motel room and with the pleas of his aged father for justice to be made with Frank’s reluctant acceptance earlier that morning. But now that he saw them again, there was something within them which once it caught his attention, stuck at him, and wouldn’t let him go.

‘What’s the matter?’ Peter White asked, half up and out of his chair, craning his head for a closer look.

‘It’s nothing’, Brannigan replied, looking up and waving his big hand dismissively.

‘Come on Frank. If it’s about Jilly then I want to know.’

‘What makes it think that it’s got anything to do with your sister?’

‘Because,’ Peter said reseating himself as Brannigan moved once more back around to his side of the desk, the half a dozen police photographs still held firmly within his grasp, ‘the look on your face is exactly the same one that you were wearing when that deputy of yours came in here yesterday morning to tell you that they had found some of Jilly’s clothing. Now give’.

And when Frank still hesitated, both mens gazes locked evaluatingly and Peter added.

‘Look. Jilly’s dead Frank. I’ve accepted that. I wish that I could change it, God knows that I do, but I can’t. I’ve even accepted the way that she died and now, I’m working damned hard to try and accept the fact that her body is stolen or missing or whatever the hell that you want to call it from the hospital morgue where we both saw it only the day before. I’m a big boy Frank and if there’s something that you’re not telling me or showing me about my sister then I want to know what the hell it is.’

Brannigan held the young man’s steady gaze for a time longer. A space of seconds where both men knew that he could just as easily have gone either way in his decision to either allow him in on what it was about the photographs which had drawn his attention so fixedly or telling him that it was still police business and therefore that it had absolutely nothing to do with him. And when he did finally speak again, Frank knew that what he was going to say was, as well as being damned unethical on his part, probably going to be by a long way the wrong thing to do. The unfortunate thing was that despite this knowledge, he couldn’t deny understanding the simple truth about what it was that this young man in front of him had just said. He looked down once more at the glossy face of the photographic prints in his hand as if to, somehow, reassure himself that he had seen within them what he thought he had, before he returned his attention to the young man sitting in the shadows on the other side of the desk and nodded.

‘Okay. Okay. I’ll show you but not yet.’

Peter White was about to say something. He opened his mouth as if to protest, but Brannigan had anticipated just that and was quick to raise a placating hand.

‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Not yet. I know that you’re itching to know and I know that I’m a bloody fool for letting you in on this but there’s something that I need to do first. Do you know where the chemist is here in town?’

‘Clarkes Pharmacy?’ Peter asked, and when Frank nodded, he said. ‘Sure. When I started to feel tired yesterday morning after I came in here to first see you, I stopped in there to pick up some aspirin for this headache that I’ve been nursing. Why do you want to know?’

‘No questions Peter.’ Brannigan reiterated, standing up from his chair and shaking his head. He rolled the collection of enlarged prints into a baton in his hand and then fished through the piles of disturbed folders on the edge of his desk until he found the one which he had been looking for. When he did this, he withdrew it from amongst the rest and tucked it securely into the crook of his arm.

‘No questions,’ he said again, ’at least not yet. There’s going to be plenty of time for them later. I’m sure of that. And I can tell you now that I’m going to have one hell of a hard time answering them all. For the time being however, I just want you to trust me. I’ve got to get something from one of the cars out there in the parking lot behind the station and then pull Nev Clarke . . . he’s the owner of the pharmacy, from his bed. In the mean time, if you really want in on this . . .

He tapped the roll of photographs in his hand

... then I want you to meet me over there behind the chemist in say fifteen minutes.′

Then, before Peter could say anything more, before he could even make as if to stand from the chair in which he had been sitting, Brannigan turned away and paced out into the long dark hall which ran the length of the building to the station’s dispatch, closing the office door shut behind him as he went.

7

That night, while Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan sat along in his darkened office mulling over the uncertainties of the day which had just passed, Ricky McKinnan thrashed and turned beneath the covers of his bed, immersed within the grip of a fitful, torrid sleep. And with this sleep . . . the dream.

There was a slab of ground, a dozen feet by a dozen more at the side of the McKinnan family farmhouse where no grass grew and where fence posts lay toppled and leaning in the bare, hard packed earth. Within this fallen enclosure, a large weathered water tank of galvanized tin lay upon its side, gutted and half buried in the ground like some partially exposed monument to some long dead age. And it was here that up until a point a few years earlier, Ricky’s father had kept his dogs, his ‘Pack’ as he had once called them.

‘Big’ John McKinnan had once owned and to a lesser degree, taken care of somewhere around fifty dogs in the time since the farm had passed from his father’s hands into his own, and on that day which was to claw its way into the images of Ricky’s guilt ridden sleep, dragging its way up from his dark subconscious some thirteen years later, there had been a half a dozen animals penned within the crowded confines of the yard.

There had been a Collie, a Boxer with some ten years in the tooth (which was if not to say something of a record considering that the man who owned these animals had a country-man’s penchant for ending a dogs life with a bullet in the brain whenever it ailed—in what was often the most minor and curable of ways—or whenever he was just plain sick and tired of their yapping), a Bull Terrier bitch, something which may have been a Cocker Spaniel, though Ricky had never been completely sure on that score, a German Shepherd pup and finally, a flea infested Greyhound with the unlikely grandiose name of ‘Sir Galahad’. (One of the very few genuinely fond memories which Ricky had ever been able to recall with anything approaching a clarity from those early, boyhood years, was of the night that his father had brought ‘Sir Galahad’ home to the farmhouse for the first time. ‘Big’ John had spent most of the day and the better part of that evening propping up the bar of the local pub and had bought the dog with the last of his drinking money from an out-of-towner who had assured him that the animal was a sure fire champion runner—born and bred. It had, at the time, apparently been of little concern to ‘Big’ John McKinnan that he had never once seen the dog walk a race let alone run one. All which had seemingly mattered to him was that the dog was a Greyhound, could therefore run at the sprints as was a greyhound’s want and could therefore win at the sprints as was a greyhound’s owner’s wont. He had staggered into the kitchen of the farmhouse after finally returning home—well and truly in the bag—with the scrawny dog on a frayed rope lead by his side and had proudly announced to his wife and young son who were then both seated around the dinner table eating the last of their supper that. . .

‘All of our money worries are over.’

‘Sir Galahad’, apparently in awe of all of the new found attention, had wagged his tail enthusiastically at the announcement before doing the only thing that any self respecting dog could do in such a situation. He had cocked his leg and promptly pissed all over one of ‘Big’ John’s mud encrusted work boots.

In the dream, the Bull Terrier bitch had been in pup as she had been on that cool, crisp winter’s morning when the first rays of dawn had drawn the then young Ricky from beneath the sheets and a low blanket of fog had settled across the rolling slopes of the surrounding fields.

The previous night Ricky’s mother had come into his room while he had dozed and had stirred him from his sleep. He had gone to ask her what was wrong, for even at that early age, the boy had already become accustomed to understanding the emotional wrath often inflicted by his overbearing father upon his mother’s homey nature, but she had stilled his questions with a fingertip placed gently to his lips and led him out through the back door and into the bitterly cold night air to watch in a muted child’s wonder at the Bull Terrier bitch gave birth to a mewing, squirming litter of seven beneath the dull glow of a hand-held gas lantern.

That next morning, he had dressed eagerly in pants and a pullover and had run outside across the frost laden ground to the dogs’ yard for another wide-eyed look at the newborn pups.

It was what he saw there that had made him scream.

His father’s stooped form was hunched over the top of the female dog, still lying on the hard cold ground where she had given life only hours earlier, and he was lifting each tiny, writhing bundle away from its mother’s nipple to drop it into a large forty-four gallon drum set into the hard packed earth by his side.

At first Ricky had thought. . .

…... what? Even now, years later in the throes of the dream, there were still no words, no understanding to the race of thoughts which had gone through his mind in those first few seconds. All that he could remember, then as now, was the dawning horror stretching across his young face when he had realized what it was that his father was doing.

He was drowning the puppies!

Ricky had run towards him, crying and screaming and swinging wild punches at his father’s back as his then young mind tried to come to grips with the killing of such small, defenseless lives bare hours after he had been shown the wonder of their birth, and ‘Big’ John McKinnan—a man who was as quick with his fists as he ever was with his words or his temper—had spun around on his young son and had sent him sprawling to the cold ground with the back of his hand.

His father had stood there over the top of him in the crisp morning stillness with his hand raised as if to strike his young son again when he had caught himself.

Perhaps it was something of the defiance which he had seen then for the first time in his boy’s eyes as he rubbed at the bright red weal of his fathers handprint had branded across the smooth, pale skin of his cheek. Or perhaps it was something as simple as the last grip of the hangover which he had inflicted upon himself from the night before tightening in a band around his head. Whatever it was, it stilled his hand and ‘Big’ John slowly lowered his opening fist after a long moment to take his young son’s small hand in his own and lift him to his feet.

‘Look at her Ricky,’ ‘Big’ John had at last said as he guided his son across to where the Bull Terrier bitch had lain panting feebly as the last two pups had suckled at her flat breast.

‘She’s old an’ she’s dyin’ boy. An’ all that she wants to do is to keep on feedin’ her young and let them suck the life right outta her. Now it’s not that old boxer over there that’s responsible for these pups mind you—though God knows I should have cut his nuts off years ago when I first got him. It’s me that’s responsible. I’m the one that let the old dog have his fun with this poor old girl here, and now it’s them pups from that now what’s killing her. And that makes me responsible for her maybe dying too.

’Now I’m dealing with that in the only way that I know how, Ricky. You’ll understand this one day though I know that you don’t .—God knows I didn’t the first time that I saw my dad throw a newborn litter into the river. I know that at the moment, all’s that you see is some kinde cute puppies. But one day when you’re bigger, you’ll understand.

You’ll understand Ricky that sometimes things are going to happen to you or to someone around you, things that you might have been able to stop from happening, and that makes you kind of responsible for them. It happens to everyman in his life now and again, and when it does happen, when something comes along that you might have had a hand in and could have changed for the better but didn’t, then its up to you to make amends for it an’ even the score.

‘When you’re responsible for something that’s gone wrong Ricky, it’s always up to you to set things right.’

Ricky had nodded as he had wiped the last stinging tears from his eyes with the back of his small hand, not understanding what it was that his father had just said, nor ever thinking that he would be able to, but nodding just the same. And when his father had placed the last squirming puppy into the barrel of water beside him and it had fallen silent beneath the dark surface, he had gazed over the side of its rounded metal rim at the small, lifeless forms floating within, and had seen his own face staring back at him from its black, reflective depths. His father’s words upon his lips . . .

‘It’s up to you to set things right.’

Ricky started awake, jack-knifing up into a sitting position beneath the sheets pulled across his bare chest. His heart raced in huge, galloping leaps. A thick, beaded sweat sat in a moist band across his brow. His eyes darted fitfully around the darkened room, searching for a familiarity amongst the night time shadows which pushed in threateningly at him from every corner. And when, at last, he began to slowly feel himself settle, he allowed himself to lower back to his bed, there to rest his head against the sweat soaked linen of his pillow.

‘It’s up to you to set things right,’ he muttered to the night, lying the crook of an elbow soothingly across his red, tired eyes until slowly, his breath began to come to him in calmer, deeper waves. He lay that way for some time, not thinking, only listening to the race of his own heart inside of his chest, an all pervading blackness pushing in upon him.

She’s coming back Ricky. A voice, one of a chorus of many, said softly, yet compellingly inside his head—a voice which sounded, as so many of them now seemed to, so much like his own. And though he tried not to listen to this voice, or to pay it heed of any kind, he found himself too tired, too weary from the last few days to offer it anything more than a token resistance.

She’s coming back.

You know it don’t you Ricky?

Of course you do.

You know it now. You drew it. You’ve even read it. The signs are all there. The girl who you and the others raped and killed, the girl who you watched plead and cry and slowly die, is going to come back for you all for what you did to her.

You have to try to make things right. It’s the only way now.

You have to restore the balance of what’s been done.

Make things right again Ricky.

Make things right.

Ricky McKinnane would listen to these voices for some time like that, lying there, unmoving beneath the surface of the night’s shrouded darkness which engulfed his room. He would hear their shouts, their soothing, cajoling words, the two often forming into one. He would hear their cries and their screams. And when at last, he would finally fall into the welcoming arms of sleep once more, he would hear these voices still in his dreams.

This time however, his dream would not be of him as a child when these voices came to him, nor of his father drowning the puppies on that cold, still morning all of those many years ago. This time the dream would be of him as he was now and in it, he would be standing the hallway which ran the length of the farm house in front of his parents’ room and he would be holding something in his hands. He would look down slowly into the darkness there in front of him and there, within his tightening grasp, he would see the gun and he would smile.

He would smile because he knew that soon it would all be over.

He would smile because after all, he would know that soon, he would set things right.

8

Peter White was walking past the darkened glass face and security meshed doors of Poulsen’s Produce and Saddlery Supply Store when the pain came. He had been thinking about what Brannigan had seen in those few police photographs which had been knocked from the table as he walked slowly, stiffly from the station’s darkened facade towards the neon lit shop front of the small town’s pharmacy halfway along the main road’s deserted, street lit length. He had been thinking about the look on the older man’s face as he had witness some unspoken realization, some ‘knowing’ dawn across his broad features. He had been thinking about Jilly and about what could possibly have happened to her body. He had even been thinking about himself.

But these thoughts, all of these restless, churning thoughts had ended suddenly, sharply when the pain struck.

And when it struck him . . .

... it struck him hard, slamming like a hammer blow into the side of his chest and doubling him over to send him crashing down to his hands and knees onto the ungiving roughness of the street’s asphalt surface, a white hot bolt of searing agony firing up along the length of his spine, arching his back as he landed.

For a time . . .

. . . there was nothing.

Only the pain, consuming all else beneath its raw, tidal surge.

Then, slowly, he began to become aware of other things from outside of this world of aching blackness which swamped his mind and consumed every nerve ending and fibre of his body.

He lifted his head carefully—the muscles and tendons popping and groaning stiffly with the effort as if they were old wood—and stared uncomprehendingly around him at the night, a long bead of dark, bloodied saliva running thickly from the corner of his parted lips. Noise came to him through this darkness which at once seemed to be around him and yet so much more within. It was muffled and distant as if he were hearing it from the other side of a closed door. Through it he could vaguely hear the sound of a dog barking though perhaps it was only the sound of the breath struggling to fill his emptied lungs or the pound of blood racing through his temples. Lights shifted and swam, bending and flowing into one another. Somewhere there was laughter.

He began to feel himself spinning and though he knew through the pain which filled his body and mind that he wasn’t moving anywhere, his awareness of the road faces rough stone surface beneath the palms of his hands anchored him. And as this vertiginous sensation of motion increased, he felt his consciousness pull back inside of himself as if it were retreating down a long dark tunnel, away from the light, away from the outside world. Dark shapes moved and shifted within this black corridor of his mind, bringing with them a tide of faces, and images, and voices, and . . .

. . . Smells! Yes. That was it!

Smells.

Dark smells.

Animal smells.

The sensation of movement again. Halted and jerking. A rough rocking motion beneath him.

Was he standing now? Was he on his feet again? He felt as if...

. . . and then the roughness of something hard and ungiving pressing against his back.

Noise.

Chu-chunk . . Chu-chunk . . Chu-chunk .

The sound of an animal bellowing. Followed by another. And another.

Cattle? Was that the sound of cattle?

Chu-chunk . . . Chit-chunk . . . Chu-chunk . . .

More movement, a swaying and rocking from side to side . . .

And then . . .

... it was gone.

Everything was gone. The noise. The smells. Even the distant sensation of a halted movement beneath his feet.

Everything gone but the light.

Only the light remained.

Growing in brightness.

Diverging from the one vague source into two fiery eyes in front of him which split the darkness, filling the air around him.

Peter looked up at the last moment from where he was squatting on all fours on the road’s ungiving bitumen surface and saw the headlights of the oncoming vehicle looming in over the top of him. Awareness rushed in at him and he threw himself to the side, hitting the concrete curbing at the road’s edge as he landed and tumbled awkwardly across the footpath’s loose, leaf strewn surface. Pain flared in his shoulder and back, and through it, he saw the car swerve amongst a blare of horns which split the still night time air of the slumbering town and the passing shout of abuse from the driver as he leant out of the window, waving his fist at where Peter lay and flipping him the middle finger.

‘Fuckin’ drunk! Get outta the fuckin’ way!′

Peter shook himself, cradling his head in the palm of his hands and slowly, carefully, he lifted his leaden, aching body to his feet. He staggered a step, maybe two, before he found the support of the store front wall to support him, and when he at last found his balance return— some small semblance of strength, all that he seemed able to muster, coming to his weak, trembling legs with it—he pushed himself off once more, to stagger, then walk, finally towards the flickering neon sign of Clarke’s Pharmacy on the other side of the street.

9

There’s a song originally belted out by The Temptations called ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’. It’s a rocky old Motown tune. Something of a classic from a time when music was finding its mid-twentieth century feet. One that has been covered in more recent times (and funked up somewhat in the process) by a band with the unlikely name of Waz Not Was. The tune is all about a young boy asking his mama about his father’s wayward past. It could just have easily have been penned about Lucas Foggarty and his old man.

Lucas had never known his father. He had been raised and occasionally abused throughout most of his formative years by a long string of his mother’s successive boyfriends, known to him collectively as his ‘Uncles’, and he had once asked his mother what the man who had walked out on both his then still young wife and new son on the day which he had been born, was like. (The real truth of the matter was that he had asked his mother more than once what his father had been like but it was the only time that he could remember the hard faced bitch ever looking up long enough from her bottle to give him a straight answer).

‘He was a wanderer Luke’, she had said. It was something that was in his blood. And though he had then been too young to understand it at the time, it wasn’t until some ten years later that he had come to realize the real truth behind his mother’s slurred words. Because he was nothing if not his father’s son. And because the wander lust was in his veins too.

At seventeen, three months shy of his eighteenth birthday, Lucas had come face to face with the untimely result of a puberty spent sowing his wild oats, having one of them take seed in the womb of the local mechanics daughter. When confronted with the looming possibility of a hastily arranged shotgun wedding, a rapidly ballooning girlfriend and a potential rug-rat (the product thereof), he had followed in the footsteps of the best Foggarty tradition and had done what any self respecting young Australian male thrust into the unwelcomed responsibility of adulthood would do. He had packed himself a toothbrush and a fresh pair of jeans into a canvas duffle bag and had gotten the ‘fuck outta there’. Post haste!

In the five years since hitting the road, travelling just as free and as easy as you please, Lucas had wandered his way across most of the state, drifting to wherever it was that the wind took him. From Weipa in the far north, to Stanthorpe in the south. Kirra through to Birdsville. Mount Isa to Green Island. In that time, he had worked as everything from a deck hand on a prawn trawler plying the waters of the Gulf to a rail gangman laying tracks to the mining communities of the far west, and just about everything in between.

He had been a house painter, a shearers’ assistant, a seasonal fruit picker, a printer’s offsider, a pizza delivery boy, and when the funds had hit an all time low, and the knees had been worn out of his jeans, he had even dealt a little ‘nose candy’ for a few quick bucks to the workers on an inner-city building site. That was at least until the local supplier of coke had gotten wind of someone new selling freelance on his turf and he had sent two of his heavies to run him out of town, an altercation which had left Lucas with two broken fingers and a blackened eye in its wake. That last little adventure had been how he had found his way to the sleepy little country town of Rowan.

Two weeks earlier, Lucas had woken up in the darkly smelling confines of the rail carriage into which he had been thrown after being roughed up by the local dealer’s men, and had crawled out into the blanketing heat which had shrouded the rail yards of the tiny township, feeling battered and bruised, and vowing never to try and sell the nose dust again. For it had been made blatantly clear to him by some hard words and a well placed boot in his balls that if he did, in the city at least, then his next journey would be into six feet of earth riding a pine box express. He had been almost glad for the chance to start his life over afresh.

Work hadn’t been all that hard to find, not with the first crop of cattle feed after the last season’s rains falling beneath the blades of the slasher and it had been two nights earlier when he had stopped in at the local tavern for a few beers to slake the thirst bought on by a long day of baling lucerne from his throat, that he had met the others.

Now Lucas Foggarty had seen many things over the space of the last few years that he had spent travelling across the highways and byways of this wide, brown land. More than most men twice his age. He had seen both the good and the bad of people and he knew from his own experience how both of them felt. He had known the darker side of his own nature and he had seen the light. He had even made his fair share of mistakes and he had been able to tell himself afterwards that he was a better man for having learnt from them. Yet, despite all of this oft times hard earned experience, he had been unable to resist the urge to ‘take’ the girl when his head had been full of booze and his body full of lust, when they had held her naked form, kicking and screaming down beneath her in the dark, moonlit shadows of the bushland that night.

Lucas didn’t think of himself as a bad person by nature. On the contrary, he knew the guilt for what it was that he and the others had done, for what he had, at the time, seemingly been unable to stop himself from doing. He felt the shame for taking the girl and for just standing by as her life had been so brutally ended by the man with the cold blue eyes. He felt it all and if he still wasn’t a bad man in spite of it, then he also wasn’t a stupid one either.

He was a survivor.

He had been in enough small hick towns like Rowan over his time to know that when the crunch came and it was discovered, as he was most assured that it would be, that he was one of the young men there at the rape of the young woman that night, then it would be him who would be taking the heat for the crime.

No local small town cop who he had ever come across before in his travels - and there had been a few of them, mostly pointing him in the direction of the fastest road out of town- would ever convict any good ol’ -local farmer’s son of such a violent crime when he could pin the entire rap on some no account drifter like himself who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He knew that for a fact, just as assuredly he knew that no amount of guilt or shame on his part was going to change in anyway what it was that they had all done on that night.

Nope! Lucas thought, if the axe was going to fall for the rape and murder of the young woman then he reckoned himself a smart enough man to know that it would be directly upon his head. And so, faced with this certain knowledge, he was doing the only thing that he knew how to do. The only thing that any Foggarty man ever did well. He was running away again.

-0O0-

The sign said . . .

WARNING!

GUARD DOGS PATROL

THESE PREMISES AT NIGHT.

. . . but it was an old sign. A worn one. And Lucas believed in it no more than he did in the cartooned ferocity of the notice board’s stylized dog, now deformed and almost unrecognizable on its bent metal face beneath the years of weathered and peeling paint.

Lucas stepped back away from the chain mesh gate which blocked off the railway yard from the pedestrian access path which led up to it from the war memorial park on the edge of the tiny township, and looked up at the twin lines of wire which topped its double padlocked height.

At most points along the fence line which ringed the railyard and the woodpiles of the adjoining mill, the barrier was topped by a triple strand of barbed wire— in some places razor wire—bent back out over the ground beneath it to hang threateningly between its high supports.

But here and there, on the gate itself and at one or two other spots along the fences length, the wire was smooth, non-threatening and strung up as only a token gesture at security.

He drew back from the mesh of the gate another step, guessing the fence at this point to be somewhere near seven feet high, perhaps a little more, and, gripping his tote bag in both hands by its worn and weary leather straps, he gave it the old one-two and sent it spiralling through the darkened, night time air to land leadenly on the other side. There was the dull, metallic clank of something clashing inside of it as it hit the concrete pathway there . . .

Probably my belt buckle or my billy, Lucas thought upon hearing its muted ring.

. . . and he looked around himself warily at the railyard’s, deep, moonlit shadows.

There was no distant barking of guard dogs as the sign had promised. No challenge from the night watchman walking his rounds. And when he was finally sure that the soft, tinny noise of his duffle bags landing had gone unnoticed, he made his way out of the darkness of the park’s trees which concealed his form, up towards the gate.

At first he tried the padlock and chain which had been securely bound around the double gates metal frame, holding it closed. There was some small amount of give there between the two but it was no where near enough for him to be able to squeeze his well muscled body through. In the end, he was left with no other alternative to get inside other than to make his way up and over.

The climb itself wasn’t all that difficult. His hands had been well hardened and calloused by the last week and a half of farm work, giving him a good purchase in the fences wide chain links and he was able to pull himself up easily while creating as little noise as possible on the loose, rattling mesh. Negotiating his way through the two loosely strung wires at the very top was a little more difficult without becoming entangled and in the end, he all but fell to the hard ground of the railyard’s concrete pathway next to his bag.

He squatted there in the darkness on the heels of his dusty old walking boots for a time. Silence, only silence and when he was again sure that he had alerted nobody else to his presence, he pulled his tote bag up across his shoulder by its frayed leather strap and stood slowly, scanning the night shadows of the towns deserted railyards before him. Overhead moths flittered and swirled around a dimly flittering street light from the other side of the fence, their dull drone the only small sound to fill the still, summer night air.

Long lines of stock carriages sat silent and unmoving beneath the clear, starlit sky in a wave upon bending wave of dark blocks, positioned next to each other on the parallel sets of tracks which carried them towards the station house platform. A signals tower stood black and empty of to the right behind the partially concealed crest of the stations roof top. And behind it, towering high into the night sky, the twin concrete cylinders of the town’s feed and grain silos loomed menacingly, their smooth grey bodies encircled by a band of iron walkways and ladders which gleamed against the long shadows beneath the glare of their floodlit sides.

Lucas threw one more glance behind him back across his broad shoulder at the darkened roadway which had carried him from the edge of town. The hotel there was empty and silent now, its double storey facade shrouded in the deep shadows of street lights and when he saw that all was clear, he trotted across the open yard to the last carriage in a long, snaking line of wooden cattle cars shunted up against the buffers of the stations loading bays. The loud bovine calling of animals crying out from their holding pens on the other side of the railyard drifted hauntingly through the nights still, summered air and he felt a small, satisfied smile creep across his deeply suntanned face.

Not out of the woods yet Lucas, he thought, but give yourself until tomorrow morning when they load in the cattle and hook up a couple of these carriages to an engine or two and you can kiss this hick town goodbye forever. You’ll be home free with nothing but miles of tracks and sleepers between you and that other night. Nothing but miles and bad memories.

The smile grew a little broader at the thought, spreading out crookedly across his rounded face and he moved off slowly into the darkened corridor of shadows which existed between the two snaking lines of railway carriages sitting next to each other on the station’s dual tracks. Most of the vans were cattle and produce cars judging by the pungent smell, shunted together for tomorrow morning and the load of beef still penned in the stations holding bays that they would carry from town. Others were the longer, opened tray wagons which carried on their broad backs everything from coal to milk to automobiles. Heading up the sleeping train’s long body, were the passenger wagons which stood at such odds against the other carriages of wood and battered steel with their graffiti covered, aluminum flanks. (According to some of the spray painted inscriptions upon their moulded, metal sides, Rachel was a slut, Julie liked a good rodgering whenever she could get it, and if you were looking for a blow job on a lonely Thursday night, then Damien was your man).

‘On tha road a’gin. I jest can’t wait ta git on tha road a’gin.’ Lucas sung the words to himself complete with his best Willy Nelson twang, no louder than a whisper in the still night air and he made his way across to the partially opened door of one of the cattle wagons by his side.

His preference was for a far more comfortable ride out of town than these cattle wagons would afford him, but he had neither the funds, nor the time on his side to afford to buy a ticket for the next morning’s journey in one of the passenger cars up ahead. Stowing away was definitely out of the question. Past experience had long since taught him that the rail cleaners always went through the cars every morning, no matter where it was that they spent the night and there was next to no where in the damned things to hide.

The open carriages which occupied the middle position in the train line offered a little more potential but as they most often carried valuable machinery and other cargo, the chances were high that they would be checked over and secured before the train pulled out from the station. That left only the livestock wagons. The ride would be a smelly one, Lucas knew. One which would probably end up with him being pinned up against the wagon’s insides by a cow’s arse and shat all over in the process (at least until he could find an opportune moment in the train’s journey to climb out and make his way to the links between the carriages to ride out the rest; of the journey in the open air). But at least with the cattle already penned off in the station’s stock yards, bellowing softly to themselves as they were, he could be reasonably assured that it would be these carriages which would be the first to be on the move that next morning.

He reached up to drag the wagon’s partially open door noisily along the rest of its runners throwing one last glance across his shoulder as he did so off into the night to reassure himself that his movements were still, as yet, undetected—and that was when the stench hit him from within, strong enough to stop him in his tracks and make the breath gag in the back of his throat.

It was an overpowering, pungent smell.

Of cattle,

Of the other animals which had, over the years, been crammed into the old wooden wagon’s innards on their way ’to the slaughter yards. . .

But there was another smell beneath these, one which was stronger again, and he had only enough time to thrown the crook of his arm up across-his nose as he recognised it as ...

Rotting flesh, he thought distantly. By God. Something’s dead in there!

. . . before a hand came down out of the darkness at him like a bullet and encircled the collar of his flannelette work shirt. He tried to stagger back away from it—his mouth opening in a feeble protest which came out as only a weak, strangled yelp from the back of his throat—before he was yanked forcibly from off his feet and hauled up into the wagon’s opened maw, the large, sliding door rattling shut behind him.

Then . ..

.... a voice in the blackness within.

Dry and guttural yet a woman’s voice just the same.

‘Do you want me?’ it said, grating and full of death.

No one heard him scream.

Only a small speckled yellow budgerigar, perched silently atop the rail carriage opposite witnessed the horror which was to unfold inside before it ruffled its feathers when all was done, stretched its tiny wings and flittered off into the night.

-0O0-

The following is a news clipping taken from a national newspaper, twelve days later. Dated 16 March 1994.

BODY FOUND

Police were shocked earlier today by the discovery of the badly decomposed remains of a young, as yet unidentified male, approximately 25 years of age, found this morning by railway workers in a cattle transportation wagon brought in for repairs to the Roma Street Railway Yards.

Detective Sergeant David McKonnell of the Brisbane Homicide Investigation Branch has said that the young man in question may have been a drifter or a station hand from the far west or north of ’the state where the rail carriage had spent the last months in service and has said that he was not as yet able to release a cause of death until the coroner’s report had been received. Detective McKonnell went on to say that several officers attending the scene were shocked by the severity of the injuries inflicted upon the young, unknown male and appealed for any public help available to help in solving of the crime. Police are continuing their investigation.

10

The last, fully completed entry in the journal of Peter James White is a long one. It is written in a tightly confined script beneath the hand of a man intently concentrating upon the exact formation of each letter, the line of every stroke, and degenerates as the memories of his day unfolds over the pages into a halted series of barely legible slashes. It begins with his short meeting with the dog in the hotel beer garden earlier on that morning and ends with a detailed retelling of what was to happen that night. It covers in detail the conversation which was to pass between himself and Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan that evening in the darkroom belonging to Clarke Family Chemist, and is written with a straight forward, almost clinical detachedness which belies the toll which was at this stage being exacted upon his weak and aching body.

He writes only briefly about his initial meeting in the office with Brannigan where he is told about the disappearance of his sister’s body from the morgue at the Tarro Community Hospital. Mostly he reflects upon the realization which was to come to him in those last hours of the evening. Reading this journal, and the exacting way in which it has been written over the space of those final few hours, it would be easy to see Peter White as a man observant of every detail, every turn of phrase as if he took a great joy in the retelling of it.....

. . . though in reality, Peter White was a man barely alive.

/ don’t remember much about falling.

Only distant things really. I can remember a kind of feeling of. . . I suppose weightlessness, almost as if I were watching myself from somewhere far away. I remember images which now don’t mean anything to me as I sit here in my tiny room, thinking of them. Just faces in the dark. Terrible, frightened faces which I somehow seem to feel that I know (or perhaps only should know ). The sounds of their cries in my ears—/ remember that. And the feeling that at some point, I know . . . or knew that these faces would come before me. I remember the anger that I feel towards them. The light and the pain.

Yes!

Most definitely, I remember the pain.

I guess that I must have been lying there on the road for some time before I really came to (if coining to is any way to describe the disconcerting feeling of only slowly becoming aware again of who and where I was) and in the end, though I can only now seem to clearly remember the car coming towards me, I Think that I must have thrown myself out of its way before I lifted myself to my feet and staggered on.

I still don’t know what made me fall. An attack of some kind, though I really have no idea whether that is even close to the mark. All that I really know is that, for a time, however long it was, -I just wasn ’t there. Not on the road. Not in my body. Instead it felt as if I were somewhere else, watching something happen. Something that felt good and yet seemed at the same time so very, very bad.

When I did finally manage to make it to the pharmacy to meet Brannigan as we had arranged, I guess that I did feel a little better in myself (the emphasis there on ‘a little’). I could walk a little steadier though I still felt weak and as if my knees had been replaced with a bowl of jelly. The pain had gone by then, abating somewhat, though I did still feel cold and numbed by it. And the faces that I saw? Well. They had gone too.

The pharmacy’s darkroom was a small compartment at the back of the building. It contained a processor of some sort. One that I assume is used for developing people’s holiday snaps when they come out of the back of someone’s ‘Nikon’.

There were a couple of wash basins set into the wall. A large camera, (one which I was to find out was used in the exposure of enlargements and the like), and sort of filing cabinet used, I think, for the storage and packaging of peoples negatives. All of this bathed beneath the red glow of a film safety light.

Brannigan waved me in when I first came up and knocked against the door and had said that he had been waiting until I arrived before he began.

There was that look upon his face again. That look of concern at the way that I must have looked (at the way that I know I felt) and though nothing as much was said at the time, a look passed between us both where I agreed with him to go and see a doctor in the morning The fall before had scared me. I can’t deny it and it must have shown upon my face because my acceptance seemed to satisfy some of the concern that he felt, and he ushered me into the room, closing to door behind me as I went.

He had said that he had gotten the keys for the place from off the chemist shop’s owner, waking him up from his Sunday evening sleep to do it and that he was going to have to owe him a carton of beer in the process to show him that there were no hard feeling. He then went about setting up the cameras processing unit to expose and develop a roll of film which he had produced in an envelope from his uniform’s breast pocket while I occupied myself with looking around the room. >

The thing which first caught my attention ... and held it... was the cork faced bulletin board set into the wall next to the door where I had entered. Tacked and stapled. Thumb pressed and taped onto its broad face were a range of photographs, regular sized Polariods— though some of them did look as if they had been enlarged somewhat— of, a sordid little collection of people groping each other in blurred, hastily taken snapshots.

There were photographs of middle aged women fellating men (and by the Camera angle of the shot, I would say that most of them were taken by. the men when the women weren’t looking), of a man lying sprawled out and erect across the doona cover in a room which belonged to one of the state’s seedier looking hotels. And of overweight housewives posing in suspenders, wrapped around cellulite and black bulging bras

I asked Brannigan about these and he smiled.

He told me that Neville Clarke, the owner of the business, called the cork board his ‘Honeymoon Hall of Fame’. Most of those shots, he explained as he turned back to whatever it was that he was doing by the processing unit, were from the rolls of film brought back in the cameras of young couples when they returned from their honeymoons at the coast or from wherever the hell that it was trendy for young couples—and at times not so-young couples, to go.

The newly weds would get a little bit randy while away, just fooling around in the way that newly weds did, and before the woman or the man would know about it, their partner would spring them by taking a six by four glossy to remember the moment.

The rest of the shots were just out and out sleaze. Husbands who had for once in their life convinced their inhibited wives to get a little daring and pose for them in some naughty lingerie. Men who wanted a snap shot of the girl who they were slipping it to on the side to remember them by for their wallets. Little things like that. And as the sole proprietor and operator of the only film developing unit in town, Neville Clarke had taken it upon himself to keep copies of some of the better shots for the posterity of his darkroom wall.

I was still admiring (?). . . these and I guess feeling more than a little vulnerable at the idea of someone other than who these shots were intended for, being in possession of such a personal part of other people’s lives, when Brannigan called me across to the camera where he stood.

-0O0-

‘Do you notice any differences between these two photographs, Peter?’ Brannigan asked. He was standing squarely in front of the large enlargement processing camera which claimed most of the floor space of the small room, his big features bathed in the soft white glow of the unit’s halogen bulbs, and he looked up as Peter approached. There on the flat plane of the camera’s viewing glass were two enlargements taken from the scene of the discovery of Jilly White’s naked body only a day earlier; both detailed enlargements of her outstretched hand as it hung out over the dry creek bed from the confines of the fallen ghost gum’s exposed roots where her body had been hidden.

One of these snapshots had been taken from an enlargement supplied amongst the police photographs and other sundry information sent to the station house earlier that evening by Joe Pittman. The other was an almost colourless, slightly blurred enhancement of one of the snap shots taken by Frank upon his initial arrival upon the scene earlier that same morning. The difference which existed between the two was only minor, but he couldn’t for a moment deny to himself that it was there.

Peter White walked slowly across to stand beside Brannigan, directly in front of the camera’s opened glass face as Frank moved off slightly to the side to allow him room, and he stared down fixedly into the dual images presented there before him.

He knows that it’s Jilly’s hand, Frank thought to himself upon seeing the initial stiffening of the younger man’s weary posture as he first leant over the camera to stare into the soft, upwardly projected glow of light. He had been careful, scrupulously so in fact to conceal both photographs as well as any other images of his sister’s body from the lad, just as he had been careful to enlarge both prints in the vacant frame to the stage where only her outstretched hand—the main point of interest for him at this stage—and nothing else of her form was visible. It was an effort, no matter how small, on his part to dehumanize the photographs as much as he could for the lad before he was allowed to view them, and now, with Peter standing there silently beside him, he could only hope that it worked.

Brannigan took a deep, yet silent breath as he waited for the boy’s reaction and it was then that something else registered to him about the young man standing by his side. The boy smelt. Not strongly by any means. Not overpoweringly. But it was there just the same, a faint wispy aroma of something unpleasant about him which curled sickly sweet in the back of Frank’s nostrils. He found himself taking a slight, unnoticed step sideways away from it and as he did so he found his mind wandering briefly back to the scent...

The same scent I ’in sure of it.

. . . which had hung so heavily in the air of the motel room where Tommy Harn’s body had been discovered only that morning although it seemed to the old cop that there was no way he could be sure as it felt as if an age had passed since dawn.

‘It’s Jilly,’ Peter said flatly as he looked back up at Brannigan, the skin of his drawn face taking on a thin, almost unpleasantly transparent sheen beneath the cameras soft light.

Frank nodded.

“That’s right. This ...’, he said, tapping the flat plane of camera glass before him with the thick pad of an index finger placed over the enlarged image of the hastily taken coloured Polaroid ’was taken by myself when I first turned up at the scene where her body was discovered after meeting with you in the office early yesterday morning. ‘And this,’ Frank then shifted his finger across to indicate to the enhanced black and white police photograph, ‘was taken by the police photographer attending the scene not long after I left to come back into town and give you the bad news.’

‘The time difference between the two is around one and a half to two hours. My photograph was taken at ten to ten thirty or thereabouts in the morning, and the black and white police one, as you can see by the digital printout there in its lower left hand corner, was taken at twelve o-six. Can you see any difference between the two?’

‘No,’ Peter replied, but just the same, he craned his head closer again to the two images for a better look. ‘No. I can’t say that I can.’

‘Okay then. Now try this.’

Frank then reached around behind the camera’s raised head to manually wind up the enlargement of both photographs another two hundred percent, the images coming together to fight each other for viewing space on the unit’s expansive glass frame.

“Try again and this time pay particular attention to the fingers.′

“They’re ... I don’t know’ (he coughs) ‘. . .different.’

‘Give that man a cigar,’ Frank nodded and he allowed himself a small smile. “That’s right Peter. The fingers are in a different position. Some of it may just be the camera angle but I don’t think that even the technicians from the state police’s forensic team would deny that the movement was there. You can see in this shot here.′ And again Frank tapped the cameras glass pane with his finger, this time on top of the image of the photograph which he had taken first, ‘That Jilly’s hand and it’s balled up, not quiet into a fist but certainly near enough. And in this shot next to it taken two hours or so later, her fingers are almost fully extended. The shadows formed by the first of her fingers across her palm are gone and her fourth and fifth fingers are now almost full in view where as before they were obscured by the rest of her hand. Now, like I just said, some of this may be accountable for by the slightly different camera angle or by the time delay between the two exposures, but I’d be willing to bet both of my balls that neither of those explanations can satisfactorily explain away what you see there in front of you.’

There was a brief, tangible moment of silence between the two, then . . .

‘When did you first see this?’ Peter asked, straightening up from the camera and looking towards Frank with a hand playing evaluatingly across his drawn, stubbled chin.

‘Just before in my office when you knocked the prints from off my desk. I had the police photographs buried amongst a whole bunch of other paperwork and I didn’t notice the difference between them and the shots which I took until I bent down to pick them up. It almost hit me in the face.’ But there’s something else isn’t there Peter? He thought, wondering at the look that he saw there behind the younger mans overtired eyes, now dark and unreadable beneath the glow of the room red safety light. There’s something else that you ’re thinking about and I want to know what it is.

He was just about to ask what it was when Peter said . . .

‘Couldn’t someone have ... oh ... I don’t know. Bumped her hand or perhaps its ... what do you call it? Rigor mortis. You know. I’ve heard some pretty far out things about that. Eyes that won’t close. The stomach muscles tightening and frightening the life out of the undertaker when the corpse sits up on the slab. That sort of thing.’

‘No,’ Frank answered, shaking his head, ‘1 don’t think so. For a start, what you’re talking about there is called post mortis contractions. We studied it all of those years ago when they used to take us down to the morgue at the police academy and show us the stiffs that had been brought in overnight as a kind of test to see who could handle looking at the hard stuff and who would puke. Post mortis contractions are just that. Contractions. The muscles tighten. The tendons shorten. That sort of thing. Now if the photograph which I took of Jilly’s hand showed her hand out flat like it is in the police photograph, and if, in that, her hand were balled up like it is in mine, then I might be prepared to say fair enough. But it’s just not the case. Jilly’s hand was already contracted when we first arrived at the scene, then it unfurled .’

Brannigan held up his own hand at this point, his fingers drawn up into a claw and then slowly spread them apart until they were outwardly splayed roughly as were the fingers in the police photograph of Jilly White to illustrate the point.

‘. . . and as far as I know,’ he continued, ’a loosening up of the muscles and tendons like that just doesn’t happen. You see, rigor mortis as a rule usually sets in within five hours after death. A little faster if the temperature was warm and faster again if there had been some sort of physical exertion preceding death. Now the coroner has given us a reasonably accurate time of death as being at approximately midnight on the evening of the first and it was some thirty to thirty three hours later that her body was discovered. That puts Jilly’s body right in the middle range of a full course of rigor mortis and that brings me to your first point.

‘Even if the body had been in some way bumped during the course of the forensic operation after its discovery or even by one of my men when we first turned up on the scene, there would not have been this kind of movement in the hand. It’s far too pronounced for that.’

Throughout this, while Frank had talked, Peter had listened, nodding only occasionally as if he were hearing what was being said but his mind was elsewhere. His eyes had remained fixedly upon the camera which dominated the centre of the small room, his attention locked upon the two photographs which it displayed, as if he were trying to glean something from within them .. .

Like a man trying to foretell the future by looking at the entrails of a chicken, Frank thought.

. . . until finally Frank finished speaking and an uneasy silence settled between the two men. In the end, it was Peter who finally broke it.

‘At what time was it that Jilly’s body went missing from the hospital Frank?’ he asked, a sudden sadness settling across his tired face.

‘Well ... no one is really sure.’ Brannigan replied, just a little wary of the sudden intensity that he saw there behind the younger mans eyes. ‘Though it does seem that from all accounts that it was most probably at some point during last night, possibly in the early hours of the morning. That’s really about all that we have.’ Then, a sharpening showed in Brannigan’s own eyes and he asked ‘Why Peter? What’s going on in that head of yours?’

‘It’s nothing,’ he said, waving his hand dismissingly at Brannigan’s concerns. But Frank could see that it was anything but nothing. In fact, he could see that it was most surely something that was troubling the young man. Something in a big, big way.

‘Don’t bullshit me Peter. I haven’t known you for long but it’s been long enough for me to know that you’re not a very good liar. Now I was good enough to let you come down here and show you these two photographs, though God help me, I know that I shouldn’t have. And if you weren’t in the office when I saw the discrepancy in them, then the chances are that I wouldn’t have come within cooeeing distance to tell you about them. The point is however that I have let you in on them and now, I want you to do the same for me. Now give.’

‘Okay,’ Peter said finally, after walking back across the other side of the narrow room to stare there for a moment at the blank wall as if he were making up his mind. He coughed again, this time with more force, the action shuddering at his shoulders, arching his back, and when the brief fit had passed, he turned back towards Brannigan rubbing at his arms briskly as if her were trying to warm himself. ’Okay. Here it is. Look at what it is that you’ve got there in front of you. Two photographs taken under police supervision with all of the attention to detail which goes with all of that and both of them show a trace of movement in Jilly’s hand. Now I’ll give you that that alone isn’t much of a concern. A little freaky perhaps but like they say ’Okay. Here it is. Look at what it is that you’ve got there in front of you. Two photographs taken under police supervision with all of the attention to detail which goes with all of that and both of them show a trace of movement in Jilly’s hand. Now I’ll give you that that alone isn’t much of a concern. A little freaky perhaps but like they say ‘Shit Happens’.

‘But when you start adding onto that the fact that Jilly’s body has gone missing from the hospital where it was taken after she was found, then I’d say that things start to take on an entirely different bent.’

And what about the way. you feel now Peter? He asked himself, his thoughts from over the last day and a half suddenly coming together as he spoke, onto the one track, as opposed to the many and varied tangents upon which the had previously run. What about the bond that has always held you and Jilly together and that you can still feel even now. And the faces. And the dreams ? What about the dreams ? What about the way that when you sit quietly in your room at the hotel you can still hear her voice in the back of your mind like you are listening to her thoughts or something ? Or about the way that you felt after you fell and ’Saw’whatever it is that you saw? Or even the feeling when you were out arid you felt like you weren ’t even in your body but rather somehow walking with Jilly? What about them apples huh?

Frank was just about to shake his head as Peter was thinking these thoughts, and say that he didn’t quite see the angle that he was getting at, when the penny dropped and he came to a halt, catching the words in his mouth before he had a chance to form them.

‘You don’t really think that they lost Jilly’s body at the hospital at all do you . . . ?’

Slowly, Peter shook his head.

‘. . . because you don’t think that Jilly was never really dead.’

And the shake turned to a nod.

‘Oh. Come on Peter?’ Brannigan said, the disbelief telling as much in his voice as it did in the expression which had etched across his broad features. “That’s stretching things just a little bit too far don’t you think?′

But was it Frank? the old cop thought, Was it really stretching things too far because wasn’t that something along the lines of what you had been thinking yourself? Not in those words maybe, possibly not even in the whole idea of Jilly White still being somehow alive. But it had been there, in whatever form, from the moment that you first saw the difference in the photographs. And hadn’t that been part of the reason why you had let Peter in on it? To see if he came to the same conclusion, to see if it wasn’t just you that added two and two together and got three?

Frank didn’t know the answer to any of these questions that he posed to himself as he looked across into those few silent moments at the seriousness of the expression on Peter White’s face. Hell, he didn’t even know if he really ever had asked himself them before, or even if he would believe the answer that he got if he ever asked himself them again.

He had never been all that good at lying to himself like that but when it came to the case of Jilly White and the reflection of his own— all be it vague and unspoken—ideas voiced by her brother, then he was prepared at least to give it a go.

‘I mean,’ he continued, ‘adding a missing body together with a discrepancy between a couple of police photographs and coming up with the possibility of your sister still somehow being alive is just a little too much to believe, don’t you think?’

‘Can you think of a better explanation?’ Peter came back at him and Brannigan was silent for a moment before answering.

‘Well... no ... at least off the top of my head but I’m . ..’

‘No Frank. No buts. Look,’ Peter said, fetching up a heavy sigh and he dragged his fingers through his shoulder length hair. He coughed again. ‘Don’t you think that I know how it all sounds?’

‘Do you?’ Brannigan asked, ‘I mean do you really Peter? As far as I’m concerned with here at the moment all that I can see is grief talking. It’s understandable, believe me Peter, I know that, you’re grabbing at any little shred of hope that you can. But it still doesn’t make it sound like anything more than wishful thinking on your part.’

‘I don’t care what you say Frank. I don’t expect you or anyone else for that matter to understand, but I can feel it. In here . . .’ (Peter hits his chest with the flat of his hand) ... ‘I can feel that Jilly is still alive now as much as I could feel her leg break when we were kids all of those years ago. And now . . . now I’ve got something here in these photographs and in the fact that her body is missing to give what I am feeling some credibility, if not to you then at least to me.’

‘No,’ Frank replied shaking his head, ‘No Peter, I just can’t accept that. I was there. I saw Jilly’s body and so did everyone else there at the scene. She was dead. It was plain and bloody obvious to us all.’

‘Okay then,’ Peter sighed, holding up a placating hand and turning away once again to stare off into the darkened corners of the small room. ‘Okay. Prove it to me.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me Frank. Prove it to me. Prove to me right here and now that Jilly is dead and not staggering around out there somewhere in the night like I think she may be.’

’That’s not fair Peter and you know it. You know damned well that I can’t just ring up the hospital in Tarro and say, ‘Oh, by the way. The girl’s brother doesn’t really think that she’s dead. Come and talk to hint about it. And by the way, bring her body as evidence.’ You’re just clutching at straws here for God’s sake. Can’t you see that?′

‘Yes,’ Peter accepted ‘maybe I can. But at this moment, any hope that I can get, any chance that there is of all of this . .. ’ he waves his hand sweepingly at the camera and the images of the two greatly enlarged photographs that it contained ′ . . . might be some sort of enormous fuck up, then I’ll cling to it. For Jilly’s sake and for mine. And don’t you for one moment tell me that if you were in my position you wouldn’t do the same.′

‘No. No I won’t’, Brannigan said finally as he walked across to the darkroom wall to switch off the red safety light and slid the door open out onto the pharmacy storeroom behind. Part of him told himself that he had known that including Peter in on this would be a mistake. But another, smaller part which he barely heard said at the same time that it was no mistake. No mistake at all. ‘But what I will tell you is this. If it makes things any easier for you to deal with things then I’ll make some copies of these prints and send them off with the rest of my report to the state forensic laboratories for analysis. They’ve already been told about the body having gone missing and I’ll tell them about what you think. I don’t believe the whole thing to be anything more than a series of unfortunate errors (It surprised him with just how much of a lie that felt to say) just the same as I don’t believe what you’ve just said to be anything more than just grief talking, but I will tell them and it’ll be up to them as to just what they want to do about it next. I can’t and won’t do anything more than that.’

‘And in the meantime?’ Peter asked, walking out after Frank, closing the darkroom door behind him as he went.

But there was no response to his question.

Frank Brannigan had merely turned away from him as if he had never heard him speak the last and had walked off into the night.

12

There was no real reason why David Haas had been involved in the rape of Jilly White. At least none that would be recognised as being legitimate by the type of people whom always strive to find a reason for why it is that people do the things that they do to others.

He was not a bad young man. There was no criminal record. He was popular when he was at school. Passed with good grades. Captained a local sports team to victory two years running. His father was a local success. His mother involved actively in the local community. In short, he did not come from what would rather ’nineties’ishly be termed a ‘dysfunctional’ family that would make someone want to point the finger and say, ‘There. Beneath every wrong act committed by a person, there is a background of either physical, emotional or sexual abuse which was the base cause of it.’

Indeed, David Haas loved his folks, more than most young men his age who were still well within the midst of coming to terms with the burdens of their adulthood and flexing their wings free of the restrictions placed upon them by their parents and subsequent upbringing.

His mother was neither a submissive nor overbearing woman. His father did not beat or abuse him in any way, as was the case with most men who have either raped or abused women, continuing on the cycle.

He came from a family background where his opinion was listened to by his parents and often valued, where he was taught that he was neither any better nor any worse than those others around him.

There was no profound level of introspection within him. He was no shy loner as was in the case with Ricky McKinnan. He had his fair share of friends and good friends they were too. He was good looking (if you were a young lady who went for the blonde haired, blue eyed surfer look). He had his share of girlfriends, losing himself to them and the pleasures of their bodies at an early age. And, all things considered when you tallied up the points and ticked all of the appropriate boxes, there was nothing else in his life, even by the farthermost stretches of the most fruitful of imaginations, which could in anyway be termed as a kind of deeply repressed anger towards other people. Particularly to those of the opposite sex.

In fact, there was no reason at all that any amount of analysis or therapy could isolate as to just why he had been involved in the rape and murder of Jilly White.. He was, for all intents and purposes a perfectly normal, well balanced and socially adjusted young man . . .

. . . yet, despite all of this, he had raped. He had killed.

And perhaps that was the most frightening thing of all.

It would perhaps be easy to label the motivation behind an urge that could be so strong as to entice such a nice, socially well adjusted young man as David Haas to rape as a kind of pack mentality at the time. Perhaps even the head shrinkers and the kinder souls of this world who always feel the need for there to be some excuse as to why things such as rape happens should resign themselves to the rather outdated, eighties philosophy as ‘Shit happens’ without reason or motivation instead of thinking that perhaps it was simply an exaggerated case of peer group pressure which had led him and others to commit such a vile act. Perhaps they should simply look into the true heart of the darker side of human nature for their answer instead of trying to believe that this handsome young man who had spent so many of his formative years leading others with his good looks and natural winning charm had at last become a victim to the pressures faced by most others throughout their life, to conform to the will of the group.

No.

If there was any real reason as to why a young man like David Haas had raped, and raped in such a violent way as the crime which had been committed upon Jilly White’s body, then the reality of it, the real dark wind which had allowed such a young man to force himself upon a woman and then to stand by despite her pleas and her cries while others did the same, lay in one simple reason.

And that was one of disregard.

Disregard . . .

. . . because David Haas came from, if not a wealthy family, then one which was certainly well off by virtue of his father’s booming spare parts business compared against the more modest expectations of the township of Rowan’s small country standards.

Disregard . . .

. . . because David had grown up by either the skill of his confident, well rounded personality or by his money or good looks to get almost everything that he had ever wanted.

Disregard ...

... because he had never learnt in life that one valuable lesson— that when you deal with other people as you go about your daily business, you always reap what you sow.

There is no great story to tell about how David Haas came to be there on that night. He had simply gone out for a drink, and just as simply, he had drunk too much.

There is not even any great story to tell about how he came to meet his end where there was little or no pain and certainly no recognition of the forces which killed him.

The facts are simple.

David Haas was in his father’s garage lying on a mechanic’s dolly beneath the body of his Nissan Pathfinder. The 4x4 had been presented to him as a present on his last birthday by both his mother and his father for solid A’s in his last year at the local high school and he loved the freedom that the vehicle allowed him almost as much as he loved his parents for giving it to him. He had the radio on—and turned up LOUD!—at his feet, listening as the Sunday night D.J. belted out the nation’s top forty metal hits while he lay stretched out on a mechanic’s dolly beneath the Pathfinder’s jacked up chassis, fitting a new pair of brake pads and bleeding the cables of the vehicles raised front. The brakes had been biting recklessly around the drums over the space of the past few days and while he would normally have his fathers hand to guide him through its servicing, with both of his parents away at the Gold Coast for a well deserved fortnights holiday, he had taken on the task himself.

As he worked, his feet tapping out a beat to the last leaden bass of ‘The Nine Inch Nails’, a small, speckled yellow bird flew through the opened roller door of the garage and came to a silent landing on the oil stained ground next to where he worked.

The music was so loud that David didn’t notice the bird any more than he did the bare mud stained feet of the woman move into the garage through the building’s open rear door and make their way silently across the work stained concrete floor, moving in slow, padded silence as only bare feet can move towards where he lay beneath the two and a half tones of vehicle above his prone form.

He did not notice the light from the long banks of fluorescents suspended from the garage’s raftered roof begin to flicker and fade.

He did not smell the pungent aroma of rotting flesh and other, darker things waft across the floor in the woman’s wake as she walked over to stand unseen at his feet.

He did not hear the words . . .

‘Do you want me?‘. . . croak dry, hollow and barely audible above the cry of Axel Rose screaming his way through the last bars of the Gunners’ wayward version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door.’ And as the woman’s waisted and decaying hand encircled the thick metal lever of the pressurized jack which supported the weight of the Pathfinder’s metal framed chassis above David Haas’s busily working form, twisting it slightly so as to release its full weight and drop the vehicle down onto his chest and skull, flattening both instantly …..

... he did not feel the pain.

David Haas’s death was as most deaths were. Quick. Simple. Brutally sudden.

And from the radio set up at his spasming, lifeless yet still twitching feet, Axel Rose bade a farewell to the chanting, cheering concert crowd and along with the rest of the band, strode from the stage just as the naked form of the woman slowly turned and shuffled back once more out into the all consuming night, a small yellow bird perched upon her sunken, naked shoulder.

13

His breath came shallow and uneven. A parody of breathing. His body working on blind, mechanical instinct rather than any need for the life of air to fill his lungs.

He was beyond that now.

Now the breath was unimportant. He didn’t need the tidal surge of air throughout his body for his existence, nor the subtler ebb and flow of blood through his veins. Now there was only the rage and the ties which bound them both together which was keeping him in this halfworld between life and death.

Night and day.

Brother and sister

Two, yet one.

Peter White thought these thoughts alone in his room that night as he lay unmoving upon the still freshly made up sheet of his bed, staring at the darkened, night shadowed corners of his rented hotel room. Only these thoughts did not come to him as other thoughts did. They were not clear and concise in any way. They were not definite or even conscious. They were thoughts on another, far deeper, far more elemental level.

They were thoughts from Jilly.

He tried to lift himself from the sheets of his bed to stand.

It seemed very important to him that he move, yet at the same time he felt as if he were being held back, restrained by some heaviness of his limbs. A heaviness which was at the same time a weakness which drained the strength from his rapidly wasting body. He knew also that he had to stay awake, as if the very fact of him staying awake may prevent something from happening. And yet at the as the knowledge of these very thoughts came to him, other thoughts cried from the darkest recesses of his stagnate mind, submerging these beneath a tide of hate and blanketing rage.

/t wasn’t over yet, these darker thoughts told him.

There were still others. Others who had been there and who must pay for what they did. Others besides the young man in the motel room and the one in the rail yards. Others like the one crushed beneath the car chassis. Others who were still going about their business and who must be brought to rights over what they had done. Only then would it be over. Only then would the pain end and the wasting of his body upon which this hate and rage fed be over. Only then would he have peace.

Peter tried to lift himself again, against the bounds of these voices from within and the weakness of his body which had come upon him since returning to his room from the pharmacy earlier that evening. He tried to move but he managed no more than to raise his arm slowly up in front of his haggard face to stare at its splayed fingers in the motel room’s half light.

The images of faces came before his eyes in the still darkness, swirling around him in holographic detail. Faces of the man with the pony tail and the cold blue eyes, faces of the boy and of the other. Faces which filled him with such a loathing hate that his hand began to shake and contort beneath it. Every nerve within his fading body seemed to at once come alive as these faces of men milled and mixed, bended and shifted in the darkness before him, filling him with their images, and their names, the sounds of their laughing, mocking voices and the unspoken knowledge of where he would find them.

Pain arched through his back, lancing its way up from his groin to the base of his skull, searing its way like a charge of raw, primal power along the length of his spine, making his body thrash and shudder with its passing. And as the rage swelled within him at the images of these faces of men, filling him with its darkness, the flesh of his hand appeared to pulse and deflate in front of his eyes as this same hate and rage, fed upon him for its existence until his arm became filled with a leaden weakness and crashed down across his wasted chest.

His eyes slowly rolled back to twitching whites in their sockets and as a sleep that was deep and yet wasn’t sleep at all, drew its shroud across his wasted form, somewhere off in the blackness of night, amongst the rocks and bushland scrub which surrounded the small country town, another figure, wasted and ruined by decay, rose like an avenging angle from the shadows.

Day 4

1

The Metropolitan Branch of the State Police, Homicide Division, is a low, squat building of red brick and glass which grows like some unwanted limb from out of the ground floor of the state headquarters, fourteen stories high in the heart of the city, and was known by its working staff uniformed and others as the ‘Kindergarten’. Few of the units two dozen serving detectives which made up the major crimes investigating team were past the thirty mark in years. Of those handful of officers that were, none topped thirty five. And although most of the long term career veterans who inhabited the capital department floors would deny steadfastly that law enforcement in the new millennium was a young man’s game, it seemed that, in homicide at least, they were prepared to concede the point. The only notable exception to this ‘young buck’ rule was one Joseph K. Pittman.

At fifty seven, Pittman wasn’t the most senior of officers to serve in the state branch headquarters but by the sheer weight of his many years in uniform and the hard earned ‘street savvy’ that he had accumulated over that time, he was certainly one of the most respected. And with this respect came a reputation for a fair minded toughness in his drive to get the job done. It was for this reason and for this reason alone that he was known to most of those serving on the force as “The Pitt-bull’.

To the men and women who worked under his guiding hand in homicide and who made up the bulk of the unit’s ‘Kindergarten Cops’, he was known more simply, more endearingly as ‘The Headmaster’.

There was a brief, formally efficient knock against the glass of the main office’s hallway window and Joe Pittman looked up from the paper work spread out across the polished oak surface of his desktop to see Detective Sergeant Sandra Maitland standing there in the opened doorway. Her hair was pulled back in a tight, no nonsense bun, a pair of designer reading glasses rested upon the bridge of her perky, ski-slope nose framing a narrow but not unattractive face. She held a bulging manila folder clutched defensively across her chest, her eyes struggling to hold his.

‘May I have a word with you, sir?’ she asked, clearing the knot from her throat with a slight, nervous cough and Pittman felt an instinctive rush of irritation at the interruption grow quickly across the expanse of his broad brow.

‘Is it important Sandra?’ he asked gruffly, looking back down at the sheer volume of paperwork spread out across the plane of the desk before him.

‘I think so, sir?’ she replied, picking up immediately at the indignation which her superior felt at the distraction and she shifted her weight apprehensively from one foot to another beneath it. Then, almost as an afterthought, she added . . .‘It’s about the Harn stabbing, sir. Out at Rowan.’

Pittman sighed, laying down his fountain pen and nodded her in, motioning as he did so for her to close the door behind her as she entered. Detective Maitland did so abruptly, silencing the busy clatter of the hallway outside before walking across the office lushly carpeted floor to seat herself in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. When Joseph Pittman had switched on the answering machine in his office yesterday evening, after he had first come on duty and had heard the short, rushed message laid down on the eighteen seconds of available tape by his old partner, he had pulled the computer files containing all of the initial information on the Harn stabbing and on the rape and murder of Jillian White the day earlier, before handing the entire case load on to Maitland to follow through.

He hadn’t heard an awful lot from Frank Brannigan over the space of the last few years as the time between their once rock solid friendship—like their lives—had grown apart. But he had kept an eye on his old friend, following his failing career through the usual sources on the police grapevine—where and what the man was doing, whom had he been seen doing it with, and whom in high places he had pissed off in the process (as Frank Brannigan was wont to do ). He owed the man, he couldn’t deny it. And although Brannigan had never done anything so dramatic as to take a bullet for him or step in front of a knife blade with Joe Pittman’s name etched on it, Frank Brannigan had notched up more than his fair share of points in Joe Pittman’s estimation over the years.

So when he had called, Pittman had done what he could to help his old partner’s request along its merry way.

He had pushed and pushed hard for both cases to be hauled through the system which was already bulging with a backdated case load (the by-product of the Christmas silly season) to get the man a result, and, in doing so, had lain both firmly on the plate in front of Officer Maitland who was, without a doubt, one of the division’s foremost rising stars and whom, it was said by some, was the next in line for a step up the career ladder. Maitland was efficient and that was good. She was tight at her job, methodical, and that was good also. But more importantly to Pittman’s way of thinking at the time, she was discreet, and when it came to filtering information out of the state headquarters to a hick-town cop like Brannigan with a reputation for trouble, especially when that information involved not one but two capital run murder investigation, then that was the best of all.

‘Okay,’ Pittman said finally, closing the cover of the file laid out before him and reclining back into the comfortable arms of his chair to stare at the young detective from over the top of his steepled fingertips laid medatively to his chin, ‘what have you got?’

‘Well, sir,’ Maitland coughed again . . .

She was nervous and Pittman smiled. He liked to see that when he was talking to his subordinates.

‘... I was just down in forensics chasing up the file addendas on both the Harn and White cases when I came across something that I’m not really sure what to make of. You see, at first I was looking for nothing in particular between both cases. On the one hand we had the White rape and murder with its basic gang rape stats, the tyre, the boot prints around at the scene where the body was found, the attending coroner’s report showing its multiple bruising of the body. And on the other hand we had the Harn stabbing. A man walks back into his room and is attacked by one or more unknown assailants. No witnesses. Some signs of a struggle. Traces of. . .’

‘Get to the point Sandy,’ Pittman cut in wearily and the young detective on the other side of the room sat up suddenly straight in her chair, realizing that in all of her apparent excitement, she had been close to babbling.

Yes, sir,′ she said, shutting her mouth and pushing the rims of her round reading framed reading glasses further up on the bridge of her nose with one perfectly manicured fingernail. She then drew back on a steadying breath and continued. ‘It’s about the fingerprints taken from the motel room where Harn was killed sir?’ she finished and with that, handed the manila folder which she had been carrying across the top of the desks expansive face to her Superior.

‘What about them?’ Pittman asked as he flicked briefly through the loose leaves of paper within without any noticeable interest as to what they may contain. Photographs, reports, spectrographic charts, soil samples. Nothing which indicated to Pittman any of the apparent fascination that his young subordinate seemed to be enjoying at this particular moment.

‘They match.’

‘Match what?’ the irritation was there again in his voice and Detective Maitland offered a hurried explanation.

“The fingerprints that were lifted from the handle of the knife that killed Thomas Harn match those which were taken from the body of Jillian White.′

‘What!’ It was Pittman’s turn to be taken off guard and sat sharply forward in his chair, steely grey eyes scanning the report infront of his as his young subordinate continued.

“That’s right sir. I didn’t believe it myself at first and I guess that I wouldn’t have seen it at all if I hadn’t been compiling both files at the same time as I was. But I wa ...′

‘Whoa! Whoa!’ Pittman exclaimed, holding up a broad, knotted hand for her to stop. ‘Back up a little for me would you Sandy. Where were these fingerprints from White taken? I mean, as far as I am aware, the body is still missing.’

‘Upon the admittance of the dead woman’s body to the morgue at the Tarro Community Hospital. It’s standard procedure to cross check identity.’

‘And has this been cross checked?’ Pittman asked, tapping the opened pages of the file on the desk in front of him. ‘Is this all above board and kosher?’

‘Yes sir,’ Maitland nodded. ‘I double checked it myself. The fingerprints lifted off the knife which killed Harn aren’t complete sets and some of them overlay his own but they do give us the five point match that we need. And the attending coroner has verified them as having belonged to Jillian White from his own records.’

Pittman stood up slowly from behind the desk and walked around the back of his chair to stare out contemplatively over the grey, rain misted city through the darkly tinted glass of the office window. A coal ferry made its way gradually along the brown, ribboned waterway which snaked its way lazily between the high office towers on either side of the wide river, its clarion horn crying out mournfully in the heavy, early morning haze. He watched it .distractedly for a long, thoughtful moment before finally turning back towards the room and the young detective who sat eagerly forward in the chair on the other side of his desk.

‘Do you know what this means Sandy?’

’Yes sir. If these prints are accurate, and I have no reason to believe that they are not, then Jillian White is our prime suspect in the stabbing of a man almost forty-eight hours after she herself was murdered. It’s what you might call ‘One for the books’.′

Pittman nodded and walked back around his chair to seat himself once more behind his desk.

He lifted up a pen from amongst the files spread out there and held it loosely between his chunky fingertips for a time as if he were momentarily at a loss at to just what to do next before he sighed and said .

‘I want you to contact Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan for me Sandy. They won’t be on duty out there in Hicksville yet I should imagine so you’ll have to go through the station’s files and pull his private number from the listings there.’

‘Yes sir,’ Maitland said, taking that as her cue to be dismissed. She stood and was just about to once again open the office door and step out into the buss sling flurry of activity which filled the corridor beyond when Pittman called out to her.

‘And Sandy.’

‘Yes sir?’ she replied, turning back to the room.

‘This is a damned fine piece of work on your part.’ he said, tapping the file piled on the desk in front of him with the flat of his hand.

‘Thank you sir,’ and with that, she smiled and swung the door shut behind her as she went.

2

Frank Brannigan’s breakfast that morning was, by tradition, a modest affair. It consisted, as it always did, of a coffee, strong, black and well sugared (a carry-over from the reckless days of his youth when an almost mandatory hangover had greeted him each morning like a sergeant major calling the sleeping troops to reverie). Two eggs—light over easy with a healthy dash of H.P. barbeque sauce splattered across their golden tops to put a little fire in the belly. Two or three strips of bacon if there was a pig ‘On the Go’ at the local butcher (when there wasn’t he would rather reluctantly settle for a couple of fried sausages with his morning meal, or, failing that, a potato fritter) and a slice of toast, bare of butter, jam or for that matter of anything else.

Some five years earlier, Frank had gone for his regulation checkup to the police medical officer before he had been cleared for his posting here at Rowan, and had been gravely told by the man with the icy stethoscope and the equally icy bedside manner, that like it or not he was right in the middle of ‘Coronary County’ for a man of his age and weight. And that unless he set himself about seriously modifying the excesses of his life i.e., change to a low fat diet, and cut out the drinking and the smokes and just about everything else which made life worth living, then his stay there might be a permanent and lethal one. Frank had tried his level best for some time to follow the doctors orders but the old habits had steadily crept back into place—as old habits will—and out of all of it,, only the unbuttered un’ anything else toast had remained.

He sat quietly in the lounge room of his semidetached quarters, listening halfheartedly to the morning stillness and the play of his own thoughts which insisted upon occupying the silence as he ravenously devoured his breakfast. His feet were cocked up on the edge of the rooms coffee table, heels stretched out in slippers and a cup of coffee, rapidly cooling, sat next to the scattered arrangement of files and reports spread out in a card hand in front of him.

He hadn’t so easily been able to dismiss Peter White’s concerns the evening before once he had returned from the darkroom of the local pharmacy to his own, night blackened quarters. At least not as easily as he had hoped he would have. There had been far too many lingering doubts in his own mind to just be able to disclaim everything else that he had seen there in those few police photographs and had heard expressed in the young man’s spoken thoughts.

There were just too many grey areas in his own mind to write them all off as nothing more than Peter White’s grief talking or as some kind of technical hitch in the mechanics of the police operation at the scene of the missing girl’s body. In the end, a victim to these doubts, these grey areas, he had pulled everything that he had on the Jilly White case from the files in his office and had settled himself down to a long night shared with a couple of straight scotches as he had tried to wade through these same doubts and uncertainties surrounding the whole fucked up mess.

He had hit the sheets late, having resolved nothing and when he had finally woken the next morning, positioning himself upon the lounge room sofa with his breakfast balanced upon his expansive lap, he had begun to go through those same files again, telling himself as he did so that he would be able to see things more clearly now that he had slept upon them.

The call from Joe Pittman had interrupted all of that.

‘What do you mean the fingerprints are the same?’ he had almost shouted into the telephone mouthpiece as he reseated himself against the lounge’s padded arm, his jaw working its way frantically around the last of his breakfast egg. He had to take a swig on the cup of coffee to clear it from the back of his throat, and as he listened to his old partners response, he reached across to lay the near empty cup back on the coffee table next to the open pages of Jilly White’s file.

‘Just that Frank’, Pittman said from his office on the other end of the line at the other end of the state. His voice sounded faintly amused to Brannigan’s ears at his stunned reaction. ‘They are exact matches or as damned near to it as those taken by the coroner from White’s body when it was admitted into Tarro Hospital three days ago. Forensics have managed to lift a five point match from the handle of the blade that skewered Thomas Harn’s throat. The prints are a little obscured but they’re hers alright.’

‘Jesus! I don’t understand any of this.’ Frank sighed in reply, and as he had so often done the night before, he dragged his big hand across his deeply etched brow to try and chase back at the memory of Peter White and the certainty with which he had spoken of his sister still somehow being alive. A certainty which Frank had both scoffed at, and, as the night alone in his quarters afterwards had progressed, almost come to grudgingly consider. Suddenly he felt very tired.

‘Is there any chance of this being some sort of mistake?’ he asked finally, ‘You know the kind of thing. A glitch in the computer or someone fucking around with the lines of communication?’

‘Nope. That was one of the first things that was looked into as a possible answer. It wouldn’t have been the first time that the wrong file had been sent to the wrong department, especially when both cases are so closely linked to the same small town, but I’ve had everything checked out. The whole deal is kosher. The young lady’s prints are there on the knife handle. No question about it.’

Brannigan let the telephone’s headset fall away from his ear and turned to look out of the dust streaked glass of the lounge room window while his teeth worked their way contemplatively around the meaty flesh of his lower lip. It was Pittman who finally spoke, breaking through the thoughtful silence which had settled between the two men across the line, and Frank had to ask again what he had said before he heard it.

‘I said, is there any chance at all that this Jillian White could have been there in the room before Harn?’ Pittman asked, sounding not for one minute like he even came close to believing it as a remote possibility.

‘What, you mean Jilly White at some previous time before her death just happened to stop in the exact same town, in the exact same motel room and using the exact same knife that killed Harn only a day after she was killed herself? That’s a bit of a long shot don’t you think Joe, to put it mildly?’

‘Yeah. I know it is Frank. But compared to the other alternatives that we’ve got to deal with here, it starts to sound almost feasible to me.’

‘True.’

‘So what about it?’

‘No chance at all’, Frank answered. And yet, even having said that—and shaking his head as he did—he gave himself a moment longer to consider the possibility, long shot that it was, before dismissing it. This time finally. ‘The girl, Jilly White, was travelling to Gladstone on the night that she was killed and that was at least twenty kilometres on the south side of the motel. Sure, she was heading in that general direction. The road that she was on would have taken her right past the front of the tavern where Harn had been staying. But those twenty kilometres away are about as far as she got, and according to her old neighbour and her brother, she had left to drive north only that afternoon. Besides that, Harn had lived in the motel room for near on a month, so its not likely that its been rented out to anyone else who’s going to complicate the equation even more. As far as I can see old friend, if you wanted to follow that line of inquiry, you’d be hard stretched to find something... anything ... that even started to look like a common denominator to tie them both in together.’

Pittman sighed in agreement.

‘Well I’m as sure as shit that I don’t know how else to explain it Frank. The prints are there. They’ve been confirmed by the attending pathologist at the scene with his own records and they’ve been matched up against those taken from her body upon her admittance to the morgue out there at Tarro. We’ve checked and re-checked them and everything here at this end appears to be towing the line.’

‘Okay. Okay’, Brannigan said, lifting the hand which had, up until that point, lain across the broad expanse of his forehead, cradling it as he spoke, to run it through his thinning grey hair. ‘Look. Run what you’ve got there past me again and let’s see if we can’t get a handle on this.’

There was the rustling of paper on the other end of the line, a time punctuated only by the distant click of the S.T.D. time charge notching up another thirty cents worth of revenue for the telephone company, before Pittman’s voice finally came back.

‘Still there Frank?’

‘Still here.’

‘Alright then . . .‘(There was the sound of more paper rustling where Frank could easily envisage his old partner hastily sorting his way through a mountain of paperwork spread out before him on his office desk, and then Pittman coughed as if to clear his throat.) ‘. . .Ah! Here it is. Okay, here we go. Now according to the report which you’ve lodged with the team attending the scene, you’d interviewed the tavern’s manager who said that Harn had been in the public bar there for most of the day. Virtually occupied a stool since opening time that morning, and would’ve had a skin full by that evening even if he’d been on Light.’

“That’s right.′ Frank answered and he nodded his head to the empty room.

‘You’ve also got here,’ Pittman continued, ‘that Harn had been drinking heavily according to the publican and that aside from taking the time out to order himself another drink, he wasn’t seen talking to anyone else. You’ve got it written here that the manager commented on how this wasn’t such an unusual thing for the man to do. That he had few visitors and that he never had much to say for himself when he was in there.’

‘Okay,’ Frank put in at that point, cutting off his old, one time partner before he had the chance to add anything else, ‘so it seems pretty safe for us to rule out that he picked up someone there at the bar on the night because we’ve got the tavern manager who would have noticed it as having been something out of the ordinary for the boy. And I suppose at the same time, we can probably rule out the fact that he may have pissed someone off enough that they might have wanted to have taken him outside and beat the living shit out of him because the manager would have noticed that as well. Right?’

‘Right,’ Pittman accepted, ‘That seems likely enough.’

‘Go on.’

‘Um . . .’ Pittman said as if he had momentarily lost his place ‘Oh. Here it is. At approximately nine-thirty on Saturday night, Harn was escorted from the bar by a bouncer who had decided that he had enough to drink and after that, he had apparently gone back to his room. Have you had a chance to talk to this bouncer yet?’

‘Yep! After he gave Harn the bums rush for the door, he went back into the bar. His shift finished up at three in the a.m. ... if I remember rightly when he left for home with his girlfriend. Both the manager and the lady independently collaborate on times. He didn’t return to the tavern until the start of his shift at noon the next day.’

Pittman ‘Uh-hunted’ to the last of that, and hearing it, Frank thought that his old friend sounded disappointed. Both men instinctively knew that the whole idea of the bouncer being the man who had nailed Harn was just a little too convenient to be true. Still, a man couldn’t help himself but to hope.

‘Right-o then,’ Pittman went on, taking up his turn to speak once more. ’Now, after this particular point, we’ve pretty much only got what’s written on the pages of the forensic report to go on and nothing more. There are no witnesses and no one has reported hearing anything unusual at the time so we’re really flying quite blind here. Harn arrived back at his room after leaving the bar to find that the door was open and that the lock had been forced. There apparently aren’t any noticeable signs of the lock having been picked or even pried open with a crow bar so for the time being, we’ll just say that it was forced and leave it at that.”

“Is there any chance that it could have actually have been Harn that had done the damage to his rooms front door?′ Frank asked.

‘Why do you ask that?’

‘No real reason. Just grabbing at straws I guess. The man was full of piss. No doubt more than a little indignant at having been told to fuck off from the bar. It just seems to me to be a possibility that he may have taken out a little of that aggression out on the door to his room.’

’Sure. It’s possible I suppose.3 Pittman agreed. ‘There’s certainly nothing here to say that he did or he didn’t. And as far as I can see, there’s nothing to suggest that forensics have been able to get anything in the way of fingerprints from the door face to either confirm or deny it. Given what went down inside of the room though, I’d say that it seems to me to be pretty unlikely. And there’s another thing Frank ...’

‘Hmm?’

‘If the door was forced like I say it was, and for the time being it looks a lot like whoever it was that did it used a shoulder or a foot, wouldn’t someone have heard the commotion?’

“No. Not necessarily. The motel only had a few patrons that night who were there at the time and none of them had a room close to where Harn’s was. It’s offseason here at the moment, what with winter coming on and all. The place is really only ever booked out when the summer starts again or when the school holidays roll around. For the rest of the time the motel is about as deserted as a vegetarian’s barbecue.′

’Okay then. So this Harn sees the door to his room open and he goes inside but the lights don’t work. His prints are on the switch and so are the tavern manager’s but there are no one else’s, so about all that we can say for sure is that he tried the light switch and when it didn’t work, he went inside blind. Now forensics have found some . . .

(The sound again of rustling paper)

’... soil traces on the carpet of the room just inside of the door. Reasonably fresh it says here and one of them appears to have been laid down in the shape of a near perfectly formed footprint. A size six or a seven apparently so we can say that

‘Wait a minute’, Frank interjected, cutting Pittman’s voice off before it had a chance to reach full stride.

‘What?’

‘Well. Doesn’t that seem at all odd to you? I mean that whoever was waiting there in the room for Harn to return was in bare feet at, the time.’

“I see what you mean. Yeah. I guess that it does in its own way but we’ll get back to that in time. Now, like I said, it’s a fair guess that whoever it was that was waiting there in the room for him to return was standing there just inside of the door when the boy came in.′

‘And ambushes him before, he has a chance to know just what in Christ’s name is going on?’ Frank finished for him.

’No. Piittman corrected, ‘Not exactly. At least, not at first.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well . . . Forensics have found some relatively fresh semen samples on the carpet near where the head of the bed was positioned, as well as a few traces on the front of the jeans that the boy was wearing before he was knifed.’

‘So basically,’ Frank added, ‘Harn got off before he got offered.’

‘As crude and as crass as ever. Good to see that .time hasn’t changed you too much old friend.’

‘And fuck you too Pittman,’ Brannigan laughed, with Joe joining in with him before he continued.

‘But basically,’ he said, ‘the semen has been matched as being Ham’s though at the moment nobody really knows whether he was jerked, fucked or sucked to get it. They’re still working on that one down in pathology where they are trying to pick up whether or not there are any residual traces of secretions on the end of his cock to see if they can detect any saliva or whatever. Once they do that, we could use it as a match with some samples taken from the White woman’s body. Hopefully then they could use it in conjunction with her fingerprints to either prove or disprove any involvement between the two.’

‘If we had ourselves a body that is’, Brannigan piped in and Joe Pittman agreed.

‘Correct. If we had a body. Still no word on that score?’

‘Not a thing. The hospital supervisor here at Tarro is still jumping up and down and making a lot of noise about just whose fault the whole cock up is. But as yet, there’s still no trace.’

Frank reached out across the coffee table as he spoke and selected one of the photographs from between the covers of the manila case folder which lay there to hold it up in front of his face. Within the photographic prints glossy eight by six surface, Jilly White lay in all of her garish detail immersed beneath the surface of the dark shadows of the ghost gum which had been her last resting place. He studied the print for a moment, not really thinking, just looking at its stark detail and exacting clinical definition as if some answer lay there, waiting to be seen. At last he said …..

…..‘Go on.’

‘Well, there’s not really all that much to say after that. Harn blows his load and it looks like that’s when things start to turn really ugly. There’s a struggle, all be it, a short one which ends up in the rooms kitchenette, with the boy being nailed to a cabinet door by the knife in question. You know the rest.’

Brannigan grunted and shook his head, still no closer to an understanding of what had gone down in the motel room than when they had started, then sighed and said . . .

‘Okay Joe. Now it’s my turn. Have you got the file on Jilly White there in front of you?’

‘Yeah sure. It’s here somewhere. Hang on just a tic . . .’

There was a long silence from the other end of the line once more and then, through it, the pained creaking of a chair as Joe Pittman strained himself to reach out across his desk to retrieve the folder on the White case from beneath a backdated load of files where he had placed it after Maitland had left the room earlier that morning.

‘Okay. I’ve got it. Now. What’s up?’

‘Open the file and have a look at the photographs. The ones where the girl’s hand is hanging out of the shadows. The ones tagged eight and twelve.’ Frank selected another of the same shot himself as he spoke, this one taken from a slightly different angle—back and away to the left—to the first shot by the police photographer at the scene. The small digital printout in the bottom right hand comer showing a space of one minute and fifteen seconds between the two and he held both Up in front of him, one along side the other. At that particular moment, Joseph Pittman was in his office at the other end of the state doing exactly the same thing.

‘Yeah,’ Pittman said finally, ‘I’ve got them. What about it?’

‘Do you notice anything different about them?’ Frank asked, and mentally, he started to count out the space of seconds in the back of his mind as he listened for his old partner’s response. There was another long silence, one where Frank felt as if he could almost physically hear his old partner thinking that there was no difference between the two, when he heard the sudden, sharply drawn hiss of breath at the dawning realization on the other end of the line. Eighteen seconds until the penny dropped, Brannigan thought. Not too shabby for an old dog like you Pittman. Not too shabby at all.

‘Jesus H. Christ!’

‘My thoughts exactly when I first saw it.’

‘When did you .. .?’

‘I noticed the movement there in the hand last night Joe,’ Brannigan answered ‘I was just glancing at them under the light of my reading desk after they turned up here and the difference between them all but hit me between the eyes.’

Frank thought it prudent to leave out the part in the story about the involvement which Peter White had played and the information which he had rightly or wrongly passed onto the boy in return. Joseph Pittman was an old friend sure enough, but he was still a superior officer—as tough as they came when it came to following the procedure book—and Brannigan knew instinctively that he would not have been amused with the real circumstance surrounding the discovery.

‘I’ve also got a Polaroid here at the station house that I had taken after I first arrived out there on the scene after the body’s discovery and just before your boys turned up, where this apparent movement is even more noticeable.’ Then, finally, Brannigan added. ‘Looks to me like some one had fucked up old friend.’

He could almost physically feel Pittman pull himself in on the other end of the telephone line, and when he spoke again, Brannigan wasn’t at all surprised at the defensiveness that he heard in the man’s voice.

’Now you just hang one bloody minute there Frank. The team that I sent out there to Rowan to ‘bag and tag’ at the scene were about as good as they come at what they do.′

‘Are you trying to tell me that they are beyond making a mistake like this?’ Brannigan responded. He didn’t for a second believe that the dead girl’s hand had been bumped, not by any of Pittman’s men and certainly not by his own. In truth he didn’t know what to really believe had caused the discrepancy that he saw there within the police photograph and which was even more pronounced between them and his own, but he was nothing if not a man who lived by the philosophy of flogging it until it was dead and he got the answers that he wanted. He pushed on regardless. ‘Can you honestly say that the boys and girls that you have working for you there run such a tight ship that perhaps the accidental movement of the deceased at the scene of a murder is out of the question?’

‘No. No of course I can’t,’ Pittman replied. There was indignation in his voice most certainly, but anger?

No. Not that. Joe Pittman knew his old partner too well to let himself get riled by his hard nosed ways. Brannigan tended to stand on peoples toes. It was simply a fact of life as acknowledging that the sky was blue.

“But what I can say is that these kids that work here in the department these days aren’t like us Frank. They do things differently to the way that we did. We’re dinosaurs compared to the efficiency that the force works with these days. Today they’re professional right down the line. Everything here is done by the book. No deviations bending the rules like in our days. Not even a little bit. I can’t for a minute say that one of my men isn’t responsible for this cock up here in the photographs with the hand, but neither am I prepared to say that they are until I know more about just what in the hell went on out there. After all, how can I tell that it wasn’t one of your men that moved the stiff?′

But Frank let that one slide, and even tough he felt his blood boil a little and the hackles rise a tad against the back of his neck, he pushed on regardless. He wasn’t really out to draw blood. Maybe if he was dealing with someone else other than Pittman he might have gone for the jugular with a little more vengeance over this even though it was, by all accounts, a minor mistake in what was by all accounts a major operation, but, just the same, he still as yet wasn’t prepared to let the whole thing slide by either.′

He needed to find an answer. One other than that which had been supplied by Peter White, and he needed to find it soon, because he was afraid that despite himself, he was going to find himself wanting to believe some of the boy’s rationalizing.

“Then how in Christ’s name do you explain this movement in the dead girl’s hand if it wasn’t for one of your ‘professionals’ bumping her or being where he shouldn’t have?′

‘What’s the matter Frank?’ Pittman asked, his voice quickly losing some of its flush of annoyance over Brannigan’s allegations, replacing it instead with a more moderate tone of curiosity ‘What’s really eating you about this? Sure. Okay. The dead girls hand was moved. I’m not prepared to say that it was one of my men that did it but even if they did, so what? It’s a small mistake at best, nothing more. What’s making you push it so hard?’

‘Shit Joe,’ Brannigan all but hissed, rubbing frustratingly at the back of his neck. ‘I don’t know. I guess that I’m just trying to figure out this whole thing. Every time that I turn a corner and think that I’m just starting to get on top of things, I end up running into another brick wall.’

Brick wall! Huh. That’s a laugh, Frank thought. For gods sake, don’t start trying to list them all or you’ll be here all day.

‘Join the club old friend,’ Pittman said and then issued a heavy sigh before he continued. ’Okay then partner, here it is. Now this is all only speculation mind you, so don’t start stamping your foot about what I’m going to say until you’ve heard it all. I want you to just sit there, shut up and listen. I’m going to tell you something. It’s not necessarily what I believe and you can call it what you want when I’m finished, a wild shot in the dark or the rantings of a mad man but I’m going to say it anyway.

‘Now suppose . . . just suppose, that this White girl isn’t really dead. Or at least wasn’t at the time.’

And then, there it was, even from Joseph K. Pittman. A man whom Frank had known and trusted for years. A man whose opinion he had always valued if not always listened to. A man who, unlike Peter White, was not traumatized by grief at the death of a loved one and who was grabbing blindly for any shred of hope to justify the belief that, somehow, somewhere, his sister was still alive, but rather a man who had made his career out of logic and reason. Blacks and whites.

‘Just suppose’, Pittman continued, unaware of the weird sense of unreality felt by his old time friend who sat there as he spoke, listening to the words and yet at the same time hearing them being spoken by a voice in his head which sounded remarkably like that of Peter White’s only the night before, ‘that she was unconscious, catatonic or comatose or whatever the hell you want to call it, when she was found, and that nobody happened to pick up on whatever faint signs there were that the girl was still within the land of the living.’

‘But wouldn’t the coroner at the scene have . . .’ Frank tried to interject but Pittman cut him off before he had a chance to get any further.

‘No Frank, just let me finish. I know how stupid this all sounds but I’m still going to say it anyway. Suppose that this girl was still somehow alive with her vital signs being about as faint as they can be with the person still being able to be called a going concern. Her hand moves a little at the scene and is caught on film by a camera, yours first and then ours, but the movement, like her vital signs is so faint that nobody notices it. Suppose also that this girl is then packed up into a body bag and shipped off to the Tarro Community Hospital’s morgue where she comes to during the night. She’s dazed, disorientated and manages to wander out of the hospital. I don’t know, maybe through the back exit or if it was late enough, straight past the front desk if it was unattended. She’s in shock, not thinking straight, if at all, and is most probably within the grips of a deep trauma which makes a coma look like a pleasant little vacation in the country side. She then staggers her way off into the night and finally stumbles across Thomas Hani’s motel room where, in the grips of some type of temporary insanity . .. hell! Probably in the grips of a permanent one given what those bastards who raped her did to her, she kills the boy before wandering off once more into the surrounding bushland.’

Brannigan sat there listening, not saying anything, just struggling to make himself believe that this was the same logical old Joe Pittman that he knew on the other end of the line and not Peter White doing an impersonation that would make Rich Little envious, while all of the time realizing that his own thoughts were coming perilously close to travelling that self same pathway. And when his one time partner and friend had finally finished, a silence filled the gap of miles between the two men where only there thoughts spoke.

‘And you believe all of this?’ Frank asked finally. Incredulously.

‘Not for a second,’ Pittman responded and Frank felt some of that sense of unreality slip down a notch. ‘But like I said before about the knife Frank. It’s an alternative answer. Not the only one mind you. Not by a long shot. But its got to be up there somewhere in the top ten on my list along with the rest of them. And while I’m not going to say that I’m not going to give it one hell of a lot of thought now that I’ve said it, don’t you dare sit there and tell me that knowing what you know, it hasn’t crossed your mind too.’

‘I really don’t know what I’m thinking at the moment Joe. Honest to God I don’t. On the one hand I’ve got a fairy tale and on the other I’ve got myself a ghost story and somewhere in between, I’m trying to find an .answer that will make everybody happy as to just what in the hell happened.’.

“Well just remember that old police credo Frank,′ Joe added, ‘Eliminate all of the possibilities one by one and whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’

‘You’re a great fucking help Pittman.’

‘Screw you too.’

And both men laughed. Then, finally, Joe added . . .

‘Look mate. I’ve got to take these photographs down to the lab and sort out this mess about the movement in the hand. If one of my team screwed up there then I will personally kick some arseholes. I can’t promise you anything though but as soon as I have something on it, I’ll let you know. ’

‘Okay then Joe, thanks a lot.’ And with that, Frank laid the headset of the phone back into its cradle just as the sound of Mitch’s untuned and dangerously rough V.W. beetle rolled down the sloping driveway next to the station house wall.

He was getting too close, he told himself as he lay the two police photographs of Jilly White which he had held throughout the conversation side by side back down onto the coffee table’s plain wooden surface. He was too close to liking the dead girl’s brother. Too close to feeling some kind of dispossessed sympathy for the way that the young man felt and the turmoil that he was going through to see both the White and Harn case clearly and with the detached perspective that a good cop needed to earn a result.

He needed to take a backwards step from his involvement to get a clearer perspective on things and yet, at the same time, some little voice inside of him which he barely recognised as his own spoke to him on a different, softer line. It told him that he had spent his whole life taking a backwards step away from people. It told him that he had forever walked away from Maggie and his life, just as he had walked away from Peter White the night before at the pharmacy and that what he really needed to do was to roll his sleeves up and get involved with himself, his thoughts, and the pain of those around him.

Frank shook his head, clearing both voices of conscience from him, and stared down intently at the array of photographs and other information, charts and reports laid out on the coffee table before him.

Jillian White.

Tommy Harn.

What was it between those two?

What was it that kept drawing him on and yet never once showed itself, like some elusive phantom, only ever hinted at But never revealed in the full light.

What in Christ’s name was it?′

He had gone beyond the point in his thoughts of wondering just what it was that he was missing with both Harn and to a lesser extent White. That was still there but now he felt as if it had evolved into something else. Now he felt as if there were no longer any uncertainty in his own mind—unlike there had been before—that there was in fact something there to be seen as common ground between the two. Now, after the phone call, he felt definite that there was something there just itching to be uncovered and that it was only a matter of time until it was.

It was the waiting for it to dawn upon him, as he was sure that it would, as to just what in the hell that ‘something’ was, now that was the infuriating part. He didn’t know whether he had Peter White or his old partner to thank for this realization. Whether it was them actually sounding out the ideas which up until that point he had only ever been predisposed to consider as just that . . . ideas. But it was there, that feeling, that certainty of some kind of bond between the two and he could no longer deny it.

There was a common thread between the two.

He knew it.

He felt it.

Now all that he had to do was to find out what it actually was. -Not too much to ask is it Frank! He thought, surely not for an experienced law enforcement officer such as your good self.

Frank shook his head at himself, closing the manila cover of Jilly White’s case folder over the top of the splay of photographs before him and lifted himself from out if the lounge room sofa to walk across the narrow room and stare longingly out of the opened kitchen door at the rear of the quarters. He lit himself a cigarette, snapping the small flame from the end of the match once it had come to life in the comer of his mouth and let his troubled gaze wander out through the early morning dimness over the stations impound yard adjoining the rear of his quarters.

Could Jilly White really be still somehow alive! . . .

No. No. Leave it alone Frank.

Stick to reality. Jilly White is dead. As dead as Thomas Harn and no amount of her brother’s wishful thinking, nor of your ex-partners bouncing around ideas is going to change that

Jilly is dead.

Open and shut.

Case closed.

And then, through these thoughts, the voice of Peter White, sounding out his doubts . ..

Oh yeah Frank? Then get me her body and prove it.

He shook his head once more, running his big hands through his thinning grey hair to clear away the last of these thoughts from his mind and he was about to turn from the opened kitchen door and return to the lounge room for his cup of coffee when it hit him, knocking the wind from him as surely as if he had been king hit. The answer revealing itself to him like the proverbial bolt from the blue, stopping him dead in his tracks.

He hadn’t necessarily been paying much heed, but as he had been standing there in the kitchen’s open doorway, thinking these thoughts, his eyes had found themselves drawn to the rear of Jilly White’s rust red, seventy-four Cortina as it peered out into the dim morning light from beneath a blanket of shadows stretching out across the station’s impound yard from the corrugated tin awning of the garage roof. Next to it was parked the larger, far more cumbersome form of Sandy Kullen’s John Deere tractor which had been confiscated a week earlier by Bobby Milne after the man in question had been caught driving home from the Princess Arms Hotel well and truly in the bag with the vehicles scuffler blades lowered and doing a little selective ploughing on one of the shire’s outlying roads. And next to it, Tommy Harn’s dark metallic green station wagon.

Frank hadn’t really ever looked at the two cars (excluding the tractor which now sat between them, blocking most of Harn’s vehicle from view) together before. Oh, he had seen them next to each other when Harn’s Kingswood had been towed into place behind the impound yards high, wire mesh fence yesterday afternoon once it had been removed from in front of his motel room. But he had never really seen them together. Once he did notice them, a cog turned, a penny dropped, a light bulb went on (at the time to Frank, it felt like at least a hundred watter) and like a man who finally hears the name of the tune that he had been humming to himself all day but had been maddeningly unable to call its title to his lips, he closed his eyes—shaking his head just a little—and lifted his face to the ceiling, wondering just how in God’s name he could have been so stupid as to not have seen it all before.

Of course!

The car!

Tommy Harn’s car!

He would try to think later on, when he finally had the chance to allow his thoughts the room to review themselves, about just what it was in that one, sweet moment about the car that had slotted everything into place for him. Was it the colour? The way that the shadows of the impound yards garage roof fell across its rear bumper? Or perhaps it had even been the look of Harn’s dark, illegally wide tyres which had jogged his thoughts so suddenly into place.

Whatever it was, the connection was now there and he had all but dropped the cigarette which he had been holding from his fingertips at the realization of it. He spun away from the kitchen door to run back across the lounge room, taking its narrow width in one clean stride and knelt down on the carpeted floor in front of the coffee table like an acolyte kneeling before an altar, his big hands scrabbling across its cluttered wooden face to gather up Jilly White’s case file.

Piles of newspapers and magazines fell to the floor from its sides where they had been stacked. His ashtray tipped onto its edge and let a shallow stain of ash spill out across the table’s cluttered face. His breakfast plate nudged closer towards the drop between the sofa and the table where it had lain during Pittman’s call—until at last, Brannigan had gathered together what he needed and made his way back out through the open kitchen door and into the impound yards fenced enclosure to stand there on the hard packed ground behind Tommy Harn’s Kingswood station wagon in the dull morning greyness.

He threw open the cover of the file in his hand and flicked hurriedly through its loose leaved pages of text and graphs until he came to what he was looking for—the analysis of the tyre tread marks left in the dirt of the road’s gravel shoulder near where Frank had found Jilly Whites abandoned car.

It was a two sheet report on the castings taken from the area by the forensics team which had attended the scene on that first day— neatly typed and stapled together down its left hand side—and aside from the other sundry information contained within, it carried with it a copy of the tread pattern matched to those taken from the scene. Frank hitched up the legs of the track pants that he worn and went down on his knees at the rear of Harn’s car, holding the police supplied tread prints up against the side of the vehicle’s rear passenger side tyre.

They matched! Harn’s tyres were a little more rounded than the print of that supplied and there was a rim of wear on its inside which had been formed by some poor wheel alignment but they were the same damn it.

Exactly the same.

He then lifted himself from the ground where he squatted—his knees protesting loudly as he did so—and rounded the front of the station wagon along the driver’s side, past the painted out panels to stand before its front bumper, his eyes strained into the shroud of shadows cast down by the garages corrugated iron awning.

When Frank had first arrived on the scene of Harn’s stabbing yesterday morning, he hadn’t noticed much about the boy’s car, but what he had seen had been the damage which had been inflicted upon its front driver’s side bumper bar . . .

... and recent damage it was too, Brannigan thought as he looked down at the way in which the chrome had been scratched away from the metal just below the indicator lights on this side.

No rust set in yet. No dulling of the metal alloy showing through beneath . . .

... and he studied it silently for a moment before walking across to the tool shadow board mounted on the garage wall behind him to lift a screw driver from its crowded face. He returned to Harn’s car, lowering himself again to his knees as he had done before, and began to probe intrusively around the bumper bar’s scarred metal face with its narrow blade.

A small darkness caught in the corners of Frank’s eyes there after a short time and he lifted it free with the screw driver’s flat tip before standing—using the Kingswood’s bonnet as a support for his weight—and moving around the car, back out into the clearer morning light. A small flake of paint—rust red and matching the same colour as the surface of Jilly White’s Cortina—had lodged there on the blade’s hard metal edge and seeing it, Frank let out a long, slow sigh.

There it was.

There it all was.

That had been what had dug at him so much ever since he had attended the scene of Tommy Harn’s murder early yesterday morning.

The report of Jilly White’s car had said that samples of dark green metallic auto-paint and primer had been lifted from the dented in side of the girl’s car, and now, there on his fingertips before him, he had a sample of paint matching Jilly White’s car taken from Harn’s own. He hadn’t been able to recognise the link before between the two cases because he had been looking at each as having been totally unrelated to the other. Unique from one another. A coincidence and nothing more that two murders had occurred within the same small .town within a day of each other where the most tragic thing to normally .happen was that someone’s dog got flattened on one of the shire’s outlying, roads. It was only when he looked at the two apparently unrelated cases as one that he became aware of the similarities between them.

The fingerprints of the dead girl on the knife which had skewered Tommy Harn’s throat.

The matching paint samples.

The same tread of Harn’s car found at the scene of Jilly White’s disappearance.

None of these were enough in themselves but when they were added together, the jigsaw began to take shape and form into what was a larger, more recognizable picture.

Tommy Harn had raped Jilly White.

The conclusion was so tantalizing, so sweet, so almost intoxicating in its simply logical strength that Brannigan felt a strong compulsion to clap his hands together at the excitement of it.

Tommy Harn was one of the men there on the night that Jilly White was Taped and murdered.

His car was used to ram her’s from the road.

And then, a night later, he was killed . . .somehow, someway . . . because of it. There were still holes there in the scenario to be filled in of course. The finger prints on the knife handle for one but he . . . then he remembered Joe Pittman saying that they weren’t clear matches.

Sure. They had the five points needed to make them admissible but there was nothing conclusive about them. And for every tiny hole which Brannigan felt existed in the logic of the argument that he possessed himself, he began to feel another doubt raised by either Peter White or Joe Pittman fade away.

Harn raped White.

Hani dies.

The girl’s body is just missing. Nothing more.

She was not alive and walking around somewhere, the fancifulness of that notion easily giving way to a far more persuasive one. One that was simple and owed everything to the years that he had spent serving on the force observing the darker side of human nature.

The prints on the knife which had killed Tommy Harn didn’t belong to Jilly White.

They were close but they weren’t hers, Frank was now sure of that. And who else would have prints so close to those of the dead woman that they could look alike under even the most grueling of scrutiny?

Why her twin brother of course.

They would not be exactly the same but they might be damned close and what more motivation would he need to kill a man other than the fact that the man had been there at the rape and murder of his sister?

‘Jesus, Peter,’ he muttered to himself, ‘why did you have to do it?’ And with that, he turned around to shade his eyes and look over the top of the impound yard’s high chain mesh fence up to the shadowed balcony of the Royal Exchange Hotel across the road. The young man’s words from that evening two nights earlier when they had shared a drink together rang in his ears.

“I’ll kill them Frank. I swear to God that if I find out who did this to Jilly, I’ll make them wish that they had never been born.′

3

It was a Franchi 358 pump action which Ricky McKinnan first pulled down from the gun-rack mounted on the rear wall of the farm’s woodshed.

The Franchi was a heavy piece of hardware as far as high gauge shotguns went. Twenty three inches of solid steel cast barrel (dismountable for a longer bore if the need were to arise—Ricky didn’t for a minute think that it would), a frame cast with a hardened, moulded plastic stock, and a pump action which gave its lucky user a reload time of a tight and easy three quarters of a second from the chamber. All of it eight kilos of jet black action just waiting to happen.

The Franchi hadn’t been Ricky’s first choice for the job at hand when he had pulled himself out from beneath the sweat soaked sheets of his bed that morning and crept out into the farm’s woodshed at the back of the barn while the rest of the McKinnan household slept its last sleep. That honour had gone to the Lee Enfield. ‘The Lee’ was his father’s favourite gun out of the dozen and a half pieces of killing steel that the man owned, and it had been the first of the firearms which he had taught Ricky to use.

The Lee’s a wicked liI’ beasty, he could still hear his father saying all of those years ago as he unclipped the weapon and carefully lowered the overlong gun down from its place on the top shelf on the gun-rack. Then, holding his then young son in a cold, measuring gaze, Ricky’s father had almost reluctantly passed it to his son to feel its weight with all of the careful reverence normally given to a most prized possession. It’s kinda like your own little piece of death if you wanna think about it like that. No bullshit. None of this fancy tech-a-nology that you see in these puissant guns that a man can get his hands on these days. None of this fancy magazine crap or telescopic sights. When a man picks up a Lee, what he sees is what he gets and when the time comes around when you ’re a good enough shot to use it properly, you ’re really going to learn to love the feeling of bringing down a boar or a buck with it.

Well, as no great surprise to ‘Big’ John McKinnan, Ricky had never learnt to become the marksman that his father had dreamed he would be, but he had fired the Lee eventually as his father had promised and of all the armoury that his old man owned, it had always been the fire arm that he found himself the most proficient with.

No. He had never learnt to use it well, nor had he ever learnt to love the feeling of the kill as his father had promised . . .

. . . until now,

Now the voices told him that the feeling his father had been so in awe of then and that he had thought would so definitely have made his young son a man once, he, in turn had experienced it himself— just like it did for any right thinking young man who dressed to the left— would be just the thing. Now the voices told him that that feeling, that thrill of the kill was going to be the only thing that was going to make things right. And unlike his father all of those years ago, now Ricky knew in his heart that those same voices spoke the truth.

Yes. The Lee Enfield had been Ricky’s first choice. The voices had even assured him when he first pulled it down from the rack that using it would be almost poetic justice but he had soon discounted it and had instead begun to work his way through the other weapons at his disposal, looking over them like a person trying to choose a present for Father’s Day.

In Ricky’s opinion, the Lee’s muzzle was too long and the only rounds which his father carried for it were the hollow points that he used to put down the wild boars which came out from the surrounding scrub after the summer rains to raid the lower paddocks of grain, and the weakest of the new season calves.

The hollow points had a stopping power which could put a hole in a Razorback the size of a paint tin lid at fifty yards, but that wasn’t what Ricky had wanted. In the confined spaces of his parents’ bedroom where the voices had told him to put the gun to use, that was a force which bordered on the excess and that also meant he ran the risk of making his parents’ sheets and the lace bedroom curtains, of which his mother had been so proud, dirty with the mess that it would most assuredly make.

‘No need to be uncouth about this now is there Ricky?’ a voice said in the stillness of the chilled morning air which sat within the confines of the farm’s wood shed and Ricky nodded his head in agreement.

No, he thought, no need at all.

So in the end, he had settled for the Franchi. It wasn’t the most moderate of guns at hand, it still had the stopping power which was typically excessive of most of the over-the-counter weapons his father owned, but of all of them, he felt as if it suited his needs the most. And when, in the end, he was certain that he had made the right choice, weighing up the pros and cons like the most astute of shoppers judging a pre-Christmas bargain, he filled his pockets with twelve gauge cartridges which mated comfortably with the shotgun and turned to walk back up towards the still sleeping house, loading the breech with a round as he went.

4

From Brisbane, Duncan Richie drove the road train which supplied most of the communities of the State’s mid-north coast with the alcohol which kept the town watering holes moist and the throats of their patrons well lubricated. His run took in everywhere from Gayndah to Monto in the west right through to Bargara, Pialba and Gin-Gin in the east, and on Monday mornings, as he again did on Fridays,, he paid a servicing call in on Sam Parker at the Royal Exchange Hotel in Rowan.

Duncan had known Sam for a long number of years, both men meeting as conscriptee’s when a the Vietnam War was making headlines across the world, and though in their mandatory year of national service neither men had seen action any more life threatening than the whores who had plied their trade around the fringes of the Townsville barracks where they had been stationed, the two had formed a ‘fox-hole’ friendship which had lasted to this very day.

He wasn’t overly surprised when Sam didn’t meet him at the hotel’s rear gates that morning to help him with the unloading of the beer kegs for the day’s trade. As he would be sure to tell someone whether they asked him or not, Sam was a busy man and over the last few years, though neither men would be caught dead actually admitting it, stubborn old soldiers that they were getting up in the early hours as the months fell away to winter and the first frosts began to drift in from the western ranges, had become decidedly just that much harder.

Old bones are never happy as cold bones, Duncan thought to himself as he pulled the three wheel trolley down from the back of the semi’s canvas covered tray and feeling the arthritic twinge in his hands as he did so as if to prove the point. But old bones, cold bones or not, he couldn’t unload a week’s worth of beer by himself and he still had another three pubs to stop in at on his south bound route before he could call in at ‘Gino’s’ truckstop cafe on the highway just south of Childers for some late breakfast and a freshening of his coffee thermos.

‘Sam?!’ he called out hoarsely. He didn’t shout too loud, mindful as he was in this reasonably early hour of the hotel’s lodgers who may have still been asleep behind the closed doors and shuttered windows of the upstairs balcony with overlooked the beer garden’s courtyard where he stood . . .

Though God knows they’ll wake up soon enough when I get some of these beer kegs down from the back of the truck and start clan gin’ them around a little, Duncan thought with a dry smile

. . . and when there was no response to his voice, he lifted his clipboard laden with consignment notes from the trucks front seat and walked over to the hotel’s open kitchen door.

Sam Parker was sitting alone at the kitchen table where most of the hotel patrons had their meals and counter lunches prepared, staring meditatively down into a coffee mug wrapped in his knotted hands before him. His very bald head was hung, as were his shoulders and from where Duncan stood in the doorway, he thought that he could see the man shaking.

‘Sam?’ Duncan asked, softer this time and when again there was no acknowledgement of his standing there, he walked across the room’s aged yellowed, linoleum floor and pulled up a chair to sit down at the table opposite his old friend.

‘Sam? Are you all right?’

Sam Parker looked up towards him as if he had only just noticed him for the first time then and nodded. There was something in his eyes that Duncan didn’t like, buried there in behind the creases and lines of age which framed the man’s narrow face. He thought that he saw fear there. Anger and maybe even shock. Yes. Shock the most. But it wasn’t that he smelt that Sam’s cup wasn’t filled with coffee as he had first thought, but rather with rum, that he really felt the knife edge of concern for the man sink in. Sam was never much of a drinking man and certainly not at a quarter to nine in the a.m.

. “What’s the matter?′

‘I saw something this morning Dunc’. Something that I don’t ever want to see again,′ he said in a voice that was shaking but restricted as if he were struggling to hold himself together. Duncan gave him a minute and when Sam offered no more, he prompted . . .

‘What?’

‘I saw a dead man up in one of my rooms. I mean, I thought that the boy looked sick and all. You know. Like he was under the weather, but I just never thought that he was that bad’ he said, the words coming out in a rush. ‘Only he wasn’t dead Dunc’. You know. He was but he wasn’t’.

‘Wait up Sam,’ Duncan said, holding up both hands in front of him to still his friend, ‘you’ve lost me here. Just hold onto your horses for a minute.’

The man was close to babbling and that frightened Duncan more than he cared to admit to himself. Sam could be a whinger, even a full on pain in the arse at times when he applied himself, but he didn’t scare easily, and the fact that something had quite obviously put the fear of god into his old friend raised more than a taste of alarm in him. It was only then that Duncan also realized that Sam’s dog Tinny was nowhere to be seen. On any other day a man couldn’t take a sideways step without the damned thing being under his feet, but now that the dog wasn’t around anywhere to be seen, Duncan felt that initial mild alarm set and condense into something more.

‘You’re not making any sense Sam,’ he continued, ‘now just take a long deep breath and tell me what has happened.’

Sam did take a breath, long and slow and deep as he was told, and he sighed it out from between tightly clenched teeth, his rounded shoulders shuddering with the effort. He took another sip of the mug of rum in his hands and then nodded.

‘All right,’ he agreed ’all right. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you ‘cause I reckon that I need to tell someone what I saw up there. But after I do, I don’t think that I’m going to tell anyone else. Not even my Vera. Not until I go to my grave. I know that a man shouldn’t keep secrets from his wife. God knows that there are surely enough men who do, though I’ve never made a habit of it myself. If she goes and asks me, well, maybe that’ll be different. Maybe I’ll tell her then and maybe still I won’t. Maybe I just think that she’ll be able to sleep better here at night if she didn’t know what I saw. The good lord knows that I would.’

Sam stopped here, seeming to waver for a moment. ..

Almost like he’s decided not to tell me after alt, Duncan thought.

. . . before he continued.

‘Do you know Frank Brannigan at all Dunc’?’ he asked finally.

“The cop? Sure,′ Duncan nodded. ‘Big man. Bad temper. Near on the same age as you and me, perhaps a year or two shy. I’ve run into him a couple of times when I’ve dropped off a week’s worth of beer for you here at the pub. Why do you ask?’

‘I guess because if I’m going to tell you what happened, then I should start with him’, Sam shrugged. ‘Frank came over here this morning. Must have been, oh I’d say eightish if I don’t miss my guess, maybe a little before. I was down in the bar cleaning up the mess from last night when I saw him coming across from the station . Kevy Quinlan had himself another skinful again and got himself sick.’

Then, Sam looked up from his mug and asked Duncan . . .

‘Have I told you about Kevy before?’

And Duncan nodded.

Yes. He had been told all about Kevy Quinlan before.

The man had lost his wife and son two years earlier in the car smash on the railway line and had gotten himself a drinking problem and a stomach buckshot by ulcers from the stress of the loss for his troubles.

Now, according to Sam, the man couldn’t stop himself from hitting the bottle and once he started, he couldn’t hold it down. As was Sam’s way, he had bitched to Duncan just about every time that the two met about the mess that the man made whenever he tossed his cookies in the bar.

‘Well, like I said,’ Sam continued, ’Kevy got himself pissed again last night and chucked his guts up down the side of the lucky ticket machine by the door. It wasn’t all that late at the time and I still had a bar full of thirsty men to see to so I just threw a bucket full of dirty dishwater over the mess and saw him off on his way. I guess that I just forgot about it after that and when I closed up latter on, I just tottered up on to bed. Well, when I came down this morning, Lordy what a stink! The whole bloody place smelt like Kevy had come back in some time during the night and had heaved up just about anywhere and everywhere that he damned well pleased just outta spite.

’Anyways, I’m opening up the room, see. Trying to air it out and wondering how in Jesus name am I gonna get rid of the stink when I sees Frank Brannigan coming out of the front of the station house and heading across the road in my direction, walking like he was a man with the whole weight of the world sitting upon his shoulders.

’Morning there Frank,’I says to him, ’a little early for a drink isn ’t it? ’—trying to make light—and he just looks at me as cool as you please, almost like he didn’t see me as being any different than a piece of dog mess on the pavement, and says . . .

‘You still got those spare keys of yours for the upstairs rooms Sam ?’

‘Sure’ I says ‘always carry them with me.’

‘Well then,’ he says, looking past me and up the stairs that go from the lobby to the upstairs room like he was expecting to see the devil himself standing right there at the top of them, pitchfork, pointed tail and all, you’d better go and lay your hands on them fast because if I go up those stairs and find that the door to that boy’s room is locked on me, then I’ll just as soon kick it in as have it opened for me’.

‘Now I didn’t necessarily know which boy he was talking about there. There aren’t all that many people taking up rooms here at the moment, so I sort of guessed that he was meaning the young lad who’s been staying here after he came to town when his sister was killed. I told you about that didn’t I Dunc’? The girl being raped like that and then Cec Harn’s boy being stabbed to death not two days later?’

Duncan nodded.

’Terrible thing that. Just terrible. The dead girl’s brother is a nice sort of young fella. The quiet kind. You know, doesn’t talk much and drinks even less, though he did put a few away on the night that Frank Brannigan took him out to identify his sister’s body even if I do say so myself. So, needless to say, I’m standing there trying to think of what kind of trouble that this boy could have gotten himself into that had gotten Frank so riled up like he was, and was just about to ask him when Frank goes marching straight on past me like I wasn’t even there, like it was his hotel and not mine, and goes charging up the stairs.

‘I guess that I sort of just stood there for a moment longer, wondering what in the hell was going on when it dawned on me that Frank wasn’t the kind of bloke who said things like he was going to kick in someone’s door without meaning it, so I fished out the keys from my back pocket and went up after him. I mean, I didn’t know if the boy had guns up there, you know, like I was sort of going to be in the line of fire or something when Frank went in, but I’d be buggered if I was just going to stand around there and watch one of my doors be kicked in, not when I had a perfectly good set of keys in my hand. It may have been police business and all of that but I’d reckon that I’ve been around long enough to know that it’d be me who was footing the bill to have it repaired afterwards — and a good door’s not a cheap thing to come by these days Dunc’ let me tell you that for a fact . . . . ’So I goes up after him just as fast as I can to catch up. ‘Now Frank is a big man like you said Dunc’. He reckons that he weighs in at somewhere near one-ninety pounds though I for one would say that it was more likely to be on the high side of two hundred, and let me tell you, for a big man, he can move when the need is there. I had myself just enough time to get to the top of the stairs after he went up, when I hear this banging on the boy’s door further along the hall near the washrooms and all sorts of other racket, enough to wake the bloody dead. It’s just lucky that my Vera’s hearing isn’t all that it used to be, that’s all that I can say. Then Frank starts to shout through the door. . .

,‘open up Peter. Open up. I know that you did it so open this bloody door.’

“Now what he meant by all of that I just don’t know Dunc’, but I didn’t have myself all that much time to think about it either. I was running along the hall saying . . .

‘Wait Frank, I’ve got the key here. Wait up.’

……Just like that. But I guess that Frank didn’t hear me, or if he did then he didn’t want to wait. He put his foot into. the door and before I could even get within spitting distance of him, rushed inside.′

Sam stopped here. Faltered. He looked up from his cup of rum, towards where his old friend sat opposite from him and tried to appraise the look there that he saw in Duncan’s eyes.

Would he believe what he told him next?

Sam didn’t think so. Even now, more than an hour after the fact, Sam still found himself wanting to slap his own face to see it hadn’t all been a dream. Even now, telling the same story to his old friend of more than thirty odd years, he still found it hard to believe himself.

He pushed on regardless.

‘It was the smell you see Dunc’,′ he said finally.‘It was the smell that hit me first. I mean, I thought that the smell of Kevy Callum’s sick was bad enough to deal with, but it was nothing compared to the . . . the .. . the stench that came from out of that room when Frank put his boot to the door.’

He stopped again, taking a long draught from the mug in his hands as if to wash the memory of the smell which had assaulted him from his throat and then leant back into his chair with his eyes closed.

‘God. I don’t think that I’ve’ ever smelt anything like it in all of my life.’ Do you remember Dunc’ when we were stationed up there in Townsville and we used to get lumped with packaging up the dead Yank boys from Nam for shipping back home whenever we were caught bludging or going over the fence for a night out on the town?′

Duncan nodded. He remembered all fight. The memory of what they had laughingly called ‘Carcass Patrol’ had never left him, nor for a minute did he think that it ever would. ‘Carcass Patrol’ was kept aside by the company sergeants for the rabble rousers and trouble makers of the unit when K.P. or latrine duty did nothing to curb their wayward tendencies.

’And do you remember the way that some of those dead boys used to smell? You know, after they had been lying out there in the rice fields and paddies at Tet for a week or two and had gotten themselves nice and ripe under the sun?”

Duncan nodded again.

’And do you remember the way that the stench of rotting, bloated flesh used to rise up out of those body bags when you unzippered them and put their carcasses into the metal lined coffins for their flights back to Omaha or Kansas or wherever the hell it was that they came from? Well, that was something like what that smell in the room was like. Different maybe. Not quite as bad but by God, it was as near back to those old days in Townsville as I ever want to get.

‘I thought to myself, my God! What’s the boy been doing in there. Has he been skinning a cat or something? And I ran up to the door with my arm across my nose like this . . .’

(Sam placed the crook of his elbow across his face to illustrate to Duncan the way that he had attempted to block out the smell)

…..’When Frank comes running back out past me, as pale as a sheet, and almost knocks me clean across to the other side of the hall.

‘Where’s the phone ?’ he says and that’s when I reckoned for the first time that I knew that something really, really bad had happened.

’You see Dunc. Frank knows where the telephone is. Lord knows he’s used it enough times when he’s been over here for a drink on duty and had called back to the station to see if he’s been needed at all. He knows that the telephone is just down at the bottom of the stairs near the front door where it always was. And that’s just what I says to him.

’I goes, ‘Why Frank, It’s where it always is. Just down at the bottom of the stairs. You know that’. . .

’And he pushed past me to run down after it.

“I’ll never forget what I saw next Dunc’. Not for as long as I live. And if I’m ever standing there at the pearly gates and the good Lord Jesus himself asks me about it, then I reckon that I might even choke up about it like I feel like doing now and would just as soon as not tell him. But I’m telling you Dunc’. I’m telling you that I ain’t seen anything in my life like it before and would just as soon not see anything like it again.′ ..

Sam gulped himself down a mouthful of air and then followed it with a sip of rum. It was almost finished now, which was just fine because so was he.

‘The boy was just laying there on his bed, his eyes opened and staring up at the ceiling like he was in some kind of trance of something. And his face. My God Dunc’, his face. It was rotting away right there in front of my eyes just like he was a man three weeks dead in the grave only he didn’t know it himself. His skin was all sort of grey-blue and pulled tight to his cheeks so as I reckon that I could see his skull beneath it.

’Yeah—that’s what it was, it was almost like all of the flesh had been wasted away from him and you could see his skull beneath him like as you see with some of these people starving in Ethiopia and them darky countries where someone would just as soon kill you for a loaf of bread.

’Well that was what this boy looked like. At least to me. His eyes were bulging out from ’neath his lids like they was a couple of sizes too big and his skin was run with bulges where you could see his veins drawn tight across his skull, sort of pulsing like they were struggling to pump his blood.

’I guess that I just thought that he was dead. You know, like he may have keeled over as he slept or something. Like I said before, he didn’t look all that good yesterday when I last seen him around lunch time — like he was going down with some mother of a flu or something but I never thought for one moment that he might have had something wrong with him last night that had done him in like that.

’I sort of just stood there like that with my arm across my nose staring at this poor young lad with this smell of him . . . sort of like meat gone bad . . . just swimming in the air around him and I thought to myself. Oh Jeezus. This is it. I’ve got someone go and die on me in one of my rooms. What’s this going to do to the pub’s reputation here in town.

‘I know that was selfish of me Dune’. Believe me I do. But as sure as I’m sitting here, that’s exactly what I thought. So there I am standing there and wondering what in the hell I’m gonna do and thanking Christ that Vera wasn’t there to see it with me, when he looked at me, this boy actually looked at me, this young man who I think is dead and who looks to me, standing there in the doorway to his room, like he’s been dead and rotting for the better part of a week, and then some, actually turns his head from where he was just kind of gawking up at the ceiling and he looks at me. No. More than that. It feels like he’s looking into me or maybe even through me. And then, he holds out his hand towards me, one that looks as wasted and as poorly as he was, one that I couldn’t even bring myself to touch if I had to, and he says . . .

‘Help me. Please help me.’

‘Only it doesn’t sound like him. At least not in the way that I remember him sounding when I talked to him those few times before. Now his voice sounded sort of ... dirty. That’s lame but that’s how it sounded to me. Just dirty. Rough around the edges I guess. Like I was hearing it through a transistor radio that wasn’t quite tuned into the right station, like the reception was bad or like before a storm maybe. I don’t know Dunc’. I guess that it just sort of gargled in his throat. And do you want to know what else?′ Duncan nodded his head.

‘It sounded to me like it was a woman’s voice. I don’t know how I know that but I do. It didn’t sound like any voice that I’ve heard before, now that I think about it, but I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles if you want me to, that it sure did sound like a woman’s voice coming outta that boy’s mouth then — and there was something about it, something bad. And it was all that I could do not to try and block it from my ears like I was trying to block the smell of the lad from my nose,’

″I ran outta there like a child Dunc’. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ran outta that room like I was a young kiddy frightened by the bogeymen while that boy was laying there like that and it was all that I could do to make it to the toilet before I was sick.′

‘So what did you do then Sam?’ Duncan asked. He was leaning forward in his chair now, his eyes narrow and sharp, his voice careful and calm as if he were talking to a dangerous madman but a madman which at the same time he could, help to understand the truth of which he was speaking.

‘What did I do?’ Sam replied with a bitter laugh. ’I didn’t do a damned thing. I was too busy clearing out my stomach at the thought of the way that that poor boy looked and smelt and sounded to do anything at all.

’It was Frank Brannigan that did everything. He came running back, not more than a minute later from the telephone to tell me to go downstairs and wait for the ambulance from Tarro to arrive. Hennesy has got itself a bigger hospital and handles a few of the big city folk who come out this way with their big city ailments but I guess that he thought that Tarro was closer, only fifteen or so miles away as the crow flies and that this was an emergency. Hell, even a blind man could see that for himself.

’So I goes down stairs feeling about as weak and as useless as a one legged man in a bum kicking competition and wait out there on the pavement in front of the pub for the ambulance to turn up while Frank goes back into the room with the boy. Now I don’t know what he was doing up there. The real truth be said, I don’t think that there was much he could do. But all that I can say was that I could hear him talking to the boy from where I was downstairs—the boy’s room was near right above the hotel’s front door—and I’ve got nothing but respect for the man for doing that.

’He was sickened by what he saw in that room just the same as I was but he went back in there anyway to talk to the boy and keep him calm until help came just like a man who was holding the hand of a dying person and talking to them so as they won’t be feeling lonely when they go over to the other side. And I could here him saying stuff like . . .

‘It’s okay Peter.’

‘You’re going to make it.’

. . . and

‘None of it matters now.’

. . . just like that.

“I’ll never forget that, more than anything else, I think that I’ll remember Frank Brannigan for that before I do for anything else that he’s ever done.′

And then, suddenly, abruptly, Sam stopped.

He had told his story, as much of it at least as he ever wanted to. It was over and he looked down meditatively into his coffee mug, now empty of its spirit, and sighed.

There, he thought, there, I’ve said it all.

‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘there it is Dunc’. You wanted to know and now you do.′

‘So what are you going to do now?’ Duncan asked him.

‘Now?,’ Sam replied, drawing himself in, his shoulders rising and his head lifting once more to look squarely at his old friend, ‘Now I’m going to go upstairs and change the sheets that the boy was lying on and I’m gonna pack up his possessions and take them across to the police station. Then I’m gonna open up that room and find something, some disinfectant strong enough if I can to scrub the stench out of it. And one more thing Dunc’. One thing more than anything else. I’m gonna try as hard as I can to forget that this morning ever happened.′

5

The boy in the dressing gown and striped pajamas was young.

Maybe five. Maybe six though certainly no older.

He sat opposite Frank Brannigan on the long row of bright orange vinyl moulded seats which lined the walls of the Tarro Community Hospital’s Emergency Admittance Ward, holding a bleeding hand haphazardly wrapped in bandages while crying his pain filled tears into the side of his mother’s breast.

She was young too, Frank thought, a bare slip of a girl herself and way too young to have herself a son of that age. However even as Frank found himself thinking that very thought, he knew that it was just an old man speaking ... ,

And getting older by the minute.

... and today of all days, that judgmental voice of social propriety which he sometimes felt rise to the surface within him as the years rolled on, sounded more hollow and empty of its shallow worth than ever before.

The young mother tried as best as she could to quiet the whimpering boy, warming him with a protective arm cast around his slight shoulders, telling him that she loved him, that everything was going to be all right, and when all else failed, trying to capture his attention with a tattered old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle colouring book from the patients’ magazine stand set up by her side. Michaelangelo and the other half shell halfwits did little to still the young boy’s distraught tears and the girl looked up towards Frank apologetically, on the edge of tears herself.

In return Brannigan offered her a smile which tried hard to be warm and understanding, and when she smiled back, he turned away from her to look past the cork faced community notice board decorated with business cards and multicoloured fliers on the dowdy hospital grey wall above her head, (the very few of these which Frank could read clearly from where he sat on the other side of the room advertised the 60/40 dances at the Masonic hall on Friday night, women’s self defense classes and the dates of the next child immunization clinics to be held here in Tarro) beyond the water fountain gurgling amicably to itself from its place between the closed face of the dual female staff/ patient toilets situated halfway along the corridor, to the double swing doors at its far end—the same doors which Peter White had been wheeled through by the green coated attendants when the ambulance had deposited him off in front of the emergency theatre only a half an hour earlier.

Frank still found himself struggling ...

. . . and struggling hard

... to draw together some kind of reconciliation in his own mind between the image of the young man whom he had seen lying there before him in the darkened hotel room when he had first burst through the door of the Royal Exchange Hotel earlier that morning. Peter had looked bad the night before when they had spoken in the pharmacy darkroom over the top of the enlarged image of his sister’s lifeless hand.

Yes indeed.

But this!

Jesus Christ and all of his holy saints.

This?

Nothing could have prepared him for what he had seen when the hotel door had given way beneath his excessive weight and he had charged into the room, his eyes struggling against the dim cloak of morning shadows and his throat struggling in its own hard fought battle against the stench which had swum so thickly about him in the room’s still, breathless air. No amount of years, no matter how hardened or streetwise they had made him to the shit that life could throw up in a person’s face could have diminished the shock that he had felt at the first sight of the boy, lying there on the stained sheets of the bed and turning to reach out towards him with one withered hand as he cried for help, his seemingly dead man’s features contorted by the surges of pain which sliced through his wasted body with the taking of every drawn breath, every tiny movement.

Frank rubbed at the back of his neck, kneading the stiffness that he felt there in an effort to clear his mind and leant back into the moulded plastic slope of the waiting room chair to rest up against the cool firmness of the room’s plastered wall.

His eyes closed, his thoughts allowed themselves to run back across the other developments that the morning had bought.

After the ambulance had arrived at the hotel, and its officers had slid Peter White, covered and strapped into the rear of the van for the twenty minute dash to Tarro, Frank had run back across the road to the station to collar Mitch Gardiner at his desk before he set off to follow in his own unit.

He had told Mitch, stalling any questions that his wide-eyed young colleague may have had dangling on the tip of his tongue about the commotion going on at the hotel across the road, that he wanted him to haul his arse out to Murphy’s tavern for another chat with the owner and any of the bar staff there that he could get his hands on.

‘I know that I’ve already talked to them,’ Frank had gone on, ‘and that Bobby’s taken down a fist full of statements from when we interviewed them about the night that Tommy Harn was stabbed. But now I want you to ask them about the night of the first, when Jilly White was attacked. Get them to see if they can’t stretch their memories back some for anything they can recall—particularly if they saw Harn there on that night. If he was I want the names and addresses of anyone . . . and mind you Mitch, when I say anyone, I mean absolutely everyone, that he was seen talking to or sharing a beer with.’

‘Why Sarge?’ Mitch had asked, already grabbing his cap and car keys from the desk where he had dropped them when he first came on to shift. ‘What’s going on?’

‘What’s going on is simple Mitch. So simple that I didn’t kick myself for not having seen it before. Tommy Ham was one of the men there on that night that Jilly White was raped and murdered. He wasn’t the only one there, but he was there. His car matched the colour and type of paint samples lifted from the side panel of White’s Cortina when it was rammed from the road. His tyres match those taken as print samples from the scene, and I’ve just found traces of paint samples matching those of White’s car still lodged in the chrome of Harn’s Kingswood station wagon bumper.’

Mitch let out a thin whistle of air slip from. between his teeth and he shook his gingery curled head.

‘Jeezus Sarge. Tommy Harn a rapist. Who’d a thought. I mean. Christ, I knew that he was a prick and everything but I never have thought that he would do something like that,’

‘Yeah’, Frank sighed, nodding his head briefly, ’You, me and everyone else here in town. But the fact is that I’ve now got what I consider to be enough evidence to say that he did do it and now I want to know who else was there to do it with him. You get me people’s names and then you get in touch with me out at the hospital in Tarro as soon as you know anything.

‘And for Christ sake Mitch . . .’ he said finally, turning back away from the young constable as he went to stride across the opened tiled floor of the station house lobby and its dispatch to his patrol car parked outside, ‘. . . when you call me up, use the public telephone. The last thing that I want is for anyone else here in town, let alone the other arseholes who were there with Harn on the night, to get wind of the fact that we’re onto their tails. They or someone else around them just could be happening to be listening to a broad-band scanner when you start talking to me from your unit.’

Well, Mitch had called up the hospital not twenty minutes later, using the telephone as Frank had instructed, dialing up the nurses’ front desk from the pay phone which stood in front of Murphy’s Tavern beneath the looming shadow of its road side neon sign. And even if the news which he had been able then to relay hadn’t been as good as Frank might have hoped, then at least it was the best that he had heard over the space of the last few days.

‘Yes,’ Mitch had said, shouting just a little into the telephone’s mouthpiece to be heard above the roar of the occasional passing vehicle, ’the manager does recall Ham being there in the tavern on the night of the first when Jilly White was murdered. He says that he remembers because Harn usually sat alone on his stool sulking—he called it— over a glass and not talking to anyone, but this night there were a couple of others around him. He reckons that the place was pretty well packed out to capacity that night which he said was kind of strange for a Wednesday.

’He said that Harn had been drinking more than his usual and had been running up points on his bar tab like they were going out of style when this younger couple of fellows turned up and started to buy a few rounds of drinks.

‘The manager reckons that Harn was forever hanging around other people when it looked like a free glass of beer might be coming in his direction. Anyway. It seems that this younger couple of guys started to have themselves a good time, you know, joking around, playing pool, that sort of thing, when the manager said that this other guy turned up.’

‘What other guy?’ Frank had asked and Mitch had needed to shout his reply twice to be heard above the sound of a truck pulling in off the highway and into Murphy’s wide driveway, its air brakes cutting the still noon-day air.

‘He doesn’t rightly know Sarge. Like I said, it seemed to him like there were an awful lot of out of towners there that night, but he did manage to give me a pretty fair description of him. Mid to late twenties. Long dark hair that was tied back in a pony tail. He had pockmarked cheeks like he had had really bad acne when he was younger, and according to the manager, very pale blue eyes. He reckons that it was because of his eyes that he remembered him above everyone else. Ice blue he said and he reckons just looking at them gave him the heebie-jeebies.’

‘And he said he hadn’t seen this man before this?’

‘Right. He said he was wearing leathers like he had just stepped from off the back of a Harley or something.’

‘Wait, Mitch. Hold it there. Biker’s clothes you say? Did the manager happen to see this bloke’s boots at all?’ Frank asked, thinking of the biker’s boot prints that had been left in the soft sand of the creek bed around the body of Jilly White. Easy Riders. The report on the prints in the files that Pittman had supplied for him had said they were a common brand of biker’s boots. He could hear across the telephone line the sound of the young constable flicking through the pages of his notebook and there was a long pause as he reviewed his notes taken during the course of his conversation with the tavern manager.

‘Nope. He didn’t mention anything. Why? Is it important?’

‘Could be Mitch, but go on anyway.’

’Well, he reckons that after this guy came in, the mood of the whole place sort of changed. I guess you kind of get used to judging the atmosphere of a room when you own a pub and are feeding everybody the bottle. Guess it helps to defuse a situation before people start breaking chairs over each other’s heads. A few of his regulars had taken off early which sort of surprised him apparently, given that most of them usually hang around until closing time. For the most part, he was left with a bar full of strangers this night. He said this guy with the blue eyes and the pony tail sort of seemed to lead a group of guys in the corner of the room, Harn amongst them, in a pretty deep sort of conversation.

’The manager reckons they were all huddled down over the pool tables there, like they were getting ready to pack down into a scrum. Must have been a half dozen of them he guessed, all of them reasonably young. The same as the biker, you know, mid twenties, though two of them seemed to be somewhat younger, maybe twenty, and he says that all of them were pretty pissed or were heading in that direction if they weren’t already there.

‘All that is except for the one with the pony tail. The manager said that he had a glass of beer in his hand but as far as he saw, he never once touched it. Reckons the man was stone cold sober from the time he walked in there to the time that he walked back out again. Oh yeah, and I’ve got it written down here in my note book that the manager had the distinct impression this guy was sort of leading the others on. He said that all of the time he had this sort of grin on his face. Not exactly smiling, but he was damned happy about something just the same.’

‘And did he say what time it was when these guys left?’ Frank asked.

‘Yeah. He reckons it was just before closing time when they all staggered out. Around ten-ish. He said that he watched them wander across to the room that Harn was renting before they all jumped into Harn’s Kingswood and hit the road.’

‘Well, that fits the time frame we’ve been given on Jilly White’s death at least. The coroner gave us a rough guess of the girl dying somewhere between ten that night and two or three the next morning. What about the others there, besides Ham? Did he recognise any names or faces?’

‘He said he knows some of the faces of the blokes in this group, you know. Seen them around town now and then but they weren’t all really regulars of his out there at the tavern so he can’t give us much in the way of names but I’ve gotten from him what he was able to give as far as descriptions go. It’s not bad from his point of view, given how many people must have been there that night.’

Frank lifted his note pad and pen from his uniform shirt pocket, clicking the ballpoint nib down with a sharp press as he did so and said, ‘Okay Mitch. Fire it at me.’

‘Right-o,’ Mitch replied and there was a pause as he arranged himself and his notes in the cramped confines of the telephone booth before he continued. ‘I’ve already given you what we’ve got on the guy with the pony tail right? Blue eyes, bad skin, biker’s threads?’

‘Right. I’ve got that.’

’Well. Here’s the rest. The only man he can give us a name of, besides Harn, is Allan Keiges, the football player. He said that even though he wasn’t there all that often, the manager recognised his face from the times when his picture used to be in the paper when he represented the country side last season before his knee gave out on him. He shouldn’t be too hard to get our hands on at least. I saw him in town yesterday afternoon buying his dinner from the takeaway. He lives in a caravan on a spare bit of land out by Vance Hervey’s place. Another of the group is a drifter that had been doing some work out at Johnny Mitchell’s grain farm, baling lucerne over the last couple of weeks. No name there but Mitchell will know who he is. The manager said he has seen him in the tavern once or twice for a beer in the afternoons after his day’s work has been finished. A young fellow. Long brown hair. Average height. No distinguishing marks.

’After that things start to get a bit scarce. Ahhh! We’ve got another young guy. Kind of good looking the manager says. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Stands about 175 centimetres tall, average build. He had a bit of money on the night in question and wasn’t at all shy about sharing it around once these guys got talking.

’As for the last one, well, it could be just about anyone I guess. He was the youngest of the group and came in pretty early in the proceedings with a friend. The friend took off after a time and this guy stayed. Slight build, average height. Heard his name mentioned once these guys got together and started talking. Says that he thinks it was Micky or Ricky or Nicky or something like that.

‘And that’s about it Sarge. It’s a bit sketchy but if we get to pull Keiges and this drifter in then we should be able to lean on at least one of them heavily enough to get them talking.’

‘Good work Mitch.’ Frank said, still sketching down the last in his broad flowing yet jutting scrawl. ‘Good enough to get us a result I think. Now, here’s what you do. You get Bobby and you get out there and pull in Keiges right now. No stops, no detours. Then you bring him back into town and put him into the lock up. We’ll let him sweat for a while. After that, you go out to Johnny Mitchell’s farm and see if you can get your hands on this drifter. If he’s blown town, get a name and put out an A.F.I. over the wire then get back to the station and wait for me to get there before we work on Keiges. I want to be in on it but I’ve got something to check out here at the hospital first.’

‘Should I get in touch with the State police at Head Office and let them know what we’re up to?’ Mitch asked and there was, a short, thoughtful silence before Frank responded.

‘No. No, not yet Mitch. Let’s keep this one under our hat for the time being. They’ll know enough in good time but if there is a result to come out of this then I want it to be ours. I’ve had enough over the last couple of days of the suits coming into town and stealing our thunder.’

Frank was just then about to hang up when Mitch’s voice caught him, calling him back at the last moment.

’Just one more thing Sarge. It’s only a small point but it’s something the manager out there at Murphy’s remembered about the night Tommy Harn was killed. He said that Harn was sitting at the bar just before he was turfed out by the bouncer and he was watching the television set at the other end of the room when the story about the White girl’s body being found came on the late evening news. He said when Harn saw it he heard Harn mutter something under his breath which sounded to him like ‘The bitch had it coming to her’. Harn then got jumpy when he realized he had been overheard and that was when he was shown the door.′

Frank allowed himself a small smile at this last, nodded to himself and told Mitch again to make tracks out to detain Allan Keiges, before he hung up.

He was already sure within himself that Harn had been there on the night of the rape along with what now looked like five other young men, but it was good to have his suspicions . . .

And that is all they are at the moment, Frank, suspicions. Nothing more. Just remember that.

... reaffirmed as being at least a little bit validated by something the suspects actions..

What he was no longer sure of however was Peter White’s role in all of this. In particular, his part in Tommy Harn’s premature but seemingly justified death. The doubts had been there before, he told himself, ever since the possibility of the boy’s involvement had arrived earlier that morning, but he had allowed himself no time to dwell on them.

Instead, he had simply acted. And now that time was at his disposal, he rather reluctantly began to consider these same doubts again, feeling a little guilty with the way in which he had jumped at the chance to find another solution to the stabbing of Harn that didn’t involve Jilly White at the expense of her brother’s possible innocence. He had needed to believe the boy had done the deed, even though he instinctively liked him, felt sorry for him and perhaps even understood something of a fleeting kinship for the loss that he had suffered. But more than all of this, Frank’s old hard lined ways had needed to feel that amongst all of the theories about Jilly White not yet being ready to shrug off this mortal coil, there was some perfectly logical, totally understandable solution to why Harn had died in the way he had.

Revenge, Frank, what could be a more understandable motive than that?

But let’s just look at that, shall we Frank, let’s just put that through the mental spin drier and see how white it comes out.

Yes. There were finger prints on the knife handle, supposedly belonging to Jilly White, which could in Frank’s opinion, just as easily belong to her brother. And yes, he had said that if he had the chance to get his hands on the men who had raped and murdered his sister then he would kill them. But those t\\’o points do not make a conclusive case against him.

Take the fingerprints first.

Maybe Peter White’s fingerprints do match those on the handle of the knife which was planted in Harn’s throat, and maybe they don’t. Why not just reserve judgment until they can be tested, for Christ’s sake. Innocent until proven guilty, always remember that Frank.

And so what if the boy said he’d kill the men who killed his sister? What man worth is salt would ’t say that? What man wouldn’t want to wrap his fingers around the throats of the arseholes who did that to a loved one? You wanted to do that and more to load of young pricks who ran Danny down all of those years ago. Remember that Frank ? Remember what you would have done to them if the other cops, Pittman amongst them, hadn’t been there to hold you back on the day they fronted up to court and you got your first real chance to see them face to face?

Now let’s look at what there is stacked up in the boy’s favour.

The time frame fits with when you left Peter at the hotel that night to when Harn was killed but it’s tight.

Too bloody tight. Peter would have had to have gone out of his way to lay some dust between both places to make it in time for the coroner’s estimated time of Ham’s death. He could have done it. . . just. The trip to Murphy’s from town takes only twenty minutes, fifteen in a pinch if there’s no other traffic on the road and you don’t pay too much heed to the speed limit. But with having a room at the pub, especially with a nosey son of a bitch like Sam Parker as your landlord, you’d run a greater than average risk of being seen leaving, not to mention when you come back, with the place shut up and the old building as silent as a tomb.

And how did he know where Tommy Harn was? Come to think of it, how did he know who Tommy Harn was? I only found out myself about Ham’s link to the death of the boy’s sister this morning, so unless the lad had a crystal ball, how could he possibly know Harn’s identity and his role in the scope of things two days before anyone else did?

Then there was the little point of Frank’s own vanity and the pride which he took after all of those years on the force of being able to spot a liar when he met one. Peter had shown nothing of a prior knowledge of Ham’s death in the way that they had spoken the previous night. There were no secret little glances, no nervousness in his voice at the idea of his motives being discovered. No avoidance of eye contact. Nothing. And even the night before that when they had shared a drink on the balcony of the Royal Exchange Hotel, there had been not even the slightest hint in his mannerisms that he was in any way planning to do Harn in.

No.

No matter which way he turned. No matter how much light he thought that he saw at the end of the tunnel, the road kept eventually leading back to Jilly White in a wide berth and the possibility, no matter how slight, that she may still have some part to play in the proceedings.

The double swing doors at the far end of the corridor opened suddenly, drawing Frank’s attention as the sudden movement caught in the corner of his eye, and he looked up to see four men in white lab coats . . .

All of them doctors if the stethoscopes that they wore draped around their necks were any indication, Brannigan thought.

. . . talking animatedly between themselves as they stepped out through the open doorway to walk briskly along the hallway towards where he stood. The oldest of those among them, and the man to whom most of the questions from the other three younger doctors seemed to be directed, was Dennis Gallon. Gallon was a tall, broadly framed man, who even in his mid to late seventies, still managed to cut a dashing and refined figure imbued with bearing and professional confidence, with a long, narrow face, elegant well lined features and a thick swath of silvered hair, brushed and oiled back from his dominant brow. Dennis, known as ‘Doc Gallon’ by most of the shire’s elderly population or as that ‘Stuck up pommy faggot’, depending upon your attitude towards the English, had served as a medical officer during the Korean and Vietnam Wars before opening up a general medical practice here in Rowan after his discharge. He had retired some years back, spending the time since taking down his shingle to tend his garden of prize winning roses which he exhibited every year at the Annual Rowan Agricultural Show with his French born wife Melisse, and occasionally being called on, as now, to act in an advisory capacity lo the hospital’s medical staff whenever the need arose.

Frank Brannigan stood as they approached.

‘Doctor Gallon?’

The older of the four men stopped in front of him, eyeing Frank and then his uniform before turning back towards the other three younger doctors and nodding for them to continue on without him.

‘Sergeant Brannigan isn’t it?’ he asked in a neatly trimmed accent of well educated English. And upon hearing it, Frank could see how the way in which the man spoke could make most locals—who could barely say their own name without dribbling the better part of it down their chins—want to question his masculinity. ‘We met some time ago when you first came here to our fair shire if I remember correctly—at the meeting in the town hall?’

‘Yes. That’s right doctor,’ he answered, shaking the older man’s hand when it was offered. ‘I was wondering if I might have a word with you?’

Doc Gallon’s eyes sharpened a little... the usual reaction, Frank thought upon seeing it, to any policeman asking a person if they could spare a few moments for a quiet chat... before he nodded and smiled, revealing a line of perfectly even, perfectly white teeth. Frank, who had lost his own to the decay monster more than a dozen years earlier, found himself wondering absently if they were all his own.

‘Of course you may,’ Gallon replied amicably enough, ‘but please, call me Dennis, or Doc. if you prefer, everyone else around here does. Now. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit Sergeant?’ He guided Frank across to the other side of the hall, out of the way as a male nurse who led the young boy with the bleeding hand and his distraught mother past them both and into one of the emergency accident treatment rooms.

‘I do hope that neither myself nor my wife have done anything remiss?’

‘No. No. Nothing like that,’ Frank replied, waving away the older man’s initial concerns with a slight laugh and he was then about to reach into his uniform shirt pocket for a cigarette when he caught himself. Smoking was off limits in all hospitals, as it supposedly was in all government owned buildings (though he had never been one to either enforce or obey that particular health regulation in his own patch) As an extra incentive not to light up, ‘Doc’ Galton looked like exactly the type of a man who would take it upon himself as his civic duty to lecture him in the evils of tobacco and the havoc that it could wreak upon a man’s innards.

A man’s body may be his temple Doc, Frank thought, but mine stopped holding services years ago.

Instead, he let his hands fall to the hook into his belt below his ample gut where his thumbs battled restlessly with each other over the top of the buckle there.

‘I’m the officer who came in with the admittance here earlier on this morning’, Frank explained. ‘His name is Peter James White. I was just wondering if you could tell me anything about what is wrong with him?’

‘Well,’ Galton shrugged, ’I don’t know if there is anything all that much that I can tell you Sergeant. It appears upon my initial examination that the young man in question is the victim of some particularly virulent strain of rapidly advanced wasting disease, though I must add that neither I nor any of my colleagues here at the hospital have seen anything quite like it before.

’At the moment we are currently in the process of taking tissue and blood samples from him for analysis at the pathology laboratories in Maryborough to see if we can isolate the particular cause of the rapid cellular degeneration which his body appears to be going through, though it may be some time before we have anything even approaching a conclusive result on that score.

‘In the meantime, we have him heavily sedated and are trying our level best to stabilize his condition. We are monitoring his fluid intake and output and my colleagues and I are in the process of debating the possible benefits of an induced coma to relieve some of the pressure on his failing system. I would hope that it doesn’t appear to be too much of a cliché—at the moment, your guess as to what is wrong with him would be as good as mine.’

‘Will he make it do you think? Yesterday he seemed fine. A little haggard maybe. I mean, he looked like he might have been coming down with something like the flu, though basically he seemed okay. But today, Jesus’, and Frank shook his head.

‘Hmmmmmm,’ Galton agreed, ‘Jesus indeed. Well Sergeant, all that I can tell you for sure is that at the moment, the prognosis for the young man is not a favourable one. We have to await results to see if he may have fallen victim to a contaminant of some kind, in which case we will have to look at issues such as quarantine. In truth however, I would say that unless we can quickly isolate the cause of the problem soon and arrest the spread of any more damage, I would say that things do not stand well for the boy’s survival. To say anything more at this time, I’m afraid, would be a lie.’

. . . and Frank nodded.

‘Now may I ask you a question Sergeant?’

“I’ll answer it if I can’, Brannigan replied.

‘What’s your interest in this particular case?’

‘Peter... er ... that’s the young man that you’re treating, is the brother of the girl who was raped and murdered four nights ago out there in the bushland on the edge of town.’

‘Ah yes,’ Galton said, nodding his white crested head gravely, ‘a terrible thing that was too. Absolutely shocking. I heard about it the other day, and must say that I didn’t believe the talk about it to be anything other than the product of a surely over active imagination until I saw the coverage of the incident on the evening news.’

Frank nodded.

The, story had run under its own steam for two nights on most of the commercial channels.

The first had been as a report of the search for the then still missing girl and the second as a follow up with the discovery of her body the day later.

By the third night, they had lost all interest with the case and had buggered off to focus the limited attention span of their viewers instead upon the juicier by-line of another lesser royal who had been caught with his hand in the honey pot. (This time the ‘Honey Pot’ was a particularly well endowed Brazilian model)

‘So this is the dead girl’s brother,’ Galton continued on reflectively and he glanced up towards the now closed doors at the far end of the corridor where they had taken Peter White upon his admittance before returning his attention to Brannigan, ‘Does he have any other relatives that we might be able to get in touch with?’

‘No,’ Frank replied shaking his head, ‘Both he and his sister were orphans.’

‘Pity,’ Gallon sighed, ‘Hereditary diseases can sometimes be by far and away the most debilitating for doctors to treat as well as for the patients who suffer from them. I should have liked to have been able to talk to someone of his line to see if there might possibly have been a genetic key to this puzzle.’

A call came out across the hospitals intercom just then, the words . . .

’DOCTOR GALTON, DOCTOR GALTON, REPORT TO ADMINISTRATION PLEASE.

DOCTOR GALTON’

. . . echoing mechanically along the hall and Dennis Gallon looked up at the ceiling of the corridor where the intercom speakers were set, then down at his watch before sighing irritably.

‘I’m afraid that you’ll have to excuse me sergeant,’ he apologized, ‘but duty calls and if I don’t get to sort out what that call is all about then I don’t get to be there in time to ride in the pathology van to Maryborough with your young friend’s tissue samples.’

‘There is just one other thing Doctor,’ Frank, cut ,in and again Gallon checked his watch, this time with a look that said ‘Make it quick’ etched across his deeply lined face.

’The word around town is that you were a pretty good doctor and that you served on the lines in a couple of wars.”

Gallon nodded.

‘What I want to know is .. .’

God Frank, are you really going to ask this. Are you really going to ask if it could be true about Jilly White ? And he surprised himself more than a little when the answer he received to that question was a firm and resounding YES!

‘. . . do you think that it is possible for a man or a woman to show all of the signs of being dead, no pulse, that sort of thing, and yet still be somehow still alive?’

‘I know that it is possible’ Gallon returned immediately with little or no expression to the apparent strangeness of the question across his lined face aside from a mild twinkling of curiosity in the corners of his eyes at what would make someone want to ask such a thing. Frank felt more than a little taken aback. He had expected a quizzical look, perhaps a snide response, but the old doctor’s straight-forward answer stopped him dead in his tracks. He stared levelly at Gallon who scratched at the side of his neck, appearing for a brief moment to be lost in thought, almost as if he were pulling some shred of information, some skerrick of knowledge from what Frank estimated must have been his formidable memory banks.

‘We in the medical profession simply call it a mistake,’ he said finally, ‘and like all mistakes, no matter what the line of work that you may be involved in, they can happen to the best of us. What’s your interest if you don’t mind me asking?’

‘There was another murder a couple of nights ago,’ Frank answered after glancing quickly around to make sure that the corridor was clear so as that they would not be overheard. There was a nurse behind the records desk in the emergency room near where they both stood but she was currently too engrossed in a hard fought battle with the screen of the computer in front of her to hear anything more than her own frustrated curses as she opened file after file to search for whatever it was that she had lost. Frank sympathized with her. ‘A stabbing out at the tavern on the highway bypass.’

‘Oh yes. Cecil Harn’s boy.’

‘Do you know Ces?’

‘Only in passing. The gentleman used to sweep clean the pavement in front of my surgery when I had it open and was in practice in town. Sometimes of a Friday evening we would share a glass of sherry and a game of chess.’

‘That’s him,’ Frank nodded. ‘Well, a set of fingerprints were taken from the handle of the knife used in the assault and they have been matched up to those belonging to the murdered girl. Peter White’s sister.’

‘I see. So your natural assumption is that Cecil Harn’s boy was killed by this White girl after she was dead—or rather, after she was supposed to be dead. Am I correct?’

‘Correct. At least that’s one line of thought that we’re currently going on. Another is that as Jilly and Peter White were twins, the prints may have belonged to him.’

Galton shook his head.

’I can dispel that for you right now Sergeant. Just because a person is a twin, it does not therefore stand that they share the same prints, even if they happen to be identical in every other way. For all intents and purposes, you and I have about as much chance of having the same prints as this girl or her brother.

‘But as to your other question. You want to know if a person can seemingly be dead by one means or another and virtually come back to life. It’s a fascinating question of course and I would have to say that yes, it is possible. Highly unlikely of course but certainly possible. How did this Jilly White die?’

‘According to the attending coroner’s report, she was struck across the back of the head with a large branch’. One blow to the base of the skull. There were no other injuries aside from those associated with the rape.′

‘Well. I won’t say that that fact alone makes it any more likely to occur, though medical history is filled with cases of people suffering from what were at times horrific head injuries and surviving intact. There are detailed records of such cases going back to Napoleonic times and before, virtually from the time that we first started throwing rocks at each other and calling it war. I can even recall cases of iron building rods and the like entering a person’s skull by one means or another, which when removed, left the patient with nothing more than a bad headache and a story to tell the grandchildren.’

‘But what about there being no pulse? How could that be explained?’ Frank asked, thinking of the way that Jilly White’s face had looked staring out of where her body had been concealed, with her dead, lifeless eyes, and how he had known that she was dead— really known it—just by the cold, waxiness of her skin even before he had reached over to place two fingers against the side of her neck to feel for a pulse.

Tm not necessarily saying that I can explain it Sergeant. All that I can say is that despite what medical science has to offer us these days with genetics and microsurgery and the like, medicine itself is still very much in a kind of prolonged infancy. The human body is an incredibly complex organism, so infinitely detailed, so intricate in its workings that to be perfectly honest with you, we doctors still don’t have much of an idea about just what makes it tick the way that it does. Take a broken arm for example. A doctor can pin it, put it in a cast, even give you a shot to help fight off any infection which may develop from the injury, but he can’t, actually make it heal. That’s up to the body itself.

’Oh. He knows how it heals on paper of course. He could probably draw you a diagram showing you the theory of the healing process but honestly, all that a physician like myself can do is to make the conditions for healing as beneficial as possible and leave the rest up to nature. And if I may be so crass. Any doctor who tries to tell you otherwise is talking out of his back passage.

‘Now, you asked about there being no signs of a pulse?’ Frank nodded.

’Well, I can remember attending a seminar in the late forties back in the United Kingdom before I emigrated. It was just before the war in Korea, and medicine, like every other man made skill, finds war a truly testing time for its technology. Edison was right when he said that necessity was the mother of all invention because it seemed then that for every way that people had found to blow apart the human body over the space of those few long years, doctors had found a newer and better way of putting it back together again. I had just returned from Germany where I had been serving in what I suppose these days would be called a peace-keeping force with the allies, in what was left of Berlin.

‘There was a conference of some of the greatest medical minds of the time being held in Edinburgh to discuss everything from the long term effects of radiation on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, right through to the latest cure for tinea, when one day the then relatively new science of neurosurgery was being discussed and the subject of Catatonia had been raised by one of the lecture hall audience.’

‘Catatonia?’ Frank asked and Doc Galton nodded.

‘A trance like state where the victim falls into what would probably best be termed as a particularly deep coma. There is apparently little if anything determinable in the way of a pulse or even breath and the victim’s heart-beat itself becomes all but non-detectable by normal means. Indeed it was said at the time that the only way to be sure that the person afflicted was in fact dead, was to wait and see if they began to rot. The pupils dilate and as for any brain activity . . . well . . .’

Galton shrugged.

’It was a condition which first seemed to have become recognised during the spread of the bubonic plague throughout Europe and was recorded with something of a morbid fascination by the upper class right up until the turn of the century. The writer Edgar Allen Poe seemed especially fixated upon the idea in his novels where a person suffering from the disorder would be buried alive, and I have heard of more than a few cases myself over the years, mostly in third world countries, where a premature burial such as that has in fact taken place. Of course, these days with our more modern medical techniques, the incidence of such a thing occurring has become all but nonexistent, but I would be a fool, and an old one at that, to suggest that, in some rare cases, it was not still a possibility.

‘Now in the case that you are talking about here, with the evidence which you say that you possess, I can see absolutely no reason, not, at the very least, to entertain the notion that this girl’s mind may have been triggered into some form of total neurological shutdown by the blow which she suffered to the back of the head, only to awaken from that enforced catatonic state at some later point in time.’

Again, Gallon’s name was called out over the hospital’s intercom, the request for him to go to administration immediately doubling up over the last of his words, and again, he looked up impatiently at the small speakers mounted in the corners of the long corridor’s walls and ceiling.

“Im afraid that this time Sergeant, I really must go’, he said apologetically. ‘It seems that the powers that be are getting restless and if I don’t answer to their beck and call soon, then they shall give me up for dead.’

“That’s fine.′ Frank nodded and smiled, offering his hand which Gallon took in his own, shaking it firmly. ’Thank you for all of your help:

‘I’m just sorry that I couldn’t be of more help Sergeant. But I assure you that as soon as I find something out about our young Mister White’s condition, then I shall let you know.’

“I’d appreciate that,′ Frank finished, and with that, the old doctor turned from him and strode off down the hallway to leave Frank standing there alone in the corridor’s sterile stillness with only the wake of words and his own restlessly churning thoughts for company.

6

Ricky McKinnan poured the tea slowly into each cup. Not too much into his mother’s—she had always been one to like her’s white and sugary sweet—but both he and his father took their’s black with only a drop of milk to stain the taste. The way the McKinnan men took their tea was just another thing Ricky had found he had in common with his old man.

Since he had had the chance to actually sit down and talk with him, he had found there was a lot they had shared interests in—and that was good. It made him feel a lot better knowing his father at last understood his point of view on things. ‘Big’ John McKinnan could lend quite a comforting ear to a young man when he was inclined just to sit there and listen.

Ricky placed the tea pot back upon its stand, covering it with his mother’s crocheted tea cozy to contain its warmth, and added the sugar, then the milk, stirring each cup methodically until its civilized elements blended with one another and a thin curl of steam drifted from their mouths. He had thought of opening a packet of biscuits for them all to snack on while they chatted but a quick search of the kitchen cupboards had yielded only a near empty packet of SAO’s and an as yet unopened tin of shortbread left over as an unwanted present from Christmas when the extended McKinnan family had last gathered at the farmhouse.

He would have to have a talk to his mother about that. He was sure it was only an oversight on her part, because ‘Big’ John hated shortbread, and now that he and his father were getting on so well he wanted to make sure the man had what he desired. After all, that was what a good son did for his old man, wasn’t it? He was sure his mother would understand.

Ricky lifted the serving tray on which he had placed the tea cups and saucers, being careful to keep them balanced at its centre, and stepped sideways to pass between the dining table and the refrigerator before making his way into the lounge room where his mother and father sat waiting. The radio was on but playing softly in the background so as not to distract them from the conversation. Ricky had found it very hard to hear what they were saying to him at first, when the music had been louder, and that hadn’t been so good. He wanted them to listen to him and understand his side of things, but he also wanted to hear their views so he had turned it down.

Now, somewhere off in the hazy, near silence of the room, Patsy Cline was going ‘Crazy, crazy for you’, and Ricky thought that was very appropriate. He had also taken the telephone off the hook so they wouldn’t be disturbed while they talked, and had drawn the curtains and blinds.

That wasn’t so much to stop any distractions there may have been from outside, or of being seen through the large lounge room windows, but rather to stop the light from coming in. It was coming on to near noon and the lounge room of the McKinnan family farmhouse had always taken the full force of the sun. That would have been especially bad if that was the case today because then he would have been able to clearly see the full extent of the damage the shotgun had done to his parents’ heads when he had lain the muzzle against their brows while they slept and pulled the trigger.

No.

It was definitely better like this.

It was much easier to talk to them when they were cloaked in the dark lounge room shadows as they were now and he could not clearly see their faces. To have been able to see what was left of their faces clearly would have been a distraction and Ricky didn’t want any distractions. Not now that they were getting down to the brass tacks of the whole situation. Not now that he was just starting to win them around to see his point of view.

No. Not being able to see their ruined faces and bloodied bodies was better. It avoided those embarrassing silences which often stilled good conversation.

Ricky carefully shifted the balance of the tray to his right hand, his fingers spread out beneath it out keep it steady, and he lifted a tea cup by its saucer to gently lay it down on the coffee table in front of where his father sat, propped up in his favourite chair. A splayed rivulet of blood ran from the fist sized hole at the top of his forehead—which had been pealed over the crest of his skull like an over ripe tomato— down across his wide, unseeing eyes (now rolled back in their sockets to expose the whites) and channeled in a dark stream on either side of his dominant nose into the coiners of his mouth.

Thanks son,′ ‘Big’ John said inside Ricky’s head, his voice sounding grateful and softer in death than it ever had in life, ‘not too much milk I hope.’

‘No Dad,’ Ricky replied in the stifling, near silence of the room, smiling just a little at his father, ‘just a drop. The way you like it.’

He then turned from his father and lifted another cup from the tray to set it down in front of where his mother sat in the chair opposite. Her head was turned away from them both slightly, and slumped down against her shoulder as if she was craning for a better look at the three ceramic blue birds which traced an evenly spaced flight path up the lounge room wall.

It wasn’t that his mother was ignoring them.

No.

And it wasn’t that she didn’t have any interest in what her husband and son were saying (in fact, she had just told Ricky, before he went to make the tea, that it did her heart proud to see the two of them finally getting on so well together). It was just that . . . well, Ricky had shot his father first while he had lain asleep but the noise of the blast when the top of his father’s head had blown out across the bedroom wall had woken his mother. So, when it had come to her turn and Ricky had turned the still smoking muzzle of the shotgun in her direction, she had moved. Not much mind you—Ricky had been mindful of making things as quick and as painless for them as possible—but it had been just enough for her to roll away from him on the bed and when the next blast had gone off, roaring out within the enclosed space of his parents’ bedroom, there had been a cloud of pillow feathers and his mother’s screams filling the air in its wake.

He had reloaded quickly and with the well practiced ease that his father had instilled in him from an early age, telling her in a calm voice as she huddled in the far corner of the room, clutching the bed linen to her chest . . .

FOR GOD’S SAKE RICKY, STOP. PLEASE DON’T!

‘. . . not to worry. Everything is going to be all right soon.’ And when he had leveled the gun at her and finally pulled the trigger, the spread of the shotgun range from across the room where he stood had taken off the right side of her face and sprayed it across the bedroom wardrobes behind her.

Like a good boy, Ricky had apologized for the mess.

‘And you are a good boy Ricky,’ Merle McKinnan said as Ricky lay the cup of tea down. Again he smiled. He decided then that he wouldn’t tell her that in the kitchen cupboards there were none of the biscuits her husband liked to eat. After all, he was a big enough person to overlook it... this time . . . and he was sure she was sorry. Then, when Ricky was sure both his mother and his father were comfortable— as a good son would do—and that their immediate needs had been seen to, he took the last cup from the tray and sat himself down in the chair he had pulled up opposite so they could all sit together and talk.

‘But I still don’t understand why you were there with the others on the night when they raped the girl Ricky,’ Merle McKinnan said inside of Ricky’s head, fighting hard to contain the tears which he imagined that he could see welling around the bottom rim of his mother’s one good eye, ‘you were never a bad boy like those others. It was that girl, wasn’t it? You can tell me. You can tell your mother. She was one of those loose women, wasn’t she? A floosie just waiting to lead you astray.’

‘No mum,’ Ricky sighed, shaking his head. He had expected his mother would say such a thing.

‘The kind of woman with her knickers always down around her ankles that makes young men do things they don’t want to do because of what she can do for them,’ Merle McKinnan insisted.

‘No mum. That’s not it at all.’

‘Listen to the boy, would you woman’, ‘Big’ John grumbled from the sofa chair where he sat propped, cutting into the conversation and Ricky turned back towards his father’s ruined, bloodstained face and smiled at him acknowledgingly. ‘Just listen. I know why the boy did it an’ it had nothin’ to do with the girl. He did it ’cause he was angry. Not with the kind of anger that makes you want to curse and throw things but with the kind that sticks in a person’s gullet and festers there.

‘He might never have shown that anger to us, but he was angry just the same. Angry at you, angry at himself but mostly, I’d reckon, the boy was angry at me. I reckon that more than anything else, I’m the reason that our boy got mixed up in all of this and I’d be reckoning that he . ……….. .’

The return of sanity to Ricky McKinnan was abrupt and unemotional, as were the tears which came with it. And both were there before he even knew that either existed.

Suddenly everything was gone. The voices of his parents speaking to him in his head, the understanding he thought he had shared with them, the illusion that they were still somehow alive and accepting of what he had done, still fond of him. Still loved him.

Suddenly it was all gone and only the tears Ricky McKinnan cried for them were left. Now there was only him. Ricky McKinnan, the young man who had raped Jillian White and who had stood by while others did the same, the young man who had been driven to insanity as the only refuge from his guilt, the young man who had killed his own parents only that morning in a fit of tormented anguish.

Now it was only Ricky.

Sane.

Alone, in the dim light of the lounge room staring at the bodies of his parents which he had placed opposite himself while his mind played out its one last cruel charade.

Nothing more.

He wiped back at the bitter tears coursing their stinging path down his cheeks, the breath hitching in his throat, and he looked around the darkened lounge room from his mother’s destroyed face, half hidden in shadows, to his father’s and then down to the shotgun which he had used upon them to end their lives. A shotgun which now lay on the bare wooden floor beside his chair.

He reached slowly down for it, his hand not shaking, not hesitating, his fingers only searching for its cool, unyielding touch. And when they found it, he lifted it up to lay its deadly weight across his lap. He reached into the pocket of his denim shirt and retrieved a single twelve gauge cartridge from it...

... His last!

... loading it carefully into the shotgun’s breech before snapping back the gun’s pump action in a single fluid movement. The noise cracked ominously in the tomblike silence of the room and he lifted the barrel, positioning it to his mouth.

Ricky let his gaze wander one last time, longingly around the darkened room, his eyes drawn to those of his two dead parents, and finally, around the lip of the shotgun’s solid steel cast muzzle, he said…….

‘Thanks for a wonderful life.’

The single shot rang out, rolling away from the farmhouse across the darkening fields which surrounded it, like a clap of thunder from an approaching storm, and somewhere, off alone amongst the shadows of scrub and tall timber ringing the edge of the McKinnan property, the single naked figure of a woman stood . ..

. . and she smiled.

7

The interview room of the Rowan Shire Police Station was an impossibly plain, cramped affair. Its walls were lined by plaster board originally painted in a neutral sierra brown that had dulled down over the years to a weak, muddy grey. Its white, ‘Gyprock’ ceiling was lined by two parallel tracks of fluorescent tubes, some of which worked, some of which didn’t, and some of which just couldn’t give a damn depending upon their mood at the time. And its floor was laid with plain vinyl tiles which had become pitted, scarred and, in some places, torn beneath the wear of the room’s infrequent but careless traffic.

In the centre of the room, a half a dozen oddly rectangular tables the size of children’s school writing desks had been pushed together to form a rough “T” shape. In the corner of the room, behind the trunk of this T, next to the door, a television and video recorder sat propped up on a movable chrome trolley. On the opposite side of the room, a video camera stood like a Wellsian sentinel on its long, tripod legs.

Frank Brannigan sat at the head of the room facing the door, his steady gaze fixed intently upon the young man across from him, while Bobby Milne farted around in front of the television set trying to program both it and video recorder for the taping of the interview which was about to take place.

The young man sitting opposite Brannigan had been smoking heavily since he had been brought in by Mitch and Bobby for questioning just before lunchtime. The ashtray placed before him on the desktop’s otherwise blank face bore up silent testimony in its collection of crumpled cigarette butts, proof of the concern the man felt for his own well being which didn’t show in his otherwise calm exterior. He drew back on the last of the cigarette he held in the tapered yet tersely held fingertips of his right hand and hissed out its smoke into the space between them before he lit up another from the final glow of the cigarette’s last smouldering stub and viciously stamped the life from it into the overcrowded ashtray.

He’s a bitter young man, Frank thought as he sat in the near silence of the room, listening to Bobby Milne’s mutterings from the corner of the room and holding Allan Keiges’ steely grey-blue stare in his own, bitter in ways that only a young man can be.

There had been a time, not too far back in the past, when Keiges had seemingly had the world lying ready for the taking at his feet. When he had seen—as so few men are ever privileged to—his future stretching out in front of him just like the yellow brick road which had guided Dorothy, Toto and their three deficient friends off towards the fabled city of Oz.

It had been back in a time when he had been at the peak of what was once a promising sporting career. When the newspapers of the time had sung to him like sirens their sweet praises in the sporting sections of their pages, touting him as the finest front row forward the country had produced ever to stride out onto a field, and as ‘the shining light in rugby league, one of the rising stars of the ninety-two/ninety-three season’. It had been a time when contracts had been thrust towards him from companies itching at the bit for his endorsement of their products. When the scouts for the southern league clubs would fly north to see him play with their sights firmly set upon his burgeoning career in the game. A time when the women, most of them little older than girls, had waited eagerly outside the exit to the stadium change rooms after the match, all of them clamouring for their own little bit of him. A time when that was exactly what he would give them.

Yes. Allan Keiges had had it all. He had been that close to everything any young sportsman wanted and more.

And then he had lost it all.

The offers for sponsorship had crumbled into dust and blown away in the wind, the scouts with their big talk about his future in the league had gone with them. There had been no more glowing write-ups in the weekly paper or sporting magazines, there had been no more young women eager to please waiting outside of his dressing room after the game. Now, the only acknowledgement he heard of his career and where he could have taken it, came from the few old timers he sometimes shared a drink with gathered around the bar of the local pub on a Sunday afternoon while they watched the football on television. Everything he had worked and trained so hard for in his short but intense sporting career had faded dramatically to black and all of it, everything he had lost, had been because of a long pass and a blocker of a man by the name of Malcolm ‘Toe Cutter’ Rayfar.

The ball which had ended Keiges’ short lived but eternally promising career had come from the mid-field break during play in the last half of a Country vs Dragons match played under lights on the Owen Trurnpy Oval in Rockhampton a year and a half earlier. The game had been a hard one, probably the hardest of Keiges’ five year career and by the half time siren, the Country side had been down eight points .

The team’s manager (a man who had absolutely no qualms in dropping Allan like the proverbial hot potato when things had soured) had applied the pressure during the break while they had sat in silence sucking on orange halves and dousing themselves with water and by the time they had emerged once more from their changing rooms to run back out into the cold night air at the sound of the siren and the howls of the home team’s supporters for the commencement of play, they had all been charged.

The break in the field came a dozen minutes after the kick off with the ball being bound up in the centre pack where the opposition had applied most of the pressure. Keiges had broken free from the group, loosening his mark around the skirmish of flailing limbs and grunting bodies, and had skirted his way out onto the wing calling for the ball as the line opened up before him. The field had scattered with frantic calls from the opposition’s team captain for his wing to cover his mark and Keiges had seen the ball get fed out in a long series of floating passes towards him.

His inside man, a young lad in his first year out of reserve grade, had collected the pass and whether it was simply inexperience or perhaps even greed for glory on his part, he had held it. Keiges had run beside him, his line of vision opened up still before him with a clear corridor of green lawn between a wall of screaming spectators waving banners, standing in front of him and the try line, when at last, the inside man had freed himself of the ball bare seconds before being spear tackled into the ground by the Dragon’s fullback.

The pass to Keiges had been a panicked one, going high into the chilled night air to lose itself in the bright, clustered glare of the field’s corner flood lights. There Keiges had lost it momentarily, as well as some of his momentum for the try line, until slowly it had descended and he had taken it securely into his arms. The first real sign that he was in trouble had come to him from the crowd. There had been a kind of lull in their chanting when he had taken the ball, almost as if they had collectively sensed the inevitability of him crossing the line for his three points with another two from a successful conversion, when he had heard a cheer break from the sideline—and he had known he was finished.

He didn’t feel the tackle from Toe Cutter’ Rayfar—the Dragon’s number eight jersey which had sent him pitching sideways over the sideline and into the front row seats lining the greyhound track there. In fact, he didn’t feel anything for the next two weeks until he had at last emerged from the shallow stage one coma he had been driven into, and the doctors had told him that he may walk again with time and some advanced reconstructive surgery on what was left of his kneecap, but he could kiss goodbye any dreams of stepping onto a football field again.

Well, Keiges did walk out onto a football field again, just as he carried himself without the limp all the specialists had predicted he would have to spend the rest of his life hobbling around on, but this time his emergence from the dressing sheds after the match involved holding a broom instead of a ball, and the closest he ever came to an involvement with the on-field action was when he would walk the side line on a Sunday afternoon match with a paper stake, cleaning up the half time mess left by the spectators while he went about his janitorial duties at the second rate football oval which Rowan called its own.

Yes, Allan Keiges was a bitter young man and he was an angry young man, though neither Frank Brannigan nor Keiges himself had known just how much he was of either until the others had held Jillian White kicking and screaming beneath him and he had forced his way into her just as he had felt the hate which had built up over everything he had struggled for and lost, force itself into him.

Bobby Milne stepped back from the television and video, apparently satisfied with what he had done…..

Or more likely, what he hadn’t done with the damned thing finally working in spite of him, Frank thought glumly

……. and switched it on. A small red light came to life on the tripod mounted camera, and diametrically across from it, a smaller, slightly hazier image of the interview room swam into focus on the eighteen inch screen, like a theatre manager’s scale model of a set, with Allan Keiges sitting centre stage.

‘Ready,’ Bobby said, turning back towards the room with a victorious little smile on his lips. Frank motioned for him to sit down in the chair next to his while he opened and arranged the contents of the manila folder before him—Allan Keiges lit another cigarette.

The following is the transcript of the interview of one ALLAN LEONARD KEIGES, male, Caucasian, twenty-seven (27) years old conducted at the Rowan Shire Police Station at 3.48 p.m. on the afternoon of the fifth March. The officers in attendance are Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan and Constable Robert Milne. KEIGES has waived the right to have legal counsel present.

BRANNIGAN: Okay Allan. Let’s start by asking you if you are aware as to why it is that we have brought you in here today for questioning.

(Keiges shakes his head.)

Would you mind giving us a verbal response to the question? I’ll ask it again.

Do you know why it is that we have brought you in here to the station today for questioning?

KEIGES: No.

BRANNIGAN: Louder please.

KEIGES: I said NO!

BRANNIGAN: You have been brought in here today for an interview in relation to the rape and subsequent murder of one JILLIAN MICHELLE WHITE on the night of the first of this month. Would you mind telling us where you were on that night?

(Keiges shrugs his shoulders.)

BRANNIGAN: Say it.

KEIGES: I don’t remember, all right? Jesus fucking Christ, Brannigan. Why do I have to say everything? You’ve got me there on video tape haven’t you?

(Keiges then jerks his thumb back across his shoulder at the television in the corner of the small room.)

BRANNIGAN: Yes. We have got you on video tape Allan. But we also need to have your responses on audio tape. We do that to protect your civil rights. You wouldn’t want me to go and violate your civil rights, now would you?

KEIGES: Guess not.

BRANNIGAN: Now. You’ve just said that you don’t know where you were on the night of the first. Is that correct?

KEIGES: That’s right.

BRANNIGAN: I would put it to you Allan that you were in fact out at Murphy’s Tavern on the highway bypass on the night in question.

KEIGES: Yeah. Well like I said I can’t remember.

(Frank turns to Bobby at this point and says to him out of the corner of his mouth, his gaze not leaving Keiges)

BRANNIGAN: Looks like we’ve got ourselves a regular Ronald Reagan here Bobby.

(Then back to Keiges)

Well let me jog your memory then son, since you seem to be having so much trouble remembering yourself. The manager of Murphy’s Tavern has signed a statement to the effect that he saw you out there on the night of the first. He says in his statement that you turned up there around the middle of the evening and that you stayed there until closing time. He says that he heard your name mentioned and that he recognised you from when your photograph used to be in the paper during your football days.

KEIGES: (Shrugs again and takes another pull on his cigarette.)

Well if he says that he saw me out there then I guess that must have been where I was.

BRANNIGAN: He also says that he saw you in the company of several other men that night and I’d like to know who they were.

KEIGES: It’s hard for me to remember names Brannigan. I know a lot of people here in town. A lot of very influential people if you know what I mean. I might have been having a drink with any of them.

BRANNIGAN: Don’t you kid yourself Keiges. People in this town stopped caring about you when you scored your last try and if you think that any of them give a flying fuck about what happens to you now then you are stupider than you look. Now I’ll ask you again and I’ll say it real slow for you so that you don’t have any trouble understanding me. Watch my lips Allan. I want to know who you were having a drink with when you were out at Murphy’s on the night of the first.

KEIGES: I’ve said it before Brannigan and I’ll say it again. I don’t remember and even if I did then I wouldn’t tell a prick like you.

BRANNIGAN: Then let me jog your memory again. You were seen having a drink in the company of five other men all around about your age. One of those present we know for sure was a Thomas Ham, the other was a drifter called Lucas Foggerty who was doing some work out at John Mitchell’s property. At around ten you were seen leaving the bar with these men and three others when you were observed hopping into Harn’s dark green Kingswood station wagon which headed back in the direction of town. Would you care to add anything to that?

KEIGES: You’re the one with the story Brannigan. Not me.

BRANNIGAN: Things would go one hell of a lot easier for you son if you dropped the tough guy act and started to do a little co-operating because if you don’t start talking to me soon you’re going to find yourself doing a stretch in the mainstream prison system so fast that your head is going to spin. Then we’ll see how tough you are when you’ve got a two hundred and fifty pound room mate who wants to drill your arse every night.

KEIGES: Why don’t you just go and get fucked Brannigan. This bullshit doesn’t impress me. I’ve got nothing to tell you.

BRANNIGAN: Loyalty to your friends, is that it, Allan? Do you want to protect your drinking buddies? Well. Just let me tell you that if you think they are all going to stand by you steadfastly—then you are greatly mistaken. When they find out that it’s about to hit the fan they are going to drop you like the sack of shit that you are.

KEIGES: They aren’t my friends.

BRANNIGAN: Then you won’t mind telling me their names will you Allan? Unless you owe them something that is.

KEIGES: Like what?

BRANNIGAN: Oh I don’t know Allan. Let’s just say that the group of guys you were drinking with got up to something which wasn’t legal. Let’s just say that you were all a bit pissed or maybe stoned and you did something that wasn’t very smart. Something that involved an innocent young girl—and when it was over with you all decided it would be in everybody’s best interests if no one talked about it. Let’s just for a minute say that that is what happened. I’d call it a pretty big owe, wouldn’t you?

KEIGES: I don’t owe anybody anything.

BRANNIGAN: Well that’s good Allan. That’s very good. Because these other guys may have thought it would be smart not to say anything but I think they’d be wrong. In fact I’d think it would be very very stupid to think like that and do you know why, Allan?

KEIGES: I’ve got the feeling that you’re going to tell me.

BRANNIGAN: That’s right Allan. I am. It would be stupid because it never works. Not when there’s a group of people involved. Agreeing amongst yourselves to remain silent always fails because there is always a weak link. You see when it’s just you that does something, things are okay because it’s just you that you have to rely upon to keep quiet. But when it’s a group of people . . . Oh, let’s say six young men . . . well that’s a totally different story altogether. You see we cops are pretty ruthless when it comes to a crime like rape, especially where there are multiple assailants involved. Even more so when it ends in murder. In fact you could say that we can be downright bastards because you see, to get a conviction of most of those involved we are usually prepared to let one go if he co-operates and supplies us with the whys and wherefores of the case. But mostly we’re prepared to do a deal like that if he tells us the whos. It’s the whos that we’re interested in the most, Allan.

KEIGES: I’m no Fink Brannigan. I don’t dob in people. Just because a prick like you says I should.

BRANNIGAN: I’m not asking you to Allan. In fact I’m not even saying that I want you to. What I am saying is that sooner or later we are going to get the names of the young men who-were there on the night that Jillian White was raped and murdered. We already know you were there as was Lucas Foggarty and Tommy Harn and when we find out who the rest are we’re going to have a little chat to each and every one of them, one at a time, and the one who co-operates with us the most in our inquiries might just be the one who gets to walk free at the end of this. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t but what I want you to ask yourself, Allan, is if that chance does happen to come up, do you want to be the one to get off? Or would you rather be the one who stands up for a bunch of arseholes who, by your own admission you hardly know and would sell you out in a second if they were given half the chance to walk? You think about it Allan. Think about it long and hard. Take all the time you need and when you’ve done thinking and you’ve decided if you want to talk to us about what happened, you just give me a call.

(Brannigan then reaches across to the tiny desk mounted microphone in front of him and looking at his watch says . . .)

BRANNIGAN: ‘Interview suspended at ... three fifty-eight p.m. Sergeant Frank Brannigan leaving the room. Constable Robert Milne remaining in attendance.’

‘Do you want a coffee at all Bobby?’ Frank asked standing up from his chair, scraping it noisily across the plain tiled floor as he did so and he turned toward Bobby, stretching the stiffness from his back. ‘I think our young friend over here might want to take a little time off to contemplate his navel.’

‘Sure Sarge’, Milne said sounding more than a little surprised at his sergeant’s offer. Normally it was he, as junior constable, who was the station’s designated tea boy. ‘Coffee sounds fine.’

Brannigan nodded and walked around the side of the room along the narrow corridor of space left between the tables and the plaster board walls to the video unit in the corner. He reached down slowly to hit the pause button, and then, before either of the other two men in the room could react—before Bobby Milne could open his mouth to protest or before Allan Keiges could even have a chance to look up from brooding over the last smouldering inch of his cigarette balanced on the rim of the ashtray—Brannigan had him up and out of the chair, his big hands circled around the collar of Keiges shirt, and he threw him over against the opposite wall, the

younger man’s one hundred and sixty pounds of toned muscle no match against two hundred pounds of one very pissed off country cop.

‘Wha...!’

Brannigan held him there for a moment, his eyes boring into Keiges, his face only inches away. (Bobby Milne would say later on, when he related what had happened to Mitch Gardiner, that he wasn’t sure whether Frank was going to head butt Keiges or kiss him on the lips) and in a low, deliberate voice, Brannigan growled . . . ‘And on a personal note, you little cock-sucker, if you ever call me a prick again, I’m going to fuck you up so bad they won’t be able to recognise you with dental records.’

Frank raised one eyebrow in a dark predatory smile as if to emphasize to Keiges that not only did he mean what he said but that he might just enjoy it as well, before he released his grip on the man’s shirt and let him slide to the floor, rubbing the back of his head where he had hit the wall in a gesture of dumb shock and hurt. Brannigan then looked briefly across to Bobby, the sharpness in his eye telling the young constable that he hadn’t seen any of what had just happened, before he turned and stalked out of the room, slamming the door to the interview shut behind him as he went.

8

A storm came to Rowan that night.

It was a dark storm, seething and violent, a storm like no other in the living memory of the tiny farming community. And it was a storm which would change the lives of those who witnessed its unleashed fury.

There were no blackening thunderheads of clouds building up high on the far western horizon as there had been precluding the other torrential rains of the last season’s ‘Big Wet’, no greyness from the east in the morning haze as the tropical cyclones of high summer spiraled their way down the state’s far northern coastline. The cattle and sheep which grazed over the sun-browned fields did not seek shelter beneath the sparse canopy of pasture trees from the tempest to come. Birds did not sit huddled, silently perched within the protective boughs of eucalypts and pepperinas. There was no faint band of gold encircling the waning moon as it rose on dusk from the shadowed horizon into the ebony skies.

Yet still a storm did come, and when it came . . .

... it came as revenge.

It came as Jilly White.

-0O0-

William O’Malley saw her.

William, known as ‘Slow Billy’ since the time of his twelfth birthday when he had hit his head after having been thrown from a horse (and, according to a fair share of the towns locals Just hadn ’t been right in the head since), had been down in the milking shed of his father’s cattle yard that evening, skimming the cream from the day’s takings and placing it in the vats for Andy Heise’s pick-up the next morning.

The cows hadn’t been giving much milk over the space of the past few days. Slow Billy’s father had said that it was probably because there was a wet spell coming on and that the cows could feel the change of the weather in the air in just the same way that an old man could feel it in his bones, but Slow Billy knew otherwise . ..

... it was not because of any change in the season that the cows’ milk production had diminished, there simply wasn’t much milk because Slow Billy kept on tipping it out. And he did that, even simpler still, because most of the milk had gone bad.

Of an afternoon after the bus from his ‘Special School’ had dropped him off at the front gate of the property, he would make his way down to the barn at the very back of his father’s expansive cattle spread as usual in the afternoon to milk the cows, swinging his ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ lunchbox idly by his side. His routine for milking was always the same and lovingly written by his father on a whiteboard at the entrance to the milking shed. First Daisy, then Marge, then Betty and then the three other younger heifers which produced the dairy needs of an otherwise exclusively beef household. There had been a time once when Billy had names for them all but now, when he tried to remember them lately, he only found himself drawing a frustrating blank.

(Silly Billy, he would always mutter to himself when he could not remember their names and, as always,

he would peel off waves of laughter at the joke he had just made.)

Lately however, Billy’s confusion at his task had become much harder to comprehend other than just

forgetting the dairy cattle’s names. Over the space of the last few days, by the time that he had seen to the last cow and had returned to collect the first pail of milk—still resting where he had left it standing amongst the hay and straw there on the barn’s dirt floor beneath its four legged source—it would have separated into a thin layer of congealed, sour smelling cream on the surface and a watery sluice underneath. ‘Slow Billy’ had tasted it once but it had been….

(Yucky!)

…… bitter and vinegary on the tip of his tongue, not at all how he remembered milk should taste, and he had thrown it, along with the other buckets out into the pig trough.

This ‘turning’ of the milk scared Billy for some reason. More than that, it terrified him. He had thought that he should know why this was, but, as was the case now with so many things, he had been unable to remember, finding only an empty space in his thoughts where this memory had once been. He knew that he would have been able to remember before the accident with the…..

(Horsey)

…… Clydesdale which he had been thrown from had made him…..

(Thick)

……..Or before when the other kids that he sometimes went to school with had wanted to play and talk with him instead of laughing and making fun of him the way that they did now. But now, there was only Billy

(Silly Billy)

…..and what he had once known, like the memory of the young boy who he had once been, had left him with only half remembered snatches, like the last fleeting images of a dream barely remembered upon waking.

‘In the books’, he said aloud to himself in the near stillness of the cavernous, corrugated iron milking shed.. ‘That’s where ... in the books.’ And he immediately felt very proud of himself for remembering. He would have to put a gold star on the chart on his bedroom door tonight after dinner ‘FOR A JOB WELL DONE!’

Slow Billy had lots of books. Once he had read a lot, but now he couldn’t read at all. Now, all that Slow Billy had was a bedroom wall lined with shelves stacked high with books and magazines from before the accident. Sometimes he would pull these books down from their place in the shelves and flick through them, in awe of all of the tiny words and pictures contained within. And though he could barely stumble over the titles of these books, there were times, fewer and further between, when he would feel like the old Billy, and he would remember a tantalizing, frustrating glimpse of what they were about.

‘In the books’, he repeated, and this time one of the cows secured in her pen bellowed mournfully in agreement. Hadn’t he read a book once with no pictures, only lots of tiny words about scary things. He wondered. Hadn’t he read in that book that milk turning bad was a sign of something .. ….

(Spooky)

‘Awwww. You’re just being Silly Billy,’ he said out loud as he turned back towards the barn’s open doors with the half filled pails of soured milk clattering noisily in either hand. And as was the case with every time when he told himself just that very thing, he laughed long and loud as if it were the first.

‘Slow’ Billy O’Malley didn’t even recognise the naked form of the woman standing in the long, afternoon shadows of the cattle holding yard beyond the open bard doors as being anything unusual. Not at first anyway. Things like that sometimes took Billy a moment or two longer than most ‘right’ thinking people to wrap his mind around but when the fact of the naked stranger standing alone in his father’s cattle yard with her back towards him, her attention set in profile to the waning moon rising like a single, benevolent eye set into the steadily darkening evening sky did finally sink in, registering across his young boy’s face in an almost cartoon like surprise—eyes wide, mouth agape—it hit him with a strength which sent him staggering back up against the wooden cross beams of one of the cattle milking pens. Marge the cow bellowed out her lazy protest.

‘Hello.’ He called finally, tentatively, once he regained the little of himself that he had lost and pushed himself off from the pen’s splintered wooden rail to take an unsure step forward. It didn’t occur to him then that a woman standing there, bathed in the last warm colours of the sunset as she stared off towards town, as being strange at all once the fact registered with him. And as for her being naked ... well ... that was okay too.

‘Are you lost lady?’ he continued, any uneasiness which he felt at this stranger soon falling away from his voice. ’If you are then that’s okay and everything ‘cause I’m always getting lost around here. And sometimes….’

The woman said something. Something which Billy only caught the tail edges of and he took another wary step towards her. It was only then that he heard the first dull drone of flies cutting through the still afternoon air as they swarmed around her, and the fact that she smelt. ... .

(Phooey)

…..of rotten meat in the same way that a carcass of road kill does after a couple of days of baking in the high, summer sun on bitumen

‘Are you okay lady?’

He was close enough to get a good look at her now. The long afternoon shadows and waning light still shrouded some of her features but he could see enough of her to recognize that she did not look like other women he had seen before. The hair on her head hung lank and lifeless, matted against the side of her face and spilling over her shoulders. In some places it looked thin enough that he could see her skull beneath as if it had been falling out in clumps. Her skin had a nauseating blue tinge to it and it hung like loose material across her almost skeletal frame. But it was her face that would stay with Billy O’Malley long after the rest of the encounter had long since passed from his fog-clouded memory. From where he stood, still a way off but close enough, he could only see the woman’s face in stake profile. A profile gaunt and wasted. A profile with only the last rotten shreds of a worm eaten nose remaining.

‘It’ll all be over soon,’ the woman said then. And although Billy saw her mouth move around these words, although he heard them with his own two ears, the idea came to him then that he had heard these words more inside of his own head than from anything which had come from her throat. He was about to ask her if she was sick or something . . .

Boy. She sure looked sick. All kind . . . Yucky.

. . . when she spoke inside of him again.

’It’ll all be over soon. Then I can rest. Then I can sleep . . .

. . . It’s so dark in here. So dark and lonely. I’m scared Peter. Please help me. I’m scared of the dark in here.′

‘But my name’s not Peter,’ Billy said watching with an almost infantile like fascination as a fly landed upon the dried, flaking trail of blood which ran from the base of her neck over her shoulder, and crawled up the side of her jaw to disappear from view into the dark cavity of her ear.

‘It’s Billy. Bill-ey. Not Peter.’

But the young woman did not hear him. She was already moving away from where he stood against the cattle yard’s weathered wooden railing, her diminishing form wandering off in a halted, jerking motion down the gentle slope of the hill towards the dark wall of bushland which surrounded the farm’s last fringes of cleared pasture. Billy had wanted to call out to her, to tell her to come back, to tell her that she would get lost if she went in there amongst those trees at night, but he didn’t. Instead, he simply stood there watching as her pale, deathly luminescent form disappeared amongst the night shadows of bracken and scrub, in the direction of town, before he lowered his head to let his gaze wander distractedly to the ground where she had been standing. Lying there, amongst the dirt and dust within the impression left by the pads of her small, bare feet where she had stood, a single maggot squirmed, fat and bloated.

-0O0-

Lyle Haines was driving along Munrow Road on the bushland fringe of Rowan Shire when he saw her.

Lyle often came this way north from his home base in Maryborough. He was a printing brokerage consultant (which, even though it was a title which both sounded and looked impressive when printed upon his embossed business cards, basically meant little more than the fact that he was a self employed sales rep).

He served a wide range of country towns like Rowan and others in the area, and while it was by no means a highly profitable hunting ground for someone plying his line of trade, it did pay well and consistently enough for him to have upgraded the lease some months back from his old Gemini station wagon, to the more modern and far more sturdier comfort of a brand new Pajero 4x4.

The Pajero had been a good move in Lyle’s eyes.

His previous vehicle, reliable though it was, had taken a hammering over the space of the last few years since he had started out on his own selling printing and stationery supplies, the rough country back roads exacting a terrible toll upon the Gemini’s body and suspension as well as upon his own somewhat less forgiving frame. (It was for this reason and no other that he had christened his old Gemini ‘The Kidney Buster Express’ whenever he was hurtling his way along a dusty, washboard stretch of bushland track) and because of this, the Pajero had been nothing short of a God send—not to mention a damned fine piece of business acumen on his part.

few customers had become available to him on what had previously only been inaccessible produce and beef properties. The cost of the once mandatory maintenance just to repair the damage done to the Gemini’s frail body by the rough miles which he travelled had dwindled away to only a regular grease and oil change. But Lyle believed that the change from the Gemini to the Pajero was the smartest piece of operating that he had done in years because of one simple reason. It had come direct from the show room fitted with a twelve band C.B. radio which, according to the analysis of his last financial year had, solely through the extra access which it gave him to a rural man’s market, been responsible for a hefty fifteen percent rise in his annual sales profit.

Lyle was on the C.B. radio talking to Dougy Carmichael that afternoon. Dougy ran the grain transfer silos at the Rowan rail yards and Lyle had been trying for some months to corner the man into giving him a chance to supply his printing needs. Dougy, who not only had the budgeting responsibilities of his little corner of the world but also for the rest of the Shire’s public works department as well, had been notably coy at first about Lyle’s business advances but had relented somewhat of late—after some expert arse kissing on Lyle’s part—to throwing a little work his way. This fact alone would have given Lyle a certain amount of professional joy, but as he had soon found out when dealing with Dougy Carmichael, that joy was tempered and came at a price.

The work was good. Sure it was.

And it paid well. Sure again.

And it showed all of the signs of leading to bigger and better things, the proverbial foot in the door if you will. But the real reason for the difficulties which he faced when dealing with a man of the nature of Dougy Carmichael was due to one simple point. The man was a racist. As red-necked as they came. And while this fact would alone not normally prove to be a problem to any sales rep worth his salt (salesman lore number 26: Despite your personal views and beliefs, just nod your head and smile a big shit eating grin because none of it mutters so long as you walk away with a sale), for Lyle, this had led to a juggling act of just missed meetings and of after hours pick-ups which made a bedroom comedy seem sedate

. .. because the two men had never met face to face.

. . . and because Lyle was an aboriginal.

He would talk to the man over the telephone or the C.B. as he was doing now. He would take his job orders and fax the man his printing proofs. He would even mail the completed jobs to the Rowan Shire rail yards upon their completion . . . and never the twain shall meet because Lyle knew that two things would happen if they ever

One …..Dougy Carmichael would drop him like a sack of hot potatoes and take his profitable work elsewhere the second that he clapped eyes upon the shade of Lyle’s skin.

And two . ..

... Lyle might just, clip him one across the jaw in repayment for all of the racist jokes too numerous to mention that the man had told and that he had laughed dutifully along with for no other reason than the sake of the sales which he had worked so long and hard in accumulating.

‘So this darky goes over there to America’, Dougy said—his voice sounding tinny and distorted as it drifted across the open band airwaves—and he had already started to laugh at the very idea of rattling off yet another ‘Dougy Carmichael Sure-fire Morally Offensive Yarn’. As always, Lyle played his part on cue and laughed politely along with him, secretly bracing himself against the anger which he could already feel rising beneath his shirt collar. ‘And he’s fartin’ around over there . . . you know . . . seeing all the sights and shit like that. When ... lo and behold... one day he bumps into... get this Lyle . . . he bumps into Stevie Wonder ... do you know who Stevie Wonder is Lyle?′

‘Yes. I know who Stevie Wonder is Dougy.’ You Ignorant Fucking Pig

‘Anyways ... he bumps into Stevie ... or maybe it’s Stevie who bumps into him cause he’s blind and can’t see or nuthin.’

There was some more laughter from Dougy here revelling in just how funny he was when he got going. ’And this black fella says ‘Jeezes Stevie. That must be a real bitch being blind like that’. . . . and get this . . . Do you know what Stevie says next? He says like ’Yeah, sure being blind’s a pain in the arse but it could be worse. At least I ain ‘t black .’

Dougy Carmichael burst out laughing at that one, having ripped off, in his eyes, yet another beauty and it took him some time to realize that there was no response, humorous or otherwise from the other end of the open band. ‘Get it Lyle?’ he repeated, ’he says ’yeah but at least I ain’t black. . .‘cause he can’t see, get it? ... And he doesn’t know that he’s a darky . . . Lyle?’

‘. . . Lyle. Are you there? . . .’

‘. . . Lyle? Are you still out there . . .’

There was a long pause of white noise, rippling harsh and distorted. Then . . .

‘Yeah ... sorry about that Dougy,’ he responded at last, struggling for breath as if he had just run up a flight of stairs. A tall flight at that. And even though Dougy Carmichael wasn’t one of life’s more sensitive individuals, even he could detect more than a trace of fright in the man’s voice. ‘I guess that I ... I ... I must have just dropped the headset there for a moment I think.’

‘Are you okay Lyle? You sound all sorta fucked up.’

‘I think that maybe I am Dougy. I think that I’ve just seen something that. . . Jesus ... I still don’t know.’

‘What? What happened?’ But there was a moment of empty air space before Lyle answered.

‘I was just driving along there ... I’m out on Munrow Road now. Not as far out as the tavern but back more towards town near the sign at the top of the rise that marks the edge of the shire boundary.’

‘Sure. I know the one.’

‘Well I had just come up over that rise when I saw . . .’

‘Saw what?’

‘A woman Dougy. I saw a naked woman standing there as bold as brass in the middle of the road.’

‘Get the fuck outta here.’

‘I’m telling you the truth. It was a woman. I’m sure of it.’

‘Go on with you Lyle. You’re just taking the piss outta me . . . What was she doing did you say? I mean, you said that she was naked?’

’That’s right. She was just standing there like she had just come walking up out of the bush on the other side of the road. At first I thought that it was something else other than a person on the road. You know, it’s getting kind of dark out here. Not dark enough for headlights yet but not that far off of it either. I couldn’t really make out what it was until I got a good bit closer to her. I just kept on thinking that. . . Jesus ... I don’t even know what I was thinking. I guess I was just trying to figure out if I was seeing things or not. I put on my headlights thinking that maybe if it was someone standing there then that would get their attention and they would get out of the way but she didn’t move. I flashed them at her and still nothing. She just kept on standing there looking at something in the bush.

‘I guess that I must have been doing around one hundred and twenty or so ... I’m doing an even one hundred now and I was going a bit faster then so I’d say ... yeah, one twenty or so. And by the time that I had a chance to slow down I was almost right on top of her. That’s when I dropped the C.B. mike.’

‘Did you hit her?’

‘No ... no, I don’t think so. I didn’t feel a bump or anything. I mean, it all happened so quick. One minute there I am driving along talking to you and the next thing, there she is in front of me. I hit the horn to try and get her out of my way . . . and you want to know what she did then Dougy?’

‘What?’

’She turned around to look at me and she smiled. She actually smiled at me. Man! I’ll never forget that face of hers. She looked like death Dougy, you know. She looked like ... oh hell, just death.

‘So what happened next?’

‘I swerved to miss her of course. Damned near ran myself off the road doing it too. And when I stopped and looked back in the rear vision mirror at where she had been standing, she was gone. Just like she hadn’t been there in the first place. Man! She sure did shake me up like I really thought I was going to hit her or . . .’

Lyle would tell Dougy about how he was going to turn around and check the bush by the side of the narrow country road again just as the signal began to fade out between the two parties. And although he would do this—and find nothing when he did—it would not occur to him until some days later that he had seen this woman standing there staring at the exact same spot where he had been told that the murdered girl’s car had been found almost a week earlier, and near where Jilly White’s body had been found only one day later.

-0O0-

Even old Lenny Marchavitz saw her, and Lenny’s eyes weren’t too good these days after a lifetime spent as a diabetic hooked onto the insulin tit. Yet despite this, there had been no mistaking, to Lenny’s mind, the form walking towards him through the dusk along the bushland road which ran in front of his small land holding as anything other than a woman.

Be damned if it wasn’t a naked bloody woman!

Lenny looked up slowly from the rich ground of his garden where he had been tending his prize winning tomatoes, dusting them with a fine layer of sulphur powder. (The damnable things still looked to the eye to be fine and fat and red but over the course of the last few days, he had watched as many of them had withered and died on the bush and he had wanted to use the powder to protect the rest of his crop before the blight—or whatever the hell it was had a chance to take hold too seriously). He stood carefully as the figure approached, brushing the dirt from the knees of his work pants as he did so and stared off along the road’s afternoon haze with his eyes shielded from the late afternoon sun by one gloved hand across his age lined brow.

Yep.

It was a woman all right.

He could—not clearly but clearly enough—see the slope of her hips. The small darkly centered mounds of her breasts. The matted hair hanging across her face like a veil as her head lolled a little to the side, bouncing with each clumsily, staggered taken step. And as he stood there, watching her as she approached his house, walking the loose red dirt roadway which ran past his chain mesh fence, he felt a sudden and irrational sense of fear of this figure begin to creep into the depths of his chest.

‘Are you all right lovey?’ he asked croakily as the naked woman approached within earshot, and there was something about the way in which she stopped at the sound of his voice. Something . . . false about the way in which she turned stiffly to look towards him with those dead, unseeing eyes that formed that uncertainty into an icy knife blade of terror and sent it stabbing into his heart.

Lenny found himself taking a staggered step backwards with a gloved hand clutched to his wiry chest against the blind hate that he saw there in those eyes, as dark and as cold as night, and that was when he noticed . . .

My God! The stench. What a stink!

He reeled back another step, flattening a garden trellis laden with tomatoes beneath the heel of his work boot and then he did something that he had never done in his life. Lenny Marchavitz— never a religious man—thumbed the sign of a cross in the air there in front of his leathery, lined face, and fainted dead away.

-0O0-

Other people in Rowan saw Jilly White that evening, perhaps not as clearly nor as definitely as Billy, Lyle or even old Lenny, but they did feel her passing, like small boats rocking tied together to a pier in a river in the wake of a much larger ship. Children cried in their sleep as she passed by their house unseen in the night. Dogs and cats cowered within the shadows beneath the front steps of their masters house. People sat on the edge of their lounge room sofas as they watched the late night news, uneasy within themselves yet not knowing why. They would stand up as the station went to a commercial break and walk across to the window and part the curtains to look out into the inky blackness of the night, almost as if they were waiting for someone to come, perhaps a loved one to return, before taking their seats once more, no less on edge as their shows resumed their normal transmission.

And it would not be until that next morning, when the news of what had happened that night had spread like a summer fanned brush fire through the small town, that they would again feel at ease, never knowing the darkness which had passed them by so closely in the night.

9

Did she hear something?

She thought that she did.

A voice?

A woman’s voice?

Janine Cleary sat up in the chair in which she had been dozing and looked uncertainly around the darkened hospital room, her tired eyes straining to adjust themselves to the dull evening light which filtered tentatively in through the ward’s slatted blinds. She pulled a small hand down across her rounded face, simultaneously yawning and stretching against the stiffness in her back brought on by the unyielding firmness of the room’s one and only chair, and turned her head slightly to listen to the stillness.

Nothing.

The only sounds filling the room were distant and distracted, like the background trill of crickets on a still summer night. There was the steady, rhythmic pulse of electronic consciousness from the EEC monitor set up on a trolley next to the occupied bed in the centre of the private room, the occasional mechanically induced rush of air from the respirator pump beside it, the steady, methodical drip of Saline solution from the I.V. unit.

Small sounds, background sounds—but beneath them there was something else which trainee nurse Janine Cleary could not so readily identify with and which brought a knot of concern to her otherwise smooth brow.

She stood slowly, yawning again, this time making an attempt to stifle it a little with the back of her hand, and straightened her uniform before walking across the room to the hallway door. Slowly, carefully she pulled it open and glanced briefly out into the deserted corridor beyond, expecting maybe to see another of the hospital nursing staff on their evening rounds or perhaps even the night janitor pushing a broom along the gleaming tiled floor. The hallway beyond was claustrophobically quiet and when she saw there was no one out there to have made such a noise . ..

Probably then just another patient in another room with their television set turned up too loud, she thought.

. . . she walked back across the otherwise empty room to the bed, to stare down at its sleeping patient.

She had only been on the fringes of the frantic activity which had surrounded the admittance of Peter James White to Tarro earlier that morning. She had watched from behind the glass barrier of Emergency Admittance where she had been filing paperwork as the young man now lying infront of her had been ungraciously hauled out from the back of the ambulance, writhing and moaning in pain against the bonds of the stretcher which carried him. As the orderlies and ambulance officers had scrambled around him, shouting instructions at each other, she had watched in stunned silence as he had then been rushed along the hospital’s corridors from emergency, needles were being stabbed into his wasted form in an effort to try and find a vein to try and stabilize the tenuous thread of life he seemed to be hanging from, as his clothes were being cut from him by steady hands. She had only been able to manage a kind of wide eyed disbelief from amongst the gasps of others at the first sight of his naked body, withered and drained of its life. Now, back on overtime she was only able to watch again, this time keeping her vigil up until the end of her shift, as this young man, only a few years older than herself, died his slow, cruel death before her very eyes.

Janine reached up to the intravenous stand beside her to check the flow of the drip and the passage of its fluid through the clear plastic tubing emerging from the bottom of the unit’s bottle—one running down into the crook of Peter White’s elbow resting above the surgically clean linen sheets, the other tracing a line across the pillow, over his cheek and through a clasp which entered both nostrils—when she heard it again.

This time the sound was clearer, though still muffled and distorted.

She looked down, following it to its source to see the young man’s mouth moving behind the breath frosted plastic of the respirator mask as if he were fighting for speech against the chemically induced sleep which he had been placed in and Janine leant closer to him, turning her head a little to the side. She lifted her short hair away from her ear in an effort to catch what, if anything, he was struggling to say and leant closer still.

‘Help me Peter. Please help me,’ the voice pleaded, sounding to Janine more like that of a young woman’s rather than of a young man. And upon hearing it, for no real reason she could put into words herself, the sound made Janine think it was coming from somewhere else, the comatose young man lying on the hospital bed infront of her before her a mouthpiece for this voice and nothing more. ‘Help me Peter. It’s dark in here. So dark and it hurts. I don’t like it here Peter. I just want it to stop. Please help me.’

The hairs prickled against the back of Janine’s neck listening to the sound of that voice, so lost, so alone and she started to lift her head, pulling herself away from the prone form, when an arm shot out from beneath the white sheets and grabbed onto her forearm with a vice-like grip of bound steel before she even had a chance to so much as move.

Peter White’s head rolled leadenly to its side, his gaunt, wasted features facing her, his milky, dead eyes staring with dark intent into Janine’s own.

“Please. Help Me.” Is all he said.

Then Janine Cleary did what most normal people would do when confronted which such a situation.

She fainted dead away.

10

It wasn’t like other dreams.

This dream was different.

It didn’t have the soft edges to it that the other dreams he had experienced before had. It didn’t have the swimming imagery, nor the vague, insubstantial reason of other dreams.

This dream was different because it was clear, concise, and so very, very real.

This dream was different because it was a nightmare. A living, breathing nightmare.

Peter lay there for a long time, inside of himself, oblivious to the outside world from beneath the pain-dulled blanket of morphine which had been drawn across him, encasing his wasted body, stilling him.

Aware yet not aware.

Conscious and yet unconscious.

He had listened to the muffled voices of those others around him from within this dark, drugged corridor of nothingness which had filled his sleeping mind. He had heard his name on their lips echoing around him, felt the touch of their gloved hands on his cold, waxy flesh and the steely stab of their needles into his collapsed, empty veins. He had seen through barely lidded eyes the diffuse glow of overhead lights and, when at last, he did finally awake (though, in truth, he felt as if he had never really been sleeping) his ‘Self’ was torn from that long, dark corridor within and thrust into the unbearable, searing pain of awareness.

For a time, all was a haze of light, of form and of sound until, slowly, shapes began to condense and define in front of his continuously unfocusing vision into something vaguely tangible.

He did not immediately recognise the hospital room within which he lay, for what it was. At first he had thought he was still in his room at the Royal Exchange Hotel in Rowan, lying on his bed there and listening to the sound of someone else, some woman, screaming in one of the hotel’s other rooms (why such a woman would be doing that for, he had no idea) but it didn’t take him long to realise where he was or to remember, vaguely at best, what had happened to him over the past hours of the day.

Peter slowly glanced around at the room, the tendons groaning stiffly in his neck as he did so. The small screen of the E.E.G. unit chattered to itself on the chrome frame of the bedside trolley, feeding itself information from the wire umbilical cords to which he had been attached, via sensor pads, glued to the smooth surface of Peter’s shaven skull. Next to it, the respirator forced its sterile breath into his aching, empty lungs through the plastic mask strapped to his mouth in time to the rhythmic up and down motion of its glass enclosed, black accordion pump.

Peter started to close his eyes again, then caught himself, forcing his mind to stay alert.

It would be so easy to let it all end here, he thought, just to close his eyes and let himself drift back into the clouded, drug filled nowhere land within, where there was no pain, no nightmares, only a blissful peace. It would be so easy for him just to give in and be done with it, but he knew he could not.

Something was keeping him awake, driving him on. He didn’t know what this something was; he had a feeling he had seen it while he had slept but now it was gone. All that had remained upon his return to the real world was the feeling he had to get up, to move, and for some reason he could not understand, the feeling that he had to make it back to Rowan.

He tried to force himself to think of what this something was, struggling to pull it from the cotton wool of blankness he felt filling the inside of him, and he suddenly remembered the words which he had last scrawled in his journal, perhaps his last truly conscious thought of the previous night after returning from the pharmacy with Brannigan to his room, before his strength had given way and he had slipped into the void which he now occupied (or which occupied him!).

He had written . . .

/ think I can understand it all now. I couldn’t until Brannigan showed me the photograph of Jilly’s hand, before that I only had my feelings and not a lot more, but now, after what I saw tonight. . . Yes. I think I understand. I don’t know how I know this but I just know.

Jilly is dead.

She died those nights ago when those bastards did what they did to her and took her life, but it’s me who’s keeping her alive. I’m giving her my life, letting her feed off me in the same way we have always shared each other’s lives, ever since we were children. When some people lose a loved one they will try in their hearts to keep the memory of that person alive for as long as they can. Sometimes the memory fades with time, sometimes it may linger for years until the memory holder dies.

That is what I am doing with Jilly and so much more. I ’m keeping her memory alive through the hate I feel for what was done to her, by the act that those others committed upon her body, by my own wish for revenge upon them. I ’ve seen their faces in my dreams and I hate them. I despise them. And yet, I know that kind of hate is wrong. I know that is the kind of hate which will eat a man up on the inside and turn him into everything he is revolted by.

It’s eating me up and I can see the disease of it every time I look in the mirror but it’s only now that I know why . . .

... and it’s only now that I realise I have to stop it, and give Jilly her peace.

Peter remembered all of this now, this and more. Now he remembered other things, he had seen while he had slept. Slept and wasted. Now he knew where Jilly was—more importantly, where she was going as if, trapped there within the darkness of unconsciousness as he had been, he had seen through her eyes. As if the bond they had both once shared …..

When we were both alive.

. . . had allowed him through the sleeping darkness of his own mind to step into the blackness of hers. Now he knew it was him who had kept her alive, but he also knew that he himself was dying because of it. The hate he had felt which had forged and fired this bond between them, even beyond the veil of Jilly’s death, was a two way street. While his hate was giving her life, it was also killing him. He knew now that he had started to die when his sister had died, he had felt the chill of death seeping through his bones, he had felt the stiffness of rigor mortis grip his limbs, and now, if he sat very still, and listened to the silence of his own wasted body, he could even feel the squirm of its rot crawling in the deepest pit of his stomach.

It was only now that he recognised these things in any sort of conscious way, just as it was only now that he thought he could understand them. And it was only now that one other thing occurred to him. Above all these other thoughts, and like these other thoughts, it came from a deep, inner knowledge and from nowhere else.

The thing which had once been Jilly White, and which he had created through his own emotional turmoil, was now independent of him, no longer reliant upon him for its life or being.

When he had first arrived in Rowan there had been a bond born between themselves as two separate identities. While Peter slept, Jilly would walk, and when Peter was awake, Jilly (or rather, what had once been Jilly) would . . . no, not quite sleep, more . . . cease to be. Almost as if the two separates were each a half of the one person who shared the one consciousness.

Now that had all changed.

A separation had taken place between the two halves, as much of a separation as when the surgeon’s scalpel had separated the two Siamese twins some twenty-seven years earlier.

Peter didn’t know whether this separation was the end product of a gradual strengthening of the life force in the hatred he had allowed himself to create, or whether it was the more recent product of such a long term drug-enforced sleep which he had been thrown into by the drugs he had been injected with that morning. Whatever it was, the split between the two was being there, the creation had almost become independent of its creator, and Peter knew in his heart that if it was the last thing he did, he had to stop it.

He slowly slid the respirator mask from his face, feeling the movement coming with a leaden stiffness to his arms and hands, but with noticeably less pain than had accompanied it before—thanks in the main, Peter guessed, to the veritable pharmacy of pain killers running through his veins—and he sat up awkwardly in the hospital bed. His breath came in shallow, laboured gasps to his lungs, struggling to fill the bellows in his aching chest. It was a moment before he felt some of the light-headed dizziness abate and he was able to slide down from the edge of the hospital bed, his bare feet numbed by the cold, tiled floor.

Lying next to the bed, crumpled on her side, a young woman in a white nurses outfit lay unconscious, one hand outstretched, the other laying limply across her prone form. Peter thought of reaching down to see if she was okay but the voice inside of his head screamed at him to move. It would only be a matter of time before he was checked in upon and it was those very precious moments which he knew he did not have to waste. Carefully, at least with as much lumbering care as he could manage, he stepped over the top of the young nurse lying on the floor of the room using to wall for support.

Walking did not come easily to him.

He thought it could have been either the effects of the medication or, more simply, the chilled, lifelessness of his joints which made his knees fell so boneless and his leg muscles so very weak, but moving his hand to the security rail beside the hospital bed, he managed to hold himself upright if a little unsteady. His focus shifted, swimming within itself, and he waited, swaying slightly, before it began to realign itself once more.

It was perhaps only a few feet from the bed to the open door and the hallway beyond, six at the very most, but for all of the weakness he felt, it might as well have been a hundred. He could go around the walls, he thought, adjusting himself a little to look at the possible path he might take to the door, using the bed as support, then the nightshade next to it, the chair and the cupboard door after that. But that would take him too long to reach the hallway.

No.

If he was going to try leaving, as he knew he must, then it would have to be now . . .

. . . and quickly.

He pushed himself off from the bed, like a child taking his first, unsure step in life, and lumbered leadenly forward, hands out in front of him, oblivious to the tug of E.E.G. sensor pads as they fell away from his skull. With his eyes set determinedly on the door, he cleared no more than a few shuffled, barely lifted steps before his feet came out from beneath him, one catching behind the heel of the other and he pitched forward. He threw his arms out in front of him, trying to break his fall, or, if he could, snare his fingertips in the door frame or its handle. He just managed to catch both before he toppled too far.

Dragging his near useless legs in beneath him, he summoned the little strength he could muster into his torso and upper arms, his breath coming in weary gasps from the exertion, and looked through the open door in either direction along the sterile hospital corridor.

If there had been a nurse on duty at the charge desk standing in the corner of the lobby at the near end of the corridor, it would all have ended there. Peter both knew and felt that he hadn’t the strength left in him to make it any further than to the elevator doors standing at that end of the corridor, and the only other option if there had been a nurse there would have been to take the hallway in the other direction towards the closed emergency exit doors. He thought he might have been able to make it to those doors . . .

. . . just. . .

... but the stairs that would most assuredly be on the other side of them would have just as surely finished him.

He drew himself up and in, hoping his last reserves of strength would hold out, hoping he would be able to make the distance in front of him before he was discovered, hoping the elevator would then be empty and again, the hospital foyer beneath it. Pushing himself off from the door frame he staggered clumsily across to the far wall of the corridor using pot plants, door handles and anything else in his way - like the foldable gurney in front of room 167 and the drinking fountain situated between 159 and 157 - to support himself.

His movements began to come a little freer the further he went, as if the ligaments and muscles of his body were loosening their stiffness some small amount, and by the time he had reached the very edge of the boomerang shaped counter of the floor attendant’s desk at the cut away corner of the lobby, he could manage a stiff legged if somewhat lurching step which carried him along the centre of the hallway with only the occasional need for some kind of solid support to keep himself upright.

Here he stopped.

The effects of the pain killers and other sedatives upon which he had been placed when he had first arrived at the hospital were stupefying, at best a combination of drugs which submerged the patient’s consciousness just below the surface of a comatose state, but which kept the patient still within easy reach of full consciousness when the doctors, or in most cases the nurses, removed the medication. So, by the time Peter had managed to make it to the front counter, the protective blanket which this chemical cocktail had drawn across his degeneration had begun to slip a little under the extra effort he was exerting and he began to feel every step jar progressively along the length of his legs in increasing waves, every breath ache in his chest, every movement, no matter how slight, rang out its warnings to him. By the time he reached the lobby, the pain was intense.

The shudder of it began down in his stomach . ..

...no!...

.. .just above that, in his solar plexus, at the very core of himself, and it soon began to spread out in powerful, tidal like surges until the last step fired its agony up from the sole of his foot into his crotch . . .

. . . and squeezed.

Peter lunged towards the nurse’s desk in an effort to steady his failing balance and he landed there with his hands splayed out before him, his head bowed with a long stringlet of spit dribbling from between his white lips as he waited for the pain.

When it came it was enormous.

A bolt of its white searing agony slammed up along the length of his arched spine, burying itself in the muscles behind his clenched eyes and he threw his head back at the bite of it, his spread fingertips digging into the desktop’s imitation wooden face as he tried to hold back on the scream he could feel tearing at his throat.

OH DEAR JESUS!...

Fight it Peter!

. . . JESUS, PLEASE!.. .

Fight it!

.. . PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!. . .

Fight. Damn it! Fight!′ . PLEEEEASE!

His focus shifted beneath this pain and for a brief moment, as the agony of his own slow death pulsated inside of him, he felt his mind reach across the yawning chasm of sub consciousness to touch something cold, some thing still and reasoned within. There, within the heart of this dark reason was the knowledge of what he must do to keep going. He reached across the counter face, his hand moving unseen as if being guided by another, over papers and manila folders containing patient reports, across desk top blotter sheets and invoices, and encircled the thin metal shaft of a note spike. His fingers tightened around it and seemed to hover there momentarily as if there was some inner struggle being waged over the control of his body before he firmed his grasp around its shape and swept it high up into the air above his head, ramming the spike down into his opened left hand and pinning it to the desk top.

His eyes shot open wide, his mouth formed into a grim slit, teeth clenched, lips drawn and he felt the hot flush of nausea rise within him at the sudden surge of self inflicted agony. The contents of his stomach spilt from his mouth in an undramatic, unforced rush—a purge of black, foul smelling soup, of blood and of bile alive and squirming with tiny white worms which fed on his decay—and he slowly lifted his head, wiping a long string of mucous from the corner of his mouth as he gazed at his impaled hand.

FOCUS ON IT PETER, he told himself. . .

... commanded himself grimly.

FOCUS ON THAT PAIN AND NO OTHER

There was a little blood, a droplet that spilt down in a darkly traced line between his thumb and index finger, no more, and he gritted his teeth, forcing himself to take several long, deep breaths until the pain began to subside.

The ache was still there as it had been before and he knew it would not pass, but now it at least had a point, a single spot of focus which overwhelmed the rest and which he could, if not ignore, then at least operate around in some measure. He reached down with his other hand, to wriggle the spike free and withdraw it from his wounded flesh in one swift movement, and when the new surge of pain had passed, he looked around in each direction along the hallway.

It was still clear—though God knows how much noise he must have just made in his fight for control of himself—and as much as he could allow himself, he breathed a sigh of relief as he turned towards the elevators.

There were two doors on this floor, both polished chrome faces of sliding steel (both reflecting back a distorted image under the fluorescent lighting of how he looked, a reflection which Peter tried his utmost to ignore) and he glanced up, inclining his head painfully to the wall above where the floor indicator lights were embedded.

The door on the left was stationary and, by its light, rested on the second floor, while the one to the right was on the move, its tiny red indicator rising from the small G to the 1st floor. He hurriedly reached across to press the summon button of the elevator to his left, pumping it at least a dozen times before he noticed it had begun to move and finally, after what seemed to him like an infernal time—sure he’d be discovered, sure his strength would desert him—the doors opened and he stumbled into the empty cabin.

Then . . .

. . . slowly . . .

... the doors slid shut once again behind him and he reached across and pressed GROUND before slumping, exhausted and weakened, against the far wall as the machinery of movement began to come to life around him.

11

The first sign Doctor Anton Miller M.B, B.S. had that he was in trouble was by the reflection of the man looming in behind his own in the darkly tinted glass of his Volvo’s driver side window. The Volvo was parked in his usual spot, a bay allotted to him next to the Tarro Community Hospital’s main entrance, for his convenience, neatly lined and swept, with the license plate number of his car inscribed on a plaque set in the red brick wall of the administration wing.

By the time that he had first caught the glance of reflected movement from behind, he had already switched off his vehicle’s alarm and slid his keys into the door lock—his initial reaction was one of intense irritation.

It had been a bad day for Miller, perhaps in many ways the worst since he had taken over as administrative head at Tarro some five and half months earlier and he was a man in no mood for any more interruptions.

He had been trying, for most of the day, to balance the shortfall in the hospital’s meager budget, crunching numbers and diddling the figures just enough to impress the state authorities of the public hospital board with his financial management capabilities. He had, however, been able to go no further than the first few pages of his reading before the interruptions had begun. Firstly, there had been the admittance earlier this morning of a man from Rowan apparently (so he was told) afflicted with some rare form of wasting disease which as yet hadn’t been isolated or confirmed even after the long string of tests and analyses which had been run on him. (There goes the budget for another month, Miller had thought at the time, mentally tallying up the costs involved as he had dropped what was the first of many Gaviscon tablets of the day into a glass of water and contemplating the fizzy process delaying the relief promised on the label). Then there had been the calling of Doctor Dennis Gallon as a consultant on the case, to which Miller had been strongly opposed on financial grounds as well as because of the more personal reason— while he considered Gallon to have once, maybe, been a fine small town doctor, despite the man’s sizable qualifications, Miller now considered him to be nothing more than a meddling old fool.

There was still the lingering embarrassment of the body of the murdered girl which had gone missing from the morgue several nights earlier to be seen to. Miller had even managed to impress himself with the academy award winning performance which he had given—kissing the right arses and stroking the right egos of both the police force and the medical board to allow himself some more time to ‘seek a speedy and satisfactory resolution to the problem’. This resolution that Miller had in mind was to, if at all possible, blame the whole sorry affair on one Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan of the Rowan Police. Brannigan had been persistent in his criticism of Miller and the way he ran the hospital over the time since the girl’s body had vanished and Miller knew he would take the greatest of delights in seeing the fat, country cop have to eat a plate load of shit over the affair for all the troubles he had caused.

Now he found himself going home with a briefcase laden with reports and cost analysis sheets which he would have to spend the better part of what remained of the night wading his way through if he wanted to submit them in time for the budgeting deadline.

And to top it all off, there was a migraine building like a storm cloud behind his eyes, so when he saw the reflection of the figure approaching him from behind, reflected in the raised glass of his Volvo’s driver’s side window, he drew himself up and turned around, readying to chew whoever it was, a new arsehole, for having the damned impertinence to waste his time yet again.

‘What do you wan . . .’

The angry growl quickly faded as Miller’s jaw dropped uselessly open at the sight of the withered features of Peter White facing him only a foot or two from where he stood. The sickly sweet smell which Miller immediately associated with putrefying flesh, curled thickly through the near space of air between them, choking in his nostrils, and he found himself taking a step backwards, up against the side of his car, at the strength of it.

‘Get in the car,’ Peter White said thickly

The words seemed to gargle in the apparition’s throat as if it was perpetually swallowing a mouthful of fluid, and Miller found himself fighting hard against the impulse to retch which rose unbidden from his rounded stomach at the sight of the long stream of bloodied mucous which dribbled continuously from the corner of the thing’s mouth to stain the surgically clean whiteness of the hospital gown which emphasized the ghostly ghoulish image confronting the terrified superintendent.

‘I said get in the car,’ Peter said again when there was no immediate response, this time his drowning voice lifting to the edge of a shout, and a mouthful of blackened spit sprayed from his lips across Miller’s rounded, cherub like face, splattering his features with a dozen tiny droplets.

That was just about all that Miller’s churning stomach could take and he doubled over against the Volvo’s rounded bonnet to throw up his lunch of smoked oysters, king prawns, lobster pate and a cheeky little Moselle, all over his snappily polished brown leather shoes.

Peter moved quickly around behind him, mindful of the risk of being seen by others who must have, by now, discovered his absence from his hospital room, and, lifting the key from the older man’s hand, worked it clumsily between his numbed fingertips to insert it into the lock. He swung the door open and then, reached around behind him to grab Miller’s hunched over form by the back of his belt and pull the man in after him as he eased his way painfully over the cloth covered seats of the Volvo’s spaciously appointed interior.

‘Close the door,’ Peter ordered thickly as he maneuvered himself awkwardly across the gear stick of the vehicle’s centre console (he bumped his shin in doing so, and though a sharp claw of pain dug into his cold flesh from the jarring agony that it bought to him, he managed to keep the scream which he felt growing in the back of his throat bottled there.

THINK OF THE HAND PETER.

THERE’S NO PAIN BUT IN THE HAND. NO PAIN. . ,

. . . and he drew Miller reluctantly upright behind the steering wheel with one wasted hand buried into the rolls of loose flesh and the back of the rotund man’s clean shaven neck. The older man hunched in, his rounded head bunching up into his shoulders at the unrelenting pressure of his assailants fingers wrapped around the back of his throat, and he reached overusing the little slack which he was allowed to pull the door closed behind him.

Peter immediately felt some of the chance of discovery lessen once they had both become concealed behind the Volvo’s darkly tinted windows and he let some of the pressure which he had applied to the aging hospital administrator lessen. The older man let out a relieved sigh and wound the hurt from his neck.

‘If it’s money that you want young man . . .’ Miller said, trying to sound as confident as he possibly could in the situation and using his official boardroom “I-Am-Hospital-Supervisor-Hear-Me-Roar’ voice to its fullest advantage, ‘then you are going to be gravely dissap . . . URK!’

Peter resumed some of the pressure on the back of the older man’s neck with his good hand, cutting of the last of his spiel before he could get it out.

‘I don’t want your money,’ he gurgled and some of the fluid filling his mouth splattered against the Volvo’s sloping windscreen. He wiped at his lips with the back of his bad hand, careful to avoid touching the wound he had inflicted upon himself, and almost immediately felt his mouth fill once more with the hemorrhaged bile from his rotting insides.

‘Look!’ Miller said, suddenly trying his best to sound reasonable and understanding. ‘You’re obviously a very sick man. I can help you if you’ll let me. What you need right now is to be ... gugh !’

More pressure on the man’s neck and it again had the desired result.

‘What I need right now mate, is for you to . . . to . . .’ Peter coughed violently in a series of hacking fits that made him brace himself with his aching left hand against the car’s leather dashboard, his head bowed towards his lap. When the cough subsided and he finally lifted his head to look once again at his unwilling passenger, there was blood on his chin and a trickle of something dark and foul smelling, running down the front of his hospital gown.

He pointed with one bent, withered finger to the cellular phone which sat in a tastefully mounted cradle in the centre of the vehicle’s moulded centre console and said . . .

‘Pick it up.’

Miller did so, holding it out to Peter, who shook his head and, through another milder coughing spasm, indicated for him to dial.

‘The police station at Rowan,’ he said, finally clearing his throat. ‘Dial triple 0 and go through the exchange. I want to speak to Brannigan. Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan.’

Miller punched the numbers in rapid succession, not triple 0 as was requested but the direct number, the same number he had used to talk to Brannigan himself over the space of the last few days to complain about Jillian White’s missing body, and Peter nodded his approval. That was good, Miller thought, believing that if he could humour the man for long enough, he might just let him go with nothing more than an empty stomach, a foul smell in his nostrils and a bruised neck.

He handed the cordless telephone across to Peter as its dial tone began to chirp out distantly and said . . .

‘Now what?’

. . . watching intently at the great yet clumsy care with which the younger man took in juggling the hand piece around his fingers to bring it up to his ear.

‘Now you drive.’ Peter said simply and Doctor Anton Miller M.B., B.S., Administrative Director of the Tarro Community Hospital, rather wisely did exactly what he was told.

12

The following transcript is from the resumption of the interview with ALLAN KEIGES, relating to his involvement in the rape and subsequent murder of JILLIAN MICHELLE WHITE, dated the fifth (5) March 6.15pm SENIOR SERGEANT FRANK BRANNIGAN and CONSTABLE ROBERT MILLS in attendance.

BRANNIGAN: Now Allan, I’ll ask you again. Would you care to tell us about what happened on the night of the first of this month? As I have said, we know you were at Murphy’s Tavern on the evening in question. We have reliable witnesses to verify that. We also know you were seen leaving the premises n the company of a group of young men, including Lucas Foggarty and Thomas Harn, at approximately 10.00 p.m. in Ham’s car, which has been identified as the vehicle that was present at the scene of the crime. What I want to know is

what happened after that. And, just for the record, any co-operation you give us at this point will undoubtedly be taken into consideration.

(There is a long pause here while Keiges leans back into his chair and lights himself another cigarette before continuing.)

KEIGES: We were just out cruising around, you know. At least, that’s all I thought it was. One of the guys who was there said we should all rock on into town and pick up a beer before closing time and head out to the river for a piss-up.

BRANNIGAN: Which guy was this?

KEIGES: I don’t know his name.

BRANNIGAN: Come on Allan. This isn’t going anywhere at all. Now, start talking to us seriously or I’ll terminate this interview and slap you up before a district court judge so fast your fucking head will spin.

KEIGES: (yelling) I don’t know his name, all right! Jesus man, it was just some guy, okay? I don’t know who he was. I’ve seen him around a couple of times over the last few days and I was just out there having a drink when he came in.

BRANNIGAN: And you don’t remember his name?

(Keiges shakes his head.)

BRANNIGAN: Say it.

KEIGES: No.

BRANNIGAN: Do you expect me to believe that you had a couple of drinks with this guy and he didn’t introduce himself to you?

KEIGES: Well, if he did say who he was, I missed it or forgot it. You know how it is at those places. The music is playing, lots of people, lots of voices. I get to meet a lot of people out there. You don’t expect me to remember all of their names do you?

BRANNIGAN: No, Allan. No I don’t. Just the ones who you go off and gang rape with will do.

KEIGES: Look. I really don’t know Brannigan. All I know is that this guy comes into the bar and he’s wearing these biker’s leathers. There was something about him I guess which sort of caught my attention. Hell. The way that the place stopped when he came in, I’d say it caught everyone’s attention. It wasn’t that he looked anything special you know, at least not that I could see from where I sat. The place was all kinda dark and from where I was by the bar, he looked just like any other mug stepping up for a beer. Except he wasn’t you see. He looked sort of. .. Oh fuck. I don’t know, I guess he looked sort of ... bad. Like the kind of guy you’d probably never see in a bar room fight but you just know he could

beat the living shit out of anyone who crossed him. He wasn’t all that big or anything but there was just something about him that made him seem big.

BRANNIGAN: Did he have any distinguishing marks?

KEIGES: Huh?

BRANNIGAN: Did he have any tattoos that you saw? Or birthmarks or scars?

KEIGES: No, no tats. At least, not that I ever saw but even from where I was sitting when he came in I could see he had this really bad skin. You know, on his cheeks an’ shit. Like he had really bad acne or something when he was a kid. Kinda like ol’ pizza face over there.

(Keiges motions across to where Bobby Milne sits opposite him with his notes and his pimple blemished features. Milne starts to stand and say something but Brannigan stops him with a hand on his arm and makes him sit back down. Keiges smiles.)

KEIGES: Anyways, this guy just sort of swaggers up to the bar like he’s been sitting across a motor bike since Jesus was a boy and orders himself a beer. The room just seemed to get busy again then. Not like everyone started talking again when his back was turned or anything like that I reckon. It wasn’t even like people so much stopped in the first place but the beat just sort of picked up and it seemed like things went back to normal. Anyways, I started playing pool again with a couple of guys...

(When Brannigan looks at him questioningly, Keiges responds.)

Micky Brennan and Keith Barlow. They weren’t with us when we left, Brannigan, so you can just forget about them.

BRANNIGAN: All the same, Allan, I think I’d like to have a word with them. Write their names down Bobby.

MILNE: Right-o Sarge.

KEIGES: Okay, Brannigan, suit yourself but the guys are big time losers. I only hang around with them to hustle them out of a couple of bucks on the pool table when the funds are getting low.

BRANNIGAN: What happened then?

KEIGES: Well, like I says, I just went back to playing a round of pool with these two jerks. I had about twenty bucks sitting on an eight ball in the centre pocket but at the same time I start looking at this fella at the bar. And, you want to know the funny thing about it? The longer I keep looking at him, the more he starts to look familiar. Like I should know him from somewhere. So, I’m sort of watching him while I’m lining up my shot and I’m just about to sink the ball when this guy at the bar turns around on his stool and looks at me. And his eyes! Jesus fucking Christ, I ain’t never seen anything like them before in my life. They were really, really pale blue, almost white I suppose, sort of like those rabbit eyes you see them Albinos with. You know, only he weren’t no Albino or nothing but his eyes . . . Jesus,. they were weird.

(Keiges rubs at the flesh of his arm as if he were suddenly cold and shakes his head.)

I guess they sort of distracted me a bit ’cause I fucked up my shot. It hit the cushion instead of sinking into the hole and rolled off all piss weak like, and Brennan and Barlow start smiling these big shit eating grins and saying stuff like ‘you owe us twenty bucks’ and ‘better pay up Al-pal’. I hate it when they call me ‘Al-pal’ like that. Anyways, I start getting pissed off at them cause I don’t have any money on me so I says to them that I’ll owe ’em and they say that’s not good enough and start kicking up a stink. Anyways, this bouncer comes over and asks if there’s a problem and I say nope but the other two pricks start saying I’ve ripped them off and shit like that. So this bouncer turns to me and says, ‘Well, I reckon if you bet twenty bucks, you owe them twenty bucks’, just like that and I go, ‘I don’t owe them Jack shit’. So, this big blonde prick starts squaring off against me and I’m getting just about ready to put my fist in his face when this guy from the bar with the eyes lands a twenty in front of Brennan and says, I’d say that covers things’.

Well, the bouncer didn’t like that, not one bit, and he turns to this guy with the bunny eyes like he’s all pissed off that this guy has stuck his nose in where it wasn’t wanted and like he’d just as soon take him outside as he would me. But, like I said before, this guy that came in looked bad and pretty soon, with him just standing there with his arms folded across his chest looking at the bouncer, the big blonde prick backs down and goes back around behind the bar with his tail between his legs. I guess that sort of impressed me ’cause I turned around and shook this guy’s hand

‘Thanks mate’ I says and he just smiles at me and says, ‘It was an unlucky shot’. So I says ‘You bet your balls it was. I’d make that one with my eyes tied behind by back most days’ and I offer him a beer. After that we just got to talking.

BRANNIGAN:About what?

KEIGES: Just shit really. He never said much. It just seemed to be me who was doing most of the jabbering and him doing most of the listening. You know. I talked about football and how I fucked up my leg. Like I said, just shit.

BRANNIGAN: Did he say anything about himself?

KEIGES: Nah. Not much. I asked him where he was from and he just sort of shrugged and said, ‘All over’. I asked him how come his eyes were so fucking blue and he said it was hereditary. Just really stupid shit like that. About the only thing he didn’t mind talking about a bit was his motor bike.

BRANNIGAN: Did you see it, Allan? Could you identify it if you had to?

KEIGES: Sure could. He seemed real proud of it, even took me outside to the parking lot where he had it sitting up on its stand. It was a Harley, though I don’t reckon I’ve seen one like it before. Probably never will again either. Big mother of a thing it was. A real road-hog. Wide tyres, long forks, all chrome and black paint, leather seat with a big red eagle custom painted on the tank. Jesus but it was beautiful. I was just kind of admiring it you know, I don’t know much about bikes but I can appreciate them, what they must be like to saddle up and hit the road on, that sort of thing. Hell, if I had me some more money I might even buy one myself and blow this shitty little town. So, I’m just standing there looking at it and I goes to touch it, you know. That’s when this guy with the bunny eyes goes ape shit on me. The next thing I know, I’m on my knees on the ground in front of him and he’s got me in some kind of weird hand grip, kind of like our Asian mates do with that martial arts crap of theirs. It wasn’t very hard or anything but Jesus it hurt and he says, ‘Nobody Touches my bike’. Then he sees this other car pull into the tavern driveway and I see him smile like its someone he’s been waiting for and he lets go of my hand and says, ‘Come on inside Allan and I’ll buy you a drink to show there are no hard feelings’.

But you want know the funny thing Brannigan? I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but I’m pretty certain, that not once did I say what my name was.

BRANNIGAN: So, who was in the car?

KEIGES: Two guys. Younger than me, I think, about twenty or so. I don’t know who the one driving was, though I’ve seen him around town now and then, but the other one was Big John McKinnan’s boy. I don’t know his name either, but I’ve seen him with his dad at the football grounds now and then. Big John’s okay but his son’s a weedy kind of guy. Always struck me as someone who’d rather be at home with his nose buried in a book rather than at a football match, but there you go.

BRANNIGAN: So, what happened after they arrived?

KEIGES: Well, next we go back inside and the bloke with the eyes and the Harley buys me a beer like he said. I figure that since he’s shouting then I’m a big enough man to let bygones be bygones and so I sit back down with him.

BRANNIGAN: And did he give you the impression he knew these other two who turned up in the car?

KEIGES:I don’t reckon so. He just sat there for a while watching them the same way he did me, real intent like. I was just sort of talking to him, you know, shooting the shit and he was just, sitting there, watching, not ignoring me but not exactly being sociable either. Then I sees these two other young guys start arguing with each other and I go to turn to him and say, ‘Look at those two faggots would ya. Must be a lover’s tiff’, when I notice the chair he was sitting on is empty and I look over and see him standing next to this McKinnan boy and taking his side in the argument like he’s known him all his life.

I don’t know . . .

(Keiges shrugs) .

. . maybe this guy with the Harley was queer or something and wanted to pop the McKinnan boy’s cherry but the next thing I know is that the other young fella has taken off in a huff and the guy with the Harley comes back up to the bar with . . …… Ricky! Shit, that’s it. I knew I’d remember his name. Ricky McKinnan. The guy came up with Ricky McKinnan and sits him down besides me.

BRANNIGAN: Did he talk to anyone else that night?

KEIGES: Oh yeah. All the guys who went for the drive. Me, and McKinnan and the Foggarty guy and Harn and some other young fella who came in early on in the piece ... um ... David someone I think, though I can’t remember his name. It′11 come to me. I knew Tommy Harn a little. Not much, but enough to say gidday to but the others ... I wouldn’t have known enough of them to piss on them if they were on fire. But the guy with the Harley, he sort of acted like he had been waiting for each one of them to come in. He’d watch them for a while and then he’d disappear and the next thing I’d know, he’d be bringing them back over for a drink. Didn’t seem to bother with anyone else, mind you, he said he thought they were all maggots. That’s what he called them, ‘They’re all maggots’ he’d say, but I think he thought that the rest of us were at least good enough to talk to. Anyway, by the time this Foggarty guy turns up, he was the last, we were all pretty well pissed. All except for this guy, the one with the eyes. He looked like he was putting the drinks away faster than anyone else, sort of setting the pace for the rest of us, I suppose you’d say, but they didn’t even look like they were touching him.

And you know what? Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever saw him take a drink, just his glass kept getting empty there in his hand, like he was tipping the beer out when we weren’t looking or something.

BRANNIGAN: Then what?

KEIGES: Then he says let’s all go into Rowan and pick up a slab of beer.

BRANNIGAN: Okay then, Allan, tell us about when you were all in the car together.

What was said?

KEIGES: Not much. But, like I say, I’d had a few by then so I guess I can’t really be sure. All that I can remember is that the mood sort of changed again. You know, like when this guy first came into the tavern. We were just sitting there listening to some of Tommy’s music . . .

BRANNIGAN: This would be Tommy Harn?

KEIGES: Right.

BRANNIGAN: Was he driving?

KEIGES: Yeah. He was really drunk. Swerving all over the road and shit, sort of bopping away to the music and giggling to himself. That guy could really be fucked up in the head sometimes, you know, like he wasn’t all there. Anyways, the mood changes, like I said, and I guess I started to sober up some. Now, I don’t know about those others and I won’t speak for them, but I started wondering just what the fuck I was doing there. I mean, I knew where we were going and all of that but I didn’t really want to any more.

Anyways, I kind of looks up and I see this guy with the Harley eyeing everyone in the rear vision mirror, kind of like he was keeping a check on us and when he saw one of us was starting to look around like I was, and starting to think about maybe getting out he’d start talking to you and then he’d pass you across another beer or maybe a puff or two on a reefer and then everything would sort of be all right. Man . . . that was weird.

BRANNIGAN: Okay Allan, you’re doing fine. Now tell us what happened next.

KEIGES: Next we seen the girl by the side of the road. No. Wait. Not the girl. First we seen only the car there, but the guy with the Harley points it out to us as we go past. I think it was a Cortina or something, one of the older rounded ones, and he says that he wants to go back for a look. We all say something like, ’Why? Fuck it, it’s just a fucking car and he says ’just because I fucking SAID SO!”

Like I said, he had a way about him that you just didn’t want to argue with. So, Tommy Harn goes past a bit until he finds a place wide enough for him to turn around and this guy says ‘Turn off your lights’ then Tommy burns up a little rubber heading back the way we came—it was easy to see the road in the moonlight.

BRANNIGAN: And you have said that the girl, Jillian White, wasn’t there?

KEIGES: No. Not at first. At first it was just the car there but when we came back we all saw her hunched down like she was trying to change the tyre or something. So this guy says to Tommy, ‘We’ll give her a surprise’ and Tommy does this an ...

(There’s a brief knock at the interview room door at this point and Constable Mitch Gardiner pushes it tentatively open to peer into the small room and looks at the three men occupying it before saying to Brannigan)

‘There’s a phone call for you Sarge.’ Brannigan sighed irritably, ‘You take it then Mitch,’ he said, laying his pen down on the desk top and stretching some of the stiffness from his neck brought on by the hard-back chairs of the interview room. ‘Can’t you see we’re right in the middle of business here?’

‘I tried to,’ Gardiner replied, looking down briefly at Keiges, the man he had helped bring in that afternoon for questioning, still sitting with his back to the door . . .

No love lost there, Frank thought, seeing the contempt in the young constable’s eyes and remembering how Bobby had told him when he had arrived back from the hospital earlier that day about how Keiges had not wanted to come quietly to the station for a chat and had shown his protest by landing a fist squarely into Mitch’s gut before he could be persuaded otherwise.

‘But whoever it is,’ Mitch continued, ‘said they only wanted to talk to you and no one else. They said it had something to do with Jillian White.’

A small frown knitted its way across Brannigan’s brow and, sighing again, he stood up from his chair. As he did so, he reached across to the tiny microphone and said, ‘Interview suspended . . .’ before glancing at the cracked face of his watch, ‘. . . at 8.58 p.m. Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan leaving the room. Constable Robert Milne remaining in attendance . . . Bobby?’

‘Yeah Sarge?’

‘You stay here and keep our friend company. This shouldn’t take very long I hope.’

And with that, he turned and followed Mitch out of the room, depressing the pause button on the video and television unit as he went.

13

On most nights of the working week, including those of the weekend when half the staff members were generally rostered, the empty foyer of the Rowan Shire Police Station was as cold and dark as a mausoleum. Its wide, expansive floor-space was tiled in a sterile grey and white marbled checker board pattern, pitted from years of wear. Its walls of pale ivory plaster were bare save a community service notice board set up beside the main double glass fronted doors, a large faded surveyor’s map of the Rowan Shire and its neighbouring districts clung to the opposite wall. The rounded glass face of the Timex clock which faithfully chimed out the hours in the silence hung above the glass partition of dispatch. There was little in the way of furniture to humanize the open, seemingly hostile space—an unwelcoming line of hard wooden benches set up against the wall of the adjoining supply room, and a soft drink dispenser stood conveniently nearby with a ‘CURRENTLY OUT OF STOCK’ sign, roughly written on a sheet of foolscap was magic taped over the Sprite and Fanta punch buttons.

The only attempt to at least make a half hearted try at softening the dispassionate edges of the place—a large fruit salad palm standing just inside of the side door leading to the verandah—had died months earlier from the unbearable summer heat and now stood, brown and sadly neglected, in its fired clay pot.

Mitch led Frank across the open floor of the lobby, their footfalls rebounding hollowly past the single wedge of blue light spilling in across the foyer floor from the ‘POLICE’ sign outside through the glass pane fronted door into the dispatch office. A tiny flicker of light danced across the imitation wood paneled walls behind the main desk and Frank glanced briefly towards its source as he reached for the telephone set on the main counter, watching dispassionately as small black and white television set which Mitch had been watching while he manned the switchboard replayed the first minutes after kickoff of the weekend’s Broncos/Seagulls match.

The young constable moved around the main counter as Brannigan picked up the telephone headset, punching the red flashing light on the board to free the caller from his limbo of HOLD while Mitch turned up the volume on the television slightly to catch up on the commentator’s rapturous version of whatever small amount of action he had missed in the opening minutes of the game.

‘Hello?’ Frank said, trying to hide the edge of fatigue he felt from his voice as he spoke. ‘This is Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan speaking. I believe tha . . .’

‘Frank?’

The voice which had cut him off was thick and weak, sounding as if the person it belonged to was standing very close to the telephone at his end of the line, and yet was, for whatever reason, barely able to speak above a whisper.

It was the kind of voice you got used to hearing after years spent as a cop. It was the kind of voice which belonged to people who were trying to report something they didn’t want overheard. Of battered wives calling to finally report their abusive husbands while they lay in a drunken stupor in the next room. Of children who felt the very act of talking to a policeman, or anyone else in authority for that matter, was one to be ashamed of.

And upon hearing it, Frank pushed the telephone’s earpiece closer to the side of his head and reached over through the opened partition of the counter window to tap Mitch on the shoulder, motioning for him to turn the television down. Mitch frowned but did as he was instructed, watching as Darren Lockyer ran towards the touch line in an action filled near silence.

‘Frank.’ The voice whispered harshly again and Brannigan said……..

‘Yes. This is Frank Brannigan. Can I help you? Who is this?’

A short, sharp fit of coughing was his only response.

‘Look,’ Brannigan snapped impatiently, ’I haven’t got the time to……”

‘Frank. Got to get... get out.’

‘What? Who is this?’

‘Peter. It’s Peter.’ This was followed by more coughing and it was then that Frank noticed distractedly that the blue glow from the police sign by the pathway at the front of the station house had begun to flicker, its halted light strobbing through the foyer’s otherwise near darkness.

‘Peter?’ Brannigan asked, ‘Peter White?’

‘Yes ... got to get out. . . got to . . .’

The fluorescent light along the front path outside flared with a sudden intensity before blinking out for the final time amongst the fizzing sound of dying neon and Brannigan turned towards the sound of Mitch uttering a long stream of curses. The television was now filled with a hazy grey curtain of static which rolled across the small screen in evenly spaced bands of transmission interference.

‘Just great.’ Constable Gardiner muttered sourly, wriggling the antenna in a token gesture at fixing the problem before he switched the life from the set in disgust, and he started toward the other side of the main desk just as the large open space of the foyer plunged into darkness around them.

The telephone signal began to break up and split apart, the sharp wavering hiss of static filling Frank’s ear.

WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS GOING ON HERE?

‘Frank?’ Peter White’s voice continued through the broken crackling of the telephone line. ‘Can you... hear?’ The sound of more coughing was fragmented by static. ‘It’s Jilly. She’s coming ... to get out. . . get... t... now. Frank, g . . . out now!’

Then the last of Peter’s pleas were gone, swamped beneath the surging tide of haze as the signal finally disintegrated into nothing and was replaced instead by the hollow buzz of a disconnected line.

Brannigan lowered the headset slowly from his ear and stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment with a deep mesh of furrows lining his wide brow. He felt an uncertain tap on the back of his shoulder and turned around to face Mitch standing off and a little behind him as he replaced the telephone once more into its empty cradle before following his offsider’s fixed gaze towards the station’s closed front doors.

‘I think someone’s coming,’ Mitch said simply as he lifted his hand to guide his sergeant’s attention towards the vague shape of a person, backlit by the flickering street lights beyond, which was forming as a rapidly coalescing figure against the entry way doors semi-opaque surface.

Yes. Frank thought with a mounting and, to him, totally unreasonable dread as he looked across the darkened foyer to where Mitch was indicating. And he knew by the speed with which the rapidly defining silhouette was condensing as it moved towards them, that whoever it was, was coming fast.

There was a short, almost tidal surge just then through which both men felt themselves drawing back away from the doors (though this feeling of retreat was more of a sensation within themselves rather than a backwards step) as they waited for the approaching wave to break over them and they hitched a collective breath as they watched the figure of a person, a figure which only a second ago had been little more than a hazy outline—take the few short steps of the station’s entry way in one fluid stride and launch itself bodily at—and through— the station foyer’s plate glass doors.

′ JESUS CHRI...!!!”

′ FUCKING HEL...!!!”

A shattering of glass exploded out across the tiled floor in front of them as the decaying form of what had once been Jilly White burst into the cool darkness from the still warmth of the night outside, cutting the last of the men’s exclaimed cries off in the back of their throats.

Then . . .

In that one moment before all hell broke loose . . .

:

. . . Frank Brannigan felt understood everything.

She stood before him as the last of the shower of glass cascaded down around her naked form, no longer recognizable as the woman she had once been.

Her once milky white skin had become sallow, a dull, lifeless, bloodless blue, pitted by decay. Dark purplish-red welts of lividity, looking almost black in the poor light, clung in bands around her jaw matching those which he had noticed only the night before around her brother’s neck, beneath her flaccid breasts, and in a mottling of fist-sized blemishes marking her distended stomach. Her hair, once a honey red, was now thin and wispy and billowing back in a deathly halo from her skull as if being blown by some unfelt wind. A dark, noxious smelling liquid seeped from a deep wound in her gut in irregular rivulets, staining her legs and the floor upon which she stood, surrounded within a confettied circle of glass. But it was the face which Frank saw, above all else. Above the disbelief, and instinctive fear about this creature, it was the face which horrified him the most.

There was nothing of Jilly White left in that face. Her once soft features had been cruelly stripped from her in death. The softness that had once been evident in her nature, shown by the few photographs he had seen of the girl since her . . .

Say if, Frank, her MURDER!

….. had now been wasted away to an unearthly grimace beneath the progress of rictus, a progress that had pulled her features taut against her skull.

There was nothing left of her nose that he could see, it had been decayed...

EATEN?!

... away to a stump of cartilage, revealing two dark holes in the centre of her features which ran with a glistening stream of mucous.

And her eyes!

My God, those eyes.

There was nothing about those eyes that Frank was able to understand as being anything short of a pure . . .

. . . blind . . .

. . . hate.

The creature which had once been Jilly White took a step towards them . .. no, not towards them. She started to move past them, as if the two men who stood shaking and stunned before her did not exist, then angled herself towards the corridor that led to the interview room and to Frank’s own office.

That was when the stench of her hit them.

Mitch felt himself stagger back an involuntary pace, gagging as he did so for air beneath the putrid reek, but Frank held his ground.

There was something else, something more than the revulsion he felt curling in his stomach, something strangely familiar . . . and then he had it. In that one, pure, unearthly moment, he had it. If the understanding of the perverse truth of the past day’s events had come to him a sudden rush, as this creature, the abomination, has exploded through the station doors, then another deeper understanding struck him at the recognition of the stench of her decay.

That smell, that reek, which had lingered so persistently in Tommy Harn’s motel room after his death had been this smell, the scent of her and of her rotting body. Now, here she was to exact her retribution again, just as she had on Harn, only this time her fury was to be directed against another of her attackers—Allan Keiges.

And it was with this realization that the paralysis of the shock which held him there broke, when the years of duty to the often disposable ideal of ‘To faithfully protect and serve’ finally kicked in.

He grabbed Mitch roughly by the scruff of his neck, wrapping a big hand around the collar of the younger man’s uniform shirt as he screamed at him hoarsely to ...

‘MOVE!’

... and when there was no immediate reaction, the nausea Mitch felt in the pit of his stomach too debilitating an anchor for him to act for himself, Brannigan put his full weight of two hundred and twenty

pounds behind him and all but threw Mitch in the direction of the corridor leading to the partially opened door of the interview room and the tentatively peering head of Constable Bobby Milne, drawn out of his burrow by the commotion. Mitch landed awkwardly from the shove, staggering a step or two before he managed to catch his balance by using the corner of his desk as a support and Brannigan yelled after him . . .

‘Get Keiges!’

... as the younger man regained his footing and Frank fumbled with his belt latch to draw his service revolver from its hip mounted holster.

‘Now, you just hold it right there lady,’ he said in a thick, shuddering croak as he clicked off the safety and swung around on the decaying image of Jilly White before him, his primed service revolver leveled in a regulation—if slightly shaky—two handed grasp at the centre of her exposed chest.

But if the thing which had once been Jilly White heard him, then she showed no sign of it. Instead, she took a staggered step towards him, her bare feet crunching unflinchingly over shattered glass as she went, and Frank repeated her warning, this time with the authoritative strength he was used to registering in the gruffness of his voice.

‘I said, hold it! This is your last warning.’

Jilly White took another step forward and Brannigan moved around to put himself in a more direct line between this . . . this . . . thing in front of him and the corridor behind.

There were voices back there, Frank could hear their mutterings across his shoulder and he could only hope that either Bobby or Mitch, preferably both, had some understanding of just what in God’s name was going on out here. Brannigan re-adjusted his position, steadying his shaking hands, while spreading his balance evenly on both legs, and said in a low, mock authoritive voice . . .

‘I’m not kidding here, darling. One more step and I’ll blow you all the way back to whatever fucking corner of hell you’ve crawled out of.’

Then . . .

. . . she/it stopped

. . . and that was good.

There seemed to be some indecision there within her eyes. Frank couldn’t read much in those black, hateful pools gleaming maliciously in the half light with their own dark intelligence, but he thought that. . . yes . . . she was wondering what she should do next.

Almost as if she’s noticed me as a potential obstacle for the first time, he thought, and while Brannigan did not feel at all comfortable about putting himself in the immediate way of this . . . this . . .

SOMETHING?

... which appeared to possess all of the unstoppable momentum of a charging bull elephant, he felt instinctively that it was good he had been able to make her hesitate. It bought him the precious time he knew he needed to figure out just what in God’s name it was he was going to do next.

‘Sarge?’ Mitch called out nervously to Brannigan’s back from where he stood halfway along the corridor, outside of the interview room’s opened door, his hand hovering indecisively over the butt of his still sheathed service revolver. ‘What should we . . .?’

‘Get Keiges back into my office.’ Brannigan called over his shoulder, his head turned towards the young constable, a little shout from the corner of his mouth, but not enough to take his steady gaze from the creature standing in front of him.

He didn’t understand a hell of a lot about what was going down here at the moment—he was flying more on pure blind instinct than anything else—but he did know one thing for certain and that was that if he allowed his attention to wander from this thing in front of him for one second, if he were as to even so much as blink, then the blackness he saw in those dark soulless eyes told him it would have his guts for garters. ‘And hurry Mitch!’ he called back, ‘Make it bloody quick because I don’t know how long she’s going to wait before she blows.’

Both Mitch and Bobby, who had watched, wide-eyed, as the drama at the head of the corridor had unfolded, jumped into action at this last command, moving back inside the interview room’s darkened doorway—the light within having died with all the others. There was a brief silence, then the sound of Keiges rough, gravelly voice demanding to know what was going on ...

You and me both pal, Brannigan thought somewhere back in the depths of himself.

... before both young police officers had rightly decided it was no time for answering his questions and had dragged him, amidst a fury of indignant protests, into the hallway, each with one of the man’s well muscled arms bent up behind his back as a little added incentive to be a ‘good boy’ and do exactly what he was told.

That was when it happened.

Frank didn’t need to turn around to see at exactly what point Keiges had finally been manhandled from the interview room to the corridor. He didn’t need to look back to see him struggling between the two constables, or even to interpret the strange cry of fear coming from the corridor as Keiges saw the creature standing there . . .

…..It was all written in the eyes of the creature who had once been Jilly White.

The hesitation Frank was sure he had seen there only moments earlier had suddenly gone, replaced instead by a black, hateful fire which seemed to emanate from her through every decaying pore, along every rotting limb. At the recognition of it, Frank thought he had come closer, in that one moment, to seeing pure, unbidden evil than a man ever should. The Jilly-thing seemed to draw herself up, her whole body appearing to almost swell, as if she were feeding on the hate felt for the young man in the corridor. She threw her head back, like a dog howling at the moon, to let out an unearthly cry from the very core of her being, then lunged at him, past Brannigan, with her fingers extended like talons towards his throat.

Everything became slowed, even focused for Frank after that point.

There was no longer the need to think, now there was only the need to act, and it was a need which Frank followed instinctively. He retreated a carefully measured step back along the darkened corridor, shifting from his two legged stance to bring one foot in behind the other and he went down onto his knee beneath Jilly White’s blind rage to fire a single round from his service revolver at point blank range as she came in over the top of him.

The sound of the service pistols recoil rang out in the emptiness of the station house, rebounding off of the corridor’s closely restricted walls as the Jilly-thing was thrown backwards by the hammer blow of the gun which had slammed into her, opening up a fist sized hole just below her left breast, and she staggered back across the empty foyer, her arms and legs reeling for balance.

The creature landed in a heap up against the paneled wooden face of the counter on the other side of the room, and, to Brannigan’s wide eyed horror as he pulled himself upright using the edge of Mitch’s desk for support, she immediately lifted herself back to her feet, unhindered by the gaping wound that had split her rib cage wide apart enough for a man to place his fist. She then stalked predatorily back across the emptied office foyer towards him, with only the dark gaping hole through which a single line of thick liquid ran showing him he had hit her at all.

‘Jesus Sarge, wha . . .?’ someone called out in disbelief from behind him and Frank had barely enough time to shout back . . .

‘Get Keiges into my office. NOW!’

. . . before she was upon him again.

He tried to bring his gun back up to level it at her once more but he had been too slow in hauling his weight up from the floor where he had knelt to recover his aim. By the time he had managed to steady himself, the Jilly-thing had covered the short space of distance between them and was striking out with the arm drawn across her body as she came forward to slam a balled up fist into his shoulder and send him up against the wall.

Another shot rang out, triggered off in Brannigan’s hands by the force of the blow and a large divot of tile kicked up in the floor near his feet where the bullet buried itself. She then turned to face him, the full depth of her hatred, originally projected at Keiges, now turned squarely in his direction, her mouth curled back in a snarl which rumbled low and guttural in her throat.

Her arm shot out to plant the flat of her hand over the broad width of the front of Brannigan’s meaty neck and pinned him to the hard plastered surface of the wall behind him. He felt the full force of this creature bearing down against him, her hand bringing an unbearable pressure against his windpipe, cutting off the air to his lungs painfully in the back of his throat, her eyes dark pits of fire burning into his and then . . .

... A slip of movement caught in the corner of his eye from further down the corridor where the three other men had stood and Frank moved his head towards it as much as the hand which restricted him would allow. He saw Mitch Gardiner relinquishing his hold on Keiges arm to move back towards him, unleashing the clip on his belt holster and pulling the service revolver out from within.

‘Hold it right there!’ the young constable shouted nervously, pointing the gun as forcefully as he could manage at the decaying image of Jilly White, and the snarl which had curled in her throat grew into a roar of putrefying breath as she snapped her head around to face her new opponent, bellowing out in her fury.

That was all the chance Frank Brannigan needed.

He brought up the gun which had, by then, fallen to his side, drawing it up and over across the arm which held him firmly against the hallway wall and leveled its barrel mounted sights squarely at the side of Jilly White’s head.

‘Hey, bitch?’ he shouted hoarsely, drawing her attention away from Mitch’s challenge and back towards his own, and he squeezed the trigger, the high velocity, close range blast tearing away the skin and fragmented bone at the right side of her skull just above the eye as the roar from the shot rebounded along the darkened corridor around them.

She pulled back away from him, the pressure around Brannigan’s throat abated as the growl turned into a high pitched scream which set his teeth on edge and he took a step towards her, pointing the still smoking gun low at her midriff as she clutched blindly at the wound which had opened up the side of her head.

He fired again . . .

. . . and again . . .

. . . and again . . .

. . . and again . . .

... emptying the revolver of its remaining shots, each one driving her back another staggered step, further and further until the last kicked high, slamming into her upper torso and launched her bodily back through the air to roll and land heavily in the darkness on the other side of Mitch Gardiner’s desk, a pile of unseen-to reports and files scattering to floor around her.

14

‘You’re bleeding,’ Doctor Anton Miller M.B., B.S. said, dividing his dispassionate attention between the night time blackness of the country road opening up beneath the car’s high beam headlights and the slumped form of the young man in the bucket seat next to his. There was an edge of concern in his voice at the sight of the suddenly profusely bleeding wound above the man’s right eye . . . but it was an edge only.

‘I know.’ Peter White groaned, straightening up against the back of the vehicle’s softly cushioned seat as he clutched painfully at his stomach, both arms folded across his midriff.

It was only then that Miller noticed the wet glistening darkness of blood also staining the clinical whiteness of the man’s hospital gown. Peter coughed, the agony from the effort written in the suffering etched across he wasted features, and when he drew his hand away from his mouth . . .

. . . there was blood there too.

‘I’m going to pull over,’ Miller insisted, making as if to turn the Volvo away from the broken centre line of glaring cat’s eyes and ease it to a grating halt on the bushland’s gravel shoulder. ‘You’re dying in my car, young man, and I’m going to stop.’

‘NO!’ Peter shouted, the anger in his voice sprayed out in a flecking of blood and other, darker things on the sedan’s leather appointed dashboard. He wanted to raise his hand and tighten it as had done before around the older man’s neck to make him do what he wanted but he was beyond that now. The pain of his approaching death was too great and he saw, there in the sharpening of the other man’s eyes, that he knew it too.

‘No,’ he repeated, softer this time and with more of a tone of pleading in his voice.

The vision in his right eye had begun to sting, turn red and swim with blood from the wound at the side of his skull that, like those in his stomach and chest, had seemingly opened up across his features of their own painful violation.

‘Please, don’t stop. Not until we .. .’ *-

(He coughs.)

“…. . not until we get to Rowan . . .′

••••’;. °

(He coughs again.)

‘... .I’ve got to get to the police station there. Please.’ Miller shrugged and though he knew it was wrong, though he knew that in all probability the boy in the seat next to him would die from whatever was killing him even before he saw the first of the small town’s lights through the darkness of the trees, he gunned the cars eight cylinder engine back to. Life and kept on driving.

15

Silence . . .

Darkness….

. . . then . . .

. . . the voice of Bobby Milne, close and scared.

‘Is she ... is she dead?’

‘I. don’t know.’ Frank grunted gruffly in reply (his throat still hurt like hell from where she had grabbed him) and he reached down, with his empty gun still clutched firmly in his hand, to lay two fingers

gently against the cold, waxy flesh of the creature’s (which had once been a girl—just a girl)—bloodied neck.

There was no pulse there, just as there hadn’t been three days earlier when he had checked her for signs of life in the still morning heat of Shailier’s Gully, but he moved around her warily just the same, and squatted down upon his haunches as he held the palm of his sweat moistened hand up to what was left of Jilly White’s decayed nose and mouth. Finally, when he could feel no faint whisper of breath cooling the dampness of his skin, he stood up and backed cautiously away from her bloodied, twisted form.

Bobby and Mitch stood behind him in the corridor’s dim light, eyes wide, hands hovering nervously at the curved wooden butts of their service revolvers, and Keiges shifted somewhere close behind them, trying to peer over their shoulders at the shape of the woman-thing that lay sprawled out beside Mitch’s duty-desk in the darkened corridors half light. They were all looking towards Frank for answers to what had just happened but he didn’t have any for them.

Not now. It was only then that it dawned on him that he was, like it or not, going to have to explain the whole bloody mess of the past few days, and especially tonight, to someone in authority.

He wondered then, rather sarcastically, if his old friend Joe Pittman would be quite so forward about vocalizing his own ideas on the Jilly White case if he had to say them in front of an internal affairs commission.

‘Is it over?’ Mitch asked, and though Frank could see he was as frightened by what had just gone down as Bobby, he seemed to be at least making a better effort at keeping the reigns on it.

‘Yeah.’ Brannigan sighed, rubbing at his neck stiffly at where a swollen redness stained the skin in the shape of Jilly White’s hand. ‘Yeah. I think it’s all over, Mitch. I think . . .’

He stopped at the sound of movement behind him and the reaction he saw in the expressions of horror spreading across the three young men’s faces told him it was anything but over. They backed slowly away from where he stood with carefully measured yet unsure steps, and with a sinking dread—the kind which makes a man’s balls tighten and sends his guts into internal gymnastics—Brannigan followed their wide-eyed gaze, slowly turning to look across his shoulder to where Jilly White stood glaring hatefully at him through the darkness, her lowered stare afire, her hands clenching and unclenching spasmodically by her side, her head and stomach a torn and bullet ridden mess of decayed, seeping flesh.

She took a step towards him, a slow, measured step which brought her to the edge of the desk she had been thrown across, and in a sudden explosion of unrestrained anger, she bent down with one withered hand, laying it around the cumbersome piece of the furniture’s wooden corner and hurled it out of her way, sending it crashing and splintering up against the wall on the other side of the corridor.

‘Everybody back!’ Brannigan shouted, turning around to the others behind him to wave them back along the hallway.

But they were already moving. Bobby and Keiges were at the door leading into Frank’s office at the end of the long corridor, the young constable with his hand wrapped around the door knob to throw it open as they ran to the blackness inside, while Mitch was at the opened doorway leading into the interview room where they had sat with Keiges only minutes earlier. He was hesitating, looking back towards the head of the corridor, not quite as willing as his partner to leave his sergeant there to face this . .. this thing alone, but Brannigan waved him on, grabbing his shoulder as he ran up towards him and spinning him around in the direction of the office door.

Jilly White came after them.

They both spun inside of the open doorway at the same time and Frank threw Mitch further across the darkened room with a hand planted roughly in the small of his back before he swung the door shut behind him, rattling its frosted glass panel as he did so and slamming his back up against it as an extra barrier. He could hear her coming on the other side, her low snarl of anger, her lumbering, staggered step just audible above the rasp of his own heavily laboured breath, and his eyes searched desperately around the small room’s confined space for something to ram up against the office door as a brace.

‘Bobby! Mitch!’ he shouted breathlessly. ‘Get that filing cabinet in the corner and bring it over here.’

The two young men ran quickly across to where Brannigan had indicated with a stabbing finger and, one on either side, lifted the old battered piece of metal from its place, half walking, half dragging its weight of heavy steel drawers and volumes of paperwork across the tiled floor to where their sergeant stood, sliding it into place. Keiges remained in the centre of the room, not moving, and from somewhere back amidst the jumble of panicked thought filling his head, he finally managed to ask, almost crying,

‘What the fuck’s going on here, Brannigan? What the fuck’s happening? You said if I. . .’

‘Shut up!’ Frank bellowed at him hoarsely and immediately clutched his bruised and sore throat with the effort as Bobby and Mitch moved the filing cabinet across to replace him by the door, its bulk almost, but not quite, blocking off the full width of the glass panel set halfway up on its otherwise featureless wooden face.

‘You’re supposed to be protecting me, Brannigan.’ Keiges went on, his normally gravelly voice lifting up a notch, sounding high and almost falsetto. By the look of terror Brannigan could see in the young man’s eyes, he thought that even he had an instinctive understanding that Jilly White was here for him.

‘You’re supposed to look after me. You’re supposed to’. . .′

‘Shut up.’

‘. . . make sure I’m okay. You said that. . .’

‘I said, fucking shut up Keiges.’

‘.. . if I helped you then you’d take care of. . .’

With that, Brannigan had just about had as much as he was going to take from the man behind him and he spun around from where he had stood, half facing the door next to the battered cabinet, to lash out with his balled up fist. It landed squarely across the side of Keiges unshaven jawline, the blow’s force enough to send his head recoiling back across his shoulder, Keiges’ teeth cutting off the last of his words as they incised into the meaty flesh of his tongue.

‘Cuff him, Bobby.’ Brannigan said flatly, turning back towards Bobby and Mitch as if he had done nothing more than swat a particularly annoying fly, and even though there was a brief moment where the two young officers exchanged a look between themselves . . .

How’s he going to fight back if he’s cuffed and we can’t stop this thing from getting to him?

. . . Bobby lifted the linked metal bracelet from the back of his belt and moved around Brannigan’s cluttered desk to fit them to Allan Keiges’ semi-prone form lying across its top.

‘You hit me, you fucking prick,’ Keiges said stupidly when he was finally lifted upright with his hands securely fastened behind his back and he looked at Bobby and Mitch with a look of disbelief as he

Was once more lifted to his feet .‘Did you see that? He hit me. He fucking hit me.’

. . . before he hawked back on a mouthful of blood and saliva ,and spat it out onto the floor at his feet.

“That’s right, Keiges. I fucking hit you,′ Brannigan said, advancing on him with that old familiar rise of indignant anger brewing just below the collar of his shirt. ‘And if you don’t start shutting up and doing whatever I fucking tell you, then the next time you open your mouth, I’m going to put my knee into your balls so hard you’re going to end up with two lumps more in your throat that you weren’t born with.’

Keiges was about to say something else, a tiny rivulet of blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth, when something struck the glass panel of the office door, shattering it to spray its tiny fragmented shards out past the filing cabinet and across the room. The four men spun around at the noise to see Jilly White’s decayed arm lashing in through the broken pane in an effort to clear the obstruction blocking her from opening the door.

‘Get out!’ Brannigan shouted over his shoulder as he ran across the room, taking the short distance in a couple of long, fluid strides, to slam his full weight up against the filing cabinet as it began to rock back and forward beneath the force directed at it from behind. Some of the cabinet’s drawers had begun to work their way open, depositing a scattering of loose sheets and folders to the floor and Brannigan pointed hurriedly at the office window.

‘Mitch. Open the window. Bobby, I want you out first, then Keiges, and then you Mitch. Be quick about it. Get out into the parking lot and get Keiges into a car. I don’t care where you take him but get him the hell away from here and don’t, for one minute, let him out of your sight.’

‘But what about you, Sarge?’ Mitch called back across his shoulder to Brannigan, who was now hunkered down against the cabinet in an effort to stop it being pushed over. He could see it -feel it- slide a little across the floor, giving ground beneath the force of the creature on the other side of door as Jilly White’s hand slashed and grabbed blindly through at the gap of space she had made in the door’s shattered glass pane.

‘Just go, Mitch.’ Brannigan grunted, his feet sliding on the smooth tiled floor for purchase. “I’ll keep her here for as long as I can to buy you some time. Now open that window and get out.′

The constable nodded and he had to wriggle the window frame several times before the stiffness in its old, painted wood gave way beneath the effort and he managed to slide it up. Bobby Milne went out first, using the wall to brace himself on either side of the open pane before he dropped the few feet to the grass choked ground of the station’s front yard shrouded in darkness outside. A handcuffed Keiges went next, all but falling out after Bobby, and then, finally, Mitch was gone too.

‘Looks like it’s just you and me baby,’ Frank muttered from between gritted teeth as he tried to hold the door closed, burying his two hundred odd pounds into the front of the filing cabinet. Jilly White’s arm slashed the air wildly above his balding head and Brannigan had to duck at the last minute, just missing out on having the back of his skull clawed by her long, talon-like fingers. He slid low to the floor, stretching his full frame out across its tiled surface while not letting any of his applied pressure fall away from the cabinet, and hooked the base of the chair sitting opposite his desk with the toe of one of his dusty work boots.

If the room had been much larger (or perhaps if he had even been a neater person and had pushed the chair back underneath the legs of his desk after Peter White had sat in it the night before) Brannigan may not have been able to reach it at all, but he did manage to stretch out just enough to meet it.

Balancing himself as best he could on one knee, he pulled it towards him with his curled foot, scraping and dragging it across the tiled floor until he was able to grab it with one hand and prop it up beside him. He then lifted himself slowly from the floor, ever aware of the building fury from the creature on the other side of the door—her cries reaching a savage, almost rabid, fever-like pitch as she pounded and thrashed against the hard wood in her effort to get inside—and he rammed the chair up beneath the cabinet’s second drawer from the bottom, tipping it back hard so that it acted as a firm pinioned purchase there.

It held. He didn’t think it would for long, but it just might long enough for him to beat a hasty retreat from the room via the window as the other’s had done.

Jilly’s terrible cries and howls of rage intensified, growing into a cacophony of screams which echoed chillingly through the restricted darkness of the room, and as her fury intensified, so too did her wild attacks against the door blocking her way. The filing cabinet began to rock from side to side, the door behind it slamming out each blow against the frame as the creature crashing into it pounded and flailed at its ungiving surface. But worst of all, inch by slow, certain inch, the chair which Frank had thrust against the metal drawer as a final measure, had begun to work itself loose beneath the force exerted against it, its wooden legs scraping its noisy retreat across the floor.

Brannigan hastily lifted himself up into the opened window, hauling his excessive bulk clumsily from the room and he swung his legs around to look out into the darkness. He could just see Bobby and Keiges running along the line of the fence bordering the roadside pavement out front as they made their way around the corner and off towards the railway parking lot which the local Rowan Constabulary shared. Keiges stumbled once, finding his balance hard to maintain while he ran with his hands restricted behind his back but Bobby caught him before he could fall, supporting him with an arm around his shoulders and pushing him on.

Mitch was closer, still hesitant judging from the way Frank could see him looking back towards the window as he ran beneath the white sodium glow of street lights, but thankfully still running. This, was no time for mock heroics. And off between the darkness of the tree’s low sweeping canopy, he could just make out the sights and sounds, of drinkers on the other side of the road, drawn out from the public lounge of the Royal Exchange hotel by the sound of gunfire, breaking glass and the hellish screams from inside the station that had followed them.

A loud crash drew Brannigan’s attention back into the darkness of the room behind him an he looked quickly across his shoulder to see Jilly White’s last enraged charge at the office door, sending it shattering off its hinges, the cabinet crashing to the tiled floor and the creature torpedo into the room to land on all fours in a catlike crouch on top of it.

Frank pushed himself off and dropped the half dozen or so feet to the ground below. He landed heavily, trying to take the fall by rolling at the last minute and only succeeding instead in stumbling and sprawling across the long grass. He regained himself as quickly as he could, lifting his legs beneath him to throw himself up and forward until he caught his laboured stride and ran off towards the low, white pickets of the station yard fence, bringing his empty gun up in front of him in an effort to reload it while he ran. He fumbled once, dropping a shell he had lifted from his belt into the long grass that whipped around his heels from the yards untended lawn but he managed to insert another two into the opened barrel before he had to stop in order to climb awkwardly over the fence’s pointed rails.

It was not until he stepped back down onto the concreted pavement on the other side, sweating profusely and short of breath from the exertion, did he steal a quick glance back towards the office window from which he had so narrowly escaped.

There was a soft, flickering light in the room, not from any source in his own office as such—he hadn’t had a light on in there since the previous night—but rather it appeared to be coming from further along the hallway.

The interview room, he thought, the tights in the interview room are trying to come back on. And as if to confirm the notion, the small, blue POLICE sign set up next to the now shattered glass of the station’s front doors, blinked once and then came suddenly and noiselessly back to life.

That means she’s on the move, Frank thought as he turned, taking a few quick steps to round the corner of the station’s front yard where Thompson met Phyllis Street at the top end of town, hastily reloading his revolver’s near empty chambers. Someone shouted something to him from the footpath in front of the hotel where a crowd had gathered and someone else laughed, while behind it all, somewhere back in the night, the sound of a car’s engine grew louder as it approached. Frank didn’t notice either; he heard them but knew he didn’t have the time to pay them any heed.

The lights go out whenever she’s near, he thought as he ran, and they come back on whenever she’s gone, but if she has gone . . .

. .. THEN WHERE?

It wasn’t until he snapped the revolver’s barrel back into its frame and resheathed it in his belt holster that he found the answer.

At the far edge of the short side street where the station yard opened into the railway parking lot, a single street light, one of twelve which lined the footpath there, blinked out.

Next to it, some twenty feet away, another began to flicker, hum and die.

‘Jesus H. Christ,’ he muttered, suddenly feeling the breath knocked from out of his lungs by the realization, as surely as if he had just been king hit. The bloody bitch has gone around the back. She’s gone through the rear door and out into the impound yard. How in God’s name could she move so quick? How could she have possibly known where to go?

Then he remembered Tommy Harn and of the way that something, some inexplicable drive for vengeance, had guided Jilly White through the night right to his very doorstep, there to wait, knowing, as she must have by whatever dark reason which she/it possessed, that the boy would eventually return to his room.

He shot a quick glance towards where Bobby, Mitch and Keiges stood around the rear of the station’s one and only paddy wagon, unaware of the danger that was approaching them from behind. Mitch was trying his best to get Keiges into the open back of the van, struggling to push him up the three short steps and into its caged interior, while Bobby fought against the man’s thrashing, kicking protests. Brannigan looked back into the spreading, unlit darkness which increasingly claimed the parking lot’s far edge, and saw the naked form of Jilly White just barely visible to him now, stepping out from between the opened chain meshed gates of the impound yard to move with a ghostly, determined slowness . . .

Like a circling shark, about to moving in for the kill.

.. . towards the three men at the van.

‘Mitch! Bobby!’ Brannigan called out, cupping his thick hands around his mouth as he ran across the loose, asphalt surface towards where they stood. ‘Behind you!’

He stabbed at the night air with one hand in the direction of Jilly White’s approach while reaching behind him with the other to draw his revolver once more from the holster around his chunky hips. Both young constables looked across at him, then to where he indicated at the form of the creature drawing nearer to them through the growing darkness of failing street lights, and both, like their Sergeant, pulled their own revolvers at the sight of her.

No one saw the car fishtail round onto the parking lot’s wide opened bitumen face until it was almost upon them.

It came from Thompson Street, taking the comer into Phyllis at high speed with its passenger side wheels mounting the high curbing, its driver’s side crouching low onto the suspension, before it came down with a spark lit crunch of exhaust pipe and chassis scraping against concrete and accelerated towards them.

Brannigan threw himself to the side, turning back around to face the vehicle as it bore down upon him with its headlights all but engulfing him beneath their high beam intensity, and he held his gun up in one hand with his other held palm out in front of his face, ordering the driver—only a vague shape fighting for control through the darkly tinted windscreen—to stop. There was the scream of tyres as the driver slammed his foot down on the brake pedal, four, anti-lock powered disks biting into the Volvo’s inner wheel rims, and though there was a brief moment—a time of split seconds which at the same time seemed like a forever—where Frank was sure that the vehicle would not stop, it came to an abrupt, not quite sliding, asphalt grating halt no more than a tight dozen feet in front of him.

Brannigan quickly moved to the driver’s side door, aware of just how little time he had left to play with, and was about to shout at the driver to get hell out of the ’way when the passenger side door opened ...

. . . and Peter White staggered out.

‘Peter?!’ Frank whispered. His voice coming out strangled and ragged, a gasp of hot air forcing its way breathlessly from his lungs at the sight of the wasted, once young man standing in the diffuse back-glow of the car’s headlights before him. ‘Peter? Jesus Peter! Is that you?’

And the man with the deathly features, clothed only in a blood stained hospital gown, wearily nodded his head as he reached out for the support of the Volvo’s square bonnet, his blood stained hand smearing irregular patterns of wet and glistening shapes across its expensively polished paint work.

Brannigan noticed many things in those few spinning moments of seeing Peter White for the first time since earlier that morning—a lifetime away—when he had burst through the locked door of his motel room.

He saw the wrack of decay which had all but seemingly consumed the last of his body’s strength, wasting him to the bone. He smelt the stench of rotting flesh which blanketed the once young man in a sickly sweet cloud as it issued out into the still night air around him from within the confined space of the Volvo’s darkened interior. He even heard the harsh yet barely audible sound of a struggled breath being drawn sporadically into the man’s near useless lungs.

But of all of these things which registered with him on only the most instinctive level, it was the large gaping wound had been torn into the side of his skull, peeling back the skin and hair to expose the white of bone beneath it that he noticed the most. And upon seeing it, it was then that Brannigan realized the red raw expanse was in exactly the same place as the wound which he himself had inflicted with his gun on the side of Jilly’s head.

Peter White clutched at the agonizing burning in his stomach and coughed, all but doubling over with the painful toll the hitching of muscles exacted upon his deteriorating form. He then lifted his gaze from Brannigan when he managed to hold himself up once more and let it trail off through the night, resting on the form of what used to be his sister where she stood, suddenly stilled, within her sphere of blackness at the parking lot’s darkened rim.

Yet this couldn’t be Peter.

The idea coming to Brannigan amongst a maelstrom of other, far less tangible thoughts. Surely not. How could this pitiful, ruined figure of a man possibly be the same man who had come to Rowan not more than four days earlier in search of his sister? How could this be the same man he had shared a drink with on the night of the discovery of his sister’s body and whom he had grown to like so easily with his quiet manner and unassuming ways? How could this possibly be the same man who had reminded him so much of his own lost son, Danny?

No, this couldn’t be Peter White. It had to be a trick of the light. It just couldn’t be him. It just couldn’t.

But, of course, some small part of Brannigan’s mind, some voice deep down inside of him that understood on an instinctive, wordless level what had happened and what was going on even as they stood there, knew it was him. It knew the bonds of blood that these two people, Peter and Jilly, possessed between them went far beyond the curious bent of human nature they had shared in their lives.

It went far beyond the simultaneous broken legs they had suffered after the fall from their foster parent’s tree when they were eight, past the phantom period pain, the instinctive understanding of each other’s moods even though they may have been separated by miles. It went way beyond the other psychic symmetry in their lives which Peter White had talked of on the balcony of the hotel those few nights earlier as they watched day grow into night. Now, that same small, instinctive voice within Frank Brannigan told him their bond even went beyond the grave to bind them together now, in death.

It was with the realization of this voice, and of the understanding, no matter how bizarre, of the ties which existed between these two people, that he slowly followed Peter White’s weary, blood run gaze out across the opened parking lot towards the darkened, barely visible figure of Jilly White.

Her dark, soulless gaze appeared to go between Keiges, now standing numbly upon the paddy wagon’s top step, his young guards too transfixed by what was going on to be any longer concerned with his detainment in the back of the van, and her brother, almost as if there was some turmoil going on in whatever passed for the creature’s conscience.

Did she recognise him? Brannigan wondered, unable from the distance to read any expression there may have been stretched across her death mask face. Was there something still inside of her, some part within that creature before them all that still held onto a small flame of remembrance of what she had once been?

He didn’t know the answers. He could only read the little he could of what she felt—if she did, indeed, feel anything at all—from the apparent hesitation which seemed to be born up beneath her slumped, suddenly still posture.

He was about to signal for Bobby and Mitch to move further around out of her way, taking both Keiges and the opportunity to escape at her indecision, when the sound of shuffled movement rasped in his ear and he turned to see Peter White pulling himself forward, hand over bloody hand, using the Volvo’s bonnet to support his strengthless frame.

‘Jilly.’ He called out into the darkness, his voice a whisper as dry and brittle as the crunch of asphalt pebbles which grated underfoot. He coughed again, spraying something dark and moist over his chin. He wiped it away roughly with the back of his hand and through an effort of, to Frank, what must have been almost unbearable willpower, he somehow managed to suppress the pain he felt and bore, to stand upright, only his face showing the razor blades of agony which tore at his insides.

‘Jilly. It’s me, Peter. Remember me, Jilly?’

The creature standing on the opposite side of the parking lot took an unsure, unsteady step towards him and in a hissed voice, as sharp as broken glass, which seemed to echo around the deserted parking lot, she said ... Te ... ter.′

‘That’s right, Jilly,’ Peter said encouragingly, staggering forward another step and holding one arm out before him as if to beckon her on. Frank noticed that he appeared to lose his footing a little, his weight shifting awkwardly over onto one leg but he managed to lean his form against the Volvo’s front bumper to stop himself from falling.

‘That’s right,’ he continued. ‘It’s me. Peter. I’m here now, I’m ... here. . .’

He coughed again, the harsh rattle of it raking the still night air.

‘... I’m here ... and .. . (Cough)... and everything’s going to be all right.’

‘Pet... er.’ The Jilly-thing whispered hoarsely again and though Frank couldn’t be sure, at least no more sure than about anything else at the moment, he thought he saw a single rivuletted tear of blood spill down the cheek of her ruined face , its moisture glistening against her decayed features, picked out beneath the fading glare of the Volvo’s powerful headlights.

‘You can rest now, Jilly. I’m here now. Now we can both rest and we’ll be together again.’

‘Oh Peter’, she moaned, shuffling closer with her arms lifted up before her as if to embrace her brother’s withered frame. ‘Oh Peter. It hurts . . . it’s dark here and it hurts.’

“I know honey. I know.′ Peter said and he started to step off from the edge of the support offered by the bumper bar when the last of his strength ran from his body and his legs buckled beneath him collapsing him to the hard bitumen surface at his feet. A bolt of pure white agony fired up into him as he hit ground, arching his body and a low, shuddering moan of agony escaped free from his lips.

‘Peter. NO!’ Brannigan shouted, running around the front of the silver grey vehicle which had, up until then, stood between them, sheathing his pistol, to drop to his knees and take the head and shoulders of the pain-wracked man in his arms, cradling them in his lap.

He felt cold and unbearably thin to Frank’s grasp and as he turned the dying young man over to face him, Peter looked up into his lined, rounded features with a feeble, yet somehow grateful smile stretched across his lips.

He tried to say something, his mouth able only to move weakly around the words he wanted to speak, and Brannigan had to lean close to him to hear what his lack of strength would not allow him to say clearly.

‘Jilly died, Frank,’ he managed finally in a frail whisper. It was the whisper, Frank thought, of a small, frightened child. ’That’s not. . . not her any more. That’s not my Jilly.

’That part of her . . .

(He coughs again)

.. . that part died when those bastards killed her.′

He shuddered violently, his face contorting in pain of death and even though some small droplets of his blood filled breath sprayed against the side of Frank’s cheeks, the old cop’s stomach rolling at the moist feel, he held his ear close to the young man’s mouth, unflinching.

“That’s not my Jilly any more. That’s my ... that’s what my hatred has done to her. I would have killed them myself for what they did to my sister, Frank. I would have but I didn’t need to. I made her what she is and she did it for me.′

‘Peter,’ Frank whispered, only dimly aware of the presence of the creature standing in the middle of the

opened parking lot behind where he knelt. His focus was intent upon Peter in his arms. Peter White and little else.

‘It’s okay, Peter. Don’t try to talk, just save your strength.’

‘No,’ Peter said. He tried to shout the word but he couldn’t. Not even that. Instead, he gripped the bare flesh of Brannigan’s forearm with the last of the strength he was able to muster from-his dying body.

‘No. I... made her. I should have just kept her-memory alive but instead I kept her alive.’ He coughed again. ‘But I want you to promise me something, Frank.’

‘What is it?’

‘Promise me you’ll finish it for me. Finish it for us.’

Brannigan nodded. Anything, anything at all to ease the young man’s conscience as he faded.

‘No,’ he whispered, Peter’s eyes flittering closed, rolling back to whites.

’No, Frank, that’s not good enough. You’ve . . . you’ve got to say it. Promise me you’ll even the . . . (coughs)

. . . the score and set things right a ... aa ... gain. For Jilly . . . For me.′

‘I promise, Peter.’

‘Good.’ Peter sighed, a great weight seeming to fall away from him as if some monstrous burden had been lifted from his body.

Frank was then just about to lift his head a little more, positioning the once young man so that his last moments would be comfortable ones, when an ear piercing scream split the still night air and he swung around to where the decaying image of Jilly White had stood, unmoving as her brother lay dying in his lap.

She hovered there in the darkness behind them, a dozen or so feet away, no more. An obscenity of death with her head thrown back to the waning moon overhead, hands clawing the air in front of her just as her howl of anger clawed at the pit of Frank’s insides.

There was a rage behind those black eyes now. More than before. A hatred which had faltered with the sight of her brother as he had called out to her. There had been something of what Jilly White had once been in those eyes then, just barely visible beneath the decay of her own walking death, as Peter’s whispered voice had touched something of that which still lived at the core of this creature.

. . . But now even that was gone.

Now the rage was back. It was burning hot fire ...

. . and it was aimed directly at them.

There was no hesitation in what came next.

The perversity which had once been Jilly White lunged at him, fury exploding from within her. Her dark eyes wide with betrayed anger. Her hands extended out towards where he knelt. Not as they had been. No longer in a welcome embrace to her brother, but now clawed and taloned as if to rip and tear at their flesh.

Frank reached behind him to his service belt, searching blindly for the gun he had used on her before, to try to use it again in another effort, no matter how much in vain, to stop the unstoppable, but instead of the secure firmness of his bolstered revolver’s grooved handle where it should have been, his fingers found only empty space.

He looked down in sudden panic, realizing his defenselessness against the onslaught directed by creature charging across the opened space of the parking lot towards them and he saw the young man who lay in his lap holding his service revolver, drawn from its sheath on his belt, in one shaking hand beneath his sunken jawline.

Then . . .

... in that one brief instant, Brannigan knew what he was going to do.

The boy was going to end it here and now.

He was going to break the bonds which had held them together, one alive and the other dead, both living within a share half world somewhere in between.

Peter White’s eyes flared opened with the clarity of the young man whom Frank had first met in his office only days earlier, now set with the dark, final determination in those last moments as the shadow of Jilly White loomed across them. And with the force of revenge which had empowered her, lashing out in one last attempt to interrupt the betrayal by her brother which would end its existence, Peter White pulled the trigger, the blast tearing the life out of him just as it tore, off the side of his face.

It’s over.

The thought came to Frank Brannigan distantly in that last moment as he knelt there cradling Peter White’s limp and ruined body in his broad lap, the unspoken awareness echoing off away from him just as the sound of the hand gun’s blast echoed off through the night.

At last it’s all over.

He did not need to turn around to see what had happened to the creature who had been coming up behind him. He didn’t need to see the way that the side of her head—already. ruined by the gun shot from his service revolver in the station’s foyer earlier, had peeled back at that last moment, tearing the flesh of her decayed features away to reveal the skull beneath. He did not need to see the way that her legs had come out from beneath her as she had emptied of the dark life which had kept her alive, sending her collapsing to the hard asphalt surface at his feet. He did not even need to see the way in which she landed, sprawled out by his side with her hand stretched out in one last attempt to reach her brother.

No. He didn’t need to see any of this because he knew in his heart that for Peter and Jilly White, the pain had ended at last.

But he did look at her just the same. As he stood and staggered a faltered step away from where the two lay, nearly but not quite touching, he did look down at the body of Jilly White that one last time. He looked deeply into her eyes, opened but no longer focused.

Now the rage was gone.

Now, they were only the eyes of Jilly White, as she had been .. .

….clear….

….soft…..

…..gentle.. .

:. ..and finally at peace.

Epilogue

The man with the cold, blue eyes was an artist.

People would call him other things of course.

A deceiver. A sociopath. A man filled with malicious intent.

But it was as an artist that he liked to think of himself as the most.

Yes ... To him that sounded just fine.

He did not work with oils, or stone or in charcoals as other artists did. His medium was something else again, something more tangible, and the art which he created from it was of the kind that destroyed peoples lives.

Human nature was his preferred medium of choice, his unfashioned clay, and his own bent soul was the tool which he used to carve it. He worked with people, bending them, shaping them to his will and desires, making them dance for him like a puppet master who only needed to pull the right strings to make the marionette jig.

And the chaos that he exacted upon these people’s lives and the lives of those others around them when his art was finished—Ahh! That was sweet, pure heaven indeed.

It had always been this way for this man who would travel from one small, country town to the next, riding upon the back of his black-as-night Harley Davidson and taking his art with him where ever he went. He had always been of this destructive, manipulative nature ever since he was a boy . . .

(Though in truth, there was many a dark night within his warped mind when he would think that he had never truly been a child. Times when he would think that he had just always simply ... BEEN ... like some immortal god thrown down from above.)

. . .There had even been times in his life when this art that he worked had come close to destroying him. When the divine madness that it unleashed within him as his art grew and formed would threaten to push him over the edge of the precious knife blade of sanity upon which he balanced, and plunge him into the all consuming void beyond. But always these times would pass—the darkness receding—the art of creating his masterpieces of guilt ridden consciences shocked by the horror of what they had been led by him to do, feeding him in some way so that when he would finally leave their lives, empty and hollowed shells of what they had once been, he would feel stronger and more powerful. A human vampire living off the life force and dark emotions of others.

He had come to Rowan to create his art.....

…... and to feed.

His particular penchant had always been for small country towns. Cities were too diversified for his tastes. The clay of the humanity there which he would set out to mould was too contaminated by indifference to create the refined sculptures that he wished to carve. But small towns like Rowan ... now they truly were masterpieces waiting to be formed. The clay there was of a far more pure vein, smooth and unspoilt. A clay of innocent people with their innocent small town lives, sheltered from the effects of what went on in the outside world by their self imposed exile within the boundaries of their tiny, small town existences.

Yes... it was in small towns like Rowan where true art was to be made.

And the creative process which bought it about was always the same.

First.. .

. . . came the conception.

He would ride quietly into a small town beneath the cover of darkness, following the myriad of tracks and trails which laced their way through the bushland surrounding the outer most reaches of the tiny, sleeping communities, with only the heavy, overtuned buffet of his Harley’s exhaust disturbing the dry, busy night-time stillness to tell of his passing. He would find himself somewhere warm and secluded to rest—an old mine shaft, a hastily strung together lean-to, or perhaps some old hermits shack—and from there, tentatively at first, he would begin to drift in and out of the fringes of other people’s lives.

Not too close.

Always unseen, always watching .. .

. . . the artist studying his subject.

He would watch from a distance as people talked. How they reacted to those around them. Listening in on their conversations about the comings and goings of other people’s lives. And when he had formed in his dark mind the picture of the art which he would create, he would begin to select the clay with which he would work.

Always, he would choose the same kind of people. Soft, workable, easily moulded lumps of humanity which—only through his experienced artist’s eye—had he been able to see the shape of something sour and bitter discreetly buried there within their already existing natures. He would discover their hatreds and dream of how he would make them grow, of how he could make their bitterness burn hot bile in their stomachs and their petty jealousies fester in their hearts. And when finally, he was sure that he understood their individual workings, he would once again return to his hideaway, there to prepare himself to feed and create.

He would work fast, like all great artists in a studio, moving rapidly around a sculpture being drawn out from stone, marble dust in his hair, hammer and chisel in his hand, not eating, not sleeping until the drive to create had exhausted itself and he would step back finally to admire his work.

He would go to where his raw subjects frequented, assimilating himself gradually and with a well practiced ease into their conversations—into their confidence.

Sometimes this process would take days, even weeks, if he wished to draw out the ecstatic agony of his art. While other times, such as here in Rowan, it would be brief and furtive, a friendship crafted over a beer, an act of deceit which was short but indefinably intense in its pleasure. He would ingratiate himself to them. Become their friend, their pal, their mate. He would offer them help when they needed it. He would lend a sympathetic ear to their troubles. And when, at last, they had finally opened themselves up to him and allowed him to share in some small measure of their trust, he would begin to mould and shape them into what it was that he wished them to become.

He had inspired people to do many things through his dark, manipulative ways in the past.

In Biloela he had fed the jealousy of his former employer’s wife, nurturing it so that it grew into an obsession with her husband’s imagined infidelities to the point where she had drugged him and beaten him to death while he slept.

In Auburn, he had inspired an insecure young man to rob a bank as proof of his fragile bravery to him, a friend the young man had then believed him to be.

In Chinchilla, he had goaded a young boy into suicide beneath a grey blanket of depression which had been drawn across him about his repressed, unfulfilled homosexuality.

In Boonah, he had seduced a homely Catholic girl into a life of drugs and prostitution all for the love of the man that she had thought him to be.

There had been others -such as these whom he had encouraged on from the sidelines -and, like in the

rape and murder of Jilly White, occasionally participated in— -so many others that he had lost count of his works. He had created all of these things from his art and he had fed well.

And in the end, after he. bad watched the intricacies of his masterpieces of human tragedy unfurl, taking on a life of their own, he would leave town, moving onto the next to spread his deadly disease of the soul, leaving only misery and heartache in his wake.

-0O0-

The pony-tailed man with the cold blue eyes had been riding his jet black Harley out along Somersby Road on the outskirts of Rowan Shire, travelling back from the tiny township towards the ramshackle old miller’s shack which he had taken over since coming to the area more than a week earlier, when he saw the flashing blue lights of the police cruiser in his bike’s rear vision mirrors as they came up over the crest of the narrow dirt road behind him.

At first he felt a rare and unexpected twinge of uncertainty rise up in his stomach at the sight of the vehicle moving rapidly towards him through the cloud of red bush dust kicked up into the hot afternoon’s air by his bike’s powerful wake, but it was a twinge only and he quickly suppressed it, mindful always of the need not to look nervous or in any way guilty when confronted by people in uniform.

He glanced down briefly at his motorbike’s speedometer and sighed when he saw by the gauge’s thin arm that he had been pushing near on a hundred and thirty clicks.

That was careless, damned careless and he knew it.

This dirt road—little more than a bush track really—like the hundreds ’of other back block roads which criss-crossed the countryside around-the small town would be designated as a hundred kilometer an hour-zone- and while it was only bad luck that he happened to be hurtling along it at a breakneck speed while their was a cop car near by, he reprimanded himself savagely for having let his normal care and attention slip. He had become reckless, almost intoxicated, over the course of the last week as his art had progressed and the threads of the people’s lives with whom which the art he had sewn had begun to unravel. He had become delirious by his own mad power as the word of his work on the girl and the subsequent deaths which had followed had spread across a shocked community. He had watched in a glorious, almost orgasmic delight as people talked disbelievingly about the murder of Tommy Harn, the police enquiry which had culminated in the arrest of Allan Keiges, and only just this morning the discovery of the suicide-murders out at the McKinnan family property. He had become filled by an awe at his own creative talent at being able to destroy so much, so many, so easily. And in the end, as he had reveled in the human tragedy of what he had created, he had stayed too long.

Now, here he was with a police car behind him, flashing Its lights at him to pull over for what he was certain in himself would be a speeding ticket….. nothing more, and as he shifted his way carefully back down through his motorbike’s lumbering gears and indicated dutifully to a spot by the side of the road where he would stop, he told himself that he should have known better than to take the foolish risks that he had.

The police car pulled in behind him, grating up a cloud of red dirt and dust on the roadside shoulder as it came to a halt, and the man with the cold blue eyes turned back across the shoulder of his bike to see the old country cop behind the wheel eyeing him intently.

That same feeling of uncertainty rose up once more from the pit of his stomach and although, momentarily, it worried him that his part in the events of the past week may have somehow been discovered and that this old cop may have been here to bring him in (he would never admit that the possibility of it actually frightened him, not even to himself) the feeling was mixed with a kind of a perverse, drunken joy at the potential of it.

They sat there like that for a time, neither man moving, both sizing each other up, before the old cop cut the life from the siren howling overhead and stepped out into the still, afternoon’s heat, the patrol car’s lights continuing to flash noiselessly in the dry, summered air.

‘May I see your license sir?’ the old cop asked him in a flat, monotone voice after he walked across the short distance between them to stand aside the younger man’s chrome and black painted Harley. He hitched his belt below his ample gut and reached briefly around his back to wipe away at the sweat which stained his uniform in a long, dark band growing down from his shirt collar.

The blue-eyed man felt an instant distain for the old, overweight police officer. For his many evident weaknesses but he kept them buried. Now was the time to win and play again.

‘Certainly officer’, the man with the cold blue eyes replied, flashing his confident smile—his winning smile and he reached around into the pocket of his travel worn jeans to withdraw a battered old leather wallet. He opened it up at his driver’s license, flipping open the well handled folds and handed it across.′ Was there some sort of problem?′

‘Going a little bit fast there weren’t you son?’ the old cop said, and while that gave the man on the motor bike some measure of…….

Thank God. It’s only going to be a speeding ticket after all!

….. there was something that he saw in the old cop’s eyes, some intensity there beneath his heavy brow, which he found slightly un-nerving.

‘I guess that I just got a little carried away. You know how it is when you’re on a hog like this.’ And he patted his motorbike’s broad fuel tank affectionately as if it were the neck of a faithful, if slightly rebellious steed.

The old cop followed the pony-tailed man’s hand down to where it lay and stared for a moment at the dark, blood red eagle custom painted across its breadth before returning his attention to the younger man’s face.

‘I’ve just got to call this in’, he said stiffly and the man with the cold blue eyes felt the uncertainty return, balling up into a tight, twisting knot in his gut. He watched in his bikes read vision mirrors as the old cop paced his way back towards the opened door of his police unit and as he reached inside to lift the band radio headset from its dash-mounted cradle, turned on his bike to look off along the undulating length of bush track which stretched out before him.

/ could make a run for it, he thought, judging the time and distance between the police car and his bike, and then weighing it up against how far he could get along the road before the old cop had time to give chase, Could cut my losses and do the bolt. It’d mean having to loose the Harley once I got away, maybe evening have to change my identity and looks now that he’s got my license . . ..

But as he was thinking these thoughts, balancing out the pros and cons of them, another voice rose up strongly from within him, demanding obedience. It was a voice which he often heard, strong and commanding, rocky and arrogant. It told him that he’d be damned if he was going to run just because some fat hick cop had pulled him over for a speeding ticket. It told him that he’d be a coward if he thought of ditching his Harley, his pride and joy, just because the same fat hick cop had seen him on it.

Just stay cool, this voice said. Ride the wave. This maggot cop’s too thick to put you in the frame of things. You can see it in his eyes. Just hang loose and let him do his thing. He ’II write you out a ticket and then you can do with it what you want. You can wipe your arse with it for all its worth.

The man with the cold blue eyes smiled ruefully to himself with the sound of his voice, nodding his head imperceptively in agreement with what he saw as the truth which this same, deep voice always spoke, and he once again turned across his shoulder to look back at the police cruiser parked there behind him.

Maggot cop!

The old cop appeared the say something into the car radio’s handle held mouth piece, the words a barely discernable muffle to the younger man’s ears, before he replaced the headset back into its cradle and turned to walk across towards the bike.

‘It looks, like everything’s in order here’, he said, handing the wallet back to the younger man. But there was something in the tone of his voice, a edge which told the man with the cold blue eyes that everything was far from being in order. In fact, the way in which the old cop spoke told him that something was very, very wrong.

‘Thanks’, he replied, eyeing the older man warily and he turned back away from him to replace the wallet once more into the hip pocket of his jeans.

‘But what about my . . .’

He was about to ask the old cop where his ticket was when he stopped, the breath suddenly frozen tightly in his throat. The old cop had his gun drawn, his eyes narrowed down to dark, unreadable stones as he held the service revolver in one hand aiming its steel muzzle through the short space of stilled air between them towards the top center of the younger man’s skull. Right between the eyes.

‘This is for Peter and Jilly’, he said simply . . .

. .. and he pulled the trigger.

Frank Brannigan did not look back at the body of the man with cold blue eyes lying there beneath the bulk of the toppled motorbike is he turned and walked the short distance of red dirt and gravel to his car. He did not even check to see that he was indeed dead.

He didn’t need to.

He felt it inside.

It was over.

At last, it all was over.

He reached in once more through the patrol car’s open door to again lift the radio hand piece from its dashboard mounted cradle, and let his gaze wander across the vehicles air-conditioned interior to the sawn-off shot gun wrapped in plastic laying there on the upholstery of the passenger side seat.

It would be so simple to do what was to come next.

After he had called through to the station to report the shooting, he would take the shotgun which he had drawn from the locked firearms cabinet of the stations impound room, unfurl it from its protective plastic covering and then wrap it within the dead man’s hand. Four fingers around the shotgun’s weighty stock, the finger through its trigger.

They would call it a justifiable act of self defense by an officer in the course of apprehending a known suspect involved in an ongoing case. It would be so easy.

No one would be able to trace the shotgun because it had been entered into the station’s lost property files years earlier and never reclaimed.

No one would question his motives for shooting the man who he would say he had pulled over for a routine traffic violation and who had apparently panicked at the idea of his imminent arrest, pulling a fire arm. Allan Keiges testimony would attest to that.

No one would need to know the real truth.

And as Frank Brannigan depressed the radio’s send button, calling in his unit number to the station to request back-up, a faint breeze caressed the back of his neck, bringing with it the sweet, subtle smell of fresh autumn leaves. He felt his skin bristle with its cooling touch and he looked up across to the others side of the narrow country road to stare off amongst the long afternoon shadows which crowded the summer bleached trunks of eucalypts and bracken.

There was nothing there ...

... but he thought that, just for a moment, he had seen something from out of the corner of his eye. Something which he thought he recognized fleetingly as the vague shape of two people standing there amongst they dry, shadowed bushland…… watching.

People who he, only for the briefest of moments thought might just have been the shades of Peter and Jilly White, together again as they were always meant to be ...

... then they were gone.

-0O0-

Ada Carlson looked up from the cane rocking chair on her front porch where she was seated stroking, the short, summer coat of the old cat asleep upon her lap, and clutched a gnarled, knotted hand to her withered breast, her narrowed gaze going out searchingly into the still wall of grey-brown bushland which surrounded her tiny home.

The balance had returned, she thought. The pendulum had swung so precariously over the past week. From black to white. Night to day. Good, to evil. But now it had finally been righted, finding its way at last back towards centre. And in that one moment, Ada could feel its realignment as surely as if she had heard that one final shot from Frank Brannigan’s gun echo out across the flat, tree shrouded country side.

She had watched silently from her porch as the events of the last five days had unfurled like the petals of some dark flower awakening to the morning sun. She had ‘seen’ the deaths of Tommy Harn, the drifter, Lucas Foggarty, and that of David Haas come and go. She had ‘watched’ the taking of the McKinnan boys life along with that of both his parents by his own hand, as well as the arrest of Allan Keiges. And now, as the final sweep of the pendulum had fallen, she had ‘watched’ again in her own timeless way, this time as she became ‘aware’ of the death of the man with the cold blue eyes.

Yes, shy thought. The circle was finally closed. The balance restored.

There would be some slight shiftings in its path yet to come, she knew. The discovery of David Haas’s body was still, as yet to be made by his shocked parents on their return from a fortnight’s holiday in two days time. There would still be answers sought as to the events at the police station the previous night—questions asked about the unanswerable. These and so many others.

Ada didn’t see this in the way which she saw other things.

There were no messages in the cards. No callings on the wind. Yet she knew of their passing just the same. The signs of these things yet to come told in the wake of what had passed from the small town in the same way that a wave would leave its mark upon the sand as it performed its tidal retreat from the shore, or in the way that a pebble dropped into a pond will leave its mark only in the fading ripples disturbing its otherwise still surface.

Yes, Ada knew of these things ...

... but for now….

... a soft, barely perceptible breeze whispered through the still, shimmering heat of the afternoon and Ada followed its sighing path across to the curtain of wind chimes hanging from the very edge of the narrow porches bull nosed iron awning as they turned and clattered faintly beneath its gentle caress. A small, speckled yellow budgerigar alighted from the towering trees high over head, down onto the sun split timber of her porches wooden railing. It studied her tentatively for a moment, then, fluffing the feathers which coated its fragile chest, let a peel of twitters fill the gentle afternoon air.

It’s done, she thought finally . . . simply ... as she stroked the cat purring contently to itself upon her aged lap and looked comfortingly towards the tiny bird who moved along the railing towards her.

And with that thought... .

……she smiled.

~ The end ~

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