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Crocodile's Spirit

Crocodile’s Spirit

Crocodile Dreaming – Books 1 and 2

Second Edition Box Set

 

Graham Wilson

 

Copyright

Crocodile’s Spirit

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2017

BeyondBeyond Books Edition

Published by Shakespir

ISBN: 9781370059348

 

 

Shakespir Edition Licence Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without prior approval of the author.

For permission to use contact Graham Wilson by email at [email protected]

 

 

An English Visitor

 

Book 1- Crocodile Dreaming Series

 

 

 

Novel by

 

Graham Wilson

 

 

 

Copyright

An English Visitor

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2017

Published by Shakespir

BeyondBeyond Books Imprint

[* Crocodile Dreaming Series -Second Edition *]

ISBN: 9781370780334

 

 

 

Author’s Note

 

This is a novel set in Australia’s Northern Territory, a place where I lived and worked for four decades; including in small towns, aboriginal communities, cattle stations and among remote, rugged and beautiful natural places for which it is famous, places with names like Uluru and Kakadu. These provide the background to this story.

 

This novel is a work of fiction. The characters are not real people. However, elements of stories have a real basis, as experienced by myself, or as stories of the bush, told around campfires or over bars, somewhere in the Australian Outback. While the general locations described around the Northern Territory exist, many finer details are not accurate; they are created as a canvass on which to paint the story.

 

Backpackers are part of outback Australia. Occasional horror stories occur and get wide coverage. Some, like the Joanna Lees story, or the awful deeds of Ivan Milat contributed ideas to this novel. However these are rare events, as likely to happen in cities or other countries. They do not typify most people’s experiences of these places.

 

The setting of this novel is an external frame for the story. It tells of a journey of two people through places and within themselves. In bad situations they do awful things, despite desiring goodness. This reflects human experience. We all have the ability to make terrible choices and do great evil if we cease to value life, but even the worst of people may have parts that are good and decent. This book also tells impossible love story, where love is destined for destructive failure.

 

Alongside this story of two people this book seeks to capture the essence of a place called the Northern Territory of Australia, the centre and north of the Australian continent. This land remains alive in my imagination from when I lived and worked in it. Despite the coming of modern civilisation; with roads, air transport, communication and comfort; the intrinsic character of this place, the ‘Territory’, remains little altered. It is what Ernestine Hill called, in her famous book of that name, ‘a land too vast for human imagination.’ Wildlife remains abundant. Stations still muster cattle and buffalo for a living. Aboriginal people live off the land, as they have done for millennia past. Stockmen tell tales around campfires, gazing in awe at immense star filled skies. This is a place where life moves slowly, as befits a land where time is driven by nature. Brilliant desert colours, huge tropical storms and endless emptiness live on.

 

My thanks to innumerable real characters of the Northern Territory who contributed to the making of this story, by lighting creative fires in my imagination through sharing their own stories and memories.

 

This is a substantially revised version of the novel, previously titled ‘Just Visiting’, the first in the Crocodile Dreaming Series of 5 novels published by this author. Books in this series which follow are:

 

Book 2 – Crocodile Man

Book 3 – Empty Place

Book 4 – Diary of Lost Girls

Book 5 – Sunlit Shadow Dance

 

For those books not yet revised (Books 3-5) the first edition books, respectively titled ‘The Empty Place’, ‘Lost Girls’ and ‘Sunlit Shadow Dance’ continue to be available to complete the story.

 

 

 

Chapter 1 – Prologue – The Watcher

 

He stands apart, part hidden by the foliage of a tree. He watches her!

He returned to Cairns, landing early this morning, after tracking down a man and taking him far into the Arabian desert. This was a man whose end came there, a fitting end. What little remains of him now, after the birds and jackals have finished their pickings, will be bleached into a white colour, a matching shade with the white sands, soon to be covered and hidden from sight within the ever shifting dunes.

He feels no remorse, only satisfaction at what he has done.

Now he is back in his home, this vast empty sweep of his own, familiar land. It is mostly a harsh land, but with its odd fingers of civilisation like that here, a tourist mecca on the beach. It is a place of visitors, so very many visitors, many beautiful. He has known and sampled others alike to this one. Some have gone on their way; some have never left this land but become a permanent part of it, for some it was due to his actions.

He feels some regret at their passing, but it now feels separated from him by layers of far distance, the distances of time and loss and, moving beyond that, the distance of new experience.

And now he desires another. He has just seen her, right now, standing on the beach. She appears like some he has known before, breathtaking in her beauty and naivety. He senses a wanton abandon in her as he gazes, distant through the tree. He sees her dipping toes in wavelets, dark hair flowing back over and behind her arched body, like a Greek goddess. He senses she is ripe for the taking; that she will come willingly with him if he but asks, hungry for other experiences and adventure.

He must be more careful this time, lest some new bad thing happens to this one. He feels she is precious and breakable.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 –Safe Home – Day 31

 

Susan woke up with jolt, feeling she had been wrenched back into consciousness. Her head had slumped into an uncomfortable position and her neck ached. The large woman squashed into the seat next to her seemed to have given her a nudge to stop Susan falling onto her; not exactly friendly. But then she had barely spoken to this lady in the last fourteen hours, during which time they had sat side by side on the aeroplane.

Since Susan had come back onto the plane in Singapore, their one stopover after Darwin, it was like she had retreated into a cocoon. She had done little more than sleep the hours away, with occasional brief interludes for loo breaks and food, before retreating back to a respite of slumber.

She felt totally disorientated. Here she was, on a plane approaching London, and a month of her life had vanished into nothingness. Gradually her mind pulled her back to fragments of those last awful days; a memory of a smiling man’s almost handsome face, but devoid of normal emotion, memories of crocodiles, blood and torn body parts, memories of a large white four wheel drive with a built in cooler on the back. She suppressed them with a shudder.

She looked around. It could not be far now; people were waking up and making preparations for a scheduled 6 am touch down at Heathrow. Some had raised their slide windows; and early morning grey daylight squeezed in through the gaps.

Breakfast was now being served. She felt ravenous. A few minutes later, when the croissant and scrambled egg breakfast was served, she ate with relish.

There was urgency as stewards quickly removed breakfast trays.

Now the plane was in final descent. She raised her own plastic slide. It was mostly grey outside. They were flying under a blanket of cloud, but with lighter sky to her left and behind her; she supposed this was southeast England, somewhere over Kent. They were scooting over farmlands, roads and villages, lush green in the grey light. Further away were glimpses of busy roads and large towns. The grey matched an unquiet anxiety within her. Was it really over and was she was safe home? Or would police be waiting for her at the arrival gate?

Suddenly a shaft of sunlight pierced through. It lit up the countryside with glowing gold light. Her mood soared with the light. It was as if a connection with the horror was broken by light. She could feel herself smiling all over. She could not suppress the joy she felt. She was alive, and her life would be good again.

How great it would be to see her family and friends again. None of them need ever know. She had made a visit to Australia, travelled around, seen interesting and beautiful places; that was her story. If asked whether she would like to go back, or where to next, she would say, It is good to have done the trip, but the travel bug is gone. Now I am happy back home.

Her fellow traveller alongside her must have caught something of her musing smile. Susan looked at her and the lady smiled. Susan smiled back; joy is an infectious thing.

The lady, Annabel—she now remembered that was her name—seemed friendly. Susan knew that it was she, herself, not this lady, whose demeanour had changed. She let herself be drawn into a conversation about trips and travel. She explained that she had been exhausted from her trip, but now she felt much better, after that long, long sleep.

Soon they were making a final approach. There was a slight jolt and body push as the airliner braked on the black tarmac.

She felt amazingly refreshed and confident. It was like a bad dream had ended with the morning sunshine—those anxieties belonged to another time and place.

She gathered her minimal possessions—an overnight bag, book, cardigan, purse—and followed the slow procession of departing passengers down the aisle and out to the concourse. She wondered who would be here to meet her, Mum and Dad of course, perhaps Tim, her gawky brother, maybe Gran Elizabeth.

Suddenly there they all were; all her family members as expected. She rushed into an overwhelming group hug.

“How brown you are!”

“How’s my girl?”

“Hi Sis, no new Aussie boyfriends in tow?”

“You look at bit drawn around the eyes dear, must be all the bright sun and late nights.”

A bit of surprise arose with no big bags of luggage. But she had this story worked out.

“It went missing on the last leg of my trip. I only noticed getting off the bus, arriving in Darwin. Didn’t have time to try and find it before my plane left. I’ll make some calls as soon as I get the chance!”

They drove home, to Reading, through the increasingly lumpy early morning traffic.

Her room was just as she had left it—was it really only four weeks ago?

Her Dad had bacon and eggs sizzling away, they sat around over coffee and chatted. She told stories of her first two weeks—the reef, Sydney, Melbourne, but not much about the trip through the outback. It did not matter, plenty to tell before then.

Then it was time for Tim to head off to Uni. Mum and Dad both needed to get to their work, just a bit late. Dad said he would drop off Gran to her own house on the way, as Susan would want to sleep off her jetlag.

As she watched the last car turn out of the drive onto the suburban road, Susan felt her forced gaiety draining away. She went to her room, sat on her bed and picked up her favourite childhood teddy; so soft, so same, so stable.

Her body shook as a creeping horror and numbness washed over her. Then came tears streaming silently down her face. Soon her whole body was convulsing in wracking sobs. She hugged her teddy and sat there. After ten minutes the emotion subsided.

She went to the bathroom and ran a hot shower, shampooed her hair and washed herself all over, then did it a second time for good measure. She dried her hair standing in a bathrobe, made up her face and found her sassiest outfit: tight jeans and a sparkling top.

She opened the overnight bag that had accompanied her back from Australia. She removed a book, wrapped in a hankie, and a heavy small cloth pouch which clinked. She placed these under her jumpers in the bottom drawer of her dresser.

Susan looked at her underwater camera, the only item she still cared about that remained in the bag. It held a handful of photos on the memory card from her trip, as well as others from other trips and dives. She felt that she should throw it out, but then this camera held a big chunk of her past life and she loved it. So she decided to keep the camera but ditch the memory card. She took the memory card out and put the camera back in its normal place in her drawers. She slipped the memory card into her purse; she must copy any photos she wanted before she threw it away.

Then she found a large empty rubbish bag. Susan placed the overnight bag, with all its contents, inside and tied the top shut. She went to the garage, where her Ford Fiesta was parked, and put this rubbish bag in the boot. Tomorrow, it would go into an industrial bin at her work, the place where the lab samples went for incineration. This would bring an end to those last fragments linking her to that last month of her life on the other side of the world.

She was OK; today was a glorious English summer day and she was going out into it. She would enjoy the first day of the rest of her life. The other was a past and finished visit to another place.

She had closed that book. Now she would put it away, behind all the other stories of her life, at the back of the very highest shelf, unseen and forgotten. She intended to leave it there, never to be taken out or opened again.

 

 

 

Chapter 3Susan –Holiday Alone – Day 1

 

She pushed back into her airline seat and stretched. There was something delightful in finally being airborne and on her way. She felt like a kitten, unwinding her body into the warm sunshine, after having drunk a bowl of warm milk. The gin and tonics in the departure lounge were also helping to create this euphoric feeling.

Now she felt like she was really on a holiday and going to a fantastic, exciting, unknown new place—all by herself. There was something about doing it all on her own that was especially important to Susan. It was like a growing up ritual. But why was she thinking about growing up? She was twenty-four and had not lived at home, until recently, in more than two years.

Anne, Susan’s best friend, had offered to juggle her own holidays and come along too, but she knew that Anne already had her heart set on going to Greece with her boyfriend, James. Susan had insisted that Anne not change her plans. She wanted to do this trip by herself.

For four years it was as if Susan’s life had been taken over by Edward, her former boyfriend. They’d met in first year university; they had done history and archaeology together. They had just clicked; he the languid, tousled blond man with the slightly posh accent—as if he had gone to Eton; and she, the well read and exuberant daughter of professional working parents.

Edward’s father was a stockbroker in financial London and he had followed his family’s business flair with an Arts-Commerce Degree, focused on Commerce, with some psychology, history and archaeology thrown in.

Susan had studied Science, focusing on medical technology, but with an Arts anthropology and archaeology sideline. It was something to do with her fascination with early human history and civilisations and the way these societies had adapted to diseases and environmental catastrophes. She remembered, as a child, being fascinated by the Attenborough-Leakey stories of ‘Out of Africa’ and how the early humans moved across and colonised the world.

Really, she would have loved to go to Africa, perhaps Kenya or South Africa. But she had decided, with the stories of crime and violence, this was a step too far for a single woman’s first solo trip abroad. She didn’t want to give her Mum and Dad that sort of worry.

So Susan had turned to Australia, a country that held an almost equal fascination for her. The strange animals, the 50,000 years of aboriginal history, plus the Barrier Reef, diving, rainforests, and all those fabulous New Years pictures of Sydney Harbour Bridge, alive with fireworks.

And she knew it was a safe place to go. The people all spoke English—they had mostly come from her home country—and she liked the laid back laconic humour of the Aussies who frequented London pubs. It felt right. Sure there was the occasional story of backpacker murders and things like that. But she knew she was too smart for getting suckered like that.

Susan let her mind drift back to the last few months: she and Edward, living together, in their small north London flat, half an hour from her work. After university it seemed like the right thing to do, so they just did it. While they never really talked about it, it seemed like their life would go on linked together—in due course marriage, children and a settled life.

She had thought she loved that image, but then, deep inside, there had always been a slight restless streak in her. Perhaps it was that Edward was a bit of a snob. He didn’t like it when friends called him Ted or Eddie. Also, while he was very attractive, she did not think he was very manly. Edward was quick-witted with clever words. He was smart around money, with impeccable taste. But he was not very adventurous, not wanting to experience life beyond the normal bounds. At first it really did feel good together; nights in pubs, dinners with good wine and food, talk of success in their investments, trips to Europe and enjoying the good things of London. And their sex life had been great for the first year they lived together, lots of it and wild.

But then, as they each started to forge their careers—she as a medical technologist in a large hospital and then in a commercial testing lab; and he as a rising business man who looked likely to follow his father’s stockbroking career—they seemed to drift apart. They were often both working late, and while there was still sex, plenty of it, there was less real tender lovemaking. And there were the growing niggles that came from friends and families with different interests. However, she hadn’t thought there was a major problem.

One day Susan noticed a slip of paper lying on the bedroom floor. It seemed to have fallen out of his wallet. On it was written “Eva” and a mobile phone number. It was not a name he had ever mentioned before. It seemed a bit odd. There were also times when there seemed to be a strange perfume smell about him. But he worked in an office with lots of women, so she supposed that was to be expected.

What really pissed her off though was that he was such a good liar. She had asked him the next day who Eva was. Without batting an eyelid he told her a story about a girl in another group who he had worked with on a couple business deals, how he had needed her number to hand in their final stage negotiations. It all sounded totally innocent.

But then Susan met the real Eva. She was lying on her back, in their double bed, with Edward’s naked body on top of her, moaning as Edward said her name in passionate grunts.

Susan had stood, open mouthed, too stunned to say anything. Then, finally, Eva’s eyes turned her way and she gave a little scream. There were no introductions but the identity was obvious.

Edward had climbed off her, silent, looking almost proud of his erect member. Eva at least had the good grace to look embarrassed, trying to cover her blond bimbo dolly face and small, full-breasted body. After a few seconds of stunned silence, Susan turned, closed the door and walked out of the flat.

That was the last time she had seen him. The next day, when Susan knew he was at work, she went to the flat and collected all her things. She left a one-line note on the table, “Don’t ever come near me again.”

Then she went to the bank, closed their joint account and cancelled their combined credit cards. She bought a new mobile phone, with a new number, and changed all her web logins and passwords. That was that; life together finished.

Susan hadn’t gone into details with her parents; she’d just said that they’d split up. Her parents accepted her back with a minimum of fuss. She took her old room, which was now the spare. She found all her old soft toys in the cupboard and re-installed them in their favourite places—best of all was her big soft teddy who, from her earliest memory, sat on her pillow. When Susan had left home she’d forgotten and neglected him; now he seemed to give her a genuine welcome home each day.

Mum and Dad were busy with their own lives. Mum was a senior lecturer in the medical school at Reading University, where her brother, Tim, was a student. Her Dad was a top level public servant to the government, in No 10, with a daily city trip on the fast train to Paddington, or sometimes, for big occasions, a chauffeur. However, despite his high role, he preferred ordinary things: a train to work, a beer at the pub, and the great outdoors.

Some of her best childhood memories were going hunting or fishing with him in Scotland where her cousins lived on a farm in the Highlands. They would make a summer trip for a couple weeks, as well as going at other odd times throughout the year.

Her father particularly loved to take her with him in the autumn, when the leaves were golden. They would head off, his gun in hand, hunting pheasants, grouse, rabbits and sometimes deer.

They would walk for miles across the high heather, plunging into glens, dark and mysterious. Sometimes they made a big fire out of turf and almost-dry branches, which smoked then burned brightly, while they roasted rabbit and ate it with their hands.

These were warm memories. Now he was like a rock; he didn’t say much, but was in her corner. With Mum and Tim she would talk about ordinary life, but Dad was just there.

Edward made a few attempts to contact her, but Susan told her parents she wouldn’t take his calls and that she didn’t want to see him.

One day Edward came to the door with a bunch of roses.

She heard her father say, “Lad, are you a bit thick? Can’t you tell she doesn’t want to see you?”

Some smart arsed reply came back.

Then, “If you come again I will wipe that smile of yer pretty boy face.”

After Dad had closed the door, Susan hugged him fiercely. His normal mild manner was creased in a scowl and he muttered, “Fucking wanker. Good riddance,” before he returned the hug. She knew then that he had never really thought that Edward deserved her, but had refrained from saying so.

After this she got one letter from Edward. She burned it, unopened, and that was that. So much for a relationship that had consumed over four years of her life.

With Edward gone, her life felt very hollowed out, but she buried herself in her work and gradually started to re-connect with old friends. Three months after the break-up, Susan was looking at a couple mags, one with pictures of an African safari and one with sparkling photos of the Great Barrier Reef.

That was it, that night after several hours of Googling she had plans made. Next day she booked her holidays and flights. Now, a further three months on, she was on her way, four glorious weeks in Australia: first the reef, then Sydney, and lastly the outback.

Susan felt, deep down, that this was something she had waited to do all her life and, that when she came back, she would have really grown up and have left those bad memories behind.

The one thing that she had really missed in the last few months though was sex. Susan felt like she wanted to meet a real man. Perhaps she would meet an Aussie bloke, someone rough and tough from the outback and this part of her would come alive again.

She stretched out again, ran her hands through her thick black hair, feeling herself purring like a kitten, all warm inside at the thought.

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Cairns and Reef – Days 2-4

 

Susan had loved her day in the air. It had been a total chill out after the dreariness of English weather. She had felt cold to her bones, when outside, and roasted in the overheated labs and family house after she had left Edward.

Then, just as spring was beginning, the idea for a holiday had come. It was like a light turned on in her brain, something to look forward to and focus her daydreams on.

But it was another three months of hard work until she was free to leave. Endless hours spent getting reports up to date and cross-checked on thousands of laboratory sample test results. Computers were fine, but real human brainwork was required to interpret decisions on many findings. No one could delegate her responsibility to review these reports. Not to mention validation and quality control for the laboratory, done behind the scenes.

As she ground her way through this work Susan longed to be in the outdoors, relaxing in comfort. She would picture herself walking along deserted beaches, sand and warm water squelching between her toes, blue sea, gentle waves and shady palms along the edge. It was a romantic and exotic mind space that she used to feed her motivation.

Once airborne Susan let all that English dullness slide away. She watched movies, she flicked through magazines with those same holiday destination pictures she was dreaming of, read cheap trashy novels of others’ adventures, and chatted to passengers. Most were heading out for similar adventures that she felt sure would come her way.

Sometimes Susan just sat in solitude, enjoying the splendid isolation of being herself; alone, nothing to do, no-one to answer to.

The pilot announced that they were half an hour out of Cairns and beginning their descent. The route south from Japan would bring them over the reef with sights of the corral atolls.

Susan pressed her nose to the window and marvelled at the white sands, little islets and the multicoloured waters they passed over, starting as tiny dots in a picture book image; then, as the height stripped away, they became clear and sharp. She was able to make out tiny waves and occasional boats.

The plane banked hard and turned into its final approach. Susan was now looking at dark green forest-covered mountains, with flashes of water in streams and falls. This view too fell away as they settled into their descent. Glimpses of roads and ordinary houses flashed past as they came over the tarmac and landed with barely a bump.

Cairns was less hot than Susan expected, but then she remembered it was winter here. As she stepped out of the airport building, wearing a short sleeved top and light skirt, she felt a warm breeze caress her skin. It was good to be here, almost dreamy good, but with that light buzz and thrill of anticipation that comes with new discovery.

There were innumerable backpacker buses, all touting their wares, along with taxis and regular shuttle busses to the city, but the day was still early so Susan felt no hurry.

While Susan inclined to do the backpacker thing, she knew she could well afford a hotel for a night or two. She liked the idea of a bit more solitude yet. It was barely 11 am, so she had the whole day to sightsee and look around before she needed to find a place to stay.

Susan caught a shuttle bus to the city centre. By the time she arrived there she had decided that a hotel for two nights was the way to go. She booked herself into a mid-range discount offering: two nights with breakfast thrown in for only 100 pounds. That was all she needed, her base.

She left her bags and set out walking along the fringing beach promenade past the city, barefooted with sandals in hand. Before long a side path led her to the seashore. Susan found herself standing in clear water, the waves frothing and bubbling as they spilled over white sand. Wavelets washed around her ankles and little fish nibbled at her toes.

She stood soaking it in for some time. Then, as the sun was starting to burn into her fair English skin, she decided it was time to go uptown for ice cream, sun-cream, reef tour booking and lunch, in that order.

She gazed out across the low sea horizon for one final minute of enjoyment, before running her fingers through her abundant black curly hair. She felt in her bag for a hair tie; then a second thought, I am free, let it be free too.

Back on the promenade, a solitary tall figure could be seen, also gazing out to sea through a filter of green leaves. Susan felt unspoken kinship, stranger to stranger.

Walking leisurely along the foreshore Susan passed an ice-cream stall. She bought a double mango and cream in a cone and continued on her way, licking at the ice cream as it melted and trickled over her fingers.

Susan stopped in front of one of the innumerable tour shops, complete with big gaudy posters of ‘Green Island Underwater Coral Viewing’, ‘Jet Cat Outer Reef Tours’, ‘Michelmas Cay by Sail’, ‘Steam Trains to the Rainforest’, and so on. She picked up a handful of brochures and sat on a shady bench outside to peruse them while she finished the last of her ice cream. She licked off her fingers, finishing those last delicious drops and read what was on offer.

There was too much information; confusing to someone who barely knew the time of day out here, so she went inside seeking assistance. A helpful guide suggested that, with only two days in Cairns, an outer reef tour for day one and a train trip to Kuranda for day two was a good plan. He also booked her a bus ticket on to Townsville after the train returned on the second day. From there she could catch the Magnetic Island ferry.

Her idea to go to Magnetic Island first came from reading about it in Captain Cook’s discovery voyage. Then a girlfriend told her about this same quiet island where she had a lovely few days in a backpacker hostel, sitting right on the beach, including meeting a hot German tourist. Perhaps a place to start her own love life again, or at least relieve that ache of desire, which sprung up when she thought of Edward—the bastard!

As she left the tourist shop she was vaguely aware of a tall man, with a distinctive eagle motif cap and sunglasses, brushing past her. Susan, abstracted by her thoughts, imagining her travels, barely looked his way.

A steak and glass of wine were her lunch at a local café. They left her feeling warm and sleepy. She made her way back to her hotel and fell onto the bed in her cool shaded room.

She woke as dusk was falling; she blamed jetlag for her three hours of afternoon sleep. She felt mussy and her mouth was dry. Susan found a mineral water in the bar fridge and went onto the balcony while she sipped it in the dusk. Susan decided to pass on going out tonight, as she planned to be early away to the reef, and the bed had felt so good.

The bathroom had a Jacuzzi style bath in front of a large mirror. She eyed it thoughtfully then let the taps run. When it was half full of steaming water, Susan took a bottle of sparkling wine from the fridge and filled a glass with bubbles. She tossed off her light dress and knickers and stood, examining herself in the mirror.

Thick dark wavy hair framed her fair English complexion. Oval face, small nose and pointed chin. She was of average height, as a teenager she’d wished to be taller, but she liked her body now. The smallish well-shaped breasts, round hips and slender legs drew occasional catcalls, particularly from behind, when she walked down the street.

Most striking were her pale blue eyes, a Nordic feature that did not quite gel with her Mediterranean hair. They were the colour of a milky blue tropical sea—this morning’s sea. Her more poetic friends said the colour was that of an English summer sky bathed in bright sunshine. Men loved her eyes. Perhaps a Spanish sailor, wrecked with the Armada, had found his way into the family Anglo-Saxon gene pool. She did not think herself riveting, but liked the package and felt good about herself.

Susan was never short of men trying it on; but that meant men liked only one thing she had to offer. She wanted a bit more depth. In hindsight, her relationship with Edward had a big shallow edge. Still, for now, a man to pleasure her would suffice. Deeper things could wait.

Before she stepped into the bath, she rang room service and ordered salt and pepper squid—the house specialty. On being told of a half hour wait, she plunged into the bath. Water up to her neck, Susan lay dreaming as she glanced through mags with pictures of rainforest, fish, exotic animals and Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bubbles of her wine slowly fizzed on the tip of her tongue.

Before she knew it the bell rang for room service. Susan dried quickly, donning a bathrobe, and then the door was opened and food brought in. By the end of dinner she was struggling to stay awake, that cursed jetlag, but what the hell. Leaving the plates, she cast her bathrobe aside and fell, naked, onto the bed and into a deep dreamless sleep.

She woke, cold, at 3 am. She snuggled under the covers with a novel until faint light on the horizon told her the new day was come. She stood on her balcony watching the sky go through its colours, deep purple with pink edges, then reds and oranges, and finally that brilliant gold as the sun burst over the horizon, somewhere far out in the Pacific Ocean. It offered the promise of excitement for a brand new day.

She had a quick shower then found her bikini, the pale blue skimpy one that Edward had bought her on a trip to Greece. He had loved it because he said she looked “So-o Sexy” and it particularly matched the colour of her eyes, it was the almost cornflower blue of a tropical sea, the one thing from him that she still had. She liked it and would keep it.

Susan admired herself in the mirror. She had to admit, even if she felt vain for thinking it, that she did really look good in this bikini, it worked for her. She liked the idea of being eye-catching for handsome blokes on the reef tour. Then, feeling a self-conscious at the direction her imagination was taking, she put on a T-shirt and shorts.

She came down at 7 am to the breakfast café in the hotel lobby. Boat departure was 8:30, so she ate well, but with purpose—resisting the temptation to dawdle over the papers.

Soon she was heading out, with an underwater camera and backpack of tourist accessories.

Susan had gained her diving qualification with Edward in the Mediterranean. Now diving was a great love, that separate underwater world, completely removed from all else.

On the wharf she joined a hundred other passengers milling around. Someone checked her ticket and asked her whether she wanted to participate in snorkelling or scuba diving. She said yes to both, and her name went on the list for the second dive.

Soon they were motoring slowly across the glassy water of the sheltered bay. The captain came over the intercom giving an outline of their day: an hour and a half to the outer reef where the best coral was to be seen, five hours of free time to swim, dive, and enjoy, home by 5 pm.

Everyone was fitted with masks and flippers. For the divers there was a check of existing qualifications and an introductory brief to the day’s dive from their dive master. It was followed by an instruction to assemble on the back deck at 11:15 for an 11:30 dive.

Now, outside the port, the jet engines powered up to a throaty roar. The Jet Cat surged across the wave tops of the half metre south-easterly swell. Susan felt the wind and salt spray whip her face. It was exhilarating and felt good to be alive.

The intercom announced that tea, coffee and biscuits were available, along with reef videos to show people what they may see. Susan was so absorbed by videos of fish and corral that she barely noticed the trip or the other guests. It seemed too soon when she felt the motors slowing as they nosed into their pontoon; it was arrival on the outer reef.

She had an hour for a snorkel before she had to be back for the dive. She was almost first in the water. The tide was low. She felt protected in the shallow water around the fringing reefs.

Susan kept the boat in sight and slowly worked her way around, trying to identify and keep a count of the myriad different fish types she saw. She was blown away by colour. She loved the different corals and the homes they formed for fish. The highlight was a large stingray, more than a metre across; it slowly flapped on its way above the sandy sea floor, stirring up little sand eddies in its wake. Then, seeing the divers from the first group returning to the boat, she realised her hour must be almost gone. She swum back and boarded.

There were two instructors and ten divers in her group. They were broken into groups of two, buddies for the dive, to stay together and watch out for each other. Her buddy was a lanky man, probably in his early thirties, lean and fit without the body builder look.

“Hoho,” he mumbled, as he fumbled with his snorkel fitting, “I’m Mark.” He held out his hand and she grasped it, a firm strong hand, callused from manual work.

“Susan,” she replied. She liked his smile, friendly and composed, not trying for over-the-top charm excess, a person who kept his own counsel. She thought the accent was probably Aussie—not really definite; perhaps he had lived or worked elsewhere.

“Have you done this before?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “got my ticket in the Med a couple years back. I love it. You?”

“A long time ago, so I am a bit rusty. Looks like you will be bringing me up to date.”

They went off the boat deck into the water, a second apart. They swam side by side, following the lead instructor a few metres ahead. They swam slowly, slowing their breathing to an even pace as they relaxed. Mark waved to her and she signalled back, “All good.”

The instructor pointed to his left, down into a big hole in the reef, where there was a huge cod, guarding his patch. Small brightly coloured fish swam around its massive head, staying just out of reach. Susan felt her face break into a smile at the cheekiness of the little fish. Mark seemed to be grinning too. They swam on. She noticed a disguised power in his long body; he diverted slightly then rocketed back towards her with powerful kicks.

The hour passed much too fast. It seemed only minutes before they were back at the boat. But wow, so much to see in this place: turtles, huge reef fish lazily working around the deeper holes, a group of white tipped reef sharks scouting the reef’s edge, and so, so many brilliant fish and corrals. She completely lost count of all their types, but just loved it all.

Susan could not help watching Mark as he pulled off his wet suit top. He had lean hard muscles and a scar, several inches long, running high across his back and shoulder. She turned away before he looked around, putting her own gear in the tub.

Then he was standing alongside her, and he looked at her. “Don’t know about you, but I am starved. Are you travelling with others or do you want to join me for some lunch?”

“No, just me, yes let’s have lunch.”

They both piled plates high with prawns, ham, salad, and bread rolls. They found a table with two seats facing. For the first few minutes they were both too hungry to talk, as they crammed their mouths.

Then she noticed he had stopped eating. She looked up from a huge bite as he smiled. The smile crinkled around the edges of his eyes. Captured in that moment he was striking.

“Looks like you needed that; must have been even hungrier than me,” he said.

Her mouth was too full to reply. She pointed to her mouth and they both laughed.

Soon they were both talking together, the way complete strangers do, exchanging details about lives, trips, plans, work; he said he had just come across from the Kimberley after a stint in the mines.

It appeared Mark was a jack of all trades: stockman, miner, bush mechanic—mostly in the outback but he knew big cities like Sydney and Melbourne as well. He had also spent time overseas, in the Middle East and Africa, but with a couple trips to Europe and England. So now the accent made sense.

He seemed warm and personable, but there was also a hard edge to him, something she could not fathom—not quite dangerous, but at the far edge of unpredictable wildness. Before their meal had finished she had told him briefly about her breakup with her boyfriend in England, and that this trip was part of getting on with her life, just her alone.

He said he’d always found he moved around too much to have long term steady girlfriends, but who knew, perhaps the right one would turn up, and he would find himself settling down. In the meantime there was so much to see and do.

Susan found herself really liking something about him; it drew her in like a magnet. Perhaps it was his understated way, his willingness to go anywhere and do anything, not tied to rules. He wasn’t classically handsome, but a raw vitality came from him that Susan found winsome and appealing. She also sensed a resilient tough independence, as if here was a man who took hard knocks and bounced up with an undiminished life force. She liked the way he told his stories with an edge of sardonic humour, hidden behind a slightly weather-beaten face and a self-deprecating grin.

As they were finishing lunch she got into a conversation with another girl, sitting by herself at the table next to them. She was English and her name was Maggie. The two of them had the same English humour and soon were swapping stories of London. Mark drifted off; he seemed to have lost interest in being part of this conversation. There was something solitary and a bit asocial in the way he just got up, left and moved away.

Then it was time to go back in the water; she and Maggie had agreed to go snorkelling together. As they came out of the lunchroom, Mark was on the back boat deck. They smiled to each other and she told him their plans, half expecting him to offer to swim with them. He nodded and went off in a different direction, apparently content to do his own thing.

She didn’t talk to Mark again that afternoon, just a brief nod as they departed their own separate ways. She felt faintly regretful, she was sure if Maggie had not been there they would have continued doing things together for the day. She felt a definite spark of mutual interest and wondered what might have been.

But she and Maggie really hit it off. They had both come out from England for a short holiday. Maggie had another friend, Jane, who had come with her. They had separated for this leg and would meet again in Alice Springs next week to go on together to Darwin and Kakadu. In the meantime Maggie was backpacking in Cairns before going to the Daintree in two days and travelling on from there.

Susan and Maggie arranged to meet for a drink, in a bar they both knew, an hour after the boat returned. After a quick shower at her hotel she put on a fresh dress: light but classy, and suitable for day or night, then headed out.

Sure enough, Maggie was there having a drink with two others from her hostel, Ryan and Trish, who seemed to be an item. Drinks became dinner.

Well into the evening, after a night of wide ranging conversation, lubricated by many drinks, Susan and Maggie discovered they were both going to Kuranda on the train the next morning. Mobile numbers were exchanged, and an arrangement was made to meet up on the platform before the train left next morning.

When Susan arrived back at her hotel, she felt light-headed from the drinks. As she passed through reception the concierge called her over.

In his hand was a pastel envelope. Inside was a slip of notepaper with a brief scrawl,

 

Sorry I missed you,

I called to invite you for a drink.

I enjoyed our dive together and lunch.

Hope your trip goes well.

 

Mark Bennet

 

Susan thought about what might have been, Ships that pass in the night.

 

 

 

Chapter 5 – Magnetic Island – Days 5-9

 

Maggie and Susan had a lovely day at Kuranda and were both sad to say goodbye on their return, but Susan had a bus to catch. After a promise to keep in touch and an exchange of English addresses, they went their separate ways.

Susan didn’t know why, but as she climbed onto the bus she felt a bit down—perhaps it was just coming down after all the excitement of the last two days. She and Maggie had such a great time together and the thought of them going in different directions was a downer.

Susan also felt a twinge of regret for missing Mark last night. She mentioned his note to Maggie today, who responded with a raised eyebrow. Still she wondered what might have been there? Maybe a one-night fling, but there was a definite spark. She would have liked to see where it led.

She settled into a seat by herself and watched the green countryside, with the mountains to the west, slipping by. It would be four hours to Townsville, with a half hour stopover mid-way. She had booked a room for the night and would go on to Magnetic Island tomorrow for three days before flying south to Sydney.

As the bus rolled along Susan felt her mood lift again; there were new places to see, new things to do. The mountains faded into deep shadow, then final flares of light on their tips with a departing sun—an eerie and distinctly Australian beauty. Travel was such a mood aphrodisiac.

By the time they made it to Townsville she was yawning. But at least the jetlag was gone. Susan tumbled into bed and did not stir until bright daylight brought her awake.

After a leisurely breakfast she made her way to the ferry jetty. There was a 9:30 ferry to the island. Once on the island she caught a bus to Horseshoe Bay, which on her map faced out towards the great Pacific Ocean.

Here she found a backpackers hostel, recommended by somebody in Cairns who had said it was the best on the island. No one was in sight so she dropped her pack on a vacant bed. She put on her pale blue bikini and walked to the beach with a book. She sat gazing out over the vast blue expanse, soaking in the pleasure of the warm, endless ocean space. There were only a couple other people on the beach and they were far away. It was her own private piece of paradise.

Susan moved back under the shade and stretched out on a towel. Her novel told of someone else’s imaginary life. Her own life, whenever she looked up, also felt like it sat inside a holiday storybook.

Finally hunger brought her back to the hostel. In Townsville she had bought a loaf of unsliced bread, a pack of ham, and tomatoes. Now she made herself an oversized sandwich, with two thick bread slabs layered with ham and tomato.

There were bedroom noises but otherwise she had the place to herself. She carried her plate to a bench table by the window and sat facing out, away from the kitchen. Her view was along the beach towards a green headland. She ate with ravenous hunger.

Like an electric tingling up her spine, she became aware of soft footsteps behind her. Something else, familiar but not, had also caught her subconscious attention.

She turned around. As her eyes adjusted from bright light, she realised it was him, Mark. He was standing a few feet behind her, tall and broad in the gloom. Her gaze was drawn to his direct eyes and mid brown hair with sun-bleached tips. He was looking at her with what seemed like hopeful recognition.

Their eyes connected. She felt a jolt pass between them, tightness in the pit of her stomach, a raw emotion of physical connection. She knew he felt it too.

While this emotion washed over her, Susan’s face flashed in a smile of delight, attraction and pleasure, re-meeting someone familiar in this country of strangers.

Mark smiled back, but with guarded hesitancy, and said, “I thought it was you, but then I thought it was just imagination. You look great, even better than the picture in my memory. But, of course, absence of a face mask improves us all, even me.”

Susan burst out laughing, a kind of giggle fit. She felt breathless and flushed, like an adrenaline rush. She was also self-conscious that she was only clothed in her skimpiest bikini. It showed off lots of her body that he was clearly aware of.

She pulled herself back from embarrassment and, pointing to her sandwich, said, “Have you eaten?” Mark shook his head. “I have plenty of bread, ham and tomato, can I make you one?”

Mark nodded and said, “Yes that would be great.” They settled down to eat, side by side, facing the bay.

Susan could not help herself from chatting away and telling Mark what she had done in the last two days. Then she looked at him and said, “I was really disappointed I missed you that night at the hotel. It would have been great to go and have a drink together.”

“I felt a bit silly asking you, like I barely met you with diving and lunch. But I found you interesting and we seemed to like the same things. You’d said where you were staying in Cairns. So, I thought, what the hell, no harm in asking.”

“Well I am glad you did even though it didn’t work out. Now here you are. We have a second chance tonight.”

They sat there while a few minutes went by, both gazing at the view while they ate. Susan was very aware of Mark’s body. It was close, almost touching her. A couple times they brushed each other and she felt a little thrill.

Mark turned to her, saying, “What are your plans for the afternoon?”

“I hadn’t thought about it yet. What about you, do you know your way around this place?”

“I have been here a couple times. There is a lot to do, horse riding, jet skis, sea kayaks and more. But one thing that is particularly good in the afternoon is to go walking in the national park, out to the head of the bay. You often see dolphins and turtles in the sea; sometimes you see a koala in the bush. There is a lovely little sheltered beach at the end where you can swim.”

“That sounds like a great idea, shall we do the walk this afternoon then perhaps something more adventurous tomorrow?” said Susan

“Why not,” said Mark, in his slightly droll way.

He filled a water bottle, put it in a light pack which he dropped over one shoulder, and they headed off. He led the way, following the top of the beach. After a few minutes they reached a path into the forest, a mixture of gum trees and other scrabbly ones, with funny pointed cones that poked out at odd angles.

“What are they?” she asked.

“That’s a banksia tree,” he replied, “and those are the banksia men that live on it.” Mark added pointing to the cone-like things, “They attach themselves and wait until someone like you comes along. Then they jump out onto you.”

Susan widened her eyes, and said, “Oh really! I know I am just a dumb Pommie visitor, but even I know when I am being had.”

“Just testing you,” he said.

They walked on, climbing a rocky ridge. On their descent down the other side a breathtaking view unfolded: a little indented rocky bay with crystal clear water and a sweeping horizon of sea and sky, blending together far into the distance.

“Wow, this is really something,” said Susan.

Just as she spoke, barely twenty yards out, two dolphins, side by side, came leaping out of the water, frozen in a split second of perfect symmetry. Susan shook her head in wonder.

“I knew you’d like it,” said Mark, then added, “but that was amazing, like they turned it on, just for us.”

She linked her arm through his and gave a squeeze of delight.

He brushed her hair back from her face and touched her cheek. Then he pulled away. “Let’s keep going, it’s a bit of a way yet.”

They went on, mostly him leading and her following. Sometimes, when the path widened, she would come alongside. A couple times he lightly rested his hand on her shoulder. It felt good and Susan responded by placing a hand on his hip.

They came down off the ridge into a green depression: a small swamp that the path tracked around. It was open, with paperbarks in the centre, and huge forest gums at the edge.

Mark motioned quiet with a finger to lips. He paused, standing stationary for perhaps thirty seconds. Then he took her hand and raised it to point at a high branch of one of the big gums.

She followed the hand with her eyes and her eyes adjusted to the gloom. A small movement brought all the detail into clear focus. There, sitting on a high branch, was a mother koala. She was pulling a branch towards and eating off leaves, one by one.

Susan gasped. She knew it was a mother koala because on its back was a large baby, perhaps half her size. She watched as the mother directed the leaves towards her baby. It followed its mother’s lead and began to eat the leaves, one by one. It mimicked her exact movements as it ate with apparent relish.

They both stood transfixed for five minutes, watching until all the leaves were gone. Then mother koala curled up, baby now in front on her lap. They both closed their eyes and, for all the world it seemed, they just fell fast asleep.

Mark smiled, “Seriously something, Huh!”

“I feel so lucky that I got to see that,” said Susan

They walked on, now holding hands, not talking but moving along together, enjoying the peaceful forest.

Gradually they climbed onto the hillside again, tracking the edge of little rocky headlands that fringed the sea. Finally they reached the end where the path fell away onto a little sandy beach, facing out towards the wide ocean. They stopped at the edge of the sand and stood for a minute, fingers entwined.

Then Mark pulled away. “Come on, time for a swim” he said.

He pulled off his T-shirt and plunged into the ocean in his shorts, hard muscles rippling as he powered away. She lifted her dress over her head. She followed him in, wearing the bikini. They both splashed and swam separately for a minute.

Then she swam up to him. She stood in water, up to her waist, in front of him, looking up. “Thank you so much for showing me all this, it has been the most wonderful afternoon.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and looked directly at her, his steady eyes looking into hers. “It keeps getting better from here.”

She moved in close against him, feeling his firm body, and wrapped her arms around his chest. His arms pulled her tight. She could feel his maleness hard against her. Unconsciously, she pushed her pelvis against his leg, as a deep ache ran through her.

Her body longed for sex and here it was, in waiting, in the middle of nowhere, perhaps paradise. Normal restraints fell from her mind, there was only here and now.

His hand ran down her back and over her bottom, stroking her, grasping her buttocks. Then she felt his hands, inside her pants bottoms, touching her naked flesh with a sensitivity that made her shiver all over. He pulled back slightly, ran his fingers through her hair and tipped back her face, saying, as he looked at her.

“You have the most wonderful blue eyes, just the same colour as this beautiful bikini that barely covers you. Every time they look at me they make weak inside. Then I want to do this to you” he said, sliding his other hand down under her top and cupping her breast.

She felt a little moan escape. They both knew what they wanted.

Susan felt his hands on her bottom again, sliding down her bikini pants. Then there was incredible pleasure as he stroked her soft belly, all the while moving down and into that aching place.

Holding together, touching these places on each other, they came back to the beach. He spread a towel on the sand, and pushed her down onto it. Then he was on top and astride her. His body felt huge and hard, his face a silhouette against the light. She felt her legs come apart and her pelvis arch as he pushed inside her. It felt huge but exquisite, this long-missed pleasure of joined bodies.

The surges of pleasure came faster as they rode this rising wave together. At last she could hold back no longer. As Susan fell over the edge of the orgasmic wave she grasped him, wrapping arms with all her force around his hard back and let out, “Oh God.” It was like a signal, and he was exploding inside her, such a cascading, overwhelming, release, and relief.

They lay together panting and slowly subsiding. She could feel their combined wetness flowing out over her thighs. I needed that so badly and it was so good, she thought.

Then a sudden panic hit her. My God, I stopped taking the pill when Eddie and I broke-up. She hadn’t considered that until now.

Well it is past time to undo this she thought as she felt his hand stroke her and felt him begin to harden again.

Now they were doing it all over again. This time she pushed him onto his back and climbed on top, working herself up and down like a gymnast. His hands grasped her buttocks and stroked her as she moved, his mouth on her nipples. More and more, deeper and deeper, harder and harder. When it felt like she would pass out with the building pleasure, he grasped her and flipped her below him. He drove in with incredibly hard thrusts, almost hurting her. His sheer male dominance brought her to a huge climax, as he came again himself.

They lay still together for a while before they both felt the need to swim and wash. They splashed and swum, and then came together; Susan swimming up to Mark who was standing in waist deep water.

She dived into him, pushing her face into his belly and working down. She took him in her mouth and he hardened again. Mark lifted her effortlessly and placed her hips against his waist. He pushed her down onto him while his face was in her hair. They stayed in the water and made slow love in the little wavelets, first standing and then, when it felt like it would overwhelm them, lying together in the shallows.

Desire satiated, they sat on a rock soaking in the afternoon warmth, with occasional affectionate touches, before they decided it was time to head back.

The walk back had a pastel feel, like a dreamy painting, as if they had both wanted this consummation so much and, now that it was done, they just wanted to let the afternoon slowly ebb away together.

It was almost dark by the time they came back to the hostel and it was crowded with other backpackers. Mark suggested Susan sit on the verandah while he got them drinks. He returned with a six-pack. They sat together, almost silent, sipping their beers and watching the light fade from the horizon.

Susan finally said, “Do you make a regular practice of picking up female backpackers and taking them for a walk, wowing them with beauty and ravishing them, the way you did to me this afternoon?”

He replied with a half smile, “Well I have done something like a couple times, but never as good as with you. There is something about you that is different; it is like you are a free spirit who has never been quite captured by ordinary life.”

She snuggled into him and said, “Well, I knew I wasn’t the first, but this was really something for me too, I think it is your wild edge that gets me in.”

Mellow with beer they decided that a steak at the local hotel would be dinner. They both showered and put on best clothes for the night out. Over dinner Mark told stories and snapshots of his life, working in the outback, working in mines, working on an oil pipeline in the Middle East and other jobs in Africa and Asia. It was clear he had done many things, though he told little of his early life, family or friends.

Coming back the hostel was quiet; it appeared most others were already in bed.

Mark brought a mattress out on to the verandah, and she came into bed with him, laying her cheek on his bare chest. First they cuddled, then as desire grew they made languorous love, looking at each other in a faint glow of starlight.

Then they both slept.

In the early dawn Mark rose and directed her to her own bunk. He packed up his bedding and headed off into the early dawn, she knew not where.

She fell into a deep dreamless sleep in her own bunk. The sun was well up when she woke again.

Mark was sitting with a cup of coffee at the kitchen table when she came out and he fixed her another one to share with him.

They spent the next three days together jet skiing, sea kayaking, snorkelling, sailing. Best of all was horse riding. They had gone for a ride together, after breakfast that next day, riding sturdy ponies bareback along the beach.

Susan had done the equestrian thing in England. Mark, self-taught, was a superb rider, so well-balanced. They loved riding along together, sometimes walking and trotting, knees brushing; other times a lolloping canter and occasionally an all-out gallop as they raced frenetically to get to the front, laughing with joy and exhilaration.

On the first day it was proposed they go with an organised group. However, Mark sought agreement for them to ride alone, telling of his life working with horses on large stations. Having demonstrated their riding ability they were given the same two ponies, each day for two hours, to ride on their own. They would ride along the beach to the furthest end, walking, trotting and an occasional gentle canter, moving slowly to draw out anticipation of the pleasure to follow. Nearing the beach end their pace would quicken as desire grew.

Once out of sight they would fall into the water. It would begin with swimming, but soon, clothes cast aside, they would ravish each other. The return ride: a wild gallop—their way to begin each day.

Afternoons were on the water; sailing one day, jet-skiing the next, sea kayaks another, paddling around the point to their first day beach and repeating their pleasure there.

Initial plans were to leave on the third day, but they stayed two more days. They did not want their idyll to end. By the fifth day they knew they must both go separate ways.

Mark had a week’s work in central Queensland and then was heading on to the Alice while Susan was Sydney-bound and could delay her flight no longer.

They were sombre on the ferry back to Townsville. At final parting they hugged tight. Mark did not talk a lot. Susan felt the ache of impending loss; she’d grown huge affection for this sun-toughened man from out the back of somewhere, wherever that was. Many layers lay beyond where she had reached. She was sad; her days discovering him were at an end.

Susan had the option of flying to Uluru or Alice Springs for a week on her way home, with a home flight booked out of Darwin. Mark might be somewhere around there too, but she didn’t quite see how it would happen that they would be together again.

As he started to pull away he handed Susan a card with “Mark” and a mobile number written on it, saying, “Well, if you do come by Alice the week after next and want to see real bush, send me a text to let me know. I need to make a trip from the Alice to the Top End to do some business along the way around then. Perhaps you could come along too and see all the nature and emptiness.

“Just let me know, if that’s what you want. Then, if we can work the timing, I will line up for you to come along. The trip will take about a week, maybe a bit more. I will be mostly out of phone contact so a text is best.”

Susan felt a surge of hope mixed with uncertainty. It was indefinite, probably unlikely, but it was something.

She tucked the card in her purse and gave him a brittle smile and a wave as she walked towards the bus which was to take her to the airport. Mark stood there looking at her with an inscrutable look on his face, but it seemed to hold more than indifference.

Suddenly she did not want it to end like this, with an almost casual goodbye. She ran back to him. He put his arms out. She pressed her body against him one last time, nuzzling her face into his rough cheek She said, “Mark, I really want to see you again. I hate saying goodbye. This has been so special for me.

He said. “Me too,” and held her close. For brief seconds it was just the two of them, the other world faded away. Then the toot of the bus pulled her back and they separated.

Chapter 6 – Sydney and Beyond – Days 10-16

 

Susan was both sad and perplexed as the plane climbed away from Townsville. The view of the reef and mountains was as spectacular as it was on arrival, but she barely looked up, lost deep in thought and memory.

Her time with Mark was wonderful, but intense; they had barely stopped for a minute. Now she needed to catch her breath. Their physical connection had been so powerful; and the sex, after a long deprivation, was beyond words. During their time together she barely thought about anything else; it was an all-consuming pleasure addiction.

She thought back to Edward. The sex had been a great part of the lives, and one of the things that kept them together, despite other differences. But with Mark, his wild physicality coupled with lack of restraint, strength and an insatiable virility, were something else again. She felt that part of her was worn out and needed a good rest. But then, as she thought of his sad remote eyes and warm hard body, Susan knew she would do it all again, without hesitation, if the chance ever came. It was something beyond her control, like stopping a bolting horse.

There was also something odd about Mark that she couldn’t quite work out. It gave her twinges of uncertainty. Part was how little she knew about him. Sure she knew lots of stories of his work and places he had been. But of family, friends, former lovers, or others in his life, she knew almost nothing. Not even where he had come from or grown up. Come to think of it, he had not told her anything really personal about himself.

Another part of her unsureness was her sense that he hid a dangerous edge, something ruthless and uncompromising that would not accommodate to anyone who tried to push him against his will. She had seen occasional glimpses, like that first day diving, when she and Maggie had struck up an instant friendship. Suddenly, he did not want to keep doing things with her; a shutter had come down, he’d blocked her out of his mind and plans.

The clearest example was at the hostel one day. A big loudmouthed American man had tried to get Mark to join a card game—they needed an extra player. Mark had politely declined the initial request, but this bloke did not want to take no for an answer, pestering Mark in a badgering manner. He was three inches taller than Mark, probably three stone heavier and it looked like muscle not flab. He was obviously used to getting his way; he assumed others would fall into line when he wanted something. After a minute of this pestering Mark had enough. He turned to walk away and this bloke followed him, still going on about how he must be a wimp if he would not play cards with them.

Suddenly Mark turned back to him and stared, “Mate, you seem to be missing something. I said ‘no’. I’ll spell it out if you’re a bit thick: N. O. It spells ‘No’ and it means ‘No’. Now get out of my face. I won’t ask you again.”

That was all he said and then he stood looking up at this big strong man, hard cold eyes intent and devoid of emotion. Susan had a strong premonition that it could end badly and not for Mark, he gave out such a sense of danger, like a snake in the millisecond before it struck. The other man dropped his gaze, lost for words. He mumbled something and backed away, trying to pretend he had not backed down.

Mark never moved a muscle until the man had left. Then he simply said to her, “I hate bullies.” An instant later it was like it had not happened; he smiled at her and said, self-deprecatingly, “Sorry, don’t let it spoil our day.”

But that incident was the exception. Normally he was great fun to be with, absolutely fearless and willing to try anything. And he was kind and gentle with her, giving her his undivided, full attention whenever he was with her.

But she did feel, except for the first night when they went to the pub together, that he had a strange reluctance to go to public places with her, little desire to hit the town or otherwise socialise with others at the hostel.

He was also reluctant to do group activities—organised tours he did under sufferance. When someone offered to take their picture together, he politely declined saying it just wasn’t his thing. In a way she had been happy to have him fully to herself; he had such charm and ability to captivate her that she had not desired more.

It was just that his private life and his emotions were such a hidden book, every time she tried to find a way inside she drew a blank. She knew he really liked her. It was not just the physical pleasure of the sex, he had said from the outset that this was more and he had an intimate tenderness towards her which was really quite breathtaking.

All in all it had been five wonderful days. She really missed his serious but smiling face, with those far away eyes, seeing places she did not know and could not begin to imagine.

Now she was off to Sydney, where she would get her fix of city life and society. She’d always wanted to see the famed city, with the sparkling harbour shown in boat races, the magnificent bridge and opera house, lit up with New Year’s fireworks.

Susan had cousins living there who she had met a couple times in England. They were great fun and had offered to show her the sights and nights, whenever she came along. They lived in a place called Newtown, close to the city, in what they said was a done up workers’ cottage. The spare bedroom was hers for the duration.

She planned five days, then on to Melbourne for a couple days. After this she had about ten days left until her flight left Darwin. She had the option of Alice Springs and Uluru then the Top End, or Perth for a few days before going on to Darwin.

Susan had a couple days yet before needing to lock in flights and travel after Melbourne. So she would let it sit for a couple days in Sydney until when she had some perspective. She settled back in her seat, looking forward to two hours of solitude before her Sydney arrival.

Her cousin, Ruth, met her at the airport with girlish screams of delight. They drove through the first real traffic she had seen since London. Ruth gave her a running commentary on Sydney and all there was to see and do. Soon they were crawling down a main road, choked with cars and people, which brought them towards the city.

Ruth’s older sister, Jessica, and Jess’s boyfriend Robert, owned the Newtown house where she was to stay. It was in a narrow street, about a hundred yards behind the main drag, King Street. It had three bedrooms; one rented by Ruth. The third one, part-time office, was now hers.

Jess was two years older than Susan. She worked in a busy law firm in the city in some management role. She and Robert had marriage plans in a year or two. But first they were trying to pay down their mortgage.

Ruth was around Susan’s age and they were good friends. She had taken the week off her work in a fashion shop in Oxford St, to show Susan around and have ‘girl fun together,’ that’s what she called it.

It was mid-afternoon when Susan had unpacked her things. After the ritual cup of tea, with the English chocolate and biscuits, which she had brought out especially for them, they walked along King St inspecting a myriad of restaurants, junk shops, and upmarket places.

This place had great buzz, people everywhere, a bit seedy, but familiar and alive; something like the best of where she had lived in London. Seeing it all gave her a strange sense of the loss of her life with Edward, they once had something very similar to this. Even though she had not realised it, when they split, she missed street society in big cities.

She and Ruth walked along, chatting and swapping stories, only half-looking at the sights. They picked a restaurant for dinner and made a reservation. ‘Mainly great vegetarian food, but with a couple good seafood options,’ said the paper clipping tacked to the window.

After dinner it was off to the Rocks and a live band with music. A few men tried the pick up lines but, even though they looked good, and Ruth gave them thumbs up, Susan felt little attraction. She told Ruth she was a bit worn out by a backpacker fling in Queensland.

Ruth’s boyfriend, Stephen, came along a couple of hours later with another friend. Ruth introduced them. They found chairs and expanded the table. The friend was David, “Call me Dave.” He sat next to Susan.

Dave was tall, well built and good looking, with sun bleached blond hair—close to gorgeous actually. Susan couldn’t help but be engaged by his smile and charm. He seemed to like her too.

He told her about his work in IT and biotechnology. David got Susan to admit she had a medical technology background. They chatted for while about this common interest.

But when David put his hand on her knee, Susan felt involuntary recoil. Even though she knew that there was nothing binding from her time with Mark, and this guy was handsome, charming, and appealed to her taste, she did not want that casual man touch.

His gesture seemed too forward, and it hit the wrong note. It made her wonder why she had responded so positively to Mark, throwing herself at him and seeking physical intimacy. Yet, coming from this attractive man, making the normal moves, it didn’t work.

Perhaps he seemed too confident in his attraction; perhaps it was her need to go more slowly; perhaps part of her was more caught up by Mark than she willingly acknowledged.

She didn’t want to be rude, and Susan was sure that she could enjoy David’s company and maybe a physical relationship with him, but she just did not want to go there—not now anyway.

Susan excused herself from the table and went to the toilets. It was to give herself time to think. She decided she would plead tiredness and an early night, without pushing him away directly. Who knows, I might like him more if I see him again in a day or two, she thought.

They stayed for another drink and another hour passed. David seemed to understand that Susan wanted more space and made no further moves. In fact, she realised, he was nicer than she first imagined. Part of her wished she had not pulled back.

They all caught a cab home, dropping off David at his own place on the way, while Stephen came home with Ruth.

The days in Sydney flew by, shopping in the city, visits to Oxford Street and various flea markets, days around the harbour, walking the two fluffy dogs of the house in local parks, nights of restaurants, music, and meeting innumerable friends of Jess, Robert, Ruth and Stephen in a wide range of bars and locations.

The third day, she knew she had to decide on the rest of her trip. While little misgivings still prickled in the back of her mind, Mark’s face and presence came back to her very strongly and she felt an aching desire to see him again. So she pulled out the paper with his number and found her phone, barely used. She had bought an Australian SIM card in Cairns but almost no one had the number. She sent off a text.

 

Hi Mark,

Susan here!

Fond memories of great times on Magnetic Island.

Let me know if you can meet me if I come to Alice.

Expect to arrive Mon next week

Love Suz

 

There that was it, the die was cast. Maybe he had forgotten her, now hooked up with another girl. If she didn’t hear back by the end of the day she would go to Perth instead.

Susan surreptitiously checked her phone every half hour during the day. No messages came back as the morning and afternoon rolled on. She tried to ignore the anxiety but was starting to feel flat and let down. Even if he was busy he could surely reply. She had to decide and confirm her flights tonight—that was the rule.

At 5:30 pm, as they were getting ready to go out for an evening drink, her phone pinged, a new message symbol flashed on the screen. Trying to look and feel nonchalant she picked it up.

 

Hi Mark here,

Just got message, out of town

Love to see you in Alice, Monday

Can you ring day after tomorrow?

Then we can work out details to meet

Can’t wait

Mark

 

Susan put down the phone. Her hands were shaking, she felt vast excitement, but also strange dread; she really wanted to see him again—her body craved him—but why this anxiety? It pricked at her and made her feel uncomfortable.

Susan told Ruth to go on without her, and she would meet them in the pub in half an hour, she just had to go out and do a couple things.

Ruth looked at her inquiringly, saying, “Sure, that’s fine, see you then.”

Susan found an internet café, and locked in the flight booking. Melbourne to Alice Springs booked for Monday next week, arriving at 11:30 am.

Once it was booked she felt relieved, the decision point had passed. She could now go on with her Sydney and Melbourne holiday, as planned, without further thought.

She decided she would say nothing of her Alice Springs arrangements, except that she was catching a plane to Alice, seeing the Centre and going on to Darwin, so as to see the Outback. She would say she was going by bus if asked. Meeting Mark was a private thing for her; it did not concern anyone else.

The time in Sydney flew by, and she found she was on the train to Melbourne before she knew it.

Susan had decided to catch the day train to Melbourne. It would allow her to get a leisurely view of the southern Australian countryside, and arrive in Melbourne in time for a late evening of sightseeing in the city. She booked a small hotel in the heart of Melbourne, only three star, but very convenient and at a reasonable price. She was only there for three nights and wanted to enjoy the city.

As the train rolled along she thought back to Sydney and David.

She had seen him several more times, with Ruth and Stephen, and he was clearly keen on her. Part of her was being pulled towards him too but, particularly after she had made her arrangements with Mark, she felt sure that nothing would come if it.

She certainly had not intended to sleep with him. In fact, if someone had asked her about them becoming an item, two days before she left Sydney and after she had talked to Mark again, she would have given an emphatic No!

She felt that Mark, from somewhere out the back of nowhere, or wherever it was, had changed something inside her, at least for now. She didn’t want any more entanglements while she was with him, or even while that possibility remained.

It was a strange sort of faithfulness to an idea of possibility, even though she could not conceive what real possibility there was; two people with totally different lives, different backgrounds and careers, who lived on opposite sides of the world. So her mind was clear, nothing could or would happen with David. And yet it had.

On the second last night they went out as group, until late, drinking in a small pub. She had let him take her hand for a dance. His body had brushed up against hers and, she had to admit, it really felt good. She could easily have imagined spending the night with him. She knew he wanted this and he was patient in encouraging her.

At the point where the only decision was whether she would go home with him, or let him come back with her and share her bed, she froze. She liked him, both to talk to and in a physical sense. But she felt there was an almost tangible solid block in her mind and body—like a closed door that stopped her before that sort of intimacy.

Susan rationalised that it was because she had gotten her period on her second day in Sydney. There was some relief at this, part of her glad that nothing had arisen from her unprotected sex with Mark. She could have used her period as an excuse to avoid David’s desire for sexual intimacy. She knew that’s what she could say to David if he pushed too hard, yes she could have used this to keep him away without offense. But her period was as good as finished by that night, and she knew it was not the real reason. Instead, because of Mark, she had told herself she did not want to have sex with someone else, at least not just now.

Eventually Stephen and Ruth had gone off home, saying they had important things to do in the morning and needed a good night’s sleep. And they clearly wanted to do this sleeping together. They had become very intimate in the second half of the night and having sex together was clearly on their minds. She and David could both feel it, it was a private joke between them as the others were leaving, and it aroused their sexual awareness of each other, like a pimple of anticipation.

Susan said she was fine with them leaving, that she would find her own way home in a short while. She really had intended to go, once she finished her drink.

But she had decided, as the two of them sat there, together in the late night; that she wasn’t ready to go home, not right then anyway. Susan could feel her own sexual appetite returning, and didn’t want to have listen to what Ruth and Stephen would be doing through the adjoining wall—it would just make her horny. And she felt like staying here for a bit yet with David too. It wasn’t really sexual, her reason behind wanting to stay with him, she was just enjoying being out and he was good company.

So, when he suggested another drink, she‘d acquiesced. She suspected it must have been a double because it tasted pretty strong. Nevertheless she enjoyed it and liked the light-headed, carefree feeling that had started to envelop her as they sat together. When he suggested he walk her home, she had said yes to that too.

And when they came outside, into the cold winter night and David suggested going back to his place to listen to music, as it was only a brief walk from the pub, Susan had gone along with that too.

They had walked into the night, arm in arm together at first, but eventually with his arm around her shoulder and she leaning into him. Susan realised she was a bit drunk, but she liked the feeling his body gave her as he walked alongside, solid and stable.

Once at his place, he had fixed them both a drink before he put on some music. They had sat together on the couch just letting the beats thrum over them. Susan could feel the alcohol flowing through her brain, making her less conscious of where she was and what she was doing.

The music slowed down, transforming into a soft ballad—almost a waltz—moving and evocative. David pulled her to her feet and they danced together, bodies pressed against each other as they moved with the music. She could feel his male hardness against her belly.

She told herself she should stop this now, she should not go where this was leading, but she was unable to draw back. It was more comfort than sexual, she just liked that feeling of a male body against hers, holding her in strong arms in the late night. It was as if her physical being had re-awakened to male body contact pleasure and she now had this unmet need for it.

Before her brain fully comprehended what was happening, David had put his hands over her buttocks and was stroking and feeling her bottom in an intense and intimate way. Susan felt his hand lift her dress upwards and slide over the bare skin of her hips, slipping fingers down under her knickers from behind. Her mind was at the edge of a protest, but it was all a bid fuddled, and it did really feel good, she could feel her own place becoming wet with desire.

David’s hand came around to the front and stroked her from outside, first on her belly and then on down over her knickers. She could not resist moaning and pushing her pubis hard against his hand.

Before she fully realised where this was all going he had led her to the bedroom and undressed her. She could feel his hands inside her, and felt completely powerless to say no. Her body was responding to him of its own volition and, even if her mind was not quite there, it was not objecting.

She felt her body being opened up. He pushed her legs apart and then pushed his maleness inside her. She found herself moving, thrusting her pelvis back against him as his urgency mounted.

It was all a faraway mind-blur. It was not quite a conscious consent, but she felt herself being pulled along by the power of his need, it was a river and she was in the current.

David pulled a condom from somewhere and put it on; Susan was vaguely aware of being glad of that; not that she would get pregnant, but she preferred not to have his naked male organ inside touching hers, or his sperm left within; it was a level of separation from giving him total intimacy.

As his urgency mounted, she gained a strange sense of detachment, almost an out-of-body experience. His body was convulsing in orgasmic delight and then it was over. It had felt pleasant, but, in a detached way, she was glad it was done. Still, she’d liked the body comfort of him, next to her. She distractedly stroked his head as she fell asleep.

It was daylight when she woke. She had a dry, fuzzy mouth, and the edge of a headache pulsing at her temples. David slumbered beside her, his tousled hair beautiful in the morning light. She found him almost too attractive, something of the male model. At her core she was strangely unmoved by this physical perfection. She wondered if she could just quietly dress and go home.

But now her movement had aroused him. She felt him grasp her and pull her back towards him. He had a throbbing early morning erection, huge and hard. While not desirous of more sex, it was easier to let it happen one more time, than say no.

Susan lay back and let him thrust into her. She began to enjoy it, the physical pleasure of a man’s hard body moving against and inside her, her pelvis arching against him, his mouth on her breasts, strong hands grasping buttocks. It was over too soon, just when her own pleasure was building.

David drifted off to a semi-sleep state and Susan rolled to her side, facing away from him. She felt a little unsatisfied, as if something had been missed. She fell back to sleep.

The next time she woke it was mid-morning. David had set up orange juice and croissants, as breakfast, on a beautiful verandah looking out over the water and the city.

Inside, her own emotions were mixed; she would almost have preferred to wind back the night and wake in her own bed, alone. She sensed he had pushed her towards drunkenness to get her to have sex, though she had gone with it too. Her liking of him was nothing rapturous but he was good company. David entertained her with tales of Sydney and his work. Then he asked about her plans for the day.

Susan thought immediately of Ruth, suddenly concerned that she might be worried.

David must have seen the anxiety in her face, for he said, “I hope you don’t mind, I took the liberty of sending Ruth a text when I woke up, saying that you had stopped over for the night. I should have asked you first but you were sleeping. I just wanted Ruth to know you were OK.”

She couldn’t find it in herself to object. She would have preferred this be a private affair, but she knew that chance had passed. And she could have sworn this night with David was a result that both Ruth and Stephen had sought to aid and abet. Now it was out there beyond hiding.

Returning to his first question she said. “I need to go home and change, and then I promised Ruth to meet for lunch but that’s all. I planned to have a quiet afternoon seeing as I’m catching the train to Melbourne early tomorrow.”

“Why don’t I ring Ruth and see if she can meet us? Perhaps Stephen can meet us too, flex off at two. Let’s have a late lunch at Watsons Bay, at the mouth of the harbour,” David proposed.

Susan nodded, going with the flow. David was good company and trying to be the perfect host. She liked being with him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

So it was arranged. It was a glorious mid winter day, cloudless sky, and warm in the sun, with the lightest cool breeze.

David drove her, in his open topped BMW sports car, to collect Ruth. A few winks and nudges, but no more than expected, and they were flowing with the moderate mid-day traffic, along New South Head Road, passing Double Bay and Rose Bay.

Taking a circuit around Bondi, they stopped for a walk along the beach, taking in bracing sea air and dipping toes in the winter Pacific Ocean.

Ruth and Susan had time for some private conversation while David chased waves. Ruth said, “You and David had a thing last night? You did really sleep with him?”

Susan nodded, no use denying.

“Actually I am glad for you both. I don’t know if he told you but he had a very serious relationship until a few months ago, and was quite cut up when it finished. He seems to really like you. You should just enjoy it.

“You know, if I wasn’t with Stephen I would definitely let him put his shoes under my bed. Despite him being drop dead gorgeous, David is actually an extra-nice guy as well as seriously well-heeled. Not to mention his parents are lovely country folks with a farm just over the mountains. I’m sure he would love to take you there.

Susan winced, “Cut the match making. Yes I like him but it was a just one-night thing and I am gone tomorrow. I’m glad you’re pleased, but why do I have the feeling that you have been pushing us together?”

Ruth grinned. “Well you may be a bit right. Steve and I, we wondered, when we went home together last night, whether it would be your lucky night, too? We both wanted you and Dave to have a night of good fortune together. It seems our wish came true. I just wish you were staying for a few more days. Any chance you can delay and stay for another week? A week in the outback should be more than enough, don’t you think?”

Susan rolled her eyes. “You are incorrigible.”

Lunch was served at Watsons Bay; lovely luscious seafood washed down by bottles of bubbly and fine wines. Steve joined them around 3 pm, and Jess and Robert followed about 5 pm, just as they were finishing. David, of course, paid the bill, insisted so.

Ruth could not help ribbing him, “Not such a cheap night after all.”

They sat on the Watsons Bay beach, facing west, watching the last sunlight leaving the Sydney sky, their toes dipping in the tingling of cold harbour water. Then it was into two cars making the trip back to the city. Steve drove David’s car as David was a little drunk, “Intoxicated with Susan’s lovely presence.”

As they swept down the road from Vaucluse to Rose Bay, the lights of the city and the Harbour Bridge rose to meet them. Susan took a deep breath as she absorbed the beauty. Yes, she could live in such a city and perhaps with this man, next to whom she sat, bodies pressed together. David was a good man; the word honourable seemed to fit.

They stopped in Oxford Street, in a quiet little café, for an intimate dinner. It was just the six of them, now arranged and accepted as three couples. By 10 pm they were home to the Newtown house. Susan needed to pack tonight and be up early to catch the train.

It was not quite planned or agreed, but David just ended up in the bed with her. For Susan it seemed easier to just let things roll on, one step more. The sex was better than she expected. It lasted longer and she felt that she could get to enjoy it a lot more with David if they did it a few more times. Their bodies were starting to synchronise and his ability to pleasure her was increasing, not quite orgasmic but nice. This time the condom was forgotten, but now she liked the feeling of his naked male body adding to the wetness inside her. They both slept a deep and dreamless sleep, enjoying again that physical comfort of another body lying close alongside.

Then the alarm was ringing; time to rise.

She showered quickly and got ready for the train. They were all coming with her to Central Station, in Robert’s car, a people mover.

As they stood waiting at the railway station, David said, “I wish you could stay here for another week or two. You don’t fly out for another fortnight, why not stay here for another week and you will still have time for your week in the outback? I would love to bring you up to our farm in the country; beautiful mountain rivers, great horses, kangaroos and wildlife everywhere.”

Susan had replied, “It sounds lovely, but my plans are made and it is past time to change.”

David then asked if her could ring her over the next two weeks of her trip, or perhaps fly and meet her somewhere for a bit.

She’d said, “That will be too hard, I just don’t know where I will be.”

He’d looked dejected so she relented, giving him her mobile number and address in England, saying, “Why don’t you write once I get home? I love letters. Send me a letter with your news. I promise I will write back and tell you about the rest of my trip.”

He looked happier after that.

Last hugs and goodbyes, then the train rolled away.

Her mind said, Finished, it is only history now. Part of her wished there had been no one else since Mark. Even though they made no promises of faithfulness and, until the trip to Alice Springs was arranged, there had been nothing definite about them even seeing each other again, yet still it was there. Why should she feel this strange feeling of almost shame? It felt like a betrayal of Mark that she had been with someone else. And even more because she had started to like the feeling of someone else’s body pushed hard within hers.

It was strange how enjoyment and guilt could share the same space. She felt herself shallow and fickle. Perhaps it was just that primal sex drive in all humans, where faithfulness was a lovely, imaginary concept but where, in real life, when opportunities came one took them. And even more because, as a visitor to these places, it was done without any consequences, pleasure was briefly shared and life moved on.

It was like sliding doors. She had stepped through one sliding door when she left England and came to Cairns, she had stepped through another coming to Sydney and now she was passing through yet another door as the train rolled away. It was curiously enlivening and exciting, a life lived this way. So why did the doubt nag?

The train rolled along, and she enjoyed the peace of looking out across green countryside, not unlike England except for different gum tree colours and horizons. The day drifted by in a leisurely haze. Morning turned to afternoon, and to dusk. The last of the trip reached into evening, lights of towns and cars twinkling as they passed by.

Finally the presence of a big city was evident, continuous light and buildings; waiting was ended, they pulled into Southern Cross Station, destination Melbourne reached.

People had told her about the cultural life of Melbourne; museums, art galleries and the inner city delights of trams and street-side shopping. She knew she could easily pass the two full days she had available.

Plus she had heard great things about Melbourne Zoo. Zoos were a secret passion of hers, something she and her father had done together. Visits made to Regents Park Zoo, Jersey Zoo and Whipsnade, as well as to other great zoos of Europe. She and her father were both fascinated by the large animals of Africa: the superbly adapted predators like lions, leopards, hyenas and crocodiles, many other amazing animals like the rhinoceros, hippopotamus, elephant, and giraffe.

But, most of all, her own private fascination was with the primates; gorillas and chimpanzees especially. She had read and re-read “In the Shadow of Man” by Jane Goodall, and seen that wonderful film, “Gorillas in the Mist,” about Dian Fossey in Rwanda.

So, part of her plan was to go to this zoo, sit and observe these incredible animals, for an hour or two on her own. That link between the non-human primates and the earliest people coming out of Africa was an embedded fascination in her deepest psyche.

Melbourne was easy and comfortable as she settled in. She had made lists of places to visit and things to do. It was great to have these full days where she could immerse herself in all there was to see and do. With just herself to please she was amazed at how much she managed to fit in. It consumed her so fully that, until she was actually packing to leave, she had thought of almost nothing else; her time in her space.

By the end she decided that she would love to come to Melbourne again, maybe even stay awhile, there was much more that she wanted to see and do in this city. It had a welcoming and homely feel, much more like the European cities she knew, despite not sharing Sydney’s superb natural beauty. Perhaps it would be there for another trip, in another life, perhaps with another somebody, a person yet unknown, who would one day become part of her life.

 

 

 

Chapter 7 – Alice, Here I Come – Days 17-18

 

Susan sometimes thought she did her best thinking on aeroplanes. They were crowded places in an empty sky. While you were jammed in with other people, you were almost entirely disconnected from all else in the world. This gave her free hours to sit and contemplate.

On other flights Susan gorged on movies, magazines, drinks and junk food. Today she just sat, thought and wondered what might be.

She didn’t regret her decision to come to Alice Springs to meet Mark. She felt no fear about travelling with him, she knew he was so thoroughly competent and in his element.

She also felt that she had moved on from Sydney and left all thought of David behind, pushed into a remote corner, somewhere in the back of her mind. Perhaps she would hear from or see him again, perhaps not; it did not seem important now.

As for whether she should feel ashamed at what happened, lover to two men in less than a week, with neither knowing that the other existed, well that was left aside too.

But now it was Mark that recaptured her mind. There was something in what made him up that she couldn’t quite fathom and it added an edge, making her uneasy and nervous in a way she could not define. Perhaps this would be a great journey of discovery of the real Mark, him more able to show himself in a place where he felt at home, without the need to conform to the rest of humanity. All she knew was that he was a huge and powerful force over her and the thought of seeing him soon gave her butterflies of anticipation. The time she had spent with him was the most exhilarating thing so far in her life.

She had phoned him the day after the text exchange but the conversation was brief. Just a confirmation of time of arrival and flight details and an agreement that he would pick her up at the furthest end of the terminal pick up zone.

Then, last night, a text had come saying he would be delayed getting into town and asking if she could catch the shuttle bus to the Alice Springs Mall. He would text her there when he arrived and arrange to collect her. She had no idea where they would go or what they would do from there.

So now she followed his instructions and brought herself, with backpack, in on the shuttle bus from the airport to the mall in the centre of Alice Springs. In anticipation of seeing him she had bought for him a beautiful little calendar notebook from Melbourne Zoo, each month separated by a beautiful animal picture. She had written in the flyleaf.

 

Dear Mark,

Really looking forward being Out Back with you

From Suz, with love!!

 

Now she was sitting in a café in the mall, enjoying lunch, waiting for the phone to ring; still a little bit in her own contemplative world.

She became aware that someone had stopped in front of the table.

She looked up.

It was him.

Today he was wearing a bright checked shirt and moleskins, an Akubra hat pulled down over his eyes to shade the glare. He looked just great, so seriously together, she felt breathless with delight. She sprang to her feet, spilling coffee, and hugged him tight, she didn’t care. She felt his hard arms encircle her, it felt good.

He looked at her with a quizzical eye. “I wondered whether you would show. When people get a taste for bright lights and big city they often don’t want to come out here.”

She said, “I wouldn’t have missed it for quids, plus it was you I most came to see.”

She fumbled and found her present. She passed it to him, feeling a bit shy. He took it and flicked through it, pleasure evident. Then he came back to the front page, and re-read her writing, with a half-smile on his face.

“Well, I hope not to disappoint. Out here is a lot of space and not much in between.”

Then he looked at her half eaten lunch, saying. “Do you want to finish up? We have a way to go this afternoon.”

Arching eyebrows she said “Oh, so secret, where to, pray tell?”

“My surprise.” he replied.

He led her to a car park around the back of the mall, flanked by a dry riverbed. Parked amongst other vehicles, was large white four-wheel-drive. He said, “That’s mine, a tray back Toyota Land Cruiser. I think of it as my little truck, it is like a home of wheels. It takes me and my gear anyplace I want to go. On the back was a cage, and a built in white structure, like a cooler box but much larger, with a locking door like a big fridge with a padlock. There was also a big swag, an overnight bag, some other locked metal boxes, a water tank in one front corner, along with two spare tyres attached to metal brackets in each back corner.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the cooler box.

“Sometimes I catch a lot of fish, sometimes I shoot a camel or buffalo and take the meat to the local aborigines. It all goes in there, with a great pile of ice. That keeps it cool for a few days. Today only a carton of beer and a couple of juicy steaks,”

“What about the cage?” she asked.

“Sometimes when I go hunting I bring a dog. That stops it running away or biting someone, when I don’t want it to. Also has a great calming effect on anyone who might want to help themselves to something on the back of the truck.”

He popped her pack in the cage and unlocked the front doors, hers first then his. “OK, time to go,” he said.

Susan climbed in. With a clattering roar the diesel engine fired and they were away. They drove through a gap in the red broken hills, heading south out of town, coming along the edge of a wide sandy riverbed and went on past more low hills along the road, red rocky hillsides with olive-green trees and bleached grass, vibrant against the clear blue sky.

This looked like the way Susan had come in to town from the airport. She recognised landmarks, the train line, the Ghan Museum, a Road Transport Hall of Fame; lots of big trucks there. Just when the airport came into view and this seemed like their destination, they tuned right. A big sign said “Stuart Highway” and pointed to Adelaide.

“I thought we were going to Darwin,” said Susan, “I’m not real strong on my Australian geography but I thought Adelaide was in the opposite direction.”

Mark cracked a grin, “Really can’t pull one over you eh? Well spotted. We are doing a slight detour, thought you might like to see that big Rock, the one that the bloody tourists rave over, before we head north.”

Susan smiled widely, “That is a big surprise, thought we were going out into the ‘Never Never’ and here we are heading for Tourist Central. You know I could have flown straight there if that was the idea. Is that the big surprise?”

“Well part,” admitted Mark, “but there is a something else to see along the way.”

They rumbled along at a steady pace, passing around the edges of more low red rocky ranges and sand hills, featureless but pretty country, mixed low trees and bushes, occasional roadside patches of desert flowers. It was vast and empty, different from anything Susan knew. She sat there, letting the country roll by, feeling content and enjoying Mark’s profile as he gave his attention to driving, with odd descriptors of the country and places they passed for commentary.

After an hour, just as they were coming to some larger hills, their car slowed and turned left off the bitumen, following a small sign reading, “Rainbow Valley.” The road was sandy wheel tracks, crossing orange-red low sand dune hills. Occasional patches of heavy sand caused Mark to drop a gear. They passed a tourist four-wheel drive, going the opposite way. About fifteen minutes further on they pulled off the road, at the side of a low sandy ridge. Mark indicated to get out and they walked towards the top. It was three or four times higher than the car, and didn’t look like anything special, just loose orange coloured sand covered by wiry grasses with scattered stunted trees and bushes.

As they crested the ridge, there, opening before her, was the most spectacular sight she had seen. Below the sand dune lay a clay-pan, part covered in water. At it’s far side was a most incredible low range of hills. Eroded, broken, jagged peaks pointed skywards. The colours were what hit her, some parts were brick red, others faded into a rainbow range of soft pastels; orange, salmon, yellow and white. The hills formed a perfect silhouette in the lake, so it seemed a second mountain range sat there, just below the first. It was not in large scale, but perfection of weather-sculpted nature was here. The beauty took her breath away.

“I wanted you to see it from here; this is the best view of the whole,” said Mark.

Susan stood alongside him, resting her hand lightly on his arm and her head against his shoulder. “Worth coming just for this,” she said.

They drove to the car park and spent an hour walking and viewing it from all angles in the afternoon sun. As the sun fell towards the horizon, its light reflected back from the hills, lighting them in ever more iridescent hues of glowing colour.

Mark said, “I love the sunsets here. For five minutes, right on dusk, it is like the ghosts of people past, those who have lived in this place for over 50,000 years, come out and walk in the twilight, living in the magic of the colours. Then, as the light fades, they sadly leave behind this beauty and return to other lands which we, mere mortals, cannot see.

“In that soft shining light I feel as if I leave my body and walk with them, hearing their whispers and songs, telling me of times long gone. Perhaps one day, when I die, someone will scatter my ashes here, to mix with the spirits of these wise and ancient beings. I would like that.”

Susan felt goose bumps rise on her skin. She had never grasped a spiritual dimension in this bush-hardened cynic. This was a window into his soul she was privileged to see.

Then Mark pulled back from the moment, “We can’t stay for this evening’s dusk. It’s a long way to the Rock and we should push on.”

They walked back to the car and drove on, sharing silence for a couple hours, back onto the bitumen and south, winding through more hills, crossing two large and spectacular rivers, the Finke and the Palmer, more and more surreal in their colours as the sun sunk westwards. Then over vast short grass plains, grass glowing golden in the fading sunlight.

Another road sign pointed “Adelaide” straight on and “Uluru” right. They went right, driving towards a red sun disk, just above the horizon. Half an hour later came a roadhouse sign, “Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse”. Daylight was gone by now, diminished to a dull red glow in the sky.

“Still 200 kilometres to go; I thought we’d stop for a cold beer and a burger,” said Mark. They perched at the bar; the beer icy, the burgers good. They ate with simple enjoyment.

On they went, into the dark as the stars came out. After another hour a silvery light seemed to glow. Susan looked behind. A near full moon was rising, bathing grass plains and sand hills glimpses in silvered light. Far to the south was a large flat-topped mountain, a moonlit reflection. It was how she imagined that Table Mountain over Cape Town would look.

“Mount Connor, similar in scale and spectacle, but not in fame, to its Uluru cousin,” Mark said

Another roadhouse passed to the right, its sign proclaiming “Curtin Springs”. White-faced cattle stood near the road as they passed it by. Then spinifex covered sand hills rolled on by for an hour or more. Finally distant lights twinkled on the horizon. As they came over a sand-ridge Susan saw a massive bulk ahead.

It was another most incredible sight; a dark mound, shadow stripes running up and down its massive half-circle form. It glowed in moonlight, an almost deep purple with silver hues. It grew ever larger and more dominant, this huge elephant shaped lump, fallen asleep out in the middle of the sand, under a near full moon. This was Uluru.

Then they swung away and it faded from view behind dunes. A few minutes saw them rolling into a well-lit town. Views of hotels, caravan parks and wandering tourists reflected in headlights. They entered the car park of a modern hotel complex. The sign proclaimed, “Desert Sails.”

Mark said, “I thought we would treat ourselves to a night of the good life before we seriously leave civilisation behind.”

They walked into the hotel side by side, holding hands. Susan separated as he went up to reception, standing well behind as he signed the check in forms, squinting in the bright light. He already had a booking slip so it was a minor formality. He was given access keys, a map and a brief introduction to their hotel and location.

Now it was just the two of them. They followed the directions and walked along a passage to their room, in a back corner looking over a pool and sand dunes to the west.

She felt a strange trepidation to be alone with Mark like this. Their lovemaking had been out amongst nature or in hidden moments in public. She had never been alone with him in a totally private space. She had never spent an uninterrupted night with him in a full-sized bed. She hoped he would not find this intimate experience with her a disappointment, after the frisson of their almost public past lovemaking.

But Mark was totally calm and reassuring. They walked out the verandah and savoured the rapidly cooling night air for a moment. It was as if he was slowing the re-connection process down, giving her time to get comfortable and occupy her own space. She moved in next to him, her arm around him, enjoying his solidity.

He pointed to the bathroom and said, “You probably want to freshen up after a long day, or maybe, you’d prefer a drink from the bar fridge. I’ll get the bags from the car.”

“A hot bath sounds just fantastic,” Susan replied, smiling brightly. Mark left and she turned on the tap.

Taking off her clothes, while the bath ran and bubbles frothed, Susan looked at her silhouette in the mirror. She ran her hands over her breasts and she had an overwhelming desire to have Mark touch her like this. The prospect of a night together gave her a thrill.

She climbed into the bath, leaving the door open six inches, so he could not help but see in when he returned. She lay stretched out for a minute, letting the warmth penetrate all her pores. Then she pushed herself deep into the water, submerging herself completely. She lay there for a few seconds, an upside down underwater dive.

When she lifted herself and opened her eyes Mark was standing there, silent as a cat, looking down at her, holding a large bottle of bubbles, “Compliments of Management, thought you might like one,” he said.

She yawned sleepily, like a contented kitten, and said, “Lovely. But really, all I want is you. God I have missed you over the last week.”

He looked at her, eyes at the edge of a wicked smile, and said. “It has taken all my effort to keep my hands off you until we got here. Now I intend to spend all night catching up on lost time. I want to make you beg for rest. But first, let us drink a glass of this to celebrate.”

With a flourish Mark removed the cork and poured two glasses. He sat on the edge of the bath, in shorts and T-shirt, while they sipped together. Then, with his free hand, he scooped up some bubbles and placed them on her nose. Susan took his fingers and slowly kissed them, one by one, then moved them to her aching nipple. She arched herself towards him, bubbles sliding off her naked form.

Soon he was bent over her, mouth on breast, hand stroking thighs and her mound. Then they were both naked and trying to join together in the bath.

Susan giggled and stood up, pushing him back, “This is crazy, we have a superb king bed; let’s go there to really enjoy this.”

Mark stood and reached for towels to dry them. Then he picked her up, and carried her to the bed, where he lay her down, gently, but with eyes full of intent.

It was a night that was burned in her mind for all of her life, she like a sex starved kitten, her ravisher as a rampaging lion.

They began on top of the covers, but were soon under them as they explored each other’s bodies with their mouths, reaching a joint orgasmic climax. They watched a raunchy movie while he came from behind. Then another slow languorous bath after which gentle lovemaking saw them drift to sleep until early light reflected back off the hills behind brought them awake. They found each other again in early morning light, loving the sight of each other’s naked bodies.

“That’s it, you win, I can’t take any more, I am totally worn out,” said Susan.

She jumped up and pulled on a top. “I am starving! Let’s go have breakfast. Then let’s go see this famous lump of rock.”

They ate a leisurely breakfast: great lashings of bacon and eggs, tomatoes, sausages, and mushrooms, followed by pastries and multiple cups of coffee.

“I’m so full,” Susan said, looking at him with a slow smile, “A breakfast to remember after the best night of sex in my life. What can you do to top that?”

Mark, smug faced, said, “I can’t think of anything, except to do it again tonight, and the night after, under the desert sky.”

They climbed the Uluru, and marvelled at the view across to the Olgas and Mt Connor, amidst end-to-end sky sitting over endless spinifex sand-plains. They walked around the rock base. Mark showed her where the “Azaria” clothes were found; she knew the story of the dingo. They drove on to the Olgas and walked up the Valley of the Winds.

Finally, touristed out, they headed back in the direction of Curtin Springs, stopping in the mid-afternoon for a beer and a local steak sandwich—juicy, tender, well-flavoured beef, which the owner told them was station grown.

Mark and Susan drove on into the late afternoon, following a different route, which brought them towards Kings Canyon. It was a bitumen road so the driving was easy. They saw camels and brumbies walking through scrubby bush, silhouettes in late afternoon light.

An hour before dusk, they turned east onto a dirt road and drove a few kilometres before taking a side track north. They came to the edge of a broad sandy river that Mark called “The Palmer River.” He turned along a set of wheel tracks, following the river edge, and drove for few more minutes. They came to a waterhole nestled in the riverbed, viewed from a high rocky bank on their side, where he stopped. In the stillness of the evening it glowed in reflected light, rocky bank, clear water, sand and dry grass behind.

“I think this might be our campsite for tonight, what do you think?” he asked.

“Love it,” said Susan.

He pulled his swag off the car and placed it on the top of the ridge, looking down and out, across the river. “Why don’t you sit here and enjoy the view while I get a fire going.”

So Susan sat, alone and quiet, while Mark foraged for branches.

In the gathering dusk, an endless succession of brightly coloured birds were coming to the water to drink, small finches with a zebra tail stripes, others with red and diamond patterns on their plumage, beautiful blue wrens, and turquoise coloured parrots.

Susan heard a twittering noise and looked up. Perhaps a thousand, maybe more, iridescent green-yellow birds, silhouetted in the last sunlight came swooping in to drink. She realised these were the real wild budgerigars, ancestors of those seen in a cage. Thump, thump; a blue-furred mother kangaroo and her joey came cautiously across the sand.

Mark returned and soon a roaring fire of mulga wood was burning. He left again, but was quick to come back with a medium sized log—incredibly heavy and twisted. He put one end in the fire. “Best wood for cooking coals, gidgee. It will keep our fire going all night”

He opened a metal tucker box. Inside was a cast-iron pan and pot, a selection of food tins and jars and, tucked in a corner, wrapped in a tea towel, was a square glass bottle. Mark pulled out two tin cups, pannikins he called them, dusted off the bottle and handed it to Susan. “Would you like to try some Bundaberg Overproof Rum—OP for short? There’s ice and Coke in the Esky if you prefer it that way.” He poured half an inch into a pannikin and handed it to her. The fire almost took her breath away.

“Think I will try the ice and coke with it,” she said, taking the cup.

Mark nodded, and fetched a Coke and a handful of ice from the car, which he then added to her drink. He splashed a liberal half-inch of the rum into his own cup and took a deep sip.

“Just the thing for a cold night! When I started in the country, I had a week out northwest of Alice, out towards the Georgina River with an old-timer. I asked him what to bring, and he said a carton. So I went to the pub and bought a carton of beer. Next morning, when he picked me up, he pointed to my carton and said, ‘What’s that rubbish? That won’t last us a night, I meant a carton of OP Rum.’ So we stopped at a pub on the way out of town and I bought a carton of OP Bundy Rum. We almost finished it in that one week. My liver never recovered, but I got a taste for it,” Mark recounted laughing.

Susan laughed too, “Sounds like I‘ll need a lot of practice to catch up”

Dinner was steak and jacket potatoes, cooked in the coals and washed down with some more rum.

As they sat staring into the fire an eerie howl reverberated through the stillness. A few seconds later another howl came from a different location, then another.

“The dingoes are hunting,” explained Mark.

They retold the Azaria story to each other, each contributing parts and emotions, she from reading, he from seeing. Neither doubted the role of the dingo, but it had a chilling poignancy, spoken to the sounds of hunting dingos calling into the night.

And then the talking was over. For a moment they just looked at the fire in silence. But quickly they rolled out the swag and lay in it together, not moving for a long time. Susan felt incredibly dreamy and content, and drifted to sleep. She woke just as the fire was dying down.

Mark was looking down at her with an electric smile. “You didn’t think I was going to let you sleep the whole night through without something more, after my promise of this morning did you?”

In her half-asleep state, Susan simply replied, “Sleepy.”

But Mark was insistent, “All the more fun to wake you.” He turned her face towards him and kissed it with a ferocity that Susan was almost unprepared for. Then he was on top of her, forcing her legs apart and her body open, as he sought to push himself inside her. Susan’s first inclination was to clamp her legs shut and push him away, but he was way too strong. She was pinioned and powerless, with just a pimple of fear at how unrelenting he was.

But she really wanted this just as much as he did. Her body opened and responded to his thrusts. Soon she was as insatiable as he, a tigress, uninhibited, crying out with pleasure and pain as she climaxed. They took each other three times more before the dawn lit the sky. There was not a single inch of her body or soul that had not been touched, entered and pleasured. She felt like a hussy but loved this newly discovered wild sexual being within her.

In the early dawn Susan fell into a deep sleep. She woke a couple hours later with the sun well up. Of Mark there was no trace, but the fire had been stoked and a billy sat at the edge with hot water, and a basin of cold water, soap, and a towel sat nearby.

She realised this was for her and added hot water to the cold, until it was pleasantly warm. She washed her face and sponged off her body. She dressed in a tracksuit to push back the morning chill. She saw a pan with rashers and eggs sitting in it. She placed the pan with rashers on the fire. When it was sizzling she cracked the eggs and dropped them in.

As the eggs were finishing, Mark emerged from the trees fifty yards away, carrying a rifle, on webbing, over his shoulder. He waved to her and she waved back. “Breakfast’s ready, what did you get?”

“Nothing today, just scouting. You were sleeping so peacefully that I didn’t want to wake you. I often go for an early morning walk. Sometimes I bag breakfast, like a rabbit or wood-duck, but not today,” said Mark, but then added, “That smells real good.”

He dropped two pieces of bread on the dull coals and, after a few seconds, flipped them over. After another ten seconds there were two perfectly cooked pieces of toast. He passed her one and put a handful of tea in the simmering, half-full billy. He found two camp chairs tucked away on the truck, set them up and poured two cups of tea. They ate side by side.

“How would you like to see the real desert?” Mark asked Susan, “We could cut across to the east, around the edge of the Simpson Desert today and tomorrow, before heading up to the Gulf. You said you need to be in Darwin on Sunday week to catch your plane didn’t you?”

Susan nodded, more than a week seemed an eternity away.

 

 

 

Chapter 8 – Simpson Desert to Barrow Creek – Day 19-21

 

Susan and Mark packed their things quickly after breakfast. Then before they got on the road he checked the two spare tyres, the water and fuel tanks, then the engine oil. “I fuelled up in Yulara so we have enough fuel to go about 1000 kilometres yet. But you still need to check. Doesn’t do to run dry in the middle of nowhere,” explained Mark.

Then they were on their way, turning back onto a main dirt road going east. They did a detour to the Henbury Craters and admired at the way a meteorite had scooped such a large hole out of the dry stony hillside. Mark and Susan walked briskly in the still and chill morning air, doing a circuit of the craters. No one else was in sight.

“Bit early for tourists, if we come back in a couple hours there’ll be plenty,” said Mark.

They drove north onto Stuart Highway, and as they swept down into a valley, with the green line of the Finke River ahead, they turned to the east, following a sandy dirt road heading towards the morning sun. Another hour and a half of driving followed, on a series of back roads, which crossed a succession of sand dunes interspersed with flat areas of open grass and scrub and small clay pans. They came to a solitary rock outcrop called Chambers Pillar for late morning tea. It stood alone, a silent pale yellow and ochre sentinel, surveying its empty desert kingdom of two lonely crows.

It was a tourist site and several visitors arrived as they were drinking their tea, walking around and climbing up to the base to witness the great views into the distance. They waved and called out distant hellos but otherwise remained separate.

Mark and Susan continued east and began to swing south, running alongside ever-bigger dunes that marked the west of the Simpson Desert.

Mark seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all these back roads, turning this way and that, cutting his way across the country, while maintaining a broad direction. He explained that creeks and rivers ran out from the ranges to the western edge of the desert where they ended in a series of swamps which he called flood-outs. These became massive pools of water after rain.

Now, with the heaviest rain of the year a past memory, these flood-outs were drying, but still lush. The roads that a year earlier were well underwater were now becoming trafficable. Mark told her that in remnant swamps lush vegetation grew to the height of a vehicle roof.

The swamps were populated by fat cattle, mostly enormous bullocks. They seemed to do little but eat. Many had grown so fat they waddled. A vast profusion of waterbirds, ducks, pelicans, swans, and waders, lived here too. As they passed these flew off in dense white clouds.

Then the swamps were left behind, and they passed alongside vast sand dunes, bank behind bank. As they drove they saw cattle and the occasional camel, sometimes they glimpsed distant buildings, which Mark told her were cattle station homesteads. They kept heading east and south along a mix of roads and tracks.

Now they were into the desert proper heading to the southeast, running between massive sand hills along a set of faint wheel tracks. All signs of human habitation had dropped away.

Mark told her they were heading for flood-out country at the very end of the Finke River where it ended in the desert at the border of South Australia and the Northern Territory, beyond that was a flowing bore where they would camp for the night. Mark said that it formed an oasis in the desert.

In the afternoon Mark and Susan stopped at a clay-pan, where water had pooled between a two mighty sand dunes. They lit a fire and had a cup of tea along with bread, cheese and cracker biscuits. It was followed by a mug of cool water that Mark poured from a waterbag, which Susan had noticed, hanging just behind the vehicle cabin. It had a slight canvas taste, but was cool and refreshing.

They had seen no one else for hours. Susan had never experienced such a total sense of solitude. She thought she should feel scared and isolated in this remote place, with this man she barely knew. Yet, instead, she felt contentment and elation. It was a place of perfection; the two of them, the desert, endless red hues of sand, splashes of purple, yellow, and white desert flowers and a rich blue sky that stretched away into infinity. It gave rest for her soul. She felt joy to be in the company of someone who drew sustenance from it as she did.

After eating Susan and Mark sat silent and peaceful, absorbing their quiet solitude and the land around them. Here was something beyond words. People had come to deserts for millennia to find this, man lost in vastness, on a scale that exceeded imagination.

Susan must have dozed off, sitting on the sand with her back against the swag, because the movement of Mark packing to go snapped her from her daze. Reluctantly she rose and they drove on.

Susan lost all concept of time, distance, and direction—other than an awareness of the sun and where it sat in the sky. With the glowing disc behind them starting to cast long shadows, the colours of the sand grew bright as it reflected the light.

An unknown time later, having passed yet more sand dunes and flood-outs, they came to their destination, the flowing bore.

Mark explained that, decades earlier, a drilling crew had sunk this bore. As they reached the water a huge blast of pressure had blown out the wellhead. For fifty years it had flowed, inestimable amounts of water, rising from far below the earth in a thing called the Great Artesian Basin, the aquifer that covered half of inland Australia, and which lay under this entire desert and a thousand miles beyond.

Some said the water started its journey in the New Guinea highlands, where hundreds of inches of rain fell each year. Slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, it oozed through rocks far underground until it filled the ground below this place. It was like the immensity of the desert, unseen, yet at a scale beyond human comprehension.

When the bore water flow first began it had risen thirty feet into the air, a massive geyser. Now it was like a steady bubbling flow, rising to Susan’s chest height as it came out. Trapped between low hills it flowed out into a green space, drinking place of desert animals, place of green grass. After a few hundred yards all sign of water was gone, returned to sky or its underground source, and there was only desert again.

They made their camp on a dry clay-pan within sight of the bore flow. Mark found a pair of binoculars that he passed to Susan, along with a “What Bird Is That” book.

He encouraged her to try and identify some of the innumerable birds that came in to drink. He also suggested that she also keep a lookout for other animals that may come to drink, perhaps a camel or an old bullock.

Mark was seeking a big fat bullock for his larder. He explained that sometimes they came here to drink in the evening dusk or full dark. These were the escapees from stations, way up north, coming from hundreds of miles away. Some found their way into this place after floods or storms broke down fences and lived on years later, out in the farthest reaches of the desert, walking onward between sand dunes running southeast until they emerged here.

Mark pointed to a low succulent bush with bright pink flowers that grew in clumps around their camp. He broke off a piece and crushed it between his fingers, so the juice ran out and dripped to the ground, “This is parakeelya,” he told her, “After rain it grows between the dunes. Where there is parakeelya cattle do not need to drink, this gives both food and water. So they walk hundreds of miles, living on this. When a long dry comes, it dies away. Then they must come here to drink in the summer heat. But for now it is growing across the desert and they do not need to come here to drink.

“But cattle are creatures of habit, so still some come, perhaps there will be one tonight. If there is, I will take its meat, either as it drinks, or by following its tracks in the early morning. Usually, after a big drink, they don’t walk far before they stop to rest. Meat is good for trading with mines and aboriginal communities where we’ll be going.

“What lives out here no one else can lay claim to. So they’re free for the taking; that is, if you are smart enough to find them. But it’s easier said than done, they’re incredibly clever animals, they only survive if they can avoid people. I like to try—I enjoy the challenge. Sometimes I succeed.”

It was an hour until dark, so Mark suggested they climb up a nearby sand dune that provided a wide view of the surrounding countryside. The dune was surprisingly high and it was hard to climb. But they worked their way up, puffing as they went. At the summit they gained a panorama of the desert as evening settled. They sat in the lee of the dune, just below the top, where they could look back towards their camp. It was silent in the evening stillness, and they sat in this silence. After a few minutes Mark pointed out a huge eagle, circling above them.

“A wedge-tail, it must have a nest somewhere around. It’s looking for something, perhaps a rabbit, for its dinner.” As he spoke the eagle folded its wings and plummeted down to where the grass grew green on the edge of the soak. As it soared aloft again, Susan saw it was carrying a brown furry object in its talons, an unfortunate rabbit, now dinner.

A little time later they saw movement to the west, perhaps a kilometre away. Susan’s eyes tried to pinpoint where it came from, but it was indistinct in the evening haze. She picked up the binoculars and zoomed to where she had sensed movement. Now it came sharp in her focus, a group of camels were walking through the mixed trees, browsing as they went. There were six large ones and three smaller ones, females with some calves. About a hundred yards behind was an even larger animal, a bull camel tracking along behind the female group. Despite feeding, they moved along rapidly. Before long they reached the edge of the soak. There one raised its nose in the air, tasting the breeze. Without an obvious signal they formed into a file and drifted away, fading into desert at a steady trot.

“They’re like ships of the desert, the way they silently come and go,” noted Susan, “Why did they change direction before they ate or drank, and head away?”

“Out here they see little of people, but on the stations, back towards Alice, people shoot them because they break fences. Others round them up and catch them. So, to survive, camels try to keep away from people. They probably caught our smell, wafting in the evening breeze and decided they would rather be some place else.”

There was a scurrying noise in a clump of spinifex near where they sat. Mark put his finger to his lips. Seconds later a small, mouse-like, furry creature, ran out. With a springy step, it sniffed here and there, making little darting movements as it scurried this way and that. Suddenly it sprung high into the air and caught a large beetle in its paws, almost half the size of the creature. Mark and Susan watched, as it proceeded to eat it with apparent relish, crunching every last morsel then licking its lips. A few seconds later it was joined by a second, identical creature. The sniffed each other warily, then, as if frightened, they sprung back into the spinifex together. The shadow of a hawk passed a few feet above them.

Susan looked to her other side, hearing a faint chirp. In a bush, so close she could almost touch it, was a mother blue wren with a nest of chicks. The mother made little cheeps as she dipped her beak towards each open mouth, transferring food to each in turn. She moved so fast it was like little flashes of light as she darted hither and thither amongst the low branches alongside the nest. Then another of her kind was sitting next to her—a male, the female’s mate, with even more brilliant plumage, returned to contribute his share. He repeated the feeding of the chicks. Then, for a brief second, the two birds sat side by side on a small twig, making a ritual of re-acquaintance before flitting away.

Now a chill was falling in the still evening; Susan gave a shiver.

Mark noticed, “Time to return for dinner. It gets really cold out here at night, so you will want warm clothes.”

“I expect you to keep me warm tonight, that’s what you are here for.” Susan answered cheekily.

As they reached the bottom of the dune, coming alongside the soak, there was a whirring sound in the sky above. They both looked up. Framed in the last rays of the sun was a vast cloud of iridescent budgerigars, tens on tens of thousands, a number far beyond counting. They circled in a tight spiral whorl then settled en mass to drink. With another whir they were away, gone into the sky.

A wealth of wildlife lives here in this remote desert place. Far beyond what I ever imagined, Susan thought.

She and Mark settled into the evening, next to a fire, with sizzling sausages and another pannikin of rum. Of old bullocks there were no signs; like phantoms of the ocean, coming only when not expected or looking another way.

They were both tired and slept soundly, cuddled together for warmth. Lovemaking was forgotten until the call of a bird brought them awake in early dawn light. Then, well refreshed, they pleasured each other and slept again.

Mark got up to stoke the fire. While, Susan thought about joining him, she decided it was too cold out of the swag, and burrowed back, deep under the covers.

Later, hidden in her cocoon of comfort, she heard a noise above her. She poked her nose out. Mark was holding out a steaming mug of tea and a plate of toast, bacon and eggs.

“Something for her ladyship, made while she slumbered. It’s cold out, there is ice at the edge of the soak and the cabin thermometer reads minus six degrees. So I thought you needed breakfast in bed before you emerge to face the day.”

Susan put down the plate and cup and took his hand. “I hope you are coming to have it with me. The breakfast looks and smells fantastic, but what I most want is for you to come in here, sheltered from the desert cold, and warm me against your body.”

Mark began to climb in, food forgotten, maleness aroused. Susan put up her hand, “First we must eat. We’re going to need the energy.”

She made space beside her. Mark laid his body there as she climbed astride. She placed pillows under his head and, taking the plate, fed him alternating mouthfuls.

She could feel his maleness, hard against her belly. Still feeding him, Susan aligned her body and pushed him within her. Sex merged with breakfast. They devoured food; they devoured each other, alternating steps, increasing gusto, until controlled no longer.

After, lying in his arms, she said, “You are the sexiest, most precious man I have met. I am crazed with desire and don’t want this to end. Could we stay in the desert, forever?”

She felt Mark’s arms tighten around her and he pushed his face into her hair. No words were said, but it felt like an emotion that mirrored hers. His body shook slightly; it was almost like he was crying inside but his face was hidden.

She ran her fingers through his hair, and whispered inside her mind, I love you.

Later, Susan would remember this moment as their most perfect place of existence, the place before any shadow had come into their sky.

After breakfast Mark scouted the water edges. “Well, we missed nothing in our sleep; nothing came last night, no tracks. Still, I am glad you came here, very few do.”

Susan nodded, “Amen to that.”

After breakfast they walked for another hour along the soak and amongst the dunes. Sometimes she skipped, her joy outpouring into physical exuberance. Sometimes they held hands, or she hugged herself to him as he walked along. Once she climbed a dune to above his head, and rushing down, flung herself into his arms with total abandon. He caught her and swung her through the air with effortless strength. It was an aimless rambling walk, more about each other and the delight of togetherness than about a place in the desert. But the desert was their playground and the warming sun gave a sense of immortal delight. For a short time she could believe that their life could go on together, forever, just like this.

It was mid-morning when they packed up. They returned the way they had come for the first couple hours, following yesterday’s tracks. Then they took a different road, which travelled further north along the desert edge. The trip rolled along, not unlike yesterday, but with a sense of kinship between them that Susan had not experienced with anyone else. She sensed that Mark was feeling something similar. A couple times they stopped their car on a high desert ridge and gazed away into the endless space. They made occasional aimless conversation, but it was like punctuation marks between empty spaces, spaces without need of filling, as befitted this land of emptiness.

As they drove between two large sand dunes, in the mid-afternoon, Mark sighted a big bullock trotting east towards the ridge of sand a couple hundred metres away.

He pulled the car to a halt. “I have been looking for a big fat one, just like this.” He opened a long steel box with a heavy lock. He removed a heavy hunting rifle, with a gleaming polished scope. Mark cracked the bolt open and fed a round into the breach from the magazine, then clicked on the safety. Susan could see from his confident handling that he had often used guns before.

He walked away from the car to where a bent tree formed a natural rest at shoulder height. The bullock had stopped in a patch of scrub, at the foot of a big dune, now a good 300 metres away. It was barely visible and its head little more than a black dot as it ate some succulent foliage. She watched Mark ease off the safety catch and steady himself, a pause for maybe two seconds, then crack. The bullock fell down as if pole-axed.

Mark returned to the car and they drove over to near where it lay, picking a way across the bits of broken ground with care. Susan walked across to the body.

She looked at this massive animal, at least a ton, with rolls of fat flesh bulging around its hips and tail. She tried to see where bullet had hit it; it must have been a head or spine shot to fall like that. She finally located a small red dot in the brown skin, just below and behind the ear. Under this mark she could feel smashed bone. She was a fair shot and her father was good, but Mark had real skill to pull off a shot like that, accurate to the inch over 300 yards.

In half an hour Mark had boned out the carcass, loading the meat into clear plastic bags, which went in to the cooler on the large blocks of ice. She helped carry the smaller cuts and then with cleaning up. The large pieces were very heavy, completely beyond her to lift. Mark carried them with apparent ease. They packed up and headed on again.

It felt like “Out of Africa” or “English Patient” with panorama after panorama opening before their eyes. Over each ridge new rows of dunes emerged. Gradually to the north, blue in the distance, mountains ranges grew out of the horizon, the East MacDonnell’s, with Arltunga, their evening destination.

Finally, in the late evening, the hillsides glowing intense blue, they arrived at the Arltunga Bush Hotel. A pre-booked cabin with a hot shower awaited them.

Mark carried a large slab of meat to the hotel manager, a good friend. He was back in a minute. “We’re expected for dinner and drinks on them, in return for the meat.”

They showered, dressed and went into the bar. Dinner was homemade bush tomato-flavoured sausages, along with a large piece of roast meat, said to be camel, and vegetables. Their glasses were endlessly full and the cheer flowed.

This was the first place she had been where Mark seemed among friends, these people greeted him as someone they knew. He greeted them back and they all laughed and joked together. They all made Susan feel included and welcome.

After dinner a guitar was found and country songs were sung: mining songs, stockman songs, songs about the country and its people. Songs by people called Slim: Slim Whitman, Slim Dusty. ‘A pub with no beer’, ‘Leave him in the long yard – the baldy bay’. Susan sang along with gusto. This was the Australian bush of legend. It pleased her a lot to see Mark in his element, amongst friends.

Finally, sometime after midnight, last drinks then stumps were called. She and Mark walked, arm in arm, back to their cabin. Their lovemaking was perfunctory, both full of drink and soon asleep. She lay cuddled into him and felt even closer than before.

In the morning a cooked breakfast was served in the pub. Then, with backslapping farewells, they were on their way, heading towards the north-west across some of the biggest mountains she had seen so far.

They stopped for a cup of tea at a little mine that eked out a living from the rocky hills and their minerals. Mark passed another great slab of beef to the grateful miners.

They hung it in a scrawny mulga tree. Mark explained it would hang and dry over several days, up to a week. With a dry outside crust it would keep and not spoil. The flavour and tenderness would improve, day after day, until it would just melt in your mouth.

Mark suggested that a miner take Susan for a tour into the workings, a shaft cut into the side of the hill. A grizzled bull of a man, with calloused hands and little English, accompanied her. He showed her how they propped the walls and chipped into the shiny seams. He brought her to a seam that held possible gemstones. Pointing his torch, to capture glints and reflections, he showed her how to look for the colour.

Mark remained behind, deep in conversation with the mine manager. Glancing back, when almost gone from sight, Susan saw this man open a case and show Mark something. It appeared to interest him greatly. They were both absorbed and unaware, but her companion noted and said. “Maybe they trade.”

Susan found the tour interesting, but she realised what backbreaking work it must be. They had some mechanical equipment. But a lot of it seemed to require a pick and shovel in a dark dusty hole, with strange shadows from the electric bulbs. Still, she could sense the excitement in her tour guide, as he told her how, just sometimes, they found fantastic stones hidden amongst all the muck.

When they returned the two men were drinking another cup of tea, having concluded whatever their business transactions were.

They drove on. The roads were rough and stony and the mountains were steep. There were places where the road was little more than wheel tracks over the rocks creeping around the sides of huge hills. The side slope made Susan nervous, knowing where they would end up if they lost control, but Mark was concentrating hard and seemed in his element, fully confident. So she relaxed, trusting him as she left herself in his care.

Sometimes he drove in low gear creeping over broken ground as the engine chugged, other times they would come across flat valley floors, where he accelerated and went up through the gears. Other times they traversed broken-up sections of washed-out creek crossings, picking their way around rocks, holes and obstacles. It seemed very few people ever came this way.

Mark was knowledgeable about the country and its geology, giving her a running commentary, explaining as they went. She realised she was gaining a unique view of this country of childhood stories and imagination; it was becoming ever more real and fascinating as they drove.

They saw huge bullocks aplenty, along with scrub bulls. Mark explained that these were owned by the station Mark and Susan were driving through. These cattle were like a piggy bank full of thousand dollar notes. It could be opened when money was needed. Now, when times and seasons were good, these backcountry cattle were left alone to grow big and fat. When the dry times came again this four footed gold would be turned into cash.

There were also lots of brumbies, proud stallions with their necks arched, that herded and harassed their broods of mares, ears laid back. Once they spied two brumby groups meet near a waterhole. The stallions reared up and bared their teeth in threat. One backed away, herding his mares, while the victor galloped behind him for a few seconds biting at his rump. He quickly returned to his own harem, perhaps fearful that another would steal them away.

Around lunchtime they stopped at a place where a soak ran out of the side of a hill. Hoof marks indicated recent cattle and horse use, but now it was theirs, joined by multitudes of the little zebra finches and an occasional iridescent parrot.

Mark lit another fire of dried mulga, which burned fiercely. As it burned down he took a black heavy metal plate, about a foot long, from beside a spare wheel—“My mobile barbeque.” And from yesterday’s bullock meat, he sliced off two, inch thick, slabs and put them on the grill, along with half a kidney.

The scent of the meat was delicious, served on a slice of bread with pickles. The meat was rich flavoured and tender, best restaurant quality. Mark said it would improve more if hung for at least three more days.

In the mid-afternoon they finally emerged from the mountains onto a wide, open grass plain to the west.

“Yambah Station, one of the best blocks in the Alice,” Mark said.

Now they were heading for Barrow Creek pub where, that night, a bush band was supposed to be playing. It was over 200 kilometres north. They had a quick drink from the waterbag then went on.

Two and a half hours later, with late afternoon drifting towards dusk, they came round a bend. Alongside low rocky hills was a sign pointing to Barrow Creek Hotel. Rooms were booked out, but many people were camped out on the flat ground nearby, come in from the stations and camps to enjoy the night. Mark and Susan drove to one side and rolled out their swag. Half the population was aboriginal. This was Susan’s first introduction to these people who all seemed to know Mark well.

Mark explained he had done a lot of work around here, mining work, station work, work in these aboriginal communities; sinking bores, putting up windmills, fixing houses and anything else needed. These people had become his friends. He called to one older man named Johnnie, a tribal elder. Lifting out a piece of meat he offered it to him.

“This one good bullock, Johnnie. Found him eating parakeelya, on the edge of that desert country. You know, other side Artlunga. How about you take this one for your dinner. Pay back for that kangaroo you gave me last year.”

With a broad smile and some gesticulating thanks Johnnie carried it away.

Over near the pub the band was warming up, playing reels and jigs. A few bare-footed aboriginal girls were dancing in the dust. To the side were several cut down 44-gallon drums, with roaring fires burning inside them, to ward off the evening chill. Most people were drinking beer, though a few old-timers could be seen with their rum bottles and pannikins. A barbeque, with steak, sausages and onions, along with piles of buttered bread, coleslaw and tomato sauce, was on offer. The price was a donation to the Flying Doctor.

Groups were mingling, coming and going, warming up for the evening dancing. All at once the band struck up a full jig and the caller told everyone to put down their drinks and come and join in for the first dance. He led them slowly through their moves at first. Then they were on their own. The music got faster and faster and most people joined in and kept up, after a fashion. When the song was over there were cheers and calls of, “More! More!”

Sometimes Susan danced with Mark; sometimes other men sought her out. Eventually a supper break was called, and weary legs rested, before the band resumed for their final bracket. It was a great night, carried along by the music, dancing in the dust.

In the late-late night only a few remained, hunched around the fires; Mark, deep in tales with a couple old-timers, over a bottle of rum, sat with them around a fire.

Susan stayed on a while, but finally she signalled to Mark that she was off to bed. She yawned as she walked to their campsite and crawled into the rolled out swag. This was the first time she had gone to bed alone. While part of her missed Mark’s strong, warm body she was content lying out in an incredible star filled night, as the fires slowly guttered and died away. The only noise was a distant hum of a diesel generator and the mutter of soft conversation. A bright shooting star flashed across her vision. Susan felt happy in this remote but amazing place.

When she woke in the early dawn, Mark was lying beside her, fully dressed and snoring quietly. As the dawn lit the eastern sky she made her way to the temporary shower block, and washed herself, shivering in the cold. She returned, gazing at the sky. It was just another desert sunrise, ordinary in its extraordinariness. The light was what captivated her, golden lance shafts spearing from the horizon. Far above, at the outer edges of the world, they lit fine filaments of clouds in endless hues of shifting pastel pinks, extraordinary light, extraordinary colour, everyday desert ordinariness, she thought.

Mark slept on; she could smell the rum now she was washed. She cuddled into him again in their bed, content to be with him and enjoy their small window together. The sun was just a hand width above the horizon when Mark stirred. As he opened bleary eyes he became aware of her.

“You look so fresh and pretty,” he said sleepily, as he admired her freshly washed face. “Now time to give a man his pleasure.”

“But Mark, I’m all dressed. Plus it’s daylight and all these people will see us.”

He reached out and pulled the canvas swag flap over their heads. “Not now, they won’t.” He directed her hand to his hard maleness.

This lovemaking had an illicit thrill, in a hidden place of pleasure, with the noises of other people waking up and moving around them. They pushed it away, absorbed in each other. This was their cave of delight, under the shelter of the canvass. She knew this strange man was taking over and consuming her life. It was beyond any power she had to stop it.

 

 

 

Chapter 9 The Big Waterhole Day 22

 

An hour later Mark was off to shower and shave. They ate breakfast together, this time steak and eggs at the hotel bar. Mark left her there, saying he was off to top up the fuel tanks and give the vehicle another careful check over. They were cutting though some rough country to the east, where they would camp a night at a big waterhole, before heading up into the Gulf, leaving the desert behind for tropical scenery, weather and fishing. It was now mid-August, the end of Australia’s winter, but it was still cold here; Mark said the weather would warm up fast as they travelled north.

Susan sat at the bar and looked at the collection of curios spread over the walls. Lots of photos of people, some recent, some decades old—mostly station people and truckies, but some who looked like tourists and also many aboriginal people.

Susan’s attention was drawn to an old newspaper story that someone had put up: “Revisiting the site of the Conniston Massacre.”

As she read she realised that, only fifty miles west was a place called Brooks Soak, site of the last big aboriginal massacre in Australia, led by the policeman who had lived here at Barrow Creek. She had heard of aboriginal massacres in the 1800s, but this wasn’t back then; this was after the First World War. It was at a time when she thought countries like Australia had moved past that frontier mentality, to places with laws and consequences. It was within the lifetime of her own extended family, her grandparents and other people she had known were alive then.

As she read the journalist’s story of two decades prior, she realised that this journalist had actually talked to people who had lived through this time, both children from the stations around who had known the perpetrators, and relatives of the aboriginal victims—old people now. These were survivors from the Conniston community who had been there, felt the terror and seen what happened as dozens of their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, were rounded up and butchered like cattle.

It was payback for the death of one white dingo trapper, who had stolen from his killer. Estimates were that at least sixty, and probably more than a hundred, men, women and children had been butchered. What followed was a travesty of justice, at first no action was taken but, following heated demands from other parts of Australia and around the world, the ring-leaders were taken to Darwin for trial, only to be acquitted. The local jury considered that the actions taken by these ‘upstanding citizens’ were justified.

Susan felt shock for this callous event so close to here, a dark underbelly of the country; beautiful outside in its rugged remoteness; this brutality lay just below the sunlit surface. Susan shivered; glad that this happened in another time and was now passing from human experience, or at least from the places and experiences she knew.

As she stood, musing, in this black mind space, Mark came and stood alongside her. She pointed to the newspaper article, saying, “Did you know about this?”

“Of course, I have worked there. Some of those who lived it told me.”

“Isn’t it awful, that it could still happen within the lifetime of these people?” she said.

He shrugged, looking a bit perplexed, “Why do you find it surprising? Out here life is cheap, death is easy, and the pretence of civilisation is thin. It’s how it is in most places around the world and always will be. For the dead it’s no big deal: one minute alive, the next gone. But the living must protect themselves and take their own retribution. I would have put my own bullet into that policeman and each of his mates; then dumped their bodies in the far out desert where no one would find them, instead of sending them away and hoping for justice. It is better to kill bad bastards than pretend justice can be done by others.”

There was something ruthless in his voice. Susan felt sure this wasn’t idle talk; she sensed Mark really would have done the killing himself, if he thought it was needed, with no compunction and no questions asked. Still, Susan couldn’t disagree that his way would have served justice better for these people.

Now she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. She didn’t want her image of Mark, so kind and gentle to her, mixed with such brutality. All those days Susan had spent with him out here had been filled with a bright sunlight. She didn’t want darkness intruding and spoiling it.

“You’re probably right, better not to think of it anymore,” she said, flashing a smile and walking away.

It was mid-morning before they were away, and the sun was well up. Leaving with them were many other late risers from the previous night of revelry, now much subdued.

They travelled a few miles further north before turning off to the east side of the highway, taking a medium sized gravel road. It had old signs for some places that Susan assumed were stations or aboriginal communities; Murray Downs, Elkedra, Epenarra, Erelola Rockhole and Frew River, their distances ranging from one hundred to three hundred kilometres away. Alongside these old signs was a much shinier, new looking sign that bore the names of Davenport Range National Park and Old Police Station Waterhole, with symbols for camping and rough roads.

The first hour was smooth dirt road, but this ended with a turnoff to Murray Downs. After this the road deteriorated rapidly, with many areas of sand and corrugations along with broken stony ground. They often followed dried up creeks, their rock littered beds running between stony ridges, flanked by coarse spinifex sand plains. They drove through lots of small broken hills, the bright orange-red stony sides beautiful as the sun flashed off them. The wealth of wildlife was astonishing in and around these hills, the innumerable bright colours of birds, large goannas sunning themselves on rocks, snakes that slithered across the road. On the hillsides they watched large solid-bodied wallabies hop away on their approach.

They passed a sign for the Erelola Rockhole. Two rusted-out car bodies were visible in the bush nearby.

Mark explained, “There’s an aboriginal camp near here. They buy old cars. With little maintenance, they don’t last long on the rough roads. As they break down they’re abandoned where they stop. Then the occupants return to time-honoured foot travel, like they did before for tens of thousands of years.”

After they left this turnoff behind the road improved, with less traffic wear and tear, but the country got steadily rougher. Susan’s bottom was aching from all the bouncing over the rocky road.

Finally they came to a sign to the left that read “Frew River 4WD Loop Track” and below it “Old Police Waterhole 8.” An additional sign read, “Rough Road – Only for experienced 4WD.”

Mark stopped at the corner. He got out and stretched. Susan climbed out of her side. She asked, “Is something the matter?”

“No, just a bad road from here; it’s only eight kilometres but it’ll take an hour. There are lots of parts where walking is faster.”

After five minutes of walking and stretching they climbed back in. Mark put the car into low range four-wheel drive and they headed off.

He had not exaggerated. It was slow and it was really rough. She had thought yesterday’s drive through the mountains was rough but this was at another level, not big hills but endless ups and downs as they crossed small broken ridges and followed, crossed and recrossed the same rocky creeks endlessly. There were times where they practically crawled up hills covered with loose stones, with all four wheels spinning in the rock scree, gradually inching their way forward, as one wheel found temporary grip, then another.

Finally they crested a ridge, and there lying before them, was a vast waterhole, broad and clear in the midday sun, lying alongside a broken red range. It was isolated yet beautiful, a sparkling jewel in a desolate landscape of rocky spinifex hills. They had not passed any other car since the Rockhole turnoff. Now it looked like their own private paradise had opened up before them, it felt as if Mark and Susan were the country’s sole inhabitants.

They parked just back from the water, on a flat green grassy foreshore, interspersed with large shady trees. They were both starving, so lunch was quickly made; slabs of cold beef, sliced off a piece of cooked meat, were laid over bread slices and topped with tomato relish and a liberal sprinkling of salt, washed down by two cold beers each.

The water beckoned. The afternoon was warm with a cloud-free sky. A sandy beach in front of their campsite led to water so clear it sparkled like a shiny glass, freshly washed. The air was still. Opposite, red hills made almost perfect reflections on smooth water. Occasional light wind puffs and fish splashes made tiny ripples, fractures through this mirror. As they died glassy perfection reformed.

Susan walked down onto the sand. She stood, toes just sinking into the wet sand of the edge, absorbing the atmosphere.

Mark suddenly rushed at her, pushing her into the deep. She ducked under his arm and, as she did, scooped a handful of water, and splashed the length of his back, still covered by his shirt. The water was freezing, and Mark yelped and spun, two hands flinging water to drench her. She responded in kind. They were both laughing and splashing until soon completely saturated.

It brought to mind their first day of the little beach. She felt her desire for him welling up. Turned away from Mark, Susan grasped the hem of her shirt and lifted it over her head. Her bra had disappeared in their morning passion. Spinning round, Mark could see that her nipples were erect, as her breasts pushed into in his face.

She challenged, “Well, what will you splash now?” Mark simply picked her up, carried her into deep water, his mouth on her breast, and fell over, pulling them both below. They surfaced together, spluttering. They looked at each other and laughed, both knowing what they wanted now.

After their lust was satiated they lay together, side by side in the warm shallows, sharing stories and memories of other bush and camping trips, he telling her of safaris in Africa and she telling him of hunting with her Dad in Scotland.

She finally plucked up the courage to ask him about his early life, asking where he had learned his bush and shooting skills.

“I wish you could meet my father, I am sure he’d like you. He thought Edward, my last boyfriend, wasn’t quite man enough. I know he wouldn’t think that of you. Did your father take you bush or teach you to shoot like mine did for me?”

Mark was silent. It was as if he was weighing what to reveal, a brief flash of openness showed in his face, then the shutters came down.

“What does it matter? I don’t want to talk about my father. He was a dick—lazy, useless, a drunk and a bully.”

Susan knew she should leave it but a little voice inside her head would not let go. “Surely someone in your family was good to you, what about your mother?”

Mark winced and turned away. “I really don’t want to talk about it, but seeing as you are determined to know, my mother died when I was little. I can barely remember her. I suppose she was OK, but she was scared of my father. Then, one day she just wasn’t there anymore. A long time later my father said she was dead, had died in an accident. There was no funeral. It was like she was written out of our lives. Later I found out she had committed suicide, but I don’t think anyone cared or missed her.

She never did anything for me. As soon as I was old enough I went bush. Since then I have worked all over, doing anything that paid and getting on with my own life. I haven’t seen my father since; perhaps he died one time when he was drunk, perhaps he’s a bum who sleeps on the street, but I don’t think he even noticed I was gone.”

Mark stood, brushed himself off and said, “If it’s OK with you I’ll go off on my own for a couple hours and do some hunting?”

While it sounded like a question, Susan knew it was a statement of fact. This is what he would do and she was not invited. She felt a stab of hurt at the rejection. But she smiled back and said, “Sure, I’m happy to rest for a couple hours and read a book.”

As she backed off it was like Mark relented a bit too. He said. “If you feel like trying you might catch a fish on a line. You get yellow bellies in here and you can sometimes catch one on a piece of meat.”

He returned with a hand line, fitted with a hook and sinker along, along with an off-cut of beef, which he placed on a rock beside her.

Turning from her, Mark took out a medium sized rifle and a box of ammunition, which he dropped in a backpack, along with a water bottle. With a wave he was gone. Susan watched his retreating form until he was out of sight.

He didn’t turn back or wave.

It was like he had suddenly cut her out of his life, the tenderness of their lovemaking together, only a few minutes before, now vanished.

Susan felt deflated and alone. She wished she could telephone her Mum, or Maggie from Cairns, just to have someone else to chat with.

It struck her that she hadn’t spoken to anyone or told people of her movements since she was in Melbourne a week ago.

Mark had totally consumed her life, from the minute she had touched down in Alice Springs, five days before. Susan realised that no one she knew even knew his name, let alone that she was travelling with him in the far away Northern Territory.

Come to think of it, she had barely been anywhere in mobile phone range since she met him. She had charged her phone at Arltunga, two days back. Since Uluru she not noticed anywhere with a signal, though to be truthful, she had rarely looked at the phone or thought of contact with others. Deciding she didn’t want to waste the remaining 30% charge in the battery, she turned it off completely—just in case.

The afternoon sun was hot on her skin, and Susan was starting to turn pink. She became aware that she needed to put on sunscreen or go into the shade. Otherwise she would be red raw tonight. She had seen Mark with sun cream at some point, it must be somewhere in the cabin.

Susan climbed into the car and opened the glove box—nothing there. She tried the door compartments—still nothing there. Perhaps it was behind the seats? She slid the driver’s seat forward to look behind it; then she did the same on the passenger side, still nothing.

Then she noticed a first aid kit strapped to the back cabin wall, behind her seat. She thought that perhaps there would be something in the first aid box. She unclipped it and sat it on her seat. The kit had three slide-out drawers and a flip top. She started systematically at the top, lots of little things, bandaids, tablet blister packs, small tubes, sewing needles and some syringes—nothing helpful right now. On the next level were bandages and dressings, plasters and tapes; still no sign of any sun cream. The third level looked more promising: bottles and larger tubes of various liniments, alcohol, disinfectant, cough medicine; but still no sun cream.

There was one more drawer at the bottom. It was tightly packed full of things in cloth packages. It was hard to open, but she wiggled and it came out. It didn’t look promising but she thought, I have come this far; I might as well look properly.

The first package was full of surgical instruments, obviously for more major accidents requiring stitching. She thought the second cloth wrapped package would be the same and was mildly surprised when, instead, she found 3 number plates sets, each held together with a plastic band and all wrapped together in an old calico bag.

She lifted one out, separated the two plates and found a tiny sticky label on the back of one plate which read “Butler.” Curious, she separated the next set, a similar sticker with the word “Brown,” then the final one, and sure enough a tiny label, “Brooks.”

This seemed strange. But, after Mark’s negative reaction to her past questions, this was not something to ask about on his return, no doubt there was a good explanation.

Susan carefully wrapped up all the bits, just the way she had found them, and put them back in place. Then she returned the first aid box to its exact place. Something to muse over for a day or two she thought, wondering about the three extra sets of number plates.

She sat on her passenger seat for a second, thinking about her afternoon. Would she fish or read? Glancing up, looking over to the driver’s corner of the dash, Susan smacked her hand to her forehead. There it was, a somewhat battered bottle of sun cream sat on the dashboard, clearly visible. She wondered how she had missed it there in the first place.

That decided her; with sun cream on she would fish and read, sitting on the edge of the water in the afternoon sun. Susan carefully covered her face, hands and legs with cream, found a long sleeved shirt and floppy hat for her head, and took a novel from her pack.

She threaded the meat on the hook and cast it out a few yards into the deep. Sitting on a rock with her toes in the water, line loosely wrapped around a finger, Susan opened her book and enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun.

She had read one chapter and was just starting the next, fishing forgotten, when the line twitched—a definite bite. Susan felt butterflies of excitement. Imagine that, catching her own fish, all by herself, here in the middle of Australia!

Book cast aside, she turned her attention to the fish. She had fished in England, also with her father, and had a sense of how to do it. Patience, let the fish explore and try the bait, no hasty pullbacks. She settled her nerves and waited.

The gentle tugging came back. Let the fish investigate and pick up the bait, she thought, imagining it feeling and tasting the bait with its mouth. She hoped it would pick it up properly, taking it right into its mouth.

Suddenly it all changed, now the fish had clearly taken the bait and began to swim off, giving the line a powerful pull. Her heart skipped a beat, but she calmed herself. Applying steady pressure back through the line with soft hands, Susan worked the fish towards her. There was a sudden violent surge of tugging as it realised it was trapped, but she held steady and tried to smooth out the more severe jerks with her hands. The jerking stopped, she pulled in line, hoping it had not got off; but no, it had just swum towards her. There it was again, a desperate attempt to get free; however, the hook held and the fish stayed attached. Soon Susan had it in the shallows, and then it was over, the fish on the sand next to her. It seemed huge, perhaps one or two kilos, with glistening golden scales on its sides and belly.

It looked something like the perch she knew from England, but without the stripes on it sides, and a much more golden colour. Part of her felt sorry to bring death to this creature, now helpless at the water edge. Another part felt proud of her own success, without help, catching this fish for dinner. She couldn’t wait to show it to Mark, he would be impressed.

Susan found a knife in a box on the back of the car which she had seen Mark use. She dispatched the fish, the way her father had shown her. Then, feeling slightly squeamish, she opened its belly and removed its innards. She cast them out into the water. First there was splashing as small fish nibbled, then a sudden swoop. Out of the sky came a large bird, like a hawk or falcon. It swooped down, plucked the remnants up with a talon and, with a screech of success, flew across the water to a dead tree where it sat and ate.

Susan felt a continued excitement, as if she had mastered a part of this remote place. Reading was forgotten. She covered the fish to protect it from other hungry animals and decided to do her own exploring, walking along the water’s edge to where it ended in a dry riverbed.

At its edge she found a path of sorts, where animals appeared to use a gully to come down to the water. She worked her way up this for perhaps a hundred yards until she came to a place where she could reach the top of the red rock hillside.

Here she sat, at the cliff edge, gazing out across the hill to the river bed and water below; Susan’s view extending to the far horizon where endless yellow, spinifex covered hills met blue sky. Something in this harsh stone country was eating its way into her soul, a different but kindred desolation to that of the sand desert of days just past.

She watched the coming and going of the desert animals that relied on this oasis. Three kangaroos: mother, large offspring and a small joey, head out of pouch, approached cautiously. They drank in quick sips, alert to any other visitors, then hopped a short distance away. Here, mother and large offspring nibbled on some green riverbed grass. The baby came out to explore before a noise caused it to startle and, a quick, headfirst tumble later, the baby was back inside the mother’s pouch of safety. They moved out of sight.

Minutes later a tan coloured dog emerged from the river’s edge and came down to the water. It lapped noisily. Then it too vanished, that was the first time she had seen a wild dingo. Now it was only birds, lizards scurrying over rocks, and herself, left in this place.

Perhaps half an hour passed in solitude. Then she spotted movement. It was Mark, walking down the riverbed, carrying something over his shoulder. She clambered down and ran to meet him.

“What have you got?” she asked.

“Just a couple ducks, thought we might have them for dinner,” he replied, indicating the two birds tied together to a stick over his shoulder.

Susan shuffled her feet awkwardly and said, “Sorry about before, I know it’s not my business.”

Mark’s hard expression softened; Susan moved in close and hugged herself to him. “Thank you for bringing me here; this is something really special, every bit as special as the sandy desert in its own way.”

Susan could feel something struggling to come out of Mark. She thought he might show or say something—anything—that would tell her more about who he really was or what was going on inside him.

But Mark just hugged her close and held her against him, saying nothing. After a minute, he pulled an arm’s length away, gripping Susan’s shoulders tightly in his hands, “I’m not the best person for you. We should just enjoy our trip together then get you to your Darwin plane. After that, who knows?”

It wasn’t quite a statement of commitment, but it was something more than nothing.

She had almost forgotten about her fishing success but, as they were walking back, Susan glimpsed the fish’s tail from beneath its covering.

Almost bursting with pride, Susan pointed to the fish, “Mark, I caught a fish! A big one, a golden yellow colour.”

“A big one eh,” Mark reached for her hands and held them a couple of feet apart, “This big?” he asked, gesturing to the distance between her hands.

She laughed with bubbling excitement, “Well, not quite, perhaps half that, but really big for me.”

Walking towards the fish, Susan raced ahead; she uncovered her fish and presented it to Mark.

“Well,” he said, with a smile, “it is pretty big, actually it is just the right size for our dinner.”

They lit a huge fire, and while the coals formed Mark dug a pit with a shovel off to the side. He half-filled it with hot coals from the fire, lay leaves over and placed the ducks and fish, with salt and bush herbs in their bellies over this. He covered them with more leaves and then another layer of coals. Mark’s final step was to cover it all with some bigger branches and earth.

Mark dusted off his hands and reached for a large cast iron pot—a camp oven he called it—and showed Susan how to make a damper and brownie for their dinner and breakfast. These roasted side by side as their fish and ducks cooked.

After an hour and a half Mark pronounced their dinner ready and uncovered the pit. Susan’s mouth watered as he peeled the burnt skins and revealed the succulent flesh of the ducks and the fish. A final sprinkle of salt and it was ready to eat.

They feasted with their fingers, eating morsels of meat on pieces of fresh-cooked damper. Dinner was accompanied by a cold bottle of champagne, a Moët no less, that Mark had found in the fridge. After they had eaten their fill of the meats they leaned back against the swag and ate brownie and butter, washed down with large mugs of tea. They watched in quiet stillness, as the light faded from the western sky and the first stars came into the clear night.

Susan would remember this later, as the best night of their time together; it was their magic place. Like the night in the desert, but now they had become even closer, and she still saw no shadows on their horizon.

She sometimes wondered, in the months that followed, if she could have stopped the trip there, and looked no further, would she have? Then her memory of the magic could have remained untouched without the awful madness to come.

 

 

 

Chapter 10 To the Gulf and Hells Gates Day 23

SNAKES

LIGHTS ATTRACT INSECTS

INSECTS ATTRACT FROGS

FROGS ATTRACT SNAKES

SNAKES BITE!

TURN OFF LIGHTS

FLYING DOCTORS ARE 2 HRS AWAY

 

This was the sign at Hells Gate Roadhouse, which greeted their arrival. It had been a long day of driving.

After their idyllic afternoon and evening at Policeman’s Waterhole on the Frew River, they had risen early, when there was barely any light in the eastern sky. Mark insisted they not dally, as there was a full day of driving ahead of them.

Breakfast was a mug of tea, warmed on the still glowing coals of last night’s fire. Mark ate some leftover cold duck, while Susan contented herself with the remains of the damper and brownie, which she coated liberally with butter.

Then it was an hour of slow and rough four-wheel driving until they came out on the road to Epenarra. From there the road was mostly good, made of dirt, but well maintained.

They stopped at a roadhouse mid-morning, on the Barkly Highway where the road to Borroloola and the Gulf branched north. They had a half hour break to have a late breakfast, before Mark did vehicle maintenance. While Mark was topping up the fuel, Susan freshened herself in the bathroom. She thought of using the roadhouse’s payphone to ring home and say hello to her parents, but with the time difference it was late at night in England, and her parents would be asleep, besides, the news could wait until she saw them in a few days time.

So instead she bought a second cup of coffee for herself, and one for Mark, and sat on an old bench in the shade watching him work. He was so focused and Susan found his effortless strength and skill incredibly attractive. Perhaps sensing her gaze, Mark glanced up and noticed her. Susan gave him a wave before gesturing to the coffee mug. As Mark walked over, Susan tapped her feet happily. Mark took the coffee and downed it in one and punched her affectionately. She just smiled.

“Ready for a long day’s boring driving? I was thinking, if you wanted to, that you could do a bit of the driving today. It’s a long straight road for the next couple hours, not much to see. I thought I could play at tourist while you take the wheel.”

The offer thrilled Susan; she felt that it was a symbol of the trust growing between them. So she climbed into the driver’s seat and, after introductory instructions from Mark, they headed off. Susan drove cautiously at first as she got the feel of the heavy vehicle, but soon she drove with increasing confidence. The road was a narrow strip of bitumen, just wide enough for one car and, a couple times, Susan had to pull over to share the road with cars passing or going the other way.

At first Mark watched closely to be sure she was OK, but he quickly paid no mind to her driving and looked around. Susan was elated with his display of confidence in her.

As they headed north they left the desert scrub behind and emerged into what Mark said was the start of the good cattle country It began as grass plains between low scrubby ridges, then it was just vast rolling miles of grass, extending from horizon to horizon. Mark told her how, at times, when a storm came rolling across this land, you could see it from more than a hundred miles away.

They passed occasional groups of big shiny-skinned cattle, “Santas,” Mark called them, “short for Santa Gertrudis.”

Susan drove on for another hour and a half, to what Mark said was the northern edge of the Barkly Tableland, then he took over again. Now the landscape outside slowly changed, more scrubby patches than rolling grass plains and less shiny and fat cattle.

They veered further east, heading away from the afternoon sun. The cattle country was left behind. They were now driving through broken landscapes of fast drying creeks and little gullies that ran southeast. The ground was mostly covered in coarse gravel and wiry dead grass, with no cattle to be seen.

In the mid-afternoon, they turned onto a small track off their road and stopped. Mark said he wanted to test and sight-in his rifles in a place where he wouldn’t disturb anyone. They were near the Nicholson Aboriginal Reserve, “A total no man’s land.” he called it.

Susan was happy for the break, welcome after the hours of driving. She helped Mark measure out fifty metres exactly using a tape, and put targets in place. Mark used the truck door to steady himself as he shot groups of five shots into each target. All shots were close together, all within an inch circle, though for one rifle, a 223, they were all about an inch low of the bullseye. Mark made a minute adjustment to its sights and then shot off a single round. It was almost dead centre.

Mark passed her the 223. “Do you want a go?”

She nodded and took her place, lifting the rifle to the target. Susan flinched on the first shot and it went wide. After that she got herself steadied and her breathing controlled. All her shots were within a ten-centimetre circle. She felt well pleased.

“Not bad for a Pommie girl from the city,” Mark said, sounding pleased. He put that gun aside and pulled out another. This new gun he handled with loving care; it was clearly his pride and joy. It was a 3006 rifle, with a glowing polished telescopic sight.

He offered it to her, “This is my safari gun from Africa; shot an elephant with it once. Do you want to try? It kicks a bit.”

She gave a tentative nod, and took the proffered gun. It felt huge and heavy.

He lifted out his swag and spread out a groundsheet. He suggested she try a lying shot, as the swag would help keep it steady.

She took her place, deliberately cleared her mind of everything, and then just concentrated on the target. She slowly squeezed the trigger. The blast felt huge and the jolt massive to her light frame. But she had done it, shot straight and steady without flinching.

They walked over to the target. Her shot was a perfect bull, she could not have placed it better if she had used a tape measure to mark the spot and then shot it from an inch away.

Mark whistled. “No one can beat that eh; not bad for a first time.” She felt inordinately pleased, glowing with pride as they walked back from the target.

Mark took the rifle and shot three shots to follow hers. All were very close to the centre, but none matched hers.

“Your father must be some man, teaching you to shoot like that,” Mark said, tipping his hat to her, “Not only are you beautiful and fantastic in bed, but you are the hottest hotshot I have met.” Susan blushed with this praise.

Then it was time to travel on. As they were both hungry, Mark opened a packet of biscuits, oatmeal, which they ate before they left accompanied by water from the waterbag. He also found a map of the region to give Susan an understanding of its geography and put it on the bonnet and pointed out the main features before they started driving.

“This is the top of the Gulf fall. Our last four hours have been spent travelling over the Barkly Tableland. Out on it the creeks run nowhere, but pool in huge swamps that form in depressions on the plains.

“We’re now coming into the headwaters of the big rivers that start at the top edge of the Tablelands and carve their way down into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

“Just north of us you have the Calvert and Robinson Rivers, which you will see tomorrow. Now we are coming into the headwaters of the Nicholson River, a huge river running back east into Queensland for a couple hundred miles, before it comes out into the Gulf at a place called Burketown.”

They drove on and continued to chat about this river they were following. Mark told Susan how it and its tributaries, passed through some fantastic gorge country further downstream, places like Lawn Hill National Park and the amazing Riversleigh fossil deposit where a huge array of bones of early Australian animals were being found.

This was of great interest to Susan. She had learned about Riversleigh as a student. “I studied some of those finds at university. I’d love to go there,” she said to Mark.

“Unfortunately time is against us. Long way and limited time to get you to your Darwin plane.”

Soon they came to a big sign, “Aboriginal Land. Permit Required.”

“Doesn’t that apply to us?” asked Susan.

Mark nodded, “It should, but I’ve done work with most of these people and they know me. They even gave me a skin name. They say to me I don’t need permits or any of that ‘white man rubbish’. I often give them a bit of beef or a kangaroo I’ve shot. We’re more in danger of being invited for a dinner of goanna and snake and being here all night.”

“I would love that,” said Susan, “You know I studied aboriginal customs at university but I’ve never really met any traditional aboriginals.”

Mark raised an eyebrow, “Well, they’re traditional here; utes, guns, fishing lines, power boats—you name it, they have it. But they can still go out with a spear and digging stick and get dinner from the land. I like their attitude and way of life, take the best of the new, when it suits, but also keep the best of the old.”

Mark deliberated for a second, “Tell you what. There is a camp an hour up the road and I still have one slab of meat in the Esky that I was thinking of passing on to them. Maybe we can call in for a cuppa and early dinner, I am sure they’ll have a fire going and something on offer.”

As they drove, Susan and Mark chatted about Australia’s early animals and how the people who had first come to this land had confronted these terrifying creatures. Both agreed they would have loved to see Australia back then, at the time when the aborigines first came and giant marsupials roamed. Susan was surprised at Mark’s knowledge and asked where he got it. Did he study somewhere?

He grinned ruefully. “Nah. More to do with time spent as labourer and dig assistant in the hot sun, along with many books read. I met all those professors who wrote the books at the digs. Sometimes they’d sign their books for me. I think it was their way of getting rid of books that no one would buy and even fewer could understand. Still, it is amazing how, when they show you their finds and explain them, it slowly all begins to make sense.”

The sun was falling away behind them. They drove on steadily, winding their way down into a valley. It ran below a large cliff to their north, mile after mile. Its western faces were lit in late-afternoon sunshine, a fiery orange red, while the gullies and eastern facing edges glowed soft pink in the shadowed light.

“That’s the China Wall, pretty amazing huh?”

Before they knew it they were turning into a local camp road. Aboriginal children ran screaming in excitement from all directions; Mark greeted them like he knew them well. Then an old lady, walking with a stick, came over grinning broadly. She had grey hair and thin bandy legs and wore a tattered blue dress, but carried herself with obvious authority, like the tribe’s grandmother.

“Dat Mark, how ya going, young fella. Got any beef in your tucker box? We bit hungry here.”

“Go way with yer there Ruth, I can see that kangaroo from here. What, not enough for an old friend?”

Soon they were sitting on tin drums round the fire, sharing a tin of sweet tea and slices of half pink kangaroo on damper. It tasted good, even if a little raw. Susan could understand little of the excited and voluble conversation, which flowed between the dozen people gathered, but she felt the welcoming spirit.

As they were making their goodbyes, Mark pulled out his last slab of meat, and waved Ruth over. “Probably don’t want this eh, so much food here, but it is yours anyway.”

Ruth waved a stick at him, “You one cheeky fella, someone need to give you good beating with stick like dis.”

Susan laughed at the thought.

From there it was a couple more hours of driving in the fading light and then full dark. They came to Hells Gates, the place where, when the first settlers came, their aboriginal guides told them they would take them no further, as the black-fellows going on from here on were too wild and dangerous.

Mark left Susan to set up camp. He said needed to do some business, which would take about half an hour, with a man who lived here. He needed to do it tonight as they would be gone early before this man got out of bed. Mark was a bit vague about what it was but Susan had the impression that he was trading some precious stones, similar to what she had glimpsed in the hills near Alice Springs. So she was left alone and started to take out the things she knew they would need tonight, the swag, chairs and a billycan for a cup of tea. Susan liked being entrusted with these simple jobs for them both.

With Mark gone, Susan went about arranging their campsite. As she was looking for some matches to light the gas barbeque, she found a little metal box, about six inches by four inches by one inch thick, like an old tobacco tin, with the lid jammed on tightly.

By itself the tin seemed unremarkable, but where it was hidden seemed strange. It was tucked away in a little space behind the spare wheel-mounting bracket, next to where he slid in the cast iron barbeque, concealed out of sight by the bulk of the spare wheel. A small metal plate normally covered the space. But the plate had come partly loose; one of the two screws holding it in place had fallen out, likely from vibrations of days driving over rough and corrugated roads. Now the plate could be rotated aside, showing what sat behind it.

She had pushed her hand into the narrow space, feeling for matches—thinking Mark may keep some next to the barbeque. Her hand had caught on the edge of this loose metal plate. It slid sideways as she pushed her hand against it. So Susan had shone a torch in to see what it was and if there was any sign of matches. Her torch lit up the small space and the loose plate. With her free hand she pushed the plate back. Now the torch lit up a small metal box behind it, not locked away, but put in a place where no one would normally ever look to find it. Mark would need a small screwdriver to normally access this space.

Susan lifted out the tin box and looked at it. It was grey, flat and looked well-used though the top would not pop open when she pushed with her fingers. Susan was tempted to investigate further. But her English sense of privacy made her put it back and finish setting up the camp. Occasionally she looked towards the car where the box was hidden, the curiosity niggling at her. This discovery made her uneasy. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly why. It was as if something was deliberately being hidden from prying eyes.

Mark returned five minutes later and showed her the true location of the matches. Susan lit the gas in the campground to boil the billy. Of her discovery she said nothing. They shared a supper of more biscuits and tea before they went to bed together. As she drifted towards sleep she again recalled the box. She still wondered why.

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – Fishing Calvert and Robinson – Day 24

 

They were up early again the next morning. Susan was yawning and felt tired as she got up but Mark told her he had a special surprise organised for today. Mark’s eagerness was contagious, and Susan felt anticipation catch her too. She asked him what the special surprise was, but Mark remained tight-lipped. “You will just have to wait and see.”

Leaving Hells Gates they drove northeast for half an hour, coming to a sign for a roadhouse named Wollogorang. This marked the boundary of the Northern Territory, and Mark told her they were now entering one of its most famous stations; that with the longest continuous occupation since the 1880s, from which the roadhouse was named.

Mark was full of stories of the area. He seemed a goldmine of knowledge of early NT history. When Susan asked him about where he got it he replied, “Oh from lots of places, a bit from reading books about it, but more from talking to old timers across this country. You would be surprised at the stories they tell, sitting around a campfire over a mug of tea or sometimes over a pannikin of rum. While many tales get stretched in the telling they often start with the truth.”

Susan watched the changing scenery outside. After driving up the valley for maybe twenty miles the road began to climb. It wound through a series of gorges and cuttings as it worked its way precariously up the side of a mountain, until they came out onto a flat and barren plateau at the top, a wasteland of dry sandy spinifex and scrub.

A few miles later they came alongside an airstrip that ran next to the road. At its end was a sign for Redbank Mine. Mark turned onto a track that brought him to the airstrip. Near the end was an assembly of 200-litre fuel drums marked with a label saying Avgas.

Sitting alongside these was a helicopter with a large round clear bubble. Susan thought it looked something like a giant insect, perhaps a dragon fly. The round bubble at the front was its head, two holes on each side looked likes eyes, a wing like rotor blade above and a long metal tail with a smaller tail rotor. It rested on two skids, its insect like legs. It seemed alive and exotic, not like the sleek and streamlined modern helicopters that Susan had seen before on the evening news.

A slightly built man, with darkish skin and dark features, was pumping fuel from one of the drums into the helicopter tanks. He called out with obvious familiarity, “Hey Mark!”

Mark pulled to a halt waved to him. Turning off the engine, Mark and Susan got out.

“How ya doin, Vic?” asked Mark.

“Yeah alright.” replied Vic.

“How’s the old Bell 47?”

“Still firing on all cylinders.”

Then Mark turned to Susan and said, Sorry, I am being impolite, let me introduce you to a good friend of mine and the best helicopter pilot I know. His proper name is Vikram Campbell but we all call him Vic.

Vic waved at Susan and said, “Hiya.”

Susan nodded and smiled a greeting in return. “I know a Pakistani named Vickram in London, do you have family from there.

Vic grinned back, “Not to the best of my knowledge, thought they tell me that London is a big place full of Pakis and Indians so who really knows. My great grandfather was called an Afghan in Australia, though who knows where he really came from, some story about Kashmir. He worked the camel trains between the Alice and Adelaide a hundred years ago. He had a family with an aboriginal woman in Alice Springs. His name has sort of continued, down through the generations, most typically shortened to Vic or Victor.

“As best I can tell I am descended from a big mixture, the Afghan, a bit of Arrente, that’s the aboriginal tribe, and then other bits of Scots, English, Irish and God knows what else. The Campbell is from the Scottish branch.

“So I suppose the Afghan could really be Pakistan, but the name is common in that part of the world, there are probably a million other Vikrams and the detail of that part of my ancestry has got lost. However the name keeps some bit of this man’s memory alive. Now most people call me Vic but Mark knows the story and does his bit to keep it known.”

“I guess you figured we might need a bit of fuel,” Mark said, pointing to the helicopter and then turned to Susan, “Fancy a ride in this old girl?” She is getting a bit long in the tooth, but they are a super reliable old machine provided you look after them properly, and they are much cheaper to run than many of the new fangled jet turbine jobs.”

“Is that the surprise?” she asked.

Mark nodded. “You got it, only way to see this country properly. “Vic used to contract chopper muster scrubbers for me, now he owns his own machine. I knew he was working nearby so I rang him and asked him to take us for a spin this morning.

“Of course, I would love it!” exclaimed Susan.

Mark continued, “What you reckon Vic? Thought we might go along the gorges of the Calvert and Robinson Rivers, see if we can catch a few barra, perhaps get a pig or two. There is one particular huge boar I have been looking for as a hunting trophy for more than two years, and if we get real lucky we may find him today. Can but hope. Either way, Susan, it will give you a bird’s eye of some spectacular NT scenery.”

Susan felt amazed as she thought. All this for me; like my own private safari, with my own private safari guide. She was tongue tied for a minute. Finally, she managed to say, “Wow, that would be brilliant.”

While Vic continued pumping the fuel into the helicopter, Mark loaded two fishing rods, his 223 rifle, some ammunition, a water bottle and some other bits inside. Then he indicated the middle seat to Susan.

“That’s where you sit. Hop in when you are ready. I will be a few more minutes.”

Susan climbed in and looked with wonder at all the gauges and controls. A long stick came out of the floor with various buttons and knobs attached. Then there was a radio, headsets and lots of dials, other knobs and yet more buttons.

Vic finished fuelling up and walked around completing a careful check of all the parts of the helicopter.

Walking over to Susan’s window, Vic gave her a big smile. “He sure pulls the beautiful ones. How did he find someone as gorgeous as you? And him just a busted-arsed ringer. If you want to trade up to a bit more class let me know.”

Susan found herself liking this man’s warm open face and sardonic humour. She also thought his wiry body and dark features were kind of cute. “I am sure you have a lot of far more beautiful girls than me on a string, offering to take them for mile high rides in the sky.”

Vic laughed. Then he patted the clear Perspex bubble of the helicopter. “I wish! Ever been in one of these before?”

She shook her head, “No, first time and I can’t wait!”

He gave her a quick explanation of the main controls before saying, “I’ll just be a couple minutes. Mark and I have a bit of business to do, and we need to finalise our route on the map so I can call flight control. Why don’t you strap yourself in,” he said pointing to the seatbelt. “We will be with you in five.”

She clicked her seatbelt in, feeling a buzz of excited tension. She thought she should be nervous; but all she could feel was a huge thrill on anticipation—primal and almost sexual. It flowed through her. The more she saw of Mark, his generosity and sense of fun, the more she was captivated by him and this whole experience. It was far beyond anything she could have imagined. Huge warmth and affection flowed out from where she sat, towards him.

Then the other two were aboard, the engine started and the rotor was whirling, slowly at first, then faster and faster; the machine roared, wind blowing up dust eddies.

Mark passed her a headset and showed her where to push the button to talk; then he indicated that they should postpone conversation until they were in the air and Vic had called Air Traffic Control.

Vic was concentrating on all the controls, checking and zeroing various instruments. Then he slowly dialled up the engine and rotor revolutions until a thing called Manifold Pressure was in the dial’s green zone. He looked across at her and Mark and asked, “Ready?” Mark stuck his thumb up in the air.

The motor surged further then the engine note dropped as Vic adjusted a control on the stick. She could now feel the blades change noise and start to bite into the air. The whole helicopter was shaking like a caged animal seeking to flee its bounds.

Vic lifted the stick up an inch. The helicopter rose straight up; imperceptible at first, and then it was several feet into the air. He pushed the stick forward and their motion changed from a hover to moving forward, going straight ahead. They picked up speed, and made a slow circuit over the airstrip while he logged his trip with Air Traffic Control.

Then, with another small move of the control stick, the helicopter flared into the air and banked over to the side, making a steep turn to the northwest.

Susan was spellbound. She split her time watching as Vic deftly manipulated dozens of controls and gazing in rapt awe as the country opened before her. At first they flew across the barren flat plateau, a sand plain covered in spinifex with occasional broken boulders. They picked up a watercourse that gradually grew out of the flat lands, first a small scrub lined creek then it gathered size and started to cut its way down into the increasingly rocky hillside. Pools of water started to appear along it.

Mark spoke over the intercom. “We are following the headwaters of Karns Creek; a creek through a piece of tiger country that flows into the Calvert River, cutting through a series of gorges. Vic and I contract mustered here maybe ten years ago. We got out some of the maddest and wildest scrub bulls I have ever seen. They would try to crawl under the bushes and into the creek to get away from us. Sometimes they got so mad that they would try and hook their horns up into the sky to catch our helicopter.”

Now this so called Karns Creek was the size of a river, with cliff of two hundred feet along both sides. Magnificent paperbarks and water lilies fringed the edges and the water was the colour of clear weak tea, with a bright surface refection of trees and cliffs. They followed its winding length, staying just below the cliff line. Abruptly the helicopter flared up above its sides. There, before them, lay a huge river, the Calvert, cutting its way down through a gorge, running hundreds of feet below. She saw where Karns Creek joined the river. Then they were down between these monstrous river cliffs, heading north.

It was hard for Susan to think of any words to describe this beauty. The cliffs were several hundred feet high and sheer. Their sides held myriad colours and details; vibrant red, orange, yellow and black rocks, places where dark openings into caves were seen, dotted along. Trees grew in incredible places, twisted roots probing their way into cracks in the rocks. Perched along the cliff, leaping from narrow ledge to narrow ledge, were numerous rock wallabies. In a mad panic they sought to evade the helicopter, making phenomenal leaps from rock to rock. Occasional waterbirds were disturbed by their passage. A few times Susan glimpsed shadowed outlines of large fish in the water below. Several times she saw reptiles, perhaps 1-2 metres long, sunning on rocks. They would fling themselves forward and dive into the water at the helicopter’s approach. Susan eyes widened as she realised they were crocodiles. She looked at Mark as she pointed.

“Just freshies, but you do get the big saltwater ones along here too.”

Then the river valley widened slightly. It was the confluence of another creek and on one side there was a small swamp area with paperbarks and swamp grasses. Mark gave a sign to come around. They circled tightly above the swamp, perhaps 50 feet high.

Vic spotted something on the ground and pointed down. They saw a place where the swamp grasses had been rooted up. In its centre stood a huge black pig, with wicked tusks, several inches long, protruding from its mouth.

Mark smiled. “I have been looking for you for three years. Today is your date with destiny.”

He indicated to Vic to land 100 yards from the swamp where a flat grassy opening lay. As the helicopter touched down Mark was out, gathering his rifle and running in a half crouch across the intervening ground.

Vic indicated with his hand that Susan should stay sitting. He let the rotor slowly wind down. Then, with the engine stopped, they sat quietly for perhaps five minutes, Vic indicating to be quiet and stay put.

Finally a sharp crack broke the stillness, followed a minute later by a second one, then silence again. Vic gave a sign to undo her belt and they walked across the ground towards where Mark had disappeared. Half way there Vic called out, “Yoo Hoo.”

Mark called straight back, “Come on, he’s dead now.” They continued and Mark met them in another 20 yards. He led them on the final part.

Almost completely hidden, in a thick clump of paperbark saplings, lay a huge boar. It was longer than either man and twice their girth. One tusk was dug into the mud, as if in a final act of outrage at its untimely death.

Vic said “So you finally got him. I spotted him once, about six months ago, but I did not have a rifle that day. Plus I knew you wanted him more.”

Mark grinned widely. “This fellow will easily pay for our trip. I know a taxidermist who will give me at least 2 grand for this one. He is the biggest I have ever shot and close to the biggest I have ever heard of. You must be the source of my good luck, Susan.”

Susan answered, “You don’t need any help from me in the hunting department. Apart from one other thing which we better not talk about here, it is what you are best at.”

Mark looked uncomfortable, while Susan and Vic both laughed.

Vic asked, “Was he easy to find? Last glance I saw him heading for that thick patch at the other side of the swamp. I thought you would be hard pressed to track him in there.”

Mark said. “I thought he had gone that way too, so I cut to that side of the swamp but there were no fresh tracks. Then I realised that he must have been playing gamin to us and had cut back to the centre. I found a track coming back. So I scanned the swamp carefully but nothing was in sight. I finally realised that this little patch of saplings was the only place he could hide without being seen.

“So I worked back, real slow and steady, watching for anything. Finally, when I was only thirty yards away, I saw a tiny movement in the shadow, the smallest flick of his ear in reflex to a fly. So I brought my gun up and there he was in my scope. He was so well camouflaged that he was almost invisible, facing up with his head up sniffing the wind. He seemed so surprised when the first bullet hit that he did not know what to do, but you can see how mad he was by the way this tusk has ripped into the ground.”

They agreed they needed to get the boar to the chopper but there was a lot of weight. So, all straining together, they pulled him a few feet out of the patch of paperbarks. Mark carefully sliced him open and removed his innards. Then he used a short piece of rope to tie his back feet together.

Vic headed back to the helicopter to bring it round to them. After a few minutes Susan and Mark heard the helicopter roar to life and fly towards them.

Hovering the helicopter directly above, Vic lowered a chain. There was a large hook hanging on the end of it. Susan guided the hook between the pig’s feet, while Mark lifted these towards her. When the pig was attached Susan gave thumbs up sign towards Vic.

With a burst of power, the helicopter pulled the pig up into the sky. It hovered at fifty feet for a couple seconds. Then it was away, flying in a straight line to the southeast.

“Vic is going back to the airstrip. He will arrange for the boar to be placed in a cool-room at the Mine until transport is organised to take it to the taxidermist in Mount Isa.” Mark explained, “Now we have a couple hours for fishing and lunch before he returns.”

Vic had left the rest of their gear at the landing site. They collected it and walked towards the edge of the river. A sandy bar ran out from the bank, going a few metres into the water. It had the branches of a large dead tree to one side and clear water on the other.

Before they came close to the water Mark said, “There are some really big crocodiles in here and we need to be careful.”

They came to the bank looking out towards the sandbar. They sat on the bank and Mark watched closely for a couple minutes, scanning the banks and looking for any other signs to indicate that a large salt-water crocodile might be lurking. As he sat he pulled a crocodile, about hand’s width long, carved from dark timber and brightly painted in ochre colours, from his pocket. He looked at the toy crocodile closely and then at the water. To Susan it seemed as if he was talking in his mind to both.

After a couple minutes he said. “It seems OK, but don’t get too close to the water. I’ll fish on the side of the sandbar with the dead tree. There could be a big barra lurking under the snags. You should try the open side. There’s a good chance for something there.”

Mark asked Susan if she had ever tried lure fishing.

She shook her head “No, only bait fishing, and a couple times my father tried to teach me fly fishing for trout, but I never quite mastered it.”

He gave Susan a rod with a floating fish lure, about four inches long with two three barb hooks attached. It was a blue-grey colour with red and black side stripes, a “Nilsmaster” he told her. He said to cast into the middle of the clear water then wind back in at a steady walking pace.

He put a small lure with some green and yellow markings onto his own rod and looked for some clear water, amongst the branches, to cast into.

Susan’s first cast did not go according to plan. She didn’t time the line release right. The line flipped to the side as the lure jerked back, landing a few yards from her feet.

Mark came across. He put his hands over hers, guiding her with slow, deliberate movements. “Don’t try too hard until you get the hang of it.”

Susan tried not to get distracted by Mark’s closeness. Together they did a gentle cast and release with the lure hitting the water about ten yards out. “That’s it, work on improving from that,” he said.

She wound in and concentrated on getting her timing and direction right. Her next cast went out straight about fifteen metres and the third one went a good twenty. She had only wound in a metre when the line jerked and snaked through the water in a crazy zigzag.

“Mark, I have something,” she called.

Mark came across, but it was clear that Susan by now had it well in hand. So he stood back to watch.

Susan felt her heart pounding as she hooked the fish, but she knew she had to remain calm and focused to reel it in. With a jerk the fish exploded out of the water, skipping across the surface in a tail dancing run.

Susan shouted behind her, “Mark did you see that, it’s huge!”

“It is probably half a metre long, a good five pounder,” Mark called back to her.

In less than five minutes Susan had the gleaming barramundi on the sandy spit.

“Well, seeing as you’ve caught our lunch, I’ll get a fire going,” Mark said.

Susan could not restrain her elation, she felt like jumping up and down as she chattered with excitement. “Wasn’t the way it jumped out of the water and stood on its tail just amazing! I was sure it was going to get off.”

Mark laughed, “The first is the most exciting isn’t it. They are great fighters and often manage to shake the lure out of their mouth and get away. But you kept steady and did just great.”

Using a similar technique as the night on the Frew River, minus the pit, they cooked the fish. Mark shook his head when she suggested gutting it. “Don’t need to when it’s this fresh.”

Once the fire died down, he laid the fish in the middle of the coals and pushed coals from the sides up over it.

Fifteen minutes later it was done.

Mark scraped the coals from the fish’s centre across to one side and, with his knife, gently pushed apart a hole in the charred surface. There below was succulent white fish. Then he pushed the rest of the fire away. He lifted the burnt skin carefully off the top side of the fish. From his pack he found a metal plate and spoon for them each.

They sat on the sandy riverbank and ate plate after plate of white fish flesh, sprinkled with salt and washed down with cups of water from the river. Even when they both could eat no more, still half a fish was left.

Susan stretched out, feeling sleepy and laying back on the sloping sand, looking across the river to where the cliffs rose sheer on the other side.

She said, “How incredible is this! This is a life out of someone else’s story book, my own Northern Territory safari.”

Mark was silent but gave a half smile back, truth acknowledged.

It was hard to believe that it would end in another few days, and she would be on a flight to the other side of the world. She wondered if she would ever see Mark again after she left. It was almost too perfect the way it was now. Trying to reconcile their different worlds was something she couldn’t conceive. Perhaps it was meant to be a wonderful memory of a visit to Australia, and she would return to her English life, leaving this story to live only in their memories. Perhaps she would meet and marry an English doctor or lawyer and Mark would carry on with his outback life.

Could she and a man like this ever join their lives together? Or would it all tear apart, through difference and distance, when reality returned? Half of her thought it was better that way; the other half cried out against the profound loss and sadness she sensed would be left in her soul after their separation.

Mark lay back silently, staring at the sky, his face a mask, giving no clue to what he felt, whether he cared if they continued with life together. She wanted to ask him what he felt and thought, but no words would come.

She remembered the small carved crocodile that he had held when they came close to the water to go fishing. She asked him what it was.

He looked at her, as if he was deciding whether to reveal something significant. Then he brought it back out and handed it to her, placing it in her upturned palm.

She looked closely. The object was only little, it sat easily in her palm, but the creature it represented was not. It was made of heavy timber, with char marks in places, as if it had been hardened and marked in a fire before painting. It was surprisingly solid to hold and the ochre painting detail was intricate and lifelike. It was a crocodile, of great girth, broad head, body and tail. She knew without saying that it represented a huge and ancient creature. As she held it was as if she held the spirit of a live crocodile in her hand.

She returned it to Mark. He was watching her curiously, as if seeking her response.

She said, “It feels so lifelike, as if I am holding the spirit of a real crocodile in my hand.”

Mark said, “It is my totem, Crocodile Spirit Dreaming.”

She would have asked him more but a distant throbbing in the air now signalled the return of the helicopter. They both turned their heads skywards and the moment passed. Five minutes later the helicopter settled on the ground nearby. Vic joined them and helped to polish off the remaining fish.

Vic had brought his own rod. He told them he knew of a great pool on the Robinson River, the next river to the west, which was just alive with barramundi at the moment. The fish appeared to have been trapped inside a small pool since the river had fallen away to a trickle after the big rains of the last wet. As this place was at least ten miles walk from any road or track he was pretty sure the fish would still be there.

They walked back to the helicopter and flew west, until they came to the Robinson River. They followed it back inland. It was a big wide river in its lower reaches, without the massive gorges of the Calvert. After fifteen minutes they crossed a big dirt road, the road on to Borroloola, and then, a few minutes later, they passed to the side on an aboriginal community.

Soon they were in a gorge, every bit the equal of the Calvert, but with wider and higher sides. The river lay in a series of large broken pools below them. At first there were roads, tracks, and signs of human occupation, but as they climbed towards the plateau the gorge narrowed and signs of people disappeared.

Rounding a bend in the river they spotted the waterhole Vic had described. It was almost circular, with rock shelves extending three quarters of the way round and one side backing into a sheer cliff, which rose a thousand feet above them. A great sea eagle was overhead, riding the thermals high up near the cliff top. They saw glimpses of fish as they swooped over, and the fish were active, swimming and darting in the shallows.

They landed, and each took a quarter and got set up, perched on the rock shelf that ran around and above the pool, so their lines would not cross. The water was so clear that they could see down into the depths of the pool below their feet.

Vic was first to cast and on his first cast they could all see a big fish trailing his lure but nothing happened. It appeared to be the same the second time, but this time the first fish was joined by a second, following just behind. But, just when the lure was almost at his feet, a third and huge fish came surging out of the shadows, and grabbed hold of his line.

From then on the whole pool went crazy. It was as if the signal was sent that all fish better get in on the action or they would miss out on dinner. Often the three of them all had fish on their lines together, tail dancing across the surface, fighting to cast the lures from their mouths.

In half an hour it was all over. Twenty-one glistening fish lay on the rocks beside them; eight caught by Vic, seven by Mark and six by herself. The biggest was the first monster that Vic had caught. He pulled a spring scale from the helicopter and it weighed in at 23 kilograms. Mark and Susan had each caught one that was about half that size, both weighed between twelve and thirteen kilograms. The rest ranged from eight down to about two kilograms.

Vic eyed the big pile of a fish dubiously, “I am not sure whether we can lift all this and also ourselves in one trip.” Thinking some more he added, “I think it should be OK. I’m down to half fuel, and Susan’s not heavy; plus the air is cool in the shade of this rock. That will all help with the initial lift off. Anyway let’s give it a go. If I can get in the air it will be right, there is a good run straight ahead down the valley, to pick up speed before I need to get height on to climb out.”

So they loaded all the fish aboard, some sitting on wire baskets on the skids and some sitting in the cargo hold. When Vic was happy that the balance was right he signalled them aboard.

He dialled on the power. The engine revolutions rose up to the top of the green zone, tipping into yellow. He adjusted the blades to cut the air. They could feel the engine die back as it struggled with the load, but Vic kept dialling on the throttle. Slowly the skids came up above the ground. Once he was clear by about ten feet he eased forward. They were away, surging down the valley, piling on speed.

Gradually the ground fell away as they held altitude and soon the river fell far beneath. Then Vic put them into the second phase of the flight, where they slowly climbed out of the valley, foot by foot, at first pulling barely a hundred feet per minute of climb, but slowly they crept up. Then, as the altimeter passed five hundred feet, he directed their course to the airstrip to the east, flying increasingly easily as the time went by.

By the time they approached their destination they had topped out at over a thousand feet, enough to clear the highest hills on their way with a hundred feet to spare.

Mark and Vic divided the fish, with Mark packing his in fresh ice from the freezer at the mine. They gave the mine’s plant supervisor a mid-sized barra for his help, and Mark promised a side of a bullock next time he passed through with something suitable. They were invited to the mine mess for a beer and some dinner. Vic was pleased to accept, but Mark declined, saying they had a way to go and he wanted to call in and see some of his friends early next morning at Seven Emus Station. So, after a quick beer they were off.

Vic walked out to say goodbye. He and Mark hugged like brothers and then Vic turned to Susan, winking at Mark and saying. “Well, if he does decide to let you go your own way, don’t forget about me, always happy to show you what a real good time is.”

Susan laughed and gave Vic a spontaneous hug too. I think that one outback man is more than enough, not to mention my home is across the sea, on the other side of the world. But thank you for the kind offer.”

Mark laughed too. He said, “As you know my brother, I already have my heart set on this one. She is the best in every way and not for sharing.” Now it was Susan’s turn to blush.

Susan and Mark drove for a couple hours before setting up camp on the banks of the Robinson River, taking a maze of tracks that turned off the main road, near the road crossing, for a few kilometres downstream. Even though it wasn’t as cold as it had been in the desert or even at Hells Gates, it was well dark by arrival, and they both wanted the comfort of a good fire to sit by. They felt tired from their two full days, and Susan was in a relaxed, mellow mood from all she had seen and done. They did not talk much but their silence was one of quiet contentment.

For a change in diet, Mark suggested that he make a stew with left over beef, along with carrots, onions, and potatoes from his tucker box. Susan gave enthusiastic endorsement, looking forward to the hearty meal.

Also, feeling a craving for something sweet, she asked Mark if she could have a go at making a brownie like they had a couple days before. Mark agreed, seeming pleased to give her this role in the dinner. So she made a mixture of flour, golden syrup and dried fruit, with some margarine, and set it aside while the stew bubbled. They sat side by side, sipping pannikins of rum, making occasional aimless conversation.

It was then that Susan was struck by a guilty conscience. Mark had paid for everything in their trip thus far: all the fuel and food, as well as the accommodation for the nights when they did not camp and, particularly today, for the helicopter.

She didn’t know how he made his money, apart from odd jobs for various stations and mines. But it was hard to see how he could be rich from an income like that. She had allowed at least two thousand Australian dollars for this part of the trip and had barely spent a cent since arriving in Alice Springs. She had only a little over a hundred dollars cash on her when she arrived, as she had planned to go to an ATM in Alice Springs. She had spent a few dollars on drinks in the bar at Barrow Creek and some more for food and coffees at Roadhouses, but still, it was almost nothing. So, while she didn’t have the cash with her right now for a major contribution, Susan felt she needed to make one.

Everything had just happened so fast that there never had seemed to be the time to sort out payments and money, it had sort of got forgotten, and Mark had never looked for anything. But she really must find a way to pay her share.

So she broached the subject, feeling awkward. “Mark, I’ve had the most fabulous time with you. But you’ve paid for everything, and that’s not really right.

“I want to pay a share. So, please tell me what you think is fair and the next time we pass through a town with an ATM I will draw out the money to square up.”

Mark looked at her, his eyes seeming to see all the way through her, “You know you really don’t have to. I’ve loved having you along. You’re great company and no bother, and most of this trip I was going to do anyway, and, despite appearances, I am not short of a quid. So just enjoy the ride and let me sort it all out.” With that he grinned.

Susan looked back at him, pensive and a little unhappy; it didn’t feel right for her not to pay a share.

He looked at her serious face. “It bothers you doesn’t it? Tell you what; we’ll be in Darwin for the last night before you fly out. We can stay somewhere nice, and have a flash restaurant dinner and a good last night together. How about I let you pay for that. Much easier than trying sort the money out here.”

She let it drop, she felt reluctant about it, but did not want to spoil their bit of magic together. So they shared stew and brownie and joined their bodies together under the stars.

Just as she drifted off to sleep Mark said. “I’ll get up early in the morning. I want to go hunting down the river. There are often pigs along it and the Seven Emus mob are always keen for fresh pork, they have a great Chinese cook who does amazing things with it.

“So I will let you sleep in for an extra hour or two. The people we are calling to see never rise early. I figure we should get going about nine to be there for morning tea around ten.

Susan drifted off in to a dreamy sleep, liking the idea of an extra hour in bed in the morning.

She was vaguely aware of Mark getting up when there was barely light in the sky, dressing quietly and heading away.

Susan woke perhaps an hour later. It was still early, the sun just touching the horizon, perhaps 7 am. She gathered Mark would not be back for an hour or two yet. She thought another hour asleep would be nice.

But Susan was still feeling uncomfortable about paying her share and it was nagging in the back of her mind. Mark had indicated nothing to her about the cost of the trip and particularly the helicopter, but she had seen Vic hand him a sheet just before they left last night. It looked like a bill. She remembered Mark put it in a black plastic folder that he kept in the compartment on the driver’s-side door, the sort of thing that held car manuals.

Then a clear thought came to her. Why don’t I have a look, then at least I will know the real cost of the helicopter yesterday and be able to have an idea of how much to pay.

Susan pulled on a track top and pants to ward off the morning chill. Then, after she put a couple of fresh logs on the smouldering coals, she went to look for the bill. She found it, as remembered and expected, alongside the manuals.

It listed three hours of helicopter time at $600/hour giving a total of $1800, with a 10% discount coming in at $1620. That’s not too bad, she thought, my half share of that is about $800, I can easily pay for that plus for a final night in Darwin.

She was about to put the bill back when she noticed something odd. The name on it was different.

 

 

 

Chapter 12 Discovery Day 25

 

She looked at name on the bill, perplexed. She had heard Vic calling him Mark, he obviously knew his name, which she assumed meant his surname as well as the first name. And she had seen Vic pass him the bill, which he had happily accepted and countersigned without question. But the name on the invoice was Mark Butler, not Mark Bennett. Perhaps it was just a mistake he’d missed.

She was ready to dismiss it as that, but as she opened the wallet to put it back, something fell out onto the cab floor, a plastic card. Susan bent to retrieve it, not wanting to leave something to incriminate her for snooping.

It was an expired driving license, from the NT with a Katherine address. The man in the license photo was Mark. She read the name—Mark Butler—the same as the invoice, but why? Why use two names? The names were so similar—both created the initials MB.

Something about the Butler name rang a bell. With a spark of fresh recollection, she realised she had seen it before. It was the name on one of the number plates, written in tiny writing on a stick-on label. The other names came to mind as well, Brown and Brooks, MB, MB.

This was seriously odd. Four men, with the same initials, but different names; four number plates for the same vehicle. Who was her Mark? Was he one of these names? Or were they all fake and he was yet someone else again?

It was like all the odd and missing pieces were starting to connect.

She really liked this guy. In fact, if Susan was honest, she was starting to fall for him, big time, getting in way too deep. Before she let herself fall any further, she needed to know who he was.

Susan knew he kept business papers in an attaché case that he put behind his seat in the cabin. Perhaps there would be something there. She lifted it out and noticed the little copper monogram, MB, just below the handle. The case had a combination lock on the latch. She tried obvious numbers like 0000, 1234 and 9999. No success, so she put it back, it wasn’t going to help her.

The box she had found the night before last came back into her mind. She got the feeling that it was significant, the way it was hidden. Her instinct said she should look in there.

Susan was conflicted; she wanted to trust Mark, and she wanted to ask him directly who he was, but she knew that he reacted badly to personal questions like that. Something in the way he looked at her when she tried to probe really scared her, like there was a demon lurking inside waiting to be unleashed. It was like the horror film, The Omen, there was the beautiful child with the malevolent core. She shivered. No, this was all nonsense; she was letting her imagination run away.

But she still needed to know. Susan looked around in all directions; there was no sign of Mark and she didn’t think he would be back for at least another hour.

Well, she wouldn’t die wondering. She found a torch, went to where she had found the box that night and shone the light in. Sure enough, the bottom screw was still missing. She put her hand in, wiggled the plate out of the way and, with her fingernails caught on to the edge, eased the box out. It was just a plain grey metal box, nothing remarkable about it, but it looked like it had seen a lot of use. The metal had that polished lustre of regular handling.

She tried to lift the lid but it was stuck tight. She was just about to fetch a screwdriver to lever it when, in the bright light, she noticed something odd. Sellotape had been used all around the edge. It wasn’t obvious unless you looked closely. It was like a wax seal, if you broke it someone would know that the box had been opened.

However, Susan wasn’t one to let something like this stop her. She knew she had steady hands and good manual skills; this went with the territory for a lab technician. What she needed was a clean place where she could work slowly and carefully. She sat in the passenger seat in the cabin, resting the box on her lap. She looked at the tape closely until she found the end.

Then slowly and with great care she worked this end up, lifting with her nails, until a centimetre was sitting free. Gently, but firmly, she grasped the end and slowly eased it away; one side, two sides, three sides, four. Now she had half a metre of free tape. Carefully she attached both ends to the dash, making sure it was clean and out of the way so that she would not catch on it as she worked away.

Inside the box were two tightly packed brown envelopes, both about the same size as the box. Neither was sealed. Each was a couple of centimetres thick.

She lifted out the first envelope, inside were three bundles of documents, each kept together by a rubber band. She separated out the first bundle, careful to keep order. This was Mark Butler; passport, license, credit cards, and a range of other documents one would need for an identity check, a rates notice, a bank statement, and electricity bill. She put them back together and examined the second bundle. It was largely the same, the Brown documents, different name and address, but otherwise near enough to the same, including photo ID of her Mark. Brooks was almost another clone. So now she knew this was real, not made up in her head. It was creepy, but not really scary. Maybe he worked for the Secret Intelligence Agency, MI5, or whatever they called it here.

Opening the second packet she discovered four passports: one from the UK, one from Sweden, one from France and one from the USA. She flipped one open, expecting to see another Mark grin back at her.

Now she was scared, really scared. There was a face there, but it wasn’t Mark. It was a girl, a beautiful girl, she was Swedish. Her entry visitor visa was stamped over three years ago. But there was no exit stamp. What had happened to her? Why was her passport still in Australia? She should have left well over two years ago. Had she decided to stay and gone underground, got new identity documents? Had someone stolen her passport and sold it on the black market?

There was also another explanation that she didn’t even want to think about. She tried to lock it out but it kept sneaking into her thoughts. Those stories one hears about missing backpackers, and sometimes the ones found; rape, abduction, even murder; those were the sort of words used.

She couldn’t believe that of Mark, the tender, gentle Mark who was her lover, but she also knew that there was something unpredictable, even dangerous about him. She couldn’t say it was definitely impossible, be certain it was untrue.

She realised that this box needed to be put back and quickly, but before she did she needed some details to check on. She found a tiny notebook that she kept in her wallet. On it she wrote the girls full name, nationality, date of birth, and passport number. She went on to the next passport, she wasn’t surprised to find a French girl, similarly young and beautiful but dark haired. Again she wrote down the details. Then the American one, she looked like a stereotypical all-American varsity girl: freckles, brown hair, big smile, and radiantly beautiful. Finally the English one, well Scottish, actually.

There was something in this face that made the blood drain from her face, and her hands feel numb. Susan had seen this face before—she was almost certain. After digging deep in her memory she remembered. The Scottish girl in the picture had disappeared in Adelaide without a trace. There was no conclusive evidence to suggest where she may have gone; but her parents were beside themselves with worry. Susan remembered reading it in the local Scottish papers on a visit to her cousins. Looking at the name, Susan was surprised to see it wasn’t the name she recalled from the papers. This girl’s name was Fiona. She was nearly sure that the name she had read in the papers was different, or at least the Christian name seemed wrong. Perhaps she was mistaking this girl for a look-alike?

Susan recorded these last details, then she carefully—making herself move without haste—replaced all the documents and the tape. It was hard to go so slowly, knowing that Mark might appear at any moment. But she knew she must. She took a deep breath, trying to force calm into her flustered mind. She felt a slowing of her racing heart. Her trembling anxiety eased a notch.

At last it was done. The box looked the same as when she had first taken it out of its hiding place, maybe a bit shiny. She found a dusty rag, and tried to create the right patina. It would require extraordinary observation and memory to note that there was anything out of place. Before she hopped out of the cab she checked Mark was not in sight. Not seeing him she replaced the box, checked the cabin had no tell-tale marks, and walked the short steps back to their camp.

Susan was shaking. She needed to think. This was not something she could ignore. It didn’t have to be bad, but she needed to know the truth.

She thought of getting up and leaving now, walking back to the road and waiting for someone else to come along. Only she didn’t know where she was going, and she wasn’t really sure of the way out. It had been dark when they arrived last night, and, while she could follow the wheel tracks back to the next road, she didn’t know if she could find her way back to the main road. And if she ran off Mark would know she had found something and might start tracking her. She had seen him tracking animals, he was good and she knew that the aborigines could track people almost anywhere.

Susan realised that she had to stay, and she had to try to act the same as before. She knew they were driving to Borroloola today. The way people talked about it, it must be a proper town, with police, shops and things. She expected it would have phone reception for her mobile and a place to plug it in and charge it.

She would send a text to her friend Anne in England. Anne was a legal secretary and she was good at finding things out. Even though it would be the middle of the night here she would get the text the next morning and could find out who these people were and text her back if there was something to worry about.

Then, the next day, when they came to the next town, she would get Anne’s text back. After that she could decide if she needed to leave. So long as Mark didn’t suspect that she knew anything she didn’t think there was any real danger.

But she’d have to be careful. Mark was smart and a great observer, he would notice if she suddenly went cold on him. Susan would have to maintain the pretence and be warm and affectionate. But what if he wanted to have sex, what would she do? The thought of being intimate with someone who did bad things to others made her shudder with revulsion. But when Susan thought of the way he held and touched her, she didn’t believe he was a monster.

Susan decided she would have to turn it into an acting performance, like what she had done in the University Dramatic Society. She thought. When you act, all the things that you would never do in real life are possible, because it isn’t the real you who is doing them.

She found the idea of this almost exciting. If he wanted to make love to her she would play along, but as another person, a stranger who looked like Susan. Before she knew it she was fantasising; making love to Mark in the skin of another girl that looked, sounded and acted just like her. She almost wanted him to come back right now so she could try it.

But first there were things to do. She stoked up the fire and put the billy on to boil. She would make up some breakfast for them both, and she would put on fresh clothes, her favourite floral summer dress. She would wash her face, put on her makeup, brush her hair and make herself look good. Then they would go off together and have another fun day.

In her mind it had a dreamy, romantic loveliness. She filled a basin with warm water from the billy, then found soap and a washer and sponged herself all over. Teeth cleaned, hair brushed, she could almost feel herself glowing.

She lifted the dress out of her pack. Next to it she saw her most sexy lace knickers. In for a penny in for a pound, she thought, donning the underwear.

Finally she found her makeup, not much there. She was out of the habit of using it. But there was some pink lipstick, natural but bright. She applied it in front of the mirror in the cabin. Suddenly she saw the billy was boiling furiously, bubbling over. She jumped out and ran over to make tea, dropping the lipstick behind her onto the seat as she went.

She would tidy up her makeup later, but first she needed to eat, she was starving. She made toast and covered it with butter and golden syrup. It was delicious, just the pickup she needed. She was just starting on a third slice when she heard a distant shout. There Mark was, walking along the edge of the river, a hundred yards away.

Now the play-acting seemed phoney; she was just plain scared again. Mark would see through her and know. He would wonder why the change. But it was too late to back out now. She had rolled this dice and now had to follow the numbers.

So she stood up and waved back. As she did her playful spirit returned. It was easy; she skipped across to him, a bright smile on her face.

“Hello stranger,” she called. Susan didn’t need to ask about his success, she knew, with such a big grin on his face, that it had gone well, “So my victorious hunter, where’s the trophy, or the game for the pot?”

As she drew close Mark stopped walking and looked straight at her, staring. Susan suppressed a flash of panic. Had she given something away?

He whistled. “You look gorgeous, come here.”

She walked over to him, more sedate and demure now. She felt a bit like a naughty schoolgirl caught copying from her friend’s book. But she could feel her power over him; it was there in the way he was looking at her, it was like she had him on a string.

She stopped in front of him and looked up. She found herself mesmerised by his eyes. He put his hands on her shoulders, and pulled her in close, hand coming around her back and pulling her in. His hands were on her bottom now, feeling it through the flimsy fabric. It felt exquisite. He was so hot and hard.

“I was looking forward to breakfast, until I noticed you, now you’re all I want.” Sweat beaded on his forehead and she wanted to kiss it away.

She made herself pull back, “Not so fast, you’re all hot and sweaty and you’ll make my dress smell. You will have to wait until we get back to camp and I can take it off. It’s my last good dress, and a girl has got to dress up to go out on the town, particularly a big town like Borroloola. So paws off for now.”

She walked back, alongside him. Every now and then she would let a hand brush against him. She knew he was as acutely aware of her as she was of him. It was like a jolt of electricity every time their skin touched.

When they were close to camp she skipped away again. She picked up her half eaten slice of toast and slowly and luxuriantly ate it, bite by bite.

He looked at her with desperation in his eyes. “I want you so much. Right now.”

She flicked back her hair like a playful kitten, “Soon, but not now; breakfast first, then me. While you’re waiting why don’t you fix our bed? It needs to be straightened.”

She stood, with her arms crossed, regarding him as he worked.

“How’s that?” he said, stepping back, a half smile playing on his lips.

She looked at it, considering. “A little more fluffing of those pillows I think,” Mark obliged, “Yes that’s perfect now.”

Susan came over to Mark, took his hands, and led him to one of their camp chairs. Hands on his shoulders she pushed him down onto it.

She took two slices of bread and placed them over the coals. While they toasted she poured two cups of tea. She passed him his tea and took a leisurely sip of her own. When the toast was cooked she covered it liberally with butter and syrup and brought it over.

Then she stood in front of him, an arm’s length back. She tore a piece of toast off the corner. With great delicacy she placed it into his mouth, then another, and another. Each time she fed him she licked her own lips, savouring the taste in her mind.

When all the toast was gone, she passed him the second piece. “Now you can feed yourself. I have other things to do.”

Susan stepped back two paces. She placed her hands on her hips, feeling her own soft roundness. She slowly ran her hands up and down the silky fabric of her dress, accentuating the shape of her body underneath.

She lifted off one shoulder strap, and eased her breast free above her bodice. She paused for a minute to let him feast his eyes. Then she pushed down the second shoulder strap and lifted out her second breast. She tipped back her head, gazing up at the sky. Then with a quick flick she tipped her head forward, hair framing her face.

Susan gazed intently at her nipples, how she ached to touch them. She cupped each breast and stroked each nipple until it was swollen and cherry red. Finally she put her hands on her hips, and eased her dress down to the ground. She stepped out of it, now all she was wearing was her lacy knickers. She walked towards him and stopped just out of reach. She slowly pushed down her knickers until her mound was exposed, and gently stroked this place with her fingers.

Then she continued closer, until they were almost touching. Susan rubbed her nipples against his lips, first one, then the other. She felt incredibly aroused; her breasts were in his face and she ran her hands through his hair, feeling her favourite place, that muscular hollow where his hair met his neck.

“Now you can fuck me,” she said.

It was like a dam burst between them, their mouths were all over each other. Then Mark stood, lifted her to his waist and carried her to the bed. He kneeled down and laid her back on the ground. He tore off his clothes and, with an aching sound from his throat, Mark’s body was on top of hers as he pushed into her.

She climaxed as he entered, and he soon made her come again, then again. It was sex like she had never had it before, totally wild and uninhibited. It went on and on; when Mark came in violent shudder he just continued thrusting, as hard as ever, coming again seconds later. Susan felt that he would overwhelm her. Then finally they were both spent.

She lay with her face in his chest. “You know I am really nuts about you, I’ve never been with anyone like this before, but I just need to know who you are.”

Susan knew she had pushed too far, careless in their intimacy. She could almost see the wall crashing down in Marks’ eyes.

“Why?” he asked, anguished. “Isn’t this moment enough?”

In that moment, she knew that there was a terrible secret to be told, but one he could not share. Susan felt a deep compassion for him.

“It’s alright,” she said, “You are who you are. It is not for me to ask anymore.”

But deep down she knew that she needed real answers if she was to get to a place where she could be at peace with herself.

Forcing a break in their seriousness, Susan said, “I think it is time to go, aren’t we expected for morning tea somewhere.”

He laughed. “You know, you so enthralled me that I forgot to tell you about my hunting success. I have three fine young porkers down the river to collect, and I also have something else to show you. The pigs were too heavy to carry, so we’ll go in the car.”

After five minutes of driving, they had found the pigs. The place was marked by a flock of birds, some perched around in the trees and others circling overhead, feeding on the pig innards that Mark had discarded earlier. As they approached, the birds reluctantly abandoned their feast, squawking and squabbling over last bits as they flew off.

The bodies were lying on hard sun-baked earth and disguised by a blanket of branches. Mark lifted the pigs up, one by one, each around thirty or forty pounds, and laid them in the cooler.

Mark then took Susan her by the hand and led her down the pig track to the river below. In his free hand he carried the intestines of one pig. They passed through about fifty yards of swamp grass, and came to where the track reached a clear, still pool of water, tucked into the far bank.

Not a breath of air stirred the still surface, not a single bird-call disturbed the silence. She was about to talk but Mark signalled silence. He waved her to stop five steps back from the edge. Then, slowly and carefully, he went forward until he could reach the water. He threw down the pig guts, deliberately causing the water to splash as he placed them at the very edge of the pool.

Mark stepped back to join her and signalled to wait quietly. Five minutes passed and nothing, the stillness was absolute, the silence broken only by the sound of a blowfly buzzing at the water’s edge. Then, two small bubbles came to the surface, as far out as they stood from the edge. Stillness again, another minute passed.

Now a small knobbly stick lay on the water where none had been, two slits at the ends of the stick opened. Then two eyes appeared, two feet behind the stick. The eyes watched her with absolute impassivity. She stared back. Somehow, the knowledge that she was staring at a huge crocodile had passed into her brain, without any conscious realisation. The eyes moved forward.

There was a huge wave as the enormous creature rose out of the water. The crocodile opened its jaws, as if to display peg after peg of yellow teeth. It swivelled sideways, almost delicately, picking up the pig intestine. With a flick of its head, its jaws opened wide and snapped shut, the pig remains now gone. Gracefully it turned its ponderous body and slid back underneath the pond surface, giving barely a ripple. All was still again as before.

Susan’s heart was still pounding five minutes later, after they had returned to the car. She had known that crocodiles were huge, silent, and dangerous, but nothing imagined could have prepared her to see up close their incredible and silent power, first hidden, seen briefly, then gone as if never there. When she thought of those remorseless eyes, watching her as just another potential meal, she felt the hair rise on her arms.

 

 

 

Chapter 13 – Borroloola Day 25

 

Susan was sitting in the Borroloola Hotel. Mark had left her to do some more business. He said it would take an hour. He seemed to have connections everywhere; there was always a little deal on the side.

For now she enjoyed the solitude.

The morning had continued to be wonderful. Her image of the crazy abductor just did not line up with the man she knew.

But now she had to decide. Should she try and find the truth or just let it go? If she didn’t care about him the choice would have be easy, she would have just continued to enjoy the trip and maybe followed it up back in England, in safety, far away. But Susan did care, and she thought Mark cared about her too, she was almost certain of it. Commitment, in whatever form, meant honesty and truth. That meant finding where these threads led. With only five days until her plane departed, she needed to have an answer before she left.

Susan was now starting to understand NT geography and get a sense of where they were heading. Today, they were in the Gulf, at the bottom of what he called the Top End, to the east; tomorrow they would head up further, but cross over the western side, something about a big crocodile river, yet more crocodiles, almost a part of what made him. Then they would spend a day in Kakadu, right at the top, back east, before they would spend their final night in Darwin.

There were not many towns until Darwin and the end of their trip, where it looked like she could communicate with the world. There was one called Timber Creek, in a day or two, and perhaps Katherine, which they would pass through on the way to Kakadu. So, if she wanted to find out more, Susan needed to do something now.

She was enjoying sitting in the cool soft light after the harsh sun and growing heat of the day. It was getting warmer and warmer each day as they headed north. She would happily have sat there and sipped her lemon, lime and bitters, while she daydreamed about a future with Mark. Could she return and try living in the Aussie outback? Was she prepared to forgo her career in medical technology? But perhaps she could get a job in a hospital lab. Alice, Katherine, and Darwin were the main towns and they all seemed to want skilled staff. Then Mark and Susan could just see how it went without the pressure of forcing themselves together all the time.

Shaking her head to rid the daydreams, Susan reluctantly pulled her phone out of her backpack. She turned it on, only a quarter of its charge remained. She plugged it in to charge and found Anne’s number.

She would keep this simple and just follow up on the Scottish and American girls. They would be easier to track down. Had they been reported as missing—was there anything suspicious, when did it happen? If she gave each name, current age and town or city from the passport address, it should be enough for Mr Google or other search engines to see if there was anything of note—a newspaper article, missing persons notice or other similar. Once she knew that she could decide on whether to go any further.

The text was to the point:

 

Anne,

Can you check out two names below?

Saw notice saying missing in a place I stayed.

? Whether home now and OK. Text back soonest.

Will check next town, where phone works.

Having a great time in Oz.

Love and see you soon

Suz

 

Then she listed the names Fiona Rodgers and Amanda Sullivan, along with age and origin locality for both girls. She pushed send and then checked the sent box. The message had gone. It was too late to pull back.

Feeling she had done her duty she turned the phone off and put it away. She had thought about ringing her Mum to say hello, but the time difference (3 am in London) meant it wasn’t a good time. Susan would try to remember one night, when it was morning in England, if she was in a place with reception.

Letting her thoughts drift, Susan thought of Mark and the morning she had spent with him. It was, it was—well not something she would tell her grandmother. But it blew her mind the way they connected with each other, and all the intimate things they had done.

That huge crocodile, so silent and so very freaky; one minute, nothing, then the next a ton of saurian scales surging from the water; such power and seemingly weightless explosive movement. Then the delicate way it had picked up and swallowed its pig treat, with an almost quaint relish. Then it just faded away to nothing again, a silent place. She had barely breathed as she watched it unfold. She shivered now at the thought.

Then there was their funny morning tea at the place called Seven Emus. Not the grand cattle station she had imagined, not much there at all really; skinny cattle, broken yards, a range of pets and chickens wandering here and there, in and out of houses. It was an extension of the Shadforth clan who had lived in this country for more than 100 years.

But there was something incredibly dynamic about them, their mixed ancestry, multi-coloured kids running free. It was a place with a mixture of old and new; parts of the house and yard looked like they had come out of the Ark. Alongside the piles of junk and broken down cars scattered around were much newer objects: a TV, microwave, satellite phone, books, and electronic games. There were also modern cars and boats, even a helicopter that sat to one side—bought to take the tourists on scenic flights.

They had passed a flash resort, the Seven Emu’s Fishing Camp, and turned down a little sidetrack to come to this place by the creek; it was unclear which part of the clan lived here. Mark said there were too many details to explain.

The people who lived here were lovely. Susan felt they really belonged to this place and had successfully managed to straddle the race and class divide, a son who was studying law at the university in Queensland, a daughter training to be a nurse in Darwin, another who was a police trainee in Borroloola. The parents were so obviously proud of their children and their achievements; the way they spoke reminded her of the way her Mum talked about her and Tim.

Then there was the cousin with a brood of small children, running everywhere, almost naked, snotty nosed, one carrying a pet chook. Their mother screaming at them and waving a stick, but rushing to hug one who had fallen and hurt his knee, while at the same time she scolded another for eating a piece of bread with filthy hands.

There was a grizzled old man, perhaps a grandfather, who still had his aboriginal heritage running strong. He told Susan a story of the early spirits of this land, the Emu spirits of his totem. He had walked with her to the creek, carrying a fish spear, and showed her where he could spear fish. He had told her of going in a small boat into the rough Gulf waters to catch dugong and turtle with a harpoon; he told her of being a little boy when a white man beat his father. The man accused his father of stealing a cow with no brand on their own land, said he knew this cow by sight and it was his own. He said his father had made it run away, so he hit him with a stick, over and over again until he lay still in the dirt.

The old Chinese cook, relationship unknown, was like a second grandfather; he made Chinese dumplings for their morning tea. He had received the pig offered, on behalf of the whole family, with gratitude. He had immediately hung it from a beam under the verandah. Later he would “smoke-im, real good,” but for now, dumplings.

Almost as an afterthought, he had sliced off a portion of cheek meat, to add to his menu. When it was ready, the dumplings and steamed pork were served steaming in a spicy sauce. The food was delicious, and Susan had eaten with uninhibited gusto.

It was such a hotchpotch, and yet it was so real and alive. Susan had always had an image of aboriginal culture, which she realised now was a stereotype—the noble savage with the spear, living out and alone, totally at one with the land. Instead, here was a culture that was a living and dynamic fusion, the old and the new all living and drawing off each other; a chaotic harmony, as if blessed by the spirit of this land.

Susan sensed this was a new aboriginal and Australian culture and, in maybe fifty years, the culture would evolve again, its people changing beyond recognition. Only the landscape would remain the same.

She was roused from her reverie by Mark’s hand on her shoulder, “You look like you were having such a lovely dream.” He said, “Let’s walk round the town, and down to the river, I’ll show you the sights for a bit, before we come back for lunch and travel on.”

She slipped her arm around his waist and they walked into the bright sunshine of a Borroloola dry season day. Susan soaked up the sun’s rays as a warm and gentle breeze caressed her skin. She felt good. Today was a day to be enjoyed while she waited for the chips to fall. She would not think about her message to Anne until there was something to know.

 

 

 

Chapter 14 – Heartbreak Hotel to VRD Day 26

 

Later that night, Susan and Mark lay side by side in their bed in the little box unit room at the Heartbreak Hotel. It was the middle of the night, or more accurately the early morning. Mark seemed to be sleeping soundly, his breathing regular.

She felt overcome with warmth and tenderness for the man that slept beside her. Susan saw clearly now that she had fallen in love with him. She was in way over her head, she could not conceive of her life without him. Sure he had his odd quirks: he was secretive, defensive, and he didn’t like questions. But then, he had hardly had the best start: an abusive father, a mother who had given him little before vanishing. She felt sure this was at the root of his emotional wall.

Susan was in the mood to forgive all. Part of her regretted the text yesterday, digging into the girls’ identities. She was sure there was a reasonable explanation. After all the passports were out of date, or at least the Scottish one was. And the name didn’t seem familiar. She was almost sure that the name she remembered from the paper was Catherine or Katherine—not Fiona—maybe the surname was the same, but then she wasn’t really sure. And it wasn’t like Rodgers was an uncommon name.

Susan felt she was breaking Mark’s trust by going looking for dirty secrets. Especially when Mark was always so kind and gentle, well most of the time.

It had only been once or twice that she had seen a look in his face that scared her, but everyone has a dark side. Susan was sure she was just jumping at shadows. She just had respond to his affection with trust.

Mark had been true to his promise to make it a night to remember. On leaving Borroloola, they had driven up the road for an hour and stopped at a little town called Cape Crawford; ‘town’ was perhaps too large a word, as the town was really just a roadhouse called Heartbreak Hotel.

There was no mobile reception here.

The pub was not much to look at; the room Mark had rented for them was really basic, not much more than a box with a double bed and an air conditioner. There was a small TV, running from the satellite dish perched on the roof of the hotel. It gave a range of channels, mostly American, but some local. In the early evening she had feasted her desire to be connected with the outside world with an hour of news watching and channel surfing.

They had arrived mid-afternoon, and had checked in to the room immediately. Coming into their room, they sated their desire for slow and gentle sex.

Mark had looked at her with such tenderness, his low voice telling her how much she meant to him. He never quite said love, but from him it felt the same. This was the first time he had talked to her in an emotional way. It moved her far beyond anything she had known with any other man.

It had been lovely to be here with daylight to spare. After their time in bed they had gone for a drink in the bar and it was still only just after three, they had a long afternoon yet. Susan ordered lemonade, and mixed it with a dash of Mark’s beer.

After they’d emptied their glasses, Mark said he had something he wanted to show her, just a short drive away. In less than half an hour they turned onto a track with a small sign reading, Bessy Springs – Falls.

The waterfall wasn’t huge, less than a hundred feet high, but it had a steady flow that fell over ochre cliffs into a crystal clear pool. The pool was fringed by a prickly palm, which Mark called, ‘Pandanus.’

They first swam in the pool below, then climbed to the top of the waterfall and followed the creek back to a series of deep rock pools. On the way they passed through what, to Susan, appeared to be a city made of stones; Mark called it a lost city.

Over millennia the weather had eroded the rock in the creek valley into hundreds of stone columns. Seen together they looked like stone skyscrapers poking up through the trees, the layers in the stone were the building floors. Susan could almost see the inhabitants of these strange buildings in her mind; she pictured them all sleeping in the daylight, but coming out at dusk, carrying little lights, like fairies, bustling as they came and went.

They came to a hollowed out rock pool. It was an almost perfect circle, scoured neat and clean by the thunderous water flow of the wet season. Now just a gentle trickle ran into this clear water pool, buried deep in the stone, with sand and pebbles at the edges. Susan had waded in and had discovered that, in the centre, the water was deep and cold. It went well over her head when she tried to touch the bottom with her toes.

Mark had taken off her clothes and held her body against his. He did not seek sex, he just caressed and held her, and she held him in return. They gently touched and explored each other’s bodies and faces; she touched the big scar on his back that ran across his shoulder. Susan said she would imagine it was a gunshot wound, sustained in a wild-west gunfight.

Mark laughed, “More likely barbed wire from when a horse threw me over a fence.”

They returned to the Heartbreak Hotel just as dusk was falling. The sky was lit by a red sunset in the western sky, the sun turning from yellow, to orange, to red, to almost purple as it descended through the final layers of a distant smoky sky.

Dinner was “Surf and Turf” in the roadhouse: a juicy slab of Barkly steak, complemented by delicious Carpentaria Prawns and fresh Barramundi—so the menu read. It was incredibly delicious for roadhouse food. They washed their meal down with beer, poured into glasses from huge longneck bottles of NT Draught.

Someone struck up a fiddle, and next minute there were Irish set dances and jigs. The roadhouse patrons all joined in; instructions were easy and little was expected. There were around thirty or forty people in the bar but, surprisingly, for once there seemed to be no one Mark knew. Mark explained it was a tourist crowd; the locals busy with mustering and other dry season work. They wouldn’t be in until the weekend.

Susan didn’t mind, it meant that she had Mark all to herself; he seemed to like this too.

The night drifted by, the pleasant feeling of them being together, sitting side by side, sometimes facing and looking at each other, sometimes little touches of hands and thighs. She knew there would be more loving before they went to sleep, but the now was about enjoying each other’s company.

The evening drifted on, and Susan started yawning. Mark took her by the hand, pulled her to her feet and led her back to their room. He sat her on the edge of the bed, while he opened the small bag that held his things.

Susan got the feeling that something significant was about to happen.

Mark took something out of his bag and zipped it back up. He turned and padded softly to sit beside her on the bed. Almost shyly he took her hand and put an object in it.

Nestled in the palm of her hand was a blue felt box, the type that held rings and small jewellery.

Susan felt a flutter of excitement and looked to Mark, curious.

“Open it,” he said. Susan opened the lid. Inside was a ring, set with a beautiful milky blue stone the size of her thumbnail. Sitting delicately beside the ring was an almost identical stone, set into a pendant on a necklace of gold links.

“Came from the man I saw today in Borroloola. I got the stones sent off to be made up just after Magnetic Island. When I first met you in Cairns I knew they were perfect for the colour of your eyes. After Cairns I hoped I might see you again. I decided that day, after we met on the dive boat, that if I did see you again they would be for you. So in Townsville after you left I arranged to have these made and sent to Borroloola where I could collect them.

Susan looked up and met his eyes. She felt herself drawn within his being, a meeting of spirits. There was such intensity in their connection, at first it had been mainly physical but now it was as if there was a bonding of their souls.

Her gaze flicked back down to the jewellery, then back at Mark. She was full of wonder and surprise. She felt tears prick her eyes, “Oh Mark you shouldn’t have; they’re very beautiful.” She felt amazed that he’d made this decision on the very first day of their meeting, as if he had foreknowledge of what was to follow.

Mark took the box. He lifted her right hand, which was sitting in his lap, and tried the ring on her third finger.

The ring was a fraction too large, but she loved its elegant cut and the way it sparkled in the light. The stone seemed huge but yet was balanced and perfect. Then Mark placed the gold chain over her head and let the second stone fall into place. It sat just at the top of the place where her breasts met, partly hidden under her top.

Mark said, “I think I need to see it in uninterrupted view.”

Susan nodded and lifted her arms above her head. “Undress me,” she whispered.

Mark lifted her top over her head, his fingers grazing her skin, then threw it somewhere behind him. Then standing he drew her to her feet and eased off her skirt, discarding this too. He kissed each breast, then the little blue stone, and then each breast again. When he was done he lifted her under the covers and covered her body with his. It was incredibly beautiful, their sense of togetherness, as much as the pleasure.

After, she asked absentmindedly what made him want to get her such an amazing gift.

He said, “At first just your eyes, but now, all of you. I want you to have something to remember me by, when you return home.” He paused, then added, “Maybe, we can find a way to meet and do this all again, to be together again.”

Sleepily she said. “I hope so, Mark, I really hope so.” Half dreamy she murmured “Together Forever.” Now Mark was saying with her, “Together Forever,” or was it a dream.

It was still dark when Mark shook her awake. “Hate to disturb your sleep, but we’ve a long way to go today.”

They packed quickly and left the roadhouse. Nothing was stirring in the tourist parts, but a couple of workers were tidying up out the back. In five minutes they were away and driving west. Mark explained they were heading for Timber Creek and the Victoria River tonight, passing through Top Springs and the Victoria River District, his own favourite piece of cattle country. It was a long, long drive, so he wanted to get most of it out of the way before midday. He said they aimed to be in Top Springs for lunch, a mere five hundred kilometres away.

They shared the driving. He drove for the first hour while she fully woke up. Then he gave her the wheel. Susan drove until they reached the Stuart Highway, two hours later. They stopped at the Daly Waters Hotel, just near the junction, where they took on fuel for the car, and two plates of bacon and eggs for themselves.

After their late breakfast they headed south, which surprised Susan. She’d had the impression that they were en route north. Mark explained they had to first go south, back towards Alice Springs, in order to pick up their road out to the west.

It was less than half an hour’s drive before they reached this road. The sign read Buchanan Highway but Mark explained that the locals called it the Murranji Track, on account of it being an old drover’s route to walk cattle to Queensland from the Victorian River District and the Kimberley. It was only two hundred kilometres long, but was known as one of the world’s toughest droving routes. It had long waterless stretches; poor feed; patches of dense dangerous timber called lancewood, due to their spear like trunks which could impale both man and horse; and often the cattle would get spooked in the night and rush, “Yanks call it a Stampede,” Mark added.

Despite the shorter distance, it felt like a much longer trip to Top Springs than the first leg. They tried to talk but, as there was no roadside scenery, they had little of local interest to discuss. The noise of the vehicle bouncing and shaking made wider conversation difficult.

Despite this, Susan sat contented; she was happy to be in Mark’s company. She had taken the ring from her finger and slipped it on the gold chain round her neck. She hadn’t wanted to take it off, but was fearful it would slide off her finger, and get lost. She liked the feeling of it hidden beneath her shirt, sitting snug between her breasts. It was both private and possessive.

At last they left the scrub behind. The country opened out into grassy plains, with low hills on the horizon.

Mark enthused, “This is the start of the VRD, Victoria River District. It runs from here out to Western Australia, and down to the desert. It’s named from its river, which starts in the desert and runs north to the sea.

“For me it’s God’s own country. The place, where God said, after he’d made the rest of the world, ‘Now give me a space for man and beast, where the grass is good, the water is sweet, the fish are big, and the hills look over.’”

Susan looked at him and smiled, “So a man of poetry as well as many other things.’’

“Not my strongest talent I admit,” he grimaced.

At Top Springs they were met by a crusty old bartender who clearly knew Mark well. He flicked Mark’s hat as he came inside, grinning at him.

“What no fuel to buy?” he said to Mark.

“Here! You must be joking, you will rob me blind,” said Mark, laughing.

“You must think we are still in old Ma Hawke’s days,” the barman said.

“Anyone who trained under her must be like her,” Mark responded. It was good-natured banter.

Over lunch stories emerged about the infamous, Ma Hawke. Susan was in fits of laughter, hard to believe most of them, though the old bartender swore to their authenticity.

Mark backed him up. “Not that I knew her myself, but I have talked to too many old-timers who knew her, for it all to be made up.”

The stories ran on and on. “What about the one where she tried to sell a Stock Inspector 300 litres of petrol, from the pump, even though his fuel tank only held 240.”

“What about the time when she died and they called the local cops out from Wave Hill. Everyone knew there must be a money stash. Sure enough the cops said they found ten grand under her bed. Trouble was, next day after they went back to the Wave Hill Police Station, one of the cop’s own dogs dug up money buried in his back yard. A blackfella saw the notes blowing in the wind and thought it was Father Christmas.

“Turned out that cop pocketed another fifteen grand. When he saw the money in the wind he fessed up. But his mate didn’t, said he knew nothing about any extra money and stuck to his story and a search couldn’t find it. Even though the first cop said the other had taken his own share he wouldn’t cough up the dough. So the honest one got the boot. A year later I saw the honest one on the bones of his arse while his mate lived in a nice new flash house.”

After reminiscing for another while, Mark flicked his head. “One to carry,” he said, ordering another beer for them both. The old bartender passed two over.

Mark went to pay. The bartender shook his head. “On the house. It’s good to tell tales with someone who remembers. I know you came from the city one time, but you’re one of us now, stories are in your blood.

“The old-timers around here say you have a crocodile spirit they can see in the dusk, that last light when only the shadows dance.”

Susan felt goose bumps run down her arms and spine. She couldn’t imagine this hard-bitten old bushie bartender saw ghosts. But there was something in his tone that told her he could see over the horizon to the other side. She shivered.

Mark broke the mood. “Well old fella, thanks mighty for the drinks and yarn. Tell me who is working on the VRD?

“Well,” said the man, “everyone is pretty flat strap as you know. But this morning a big lot of trucks came through from Katherine, gone to collect a big shipment of steers to load on the cattle boat from Darwin tomorrow. Hear tell they’re putting them together on VRD Station. They say the numbers have come up short and they’ve cut an expensive deal with Humbert River Station to make up the load. I heard tell they’re walking a mob down the Wickham Gorge today.”

The bartender paused, “Don’t know if you know it, but tis tiger country up there. Lots of scrubbers in them hills. I reckon they’re likely to have trouble. You looking for a job?”

Mark winked, “Not today, hands a bit full as you can see.”

The bartender gave Susan a piercing look, “You be real careful, he’s full of charm, but there’s a wild place there too, danger goes with him.”

Then he said seriously. “But you’ll be right, a guardian angel watches over you. I know I’ll see you again sometime, maybe when his spirit returns to the crocodiles.”

Susan felt an edge to his words that made her squirm.

But Mark waved him away. “Ah, go way with you old man, don’t be frightening the lass. I’ll take good care of her.”

“Sure, and isn’t that the nub of the problem,” he replied.

It was such a strange conversation that Susan burst out laughing. “I could swear you are all mad Irish here, such superstition as I have never before heard.”

The barman winked at her. “Well isn’t me name O’Reilly, as was my Dad’s before.” Then he doffed his hat. “Will be seein’ ye agin.”

Susan couldn’t help laughing back, “Well I hope so.”

Walking out the door the man’s reply followed her. “To be sure, to be sure, tis written.”

 

 

 

Chapter 15 Out on the VRD – Day 26

 

As they drove off Mark said, “We’re a bit later than I meant. But it is hard to get away when the old man gets to telling stories; he knows them all and at least half are true. The blackfellas around here tell me he’s a bit fey and sees spirits. Me, I think the only spirit he sees comes from the inside of a bottle with Johnny Walker written on it.”

An hour later Mark and Susan came over a ridge. In front of them the air was full of dust. There were buildings and yards, and men on horses, and a couple choppers working, along with bull catchers pushing a mob of cattle up a laneway. Over to one side sat six big trucks with double-deck stock crates, each pulling two trailers. Another truck was pulled up to a loading ramp and people were pushing cattle up the ramp into it.

“Well it is a big day today,” said Mark to Susan, “all go at the home station. This below is VRD, properly known as Victoria River Downs Station, same name as the district. Once it was the largest cattle station in the world, before they broke it into four separate parts. VRD is one of my favourite places, and today is a good day to come, even if it is a bit busy. I thought you might like to see some real cattle station action.”

Susan nodded, happy to go along.

Mark continued, “A mighty river runs through this area, the Victoria River, which we’re going on tomorrow. Pity its pushing three o’clock, I had planned for the full afternoon here, but I didn’t know what was on. Plenty it seems. Let’s go over, say hello and see if they want a hand. The manager here is a good friend of mine.”

They parked near the yards, and walked across. Most people were busy but a truckie was leaning on the rail, watching as they loaded cattle onto a truck.

“Hi there,” said Mark, sticking out his hand, “I think I met you at Anthony’s Lagoon last year.”

The bloke stuck out his own hand and shook Mark’s, “Bill. Yeah, I remember those big mad bullocks for Queensland, fresh out of the swamp. They were a handful.”

Mark indicated to the trucks and yard, “Big lift, eh?”

“Yeah,” said the driver, “S’posed to go on that flash new cattle boat, the one that takes five thousand in a go, off to Indonesia, loading Darwin tomorrow. VRD promised fifteen hundred, but I hear they might be a couple hundred shy, they say that they were two hundred short when they mustered the Moolooloo Back Paddock. Still bringing some up from Sanford, as well as a mob of extras from Humbert River; actually one truck may have to go over there to load.” Susan recalled the barman describing the same thing earlier. “Anyway we’re all supposed to load tonight and be in the wharf in Darwin for unloading in the morning. Looks like it’ll be a long night of driving. Thank God I am at the front of the queue. These ones at the back will be lucky to be away by ten tonight and that doesn’t leave much time for sleeping. I’m lucky to be looking forward to a good four hours kip at the wharf before the boat loading starts in the morning.”

“Mark!” came a shout from behind them. A strong looking man hurried over that clearly knew Mark, “Bloody glad to see you,” he said, happily, shaking Mark’s hand.

“You too, how’s it goin’?” asked Mark.

“It’s been one of those days, cock-up after cock-up. Still, we’ll just manage, somehow. Maybe you came specially to help; God knows I need someone to put a shoulder to the wheel.”

Seeming to only just notice Susan, the man turned to her and said, “Well, he always was the last to introduce me to the lovely ladies, thinks I might pinch them, even though I got my own missus who is more than enough for me. Buck’s the name. I’m trying to run things around here.”

Susan put out her hand to shake, “I’m Susan.” She appreciated the man’s directness, he reminded her a bit of her father: total focus, no nonsense and straight to the point.

Buck smiled and turned to Mark, “We’re short and I cut an expensive deal to get more steers from Humbert. Trouble is that they were in that paddock in the far back corner and Humbert stock camp had other work and couldn’t muster them.

“It meant I had to send over a stock camp to do the mustering ourselves. All was going well at first; we’d put the mob together and were walking it back. We decided to use the Wickham Gorge way; you know that rough stony track? But there’s a road for the truck bringing the stores and lots of good fresh feed along the river, so the cattle should have full bellies, going over the weighing scales in Darwin. We had three hundred good sappy steers, just an ideal size. I knew we were short about two hundred and a hundred as spares is handy.

“Anyway, it was going well until this morning, we had maybe fifteen k’s to go till we cleared the gorge and got back into the good open country near this end. Then a mongrel scrub bull got in amongst them and stirred them all up.”

From the frustration in Buck’s voice, Susan figured this was a bad thing. She couldn’t quite follow all the cattle talk conversation, but Buck was easy to read.

Buck went on, “I hear he’s that one that busted away when they did the clean-up in there last year, a big horny red bull, with a big scar on his nose. The head stockman tells me you know him well, as you helped with that job.”

Mark said “Yeah, I should have shot him then, but he’d do above a thousand bucks on the boning room floor, so I let him go, thought he was next year’s pocket money.”

Buck replied, “Well he’s got the bullet now, but not before he split the mob, gone every which way, but at least they’re still in the gorge.

“Then, just for good measure, one of the young ringers, trying too hard to put them back together, got spat off his horse and busted his arm, bad break. So then we had to pull off the chopper that was putting the mob back together and bring our man out. We called in the Flying Doctor and it’s collected him from the homestead just now. So now it’s all go again, but we are down a good man and the day is near gone.

“The agent in Darwin tells me that the boat won’t finish loading until the next morning, day after tomorrow. So, if we can get them steers to the Humbert Station yards and get them loaded by tomorrow afternoon, we should still be OK.

“One good thing is the mob’s been left to settle along the river. With a good feed and drink they should be a bit easier to work now. So I am just getting two choppers organised to go and put the steers back together and get them moving again. I would go myself, but I need to stay here to keep the loading of all the trucks on track.

So, I need a couple spotters to ride with the choppers, if you’ve got the time. It helps to have a second pair of eyes when the pilot is working in that gorge, as you well know. Since your help with last year’s clean up, you know that country better than me. What’re your movements anyway?”

“Well,” said Mark, “just on my way to Timber Creek, job on the river tomorrow, but my afternoon is free. So now I am your spotter, lead me to the chopper. That’s assuming that Susan can ride in the other.”

“My plan in one,” said Buck. “There will be grub up in the mess when you come back and a bed for the night, if you want it. I’ll probably be here till at least nine to get the loading finished. I’ll need to find myself a new job tomorrow morning if there’s any more stuff ups from here.”

Then he asked, “How important is that job on the river tomorrow, can you put it back? Really need an extra in the stock camp to bring those steers along, they were a bit short before, I should have sent one more. But you know how it is, finding enough men for each job, when the pressure is on. But now that they are down one more, it will be a real handful to manage the mob, at least till they come out of the river gorge and make the open going.”

Then Buck turned to Susan, “Don’t suppose you can ride?”

“A bit,” she said.

Buck looked back at Mark inquiring.

Mark answered, “I had a feeling that something like this would come along. I should have been here by late lunch. But you know how they get you in with the stories at Top Springs. I reckon we can fit it in. Just need to be on my way by lunch tomorrow to get out and have an hour or two on the river before dark.

“And don’t worry about Susan, I have seen her and she can ride just fine. She just needs a steady horse. I don’t want to have to ring her Mama and tell her that she got busted up on a mongrel VRD horse.”

Buck laughed. “I think we can manage that. There’s a real nice four-year-old grey I broke in last year. They’ve worked him in camp for the year and they tell me he’s real steady now. He has a lovely soft mouth, turns on a pin, runs like the wind. I think that’s the one for her.

“When you land tell the head stockman to put him aside, Firefly is his name. Oh and you can have Bushranger, he’s the one that spat Mick today, he’s a big black late-cut colt, you’ll know him by the wildness in his eyes. Good horse, if a bit mad. You’re just the one to set him straight.”

“B’jesus, you are trying to get me killed, surely there’s a real tame packhorse somewhere for me?” said Mark.

“What, gone a bit chicken in your old age?” said Buck, grinning.

They walked over to the choppers about a hundred yards away, and Buck introduced the pilots. Dick was flying the lead machine, with Mark riding shotgun. Susan was to go with Tim who would work the flanks.

There was no delay, the machines were fuelled up and ready and they needed the rest of the day to get it done. Quick instructions were passed from Tim to Susan as the rotor was spinning up.

“This machine is a Robinson, designed for two, though it could carry three at a pinch. You’ll need to look out for cattle on your side, and back behind, also watch out for the tail rotor and tree branches” He showed her how to signal him to go in the different directions.

Then they were off. They soared into the sky, heading straight and low towards the southwest. The pilot pointed out as they crossed the line of the boundary between VRD and Humbert River Stations. Soon the flat country fell away, and they flying over scrubby broken hills, rising ever higher to the west. Then the ground fell away and down below them was the Wickham River Gorge.

Susan and Tim spied cattle in small groups scattered along the river, some standing up to their bellies in the water. The river itself was mainly a series of rocky pools with a few longer open bits of water. A set of wheel tracks ran along the eastern side of the river.

Parked just next to this track was a four-wheel drive with what looked like a mobile kitchen on the back. Four horses were saddled and standing next to the truck. Another few were grazing nearby. There was an open space fifty yards from the truck and they followed the other helicopter in and landed alongside it in this clearing.

The helicopter engines were left running as Mark got out and waved for Susan to come over. Both pilots, the head stockman and Mark engaged in a brief conversation and the riders were given instructions: two were to ride out a few hundred yards to a place where the valley narrowed and there was an open grassy area. They would block the cattle just past that. The other two were to head down along the valley and work with the choppers as they picked up the mobs and put them together, walking them along steadily and not crowding them. As needed one rider could cut out to help the chopper but the other had to stay at the tail of the mob. Then they would bring the mob towards the block up place.

They were off again, the two choppers followed the opposite valley edges keeping high, both for a good view and so as not to spook the cattle. At first there were lots of cattle in sight, then it was just ones and twos, and finally they saw no more. They flew on to the next river bend where the valley narrowed.

Here Mark’s helicopter landed and Mark got out and made his way across the ground, looking down. Tim told her, “Just checking for tracks, to see if any have come back this far.”

They held a slow search pattern as Mark checked, working the valley edges and looking for any sign. Tim explained they needed to keep a lookout for any cattle tracks and dung, as well as the beasts. “Sometimes the cattle will camp in a patch of bushes and, without seeing their signs, you wouldn’t know they were there.”

After a couple minutes the call came, “All clear, carry on.” Their chopper worked the edges of the gorge, sweeping searches from side to side, above and behind the first chopper that focused on the river and valley centre.

Tim pointed to the other chopper and said “He’s most likely to come on the cattle along the river, but sometimes they’ll run up the sides of the valley and try to break back behind his machine. It can be hard to see from down there, close to the ground. That’s why we sit up here and keep watch. We also check the valley edges where cattle are less likely to be found. Seeing as the afternoon is cooling down, a few cattle might start to walk away from the river to the valley sides to feed.”

For the next few minutes there was nothing. Then a call came over the radio, “First mob, five, in river.” The other helicopter dropped down amongst the river trees, hovering and going in lots of directions.

Four cattle burst out of the river, heading straight towards Susan and Tim. In a second TIm had dropped his helicopter to tree top level, zooming in to heel the cattle and turn them down the valley. There was one last straggler that came running out, the other chopper following at his heels. Tim immediately gained altitude, returning to their high side position.

The next two hours were exhilarating. The helicopter was like an extension of Tim’s arm, turning faster than she could see, or think where to go. Soon Susan and Tim were in sync.

She called out, “Two cattle at nine o’clock, fifty yards,” and he broke left almost before the words were out; “One under tree, twelve o’clock, don’t think they have seen him,” and, as the instructions were called, Mark’s helicopter in front was already changing course.

Now they had a good-sized mob, of maybe a hundred, stringing out in front, and the horse riders had taken position. The head stockman was holding the tail and his companion worked the flanks, coming from side to side, much like them.

They noticed there was one bull that did not belong. It wasn’t a sleek and shiny like the other cattle, instead it was reddish-brown and scruffy.

“Scrub bull,” said Tim, “Must have come out of the hills for a drink and doesn’t know what’s hit him.”

The bull was pawing the ground, looking to charge the outer rider. Some of the other cattle were also starting to drift back and away, seeing a chance to escape with the distraction.

Then, like a buzzing fly, Mark’s chopper was in the bull’s face. Thebull snorted, shook his head and made a run for the helicopter, which was hovering and advancing just above the ground. A loud boom sounded and the it turned tail and galloped back into the mob, moving right into the very centre.

“They won’t have any more trouble with him now; there’s nothing like a blast of bird shot to put a bull back in its place,” said Tim.

As the sun fell below the hills, they had the whole mob together on the little grassy flat. The head stockman said the count was about right, maybe one or two missing, but it was good enough for now.

The plan was to walk the mob on through a narrow section of valley until it opened out into a small grassy flat where another creek ran in. It would take about half an hour. Then they could settle the cattle and hold them there overnight. In the morning they would walk them the remaining twelve kilometres to the end of the valley and continue on into the yards from there.

The helicopters held position for a few minutes, until it was obvious that all was under control, then they zoomed away to the station, arriving just as the sun was tipping the horizon.

As they touched down Buck ran over to meet them. “That’s fantastic; I hear it ran like clockwork.”

Mark gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder, “I don’t know what you would have done without me, just needed an old pro on the job, now all I have to do is give your blokes a riding lesson in the morning on Mr Bushranger. We will soon see whether he thinks he can really buck or is just a great big pussy.”

Then Buck said, “Why don’t you go and have a shower and check into the bunk rooms. I’m afraid it will have to be boys and girls separate tonight—no spare rooms. I’ll meet you for some dinner in half an hour. My backup can keep the loading going, it is running well and the trucks should all be loaded by an hour after dark, touch wood.”

They arranged that Tim would ferry both Mark and Susan to the cattle at first light in the helicopter, if he took only half a tank of fuel the weight would be OK.

Mark turned to Susan and pointed towards some buildings a few hundred yards away. “That’s the station homestead. It is like a little town. That building to this side,” he gestured to the right, “is the bunk block where we are staying. Why don’t you walk over and settle in. I need to discuss a couple things with Buck, but then I’ll collect the truck and drive across.” Susan nodded and set out for the building he’d pointed to. Mark and Buck walked back to the yard, talking earnestly.

Susan savoured the soft evening light, the temperature was perfect, neither hot nor cold. The grass glowed golden, and the hills were an orange purple as the light ebbed away. A couple birds winged low across her path. She felt wonderful, so exhilarated from the helicopter dance. She felt a kinship with Mark’s love of this area; she understood when he said he thought God created this one place a little better than the rest.

Dinner passed in friendly conversation and banter; a mixture of male and female ringers, other station hands, a governess, the pilots. By the end she was yawning.

Mark saw and said, “You should go to your bunk. I’m not far off mine either. They’ll ring a bell half an hour before it gets light. That is the signal that breakfast is ready.”

Susan lingered a minute, lightly resting her hand on his arm. “It feels strange to be going to a bed without you.” And it was true; this would be the first night they’d spent apart since Melbourne, that many days ago. “I’ll miss you, but I’m sure I will be asleep in about five minutes anyway. Thanks for a wonderful day. It is hard to believe that any day can beat yesterday, or the day before, but I can’t think of any day better than this.”

He touched her cheek, “Me neither, but then yesterday and last night was pretty special too.”

He gave her a lascivious look as she rose to leave. She couldn’t help it, her face got hot as the pleasure of remembering tingled in her body.

All too soon a bell was ringing. There was no daylight yet, just a soft lightening in the window. She’d been so tired last night; she’d collapsed into bed. She couldn’t remember sleeping so soundly in a long time.

Mark was in the dining room when Susan got there, his plate piled high with bacon and eggs. She joined him, but contented herself with a coffee and toast, and thieving pieces of bacon from Mark. He pulled a face.

Soon they were both squashed into the helicopter with Tim at the helm. The air was cold as they took off, and colder still as they climbed. Susan tried to hide herself from the temperature by pushing in behind Mark; it was good to have his body to shield her.

“Missed you last night,” she said in his ear.

He replied without turning back. “No you didn’t, I looked in ten minutes after you left, thinking maybe I should join you, seeing as no one else had come back to the room. But you were sound asleep.”

The flight was quick and they were soon on the ground. The other stockmen were already mounted and heading out for the cattle. The two horses that Mark and Susan were to ride, Bushranger and Firefly, were already saddled and waiting. Mark held Firefly’s head as Susan swung up and then he adjusted the stirrups to fit her.

“Just walk him round a few times and get the feel of him. I will go and sort out my horse,” he said.

She gently nudged Firefly and he responded, walking out with a fast but smooth step. She pulled the reins. Too hard, she thought as Firefly stopped instantly—she mustn’t forget his soft mouth. He was incredibly sensitive to her commands and was fluid underneath her; Susan felt that she and this horse were as one.

Mark led his horse out into an open area, making sure that the ground was flat with no rocks or trees. Susan remembered that it had been described as a firecracker. The horse stared at Mark, eyes wild. It was a superb creature, big but perfectly proportioned. But there was a touch of madness in its eyes.

Mark paused and whispered something to it, whatever it was the horse seemed to relax a little. Then, almost before Susan could see him move, Mark had put his foot in the stirrup and swung his body over.

She sensed Bushranger was as shocked as she was, Mark had mounted so quickly. Bushranger bunched his muscles and then, abruptly, he was flying over the ground, head down, back arched, heels kicking behind; one, two, three, four, five bucks. Despite Bushranger’s wild movements, Mark never shifted in his seat; he was grinning from ear to ear. The horse seemed perplexed.

Mark sat astride Bushranger, totally relaxed. “Are you finished now? Are you pleased to get that out of your system?”

Bushranger dropped his head, almost as if nodding. Mark wheeled him around and Bushranger walked placidly over to Susan and Firefly. And that was simply it, a quiet horse and Mark with a big smile.

The morning was a huge thrill. Susan started at the rear, but once it was obvious she could ride well, she was directed out to the flank, to pick up and pull in the wanderers.

Firefly was wonderful; one minute they would be at a steady walk, next minute, as a steer would poke out and make a dash for freedom, Firefly would explode. From a standing start to sudden acceleration in one fluid motion, Firefly stayed in perfect balance and Susan barely moved in the saddle. Then, as he came alongside the steer, he would wheel on a pin, spinning to face the offender if it did not break back. A couple times he used his body to push the animal round. There was nowhere for the cattle to go. After a few seconds they would realise and return to the mob. Susan’s directions were minimal, the horse knew his job to perfection and mostly she just went along for the ride, though, as time passed and her confidence grew, she started to give fine direction and finesse, her balance complementing the horse’s flowing motion. From time to time she waved to Mark, mostly working the other flank, and he waved back, brimming with his own enjoyment.

It felt like no time until the hills were opening, the valley was ending. She felt a twinge of sadness; her time with Firefly was over too soon.

Half an hour later, they came into a large paddock. Just inside the gate were two vehicles, one station-owned and the other Mark’s four-wheel drive. The billy was boiling, there was brownie on a plate, and another man and Buck were walking up to greet them. Susan swung down off her horse, feeling regret at the dismount, she could have stayed at this for hours yet.

“You’ve made good time,” said Buck to Susan, “It is only eleven. I thought another half hour at least.” From the corner of her eye, Susan saw Mark dismount. Bushranger nuzzled into him.

“I see Mark has turned Bushranger into model stockhorse,” continued Buck, “He is one of the best horsemen I have seen you know—a born natural. I have yet to see a horse beat him, and I could swear he enjoys the challenge when they try.

“Anyway the billy is boiled, tea is brewed. I brought the car out for you to save an hour of riding to the station before you could get on your way. And I thought I would like a ride on my old mate, Firefly.” He patted the horse’s neck. “He’s a good horse isn’t he?” he said, the question more of a statement of fact.

“The absolute best,” Susan agreed.

 

 

 

Chapter 16 On a Big River with Crocodiles Day 27

 

Mark said it was a two hours’ drive to Timber Creek. There they would be meeting a small aeroplane to fly them to an airstrip, out towards the mouth of the Victoria River. Again this would be a new experience for Susan whose flying experience was limited to big airliners.

They had crossed the Victoria River yesterday, near VRD homestead, at a place called Dashwood Crossing. Here it was a big river, but running fresh water. There was only a low flow as it was the middle of the dry season, and it hadn’t rained for four months.

Susan had marvelled as Mark pointed out a place, high up in the trees, where driftwood was trapped in the branches. He explained that this had come from a big flood a couple years ago, when eight hundred millimetres of rain had fallen in just two days; the remains of a cyclone come inland. Susan said that was more rain than fell in England in a year.

It was hard to conceive so much water flowing down this placid stream. She realised the Northern Territory was a place of hidden surprises; things outside her imagination, here the unleashed power of nature seemed to be almost any everyday part of life.

Today they would be heading down this river, to a place near where it met the sea. Before they left Mark showed her a map and explained how, there, the river was huge, approaching a mile wide and that, over the next few hours, the tides in the sea, just beyond, would rise and fall by more than twenty feet. Then, as the water in these vast estuaries adjusted its level, it became a white water river, as seen in movies running out of mountains and racing through a gorge; except here it was huge, brown, full of silt and salt and the land was flat. It was also full of crocodiles, saltwater ones, built on the same gargantuan scale as their river.

As they drove, Mark told her about their plans. It was clear what they had to do, but less clear why, or who they were doing it for. They were investigating the down-stream reaches of the river, measuring rates of tidal water flow. There was currently satellite data, and flow modelling. Now they needed to cross check the computer predictions against real data from the river at a time when the biggest tides flowed.

So they had to be on the river in the one or two days before or after new or full moon tides. During new moon tides the sun and moon were in a direct line on the same side of the earth, pulling the oceans together and this gave the greatest flows. People called these the king tides.

The new moon was in two days, so this meant either tonight or tomorrow was ideal to collect data. Mark decided to do it tonight; the time of the tides in relation to daylight was best. He also said he didn’t want this job to interfere with having a final day with Susan in Kakadu and on the Mary River, before taking her to Darwin to catch her plane.

They were to measure the flow rates both in and out in the five hours before and after the high tide. It was to be done in a particular stretch of river, near the river mouth. High tide tonight was ten o’clock, so they needed to be on the river from 5 pm to 3 am.

While there they were to take close up photos of various points along the river, making descriptions of bank structure and type and depth measurements at various points. This needed to be done before dark, when the tide was not high. Today the low tide was about 4 pm—a good time for photographs. Tomorrow’s low tide was after 5 pm, closer to sunset, when longer shadows made photography more difficult.

A whisper was around that the company was in discussion with the government about construction of a tidal power plant, perhaps a joint project with the Department of Defence, who owned a huge block of land on the north side of the river, land that old timers called the Bradshaw Run. It was very hush-hush, 50% speculation and rumour—the way of most commercial big businesses.

Mark had been told the absolute bare minimum, just where to go and what to do. The work had come to him via a contact in the Middle East, someone who he had done pipeline work for in the past. They, whoever they were, needed someone they trusted to handle the organisation, logistics, collect the data, and not tell others who might leak it.

Mark had chartered a flat bottom boat, with three great big outboards on the back. It was stable in the running tide and could be pushed to 40 knots if required, though 10-15 knots was more comfortable. It also had a pile of high tech GIS gear on board, to log their track and record photos and measurements digitally. They also needed to take manual measurements to validate the digital ones, and as protection for equipment failure.

Last night, after he had agreed to help at VRD, he had arranged to fly to a nearby local airstrip instead of their original plan, which was to meet mid-morning at Timber Creek, going by boat down the river. Now he would meet the two other men and the boat out there, close to their investigation site.

These men were on their way with the boat, setting things up, waiting for him to arrive. The nearest airstrip was next to the river and an hour’s boat trip from their measurement site.

Tomorrow morning Mark would meet a company representative at Timber Creek. He would give the representative a verbal report and all the records; measurement sheets, boat logs, along with an external hard drive holding digital photos and instrument records. Every single thing was to be handed over, nothing kept.

So, for tonight, he needed a technical assistant, someone to write measurements on sheets and keep watch over his high tech instruments. He had a friendly barmaid in Timber Creek on standby, but he hoped Susan might help instead.

“Of course I will,” she said.

With their conversation she had barely noticed the trip, but now they were driving into a little town. The sign said Timber Creek. It had a hotel, a few houses and a shop. No much here, she thought.

Mark pulled up outside the pub. “We won’t stop. I’ll just run in, tell Tanya, my stand by assistant, that I don’t need her now.” He left the engine running and was back in a minute.

“Tanya is pleased; boats and crocodiles at night are not her thing.”

Then the town was left behind them and, in five minutes, they were pulling into the airport, not much more than a shed and landing strip.

There was a single small plane out on the tarmac waiting for them, the pilot standing alongside checking a map.

In less than five minutes they were taxiing and then soaring into the air, flying alongside a huge river which Susan realised was the Victoria River. Susan sat in front, next to the pilot which gave a superb view. The river swung away and they crossed range after range of broken hills. After twenty minutes they descended again, coming back down above the river. It was a vast muddy torrent, heading to a sea seen on the distant horizon.

As they flew along the river Susan spotted a crocodile so large that it dwarfed all she had seen before. It was slowly heading downriver, going with the flow, pushing a bow wave before it, its tail slowly waving behind. She pointed it out to Mark who nodded and said, “That is the mother of all crocodiles, I hope it does not want to play with our boat.”

Soon they reached their destination. As they circled for landing, Susan saw a boat with two men, along a tributary a few hundred yards from the river mouth. That was their pickup, waiting in place to collect them. They made a low sweep over the airstrip checking for obstacles. A mere minute later they were bouncing along it, braking to a fast stop.

A man driving was towards them in a utility. Mark said he was the Bulloo Head Stockman, Bluey, caretaking for a month. “At a pinch we could have walked to where the boat can collect us but it’s a good mile; very nice of him to give us a ride.”

They exchanged brief greetings. Then the pilot said. “Must be away; tourists for scenic flights in Kununurra, this evening.” He taxied out and flew off. They watched him for a minute but soon were driving past the station homestead and following the edge of the Bulloo River towards their boat. In another minute they were there.

As they climbed out Mark shook Bluey’s hand, “Many thanks, I owe you one, next time in town the shout is on me; just tell Tanya I said so.”

“No worries mate, pleased to help, you’d do the same in return. How’re you getting back from here?”

“Boat will bring us back up the river to Timber Creek when we are done, should be in town for breakfast or thereabouts.”

Their boat moved alongside the bank, just a few feet of shallow brown water between it and them. Mark tossed his gun case to one of the men on board who caught it.

A plank, about a foot wide, was dropped from the bank to the boat, then a metal bracket was dropped over its boat end to lock it in place. “Instant boarding ramp, Mark said.

Susan looked, took a deep breath and walked across, looking straight ahead, with only a slight wobble. Mark took two quick steps and was on board. The boat backed up slowly. It was easier than turning around in the shallow river with the tide ebbing out. Near the mouth they had room to turn.

They nosed out into the main river channel and felt the current catch. There was a roar as three big motors poured on the power and the boat was skipped across the surface. One man stood up front, keeping a close lookout, while the other steered.

Mark came over to Susan and put a hand on her shoulder. “How are you travelling? Sorry to rush you so much, I always try to fit too much in. But you seem to take in stride. I like that!”

Susan smiled back. “Actually I love it; you never cease to amaze me. Is there nothing you can’t do and do well?”

He laughed, self-effacing, “Not so good at the personal stuff; perhaps you’ve noticed.” Then he said,” We’ve still got another hour’s run down the river till we get to where we need to be. We’re heading for a place called Entrance Island, where the river narrows and splits into two channels either side. The tide is low now and will be at its lowest in just over an hour, so for now the river is placid. Later on it will be a different, particularly around midnight after full tide. It will get dangerous and be hard to keep control in the dark with a raging water flow. We will run through our course and take photos before we start our measurements. I need to have a good look in the daylight, and map out the hazards. It will be much trickier in the night so we need to know where not to go.

“So now, apart from getting our recording stuff ready, we should have a spell. It’s going to be a long night. There is an Esky with sandwiches and drinks over there; you should eat. Then there is a bunk in the cabin. It wouldn’t hurt to have a lie-down; you won’t get much sleep tonight.”

Susan sat on the deck, eating a sandwich. Mark was busy unpacking and testing things. He suddenly pointed forward and called, “See out there, a hundred metres at one o’clock, almost dead ahead”

It was a huge crocodile, almost certainly the one they had seen from the plane, swimming slowly downstream. Mark directed the boat driver to slow; they dropped their speed, the engines barely above an idle.

They took the boat close to the west bank, “We need to stay downwind,” Mark whispered. Slowly they eased alongside and then ahead of the crocodile.

It was probably two hundred yards away, maintaining a mid-stream position. In the binoculars it looked huge but, with nothing close by, it was impossible to get any good measure.

When they were two hundred metres past it Mark directed the boat back to the centre of the channel, directly in front of the crocodile’s path.

He signalled to cut the engines completely. The boat’s motion died away, now it just drifted along with the flowing tide. Mark took the wheel. With deft touches he managed to get just enough steerage to maintain their line.

On and on came the crocodile, seeming oblivious to their presence. All remained totally silent as slowly the crocodile approached, never breaking its steady pace, its tail continuing its leisurely wave. Fifty metres, then twenty, then it came past a bare five metres from their boat. As the head drew level with the bow the tip of the tail was still about a metre behind the stern.

It drifted on by, its swimming continued unchanged. Suddenly, when it had passed by a boat length, something must have given an alert, perhaps a tiny air eddy or a slight noise, nothing they could sense. An increased tail wave was the only sign as it sunk and faded from view. They waited a minute but no further sign was seen.

Mark signalled to power on again, and in a minute they had skipped past any place where it might have been.

Susan raised and inquiring eyebrow, “Well?”

“Well,” he replied, “our boat is 24 feet, I put the croc at 26, 27, maybe 28 feet; I have never seen another one quite that big.”

As they sat waiting to arrive, Mark told her about another crocodile he knew. “There’s another secretive crocodile on the Mary River, in a place where only I know and go. It is nearly as long and about as wide. I have only seen it twice. We may go there tomorrow. You must have the gift of talking to the God of Crocodiles to bring this one out today. Perhaps, if you call out to the Mary River crocodile, it too will come out to talk to you and we will both get to see it again.”

It was an eerie thing to say and Susan shivered.

 

 

 

Chapter 17 – Running the Night Tides – Night 27

 

Now they saw their destination before them, an island at the end of the next river stretch.

Mark finished checking the instruments before opening his gun case and taking out a big stainless steel revolver. He opened the chamber and placed in four heavy bullets. Susan looked inquiringly. He said, “Just in case a large crocodile should try and come into the boat with us tonight. This is easier than a rifle at close quarters. I leave two chambers empty to ensure no shots by accident.” He placed the gun in a holster that he strapped to his waist.

Mark brought Susan into the cabin to familiarise her with the instruments. Even though Mark would mostly operate them, and call out measurements for her to log, Susan needed to understand how they worked, just in case she also had to take readings.

There was a GPS, to log their position, plot their track and keep record of their real over-ground speed. There was a flow meter, to tell the speed of the water as it passed the boat. There was a depth finder that ran a continuous record of the depth below them. Finally, there was a side-scan sonar, which gave a reading of the shape of the riverbed.

The method would be to take up position just before the last big bend south of the island at five o’clock, and hold it steady for five minutes while they got a reference position fix and zeroed all their instruments, Then they would go down the river, passing through the left hand channel and returning up the right side channel, passing the island on both sides. As they reached their starting point they would rerun their course to the sea in the reverse direction, going down the right-channel, and returning back up the left.

After Mark showed her the instruments it was time to start their work.

First they would do a trial pass through, and take and log photos of the banks, and river structures; the islands, shoals, rapids, the places where rocky hillsides ran hard along the river, the places of back eddies and hidden obstacles.

Mark took the photos and Susan logged the locations. She also practised quickly and neatly capturing the written record they would later require. It was systematic and demanding work, like keeping track in a laboratory. Susan felt well at home with her task and proud of what Mark said was an important contribution.

She was learning how to use the barrage of equipment and how to work with the men who were driving the boat, the hand signals to manoeuvre slightly, to anticipate the drift and Mark’s needs as they did their work, the subtlety of boat, tides and hidden currents.

They came back to their starting point, meandering with the currents, waiting to begin their real work in the running tides. They cruised next to the north-eastern bank, in a place where big hills ran up against the river.

The afternoon sun sank slowly towards the horizon of a near cloudless sky. Below it was the thin crescent of a near new moon, a faint shadow in the sky. A little fresh water soak ran from the hill, the water glistening as it flowed over a narrow strip of sand to the river.

A big boar pig had come to drink here. It stood, head down in the soak, back slightly from the river’s edge. Susan looked away; watching as a flock of low flying geese wended their way upriver, flying a tight vee formation, with strong wing flaps.

Violent squealing rent the air. They all looked around. The boar and a mighty crocodile were locked in a death struggle. Somehow the crocodile had caught hold of a back leg and dragging it towards the water. The pig’s screams of terror were pitiful.

Mark watched with a rapt expression on his face. He seemed to be communing with the crocodile, oblivious to the suffering. Susan felt revolted and turned away. The awful screams went on and on. At last the noise ceased, pig and crocodile vanished into the murky river.

Mark’s fascination scared her to her core, she could not say why. It was, as the Top Springs bartender had said, as if some part of Mark held a kindred crocodile spirit, a sort of crocodile brotherhood.

When the noise ceased the ordinary Mark returned. But in her memory the chilling vision remained, as if some part of his human soul was missing, replaced by that of a crocodile. She remembered the carved crocodile he kept. He called it a totem, but it felt more like its crocodile spirit lived inside him.

They got to work and the hours flew by in a dizzy blur. As the light disappeared they turned on a barrage of spotlights. Now starlight was their only companion.

At first they were running with a rising river; the flow surged ever higher, the shoals hidden, the mud banks were gone, fish flapped on the incoming tide, waters flooded into side creeks, low banks overflowed. It slowed and it slowed; little by little this power of water went slack. Several crocodiles were swimming along the edges, mouths opening and feasting on the in-rushing fish.

Now it was ten o’clock; the tide and time stood still. They straightened and walked around the boat for ten minutes in the slack tide. Sandwiches and drinks were passed from hand to hand; they refreshed their bodies and cleared their minds.

Then they began again. Their first run was relatively gentle, the water in a full but steady flow. It started to surge as they came back up river. The second run became fast and dangerous. The flow through the narrows sounded a muted roar as it rushed through the constricted passage. Soon it was midnight.

The third run down-river was really scary, the water thundered through, all sound now blurred and buried below the endless noise assault of cascading white water. The boat felt like it was flying, their course wherever they could steer safely, keeping the boat clear of shallow edges, with danger of grounding and flipping in the falling tide.

Then came the return leg; three motors screaming in their effort to maintain speed against the thundering water. The helmsman’s job was hardest now, trying to hold a steady course against the buffeting water. At times water surges came bursting through and the boat was flung sideways like a cork. It seemed that they must surely be overwhelmed by the raging river. The fourth run was easier; control returned as the power of the river subsided.

Now they were all exhausted, buffeted by the endless movement, eyes gritted with strain. Finally they came back where they started. They all patted each other on the shoulders and backs; none could have believed it would be that hard. But they had done it and were proud of their success.

Mark took the helm. He told his two men, who for long hours had alternated between helmsman and spotter, to stand down and each take an hour for sleep. He would drive the boat and Susan would watch out.

Susan sat in the bow, watching the river as it flowed past. But her work was not needed now, the river was wider, passage was easy. She came to the back and sat alongside Mark. They drove this way until four-thirty, the darkest and most silent time of night, enjoying the peace as the steady thrum of the motors drove them on.

The early morning on the river, with the steady pulse of the large engines, and the muted rush of the river, seemed to provide a space for them to talk in a meaningful way.

Susan chose not question Mark’s past; rather she gave him space to volunteer his own small pieces. He told a little story about an uncle, whom he barely knew, taking him to fish on the Brisbane River; he recounted the thrill of the first fish he caught and of how proud he was when his uncle allowed to drive the boat.

He told of a time when a friend from school invited him to their farm in the country, his pleasure riding horses and going rabbit shooting in the fields; two things which remained great loves’ ever since.

Susan spoke of how her mother and father bought her and her brother a horse each, which they rode at the weekends; she remembered her joy in walking out in the Scottish Highlands alongside her father as he hunted and taught her about the land.

She told Mark about the first time she had killed a deer; the nervous anticipation as she held her aim, the instant ecstasy of success, and the poignancy of the moment when she realised what she had done as the magnificent creature lay dead before her. But then the pride as, with her father, they brought it home and it provided a feast for the whole family and her cousins.

Mark spoke of work as a research assistant in Kakadu, where, for many nights, they had to go out and catch large crocodiles to sample for heavy metals. He told her of the dangers of pulling a three or four metre crocodile alongside a small dingy to take their samples.

He told her more about this biggest of crocodiles which he had discovered on the Mary River. It was unknown to others due to its incredibly secretive nature. Something in the hidden danger and power of large crocodiles, their remorseless predatory behaviour, had captured his Mark’s mind. He spoke of this Mary River crocodile like his brother.

Time rolled by along with the river. Susan began to yawn, and she could not stop. Mark called the men and returned the controls to them. He directed Susan to the bunk and he lay on the floor. Both fell into a deep sleep, only waking when the boat slowed to a stop.

It was bright with early daylight. They had returned to Timber Creek. The boat pulled up to the bank just behind the airport where the car was parked. Mark returned the pistol to his gun case, locked away, unneeded. Then he packed up the record sheets, computer drives and arranged for all the other high tech equipment to be stored.

Mark and Susan climbed off the boat and followed a path from the river that brought them up to the vehicle. They were both mussy, yawning with sleep. They agreed it was a night to remember, a night of discovery of the river and themselves.

 

 

 

Chapter 18 – Truth – Day 28

 

They drove back into Timber Creek in silence, too tired to talk. The night had sucked their vitality. With a night on their feet, and the buffeting river their bodies were both hungry and exhausted. They needed breakfast; their only food since yesterday morning was sandwiches and a piece of brownie.

“Let’s eat breakfast first; then I’ll meet the company representative to give him the data. After that we can drive towards Katherine a short way and find a place to roll out the swag, under a shady tree until lunch. We both need a good sleep.”

Susan nodded agreement. She wasn’t capable of much more than that.

Mark took strong coffee with his meal to clear his head for his business dealings.

Susan was oddly anxious as she ate her breakfast of eggs and toast. She couldn’t place the source as waves of tiredness swept over her. She told Mark she would wait in the car.

As she reached the car it came to her; I need to check my messages. But she was so tired; it was all much too much effort.

Fumbling around she found her phone and switched it on. There was barely a signal. Nothing could get through. She laid her head on the seat and fell asleep; her phone dropped to the floor.

She barely stirred when Mark came out an hour later. She felt him place a pillow under her head and move her into a more comfortable position. She was only vaguely aware that the car had started and they were driving.

Neither heard her phone ping as they drove out of town.

Mark was yawning too. Susan felt the movement of the car slow to a halt, and a shadow pass over her eyes. She heard Mark’s door open and close, and shuffling in the back. Then Mark was at her door. Susan felt strong arms lift her body from the seat, and lay her down on the swag that he’d laid out.

Susan stretched, aware of the soft comfort of Mark’s body next to hers. She cuddled into him.

It felt near midday when Susan properly opened her eyes. She lay for a minute; green foliage above her, dreamy but waking, feeling refreshed. She looked around and noticed where they were, parked under a large shady tree in a green grassy area which fell away down to the bank of a big river, probably the Victoria.

Mark still breathed deeply beside her. She would let him sleep.

Her mouth dry, Susan walked to the car to get a drink. Noting that her door was open, she detoured to close it.

Seeing the shine of her phone on the floor of the cabin she bent to pick it up. She touched a button, the screen lit up. One new message, it flashed. It was from Anne.

Susan’s heart skipped a beat, fear and burning anxiety surged, she did not want to know. She climbed into the car and closed the door, needing privacy even though Mark showed no signs of waking. The message read:

 

Dear Suz,

This FREAKS me, what I found:

Those girls came to Australia but are missing. USA one came 2 years ago, last seen Airlee, Qld, 6 months later. UK one came last year, last seen Adelaide, SA, 1 month later. Both listed as missing, but not under current investigation

 

Investigation summary –

– Girls may have wanted to disappear

– Both withdrew most of their cash before they left

– Both announced they were going on a trip – never seen since they left

– Did not say where were going or with who

– No current links between cases

– Last contacts followed up, no useful information

– Both girls seen meeting unknown man soon before last seen.

– One friend thought man’s name Mark – no such person located

– Parents are convinced of abduction or worse

– Re Fiona Rodgers, was her real name but everyone called her Kate – dead sister’s name from when a little girl – weird – looks a bit like you

 

This all makes me scared – Be Careful!!!

Take extra care if you meet a Mark.

Love Anne

 

Susan reread the message three times. Her hands shook; she was totally freaked; pattern and name both a match.

Who had she told where she was going? Did she tell anyone about Mark? No and no!

What was his real name anyway, or even the real car registration?

This was beyond stupid. She had to get away, she might disappear too. Her mind was racing; she needed a plan. Could she leave while he slept?

She looked up. Mark’s face was right there at her window.

Susan felt blood drain from her face; her heart stopped, her mind was numb with terror.

He was looking at her; he was looking at the phone. She couldn’t move.

Mark opened the door.

She was frozen, face stricken with horror.

He put out a hand for the phone. Not a request.

Susan’s hands shook as she tried to put the phone away. Too slow!

Mark grasped her hand, prised her fingers away from the phone, took it in his hand. He seemed more puzzled than angry. But of course, he did not know what she knew.

He looked at the phone, the message still illuminated. He scrolled up, and then down.

She watched his face transform, from puzzled to incredulous, to something like rage, but far more chilling, then finally to something that looked like anguish or grief.

She could not take her eyes from his face, she could not look away.

He stared, fixated, at the phone; he did not look at her. Finally he lifted his head.

Susan quailed at his stare. Something incredibly dangerous lurked in the depths of his eyes. The seconds ticked by. He just stared and stared and did not speak.

At last he spoke “Why?”

She heard anguish in his voice but was too terrified to answer.

“Why?” he repeated. Again Susan could find no words.

Mark’s temper snapped. “Why could you not leave it alone?” He growled roughly, “Why did you need to know so badly? You knew I didn’t want to tell you about the bad things in my past.”

Mark’s voice caught, “You promised to stop asking, and now this!”

Susan sat there mute; she tried to look down, anything to break the spell of his hurt eyes.

Mark reached his hands towards her and picked her up. Hands like vices grasped both her arms just below the shoulders and lifted her from the car seat. He placed her standing on the ground, back to the car. Her balance wobbled, her legs did not work. She held the car side for support.

He struggled to master his rage. He pushed his hands to his sides, clenched and opened his fists, all his muscles corded with emotion. He looked back at her face, his eyes boring in.

“Look at me and tell me why?” Mark said between gritted teeth. “And How? Did you search my bags? Did you look through my papers, what?”

His accusations hit like slaps, his anguish like punches.

She asked herself too, Did I really need to know? Could I not have let it be? Why me? Why now? Why him?

In her final question she found her answer.

“Because I needed to know; a man has captured me, heart, body and soul and I need to know who he is.”

Susan paused.

“In answer to how: the passports. I found the passports. I didn’t set out to find them, I was looking for matches to light the fire, but then this box was in my hand and I opened it.” Susan’s words came quickly. “Four photos of beautiful girls. You had their passports. They had come to Australia, they had no exit stamps. What was I supposed to think?

“Then the small matter of who are you? There is a Mark Butler, a Mark Brown, a Mark Brooks, and of course a Mark Bennett. They all look like you, they all have the same initials, and they all have matching numberplates and licenses. Which one is really you? Are any of them you? Are none of them you?

Susan laughed bitterly, “Perhaps you’re Robert Redford and live in California? Perhaps you’re a transsexual who had a gender change and then a name change. Tell me, who are you!”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer her.

“I tried to ask you who you were but you wouldn’t tell me, instead you got so angry. But despite everything I’d found I couldn’t believe you were capable of this.” She gestured to the phone wildly. “No, not you, not the Mark I knew, not the Mark I loved. He’s no monster. But I had to know. That’s why I asked someone who would actually give me answers.”

Mark didn’t respond. His chest heaved with feelings she couldn’t interpret. Susan’s voice dropped to a softer tone, “Is it true? Did you know these girls? Did they come with you like I have? Did they lay with you like I have? Did they give you their bodies like I have? I bet they trusted you, the same way I thought I could. And then what, one day, you decided you’d had had your fill? You got bored? When you finished with them, did you finish their lives as well? What’s wrong with just saying goodbye? Couldn’t you have just let them go? Or did they know something the world couldn’t know, just like I do?

“Did you kill them out of convenience? Or was it for excitement—a cheap thrill? Did you shoot them for sport? Did you tie them up and watch them die? Did you do it with a smile?”

There’s no going back now, thought Susan. She couldn’t believe the tidal wave of rage burning in her veins. Her mind saw her anger flaming all around her, her hatred for who he was and what had done overwhelmed all her reason. His betrayal was overwhelming.

“Are you just a murderer, or are you a sadistic rapist pig as well?” she spat out.

An incomprehensible look came over Mark’s face, simple blind rage.

He drew back his arm.

Susan knew he would kill her, the power in the anger.

His fist was closed tight, knuckles white, coming straight for her face. Susan knew she should move, but was rooted in space. A death wish was present to die in this place. His fist halted, a bare inch from her face.

She sensed her calmness had stopped him; embracing her ending with grace.

It was a moment suspended in time, a flash of slow motion.

Now they both stood staring at each other.

Susan’s could feel her will to defy him undiminished, her anger still flaming. She spat in his face.

From outside her body, she saw his other arm swing, palm open, and hit the side of her face. The blow knocked her sideways. With her hands at her sides she landed face-first in the dirt, leaves in her mouth. She lay for a moment stunned, feeling her anger ebb away and fear take its place. She raised herself to her knees, facing away and tasted blood in her mouth. She looked back to the car.

Mark turned away from her and opened the door of the car searching for something. Susan tried to shuffle away, but the numbness in her head made her brain foggy.

She felt Mark grasp her hands from behind, and force something round her wrists. He pulled her backwards and upwards with rough hands, her head against his chest. She saw a roll of heavy silver tape in one hand. With his teeth he pulled back the end and ripped a portion off. Then it was rolled over her mouth and around her lips and chin, leaving only her nostrils exposed.

“That will stop that filthy mouth of yours,” he spat.

Next he took a rope and tied her legs together; she knew she would fall flat if she tried to run.

Then Mark lifted her bodily into the car passenger side and shoved her back onto the seat, with her hands jammed behind her back. He wound down both windows slightly then closed and locked the car doors.

She looked out to see what he was doing.

Mark seemed uncertain what to do now; he leant with his head against the car door on the driver’s side. It was the first time she had seen him look dejected and uncertain, as if confused by the situation he’d found himself in.

Despite her anger and fear, she still felt pity and tenderness towards him. She sensed he was in uncharted waters. It was as if before, whenever he was threatened, he had hit out, responded to threat with aggression. But now he needed another way forward.

There was nothing directly in what he had told her that said this. But it was the way she made sense of the little pieces about him that she saw. It was like the insight that comes when the first few pieces of a jigsaw start to take a defined shape.

But this was not Susan’s problem. She must find a way to get away from him.

She did not think he would try and harm her here, so close to where people had seen them this morning. She figured he would drive them somewhere else. That’s when she would look for an opportunity to get away. She had no plan yet but she would have to see what chances arose, and take them.

After a minute of standing there Mark seemed to form a decision and moved away. She could half see him rolling the swag in her side mirror, not properly but glimpsed. Then she saw him carrying it and she heard and felt, rather than saw as he loaded it in the back.

Then she could not hear or see him anymore. She did not know if he had gone away or was just sitting quietly, somewhere out of sight. For now there was nothing she could do except wait and see what happened.

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – Captivity, Searching for an Escape – Day 28

 

Being tied up and gagged at first gave Susan a feeling of rising panic. She struggled to breathe, she felt she would suffocate. She wanted to retch but was scared she would choke on her vomit. Then her mind reasserted control and she calmed. She realised that if she took slow steady breaths through her nose she was fine.

Sitting squashed into the seat, barely able to move, the time seemed to move very slowly. She tried to count in her head but it was hard to think straight and she kept losing track. Then she realised she could make out the dashboard clock. She did not know why it comforted her to have some sense of the passage of time, but it did; it gave her a feeling of connection to a wider reality.

Now she began to discover how utterly uncomfortable she was. Her face and lip, where Mark had hit her, had been numb. But now the feeling was returning; a tingling sting at first which quickly turned into sharp pain, combined with a headache which throbbed from the force of the blow. The way he had taped her mouth shut was pushing her cut lip into her teeth, and the tape itself had hard edges and which was digging into her face. It felt like her face was on fire.

What sort of bastard was Mark to treat her like this? Then, in a funny way, she realised that if this was the worst she had to endure, there were others who experienced far worse.

She had never thought before about real prisoners and torture victims; they endured things much worse for weeks and months on end. Susan couldn’t comprehend their pain, thinking about how long a few minutes felt, let alone days or longer.

She tried to wiggle around and reposition herself, but there was no comfortable way to sit. With her hands locked behind her she was pushed forward in the seat. This posture was making her back ache. Her hands and wrists were hurting, jammed against the seat with sharp edges of the cuffs poking into them.

The air coming into the cabin from the cracked window meant she wouldn’t suffocate or get too hot, but with the gag she was unable to shout out. He clearly knew what he was doing, restraining her like this. He must have practised this sort of thing before. She could not reach the door locks with her hands behind her, and with her feet tied it was almost impossible to move around the cabin sufficiently to improve her situation and get at the door handle. Maybe a contortionist could have done something, but it was beyond her. It didn’t stop her trying though.

After a while she realised that it was useless to waste her energy on fruitless pursuits. She would be better served by saving her energy until a more promising situation arose. She would only exhaust herself if she struggled too much now. Mark wouldn’t go to this much trouble to confine her if he just planned to kill her now. More likely they would travel to somewhere more suitable.

She tried to figure out what Mark was likely to do, and what her realistic options were. She didn’t think it likely that he’d just let her go, she knew far too much and had told him so.

She knew of at least four of his identities. She had good grounds for belief that he had done something to four other girls. Be honest, she told herself, you mean killed. The logical extension of this was that Susan was destined to become his next victim. Yet it seemed too abstract to grasp, that somehow her existence would just cease.

She forced her mind to push away her fear and try to understand Mark, to make some sense of what he might plan for her demise. A truly chilling thought struck her. It came to her, like a jolt of insight, the picture in her mind turning her insides to jelly.

Susan now thought she knew what he would do: he needed her body to disappear.

If it was found it would prove that she was more than just missing, it would prove she was dead. And it would yield evidence that connected her to Mark. His DNA covered and embedded her.

He had this deep, abiding love of crocodiles, a seeming fascination with watching them kill things.

Susan shuddered, her mind flashing a picture.

It all made sense; he would take her to that place where he knew of an enormous crocodile, somewhere on the Mary River, out near Kakadu. Her body would go into the belly of this crocodile and she would disappear.

None of her family or friends knew where she had gone. She had told her cousins in Sydney she was en route to Alice Springs. But she had misled them about her plans from there. She had indicated she would catch a bus on, no mention of meeting anyone. So, if she failed to turn up for her return flight home, it wouldn’t be clear for a while that she had really vanished. People would think it was just as likely that she had gone another way, met someone and travelled to another destination, even chosen to disappear.

Her parents might not believe it, but many others would. She had broken up with her former boyfriend and come to Australia for a change. It was common for people like her; people with memories to run from, to drop out for a few months then reappear.

Even if they investigated and discovered her travel in the outback with a man, they would also discover her affair with David. So people would say she was having a series of liaisons as she travelled across Australia. David, Mark, then whoever came next.

Mark could simply say that she left him for the next one, that she went off with yet another man. Why would anyone really doubt that? They had been affectionate together, but relationships between travellers come and go, like the people themselves.

There were so many missing people and, without evidence to lead the way, the police could only investigate a handful.

She thought about where she had been with Mark and how averse he was to public places, like airports with security cameras, and town centres; he had barely been to any of these. Sure he had met her in the Alice Springs Mall, but then he was wearing cowboy clothes with a big, broad brimmed Akubra hat, which he had never worn since and, with the hat pulled down, there was little view of his face. Not to mention that his car was parked at the back of the car park where CCTV was unlikely.

Then at Yulara, while they had checked in together, she had stood well behind him and not interacted with any of the hotel staff—her mind had been on getting to their bedroom. Was it even clear she was with him? He hadn’t acknowledged her presence; he had pre-booked with a voucher, and who knows what name he had given. Once she had gone to the room she barely came out. Sure they had breakfast together, downstairs. But the restaurant was crowded with tourists. So they were unlikely to be recorded or remembered.

The best chances to connect her with Mark were the handful of station people and miners who had seen them together, but very few of them were likely to read newspapers in towns, and television watching seemed a rarity. So, even if her photo made it to the TV news or newspapers, it seemed unlikely that anyone would realise and connect her to Mark, particularly if months had elapsed.

She thought of her phone; that was something to cause him concern. She had some hopes of a connection there. It tied her to both Timber Creek and Borroloola and there were good odds that someone would remember them together in one of these places.

She wondered if he had become careless with her, it seemed like Mark had been more careful with his other victims, making sure to leave no clues. Susan wondered if that meant something about their relationship was different. Maybe he was overconfident. It seemed there was a slim chance he could be connected to her, but it was far from certain.

That’s why her body needed to disappear, and it was also why it couldn’t happen near here. So, somewhere like Mary River made sense—provided they arrived there at night, without being seen.

Susan thought it also meant that he would need to avoid major towns, like Katherine, where the chances of his movements being tracked were much greater. So they would go by back roads.

It also meant that, once they got there they would not stay long, as he would not want to be sighted there.

No doubt the next night he would be across in Western Australia with a plausible story about how he had left her to catch a bus, and then gone the other way. No one had seen anything bad happen between them, everyone would say they got on well together. If he said he dropped her off to catch a bus, who would doubt it? As no-one knew her plans no-one would know where she had gone, just another missing person, gone to ground somewhere in Australia, so many places, cities, and states to choose from.

She realised her mind was wandering. This endless speculation about how she might be traced would not get her anywhere. It was all about the time after the event. It would be of no use to her by then. She must turn her mind into more productive directions, think of what she could do in the here and now. How could she find a way to get away?

An hour had passed; she was getting really hot and thirsty. Sweat trickled down her face. Susan wished she had taken a drink before checking her phone.

Before she could think on it anymore Mark was back. He had silently appeared at by door. Now he was unlocking it.

He looked at her first with what appeared to be a combination of tenderness, sadness and confusion. Then that faded to a blank stare. The anger was no longer visible, but Susan almost wished that was still there instead of the detached coldness he now had. He seemed a small part regretful, like he would have preferred not to harm her, but now that it had come to this, he would do whatever was needed without second thoughts or remorse. The ability to put emotion aside was what made him most frightening.

He was speaking to her. It took a few seconds for her to realise, so locked was she in her own thoughts.

“I am going to take your gag off, provided you don’t start screaming. There’s no one to hear, but it will go straight back on if you do. Do you agree?”

She nodded, her eyes fastened firmly to the floor, she could not meet his gaze, because within any connection was only madness. Susan needed to keep her mind locked away from his ability to harm, so as to stay calm.

He pulled the tape off her mouth. He wasn’t gentle. There was no kindness in how he touched her. Maybe he too needed to put distance between them.

She decided, she must try and stay calm, not ask for information, not beg, not become dramatic or desperate. It was her calm after all, that had saved her from his fist earlier.

Without the gag her breathing was better. She felt less cut off. She experimentally moved her mouth around now that it was free. Her lip stung but otherwise it seemed to work fine. She asked, “Are you still angry with me?”

He grunted, he did not seem to know what to say or perhaps he chose not to answer.

Then she decided to try something more specific. “Could I have a drink please?” Susan asked politely, seeking to behave as if there was nothing unusual about her situation.

Mark nodded gruffly and turned away. He returned with a pannikin of water. She realised he would have to hold it while she drank. This was difficult, and the water slopped down her front.

“It would be easier if you released my hands for a bit, or locked them in front,” she said. Mark pulled a key from his pocket, reached behind her and unlocked one cuff. When she moved her hands to the front he relocked them in place. Susan took the cup, finished the water, then handed it back.

Without another word Mark shut her door, got into his side of the car and began driving. After half an hour they crossed a big river, following a road crossing that went through a couple feet of water. It must be the Victoria River, she reasoned.

He had a map open on the seat between them. It seemed as if this route wasn’t familiar to him and he occasionally gave it a glance.

Surreptitiously Susan began to look too.

There were few roads marked in this country, so now, by a process of deduction, she began to guess out where they must go. Once she worked this out she started to follow the topography on the map, where the hills were, where they crossed big creeks and rivers. She could also see the car’s trip meter so that helped her gauge how far they had gone.

She realised they would have to come along station roads and through a no man’s land, going west, then northwest of Katherine, in order to avoid the town. She could see a way through, and there were some alternatives. It looked like a long, slow drive.

There seemed little point in Susan trying to escape in the middle of nowhere. She noticed that the road, the one that she guessed they were heading for, crossed the Daly River near Pine Creek. It looked like a water-crossing not a bridge, perhaps a causeway. She remembered that the Daly River was famous for barramundi fishing. Maybe, at this crossing, there would be tourists or fishermen? From where they were now it looked to be about three hundred kilometres to reach it. She figured it would be late afternoon by then.

A plan was forming. She needed to behave as normally as possible, try to lower suspicion. Then, if she saw anyone when they came onto the river crossing, she would open her door and fling herself out, onto the crossing or into the water. Her door wasn’t locked and her hands were to her front, so that meant she could quickly work the door latch. Even if the water was deep she should be able to swim, after a fashion, and get to the side.

But, more importantly, she would be able to shout for help, as her mouth was not covered. It was hard to see that Mark would harm her in front of other people. If this gave no chance then the next opportunity would be Pine Creek. As it was a proper town she did not think he would chance reaching there it until dark. Still, perhaps if he drove down the main street, she could fling herself out there and be seen.

The afternoon passed slowly. They traversed miles and miles of bush roads. Mostly she could follow where they were on the map, using a combination of distances and features. They made occasional river-crossings. A couple vehicles passed by them in a cloud of dust, going in the opposite direction. Each time Mark accelerated and passed them with speed, so she realised that, even if she shouted, she wouldn’t be heard.

They stopped only once; “a toilet break,” he said. He released the bonds on her hands, but her legs remained tied. She shuffled away and relieved herself. As she returned Mark passed her a cup of water. She gulped it down and he gave her another. She drank all that too, then she said, “Thank you.”

Mark nodded; a minimal acknowledgement. Then she presented him with her hands to be cuffed again. He seemed surprised by this; she suspected he would have left this undone. But it was important to her plan that he thought her well restrained, so he would be less attentive. It would be the only way of getting away, should a chance come.

They came to the bank of a big river. Based on time and appearance it must be the Daly. Light was fading, but it was not yet dark. She could not see right to the river, but she could make out well-used camping sites.

Mark parked. He walked to the top of the bank where the road fell away, glancing back behind him to keep an eye on her. He seemed relieved that Susan just sat there, unmoving. Mark surveyed the river, assessing if it was safe to cross. After five minutes or so he returned to the car. But, instead of proceeding across, he drove off-road and went up the riverbank a few hundred yards. There they sat and waited until the darkness was complete.

Now they returned and crossed over, no one was in sight. Susan could have cried in frustration.

Desperation and fear grew inside her. Soon she saw the lights of a town, Pine Creek. But they passed by it without stopping. They never slowed, and there were no signs of any other human life around.

Just as Susan had started to think it was hopeless, she realised Mark was slowing, and pulling over to the road verge. There was a noise of flapping from a wheel. She realised it was a flat tyre. She thought they had only come a couple miles from the town.

Now he was occupied outside she felt she had a chance.

Mark was undoing the spare tyre, his attention focused on it. She saw headlights coming over the horizon, a vehicle was approaching. It crested the rise and came down their side; lights blazing forward were all she could make out.

She used the lights and noise of its approach as a distraction. She pushed open her door and jumped out. Like a kangaroo she hopped to the middle of the road.

All at once she realised this was no car, but a huge road train bearing down on her. It was only one hundred yards away and it showed no signs of braking. She realised that it had not even seen her; she must get off the road. Mark seemed unaware.

She tried to hop, but in the need for speed her balance was gone. She pitched forward onto the tar road, just managing to get hands in front to protect her face. She tried to lift herself and crawl but knew there was no time. Now the truck driver had seen her and the brakes were screaming, but she knew it was too late.

Mark’s attention was suddenly on her. He moved fast, scooped her up and lifted her aside; then the truck was upon them. As it passed by Mark waved and gave a thumbs up, the truckie waved back and powered on.

Mark was furious, “You stupid bitch! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

She sat on the road edge where he had dropped her and cried: tears of rage, tears of frustration.

“You miserable bastard, why would you care? By tomorrow it won’t matter whether I am alive or dead with what you’re planning. I’d rather let the truck hit me than be your captive.”

Mark looked at her with a frustrated rage First he said nothing, just shook his head, then he said. “You do my head in; you think I’m crazy—well I’ve got nothing on you.”

He picked her up and threw her on the back tray. He climbed up and opened the cooler door, bent in and removed the few items inside. It was almost empty, just a small Esky holding a bag of ice and a couple bits of food, pushed into the corner of the big cooler. It wasn’t even cold.

“You won’t suffocate in here; there are some air holes in the top.” Then he lifted her again and tipped her head first into the space. A minute later he threw in a pillow and blanket. He slammed the door closed. She heard him click a lock.

Five minutes later she felt the car start and spin round, going back the way it had come. It drove on a smooth road for a minute. She felt it slow and turn. Now they were driving along a rough dirt road to God-knows-where.

 

 

 

Chapter 20 – The Last Night – Night 28

 

The bouncing went on and on. At first Susan tried to brace against it, and protect herself from being thrown around. But it was impossible; the car was being driven fast and recklessly. It braked late into corners; it bounced over holes or rocks; swerved roughly around apparent objects. She supposed she should be grateful for the pillow and blanket he had thrown in, as an apparent afterthought; they at least softened a few bumps

With her hands cuffed in her lap she had only her legs to hold and manoeuvre with. And, as they were tied, even that was difficult. Her bare feet could get no grip on the smooth fibreglass. She tried to sit up; the roof was a few inches above her sitting head. But the box was too wide to rest her feet on the other side and she would find herself slowly sliding back down.

Then she managed to turn to sit sideways, using her knees and bottom to brace. But a big bump flung her against the roof, bashing her head, and causing her to bite her inside lip. She tasted blood. A second big swerve and bump slid her along and bashed her into the far end of the box.

So she lay on her side, on the floor, and let herself be flung with the movements. Her head hurt where it had hit the roof, her face hurt where he had hit her, her lip stung, her hands throbbed from being banged against things and her wrists pained where the cuffs caught at and chafed the skin. Her whole body ached from being twisted and flung around, along with being forced into unnatural places and spaces. It really seemed hopeless.

For a while she let the misery overwhelm her. She cried, almost silently, though she could hear her occasional gulping sobs. Then she lay in a mute and numb state for long time, seeking to remove herself from this time and place. Her mind went off to other places, her safe family and friends, her cousins in Sydney, other people she had met.

How could it have come to this? How did she end up the next victim of a cold and calculating psychopath?

Terror twisted her insides; Mark had killed four girls, what was one more? Any feigned softness was just his psychopath’s ploy to disarm his victims.

She hated the darkness inside this box, around her. It was utterly pitch black; she couldn’t even see her hands in front of her face. Susan wished she had something, anything, to look at, something to help push away the creeping dread that kept rising in her mind, threatening to overwhelm her.

She feared the loss of her sanity. If she let the terror take over she would be a crazy blathering idiot, fit only for a lunatic asylum.

A deep and burning hatred rose inside her. She thought of Mark, of his friends that seemed to like him—they mustn’t have any idea who he really was. He charmed the girls too, but it was smooth charm outside, callous and rotten inside, like an apple full of worms.

But Susan was not dead yet, and she was determined not to die as a passive victim, not make it easy for Mark. Her anger helped focus her mind and push away the pain. She may be lying in the dark but her mind was alight, teasing at the edges of possibilities, openings she might influence, ways to survive, and hopefully stop Mark from ever doing this again. If she wasn’t destined to live through this, she hoped to at least finish Mark off too. Susan swore to herself that she would be the last.

Could she find some poison and put it in his food?

Was there some way she could make the car crash? Ideally on a public road where a rescue would be called for? Susan sensed that he wanted her body to go to the crocodiles; he gained perverse pleasure in feeding those monsters; mindless, remorseless consumers of flesh. It had not bothered him in the least to watch the crocodile grab the squealing pig yesterday and drag it into the water.

She had watched, both enthralled and revolted; but Mark seemed only to gain sadistic pleasure in letting such violent nature take its course.

If he tried to throw her in perhaps she could pull him in too. There was even a chance the crocodile would prefer him to her—a long shot, but she would think on it.

She was filled with terror at both the idea of being killed and how he might kill her. Would she scream as the pig had when the crocodile seized her? Would he smile watching her body get dragged under, or torn apart?

What she really needed was a weapon. If she could injure him in some way—any way—then a chance may come. While she knew her ideas were all improbable, she didn’t care; thinking gave her purpose and helped push away the fear.

She had to appear confident and unafraid, maybe act a little cowed to appear unthreatening. She refused to be a submissive victim, consumed by terror. Slowly it came to her, she knew that she had one weapon over Mark that he could never take away—sex.

She had started to grasp how powerful it could be that day at Robinson River. Until that day she was mostly the recipient, rather than the initiator. But Susan had come to understand the power of her body over him, she knew she could stroke and fuel his desires. He would become reckless in his sexual conquest. Perhaps the opening she needed.

So it was a plan of sorts; stroke, seduce, satiate, and strike.

Part of her mind, that place called morality, was repelled by this thought; good girls don’t do that.

But there was also a perverse pleasure in taking revenge through an act that also brought her pleasure. She couldn’t deny that even to think of sex with him still brought her pleasure and excitement. Susan felt a sexual thrill as she imagined the hardness of his body within her as she drove her own weapon into him.

The car’s rough passage smoothed, and it felt as if the speed had increased. Susan guessed the texture of the road had changed. It was probably bitumen now.

She became lulled by the more regular motion and began to doze, waking occasionally. She had lost track of time. Was it early or late in the night? Were they going north, east or west?

Susan was extremely thirsty and wished Mark had given her a bottle of water. But, with the thought of water, her bladder began to ache. She tried to hold on and think of other things, but she could feel it leaking and her underwear becoming damp. It went on and on and she could sense no likelihood of stopping anytime soon. She knew she couldn’t hold on much longer and she realised it was better to do it with some control. It had become easier to maintain her balance now the road was smooth. She managed a squat and, with difficulty, pulled her underwear down her thighs. She then positioned the blanket underneath herself to hopefully avoid it sloshing and wetting everything. As it flowed out she felt both relief and as if she had rescued a tiny piece of her own self-control.

She pulled her clothing back into place and curled up as best she could in the opposite corner, trying to ignore the smell of urine in the air. She wrapped her arms around her body. Hugging herself gave her a certain comfort and she drifted back to sleep.

When she woke up again the motion of the car had stopped. What did it mean? Were they stopped in a town? Could she try to scream for help? Or were they stopped in the middle of the bush where no one would hear, and screaming would only make Mark angry, or make him gag her again.

She decided to count to one hundred and, if nothing happened, she would call out to Mark, quietly. If he answered she would ask him to let her out, she would ask nicely even though an undercurrent of anger made her want to scratch and bite him.

When the time had passed she called out. There was no answer. She called again, much louder. His voice came back, faint and muffled. “I’ll let you out in a minute.”

She felt a wave of relief.

Even though it was hard to tell he didn’t sound all that angry.

There was a creak as the door opened. He was up on the tray with a torch, looking in, face lit by reflection. She tried for a smile, and was surprised when he smiled back.

The air coming in was fresh and smelled sweet. But it was cold. Susan had not realised how chilled she had become, immobile in this box for hours. She started to shiver uncontrollably.

“I am sure you’re angry with me,” said Mark, not unkindly, “and I hope your trip was not too bad. Here we are here now, the place I wanted to show you where the big crocodile lives.

“The locals once called this place Point Stuart Station. It is on the Mary River, east of Darwin, half way to Kakadu. It is a place that the people rarely come to. I have come through a fence with a gate that keeps the public out.

“It’s about midnight. There’s no one around for miles, so there’s no point screaming.” Mark pointed, some distance away from them, “There is a big billabong full of crocodiles, just over there, and I will throw you in if you give me trouble. But if you promise to behave you can come out; I’ll fix some dinner and you can sleep out here.”

“Okay.” Susan answered meekly.

He reached in with both hands, grasped her arms and lifted her up. Her legs wobbled as she stood, body poking forward and out the door. She tried to climb over the doorsill, but without arms to steady her, legs tied together, she overbalanced and almost fell.

Mark was quick to grasp her and lift her clear, setting her down on the tray. There was something almost tender in the way he wrapped his arms around her. She was shaking like a leaf, and he seemed to hold her tighter, hugging her to him to give her warmth.

Susan tried to push him away, but it was too hard with her arms trapped, and it felt so comforting.

His hands caressed and stroked her back gently; it was almost as if he had forgotten what had passed.

She wanted to forget too.

She should hate him—she did hate him—but for now, just for a minute, she wanted to be held and comforted. And then she was crying, just tears and little gulps at first, but soon she was sobbing. Mark pushed her face into his shirt, and ran his hands through the back of her hair. She just wanted to die in this moment of human comfort.

But then the fire of control and independence flared in her mind, fed by anger at what he had done. She pushed herself straight, and said, with all the dignity she could manage, “Thank you for letting me out, you can let me go now.”

His hands dropped, he stepped back. “OK then.” He sprung down, agile as a cat, and asked. “Shall I lift you down?”

She tossed back her head with dignity. “No thank you. Just untie my legs”

He shrugged. He loosened the knots and removed the rope.

She walked to the edge of the tray. She grasped the side with her shackled hands, lifted one foot over, felt for the side rail. It was precarious but she thought she could pivot and vault if she used her hands for balance. Her feet got in a tangle. She overbalanced and pivoted forward, headfirst towards the ground.

Mark was incredibly quick. As she speared forward, he wrapped his arms around her. He pulled her to him, and set her feet on the ground.

“That was a near thing. I don’t want you getting hurt like that. I know this isn’t easy for you but it is better if we both cooperate.”

Suddenly she was laughing. It was so ludicrous and funny, her likely murderer and lover, tender and careful for her safety while treating her like a wild animal, tied up and confined to a box.

Then he was laughing too; they were both looking at each other and laughing, it could not all be real and true. It was like a circuit breaker, neither could laugh and hate at the same time. When the laughter subsided she held out her hands to him.

“Unlock me please, tonight I will cooperate; I am here to be happy. Tomorrow is for crocodiles.”

She collapsed into another fit of giggles, and Mark started to laugh too, but he was restrained this time. It was as if he had only just started to think through the consequences of his actions.

He ignored her outstretched hands and gazed at her, a bitter smile edging at his lips. “Why couldn’t you leave it alone? I didn’t want it to come to this. But you do know, and that can’t be undone.”

She looked at him earnestly. “Please, can we not talk about it, right now.”

He shrugged his shoulders, “Well tomorrow is tomorrow, and tonight is now.”

There was a sort of fatalistic sadness in his manner, tender; but it also seemed incredibly callous. She thought; this is the way he would look at a dog at the vet before the lethal injection was given.

Susan’s bravery quailed under this reality. But she rejected it.

“For tonight I will make a pact with you which I will honour. If you let me go, I won’t try to run away, and I will not try to hurt you. I will help you cook dinner and be your companion in the same way as before.

“But you, in return, have to tell me your story honestly. I want—” she hesitated, “I need the truth.” You must tell me of the life you have lived and what has brought us to this place. This is something I must know for my own peace of mind.”

Mark looked at her sadly. “I am not good at the telling but I will try.”

He released her hands.

They worked side by side. There was something incredibly tender and intimate in this moment. Dinner was simple, bacon, sausages and onions fried up, with a tin of tomatoes mixed through. They ate from the pan, each using a spoon. Once or twice they shared morsels.

Susan lent against his side; he was solid and strong, like a tree. Without quite realising what she was doing she put an arm around his waist, and laid her face against his chest. She felt tears running down her cheeks and pushed her face harder into him. He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead.

She pressed her lips against his, tasting the salt of her tears. “What would you do if we could make this all disappear?” she asked.

“I would do what I am going to do you, make love to you,” he said quietly. Sliding his hand down between her breasts he grasped the ring and locket on the chain. He lifted the chain from her neck and unclipped the ring. With the ring in his hand he looked at her with great seriousness, “But first I would ask you to become my wife, even just for this one night.”

She held out her left hand as he slid it on. “That means ‘Yes’,” she said.

They lay together in the dark night. The fire was gone. They made love, and they made love again. Then, when it seemed he could give no more, she brought him back to life with her gentle touching and stroking. This time the loving seemed to go on forever.

There remained only a couple hours before the dawn. He pulled away. “I have to fulfil the remainder of our bargain. This is my story.”

 

 

Chapter 21 – Marco’s Story – Night 28

 

“My real name is Vincent Marco Bassingham. Vincent was my father’s name; Marco was the name of my mother’s brother, who died young. My mother, who was Italian, called me Marco. At school it got shortened to Mark, Mark B.

“I liked this name better than Vincent Bassingham, because I hated my father, and couldn’t stand being compared to him. He was a big burly man, quick with his fists and his temper. Few people could stand against him. Those who tried came out much the worse.

“He would hit my mother, mostly slaps but every now and then with a fist or a belt. She was terrified of him, she was naturally timid and he was a bully.

“Once, when he was hitting her in the street, a man tried to protect her. My father almost killed him. When the policeman came around to ask about it, he told him to ‘shoot through or he would do the same to him’. The policeman never came back.

“I was seven when my mum ran away, she was scared of him almost all the time and had to find somewhere to escape. He was really mad at her for doing this; he said it made him look bad.

“After she left she never tried to see me again; I think she was far too scared of him. Though my father looked for her, it was a long time before he found her. But he eventually did.

“He beat her so badly that she was taken to hospital. Though the police and hospital staff wanted her to press charges she refused.

“The day they discharged her, my father brought me with him to see her again. He told her she had to come back to look after me or he would thrash her again.

“The next day they found her dead. She had swallowed a whole bottle of pills. My father never told me what happened; she just was not there when I came home from school. I only found out years later, he just said she had died and he only told me that well after she was dead and buried. He went on with his violent drunken life without a backwards glance.

“I hated him, but I was frightened of him too. I could fight well enough at school, but with him I had no chance, he was three times my size and would hit me with anything he could find, belts, walking sticks, a horse whip, a cricket bat.

“Usually he went to the pub after work, and got home too drunk to do anything. Sometimes the lady next door gave me dinner; but mostly I just had to eat whatever I could find.

“I learned how to look after myself. I would shoplift, pick pockets, and steal from store-yards and from people’s homes. I was clever and almost never got caught.

“But, when I was twelve, a policeman saw me stealing a block of chocolate in a grocery store. He told the store manager. Other police were called and I was taken to the police station. As my father was drinking, and couldn’t be found, a neighbour was called to take me home.

“When my father got home and found out he flew into a towering rage and whipped me like a dog. My back was bleeding in lots of places. The next day, the police came around and took me away. They sent me to remand school for a year.

“I thought my father was a bully. But he had nothing on the guys who ran the remand school. They would line us up in a row for three hours most evenings. We had to stand still while they sat behind drinking beer. Every time someone moved they would belt him with a long whippy cane. They raped the prettier boys; they would take them to their rooms and often two would have a go together. The boys would come out bleeding and crying.

“They never got me that way, I was a bit smarter. But no one did anything to stop them either. A few times boys tried to run away but they were brought back and beaten, really badly. Some tried to complain but they got beaten as well, even worse.

“One day I was caught by one of the biggest guys, a warden that I really hated. He had taken to hitting me when I wasn’t looking. I was late coming down for school, I had tried to hide away to skip class, but as I came out there he was.

“‘This is my lucky day,’ he said as he saw me, then, ‘I have a big surprise for you.’

“First he took off his big leather belt, then started to unzip his pants. I knew what he was going to do, first thrash me with his belt, then when I was hurting too much to try and get away, he would fuck me.

“No one else was around. He grabbed me by the ear, right at the top of a big flight of stairs. He was planning to take me downstairs, to his room. He liked boys my age. He had already done this to most of the others.

“At the top of the stairs he tripped. I saw my chance and gave him a big shove. He went flying down the stairs. When I got down to the bottom he was lying there at a funny angle with his head facing the wrong way and not moving.

“I didn’t know he was dead, but I was glad I had hurt him because he was such a bastard. As no one knew I was there I snuck off to school.

“When I came back, after school, he was covered on a stretcher, ready to be taken away. The police were there and they asked a few questions. Had anyone seen what happened? Everyone said no. They assumed he must have had a heart attack or tripped, fallen, and broken his neck.

“After that I realised how easy it was to get rid of people I didn’t like.

“Later that year I ran away and got a job working on a cattle station. One day I was sent to help a man fixing the windmills, he was a bastard too. He used to hit me whenever something went wrong. One particular day he dropped a spanner from the high windmill tower. I was up there helping him, holding the bits together. He said it was my fault and laid in to me with a big piece of hard plastic pipe. I was scared he was going to knock me off the edge; he was hitting me so hard. So I kept my head turned away and hung onto the steel frame for dear life, waiting for my chance. At last he stopped.

“As he turned his back I gave him a push. He went over the edge; head first. I looked down and saw him lying, dead as a maggot, on the ground below. Back at the station I told the boss he lost his balance and fell off while I was below. The boss seemed happy to believe this. I think he was relieved that this man was dead too, to tell the truth.

“By the time I was twenty I had got rid of three more blokes like this. Nobody had asked any questions because each time, deep down, people were happy to see the end of these bullies.

“Then I heard there was big money to be made in the Middle East, so I got a job running security for the pipelines.

“We would get real smartarse robbers, mostly from African gangs, with no papers. They would try to steal oil and other things to sell. Our job was to make ‘em disappear; the more permanent the better. So we bumped off a few, dropping their bodies in empty wells, or shafts, places they couldn’t be found.

“The word got around pretty quick to leave us alone. We would catch and do another one every few months to keep things quiet.

“Then a guy who I was working with got me to go to the Congo with him, to do security there. There, as well as getting rid of men who caused trouble, you could take all the women you wanted and, if they got a bit difficult, you just shut them up for good. I joined in the same as all the others were doing. It was there I killed my first woman; she bit me when I was having her, so I hit her really hard and she was dead. We threw her body in the river and it washed away.

“I’ve killed maybe thirty people since I was a teenager, mostly blokes, but half a dozen girls. Generally the blokes were bad bastards and bullies and I reckon the world is better off without them.

“A couple of the girls were tarts who tried to touch me up for more money. One threatened to cry rape if I went to the police. Once you have done one, the rest are easy, one minute alive, the next dead with a surprised look on their face. Killing people is real quick and easy if you know how and don’t care.

“You just have to be smart to make sure that no one can identify you, keep away from CCTV and all that sort of thing. After you make sure the bodies and personal effects don’t turn up. That way they just get listed as missing persons, whereabouts unknown.

“With backpackers, when they come out here they go every which way. They rarely know each other’s names and yet they feel safe in each other’s company. So, provided they don’t know who you really are, or where you are going, it is real hard for anyone to connect you to their disappearance.

“And, of course, lots work illegally and choose to disappear for their own reasons. So it’s hard for cops to know where to start. I’ve picked up and made trips with maybe twenty backpackers in the last five years

“Most have been great fun, had a blast; quite a few still send me the odd postcard, to one of my alias addresses. A couple even came back for more on the side when husbands and boyfriends did not know. So people get used to seeing me with girls around the traps and, after a while, one girl looks much the same as another.

“Some girls want to spread it around a bit, try miners and stockmen and the like. I reckon good luck to them and the lucky bloke. When it happens I leave them with their gear and wave goodbye. They are usually too busy with someone else to complain and, even if they did, who would listen? They’re someone else’s problem.

“Only the odd one has been trouble, usually silly things. One demanded I stop the trip right there in the middle of the Queensland outback and take her back to Cairns even though it was a thousand kilometres away. I said I was happy enough to let her off at the next town. She said that if I tried to do that she would go straight to the police station and cry rape and abduction.

“With most of these girls I use a condom so they don’t get up the duff and try to claim paternity. But this one also said she was on the pill and not to bother. Now she was saying she wasn’t really on the pill, that she might be pregnant and would demand a DNA test to prove it was me.

“I think she thought she could trap me into staying around with her and make me do what she wanted. I told her to stop being stupid, but she spat at me, so I belted her across the face with a backhander. Then the silly girl tried to stick me with a big cooking knife, so I hit her, extra hard, and she didn’t get up again.

“I dropped her body down an old mine shaft, there were dozens in the place. Then for good measure I dropped a stick of jelly on top to bring down some rocks and make sure she was well covered. Then I took all her gear and put it in another mineshaft a few miles away. No one was likely to find it but again I used a rock fall to cover it.

“To be honest I have got much more selective over the last couple years, I don’t really want to get into these situations. Now I just take the occasional one I really like for a trip and try to show them a good time. I am a bit sad to see some go but then another sweet young thing comes along, full of desire to see the real outback. Usually by a week they are ready to head on and I am ready to be on my own again.

“But then you come along and it is different. The same in parts, the sex is good, you want to see the outback, but different as well; you try to find out who I really am underneath it all. I think, hey, she’s starting to fall for me big time, and I am hooked too. You feel like the best person I have been with and I want to make it really special for you, maybe even try and find a way to keep you around.

“But I know it is not going to work because I am one of those people who aren’t good to stay around, bad things happen, and I don’t want bad things to happen to you.

“In another life maybe we could have met like ordinary people, I could have got a regular job and we could have made babies together and lived happily ever after. But this is the only life we’ve got and I don’t see how we can get to that place from here.

“Deep down I am one of those selfish people who doesn’t want to give up the good things I have got. I know one day I’ll make a mistake and someone will take me down. But I won’t let anyone put me away, I will go on my own terms. I’m not going to spend my life in jail with a whole lot of other perverts and sad bad bastards. A year in reform was enough; I’m not going back again.”

As Susan listened she could feel this story split her mind and emotions into two parts, one which was horrified at his callous disregard for other people and their lives, and another part filled with compassion for this man who had never had a proper chance to be something other than a monster since a child.

She hadn’t said a word as Mark had talked and talked. She didn’t understand it all, but she got the picture, he had killed people, lots of them, including some young backpackers

It didn’t sound like he set out to do this deliberately, but when he was in a corner, or got angry, killing someone was the easy way out. He lacked any apparent remorse for what he’d done. She could sense there was a great evil in him. The way he felt that a person’s life could be so easily extinguished and that there wouldn’t be any consequences. After each death each person was left to one side and his life went on.

But then, wasn’t that what people did in war? They killed people because it suited their country’s interest, or sometimes just their own interests. Then when it was done they returned to their lives and families, and continued, just as before. Sure, a few got shell shock or PTSD. But, for most, the killing was left behind and life went on. Were these people bad people? Was Mark any worse than them?

He had just worked out how to do the killing easily and efficiently, without others knowing. As a kid he never really had a chance, no parents or other role models to give guidance and affection, no love to anchor his life to. If she had lived a life like that would she be any different? She thought not.

She had also seen what appeared to be another side to Mark, genuine and decent, his affection for his friends in the remote bush camps of the outback, his unsolicited gifts of meat and friendship with aboriginal communities. She knew that there must be something else in there. She needed to find it, the part where the decency, kindness and compassion lived, if buried deep.

She needed him to tell her about what was special to him, what he loved, what gave him real joy.

“Mark, tell me a time when you were really happy, something that makes you feel warm and smile inside.”

He thought for a moment, “When I gave you the ring at Heartbreak Hotel, and you asked me to make love to you. When you sat beside me as we drove across the Murranji Track and we barely talked, but you would give me little smiles.”

She wanted to go down this path with him but it was not the answer she needed. “I feel warm and happy thinking about those things with you too. But I mean something before you met me.”

He thought again for a while and said, “Soon after I first got to the NT I got a job at the Mine at Gove. The other white mine workers didn’t have a lot of time for me, I was just a young wet kid. But there were a couple of black boys who worked there next to me. They came from a local town.

“We became friends, and they invited me to come back with them, to meet their families: all their aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Soon I became one of the family, going fishing and hunting with them, they taught me how to shoot kangaroos and use a spear to catch fish, how to track animals in the bush.

“But most of all they gave me a sense of belonging. Since then I have always felt that the NT was my home, particularly this Top End country, though I love the desert too. Here was somewhere I would always be welcome. I never had a family in the city who took notice of me. But all these aunts and uncles wanted to tell me their stories each day. Even more importantly, they would sit and listen to all my stories. I finally felt I was someone.

“The most special day came a few months later. These boys, my friends, were to have an initiation to become full members of their tribe. Even though I didn’t have the knowledge for this, the elders decided that, on that same day, I should get a skin name and a totem to recognise me as part of their clan.

“They gave me their own skin name, and gave me the totem of the crocodile, their totem. They told me that as the crocodile was my totem, I had to look after crocodiles and the places where crocodiles live. To help me remember they gave me that carved crocodile spirit that you have seen, it is the symbol of my totem.

So, when I shoot a pig or catch some other animal, I often give it to a crocodile. While I shoot and kill many animals, I try not to harm crocodiles, though I am allowed to kill them if they threaten people of my tribe or family, as even with crocodiles there are bad ones.

“That’s why I have come here; this place is really special for me. In this billabong, lives the biggest crocodile I have ever seen, until you brought out that one in the Victoria River. He is very shy and hides away but, just occasionally, he comes out. Once before he took a pig I gave him. It was my original plan, on this morning, before this all happened, to go out and shoot a pig for him. Now I can’t do that because I will have to go away from here early in the morning. But maybe I will see him still and be with him before I go.”

Only an hour had passed but it seemed like a year. It was such a complex web of good and bad. She wondered where the truth and rightness lay.

He had done so many awful things; most people would call him a sociopath or psychopath, someone who lacked the empathy to restrain his ability to harm. But there was also a good and decent place within him; a part that gave her joy and made her feel warm.

And yet there was also that other half, the psychopathic mirror—the Jekyll to his Hyde. In a strange way Susan felt this split too, there was part of her that loved him without limit, had given her promise with full commitment to be the wife, but then another part of her hated him with a violent rage for bringing them both to this place, where every choice was a presage to disaster.

But now that he had told her his story she knew she must decide what to do. In this moment clarity came into her mind. Keeping this love alive was more important, it must rise above the hatred. She knew now what she must do from here.

She would go away, but she could do him no further harm unless he first tried to harm her. She had made her choice, her pact with the devil. She loved him and she would not act against him, despite all he had done. While she must leave him, she would still maintain her promise to him, even when she returned home. His secret would be her secret too; she only needed a promise he would not harm any others from here on. And perhaps, as time went by, they could try to build a real life together out of the ashes of this day.

She talked for five minutes and Mark listened, silent, next to her. She laid it out to him as she had laid it out in her mind. It was her only way to go on without more betrayal and violence.

He was silent for a minute.

“What do you say? Can it be so?” she asked

He said, “I wish, but no.”

Susan felt like he had slapped her.

How could they have lived all this, this night of their pact together, and he not have moved on; stepped beyond now and into a future which at least had a possibility where they would both continue their lives, even if not together.

He said. “It is easy to say you will keep my secrets. But you can’t un-know what you’ve found out, and what I’ve told you. What you know now will be a cancer inside you. It will eat you slowly, bit by bit. One day you will have to speak out. So it cannot end this way.

“Now I must bind you again for this night has passed. Tomorrow must be what tomorrow must be.

Susan stood up and replaced her clothes. Then she put out her hands to allow him to replace the cuffs. He took out long chain and padlock. He passed an end between her wrists and attached the other to the bull bar.

It could not end like this! Her whole being cried in outrage. How could love grow and die in the space of a night, how could a moth be let fly free then held to a flame until it wings burned away.

She did not want to beg, but she must implore him. It had to come from him, forgiveness and freeing of himself so he could free her too. He was wrong about her, so wrong. She was determined to find the goodness at his core. She could not let it; she knew it must not end like this.

Susan grasped Mark by the arm, to stop him walking away.

He stopped and looked back at her.

She thought he would look at her with regret. But his eyes held nothing, only chilling emptiness stared back at her.

She stared back, imploring with her eyes, not just begging for her own life but begging for his soul. He maintained her stare but nothing came.

Finally she looked away. A month of her life had just ceased to exist as she knew she would herself when the new day was come.

Mark walked away.

She was silent, just stood and stared at the endless sky. What was out there? Was there a god who could carry her soul to a place of peace? In the predawn sky there came a tiny pinprick of light, perhaps a star. She wished she could hold onto it, and that it could help her find her own peace and salvation.

Susan lay down on her bedding, and rolled to the side to hide her face from the small but penetrating light. She didn’t feel she could stand its scrutiny, the scrutiny of a god looking into her soul.

Away from the light her mind refocused.

The only one who could save her life was she. Susan had no hope in Mark’s words or actions, and there was not deliverance from the heavens.

Her chafed wrists were bothering her. She wanted a comfortable place for them without the covers touching the raw skin. As she settled on her side, she pushed her hands out from under the covers. She found her hands resting in dirt, just past the edge of the bedding. She went to pull them back to the softness of the bed.

As she withdrew, her fingers touched something in the dirt; it was cold and metallic. She felt for it again. It was a piece of metal: flat, six or seven inches long, and an inch or two wide. It came to a sharp point at one end. The other end was blunt and slightly rounded, like the inset of a knife into its handle.

That’s what it felt like, the blade of an old fishing knife that had been dropped in the dirt long ago. Its former handle had disappeared. She got her fingers under it and picked it up. The point and edges were sharp, though jagged, as if pitted with age.

A thought came to her, I have been seeking a way out and now here it is. That cold bastard couldn’t return my love, so now it is time for me to fashion my own destiny.

Mark’s two different faces kept flashing across her mind, one tender and loving, putting a ring on her finger, caressing her body; and the other with empty eyes that neither gave nor received anything.

One she could not conceive harming, but the other had no life force that she could reach or touch—it was just a hollow shell.

 

 

 

Chapter 22 – Crocodile Destiny – Day 29

 

Susan didn’t know when she’d gone to sleep, but she woke in the early dawn light. Amazingly she had slept well and felt refreshed, despite the limited time and the discomfort of the handcuffs and chain. As her awareness returned, she felt a deep knot of terror in the pit of her stomach. How could this man, who had loved her so tenderly in the night, now be her executioner this very next day?

She felt like a prisoner on death row, knowing that only an hour or two of precious life remained, and there was an inexorable path forward to the end. She wondered if other prisoners still had hope at this point

She knew it would happen sometime this morning; she just didn’t know when. He would want to pack camp and be away early, before there might be others around. She wondered if he would feed her breakfast. With the bubbling terror flooding her mind she doubted she could eat.

Mark was squatting by the edge of the water looking out, his body almost motionless, but with a look of intense concentration. It seemed he was communing with the crocodiles before he offered her as a sacrifice, following an ancient ritual to placate the spirit beings.

Should she pretend sleep and try to delay the moment? But now the terror rose high, almost overwhelming her with panic. She made her mind retreat to a place of calm. She wanted cry or just die quietly in her sleep.

There was something so utterly horrid in this way. He really was a callous and hateful bastard. He could have just hit her on the head while she was asleep and she would not have had to endure this.

The anger came surging back and with it a ruthless coolness, allowing her to keep her mind in a calm place. While her nerve held she had to finish this. She must try and create a chance. She felt to her side, having to roll her body and move both hands, handcuffed together.

There it was; that piece of sharp metal, the old blade of a knife. It gave her a thread of hope.

She now slid the knife into her knickers, laying it flat on her belly with the point facing down, sitting over her pubis. She just hoped he did not want to give her a last bang before he got rid of her, one last quickie for good measure. She didn’t think it likely. Susan sensed that his mind and body had now moved on to another place where she, the living breathing Susan woman, no longer existed.

She made herself sit up and rattle her chain. Mark looked her way. He seemed agitated; perhaps he was surprised she was awake so soon – not ready for her and the day, when the dawn had barely come.

She tried to smile. A quick plan came to mind.

She would ask him to release her so she could relieve herself. She would do it with her back turned but remain in view. Then, still wearing her track bottoms and T-shirt, she would say she wanted to clean up and needed the cuffs off to wash herself. She would ask him to bring a bowl of water and a washer for her ablutions.

Then she would take off her T-shirt and track pants, putting the knife under her clothes pile, and start to clean herself. She would give Mark a thorough view of her naked buttocks as she washed herself.

She knew he would watch her and she would make sure it turned him on. Then she would call him over, saying she needed his help to wash her back. She would pass him the washer over her shoulder, keeping facing away. As he began to wash her back she would take up the knife and turn to him, keeping in close, with the knife out of sight. She wanted her breasts to be in his face, let his eyes focus on her nipples.

This was her best chance, her only chance. She would drive the knife into his belly, upwards, just below the ribs, into that soft unprotected skin.

She also needed a second weapon close at hand, should the knife not be enough, what could she use? She surveyed the site and located a piece of wood, a short piece of broken branch about a foot and a half long and three inches thick. If she could stand next to it then she would have a chance to pick it up and use it, if needed.

She knew she had to create real lust in her own mind to play the part convincingly. She must not rush the scene, so as to let his desire build and make him careless.

As she made her plan she felt as if her mind detached from and moved outside her body. She observed herself, as if from a great distance. She was a second Susan, one who watched and waited. Far away, another Susan, her body double, was acting out her own part. It was as if her mind had now occupied a separate reality to her body.

Seen from afar Susan felt surprise at how simple it was to set her plan into motion.

Mark released her body double when she asked. It walked away and relieved itself looking out across the water.

Then it said she needed to wash herself and asked for a basin of water, a washer and soap.

He unlocked the other Susan’s hands. He gave her a washer and soap. This Susan walked away and stopped at the place she had chosen. Mark poured warm water into a basin and carried it over to where she stood.

She watched as this Susan took the basin and placed it in front of herself standing alongside the stick. Like her this Susan understood it was best to have it close by, just in case.

Mark stepped back a few paces. She saw that he watched this Susan closely as she took off her clothes and got ready to wash. She watched her hide any view of the knife with her body as she took it out and lay it on her pants, covered by her top with just the tip of the handle visible.

As she began to wash a sudden wrench pulled her mind back into the body below. Now it was just her and him and she was really scared again. She knew she had to do this all by herself; she could no longer hide away from the reality of the actions she must take.

Mark seemed distracted, but once Susan started her wash down she could feel his eyes on her. She thought of their lovemaking on that other river, the Robinson River. She let it arouse her body, all the while keeping her mind locked away in a place of cold rage.

She spared a glance over her shoulder, Mark was watching her intently, and she could see a bulge in his pants where his arousal was growing.

She waved the washer and called out, “Could you come over and wash my back please? She could hear a husky sound in her voice, as if a throaty arousal blended with her fear, giving a tremulous quality.

Mark walked over. She passed him the soaped washer, and then rinsed her hands for a good grip. She took the metal blade in her stronger right hand, knowing that her body hid it from his view. She could feel her hand shake as she held the knife. She forced her mind to become calm again and her hand steadied.

She felt the washing cloth, his firm but gentle strokes, working down and lingering on her buttocks. She felt his other hand reach around and fondle a nipple, god that felt good.

With her mind in a totally detached place she turned slowly towards him, her breasts almost brushing him as she came around. His free hand stayed on her breast; she could feel his panting lust. His eyes were totally on her erect and pointy nipples. His second hand was now caressing her bottom.

She brought her elbow in under his arm. It was now or never. She focused all her attention on the one movement she must make. With her eyes turned down she looked at her target, that soft skin just below the left side of his rib cage.

She took a deep breath. With all her force drove the blade in.

It was harder than she thought. Her wrist twisted and buckled with the impact. But she saw the knife go in, almost all the way.

She felt the huge flinch of his body as he arced back, bringing his hands up in shock. It seemed to all happen in slow motion, a slowed silent movie without sound. His hands were grasping for the knife handle, she knew she must do more.

She ducked below his arms, looked to the side to locate the stick. Grasping it with her left hand, she turned and started to swing, then added her right hand for more power.

If he had been quicker he could have blocked her. But his two hands were grasping the short butt end of the blade that protruded, as if he would pull it out. In the last second he looked up. He saw what was coming. He looked to throw up a hand, but it was too late.

There was a look of puzzlement on his face, it seemed he could not comprehend how it had come to this. A trace of a smile creased his eyes, as if in admiration. His lips started to move but the word died unsaid.

The wood hit the side of his head with a dull crunch, it sounded like something had broken, whether within the wood or in his head she did not know.

Mark fell backwards, onto the ground.

He did not move.

Susan looked down at this man; she felt an awful horror at what she had done. She did not know if his injuries were terminal, or if she had killed him, but it couldn’t end like this. She couldn’t just leave his body lying there for another to find, even rescue.

In a flash it came to her. He would take her place with the crocodiles. Perhaps his crocodile spirit would bring the big one out of hiding and his body would be its feast. It was awful to contemplate, yet fitting. Susan looked at him again; he hadn’t moved.

There was a trickle of blood from his head and ear, and some more blood around the knife end, but not much. Was he still alive? She didn’t know, she hadn’t seen him breathe, but he was still pink.

Susan felt like she was carrying the weight of four dead girls on her shoulders, she was acting on their behalves, as well as her own.

It was about five metres to the water’s edge. She lifted Mark’s feet in her hands and tried to drag him, without success. He was too heavy to pull that way; her hands kept losing their grip on his thick ankles.

Susan came to his head and lifted him to a half sitting position. She was terrified he would wake up and grab her. Should she hit him again to be sure? No, that seemed too horrible.

She passed her arms under his shoulders. Knotting her fingers together on his chest, with his head lolling against her, she used her legs and pushed herself backwards, moving them both a few inches, then a few more; dragging him slowly. Now she was within a metre of the edge. She twisted and rolled his body until his legs were in the water. Then she pushed his head and shoulders with her feet until two thirds of him was in the water, but his head and shoulders still lay on the bank.

In her panting efforts she had almost forgotten the danger that crocodiles might pose to her, so near the water’s edge.

She looked up. There, watching her, no more than ten metres away, were two nostrils poking out of the water, and a little further back a pair of eyes. It was definitely interested.

Susan backed up, back to the place where she had stabbed Mark. She looked to the crocodile, then to Mark. Was it her imagination or did his chest just rise and fall? There had definitely been some sort of movement in the water where he lay.

But she knew it was too late to worry. The crocodile was swimming purposefully over to investigate. It nudged its nose alongside Mark. It was big, she thought, around five metres, not quite as big as the one on the Robinson but a good half-tonne. The crocodile bit at, and shook Mark’s legs a couple times with its mouth, then moved farther up the bank, now standing over his body, on raised forelegs.

It twisted slightly sideways, and grasped Mark around the abdomen, pulling him farther into the water. Now Mark was floating free, limbs lolling about. The crocodile released its grip and manoeuvred his body in the water, turning him parallel to the bank. It opened its huge mouth and closed it down over his chest.

Snap, then crunch as ribs gave way.

With almost leisurely ease the crocodile swam away trailing the upper body to one side and the legs to the other. It was half way back to where it started when there came a sudden swirl. Another large crocodile, similarly sized, had come alongside and grabbed Mark’s head.

They were now tearing at his body pulling in opposite directions. Blood stains were spreading in the water as Mark was torn open.

Just when it seemed that neither could win, a huge splash and swirl came crashing into both their bodies. A new crocodile grabbed Mark’s protruding waist and flung him in the air, half lifting the two other crocodiles from the water as they hung on. Now there were more tearing and ripping noises. Pieces of muscles, organs and blood floated in the midst of a thrashing and swirling cauldron. None would give a quarter but weight was with the big one.

Susan knew this was the big one that Mark had talked about. It dwarfed the other crocodiles, half their length again, and double their combined weight. It was clear who would win.

A leg was pulled free and one swam away with its spoils. Then there was a mighty tearing contest around the head and upper body. First the head disappeared, now there remained only a mangled torso, which the two crocodiles tore at.

With another loud rip, an arm and shoulder came free. The second crocodile abandoned the contest, departing with its prize.

The remaining crocodile, contest winner, cruised around the just floating body, pushing it a bit this way and that. Then, with the upper torso just in front of its nose, it opened its mouth, grasped and flipped the body into the air as it tipped its head back, mouth open wide. The body disappeared with a single huge swallow.

The crocodile did a leisurely circuit of the area, a victory lap it seemed. Then it submerged and was lost from view.

The water was still.

 

 

 

Chapter 23 – Hiding the Shame – Day 29

 

The crocodiles were gone. She could no longer see blood and body pieces in the water.

Susan felt the mind-numbing horror recede a notch. Rising up to meet it was an overpowering feeling of shame. She had thought, when she came to this country, she was too smart for the backpacker abduction trick; that she wasn’t one of those silly girls who took lifts with strangers, or put herself into vulnerable positions. Yet she knew, with an absolute certainty, that if she hadn’t found that old blade she would have joined that list of ugly statistics.

She was disgusted with herself. She had indulged in an orgy of sexual pleasure even after she had good grounds for suspicion about this man. Not to mention she had the chance to escape on at least two occasions and had done nothing.

Then there was the small matter of her conspiring to conceal evidence. From the time she had found the passports she had, within her power, the option of taking them to the police. She could have brought an end to the uncertainty about the fate of these girls for four sets of anguished parents.

Yet she had done nothing, preferring to hope for an alternative truth about the man who had captured her mind as much as her body. Only when her own life was a millimetre from extinction had she acted. That was merely for self-preservation; that wasn’t real courage.

She looked now at the morality deep inside herself. It was wanting. She remembered talk of others. those who looked askance at the Germans who, during Hitler’s time, saw nothing, did nothing and said nothing—despite evidence right in front of their eyes. Susan was no better; when the test of her moral core came, she’d failed it, utterly.

So here she was, now, reaping this whirlwind of her own actions. Despite Mark’s awful deeds, was she entitled to be both his judge and executioner?

She could justify using the metal blade to escape; perhaps hitting him was also defensible. But when he lay on the ground, unconscious, she knew neither whether he was alive or dead.

How could she justify pushing his body into the water for the crocodiles to finish? In her heart of hearts she knew he might have lived. She could have taken the car, driven for help, or called the police if she did not want to return herself.

But the real reason she hadn’t was that she simply did not want to face a reliving of her own part in this. Susan did not want to be part of a police investigation into this hideous man.

In her heart and soul she had wanted him dead.

Partly it was to pay him back for her humiliation, partly to let it end, but mostly because she didn’t want to have to give evidence, to describe his exploitation of her naivety, then her sexual and physical entrapment, which she had actively aided and abetted.

She most wanted the whole ugly story to vanish; she didn’t want to have to tell her parents or friends of her cowardice and abject foolishness, not to have testimony splashed over the tabloids, Australian and British; words like ‘British Slut, Murderer; Killer Feeds Man to Crocodile’.

So now she was here, she cold bloodedly gave this man his death wish with crocodiles. She could imagine his eyes had opened and awareness returned in those final seconds, as the crocodiles tore his body apart.

The worst part was that despite the shame that tore at her soul, much of her remained glad of what she had done; she had judged he was not fit to live, and acted on it. She even remembered his words at Barrow Creek, of taking personal vengeance when others did harm. It felt like a perverse moral rightness to use his own spoken words as justification.

Then Susan’s mind twisted in another direction, one of relief and rationalisation. Here she was, alive. Only she knew what had transpired. There was really no need for anyone else to know. Nothing would be served by telling the mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers of those other poor girls about their fate, destroying their remnants of hope.

Now her mind saw a way out. Her plane did not leave until tomorrow morning. She could make the whole thing vanish. No one had seen her and Mark here. She knew he had driven here in the night, coming from the other side of Katherine, with no stops. This was to avoid anyone else seeing him or connecting him to her disappearance or to this place. So that could work to her advantage, she was even more unknown than him.

The chance of his body being discovered, after the crocodiles finished, was remote. The crocodiles had eaten the main parts. The fish would finish off any scraps that remained.

The car need not remain here, where it was connected with this place. All the residual contents of their trip together could vanish, into the bottom of some billabong.

She understood about DNA and forensic evidence, her lab did that sort of work and she knew how to make detection difficult, if not impossible. And, without a basis for suspicion, who would even look?

All she needed was a few hours, with no one else in sight, and she could pull it off. Even if someone came now there was really almost nothing to show, nothing to arouse suspicion, and there was plenty more she could do to hide the traces.

What she needed was a careful plan that she followed. She felt energised, her shock and lethargy was pushed back by the need do something decisive.

First she found a notebook. She made a list of what she needed to do and tried to think of all the sources of future problems and of their solutions.

The campground—she needed to remove all traces of blood from the edge of the water and where she had hit him. She would have to ensure there were no items that could be connected with either of them left lying around. She would do her best to get rid of footprints, tyre tracks, soil on the car or other things that may link the vehicle and this place.

The car—it needed to be abandoned somewhere, somewhere that had no connection to this place. Perhaps it could take her to the airport then be dumped.

His personal effects—the clothes, food and personal items could be burned. The heavy items, firearms, camping gear and tools could go into the bottom of a billabong. Not here, but if she took them and spread them out, up and down river, the likelihood of anyone finding them and or connecting them seemed remote. As the guns had serial numbers, that might trace to him, they should be dumped somewhere else.

Her own things—she realised that her backpack and clothes would have his DNA all over them and it would be hard to ensure that it all vanished. So, all but a handful of her things must go, either burned or thrown into rubbish in various places. The few things she needed to take home could be dealt with back in England.

The car would have to be thoroughly cleaned to remove all traces of her presence, and all other identification, either of her or the other girls. There would just be an empty car. She couldn’t get rid of the cage or cooler box, but a good clean should see most traces gone. The cooler box would have to be cleaned extremely thoroughly, considering her time in there. No doubt bits of her skin, hair, blood, urine and more would be in there.

She would have to clean the car a second time after she got to her destination to ensure her DNA from the final trip was not evident in it.

Perhaps once she neared Darwin she could find a shop selling garbage bags, cleaning gear, and unworn clothes to change into for her final leg.

She would have to play some of this by ear. But each extra step was another level of separation and security. Susan wanted every last trace of Mark out of her life.

Before she could do anything, she needed to make it difficult to recognise or identify the vehicle if anyone turned up while she was still here. She retrieved some mud from the bank and smeared it on and around the number plates, confusing threes, eights, and other numbers with strategic dabs of mud. For extra cover she splashed the number plates with water and extra dirt to make them as near to illegible as was possible. Then she took the swag cover and a ground sheet, and draped them over the cool box and cage on the back, to make these less visible and identifiable.

With her plan made Susan started her clean-up; she added branches to the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to create a big hot fire, one with plenty of flames to burn all the things that could burn.

She did a thorough walk around the site, picking up all loose items, along with any rubbish, and piling them next to the fire. She took a shovel and dug up the bloodstained soil. Susan threw this in the water, then levelled off this patch and covered it with some loose dirt and leaves. If someone looked hard one could see a disturbed area but it wasn’t obvious. She was happy that this dealt with the most immediate evidence.

Now she started with her own things, it was easier to begin with these. She removed all her things from her pack and separated what she knew she needed for her trip home. These she put it in her small overnight bag. Then, one by one, she placed all her other clothes on the fire and watched them burn to ash. There was something cathartic about destroying links to this trip and this place.

She went through the cabin of the car and emptied out all the compartments, under and behind seats and all the other compartments and spaces. She made two piles: what couldn’t be burned and what could. Piece by piece everything that would burn went into the fire. She kept adding wood, and stirred the fire with a stick, to ensure that no charred bits remained.

Then came Mark’s things. She felt revulsion about touching anything of his. But it had to be done.

First were his clothes. Each thing she recognised brought her back to the time and place where she he had seen him wear it.

There was a cap that she had did not remember seeing him wear, and yet it seemed strangely familiar, somewhere deep in her brain it rang a bell of association, though she couldn’t think why. It had a picture of a soaring wedged-tail eagle on the front, but the connection was out of reach. She threw it in the fire.

Susan felt a particular pang about the cowboy gear that he had worn on the day he had met her in Alice Springs: a holiday that held such promise. With these memories came new sadness at how those good times were gone. She stopped herself.

Then there was his leather satchel of papers. She felt obliged to open it, to see what was inside. It was still locked with a combination lock. She had no idea what the number was. So she found a big screwdriver and a hammer in his tools. She smashed the lock open.

She lifted out the pile of papers, and went through them, one by one. Mostly bills and receipts relating to work; she noted the two names Bennet and Butler but not the others. After a quick glance she consigned each to the fire. Now the main part of the satchel was empty, she was about to consign it to the fire.

In a side pocket she felt something that still remained. There were two things inside: a pouch and a book. She removed the pouch and opened it. The contents spilled into her hand. She gasped, here was a pile of coloured stones; glassy, many types, sizes and shapes. She did not know much about precious stones but recognised that indeed this was what she was looking at. There were probably fifty stones, ranging from a few millimetres in size to some as large as a thumbnail. She recognised the reds and blues of rubies and sapphires; a golden one, perhaps a topaz; some small glassy ones, maybe diamonds; and some flecked white and blue stones which she thought were opals. Most of all she recognised two milky blue stones, cousins to the ones he had given her. She took the chain and ring from around her neck and placed these items with the other stones, they all belonged together.

Susan deliberated on throwing them away. There was clearly value here, tens of thousands of pounds she imagined. Some might even belong to other people who had hired Mark to sell them. If so they may represent life savings of miners she had met. While she didn’t want Mark’s ill-gotten gains, she felt loathe to destroy the property of others. She decided she would keep them for now. She refilled the pouch and set it aside.

She put her hand back into the satchel and pulled out the second object. It looked like a diary. Instant revulsion rose at the prospect of seeing his deeper self through his own eyes. She held it in her hand, arm bent to cast it into the fire. Then she thought; perhaps there is something in here about me, and why he chose me, that I should read.

Susan flipped quickly through the pages; there were lots of small entries containing dates, places, and items relating to transactions. She saw the name Kate a few times, she realised with a shock that there were notes about the Scottish girl, Kate Rodgers. The others were probably here too. It seemed awful to burn the last record of these lives.

She could imagine her body destroyed and hidden in a remote place, then someone finding this last record and casually discarding it, denying all future opportunity to those who knew her to learn of this last part of her life. While she didn’t want anyone else to see this and read her shame, it was an ultimate disrespect to others to destroy a last remnant of their lives in this way. She decided to keep the book and hide it away.

Flipping to the last page, she saw her name. It must have been written within the last two days, perhaps last night.

 

Susan has really got to me, there’s something so brave and beautiful about her. Why could she not just leave alone? I don’t want to do this, but now I have to make the choice between me and her. What should I do, I must end it. It will be quick.

Perhaps I should let her go, trust her, see what she does—can I take this chance?

 

She read it, and she re read it and then she read it yet again. Had he really meant to let her go, or did he just have doubts that he overcame?

She could feel emotions welling up, love, hate, serious gentle eyes; ugly, ruthless psychopathic heart. What did it all mean? Tears pricked her eyes. She hated him, almost beyond thinking, and yet she really missed his smile. What a mess.

Susan looked around her. Should she just take this to the police and tell them she had made an awful mistake, it could all be unscrambled, even yet. Here was a record that told of what he was and what he had done. With this no one would blame her.

But then she realised that they would confiscate this book, take it as evidence and she would never get to see it again, except perhaps in court. She needed to have this for herself, whether to read it or not; there may be something in here to help her find herself again.

She decided she would put it somewhere out of all reach, in a bank vault perhaps, maybe left there till she died. But it held a story that she could not just casually destroy—that much she knew. Susan found a handkerchief that had not yet been burnt. She wrapped this around it, to separate it from the rest of her life yet treat it with respect. Then she placed it in the bottom of her overnight bag, along with the bag of gems and covered them with her clothes. Now the rest of his personal effects went into the fire; toothbrush, razor, shampoo, and deodorant.

She started on the back of the car. Fortunately the cooler box was almost empty. The inside smelt awful. She carried a couple buckets of water and emptied them inside; the cleaning part could wait.

Susan lifted each box off the back and opened it. She created a pile of non-flammables, to add to the small pile from the cabin. It was all destined for the bottom of the billabong; knives, tools, metal boxes, and cooking things. Steadily the pile grew. She filled a bucket with the contents from the pile and walked one way, almost a hundred yards along the waterhole. She threw all the items out in different directions. She repeated it five more times in different places.

Now only the guns and heavy tools remained. They would go somewhere else, perhaps in different billabong, once she was driving.

One of the last things to do was destroy the food. Susan had left it for near last, knowing that she may need to eat. She thought she must have been working now for over four hours, slowly and methodically, hunger forgotten. It must be past midday and she knew that she must make herself eat; she was starting to feel light headed, all her early morning energy long gone.

The thought of food brought Mark’s face into her mind; they had shared this food together so many times over the days until now, their own private ritual in which they shared an enjoyment of togetherness.

She couldn’t let herself think of the good times. All that was left was the image of his face, devoid of emotion. She pictured his eyes looking at her in that way once he had killed her. There would be no recognition of her life force gone, no anguish, just cool dispassion as he discarded her from his mind then moved on to the next task.

Then she thought of the large crocodile carrying Mark’s body in its mouth. That awful ripping and tearing sound, as all three crocodiles pulled and tugged, causing body parts to separate, the dismemberment of all that had been once a living breathing person.

A wave of bile rose in her insides; she retched.

Susan found a cup of water and rinsed her mouth. She had to keep going. She systematically started burning the food. The smell was bad, but she pushed on. She emptied the metal tins and glass jars, the plastic she burnt on the fire.

Only a quarter of packet of broken biscuits remained, crushed in travel. She took a piece, her mouth dry, chewed slightly then gulped it down with a mouthful of water. She repeated it with another fragment. Occasionally her stomach threatened to rebel, but each time she paused, breathed deeply, calmed herself and took another piece.

She realised she had totally forgotten about the most important thing, the thing that had started this path to madness: the metal box with the girls’ passports and Mark’s multiple IDs. Like the diary, she could not burn the passports. That would be like killing the girls a second time.

Susan thought of throwing the box in the water and burning his IDs, then just bringing the passports away with her. But she knew this was a crazy risk. What if she was searched at airport security? Four passports, all of which clearly did not belong to her, they spelt disaster, no possible way of explaining that. By a process of elimination she realised that her only real choice was to hide them.

She carefully examined the area around her, looking for landmarks. There was nothing distinctive close by, only a big waterhole with a partly cleared area along its banks; perhaps where people sometimes came to camp and fish. A few hundred yards away she saw a little rocky knoll, rising a few feet above the surrounding ground. She took a spade and the box and walked across to it.

The hill itself was bigger than she first though, ten or fifteen feet high and about twenty yards across the base. It was also rocky and hard to dig and there were no obvious cracks or crevices to use. On the other side a big flat rock, squarish and about a metre across, sat low on the ground, just beyond the rise. There was clear dirt just beyond it. She walked over and tested the ground with her spade. It was hard but not rocky. She chipped away at the surface. Her hands were blistered and sore and it was hard going at first. But once she was down a few inches the ground was softer, a dark sandy loam. She dug down about a foot, hard up against the side of the big rock, which kept going straight down.

Then she placed the box in the bottom of the hole. She saw another piece of flat rock, maybe twice this box’s size, lying nearby. She placed it, lying flat over the metal box, also in the base of the hole. She figured that would reduce the risk of rust or water damage. Then she backfilled and pushed the dirt down firmly with her feet. The remaining dirt she scattered around the area.

Not too bad, but a bit obvious if someone came looking over here soon. She laid another flat sheet of rock on top to hide the freshly turned dirt. Now with leaves to make it look a bit more natural, she defied anyone to know that something was buried here. So long as she could find the campsite, she could find this place again if she needed.

It was now mid afternoon as she walked back to the car. Only two tasks remained. The first was to burn their bedding, the last remains of their life together. It was too personal; she did not want to do it, these objects of their lovemaking. But she couldn’t stop now. She lifted the mattress, and threw it onto the fire; it smouldered and smelt awful, but eventually the foam burnt through and she pushed the ends together till only a pile of sticky burning goo remained. Then the pillow, quilt and sheets.

As she picked up the bottom sheet her lace knickers fell to the ground. It was a symbol of their passionate lovemaking, even when trust was lost.

At the sight of the white lace, Susan’s shoulders started to shake. The tears came quickly, silently, dripping down her cheeks.

She cried for herself and the loss of her innocence. She cried for him too, the loss of his life, and the loss of belief in his goodness. She had tried so hard to believe he was good, that he could do no wrong. Now it was time to let that go.

Eventually the crying passed, leaving her feeling utterly drained. Susan picked up the knickers, looked at them one last time, and consigned them to the fire.

The light was fading as the sun fell behind the trees. Susan wanted to lie down, she was so very tired, but there was one last task to complete. She had to wash the car, inside and out.

She washed the hateful cooler box first. Five times she carried water, sloshed it around, emptied and wiped it out. Her arms were shaking with fatigue as she lifted the bucket and her legs wobbled with exhaustion as she walked.

She repeated the procedure with the cabin. Then she did the tray and cage, then finally, the outside of the cabin. She scraped and washed the wheel arches and the under-body as best she could.

Now the daylight had faded to a red-pink glow. It was getting hard to see in the guttering firelight. She piled the fire up one more time. The groundsheet and canvass swag cover went on the fire, the oily plastic coating blazing brightly.

Next she stripped off her clothes and threw them in the fire, and used some water from the water tank and a cup to rinse her body, cleaning herself as best she could. She shivered in the cold night air, feeling naked and vulnerable. Quickly she put on the clean shorts and T-shirt she had kept aside.

Finally Susan dowsed the fire. In the dark she needed to be careful near the water. Cautiously she scooped a bucket out, but of crocodiles there was no sign. She repressed a shudder as she thought they wouldn’t need to eat again, they had already feasted today.

She picked up the ends of the burning sticks and threw them in the water. Then she threw her bucket of water on the coals. It exploded with a great hissing. She repeated this several further times until little heat remained. She took the shovel and, with it carried the piles of ash, along with any other fragments, to the water’s edge and threw them in. Finally only a slightly hollowed out depression remained where the fire had been. She threw some handfuls of leaves over this place.

With the fire gone the mosquitoes were thick. She swatted them away, but it was futile. She wished she had kept the repellent. There were noises of animal movements in the night. She desperately wanted to be gone from this place.

Susan made herself do one last walk around with the torch she had saved. She could see nothing that remained. However she tore a branch from a tree and walked around, brushing dirt in all the places where she thought they had walked, trying to hide obvious tracks. She tossed the branch into the water—satisfied she could do no more.

As she looked across the water there was a miasma of something sitting over its surface, mist like, but not quite. It eddied towards her despite the non-existent breeze. Involuntarily she found herself breathing it in. It felt like there was more in it than water laden air, as if a presence attached to the place came into her, giving her a fleeting sense of Mark’s grinning face merged with that of a crocodile. She shuddered and forced this awareness out of her mind, determined to let no residue of this place remain within her.

She stumbled as she turned, engulfed by weariness, driven these last hours by need alone. This air at the water’s edge felt like a spider’s web, sticky tendrils of nothingness catching hold of her skin.

She forced herself to stand straight. She must now summon the strength to leave this place.

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – Escape – Day 30

 

Susan walked away from the billabong in the dark. It seemed like the longest day in her life and her body was shaking with exhaustion. She had not eaten all day except for those few biscuit fragments. Now that her work was finished she just wanted to crawl into a bed, under a warm quilt, lie in a foetal position and sleep.

She climbed into the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition. Thankfully, Mark had left the key behind that morning, left it lying on the driver’s seat. The last time she sat in this seat had only been yesterday, but it felt an age. Susan knew she needed to start the car and drive away, but waves of nausea and exhaustion flowed over her. She laid her head back in the corner of the cabin, against the headrest, and closed her eyes.

The horror of the ripping crocodiles swam before her eyes. With extreme effort she pushed it away. She stayed there, immobile, her mind numb, beyond thinking. She must have dozed because she woke with her head slumped sideways and an ache in her neck. Her hands stung from the chafing of the restraints and the hours she had spent cleaning, scouring and re-cleaning to remove all the evidence.

She sat up straight now. Her head felt a bit clearer and the exhaustion seemed to have faded. She knew that she must get going now while her reserves lasted. She started the engine. The diesel roared to life. She let it run for a minute to warm up as she checked the gauges.

Everything seemed OK. She looked at the fuel levels. The main tank was down to not much, barely an eighth above empty, but the reserve tank still had a third and the light was on, indicating it was in use.

She found the light switch. With the headlights on she felt like she could push the darkness away for a few hours. She hated this whole place but felt better within the solid mass of the car, engine throbbing and lights bright, while she sat locked in her cocoon.

She found and engaged the gears, let out the clutch and was away. She remembered now all the water she had used to wash the car, and it came to her that there may be tire tracks or footprints in this wet ground. With supreme effort she forced herself to stop and go and look with the torch. Sure enough there were several clear footprints and a set of clear tyre tracks for about five yards, until the dry ground. She scraped at these with the spade until they were indistinct and then threw some fresh dirt and leaves over them.

Now she really was finished, she knew there was nothing more she could do here. She drove off and picked up the track leading away from the clearing, and drove out slowly, staying in first gear for a while, until she felt that she had reasonable control. She changed up to second and felt the vehicle move more freely. Sometimes the track turned sharply and she struggled to pick the direction in the headlights as she veered to the edge of the road. Once she thought she would scrape the passenger door on a tree at the edge of a sharp corner but she just avoided it with a last minute swerve.

She had only a vague idea of where she was, but hoped she would be able to follow signs to take her back to the highway, then on to Darwin. For the first couple miles there was a single track, which came to a closed gate. This fitted with Mark’s description of a private place. So far so good!

Now there were tracks going everywhere. It was hard to tell the actual road from yet another camping track. A couple times she picked wrong and ended up in a camping area alongside a billabong. A couple times she saw distant lights illuminating tents and turned away. She was starting to feel like she was in a maze, fraying at her fragile sense of purpose.

Then a bit of luck ran her way; she realised she was now on a main road going somewhere. After about fifteen minutes of driving she came to a big gate on the road. She was terrified it would be locked, but it was not. She pulled the gate open, and drove through. She was tempted to drive on and leave it swinging, but she forced herself to stop, get out, and close it properly. She left the engine running; the thought of stopping the car and being unable to start it again giving her a wave of panic.

She drove on. The road was wide now, well formed, and almost dead straight. But after another quarter of an hour it ended suddenly in a T intersection. The new cross-road seemed to be an important road but less so than the one she was on. She had no idea which way to choose.

For no reason in particular she decided to turn left. The road went on for a few hundred yards, and then, after some minor sidetracks coming off it, it deteriorated into a track. Susan followed this, living in hope it went somewhere; however, after another couple hundred yards, the road came to the edge of a vast open plain. No further road was in sight, just a vast expanse of grass, which seemed to run out to a river miles away.

Susan felt profoundly depressed, but knew she had to back track. She came back to the T-junction. She tossed up whether to return to the main road or try the other direction. In the end her need to be thorough overrode her desire for the ease of the big highway. She followed the other track. She almost felt relief when, a few hundred yards later, it ended in another gate. This time there was a lock that she clearly would not get through.

While part of her felt profoundly dejected to be stuck in this maze, another part felt that this was progress.

She found a place to turn round and headed back. At the big gate on the main road she now felt that this was the way out. So she drove on with renewed confidence. The road continued on, past a series of minor turn-offs, heading in a consistently straight direction.

Susan kept on driving. She knew that, if she came to another dead end, she would want to cry, lie down and die. But it just kept going, seemingly on and on, forever. She rechecked her distance, which she checked along the way as she drove. She had come twenty-five kilometres since the last gate. That meant she had to be going somewhere. Still the road went on, further and further.

At last there was a sign for an approaching T intersection. Susan slowed, almost to a crawl, as she reached what she thought was the intersection. Please God, let there be a sign. She felt rising desperation with nothing in sight. The road rounded a final bend. Gleaming in the headlights was a big shiny sign, pointing Darwin to the right and Kakadu to the left. It was a big wide bitumen road. The sign read Arnhem Highway.

She nearly cried with relief. As the car headed along this new smooth road there was a big sign: Darwin, 135 kms. Tension flowed out of her, and a huge wave of relief washed over her. She knew she had as good as made it. After another hour and a half or so of driving, she would find a place to rest for a bit before she went to the airport to catch the plane home.

The road was straight and easy to drive. She passed a lit up roadhouse called the Bark Hut Inn. She was tempted to stop, just to buy a drink, but knew she should not let anyone see her in this car around here. She came to a big river with the sign Mary River written on the bridge, watching a large expanse of clear dark water pass below. There were no headlights in sight and no signs of any people nearby.

Susan decided that this river might make a good final resting place for the guns and other things. She stopped at the far edge of the bridge, climbed out and looked around. Then she stood quietly and listened, just bush sounds. This will do, she thought.

First she picked up the box that held tools. One by one she dropped them over the side and into the water. As she was carrying the last things headlights lit up the eastern horizon. She quickly dropped the tools over and ran back to the car. She hopped back in and started the engine, ready to drive away if the vehicle showed signs of stopping. But it roared past and drove into the night. It was heading towards Darwin, seemingly impatient to be home.

Last she took out the gun case and false number plates. The gun case fell straight down like a spear, entering the water with a hollow splash. Next she flung the six unattached number plates in different directions. It was like casting the remnants of Mark’s identity to the four winds.

Leaving the bridge behind, as she drove on, it felt like a big first step towards removing this month from her life.

She concentrated on driving steadily, not too fast or slow. She passed a couple cars going the other way. The first time she forgot to dip her lights, until a series of angry flashes made her aware. After this she drove with lights on low beam, it was easier than trying to remember, another thing for her tired brain to do.

As Susan continued she started to feel like she was almost back to civilisation. As her anxiety faded the fatigue really began to hit her. She found herself yawning, what she really needed was a really strong cup of coffee. She pinched her face, she moved her shoulders and jiggled her legs; anything to keep brain and body awake. She saw lights in the distance and then she was in a little town, with a sign that proclaimed Humpty Doo. She forced herself on.

Reaching another big T intersection, this time with traffic lights and a sign for Stuart Highway and Darwin to the right, Susan let out a breath of relief—she actually knew where she was. Susan knew that the Stuart Highway was the main road from Alice Springs to Darwin. With Darwin barely thirty kilometres away, she decided that she would just drive for a little longer and then find a place to pull over and rest. Although it felt like the middle of the night the clock on the dash only read 9:30 pm.

Soon she saw a big sign for a roadhouse and supermarket coming up on her side. She pulled into the supermarket car park. There were still occasional shoppers—perhaps it stayed open until late.

She looked at her face in the mirror. Considering what she felt like inside, her face looked remarkably normal, a bit puffy under the eyes and her hair was a bit wild. She groped in her bag and found a comb, straightened her hair and checked her clothes for obvious marks. She took a last glance around—no one was close. Susan stepped out, careful to make sure she appeared casual.

As she approached the doors they automatically slid apart. She stepped into an overly bright, modern, fluorescent lit world. The air-conditioning was unexpectedly cold and she shivered.

No one seemed the least interested in her. She knew she had about eighty-five dollars in her purse. That would be enough to buy some food, a drink, some cleaning gear and maybe some new clothes.

She picked up a basket and worked her way around. A block of cheese, some dip and biscuits, along with a bottle of Coke. Next she collected a plastic bucket, detergent, methylated spirits, cleaning cloths, disposable household gloves and a packet of garbage bags. She also bought two cheap sets of clothes consisting of a tracksuit, T-shirt and socks.

There was a map of Darwin for sale. She opened it, memorised the directions to the airport and put it back. It seemed fairly simple and she expected there would be signs.

She paid, returned to the car and drove on. Another few miles and she saw a rest stop and toilet sign on the left. That was what she was looking for. The only other occupants of the rest area were a couple of large trucks; there was no sign of their drivers — likely asleep in the cabins.

After washing her face Susan sat at a little table outside with her cheese, dip, cracker biscuits and Coke. It was the first real food she had eaten in almost twenty-four hours. While part of her craved food, there was also nausea just below the surface. She knew she must go steadily. She ate slowly, one biscuit at a time, with a smear of dip and a piece of cheese, chewing each with steady deliberation, and following each with a mouthful of Coke. A couple times her stomach threatened to rebel as nausea rose. But she calmed herself with deep breaths.

After she had had her fill, Susan climbed back into the car, pulled the new tracksuit over her other clothes and curled up on the seat. What blessed relief to close her eyes and let it all go.

When she woke up the cabin clock read 3:13 am.

Time to get active again, she thought.

Susan opened the cabin and shivered in the chill air. Reluctantly she removed her new clothes, so she was back to her old T-shirt and shorts. She took out her overnight bag from the cabin and placed it, with her food and cleaning things, on the nearby table.

She set to work, starting with a bucket of water and detergent, she washed every inside surface of the cabin. Then she climbed on the back and did the same for the cooler box, washing it first, then wiping off the excess with a second cloth. Next she swabbed all the surfaces with a cloth covered with methylated spirits. Then she did the same for the rest of the tray. Finally she washed the rest of the outside of the cabin as best she could. Without a high-pressure spray she could not really do the under-body, but she didn’t think it was very important.

She surveyed her work; she thought it was enough. There was little chance of anyone recovering her DNA, should someone check the vehicle. It seemed important to her that there be no trace of her left in the car

She took her remaining clothes and divided them into two sets. One set, including the clothes she had slept in, went into her small overnight bag, along with her passport, ticket and her other personal effects. She left one pair of sandals on the back tray. She put her overnight bag and its contents inside a garbage bag; this was what she needed for the return leg on the plane. She double bagged it, and rested it on the back tray.

In a second bag she placed the rest of the cleaning gear, which she also sat on the tray. Then she washed herself off again, pulled off her clothes from before, and put them along with her other discarded clothes in another garbage bag. She tied this up and put it into a garbage bin nearby.

Susan was naked in the dark. She quickly dressed in the final set of new clothes using disposable gloves. When she was dressed, she put new disposable gloves on her hands and walked over to the car. She laid a garbage bag on the floor and sat inside, careful not to touch anything else. She slid her feet into her new socks.

Then she started the car and drove away, following the signs for the airport. It was just five am when she drove in to the airport concourse. There were a few people around, early morning cleaners and the like. She drove past the car park and looked in at it.

Should she park in there? Probably not, it was too likely to have CCTV to capture her image as she exited the car. She wanted no direct link between the car and her.

She had noted that the airport was only a kilometre or two from the main road, and on the other side of this road were housing estates. Susan figured that, if she parked on the street in front of one of these, it was unlikely anyone would notice a common four wheel drive. It would likely be weeks before anyone wondered whose car it was and investigated.

So she drove back out and parked on the side of the service road opposite some two-storey houses. There was not a soul in sight as she climbed out.

First she put on her sandals and lifted the other things off the tray. Then she gave the parts of the cabin she had used, and the back tray where her things had rested, a final wipe. She locked the doors.

She opened the garbage bag that held her overnight bag, removed it from inside and sat it on the pavement. She put all the cleaning gear and other unwanted objects back in its own garbage bag. With this garbage bag in one hand, the overnight bag in the other and the car keys in her pocket, Susan walked towards the airport, following alongside a cycleway, walking on the footpath.

She passed a bin at a bus stop and threw the garbage bag of cleaning things inside. She turned onto the airport access road. A few hundred yards along this road she crossed a creek. The car keys went in there.

She could feel dawn approaching, though there was not yet any light in the sky. Her spirits lifted, it was a new day and her ordeal was almost all over. Her freedom, back to her beloved England, was close at hand. She noticed that her speed had picked up and her step had become jaunty. Susan consciously pulled herself back to a more regular walk. Don’t get too cocky now; there are only a few more steps to go.

Her flight was due to depart at ten am. It was only five past six now, at least according to the massive clock inside the terminal. She was perhaps a bit early, but at least she had time for a shower and breakfast before she needed to check in.

Susan headed straight for the shower sign. She luxuriated in the hot water and steam for a good ten minutes; she was determined to wash every trace of the outback from her body, washing it out of her soul might not be so easy, but she would try. Breakfast was a bacon and egg muffin and coffee. She bought a magazine from a newsagent, wanting something to occupy her.

The lady at the check-in counter raised a snooty eyebrow when Susan declared she only had carry-on luggage. But Susan wasn’t concerned; it was her own business. She felt a twinge of anxiety as she passed through airport security, particularly about the little pouch of stones. But there was nothing in her bag that brought attention. Then she went on through passport checking and stamping. As she opened her passport for checking a slip of folded paper fell out and on to the floor. “You dropped this,” the man behind her said helpfully, passing her the paper.

“Cheers,” said Susan accepting it from his hand. She didn’t recognise it, but she placed it in her ticket wallet; she could check it later.

Then she was through and sitting in the departure lounge.

The minutes ticked by slowly. Susan tried to read her magazine, but beautiful girls in beautiful clothes weren’t a good enough distraction. She tried to relax and pretend she was enjoying herself, but she was wound up like a spring. She kept expecting someone to call her name out.

When boarding was called, Susan didn’t rush. Inside the plane a pretty stewardess, with long blond hair, directed her away from the entry door. A second stewardess, part way down her aisle, was directing passengers with a broad Cockney twang. Susan was comforted by the voice.

Susan said hello to the woman, who recognised her as English for she turned to Susan with a bright smile, “Another English visitor, I hope you enjoyed your trip to Australia.”

Susan forced a return smile; she could not quite bring herself to nod.

At last the plane was taxiing out and soaring up into the sky. As it levelled out Susan realised she was still clutching her English passport. She went to put it away. It flipped open to where it had just been stamped, Australian Visitor Visa – Departure.

That’s it she thought. That was what I was, just an English Visitor.

 

 

 

Chapter 25 – Devil Spawn – one month later

 

Susan found that returning to work was relatively easy; it was almost as if she had never been away. Some people hadn’t even noticed her absence and this suited her.

She was still staying with her Mum and Dad, though getting her own place was high on her list of priorities. What had happened in Australia had a surreal quality, as though it happened to another person, while the real Susan had stayed and worked away in England.

A week after she came back a letter arrived, postmarked Australia, with David’s name and address on the back. She put it aside, unopened.

She and Anne were still good friends, but she felt their relationship had suffered from the little she said about Australia, particularly about her text message. She gave a half-baked, disinterested story, explaining it away as mere curiosity about something she read in an old paper while travelling. Perhaps Anne believed her, perhaps not, but it slid away. She told her little bits about the things she did in Sydney and Melbourne and this seemed to satisfy Anne’s need for an Australian story.

Susan was never highly regular with her periods; she remembered one in Sydney and started to expect one a couple weeks after she got back.

During all her time with Mark, after that first day in the sea, they had almost forgotten about contraception, the passion and ferocity of their lovemaking had been all-consuming.

She had half thought of it in Sydney, when her period came. Then it was with a mild sense of relief, as she thought, “Well I am clearly not pregnant.” But it had never led to any active planning by her when they met again. If the issue had been considered by Mark it was never raised.

After she was back for three weeks she had a definite feeling of unease, but thought, “Oh well, I am often a bit late.”

As her work was busy it was pushed aside.

Then, one Saturday morning, still in bed, she realised she was back for four weeks. It jumped to the top of her mind; it was now over six weeks since her last period. This was really abnormal.

Her mind screamed out, It can’t be true; as it filled with growing panic and disbelief at this possibility, her with his child inside.

She looked in the mirror at her naked body. Why had she not noticed before? It seemed like her breasts and nipples were starting to change, breasts softening, nipples enlarging and changing colour. At that point she knew what her mind was refusing to believe.

It was true. She was infected with the Devil’s Spawn. She was carrying Mark’s child.

This horror movie refused to end. She was trapped inside it. She had tried to excise it from her mind. Now it possessed her body instead.

 

 

 

 

 

Crocodile

Man

 

Book 2

Crocodile Dreaming Series

Second Edition

 

 

Graham Wilson

 

 

 

Copyright

Crocodile Man

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2017

[* Crocodile Dreaming Series -Second Edition *]

ISBN: 9780995431362

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thanks to many various people who have reviewed and commented on the book since the initial version was published. These comments have been invaluable in making it better.

It is gratifying to hear of the enjoyment people gain from reading this book and the prior book in the series ‘An English Visitor’ and also about their appreciation of how this book contributes to the rest of the series.

This book was previously called The Diary, but this new edition is now named Crocodile Man to better reflect the story which has unfolded since I first conceived this novel and series.

Special thanks to Alexandra Nahlous who did an editorial review of ways to improve these books and the overall series storyline. Many of her suggestions have been incorporated into this edition.

 

 

 

Background to Story

 

This is a story set in two places, London and Australia, with the Northern Territory of Australia as the principal location in which the main events unfold.

A feature of this part of Australia is its thriving aboriginal population with a culture which has continued over an enormous span of time, a period of at least 50,000 years. These people adapted to this place and shaped it with their occupation. Rock art dotted over many of the rock faces and caves tells many of their stories which are handed down from generation to generation, ever since the coming of the first people, a time often called the Dreamtime or Dreaming. In these stories the animals of the land sit alongside these first people, with their spirits too forming and shaping the people and the land. There are many tribal clans and language groups across this land and many have their own stories and totems which feature animals of this place.

One of the most well-known totems is the salt water crocodile, a huge and ferocious predator, with large adults reaching over seven metres, weighing well over a ton and attaining ages measured in many decade or even centuries. These ancient creatures, with stories passed down from the Dreamtime, form a central part of this story.

Aboriginal people continue as a vibrant part of the NT community, making up more than a quarter of its population. During the last 200 years they have mixed with and shared influences with many other migrant communities. Many aboriginal people not only trace their own history but that of European, Chinese, or Afghan or other ethnic groups.

 

Crocodile Dreaming Books 3 –5

 

These books continue the series story of what happens to Susan and the other backpackers whose existence she discovered as well as the story of this man of the crocodiles.

 

 

 

Chapter 1 – Darwin – Catfish Man’s Catch

 

Charlie was getting old. He could feel it in his bones. The weather was moving out of the Gurrulwa, big wind time, into the Dalirrgang, the build-up time. That hot, sweaty weather was really building each day. In the way the white fellas counted time it was the end of September. The mornings were still starting cool but by morning smoko he could feel his shirt stick to his back from sweat. By lunchtime a lie-down under a big shady tree was the place to be.

Once upon a time, when he was a young and fiery buck, he could go all day. Ten hours or twelve hours in stinking October heat was nothing to him. Then he could hit town at night-time with his mates for a party and still be up at the crack of dawn for another just as long day of work.

He had lived a full life and a good life. Sure, sometimes he had lived rough, sometimes the grub was poor. But, for a boy from Retta Dixon in Darwin, whose mother was a proud Larrakia woman and whose father was a stockman from the buffalo country out east of Darwin, that Point Stuart Country around where the Mary and Wildman Rivers ran, he had done OK.

His father had not been much good really, a white fella, with a bit of Chinese, who mostly shot buffalo for their skins, and odd times shot a few crocs and broke a few horses. He only visited his mother now and then, mostly when he wanted a bit, but she had stuck to him while he fathered three kids, two with mostly dark skin like his mother’s, and a third, himself, who had a lot more of his father’s white-fella skin and even a dash of the Chinese about him; some people had called him a yella fella when he was young. So of course when the cops and field officers had spotted him in the camp near Darwin they had grabbed him, quick smart, and taken him to Retta Dixon, where he had lived for ten years.

They had thought of it as trying to civilise the black fella out of him and turn him into a proper white fella. He thought that they had it a bit arse about. There was more civilisation in his mother’s Larrakia tribe than in most of the scum whites that hung about the town. His father was really one of them scum whites, if the truth was told.

Anyway his mum had been determined not to give him up that easily, but also not to leave her other two children with the tribe’s aunties and uncles and get cut off from her culture. So, while she was given a house on the Retta Dixon grounds for when she wanted to visit, a place where Charlie could stay with her, he’d mostly stayed in a dormitory with other boys around his age.

But she kept coming to see him at least every week, bringing his brother and sister. And she kept making sure his uncles, aunts and the old people come to see him too. She also found ways to bring him out of the home a lot, so he kept getting his tribal knowledge and learning about the bush.

Then, one day, when he was almost old enough to leave Retta Dixon and get a job working on a station, a beautiful girl named Elsie had come to stay there. She had lived for most of her childhood on Goulburn Island, and her family had come from the South Alligator River country somewhere around Jim Jim. She was a half-caste, like him. She had been taken away from her parents at a camp near the river when she was only little. However, her family could not travel to visit her at Goulburn Island, so she had lost track of them.

Then, when she was thirteen and just turning into a woman, they had sent her to Retta Dixon so that she could learn more; they said she was too smart for the Goulburn Island mob. She was the clever one in the family and had done real good with her school lessons.

So someone had thought that maybe she should go to school in Darwin, where they could educate her better. That was how she had come to Retta Dixon.

From the first time he saw Elsie Charlie had thought her the most beautiful thing in the world. She had lovely honey-coloured skin, and eyes like glowing coals, dark and deep. He was fourteen to her thirteen. Before then he could not wait to get away and go bush. Now suddenly he did not want to leave Retta Dixon anymore, he sought any chance to be close to her. It was like puppy love. She had been very shy but he could tell she liked him; she gave him a sort of secret, special smile.

But then, when the year was gone he had to leave and get work out on a station, as he was not so good with books. But he kept coming back to visit Elsie whenever he could. Early on he told his mum about her to make sure she still kept visiting too. So, gradually, he brought Elsie into his family and she had learnt their customs.

Then when he was eighteen and she was seventeen he had wooed her and when she turned eighteen he had married her. And to this day she was as beautiful to him as the day her first saw her, when she was thirteen. Sure her hair had gone a bit grey and she was rounder and plumper than the slip of a girl he had married. But that was how grown-up women were supposed to look.

His mum had been like that, plump and shiny, almost until the day she died ten years ago. Now his wife had taken over her tribal role, as tribe grandmother, even though her true country was somewhere out at the edge of the stone country, the place where Jim Jim Creek came over those big waterfalls.

But she had lost her own tribal knowledge as a child and only lately had got a little bit back through tracing some cousins. So now she was mostly Larrakia but with a bit of the Gagadju culture as well.

One thing that Elsie got from his own mum was a recipe for the best catfish curry he had ever tasted. His mum had got it from her own mum, who said she learned it from a Chink in Chinatown, and then improved it.

So now, each year, just at the start of the build-up when the catfish were big and fat, it was his job to go out and get one or two really big catfish for Elsie’s catfish curry. This year she said she wanted two, maybe even three, because she wanted to do an extra-big curry to celebrate the engagement of their youngest daughter, Becky, to a lad from out Roper way, a boy named Jack.

He was a wild one that boy, not real big but a serious horseman with great reflexes and a handy pair of fists. He had gone a few rounds in the ring with some fancied names and was pretty to watch, so light-footed and quick. Somehow he had taken a shine to Becky and Becky to him. So now Elsie wanted to have a big family feast this weekend when Jack would be in town along with a gang from his own family. It was a sort of engagement party.

Charlie liked the lad too. Perhaps Jack reminded him a bit of himself when he was a wild one in his young days; he could scrap a bit with his fists too. Elsie had been like his Becky, doing the calming down.

The one useful thing his own father had done for him, way back when he was a lad, was to take him fishing and teach him the ways of fish. He supposed his dad had also given him a way with horses, even if later he learned that more from station work. But his father, when not shooting or poaching crocs, was a seriously good fisherman. It was like he thought with a fish brain. So he had taken young Charlie to his own favourite fishing spots out on the Mary and Wildman Rivers and taught him the many ways and places to jag a big fish.

And here he was now, at one of those places his father had shown him, long, long ago, on the Mary River. Here the biggest catfish could be found, along with a barra and other fish. But today was a catfish day and he, Charlie, was far and away the best catfish fisher that he knew.

He had come here last night, leaving home in the dark after dinner. He had driven through the closed gate that stopped most tourists and Darwin weekend warriors. Then he had put up his mosquito net, not right alongside the billabong but well back.

This billabong had some of the biggest bloody lizards he had ever seen, what others called crocs. He thought they were just overgrown lizards, with not much more brain. But, even though he did not think they were real smart, he knew they were plenty dangerous. So he kept away from the edge when he was sleeping, better than sharing his swag with one in the middle of the night, when these crocodile spirits came out and searched the land for food. They might only be spirit crocodiles but they could eat you just the same.

Now he had just woken up in his half damp swag. He put a billy on the fire in the pre-dawn light. The early-morning coldness made his old bones ache and he shivered. He wanted to start early so as to be away before smoko when the real heat started. That way he would be back in Darwin in time for a siesta. He looked forward to the smile when he presented his catch to his dear Elsie. He could, even now, imagine her cackling laugh.

“Well, Charlie, we’se both bin gittin bit ole, but you just as good a fisher as in dem ole days. Ye still catch a fine fish or two and I can still make a fine fish stoo.”

He sipped his tea. Time to get down to this fishing business!

He took two hand lines and baited each with his own special catfish bait. When he came close to the water’s edge he sat down, real still, for a long five minutes, looking for any sign that a big lizard was lurking.

There was a strange murky mist over the water further out. It gave him the creeps, raised the hairs on his arms and gave him goosebumps along this neck. It almost felt like there was an ancient spirit of some ancestor creature lurking out there in the mist, seeking something to devour. Unbidden, an image of a hugely ancient dreamtime crocodile spirit rose in his mind. It seemed to be warning him to be gone from this place which was claimed by another. But he pushed the image away, determined not to allow his blackfella side get drawn into this superstitious stuff.

Instead he concentrated on the nearby water, eyes and ears alert to seek out any real danger lurking there. He watched and waited some more, still nothing moved; the other was only imagination. Satisfied it was safe he came to the water’s edge, dropped his two bait lines into what looked like the best places and waited.

Five minutes of nothing happening passed, then one line started to twitch, then it was the other too; two different fish, two different water places, well apart. He hoped to Christ they both did not hook on at the same time. He waited until he got that definite bait pick-up feel on the right line and gave it a good jerk. Now he knew he had that sucker, he could feel the weight and the real tug.

He wound the loose line onto the reel so he had a proper grip. This felt like one mother of a fish. He could feel the other line still twitching. He thought he’d better pull it in for a minute lest he end up with a fish on each line together. He gave this line a tug to jerk it away from its inquisitive visitor.

Bloody hell, now he had another big bloody fish on this line too; just as much weight as the first one. Good in one way; if he could land them both his fishing was as good as done. But jeez, they were both big, heavy fish. It would be a fair handful to get both in together.

Then he thought, I must be turning into a pussy in my old age, surely I can land both together, got two hands and arms haven’t I?

So, rather than trying to haul them in pulling each toward him with his arms, he used his two arms like shock absorbers, each hand holding a reel and his elbows flexing to ease the jerking on the fishes’ mouths. Foot by foot he eased both fish in towards the shore, walking step by step backwards to pull the line in, making odd quick movements to wind the loose line onto the reels and keep himself close to the bank.

Finally he had both fish on less than six feet of line. He could see each one sitting in the water just below the edge. Time to get them out before a hungry gator tried to grab an easy feed.

Grasping the reels firmly, one in each hand, he walked backwards steadily, hauling both fish to the bank with even pressure, accelerating as he went. They pulled against him like two big logs. Two glistening bodies popped free of the water. A quick slide and he had them both over the lip of the bank. They lay flapping, side by side, on dry sand. They were seriously big mothers. He thought both fish weighed between twelve and fifteen pounds.

He knew these fish alone were enough to feed all comers. But hell, catching them had been a buzz. The sun had barely broken the horizon. It was a too early to give up for the day. So, while he could fix some tucker or lie back in the swag for another kip, he was too pumped up for that. He thought, I won’t be greedy, I’ll just try for one more. This time he decided to have a crack at the open water straight out from the bank. There was a nice clear patch between water lilies, ten or twelve metres out. He baited a line to cast it into this space.

As the line swung he was seized by powerful dread, that same huge crocodile image resisting his cast and forcing itself into his mind. But he was buggered if he would stop now. He let the line go, watching as it flew free and landed far out, past where he meant to cast. The ripples faded away and his baited hook sank out of sight.

It was a beautiful morning, temperature now perfect, with dawn colours fading into a perfect sunlight day. Charlie felt good to be alive, old bones and all. Just one more fish and I’ll be away, he thought.

His reverie continued for five minutes. Nothing was happening this time, not even a little fish nibble. He mind said, I’d better haul in, check the bait is still on, then try a different spot. His hook snagged something heavy. Too far out for a tree root, maybe it’s a water lily bulb.

He gave a firm pull. It came free. He was dragging something heavy in on the line. It felt the weight of a good-sized fish but with no fish-sized tugging. Instead there was just a sort of bumping, like it was half bouncing along the bottom as it came in.

Charlie wound up the excess line on his reel as it came in. Now he could see something, white to grey, at the end of the line in the water, sort of round and football-sized but way too heavy for that.

As it cleared the water he realised, in a mix of surprise and shock, that he had caught a human head.

In that last second before he pulled it to the bank he was seized by an image of the huge crocodile spirit fighting to keep its own, fighting both with him and other large crocodiles not to surrender a part of its being. Charlie felt an assault on his senses and a great urge to cast away the line and let this object return to its crocodile home in the watery deep. He put his hand to his head to clear the tumult and the vision receded.

In the process, as if of its own volition, this object came out of the water and half rolled across the land, stopping next to his feet. His mind sensed two spirits struggling for mastery of the destiny of this object; a human spirit which sought release from its place of crocodile capture, to let it return to the lands of its own people; and a crocodile spirit which sought to hold fast to one it knew as kin.

In the end the human spirit had won but the crocodile spirit stayed beside it, calling out, “Return to the water.” Charlie broke the mind’s connection with the spirits and as he did his own world returned.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – Who Owns This Crocodile Man

 

Charlie looked at the ugly object lying next to his feet. Still clearly part of a person though the eyes were gone and only remnants of skin and hair clung to one side of the skull, he guessed the small fish had nibbled off all that they could get to and the bits that remained were lying in the mud.

He decided he had better pull it further away from the edge, lest its scaly owner determined to return to seek retrieval. He was not going to touch it but the hook seemed well attached so he half lifted the thing and dragged it across the ground. As he did he felt a second tug of war going on between a crocodile spirit and human spirit. It was pulling hard at him too, making it real difficult to move. He sensed that he had messed up the balance of forces in this place and no longer trusted his ability to keep out of harm’s way. It seemed to take an age until it was a good ten metres back from the edge and the struggle abated. He let the skull settle on the ground, reel and line alongside. His body was now weary with the effort.

He forced the spirits to leave his mind and looked away outwards again, scanning at the trees and earth around himself. He could feel the crocodile spirit sliding back to its watery place. It was still proper angry but had left for now. He felt safer himself at once too.

He looked at this part of a person. Poor bugger, this once was someone who should’ve taken more care to hide themself away from the crocodile spirits, he thought. He wondered who he was. Clearly a white man, but much more than crocodi.le food the way the crocodile spirit had tried to hold him in the water.

He wondered why he knew it was a man. Perhaps it was the remnants of short brownish hair, perhaps it was the size of the skull, but it was also the type of spirit – a man spirit with strength and an uncompromising fierceness, no soft edges to this spirit.

He felt a huge urge to cast it back to its watery grave, but knew he could not.

He did not really believe in accidents. It was part of his destiny to find this. Now he must fulfil what the white man’s law, and maybe the spirit law of the land, required. Then, when it was all done, he would try to find a way to placate the crocodile spirits which lurked in this watery place. Without their blessing he dared not return here to fish.

He walked back to his Toyota. He needed to think, so he rolled up his swag. He sat on it while he rolled a smoke. A few blowflies were already drawn to this new prize. He did not want to handle it but could not leave it lying here for the birds and flies. He must cover it. Then he would drive back to the nearest bit of civilisation, the Bark Hut Inn, and ring the police, he decided.

He had a big bucket with a rope. He used it to gather water from billabongs, when it was not safe to come close to the edge. There were good-sized rocks in the old fireplace at the far side of the open area that he had used this morning. So he placed the upended bucket over the head, carried the heaviest rock over and put it on top of the bucket.

That would stop the birds and flies, not much good for a big dog or pig, but it should do for an hour or two while he went to call the police.

He cleaned up his two fish and put them in his esky, on ice. He put the esky on the back of his truck covered it with a tarp and some other things so it was not obvious.

He flung the fish guts into the water and noticed, with satisfaction, a big swirl as they vanished. At least he had returned some part of his catch to the river spirits.

He was determined to fulfil his mission to Elsie, and keep these fish. So he would not tell the police about this part. He thought, if he did tell, the cops would try to confiscate the fish for evidence. Instead they could have the man’s head and he would have his fish. So long as they did not know he had kept his share all would be happy.

At the Bark Hut Inn he asked to use the phone and got put through to the Darwin Police Station. After a peculiar conversation, one where someone wanted to know lots more than he knew about how the head came to be there and who it belonged to, at last he got onto a senior policeman. This man assured Charlie he understood what he was saying. He asked Charlie to remain where he was until a police vehicle came to meet him.

It was two hours later before three policemen, in two cars, arrived. It was another half hour before they got back to the billabong. Charlie insisted on driving his own car, with the policeman following, even though the cops asked him to come in one of their cars.

But he was determined to leave as soon as he could. So he would show them what he had found and then get away somehow. It was close to lunchtime when he left the cool shade of the Bark Hut Inn and it was stinking hot by the time they got back at the billabong.

Everything was as he had left it, his line lying alongside the bucket which looked undisturbed. Charlie pointed to the bucket, saying. “Dis morning, real early, I try to catch him big catfish. I threw out bait, longa there,” he said, pointing to a spot in the water. “Den, after little while, no fish bite and me think, Maybe little fish eat bait. So I go to pull in and instead I catch this thing, dead man’s head. I pull it to here, and cover it with bucket and rock, so bird or goanna not eat more.”

The boss policeman lifted off the bucket, but it was smelly now and he soon covered it again.

He turned to Charlie saying, “Show me where you cast your line when you caught that thing.”

Charlie pointed to a spot, over ten yards out, where he had cast and picked up a pebble and threw it to hit the water nearby.

“Where were you were standing when you caught it?

Charlie led him to a gap in the trees, next to the water. He pointed to some scuff marks on the ground about two metres back from the edge. “I was standing right dere, not too close cause big gators in dere. Den, when I pull out it stop dere,” he said pointed to a damp patch a metre away from the footmarks. “But den I pull up in air and carry it away from water, cos frightened dat big gator might try eat me too, same as for dat man,” he said, pointing to the bucket.

The policeman walked back to the bucket. He looked at the line and reel saying, “Well, it looks like you hooked him good. We will have to keep that fishing gear for evidence.”

Charlie shivered and nodded. “I not want that line anymore, no more want to touch it. You keep it. I got plenty spare one.”

The policeman nodded and walked away to talk to his colleagues. Charlie shivered again and turned away from the water. He could still feel that bad thing out there and really wanted to be gone.

The policeman came back and said, “When did you last come here before today?”

Charlie said, “Last year, bout same time, I come. Try to catch catfish, same as today.”

They asked him a few more questions but it all seemed clear.

One policeman wrote in his diary a record of what he had told them and read it back to Charlie. He agreed it was correct and initialled the page. Then this man recorded his contact details, and checked them against his driver’s licence.

Now he could see they were no longer interested in him. So he made an excuse about needing to get back to Darwin to meet his wife and some people who were visiting.

The cops nodded. It was like they had forgotten about him now; one cop, the boss man, got on the radio back to Darwin, organising for a boat and a team to help search the area and the billabong. A second was taping out the scene, and the third was taking photographs.

Finally he got the boss man’s attention, just to confirm his departure. The man half nodded, so Charlie walked over to his Toyota and drove away. As he was leaving he could see one of them waving at him. He did not know if he was waving goodbye or telling him to come back. He ignored it and kept driving.

No one followed after him. As he left he thought, Bad spirit place, I not want to come back here anymore.

 

***

 

Sergeant Alan McKinnon, the senior officer, watched Charlie leave and wondered if he should call him back. In the end he just waved to him. He knew the man was in a big hurry to leave and probably had not told them everything he knew. But hell, if I fished out something like that I would want to get far away too, he thought. He could see this guy was most definitely spooked, but who could blame him.

Truth was he was a bit spooked himself when he first saw it, like it was somehow connected to a big crocodile which lived here. He could almost imagine a huge crocodile hiding in the shadowy water, eyeing him off, angry to have lost its prize. Just superstitious nonsense, his mind said, but still he shuddered.

Then he thought, This man, Charlie, has done his job and we don’t need him anymore. Investigating here will keep us busy for the next couple of days and it’s better to not have him or anyone else in our way. Plus we have his details to interview him again later if we need to. And it was too bloody hot to keep that poor old bugger standing around in the afternoon sun, with nothing to do but watch. With that Charlie passed out of his mind.

Now it was an afternoon for organising. He thought he had seen some tooth punctures to the head, which made him think crocodile. The pathologist was an hour away, so nothing would be disturbed until then. If it was a crocodile attack it was funny nothing had been reported and no one he knew was missing around here. Still people, particularly tourists, came and went everywhere so how could you really know.

He did not like the idea of trying to search this billabong for a body; it was a big billabong and it was bound to be full of big crocodiles. So no divers would be going in here until they worked out how to do it safely. And there was little point trying to drag the bottom with all the other crap that would be down there, all the logs and debris that washed along these rivers each wet.

What was needed was a steel cage that a diver could work inside. This would allow a diver to search the area around where the head was found, to see if any other bits remained. But, before they got too serious about searching the water, they should do a careful search of the dry land and get some pathology done to see if there was anything suggesting other than an unfortunate crocodile victim.

Now his radio crackled back to life. The pathologist, Sandy Bowen, had passed through the Bark Hut and asked for someone to meet them on the main road so as not to get lost on the last bit. It was a pretty confusing place to find with roads running every which way.

So he told his men to continue inspecting the site and he would go and meet the pathologist, back on the main road. The pathologist’s name was new. He hoped this bloke Sandy had a strong stomach; this smelly, half-decomposed head was not a thing for the faint-hearted.

Sandy turned out to be a lady in her mid-twenties, one of those new grads who got sent to Darwin to learn their craft before getting a comfy big-city job.

She seemed very young and fresh-faced for something like this. Perhaps she would need her hand held. He would not mind doing that though he had his doubts about the level of her experience. He had spent ten years in the police force getting to where he was and it had been a steep learning curve. But he loved the bush and it was a pretty good job, truth be told.

He did not say this but it must have been written on his face; a disdain for newcomers. He could feel in her a mix of antagonism to his manner and a desire to prove herself.

Back on site it was clear that she was sharper and tougher than he had credited. First she asked him to lift off the bucket so that she could look at the head from various angles but not touch anything.

She looked very carefully and said, “It looks like teeth marks, but it also looks like the upper left side of the skull has been fractured, perhaps from the force of a bite. You can see it’s out of shape, compared to the right side.”

She continued, “I would guess this happened at least a fortnight past and no more than six weeks ago, though the laboratory tests will tell more. It looks like the head of a man of young to middle age.”

Then she did the careful walk around, noting the slight drag mark where the head had come out of the water and been pulled across the dirt. She tracked a mix of scuff marks and damp spots to the final destination. Then she pointed to two other drag marks nearby but to one side of the one that led to the head. They were about two feet apart and came in from the bank for about two metres, ending in two flattened areas in the dirt with some damp patches.

She said, “It looks like something else has been pulled out of here, probably this morning too,” pointing to the still damp patches of mud.

“It’s a pity that the man who hooked this head is not still here. I would’ve liked to ask him about this. It looks like he caught a couple of fish first and, if so, it’d be nice to know what sort they were and if they had been feeding on this. Not that I suppose it really matters, I just like to get a complete picture,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

She carefully scrutinised the rest of the site, looking from where she was standing, next to the bucket, saying, “Before I look in detail at this head I’d would like to look around the site, in case there’s dried blood or other signs left from when the victim went into the water.” She walked directly towards the water’s edge, as if to start her search there.

At first Alan just looked on. He was feeling a bit silly for letting old Charlie leave without a closer check. Maybe he should radio the Darwin office. They could arrange for someone to be there to meet Charlie and check his car for fish when he returned.

But, like she said, it was really of little importance. They could ask him later. Plus he did not really want any fish Charlie had caught, just in case they had a bit of a person in their stomachs. Not to mention that, if he read the signs in the damp earth right, Charlie had already gutted them and tossed the guts in the water. So it would be a total waste of time, not to mention seriously annoying this good-hearted old fellow.

Then he realised Sandy was going right up to the edge of the water. Well she might be good at pathology but she needed to learn a few bush survival skills. He did not want her to become another statistic on his watch. He called out, “Just wait a minute.”

She stopped a metre back.

He came over to her and, as he walked towards her, he unclipped and removed his service revolver. He made a signal to her to step back. Now they both stood side by side, two metres from the edge.

He said, “You were right about catching the fish and questioning the old timer who found this. You’re obviously good at your business. But you need to be careful in a place like this. If it was a crocodile that did this to him, it could be sitting below here, just a metre down and the same back. You’d never know. In less than a second, before you had a chance to move, it could come out of the water and drag you in. So, if you really need to get that close to the water, I need to be standing right alongside you, with a gun in my hand, and, if possible, you should keep at least a couple of steps back and never turn your back to the edge when you’re close.”

She looked at him and laughed out loud. Her face was kind of nice when she smiled. She said, “That makes us one all. How about now we both work together? I’ll trust you for the bush sense and you’ll trust me for the pathology bit.”

He laughed back. “Deal,” he said, holding out his hand which she shook solemnly. He liked her light firm grip.

So they worked side by side, using a grid pattern, along with a long stick to gently move aside leaves and debris without marking the ground. It was amazing how two sets of eyes at different levels and angles could together spot details that one alone might have missed.

He pointed to some regular scrape marks in the dirt which were mostly covered by leaves. “Unless I’m mistaken someone used a spade to scrape dirt away from this place, like they wanted to take off the top half inch of soil. I don’t know how long ago it was done, not too recent with the leaf cover, but definitely since the rain last wet season. Out last rain around here was a heavy burst at the start of May.”

She nodded. They followed what looked to be the line of the spade marks away from the water. Now she pointed to a place a few metres back. “It might just be a stain, but I’m ninety percent sure that’s a patch of dried blood, like someone had scraped up most of it but missed that bit,” she said. “Can you keep your eye on the place until we photograph it and then I’ll collect it in a sample jar?”

Alan called over his constable, who carried a camera, and had him take several photographs. Sandy returned with a jar and scalpel. She dug out the piece of rust-coloured soil, placed it in the jar, then labelled it. By the end of an hour of careful searching together they were almost sure where the body originally lay and had also found a scraped-away drag route to the edge of the water. They had also found two further small patches of blood like staining that they had also sampled.

There was something that looked like an old fireplace, off to one side, a bit further away from the water. The soil was blackened, and there were sprinkles of ash and charcoal, but not the old fire debris which one would expect. The centre was hollowed out for almost a metre. It looked like it had been dug out with a spade not so long ago.

Alan said, “It looks like there was a big fire here, maybe to burn stuff. Then when it was finished someone got a spade and dug out the ash and took it away. They may have dumped it somewhere else but my guess is it went into the water. In fact, if you look hard, I think you can see bits that have dropped off near the water. It’ll be something to look for when we go diving, a big pile of ash sitting on top of the mud.”

Sandy raised her eyebrows and grinned at him. “Quite the bush detective, aren’t you? I could leave now and go away as I think you could’ve figured this all out without my help.”

Then she screwed up her nose in mock disgust. “Well I’ve been avoiding that smelly head for an hour now, but I can’t leave it cooking in the hot sun any longer. What do you think, is it time for me to take a proper look?”

He grinned back. “I suppose you must and I’ll just have to hold my nose while I look on. Glad I don’t have to touch it.”

Even though it was a baking hot and sweaty afternoon as the sun streamed down, and lunch had been forgotten, they were totally absorbed in their investigation and barely noticed anything else. They both could feel that buzz of excitement as the shape of something that was not just a crocodile attack began to emerge.

Sandy returned her attention to the head. After carefully palpating it through her gloves, and advising him that the left side of the skull was definitely fractured, she transferred it to a plastic bag and placed it in an esky full of ice to preserve it until it got to the laboratory for a post-mortem later that afternoon.

Then she announced that she must be on her way if she was to examine this today. So Alan escorted her back to where the track met the main road and arranged to call in to the lab to see her and get some initial results in the morning. It was mid-afternoon before their work was done, and Alan and his team were ready to leave.

A new team had arrived to continue the site investigation over the next two days, to search the billabong nearby for any more body parts or other things which may relate to the victim, and to finish searching the rest of the site. Alan briefed them on what he had found and what he thought they should look for. He knew this part would be in good hands. It was led by an old techy, Ron, who’d been doing this since before Alan was born and was the best.

Alan waved goodbye to his two constables, saying, “No need to go back to the office, head straight home once you get to town. I will follow behind soon in the other car.”

The driver leaned out of his window saying, “Thanks boss, but my throat is like a leather glove from all the hours we spent in the hot sun. First stop is a beer and a feed at the Bark Hutt to make up for the lunch we never got. You owe us; you were in such a hurry to get here. How about you join us for one on your way home?

“Maybe I will, just for one, I certainly need a drink.”

Alan watched them drive out of sight then walked towards the water, stopping in the shade just back from the edge of the billabong. He relaxed his mind and soaked in the feel of the place for a few minutes. He had always found this last look was most valuable because it grounded him in the scene and helped get perspective.

He reviewed what he knew in his mind. Male adult victim, high likelihood of crocodile involvement, but getting a murder-scene feel. Another person was here with the victim who went to considerable lengths to hide the evidence of the death. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe accidental; but if so why so much effort to hide it all?

Plenty of questions to be answered: who owned this head, how did he get here, who else was here, how did this person leave, and most of all why, why the death, why the cover-up?

As he stood there contemplating, he saw two eyes watching him. They would have been easy to miss, over in the tree shade at the far side of the billabong. He had seen plenty of crocs in his years and was a fair judge of size.

This one was a long way away, and the eyes were all that showed. But he knew this was big, bigger than anything he had seen before. It was watching him with intent, maybe as a food item. But he felt the intent was more personal and focused; almost a sadness, as if it had lost something it cherished. Not just a meal but a companion.

He shuddered as if the devil was walking over his grave. A picture came, unbidden, into his mind. A huge malevolent but grieving spirit, half man and half crocodile that belonged in this place and yet had a part taken from it and felt loss. It was claiming an ownership to what was taken.

He shook his head, breaking the spell, walked to his car and slowly drove away feeling fingers of presence seeking to hold him back.

He caught up with his constables at the Bark Hut Inn for a five-o’clock lunch, washed down with an icy VB, the best cold beer. It tasted so good after the hot sun. He would have loved a couple more but one was his limit when on the job. Instead he had a couple pint glasses of lemon squash to replace the lost fluids.

As they were finishing drinks, Fred, senior constable, turned to them both and said. “Don’t know about you two, but I would be happy if I never went near that place again, there was something about it that spooked me, maybe that man Charlie was a part. He certainly was freaked out. There was something real bloody eerie about it, the idea of a huge big crocodile sitting just under the water, having already had one of us for dinner, now maybe waiting again. It was almost like I could feel it watching and waiting. I am not normally superstitious but it gave me the total creeps.”

Alan pushed aside his own memories, “Turning into a wimp, Fred, I would not have picked it.” As he said it he knew it was as much to hide his own freaked feeling.

He drove back to Darwin, towards the red ball of a setting sun, falling towards a smoky horizon, feeling strangely sombre when he knew he should be upbeat about the day’s success.

He was heading back to the office to finish writing up his day’s notes when a thought crossed his mind. Rather than turning down McMillans Road and heading for the station, he went on towards the town and then turned right towards Parap, where Charlie’s address was. Sure enough Charlie was sitting on his verandah, beer in hand.

Charlie waved to him, then covered his face with mock chagrin when he saw the serious look on Alan’s face. Alan walked over and sat in the chair next to Charlie, accepted the proffered beer and took a deep draught. “OK, Charlie, I think you had better tell me about those other fish,” he said. He could have sworn Charlie was laughing behind his twinkling eyes.

“Better still I show you,” said Charlie. He got up and went to the kitchen. He returned with a plate covered with rice and steaming curry.

He handed it to Alan. “More better to taste than talk. Maybe you kill me little bit for not giving you the fish. But if I let you take the fish and not bring them back, my Elsie, she kill me big time. So I have to decide, which trouble is biggest, and I know, better to go to jail than trouble with my Elsie.”

They sat side by side, each eating a plate of fish curry in the dusk. Both agreed it was the best they had ever tasted. As they sipped their beers the story of the morning was told.

A second beer was brought by a beautiful girl with honey-coloured skin in her early twenties. She was introduced to Alan as Charlie’s daughter, Becky, who was having her engagement party tomorrow night. The fish curry would cement the bond between the two families. “Once we share this together we’ll be friends for life,” said Charlie.

Alan knew the matter of two catfish was something that would stay out of his and the pathologist’s reports. But he had a little plastic box of catfish curry to give to Sandy tomorrow. He was sure she would enjoy both the story and its end result as much as he had.

As he was getting up to leave Charlie asked him, dead serious amongst the banter, “Did you feel that bad crocodile spirit? It not want to let that body go. You tell youse men be real, real careful in that place. Very dangerous crocodile spirit that one. Maybe it’s crocodile spirit body, body belong to crocodile and crocodile belong to body.”

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – England – The Consequence

 

Susan looked at the pregnancy test kit with dismay. She had known in her heart what the result would be. But now, as she stared at the double line, the second line just as clear as the first control line, its meaning was clear. She really was pregnant; she knew with certainty it was real. So that was it, no more clinging to a false hope that it might be her imagination. She knew the test kits were over 99 percent accurate and that was not even accounting for the other signs in her body which said the same thing. She had that man’s baby growing inside her.

She sat down on her bed, her mind reeling. Why should she feel this could not happen; she had taken no precautions for the two weeks during which the sex was almost non-stop, going right over her fertile period. So why did she feel both surprised and shocked?

For more than a month now she had tried to pretend that Mark was just a figment of her imagination, that her time in Australia was an imagined fantasy that she had dreamt about. But this was no divine conception and it certainly had not happened since her return to England; no men had been remotely close to her since then, except in those recurring awful dreams. So the shocking truth, that her mind now had to confront, was that this man, the man whose face evoked a shuddering horror in her mind, was the father of her child.

Suddenly her mind shifted to her time in Sydney and David’s forlorn face as she’d said goodbye. Was it just possible that the child was his? It was not likely, her period was barely finished on the first night they slept together and the second night was only a day later. Still there was a slight chance it was. She had heard of rare cases where it happened from sex almost right after a period. The idea that David could be the father of her child seemed infinitely preferable to it being Mark’s child.

One was a normal healthy man, kind and decent with no significant flaws she knew of. Her cousin, Ruth, who knew him well, said he was really lovely, and her own experience had backed that up. The other man was … She tried to think of an appropriate term to describe Mark, but all she could come up with was the term she had been trying to avoid, a psychopath. Mark, the father of her child, was a psychopath who had murdered numerous other people, and she had almost been the next victim. So, even though she knew she was probably clinging to a false hope, she was not prepared to totally discount this slight chance that the father of her child was the good man, not the crazy evil one.

She looked around her bedroom. It really was time to get a place of her own again. Staying at her parents’ house, as she had done for the last six months, since splitting from former boyfriend, Edward, was not a long-term option when you were in your mid-twenties. She needed her own place; somewhere back towards the city of London, not here forty miles out, comfortable and convenient though it was.

Her eyes fell on an envelope on the mantel. It was the letter from David, the one she had carelessly cast aside over three weeks ago when it arrived, unwilling to allow any memories of her Australian trip to find their way into her life back in England. When that letter arrived it seemed an unwelcome intrusion from another place. Now she knew that the other place could not be so easily excised, at least not unless she had a termination of her pregnancy – that word somehow seemed more acceptable than “abortion”.

Her mind seized on this new idea, she was sure it was the best solution. In the same way as she had physically excised Mark from her life, dispatched him to an obscure watery grave, into the bellies of those hideous creatures, she would excise this new unwelcome life from her body. She was on the point of going out to make a doctor’s appointment, thinking, That’ll start the required arrangements; I’m still very early and it should only take a day or two to resolve.

But somehow, before she could make herself walk out of her room to do this, she found her hand had picked up David’s letter. She felt very fickle for doing so.

She had not wanted to know him anymore before this situation arose. Yet now, she was contemplating whether he was a suitable father to her child, even though the possibility of him being the father was very unlikely. So why did she even let her mind go to this place?

But it felt like an external force, one outside her own being, was controlling her hand. She felt an overriding need to bring certainty to this mess before she acted to end it. She half wished it would be a polite letter wishing her well, saying he had met someone else.

She tore open David’s letter; it had a single folded sheet inside. She removed and unfolded this. It was three quarters covered with neat and precise writing.

She sat down again on her bed and consciously cleared her mind of all extraneous things before she allowed herself to read. She needed to think clearly and this deserved her full attention. Focus on the here and now and don’t try to work out the future as of right now, she told herself. She started reading, half saying the words aloud to give them a substantive reality.

 

Dearest Susan,

I missed you more than I can say after you left. I’m not sure whether I was anything more to you than a passing fling, but to me you were someone wonderful and special. I would really love to stay in touch, or much better still have a continuing relationship, should the chance arise.

You may be interested to know that I’m flying to London for ten days in a month’s time, arriving the week that runs from the end of September to the start of October. The first two days are for business meetings related to my work, for which London is a key business node. However I’ve set aside a further week for a holiday while there. I fly in very early on the Monday morning and leave on the Wednesday evening the following week, and my work is only the first Monday and Tuesday, with Tuesday clear after five pm.

Should you have some time to catch up while I’m there, I’d really love to see you. I’ve booked a sports car for a week, a car just like my one in Sydney. Perhaps you could come with me on a drive in the beautiful English countryside to see some of those numerous grand old houses and castles, not to mention some of your cute village pubs. So I hope we can work something out that suits you. Seeing you, even at the weekend, would be great. My time is free all week and a week spent with you would be wonderful.

I don’t want to intrude on your other relationships or commitments, but I’m hoping you’re able to come away with me. Please let me know if you don’t want to see me.

I won’t try to contact you again if I don’t hear from you. I’ll treat it as you not wanting to keep in touch and respect that.

Love from David

It was signed with a cursive flourish, with a couple of little gilt hearts stuck on.

Susan could not help smiling. Despite her situation, there was something so warm and engaging in the letter and his manner, both factual and to the point, but also like a breath of summer breeze.

She looked at her calendar. The month since he had posted this had almost passed and he was arriving in two days. It was now Saturday morning. He must be flying out tomorrow at the latest. It seemed awfully late to make a reply.

She had been unkind to him when she had last seen him. Sure she had given him her address but it was done under sufferance. Now she did not want it to end that way. Her decision was made by the time she finished reading. Yes, she would see him again, perhaps go travelling with him. Her work was not so all-consuming that she could not find a few days to be away. She knew, even though she really needed to ask first, that she could take off the Wednesday to Friday of next week.

Unbidden, panic rose into her mind: another place, travelling alone, being with another man. She winced and shuddered. It would not be like that, he was not like that. David was good and honourable, nothing like the other memory that she was determined not to let surface. And the English countryside was nothing like where she had been.

She focused her attention on locking this awful thing away in a basement part of her mind where it could not hurt her. Gradually her calm and sense of self control returned.

She decided that, despite this pimple of fear, she would let nothing of her past intrude into her new life. She wanted to take this heaven sent opportunity to put time and distance between now and a decision on whether to have an abortion.

She realised she was just using this as a distraction to avoid having to face up to her real situation, but what a welcome escape it would be not to have to think about this baby thing for a few days. After that her mind should be much clearer. After that there would be more than enough time for her to decide what to do about it.

She did not think she would tell David, at least not during their trip away, but she felt that she at least owed it to them both to see whether there was any real substance to this relationship and, after spending the five days together, she hoped she would have a better idea about that. Then, at the end of that time, if it seemed to work between them, she could tell him about the child and see how he responded, do it before she made a definite decision to terminate. Her mind rationalised this was a reasonable and sensible way forward.

Now she had her own job to do. She must contact him and let him know she had not totally forgotten or ignored him. She looked at the address line on the letter. Sure enough, as well as a mail address, there were phone numbers and an email address. With the time difference to Australia an email was better. Plus she wanted her next real contact with him to be face to face, to see how she felt actually being with him, not just hearing his voice from the other side of the world. So she fired up her computer and wrote.

 

Dear David,

Thank you so much for writing. I’m sorry to be so late in replying but a few other things have come up. I hope the delay in reply has not messed up your plans.

I would like to see you again. What happened between us in Sydney was unexpected but nice. I’m still not quite sure myself how I feel about it all, but I do like the idea of a country trip with you.

I’ve organised to have next Wednesday to Sunday free, as this should fit with your need to do work on the Monday and Tuesday.

What I suggest is that, as you fly in very early Monday morning and probably need a good night’s sleep to adjust to jet lag, that you stop in a hotel in London for Monday night and come out to my family’s house in Reading for dinner on Tuesday. It’s the address on your letter.

I know my parents will be keen to meet you, and my mum is a great cook. So there’s bound to be something edible on the menu.

There’s an office at the back of our house with a fold-out bed which you can use for that night if you want, to avoid another hotel room. Then we can head away for our country trip on Wednesday. Let me know if that suits and looking forward to seeing you again.

Love, Suz

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Darwin – Results of a Murder

 

 

Alan rang the laboratory about nine in the morning and got put through to Sandy. She confirmed she had done the post-mortem and had some preliminary results for him, which she thought he should see. He said he also had something to give her. They agreed to meet in the cafeteria at ten then he would accompany her back to the lab after a coffee.

Over coffee he told her about the fish and gave her the box of curry. She laughed and said, “Well I forgot lunch so it looks like this is to take its place. I’m sure it’s better than my cooking; I lived with my folks in Sydney until six months ago when I came here. Decided it was time to leave the nest, so to speak, one has to make one’s own way in the world eventually. Only trouble is my mum is a great cook, and she loves to cook. I was lazy and busy with my studies, so somehow I never learned. Hence my cooking is terrible, so this is doubly welcome.”

He had not mentioned her report and whether it would include the fish. However, it was like she was psychic, or maybe she was more attuned to the Territory than he realised. She said, “I imagine that this is one detail that will never make it into either your or my report. Unless you feel it must of course?” she added with a mocking look.

He nodded. “No, not relevant, at least it’ll save me one pain in the butt. Charlie is OK and I wouldn’t mind mentioning it if it was only him, but God help me if Elsie and Becky get their noses out of joint. This way I know I’m good for another plate of fish curry next time, otherwise I’ll never get to have that pleasure again.”

Sandy nodded, sharing the joke. “I think two of us own a plate of that curry. Next chance I expect an invitation too.”

Then the professional person returned. “OK, time to get on with work. Come and see what I’ve found and tell me what you think.”

She led him along a series of passages that opened into a room with stainless-steel benches and microscopes along one side. There was also a light box which had three X-rays hanging from it. Sandy turned on the light, illuminating the large X-ray films. He realised these were three shots of a skull, one from above, one from the side, and one from the back. Each showed several round holes punched through the skull bones on one side, which were partially matched by similar holes on the other side. Each hole was about half an inch across and circular.

“Those look like crocodile teeth marks, not unexpected from what we saw out there,” she said. “The interesting thing, at least for these ones in the skull, is that there was no bleeding into the brain around them. So it looks like, when these happened, he was already dead.”

Then she pointed to an area of about three inches by three inches on the left side, high up towards the back of the skull. Here a big round circular crack ran, and within it the bones were broken into several pieces and pushed down towards the inside.

“As I thought at the site, he has a fractured skull and it’s not associated with any obvious crocodile tooth damage. In fact, it looks like he was hit with something on that part of his head. That skull fracture almost certainly killed him. He was alive when it happened as there’s bleeding inside the brain associated with it. Even if he didn’t die immediately he would’ve been unconscious after that blow.

“It was done by striking his head with a large solid object with a contact point about three inches across, based on the size of the fracture. Without knowing for sure I think something like a club or a baseball bat could cause that sort of injury.”

She brought him over to a microscope and showed him some dark brown pieces of material in a sample jar sitting next to it. “What do you think that is?” she asked, handing the jar to him.

He examined it carefully. It looked like some broken splintered pieces of wood. There were five or six of them and the longest was almost an inch long. He shrugged. “Perhaps that’s a trick question, but I would’ve said splinters of wood.”

“That’s what I found embedded in the skin and bone over the skull fracture,” she said. “I agree, it looks like bits of wood to me too. I’ve looked under a microscope and I’m almost certain that is what we’re looking at. Here have a look.”

There were two microscopes sitting side by side. “Number One is samples I collected from a dead broken branch of an old tree outside this building. Number Two is what came out of his head,” she said.

He studied both. They looked very alike, though he had to admit a microscope was something he knew little about.

She pointed out the features such as the timber grain to compare, then said, “I’ll send the samples off for more advice or tests but I think it’s highly likely that our man was hit hard by a broken branch or similar piece of wood to the side of the head. While it could’ve been due to a piece of dead wood falling from a tree, the angle at which the impact occurred makes it very likely that someone else was holding it and swung it sideways to hit him. So I think you have enough evidence to begin a murder investigation. That’s my opinion.

“I’ve sent off tissue samples from the head for DNA testing, and tested the soil samples for blood. The initial test results suggest that’s what it is, though it’s yet to be verified. We’ll also do DNA analysis on this blood to see if it matches the skull tissue.

“I’ve taken dental X-rays as these may assist in getting an identification. It’ll take a couple of days for the DNA results to come through. But I can write you a preliminary report this afternoon if that helps.”

Then she added with a mischievous smile, “If you like I’ll drop it to your office this afternoon on my way home, though of course I can email you a copy if you prefer.”

So it was agreed, she would call with the report that afternoon about four-thirty. In the meantime he needed to get the full murder investigation underway.

Alan drove to Berrimah police station where his desk was. He arranged a meeting with his commanding officer. He thought, with regret, a senior detective would take over the case from here.

Still, with a bit of luck, he would stay involved. Unless they had a lucky break there would be plenty of work to do. Identification of the body was the next stage, and, after that, they could begin to try to trace the person’s known associates and movements.

Sandy had said she would email him high-resolution images of the X-rays, both of the teeth and the skull, as a first step.

Back at the station, as expected, the case was handed over to a Senior Detective to run the murder investigation. He was made second-in-charge and given the job of focusing on the person’s identification. He would begin with the dental records then see if the DNA yielded anything to assist in determining who it was. Another team would focus on the site and comprehensively search it over the next week to see if it gave more clues.

There would be little he could do with the dentists until Monday, not many would work over the weekend. Perhaps tomorrow he would go back and have another look at the site, just in case they had turned up anything significant that would help with an ID. He could also ask at the roadhouses along that part of the Arnhem Highway in the event that anyone had noted anything of value, perhaps two men arguing in a car while going fishing, or descriptions of people not known to the locals that had been seen around a month ago. It was a long shot. But each little bit, the negative as well as the positive, built the picture.

Alan then got to work on finishing his initial report, documenting all he had found, ensuring all the photographs and other evidence were catalogued. It was tedious yet exciting work.

He knew if they could put it all together it would go a long way toward pushing his career to a new level. And, truth be told, he hoped it would give him an excuse for a few more meetings with Sandy. She was seriously cute and, like himself, seemed unattached. But he would park that for a few days as there was a mountain of work to be done first.

So absorbed was he that he almost forgot her promise to bring the report. His phone rang; her arrival at the front desk was announced.

He advised he would be out directly. He only had two more lines to finish his report, and it was now late Friday afternoon. Perhaps they could have a drink together once he handed over his report. Then he thought that he should at least read what she had written and attach it.

So he went out and invited her in. He had not seen her out of working clothes, but she had obviously changed before leaving work. He had to admit she really did look good; smiley eyes and mouth, light-brown hair, curvy shape. He tried not to let it distract him.

Alan suggested Sandy come in, “I am just about finished my own report, I figure it is worth comparing notes with what you have written before I do. Then I will pass it on to my boss. Is that’s OK with you?”

“Sure, I always wanted to see the inside of this place.”

She seemed no rush. It took half an hour, but he could see how her little touches improved what he had written. Now it was as good as possible at this early stage. And maybe, because of their prickly start, they had a real sense of teamwork.

As they walked out together, day’s work done, he realised he had left his private car at home. He said, “I was going to invite you for a drink, but I need to leave the police car here as I’m not on duty tonight, and my private car is at home.”

She looked at him with a new seriousness. “Well isn’t it lucky that I came in my own car, and you can come with me. That’s assuming you meant it and it wasn’t just an excuse to get out of us doing it.”

So they went together, him wondering what the doing it was, a drink or something more. They drove towards the city, having both agreed that was the best place to head for on a Friday night. As they came down Bagot Road, Alan had a sudden thought. “Do you mind if we make a short detour,” he said.

“Of course not,” she replied, looking questioning. He directed her to turn off the main road and brought her through the back streets to Charlie’s place.

It was only half past five and they would not stop long. It should be early enough not to interrupt the engagement party.

He said to her, “There’s someone who lives here I’d like you to meet.”

Another questioning look was her only reply. Again Charlie was sitting on the verandah with a beer, this time sharing with a young, fit-looking man, who sat in the chair next to him.

Alan walked over. Charlie pretended to hide his face again. He said, “Jack, this is the policeman I was telling you about, the one who caught me out over the fish yesterday. Now he’s come again. I think he want to take me away to jail.” Then he laughed uproariously.

Alan joined in the mirth. “You wish, old fella, you’re just trying to run away from that Elsie, you know she’ll give you much bigger trouble than me tonight.”

He did the introductions, saying, “This is the lady you should thank for finding out about the fish. She’s much cleverer than me and saw what you’d done straightaway.”

They all laughed and agreed that all women were much smarter than their men folks.

In the end they did stay there for the night and became extra guests at the party. It was a case of the more the merrier, and even though the ‘doing it’ was only telling stories, drinking and laughing together, by the end they really were the best of friends. Alan hoped that in time there would be much more to doing it together, they were planning lots more things together including another visit to the billabong tomorrow.

The only thing that spooked him a bit was Charlie’s warning, given again at the end of the night, to be real careful at that place to keep away from the bad crocodile spirit. He told Sandy about the weird experience of the crocodile watching him. “I’m not normally superstitious, but there was a real weird feeling about the way that croc watched me, as if it was some ancestor spirit out there. It still freaks me out when I think about it.”

Sandy shrugged and gave an unconscious eye roll, a bit dismissive. He could feel her scepticism but let it be. He did not want to spoil the enjoyment of her company and of the night together.

 

 

 

Chapter 5 – Crocodile Communion

 

It was mid-morning before Alan called to collect Sandy in the police car. He had first gone to the office to talk with the investigation leader, who was sitting by the radio, listening to the early-morning account of the onsite investigation and confirming arrangements.

Last night the police had booked a truck which brought out a three metre cube-shaped steel cage that could be lowered into the water from an onsite crane, which had come with it. The crane had an extensible arm which would let it get out to about 12–15 metres from the bank. This could lift and place the cage in various locations, with the diver inside, and safe from crocodiles. Once it was on the bottom, the diver could systematically search the billabong bottom area between the metal grids which were 200 millimetres apart.

It was not perfect but they thought a diver inside could do a good search of the billabong bottom for the 15 metres from the shoreline in the area adjacent to where the head was found. Then, based on the findings in this area, they could decide on whether to try to widen the search area, either by using boats to support and move the cage or by moving the location of the crane along the river bank.

The diver had two-way communication from inside the cage with the crane driver; meaning that the cage could be raised, lowered or moved sideways as required. Most of the water was 3–5 metres deep so depth was not an issue. They now had two divers on site, both kitted out. They expected to start in the next half hour and use them on rotation doing one hour long turns about.

By the end of tomorrow they should have covered the accessible area from this crane’s site and then they could decide on whether to widen the search area.

DNA results were now back on the blood stains found on the ground and on the head tissue. They showed they were from the same person. However there were no matches with their existing DNA database meaning the identity of the person was still unknown. They also had a couple of foot imprints and tyre tracks at the site which may be significant. Apart from that the site was remarkably free of anything that might give clues.

The senior detective’s view was that they would try to wrap up the site investigation by the end of tomorrow, as it did not look like there would be much more found outside the water. He also agreed that Alan and the pathologist should return to the site, partly to look for anything that might constitute a weapon and partly to do an onsite review of anything significant that came from the water.

They might also get further information about the most likely time for the event and, even though it seemed a low chance to get useful information, he agreed that it was worth talking to staff at the two roadhouses between Humpty Doo and the billabong turnoff from the Arnhem Highway.

Alan put his swag and a spare one on the back, saying to himself that it was just in case something really significant turned up and they needed to stop overnight. A part of him hoped that there would be a reason for them to stay in the bush, perhaps even share the same swag for a night together. But his gentlemanly part said Sandy must be given the choice of whether to stay over and the option of her own bed.

He collected her from the address she had given, a block of flats in Nightcliff. She was waiting for him out the front with a small overnight bag. He asked, “Do you need to be back tonight?”

“No. I have no commitments until work on Monday.”

He told her he had put in his swag and an extra one, just in case something major arose that meant they should stay out. She nodded but otherwise showed nothing of her thoughts.

Now, having his head around the state of the investigation, he filled her in as they drove out along the Arnhem Highway. Sandy sat curled up in the passenger seat of his police Toyota Land Cruiser.

She had tied back her hair and was wearing light but functional bush clothes, shorts, a shirt with pockets, and leather sandals which both protected her feet and showed off the rest of her long legs. He could not help glancing at her from time to time. Those smooth brown legs were eye-catching, not to mention the glimpse of pale skin where her top shirt button opened. A couple of times she arched her back and stretched like a sleepy kitten. Must keep my mind on work, he thought.

She had been gently digging for information about him, girlfriends, private life, interests, family, and at the same time volunteering information about herself; that she had graduated with high marks a year ago, and that she had found her initial job in Glebe Coroner’s Office, Sydney, a bit stultifying. As she had no real attachments she had jumped at the chance when this job in the Territory came up.

He told her he had grown up as a kid in Alice Springs, so was a true blue Territorian, but his parents moved to Newcastle for work when he was ten. As he had always loved the NT he had come back and joined the police force in Alice Springs, once the chance arose. He had spent ten years doing many jobs in a range of locations, gradually progressing.

In reply to her inquiries about girlfriends he said that he had a serious girlfriend from Alice Springs when he worked there but she had gone off to Sydney, wanting to live in a big city and she had found someone else there who liked that lifestyle. So, over the last few years he had various short-term girlfriends but nothing very serious. He found his work consumed most of his life.

He probed a bit in return. “Surely there was some man who was sad to see you go, and tried to keep you there?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I too was always a bit work obsessed. I didn’t seem to have much time for men. I mostly turned down the dinner invitations, using work as an excuse.

Alan raised an eyebrow, “Don’t you like us blokes?”

“I think I had my mind fixed on getting away for quite a while and didn’t want to get too attached, in case it held me back. Now I’m glad to be here, but I’m still a bit cautious about the attachment thing. I like the idea of having my own life and career.”

Alan asked, “You seemed to enjoy last night, do you go out much?”

“While I don’t stay at home by myself whenever I’m off work, I’m not quite the social butterfly. But I do love meeting genuine people of this place, those who have a bond with the land, like Charlie and Elsie last night, and who also like to enjoy life.

“It’s not that I’m a prude, but I think there must be more to life than being a party person. I want to do what I do well and, even though it sounds corny, to do my bit to make the world better somehow.”

He nodded. “I’m probably a bit like that myself.”

She grinned, “I know, I think that’s why I like you.”

With that she sat up straight and lightly rested her hand on his arm for just a few seconds, casual yet deliberate, an unspoken sign of affection that made him feel good inside.

They decided to go straight to the site and leave any questioning at the road houses until the return leg of the journey. They were both unconsciously eager to see if any new discoveries had been found. It did not seem long until they were driving up to the billabong.

As they approached the cage was being lifted out of the water and into the air with a diver inside and then being swung back to the land.

They walked over to greet those gathered around the diver as he came out. Alan knew the site supervisor, Bill, who had come out once the murder investigation was launched. He introduced Sandy.

Once the diver had removed his tanks, mask and brought his search findings from the cage a second diver took his place and the cage was returned to the water for the search to continue.

Now they all stood around as the first diver finished removing his wet-suit and started to unpack sample containers. Bill introduced Alan as the second-in-charge of the investigation. Alan asked the diver if he had found anything that he thought was of particular importance.

The diver screwed up his face, as if thinking how to reply. “Hard to say, nothing specific, nothing like human remains or objects that particularly relate to anybody. A couple of old soft drink cans and some other common rubbish. The one thing that did fit was in the corner closest to the bank, barely a metre out. It was a pile of stuff which looked like it was from a fireplace, charcoal and grey ashy stuff in a layer a few inches thick and a couple of feet across. It started right at the edge and ran down the slope to the bottom. I couldn’t really tell, down there, what was in it. So I scraped up as much as I could and put it into that container over there,” he said, indicating a large metal bucket, the size of a twenty litre drum. “Someone might want to sift through that and see if anything important is there.” With that he shrugged and went off to finish sorting out his diving gear.

Alan picked up the container and carried it over to a work trestle table where he found a sieve and some shallow trays. Sandy held the sieve as he first poured off the water then poured the sludge through. It was clearly fire residue, a fine grey ash with bits of charcoal and other fragments of small detritus. Sandy took a couple of small samples of the sludge, and then carefully separated out each significant fragment caught in the sieve which she bagged separately. It all seemed non-specific, what you would find in any fireplace. They worked their way through the pile, returning all finished sludge to a second bucket.

When they were three quarters of the way through the sieving Sandy saw something glint in the light. “Aha, what is this?” she said, digging out a small metal object from the sludge. It was flat and about two centimetres long by one centimetre high; it looked like brass or bronze with an emerging green tarnish.

Sandy rinsed it in clean water. It was a small brass object. It was a bit bent and twisted as if it had been cooked in a fire but the shape was still clear. There was a pattern which looked like letters or numbers shaped in the brass on one side, perhaps 8W.

Sandy twisted it around in her fingers, looking from different angles. She turned it up the other way.

Now Alan realised he was looking at the letters MB forming a raised profile one side, with a flat backing plate on the other side. “I am almost sure that is an MB,” he said.

Sandy nodded, “I think so too.” She looked at it from all angles, handling it with care. “I am sure you are right. I don’t want to damage the surface. We may be able to get expert advice about how long this has been in the water to get that tarnish. But I think it looks like a set of monogrammed initials which would be attached to an object like a bag or briefcase to identify it in a personal way. I wonder if our gentleman was a Mr MB. It looks like someone’s initials, though of course it may also be a brand name.”

Sandy continued checking the remaining sludge while Alan discussed the site investigation with Bill. First they chatted in general terms about all the organising, staff rostering and transport. Sandy waved them both over to show them another finding, this was clearly a combination locking mechanism from a briefcase or similar, with the lock twisted and only part remaining in place. There were also scrape marks on the metal as if someone had used a heavy implement like a chisel to break it. They all nodded and agreed it looked like parts of the same briefcase or other container from which the MB had come.

They stood watching as Sandy finished her work and then came over to join them. As she reached them Bill said to Alan, “It’s funny but this place is almost too tidy for what you’d expect. If you go on along the side of the billabong another two hundred yards to the next open camping area you start to find the bits of rubbish you’d expect to see scattered around, nothing much but things like bits of old paper, a cigarette butt, a bottle top, an old can, the things a fisherman might have dropped over the last few years.

“But around this camping area there’s almost nothing. It’s like someone has spent a lot of time going around, tidying and cleaning the site, making sure there was no evidence left to find.

“It’s four or five months since it has rained. So you’d expect to find quite a bit of stuff, like animal or bird tracks, in the soft dirt patches, particularly this close to the water. There are the odd bits, like a lizard track over there. But, once again, if you compare it to other places nearby, there should be more. So, as well as picking up rubbish and other things, it’s like someone has swept the dirt surface, maybe using a branch. There’s even places where it looks like a person scraped the surface to remove marks and also where someone broke off branches a month or two ago. It could all be part of the same thing.”

Sandy joined in, nodding as he described the swept and cleaned look. “Yes I wondered about that when I was here two days ago. I couldn’t put my finger on it clearly, the way you have now, but it did seem a bit too tidy.”

The man continued. “There’s something else, and it’s curious too.” He led them to the edge of the water a few metres along, where the soil was soft and damp and a low branch from a bush partly obscured the view from behind. Here, in the soft dirt, less than half a metre back from the edge, were two well-formed footprints, both heavily imprinted into the soil, clearly made by bare feet.

“Those are the only male-sized footprints we’ve found that are older than the last couple of days. There are a few recent ones which we assume belong to your fisherman friend, Charlie, as well as recent tyre marks which match the wheels in the photo you took of his car. I think these footprints were made by someone who was next to the water’s edge between one and two months ago. You can tell they’re old from the dirt, twigs and leaves which have gathered in them. They’re remarkably distinct for something of that age and the heel imprints are much heavier than the toe imprints, like someone stood here looking out for a long time without moving, or more likely, considering the weight distribution, they were squatting on their haunches.”

Then he led them to the depression which they had noted the other day, the place where they thought the former fireplace had been. It was now covered in a plastic sheet and taped off.

“We need to protect this place; I think it could be important,” Bill said. He removed the sheet and pointed to a place on the ground. Indented in the dirt right at the edge of the fireplace depression was a single footprint.

Bill went on, “I know you looked at this place the other day, but then it was covered with layer of dust and leaves. Now we’ve carefully removed that layer so you can see what is beneath it.”

Alan whistled. “I think you’re right, this is really something.”

Bill continued. “Unless I’m mistaken, that’s the footprint of a smallish woman. I would almost swear it was made right at the time the fireplace was dug out. If you look carefully you see the ground at the edges, where it was not dug out, has a different look to the other ground around. It’s like someone chucked a bucket of water on the ground. Then, while it was still wet, they stepped on that soft soil with one foot. If it happened at another time, even a day later, the ground would’ve been dry and there’d be nothing to see.

“So my guess about what happened is that this person, when finished using the fire to burn whatever it was, took some buckets of water and threw them on the fire so as to put it out enough to shovel the ashes into the water. Maybe the person even washed off in the same place too. But in the process, here right at the edge, where the soil was soft and wet, there was left a clear footprint of a right foot. I suspect this was made by a woman. If we can find that woman I would bet her foot will be an exact match of this.

“Perhaps it was just one woman and she killed the man in a lover’s tiff. Then, before she drove away, she decided to give his body to the crocodiles and cover the evidence so no one knew she was here. I won’t hang my hat on it, not just yet, but it’s an explanation of sorts.”

It was indeed food for thought and a new angle to anything Alan had considered thus far.

As they walked back to the table, where a person was cataloguing all the diver’s finds, Bill said, “I have just one more thing to show you, a couple of tyre track marks, a bit limited but still worth a look.”

He led them out of the clearing and back up the road for fifty yards. The road made a sharp turn around a big tree, crossing the line of a small creek. In the creek depression the earth was still slightly damp. It was a road driven over by many in the last few days. They saw, at the extreme left edge as they walked towards it, that an orange road marker was placed. “Just to ensure no-one else drives over the exact same place,” Bill said.

Under the marker, in damp soil was a tread pattern half a tyre wide.

Bill said, “This is a standard Land Cruiser tyre’s tread; nothing remarkable about it, ten million of these tyres in the NT. But note that place just right there. See the hole in the tread pattern, like a bit of the rubber has come away from the outside of the tyre. It looks like a back tyre track made by someone who was driving away. They cut this corner a bit hard, a thing you’d do if unfamiliar with the place or vehicle, maybe if driving at night and not quite sure where the road went.

“There’s nothing to prove this was made by the car this person used though the track looks about the right age. But, in reality, it looks like very few people come in here with the closed gate. From your description of Charlie’s vehicle it wasn’t made by it, plus the track age is wrong. So it’s a fair bet that, if you can find the vehicle in which these people came here, this track will let us tie it to the scene.”

With that Bill gave a big, expansive grin. “God I love this job. We get all the clever ones like this, people who think that no one will ever know. But there’s always something, and I love to find it, particularly once I get the scent of a clever murderer in my nostrils or perhaps it could be a murderess in this case.”

By the time Bill had finished his tour it was clear he had gleaned everything that anyone would find from this site, and if there was more he would find that too. Now the real challenge would be to identify this person who came from the water. For this they had the initials MB as a possible starting point. It was not much but perhaps it would take them somewhere, Alan thought.

As they came back the diving cage was returning and the second diver emerged. He had collected a bit more detritus but nothing seemed of significance. They would break for lunch for half an hour and after that they would move out from the edge. This was the central part of the billabong closest to where the head had been found and Bill thought it was the most likely area to find other body parts.

Sandy and Alan decided they would wait for the results of this next dive before heading back to town. So, after sharing a sandwich with the rest of the work crew, they walked off, following along the edge of the billabong, staying in the shade of thick paperbark trees a few metres away from the water.

They walked side by side, enjoying the shade and the cool along with each other’s company. This was the first time they had been alone together with nothing specific to do. Sandy moved in close as they walked, almost touching, as if inviting more. Alan felt an impulse to take her hand or rest his arm on her shoulder. His hand brushed hers as he went to take it. His foot caught a root, tipping him off balance. She reached out to steady him but, without thought, he pulled back to rebalance, straightening his body away from her.

Sandy stepped away, putting her own distance back in place. Now there was awkwardness between them. Alan felt a desire to progress their relationship but was uncertain about the next step. They walked a few hundred yards until they were well out of sight of the others. Alan knew he should say something. He was not sure how to begin.

They stopped under a huge shady tree with an open gap leading to the water and surveyed the absolute stillness together for a minute. There was not a breath of air, not a ripple on the water, not the sound of a bird or an insect. It was placid and beautiful in an eerie way.

Alan said, indicating to the water, “It’s hard to believe a place so apparently calm and lovely can be so dangerous.”

Sandy walked around in front of him to face him, looking up at him. “Yes, I can see what you mean. Standing here in this place gives an illusion of calm but there is a whole other world living under the surface. I am glad to share this place with you. It feels good being here with you, just the two of us.”

He put his arm around her shoulders and she put her arm around his waist as they walked back towards camp. It’s such a lovely companionable feeling, he thought. When they were about halfway there, she stopped and separated, then came up to him on tiptoes and kissed him on the lips. “That’s the beginning of a promise for another day,” she said.

“I hope so,” he replied, wanting to kiss her back but holding back. As he looked over her head towards the water he sensed something was watching him. Far out, at least 100 metres across the billabong, but directly opposite where they stood, were the same eyes he had seen watching him the last time he was here.

Alan thought it would stay in the distance, just watching. However the eyes were getting closer. First they were far out, nearer the other side. Then they were halfway across heading directly towards them.

Now it was not only eyes. Most of the head and the scale tips from the body and tail were becoming visible. The tail was lazily waving from side to side. Still it came on, getting bigger. Originally Alan had thought it was large, now he knew it was huge. He had seen many crocodiles, including some that others called big. But this was much larger, its head twice the size of all the others he had seen. He could only glimpse the body as it followed behind an enormous head.

Now it was a bare 20 metres from where they stood and it was still powering towards them. Alan took Sandy’s arm and pulled her back several paces into the trees. At the same time he unclipped his revolver, though he had no confidence about its stopping power against this behemoth, this huge monster.

He was considering grabbing Sandy’s hand and running with her well back in the trees, when he realised it had finally slowed and was turning, side on. It passed them by, a bare five metres from the water’s edge. As it did it slowed, until stationary. There it stayed, motionless in the water, seeming to slowly drift towards the edge.

It was directly opposite them now. They were ten metres back from the edge and it was a bare 1–2 metres from the edge itself. Alan tried to estimate its length. It was surely more than twenty feet long, he guessed nearer to 25 feet would be close, picturing its length laid out on a roadway alongside a car. The figure of eight metres seemed about right.

But it was not its length alone; its girth was even more striking. He imagined the volume of three or four 200 litre drums, end to end. There was more bulk to its body than that size without even allowing for the head and tail. His best guess was that he was looking at two tons of crocodile, around 25 feet in length.

It seemed very aware of their presence, a couple of times it half turned its head so that it could look at them with both eyes, but it did not show aggressive intent towards them. Even though it was still he could sense it was communicating soundlessly. He could have sworn it had a spirit which was trying to send him a message.

Sandy whispered to him, “It’s as if it’s trying to talk to us. I have pictures inside my mind of a life force coming from it, saying, ‘This body which you’ve found belongs to me. Taking it is taking part of my spirit.’ It’s like it’s asking us to return to it what belongs to it.”

Alan felt something similar inside his own mind too. Whenever he looked across at the crocodile, it was there, a huge immobile presence. He knew he could reach out and touch it if he went to the water’s edge. His mind wondered, if he did, would it have a solid form under his hand, hard knobbed skin and scales, or was it something conjured from the light and shadows that sat at the joining place of the water and the air.

Twice it opened its mouth in an apparent huge yawn, showing row on row of yellow peg like structures, each one a tooth which looked an inch across and several inches apart. A few times it blinked a slit eye or made tiny twitches of nostrils, as if tasting air.

Just as they were starting to wonder where this would end, it slowly submerged, until only the barest tip of nostrils was showing. With slow purpose, the nostrils began to move away. After a few more metres, they too vanished.

Alan and Sandy stood motionless for a minute, barely believing in the reality of what they had seen. They walked slowly back to camp, awed and barely talking.

As they came close Alan said to Sandy, “It’s like Charlie told me; there’s a huge crocodile in this place which has a spirit which can leave its body. I’m not normally superstitious, but there’s more to this than just a huge crocodile. It’s as if we’ve met an ancient creature of the dreamtime, some original ancestor spirit being from which came all the other crocodiles we see. If it’s OK with you I don’t plan to say anything about this to the others back at camp, I feel we were imparted with a private secret from this creature, whatever it means.”

Sandy nodded. “I’m with you. I don’t think anyone who hadn’t seen it would believe it anyway. While they might believe your version, if it was me that said it, I reckon they would think I had an overactive imagination. Still it will be a story to tell our children one day.”

Alan laughed. “So, we’ll have children to tell, I like it.”

Sandy blushed. “It was just a figure of speech.”

“I choose to consider it prophetic,” Alan mocked

As they came back to the camp the cage was in again, but nothing further had been found.

They could have chosen to leave at this stage, there was really nothing further for them to do. But somehow, it seemed like this place had more to reveal and they could not leave now.

So Alan checked with Bill whether it was OK for them to camp out with the rest of the crew for the night. Bill replied, “We’re doing the last dive for today now; that’s three for each diver. Then we’re planning to go into the Bark Hut Inn for dinner and a cold beer before returning here for our sleep. The divers have rooms in there for the night, to get a good night’s sleep away from the mosquitoes.

“You’re welcome to come with us for dinner. We’ll leave one of the men, our most junior constable, to maintain camp security while we’re away. So you can either stay with him, or come in with us. There’s beer and steaks in the camp fridge if you want to stay.”

Alan said, “Why don’t you take the whole crew to the pub for dinner and we’ll stay and keep guard.”

Bill said, “Well, if you don’t mind, that sounds like a great idea. I know young Jim was less than thrilled in the idea of staying here while we were gone, something about seeing crocodiles in his mind. I told him to sit in the car if he got scared.”

Yet another cage came up empty and with that the men all packed up to go. Soon it was just the two of them, enjoying the still evening, over a steak washed down by a couple of beers. They found enjoyment in each other’s company. It was like a dinner date, except it was all here waiting for them to use. They talked at leisure with no pressure for anything more.

About nine pm both began to yawn so Alan unrolled the two swags and set up two mosquito nets, both pitched from the side of the car but a couple of yards apart. He half wished that Sandy would offer to let him share her swag, but he knew he had to give her space.

Now they heard an engine noise and saw the flickers of lights approaching. The others were back. Bill walked over and said, “Some lads wanted to kick on but I told them they need to be up and fresh in the morning as, with a bit of luck, we can be finished here by about lunchtime and back in our own beds tomorrow night. So, with only a small bit of grumbling, they all came back and our divers headed off to bed so they can make an early start.”

Bill joshed Alan, “Two swags eh, thought you two might be an item, but looks like not.”

Alan replied, “Not this one, she’s a cut above my class, or at least for a one nighter, maybe, she’s a keeper.”

Bill winked. “Well I’ll be leaving you for my own swag.” He walked off with a torch to where the others had made their camp towards the other side of the clearing.

Sandy had retired to her own mosquito net so Alan climbed under his and lay for a few minutes listening to the night noises.

He must have slept for several hours because when he awoke the camp was fully dark as the fire had died down and all the other lights were off. In fact it had an almost morning feeling.

Then he realised that Sandy was just outside his net, whispering, “Alan, can I come in, I’ve just had the most scary, terrible dream. I’m feeling a bit freaked.”

He lifted the side of the net and she slid in next to him. She was wearing satiny pyjamas that felt incredibly sheer. As she slid down beside him, her top slipped up in the shadowy light. He could see the faint outline of breasts just in front of his face. He pushed his face into them, and slid his hands up her back under her night top.

She wrapped her arms around him and pushed her body against his. “Just hold me close until the dream goes away.”

So they lay together, side by side, the full length of their bodies touching and her face pushed into his neck. She was shivering but it was not cold. He ran his fingers through her hair and along her back and down the bare skin of her buttocks, under her nightie bottoms.

As her shivering eased she said, “I must tell you while it’s clear in my mind, lest I forget tomorrow. I dreamed I was a girl who knew this man we found, and I was at this same place at night. I loved this man but he terrified me.

“I dreamed I was lying, tied up, captive, and the man wasn’t there. I saw him over by the water talking to that huge crocodile we saw today. He was promising it that, in the morning when the sun began to rise, it would be given its next meal. I was sure the meal was me. I knew I was tied up so, when morning came, he could give me to the crocodile.

“The man and crocodile were like brothers, sharing one spirit. I knew it would be daylight soon. Then I’d go into the belly of that awful creature. I was so, so scared. A knot of terror was running through my whole body, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t think, I was just so afraid.

“Then I woke up. I saw your outline and heard your breathing as you slept. I wanted to come next to you and feel you hold me tight. So just hold me please until the awful terror goes away.”

Alan cuddled and stroked her, the way he would to soothe a child. He was very aware of her body next to him and he knew she was aware of his arousal. But this was a moment too precious to spoil through seeking more. So he held her close and whispered comforting nothings. At last he felt her body relax and her breathing return to a slow sleep state. In that trance like state, he too fell asleep.

He woke when the daylight was barely lighting the eastern sky. Sandy had moved her body inside the circle of his arms and this had roused him.

He looked at her intently and she opened her eyes and looked back. She seemed both beautiful and vulnerable in the early morning light.

He stroked her hair and she kissed him lightly on the cheek.

“Thank you for minding me in the night. It is good to feel safe when something like that happens. I must return to my own swag. The night is past. Whatever is between us will have to wait for another time.

When Alan next awoke the sun was breaking the horizon .Sandy was rolling her swag. He wondered if he imagined her late night visit.

He called out, “Hello.”

She came across with a bright smile, lifting the net and kissing him on the mouth, then sat down alongside him. “Thank you for minding me carefully in the night. I felt so safe sleeping next to you. Also, thank you for being such a gentleman.”

So he knew it was not a dream.

Sandy continued. “I think the dream came from walking along the river, and seeing that huge crocodile yesterday, the water surface so calm and yet something dangerous just beneath the surface.

I suppose that sort of describes us too. On the surface we’re placid like that water. In our work we get on beautifully together. That’s on the outside. Underneath there’s a dangerous place we have to cross, that path from friends to maybe something more.

“Some people seem to find it easy; it’s like they can take that step without having to give anything real of themselves. But I’m not like that. I want to take that next step but that part of me is scared. I’ve always run away from men when it got to this stage before, and the fear in my mind tells me to run from you too.

“But since last night my body calls me to stay and my emotions say to stay too. So I must decide and I need you to help me. I want to go the next step with you, perhaps to be your lover. I desire to be your lover, but I don’t want to give my body to you just for sex.

“So, I want you to tell me, is it just a physical thing you want with me, or is there something real and deeper in what we have together? So please be honest with me as I’ve tried to be with you.”

Alan was sort of blown away. This was all much deeper and much faster than he could have imagined. Did he want to have sex with her? Yes, most definitely. Did he want something more with her? He thought so, but it was only two days since they had met and maybe it was a bridge too far to get to that place yet. But first and foremost he could not mislead her; he had to give truth for truth.

So he told her what he knew, that he wanted her for both her body and her mind, that she was beautiful and he desired her, that in two days they had crossed many bridges together and, if they were going to spend more of their lives together, whether for another day, week, year or decade, this was yet one more bridge they would have to cross, and he wanted her to cross this one with him. That was all he knew for sure after only two days.

She smiled at him, a beatific smile and said, “I asked for truth and I have truth; that’s enough. If you had promised me eternal love and happiness I would’ve known that was not truth.

“But my mind says that neither of us is sure enough to cross that bridge yet and so we should wait. The future will be what the future will be, but it will have begun with truth.” Then she looked at him very directly and said, “Can you wait a bit longer until my mind is ready as well as my body?”

In a strange way Alan was relieved. It was not that his desire for her was any way diminished but her intensity of emotion and honesty conveyed something more powerful and significant than what he had experienced with other women before.

So he gave her a light punch on the shoulder. “First of all we’re friends, ever since you caught me out about the fish and did not tell, and secondly we’re workmates who can do great work together. Then lastly there’s something else. It’s like a spark between us, which has now grown into a small fire. One day it may grow into a raging bushfire that will have to be satisfied. But for now it can be fed with small things, like a wish, kiss and a promise for another day.”

The morning passed with an edge of unreality. He was so aware of Sandy and knew she was so aware of him. It was like the night had sealed a pact between them.

But they waited, seeking any other offerings from the crocodile god; that is how they both now thought of this huge creature. The first cage search came up empty. There were three more planned until they had covered the full area that the crane could reach. Then they would have to decide whether to move along the bank or go further out.

Suddenly, ten minutes into the next dive, there was a shout from the crane driver and he lifted the cage clear. “Look what I’ve found,” the diver called out, freeing his head from the mask. He held up a white elongated object. They realised it was a lower arm. It looked like it started at the elbow and went down from there. The skin and much of the muscle was gone, but sinews and bones remained, though the ends of fingers were mostly missing. It almost looked like a curiosity one would find in a junk shop, some strange sort of weird voodoo back scratcher. But there was no mistaking that this was part of a person, and probably the same person.

Sandy made a cursory examination before bagging it and putting it in an esky with ice. “Well, it looks like I should get this back to the lab. I expect it belongs to the same person. It’s the right size for the man to whom the head belonged. Interestingly, there’s a bump on one of the bones of the forearm, the ulna, which looks like an old break that has healed unevenly.”

Then Sandy turned to Alan. “Any chance of a girl getting a lift home so that she can get on with her job?” She gave him a funny little smile as she said it.

In five minutes they were driving away, having said a hasty goodbye to all. Once they were out of sight of the camp Sandy said, “I know that was a bit sudden but once we’d found the arm I knew that was all that we’re going to get. What I wanted was for you to bring me home. We can call quickly to the lab to drop off the sample. Then I want you to bring me to my little flat and stay with me for the rest of the day and night. I’ve been thinking about the feel of your body next to mine ever since I woke up. I don’t want to wait any longer to feel your body next to me again. So, if you still want me, I want you too. Just be kind to me as I don’t know much about what we’re going to do, but I know I want it to be with you, whatever happens after today.”

As they drove back to Darwin Sandy cuddled into his arm. A couple of times she placed his hand on her breast.

In the bedroom he discovered she had never been with a man before. It felt like a first time for him too, the first time he had made love to this woman who he was totally hooked on. It was the best afternoon and night of his life and in the dawn, as they lay together in a tangle of bodies and sheets, he told her so.

In the morning when he woke up alongside her he knew that they fitted each to the other in a way that was better than anything that he had experienced with another person. He stroked her soft skin where her hair curled alongside her ear. She stirred and smiled like a cat having a pleasant dream but did not wake.

He dressed quietly so as not to disturb her knowing he would return again to her bed tonight and this was the start of so much more.

 

 

 

Chapter 6 – Crocodile Dreams

 

Susan fell asleep on the Saturday night feeling as if the day had been a huge roller coaster. A day where she had woken in the morning feeling good about herself and enjoying the end of September sunshine as she woke dreamily from the night, with that warm and mellow sense that comes in the first flush of a weekend.

Then a jolt of shock as she thought about the absence of her period, followed by looking in the mirror where she saw unmistakable changes in her body, and with them a dawning realisation had come that she was almost certainly pregnant with that awful man’s child.

Driving to the chemist to get a pregnancy test kit and watching as the definite line emerged, pregnancy now certain. Her horror as she thought through the meaning and consequences of this followed by what seemed a clear plan for an instant termination.

Then that impulsive decision to read David’s letter which had sat unopened in her room for almost a month. It told her he would be in England next week, in fact was now about to leave. Was it just remotely possible he could be the father instead? ,

She had sent that quick rushed email suggesting that she meet him on Tuesday. Within a minute her mobile phone was ringing; it was David on the line. She had thought he would email back, but he was nothing if not direct and determined.

He said, “I’m struggling to believe it’s really you after over a month of silence. I wanted to hear your voice again to know it’s really you. I’m still pinching myself with surprise to hear from you at this late stage and to know I’ll be seeing you in a couple of days. I can’t wait.”

There was something so utterly delightful about his call. When she put down the phone she was smiling all over. There was a warm immediacy to his voice. He sounded so, well, so like himself, a mixture of charm and courtesy, combined with an edge of Aussie humour and directness. He did not really chastise her for being tardy, just a slight ribbing. But he told her he had been sitting on the edge of his seat for a month hoping to hear from her, and as the days and weeks drifted by he was starting to feel discouraged.

He said, “Now I know you are actually there and available I don’t intent to leave anything to chance. I won’t let you get away from me so easily again. I intend to wow and dazzle you with lots of good times, the best of things that money and attention can buy.”

She had said, “Slow down, David. It sounds great, but let me catch my breath, I feel overwhelmed, it’s a bit unexpected but nice.”

His reply, “So English to say ‘Nice’ for the blast we will have!”

She sensed he would throw all his effervescent life force at making the best of this opportunity, to sweep her off her feet and win her over with a fun time. She loved the sense of her value and attraction that came with this attention; it was a buzz being courted by such a devastatingly charming man, one who intended to lavish personal and material charms on her. She felt flattered and liked the idea of it and his unconstrained willingness to treat her this way.

She could still feel herself glowing as she got off the phone, her mind digesting his brash plans. He had even prevailed on her to meet him for dinner on Monday night in the city, telling her he would arrange for a chauffeur to collect her when she finished work.

He said, after wanting so much to see her for seven weeks, he did not plan to waste another day. He would only be fobbed off if she had a prior engagement, in which case he was happy to meet her later in the evening. Secretly she felt delighted that someone wanted to be with her this much. His determination to delight her was a breath of fresh air after her bland month at home.

By evening her family all knew of his plans to visit, even her gran. Susan had asked them all to be available and had organised a family dinner for all to meet David on the Tuesday. Without being too specific she gave them to understand that he was more than just a casual friend from Australia. After all she had agreed to go travelling with him for a week in the English countryside, not quite something one did with casual acquaintances or almost strangers.

Just to put the icing on the cake David had immediately told Susan’s cousin, Ruth, in Australia. It must have been midnight there. Ruth, of course, had called immediately to express her approval. This call was picked up by her mum, who got the news direct from Ruth, a favourite niece. So, before Susan had even mentioned David’s existence to her parents, the cat was pretty much out of the bag.

The ribbing from Tim was ferocious. “What Sis, I asked you at the airport where the Aussie boyfriend was? Nothing in sight and no mention then. Suddenly a month later he appears out of thin air. He’s obviously of great importance if you can take a week out of a busy life just for him. He must be a real Mr Special to get you to give up a whole week of your precious time. Not something I remember you doing for the others!”

Susan could only laugh; it was hard to get cross with others trying to send her up when she felt so upbeat herself. It seemed as if the idea of an unwanted pregnancy was now buried in one of the deepest recesses of her mind. All she could now think about was seeing David again and being with him. She loved this mind image of the two of them happily driving through green England with the wind in her face and her hair swept back.

It was only as she settled into bed and lay for a minute thinking of the day that she came down slightly from the top of the roller coaster. There was a brief image of driving in another place of terror with another man, but she pushed it away. England was not like that, it was a safe place and David was not that man, he was trustworthy, decent, he was known, her cousin Ruth had vouched for his character.

She also remembered, just for a few seconds, in her dreamy state, that there was a whole other reality that she must soon confront. With that brief thought she pushed it back out of her mind, determined not to look at that future until necessity required it. Susan drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face.

She knew she was asleep and in her bed in England. It felt so safe, snug and secure. But now there was another someone or something in her dream. It had a powerful determination to bring her away from this place. She protested weakly but could not organise her mind or body to actively resist. She felt strong arms lift and carry her, up into the sky, above her house. She looked down. Her body lay sleeping in her bed.

She felt herself being carried across the world, through the early night dark of England into deeper and deeper night as she headed east across the globe. They followed a path mostly over water, the distant shapes of countries of the Mediterranean, the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean passed below. The tip of India flashed by, far north she glimpsed high, snow covered mountains on the roof of the world. Then they were skirting along that vast island chain of Indonesia. It was a moonless sky, just faint starlight illuminating their passage.

As they began to descend she sensed that, in the place to which they had come now, the night was almost over. It was still dark but with an imperceptible lightening of the furthest eastern sky. It was as if dawn was only another hour or two away and sunshine even now was shining in a more distant place, out over another ocean. In the dark she sensed, rather than saw, that they had left behind ocean and come over land. Street lights glittered briefly then faded. Now they were descending over a large slow flowing river. Susan realised it was full of crocodiles, their eyes reflecting starlight. She was not really frightened but felt a prickle of anxiety at the edge of her consciousness.

Now that awful place from before came into view. She knew this billabong. She had not seen it from above and yet she knew it, it had a presence that left no uncertainty. She knew this was the place of the last night, a night of hope and devastation, and then of that ripping and tearing clarity as the new day rose. She could feel the terror of that other time rise to meet her; she chained and restrained, he brooding with his crocodile soul and unholy twinning. She felt this monstrous spirit rise to meet the spirit which carried her, a meeting of kindred souls bonded through a distant ancestor ritual.

But now others were in this place. She saw a large crane rise into the sky and several Toyotas parked around. Why were they here? There was one Toyota, white like the other but without the box and cage. She was drawn towards it. At its furthest side were two mosquito nets. She sensed two bodies slumbering, a man and a woman, connected but separate, not yet lovers. The woman reached out her mind from her own dream and Susan went to her, mind linked to mind.

Her memories flooded back, the terror of captivity, the delight of final lovemaking, the empty eyes, the knife and that new day of unbelievable desolation, terror, rage and hate, mingled with such overwhelming loss.

She realised these memories were flowing from her mind to this woman in the bed. Now this woman was living within her own terror as Susan’s memories washed through her. As the giant crocodile rose to tear the body from the others and claim its own possession she realised she must not inflict this on the other woman. In opening the view into this part of her mind, madness lay.

She tore her mind away and the girl awoke from her dream into real life terror, turning reality into nightmare. Susan saw her stumble out of bed and go into the comforting arms of her soon to be lover. There was an uncomplicated goodness in that embrace which Susan felt; alongside it too was a burning regret of her own loss.

But the arms that held her would not leave her there. They too were arms of comfort and a yearning spirit which sought to bring her into its own embrace. Part of her wanted to fall into the depth of this embrace, a kindred yearning within her own spirit to retaste that love. But as she started to slide into this comfort place she realised it was not one spirit but two who were trying to hold and own her; one was man, one was crocodile. Both were grieving, the man was grieving for the loss of her; the crocodile was grieving for the loss of the man. They were bonded and yet trying to pull apart. She was the prize in the centre, an eternal love triangle where none could reach peace.

Suddenly the connection snapped. It was as if the force of her will had resisted these powerful entreaties, and now she had broken free. With freedom a profound sense of loss returned. Although separate, part of her was left behind in the embrace, a forever lost part. She ached to be held by this man, to be loved by this man, just once more. But she knew if she went there she could never return.

Susan woke in her bed, the dream fresh in her mind. She knew the powerful arms which carried her were those of Mark. In the dark of night her body craved to feel again his touch. She wondered if he had sensed the new life within her, a continuance of his spirit.

She needed to tell him that this new life was a part of him that lived on, but he was fading now and she did not think he heard or knew. In her night darkness she dreamed on, now she had chosen a different path when first they met and they now lived on happily together, with small children playing noisily at their feet.

She stirred again. This dream too faded. Now there remained only her and the aching loneliness. She could feel wet tears on her cheeks. She just wished to wake up on the morrow in a happy place where all of her night was a dream that existed no more, blown to nothingness by a new day’s light.

 

 

 

Chapter 7 – David

 

Susan woke on Sunday morning with very mixed emotions, surprised how far she had come down the roller coaster of emotion since last night, when all she could think of was the anticipation of seeing David again. In the new morning light her dream was a distant and unreal memory. It had left a faint edge of anxiety but now seemed a long way away. But it had changed something inside her; a glimpse of a future that was no longer in a safe place, but somewhere of dark shadows.

She tried to think through what her reservations were. She realised they were mainly to do with her own honesty about the situation. She did not believe in her heart that she was carrying David’s child; she was near to certain that Mark was the father. Yesterday she had been trying to live a lie, crafting a fiction that David being father was a significant possibility. But the reality was otherwise.

She had a sense she had been very fickle in her relationships with both David and Mark. Now more honesty was required, at least with herself. It was as if the dream had released her from being unable to think clearly of Mark. Since she had returned she had desperately blocked all traces of him from her life and her mind. While there had been vague dreams of crocodiles and terror, Mark was missing.

But that could not be. Not only because of the child but because it was untrue to her emotions. She had fallen in love with him as a real person. She could no longer pretend that this emotion was not real. She knew that, despite all, a large part of her loved him still and a part of him had loved her too, defective though these emotions were. To dismiss this and turn Mark into a monster created in her mind did not do justice to either his or her real feelings of that time.

Mark had been a torn person, torn between crocodile and human love, torn between gentle kindness and danger. But Mark had been a real person, made of good and bad parts. She had to accept who he was in order to reconcile her life beyond him.

But her mind also told her he had to be left aside, not out of anger or hatred but because her life had moved on. She had to try to deal with David honestly, to see if there was something real and based on truth which could grow between them. She knew that her pregnancy must come out, not in the first minute, but before he left. She must be honest enough to tell him that the child was not likely to be his. She did not see how Mark himself could be discussed. But she needed to be open that she had had another relationship in Australia and the child was most likely to have arisen from this.

Having reached this clear place in her mind Susan felt good again about David coming. He really seemed to like her, she also felt great affection for him, she remembered her thought in Sydney that he was a good and honourable man, and he definitely was a hunk. So now it was time to just enjoy the visit.

David rang her on Monday, at lunchtime, to confirm the time and place to collect her after work. As his broad Aussie accent boomed out Susan could not help but be excited at the thought of dinner with him in only a few hours.

At the agreed time, after she had changed out of her work clothes into a favourite evening dress, the phone rang to announce the car’s arrival. A chauffeur driven Rolls waited in the driveway. David was not there, his meeting had another half hour to run yet, but she and he would both arrive at the restaurant at about the same time. Susan sat back into the plush leather as they glided smoothly through the London traffic, soaking in the luxurious ambience. The restaurant was in a five star hotel and the doorman welcomed her and showed her to the bar where he served her a drink.

She was just starting her drink when David stood before her, a dozen red roses in his hand. He was wearing a dinner suit. He looked mind-blowingly fabulous, bronzed and fit, tousled sun-bleached hair and his trademark grin. Her smile of delight was totally spontaneous.

The evening was truly lovely, they had lots to talk of and much news to tell without more than a passing mention of the Australian outback trip. Even here Susan found that she could tell of places seen, such as Uluru, without any need for Mark to intrude. At the end of the night it seemed like a mutual decision, they would not rush to intimacy. They would let this thing between them evolve, if it did, in its own time. By midnight Susan was home in her own bed.

Dinner the next night was equally good. David arrived early and Susan greeted him. Her mother was busy in the kitchen and others were yet to come home. Susan showed him to the spare back room and David professed delight with a plain home room rather than five star hotel luxury. They sat and chatted together out there for a few minutes, sitting on a couch while he lightly held her hand. There was a warm simplicity in his company. She impulsively liked being with him.

Soon she heard her father and Gran come in together. She brought David out and introduced him around. Her father opened by saying he wondered who owned the flash show room car in the drive; he had first thought a car salesman had come to visit.

David roared laughing, quite unabashed. “It’s the same as my car in Sydney and I love it. It‘s great to drive even if some of my mates take the Mickey out of me for being uppity, tell me I’m from the country bunyip aristocracy, come to lord it over city folks. But you’re right; I rented it straight off the show room floor. It’s just my attempt to impress Susan when we go travelling. But I’m equally happy driving a beat-up old four-wheel drive on the farm.”

Then David tossed her father the keys and said, “Well how about it, let’s take it for a spin. You know your way around the neighbourhood so it’s yours to drive.”

They all piled in, Susan and her gran in the back, David sat alongside her dad in the front, giving a few simple instructions about the controls. They roared off into the balmy September evening, barely cold with the top open. They did a circuit of the town, coming alongside the Thames River for ten minutes, before returning home.

Her father was laughing in delight as they returned to their house. “I understand why you enjoy it so much,” he said, grinning hugely.

David and her father seemed to have more natural affinity than was there with Edward, her ex-boyfriend; good-humoured banter came naturally to both. Her mum was thoroughly charmed; tonight he had brought her flowers. Tim seemed a bit in awe of this successful but convivial man, and her gran and David were trading Aussie tales of farm and country life like second nature. Her gran began her life as a farmer’s daughter herself and had visited some Australian stations in her early years, so she did have a sense of the place. Over dinner all took part in the planning of Susan and David’s travel itinerary, a succession of historic places through the Midlands, Wales and Cornwall, before being back for Sunday evening dinner.

At the end of the night she was tempted to go to David’s room with him, she wanted to spend the night with him. She knew David wanted it as well; it was there in the way he looked at her. But she again decided not to rush. Tomorrow night they would be on their own. That seemed the right time to return to physical intimacy. So she kissed him lightly as he went to bed and said, “Just one more night.”

Wednesday morning they headed off on their trip early, waving goodbye to all after a quick breakfast. It began with a leisurely drive though autumn colours heading west from London, planning to call to Stonehenge in the morning and to a castle in the afternoon.

The morning drifted along in bright sunshine as they wandered through the ancient stones and drove with wind in their hair. Susan could feel the physical chemistry of attraction passing between them, a tiny part of her mind said this was fickle, too fast, too soon. But another big part said. We have already been lovers, why not again? Her body said a big ‘Yes’ as she stole glances at this gorgeous man.

Over lunch at a pub Susan said she did not require her own room for the night, she was looking forward to a night where the two of them were together again. As they drove towards the fading afternoon sun from time to time she lightly rested a hand on David’s arm or shoulder. A couple of times he stopped the car at high places and they walked out together with his arm around her.

As they looked out towards a rolling hillside landscape, in the late afternoon, Susan said, “I think it’s time we found a place to spend the night. I want to eat a slow dinner looking at you and then I want a slow night of making love to you.”

David said, “Wow, that thought blows my mind.”

They stopped at the next village. It had a quaint country pub with climbing roses and ivy rambling over stone walls. They were given an upstairs room with a view to the back over rolling fields full of sheep. The hotelier departed and left them to the room. Susan closed the door and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I hope it’s OK with you.”

David looked uncertain and a bit disappointed. “Do you want your own room?”

“No, you goose, I don’t want to wait any longer. I want you to make love to me right now. You look so handsome in your Tweed Jacket in the afternoon sunlight. I want you now.”

It was beautiful and tender lovemaking, his strong body covering hers, taking her slowly and caressing her to build her pleasure. He felt huge and exquisite and they moved with increasing urgency until they climaxed together. They ordered room service before another period of lovemaking after which they fell into a deep and satisfied sleep.

In the early morning light Susan admired David’s naked body, already erect. He slept on in a dreamy sleep. She placed herself over it and slid it within her. Now he was awake and they rode together, she above with his strong hands gripping and pushing her buttocks until they spent themselves again, then they slept on.

The days and nights passed in something of a blur. It was a week of glorious autumn weather, the countryside was a mass of autumn colours, and the days, while cool, were filled with sunshine, with only brief showers and clouds. For Susan it was like a rediscovery of her homeland as seen through another’s eyes.

David was full of appreciation, both of her and the country, it for its natural beauty and its history, for her with a sort of puppy love, which she found winsome in this mature and accomplished man. As they drove David told her how some of the hill vistas reminded him of his home at the back of the Blue Mountains with wild mountainsides and lush sheltered valleys.

They walked in the high mountains, they visited coastal towns and villages with their Welsh signs, they went to a performance of a Welsh choir in a historic mining town. They talked to farmers and fishermen who were delighted with David’s accent even though many words on both sides were foreign. Their second night was in a cottage in the Brecon Beacons National Park, set high in the mountains of Wales. It gave comfort, privacy and intimacy all in one space. Their sense of togetherness, comfort with one another and the naturalness of their lovemaking grew alongside this superb natural setting.

Next morning, they returned back across the Severn River into Bristol. They explored this bustling city for a couple of hours and drove on to Bath, famous town of Roman architecture, for lunch and sightseeing. In the early afternoon they headed to Cheddar, a beautiful little town set into the lush hills of Somerset.

It was a major tourist centre with the famous cheddar cheese and its limestone gorge and caves. Susan told David it was one of the most significant sites of prehistory, with 9,000 year old Cheddar man the oldest human skeleton found in Britain. She knew this from university, having studied this and other early English finds, but she had never been to this place and wanted to see with her own eyes. David seemed equally interested, he admitted he had toyed with the idea of doing archaeology or anthropology too and had maintained an active private interest since. So they could converse on the technical detail with ease. They concluded their day with a wine and cheese tasting, including the authentic Cheddar product, before staying in an upmarket hotel.

Next day was Saturday and but one final night remained before returning to Reading for Sunday night. Their plan was to go to the tip of Cornwall, to Land’s End where they would stand and survey the endless Atlantic breakers rolling across the horizon, looking out past the bottom of Ireland and on to America. They drove there directly and found a place to stay, a delightful old stone pub in the village. They had the afternoon free to explore. It was a mostly clear day but with scuds of weather coming in across the Atlantic. A big sea was running, breaking on the rocky offshore islands, firing up spumes of spray. The wind was cold and bracing, as it ripped in from the vast oceans to the west

An hour of walking and exploring the exposed rocky coast left them chilled and wind blasted. They decided to travel to the sheltered east side of the peninsula for the afternoon. Here, despite short miles, they came to another world, a place of quaint fishing villages and bustling commerce. They discovered the town of Penzance, famous for the Gilbert and Sullivan pirate opera, though not a pirate was to be seen. They booked seats in the local theatre for an afternoon performance of the opera classic. In a pub, in the late afternoon, a man with a fiddle and repertoire of bawdy songs had them in stitches. It was light and entertaining. The wine and warm food gave them a glow of wellbeing. They ate dinner in an intimate restaurant, quiet despite town bustle, just candlelight and them.

During the dinner a pensive mood descended. Susan felt reluctance to admit that this time of delightful solitude was near an end and she needed to think past this place.

She laid a hand on David’s arm, saying, “Thank you for a most wonderful time. I had forgotten how beautiful my own country is. I got such enjoyment out of sharing it with you and seeing it through your eyes as well as my own. I wish we could put tomorrow off and delay our return for another week. But tonight let there not be a shadow. Tonight we should party, dance and push away all else.”

David nodded, “You have a knack for saying what I was thinking.”

So they finished their meal, had an extra drink and went out into the Penzance night. They found a nightclub where the music was booming and soaked it in, slow dances, fast dances, a buzz of excited conversation. It was well after midnight when they, along with many new found friends, were sharing last drinks, and then waving and calling out to each other as they stumbled off to respective beds.

Even though they had shared many drinks, together and with others, it had been over many hours and neither felt drunk. As they drove up the hillside they suddenly emerged into a cutting and blasting wind. It buffeted their car. It was the wind they had fled from before, now redoubled with a wild roaring and keening sound.

David said, “Perhaps we should’ve got a place in Penzance, but I rather like returning to the wild Atlantic in the late night, its untamed rawness appeals to my soul; a wildness for brave hearts.”

Susan nodded but shivered slightly. She pushed herself in against him; a solidity against the outside storm. The pub was all in dark as they used their key to let themselves in. The windows rattled and the wind moaned but it felt safe and secure within.

In the soft bed-lamp light Susan wanted to give this man a night to remember her by. She sang a song her cousins had taught her, from the bawdy pubs of the north, “Patricia the Stripper” and acted out the seductive poses, as she removed the layers of her clothes. David scooped her up and swung her around. Now they were laughing and giggling together as they touched each other’s intimate places. It felt wild and joyous.

Susan woke in the still of the predawn. David slept on, it was too dark for shadows, but she could hear his steady breathing. There was a faint lightening around his outline. But something else was in here.

A presence, ancient yet familiar; a presence reeking of crocodiles, swamps, blowflies and rotting flesh; a presence of utter terror!

Was she dreaming or was it real? She was no longer sure. Her sense of being with David in this hotel room seemed right but yet other things seemed all wrong. There was a strange smell, the smell of a swamp and a rotten putrefaction of decaying bodies; there was a buzzing sound in her ears, a blowfly of the dead. And hands were reaching out to touch her, at first as if in a gentle caress and then, when she drew away, as if trying to grab and hold her. Now she could feel this creature clawing at her, as if trying to take over her body and seize her.

She pulled away and pulled the covers over her head. She pushed her body against David and tried to block out the other being. She felt David’s arms wrap around her and pull her close though she had no sense of his waking. She buried her face in his chest and tried to block out the other, telling herself over and over, “It’s just a dream.”

But she knew she was part of an another reality, an ancient predatory spirit, ‘a thing that had escaped from the time of the Dreaming’, that was how her mind framed it, waited hungrily nearby, wanting to seize and take her as its own.

As David held her close the sense of the numinous evil faded, but she dared not move away, even an inch, lest the beast returned.

Susan realised that David was shaking her awake. He was up and dressed and a wintery sunshine was trying to light the grey horizon. He said, “It’s coming up to ten o’clock so I thought I should wake you. They’ve promised a late breakfast if we come soon.”

Emerging from the hotel to pack up the car they stepped into a blustery wet day, as last night’s Atlantic weather front had settled over the south of England. The weather seemed to match the end of their holiday and the need to return to real and less exciting world.

It was a slow and subdued drive back towards London, on a dreary Sunday afternoon of wind and rain, as they followed a heavy stream of traffic returning along a motorway to the city. However despite this they were both in an upbeat mood, feeling good about the time they had spent together and also about what might come.

Somehow the pregnancy had completely gone from Susan’s mind and when it returned for a fleeting second she pushed it far away, determined it be a subject of another time. Instead they discussed mutual interests in history, archaeology and politics, along with their medical and biotechnology work.

Susan said she would have to go in to work for a while tomorrow but she would try to arrange to have the rest of the time off until David flew out, and they agreed they would spend the Tuesday together. She also told David she was hoping and expecting that he would stay on at her place for the next nights, as his fold out bed in the office was big enough for two to share.

David said, “Yes, but my proviso is that for our final night we share a five-star suite in one of the city’s top hotels.”

Susan nodded; this seemed only fair, even though the balance was very much on his side, as always.

On returning from work the next day, with two clear days until David’s plane departed on late Wednesday, Susan proposed that the two of them go for a quiet and intimate dinner at a small place she knew alongside the Thames at the back of Reading. She told David that tonight was on her.

She knew, despite her reluctance, that the time had come for some honesty about her situation and did not want to leave it until the very last minute. So, once they were sitting with their drinks and orders placed, she took a deep breath and launched into it.

“David, there’s something I need to say before we get in any deeper and particularly before we start talking about any ongoing relationship or whatever follows from this week.

“First, I want to tell you how wonderful this week has been for me. I can’t quite understand what leads you to like me, but I’ve had one of the best times of my life since you arrived, I love being with you and doing things with you, I love making love to you, I love your manners and charm with others, particularly with my family and your sense of fun and courtesy.

“So, whatever follows from here, I don’t want to lose that. I most want to thank you so much for the good time you’ve given me.”

David nodded but was strangely silent. It was as if he knew there was more to follow.

“So now I have to tell you something which will be difficult for me to say, and I don’t want it to cause you hurt though I think it may.

“Two days before you arrived I did a pregnancy test and found out I was going to have a baby. I’ve only made love to two men in the last six months. One was you and the other was another man in Australia. I really wish the baby was yours but I think it’s very likely that it’s the other man’s child. However I can’t say for sure and there’s a small chance that you’re the father.

“When I read your letter on Saturday I had just found out about my pregnancy and had decided to have an abortion. I don’t want the child of this other man and I know I won’t be seeing him again.

“After you leave I’ll have to deal with this. I didn’t want it to spoil our time together for the last week which is why I didn’t tell you when you arrived. But now I don’t want any talk or promises for a future between us, without you knowing this. I’m sorry I can’t tell you anything about the other man, so please don’t ask.”

David sat looking at her with a kind and steady face. She thought his face might change, when she mentioned the baby, but it did not. For a few seconds after she finished he sat and looked at her, not speaking. He picked up her hand and kissed it, then squeezed it. Then, with the fingers of his other hand, he gently stroked her cheek. There was something very poignant in his kindness and gentleness that brought tears to her eyes.

“We’ve both been in relationships and had lovers before,” he said. “In my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t the only one in Australia. From the way you were in Sydney I could sense that you had not long before met someone else and they were important. But it didn’t stop what I felt for you then and it doesn’t stop what I feel for you now. I like the idea of you with a baby, and I like the idea of being a father to your baby. I also like that you’ve told me this now when, on the day after I leave, you could’ve had a termination and told no one.

“I haven’t told you about the girl, Nicki, I was with until about a year before I met you. She was from my town and we’d been childhood sweethearts since school. We both came to Sydney for University and then started our careers together. Through all this time we stayed best friends and lovers, though we both agreed that we needed to associate and go out with other people, not just with each other, so as to experience a wider life.

“Then a couple of years ago we started to drift apart. I’d always thought we’d be together for life and get married in due course, and I think she thought so too. But in Sydney there were so many girls who threw themselves at me and it was a bit the same for Nicki.

“Gradually we started to form different circles of friends and different relationships, but neither of us would admit it to ourselves or each other. It was like we needed to keep pretending and didn’t want to admit that our dream was coming apart.

“Then one day Nicki came to me and told me that she was in a relationship with another man and must end what she had with me. She said she wouldn’t two-time with him.

“While I’d been with other girls I’d always thought of them as temporary dalliances which meant nothing, she was the one for me. Nicki was more straightforward, she didn’t like the other men thing. She’d been hurt when I’d been with other girls even though we lived separately. Even though we decided, when we came to Sydney, that our relationships with one another weren’t exclusive, Nicki was never truly happy about it, she just pretended to agree. I realised this deep down but I continued on, thinking she would understand and wait there for me to come back.

“I was devastated when she left me for someone else. Over the year since I’ve come to realise that if one is in a serious relationship one has to be true to it. In that year, after she left, at first there were lots of girls, but about halfway through I realised that there was something unsatisfying in that and so I started to keep more to myself. There were still a couple of girls I kept seeing. But it was more like meeting a need for both of us than love.

“From the night I first met you I’ve been completely captivated by the girl with the blue eyes and the bewitching smile who sits in front of me. So, while I didn’t want to rush you with a hasty proposal, now I find myself here that’s what I want to say.

“If you will have me I want to stay with you for as far into the future as I can see and I want to be the father of your child, and hopefully of more to come. And because they are your children I will love them in the same way I love you. So what I’m saying is that I want you and me to go on together, lovers and living together and whatever more you want. But it must be you and me in an exclusive relationship together from here on.”

She had thought her revelation would rock David. Instead it seemed to make him stronger. But what was she to make of his proposal? It sounded like marriage though he had not quite said the word. And while she very much liked David and was attracted to and liked being with him, both for the sex and his company, she was not sure if love was quite the right word to use for her feelings.

Still the relationship was good and she did not want to set it aside in a search for perfection. Love was a very dangerous place. So perhaps this strong liking she felt was better, a more solid platform on which to build something enduring.

She looked at his serious eyes. “David, thank you so much for what you’ve said. I can’t pretend I’m not physically attracted to you and I really like being with you and doing things with you. But I don’t want to decide my life on the basis of this baby or a week with you. I’m not saying no, but I haven’t yet reached a place where I feel I can honestly say yes either. It has all happened so fast. I want us to keep going but I need some time to come to terms with all of this and to know better for myself what I think I should do.”

David screwed up his face slightly. “It’s funny; I knew how I felt after the first night I met you. So I’d hoped that, for you, it would be as clear, no ifs or buts. But I can understand what you’re saying. All I ask is that you don’t decide to terminate the baby until you’ve thought through what you want.”

Susan looked at him, puzzled. “Don’t you care whether the baby is yours or not? I thought this might be important to you. It is something we could probably find out if you want.”

He thought for a moment and said. “You know, it is funny, I feel I should care more than I do. It’s like it belongs to a part of your past life, and even though we were together for a night in Sydney when it could have happened, that does not seem so important. From here it feels like my real relationship with you began when I came to England. The other was something lovely but temporary, in another place and time. Even though I loved you then, you were only beginning to like me.

“Now I feel our life together has really begun, in a public and exclusive way. And that child who grows inside you is a real part of you. So, while a part of me would love the thought that it was my own child from the outset, if we stay together it will be anyway. I’ll watch a baby be born, I’ll hold it once it’s born; that feels like my child to me. So, from here on, it’s just part of what makes up you, the Susan I love.

“So I don’t need to know about this, and I’m sure I don’t want you to have tests which pose a risk to the baby. If I married you and you already had a child that would be a child I would love, because it came from you and, if we could not have children together and adopted a child, I would love that child in the same way as my own child.

“Anyway, as you say, that’s not to be decided now. But, like you, I definitely want our relationship to continue. And because time will run away very fast I want you to come back to Australia with me as soon as you’re able, to meet my family, spend some more time with me and decide what you want to do. How about that for an idea?

“I have to fly back Wednesday night, I can’t change that. But as soon as you can manage, if possible within a month, I’d like you to come back to Australia for two or three weeks, and spend that time with me. After that we can decide what to do. In the short term I need to stay in Australia for my work. But, if it’s important to you, we could come back to England to live before the baby is born. Most of my work can be done from anywhere in the world and I’m here for the purpose of expanding my business into the UK.”

 

 

 

Chapter 8 – Return to Australia

 

Just over three weeks had passed since David left. Again Susan found herself in a plane heading for Australia. David had bought her the ticket and insisted on business class. Susan had to admit that the extra comfort and space was nice. She thought she could come to like the little luxuries which seemed to flow from David.

Their final two days in and around London had a dreamy idyllic quality as she looked back on them. They had gone shopping in Oxford Street and other fashionable parts of London, they had visited various historic sites, like the Tower of London. They had a wonderful dinner with family and close friends, which David hosted in an upmarket West End Restaurant, on the final night.

Anne had come, she was now unattached. She looked sensational, with her flaming mass of red curls and peaches and cream complexion. Not to mention the low cut green dress which worked perfectly with her green eyes. David had been visibly struck by her, they had joked that if he had not met Susan first then her English friend may have been the one.

Anne herself had also seemed a bit wowed. She had exclaimed, “My God, Susan, I thought you were just going for a holiday. Here you bring back this amazing Aussie hunk. Does he have a brother for me?”

It had been a lovely night. While not an engagement party it was definitely about Susan and David and their hopes of a long term relationship together. David said to people, in a brash impromptu speech late into the evening, that he and Susan had made plans for her to come out to Australia very soon and he was hoping to see a lot more of them all, as part of continuing to see a lot of Susan.

Susan knew that both her parents and her Gran really liked him, and all her other family and friends seemed to like him too. Her only reservations were it was so fast and he seemed to be a bit too perfect. It was the same sense she had on that first morning in Sydney, after their first night together. Then he looked almost too beautiful to be real. It was not a real reservation, just a sense that things could never be perfect for ever, that there must be a flaw or a crack in the glass somewhere. She remembered a Leonard Cohen song that had a line with something about the cracks letting the light in and that seemed to capture it best. Perhaps one or two flaws in David’s perfection would bring her a comforting sense of reality.

Still, over the last two days David was in London, she had found herself more and more caught up in the imagination of a new life with him, something glamorous and stylish. In that world her last visit to Australia, including the baby, belonged to someone else, a person she could leave behind. Now she would move into a new persona that would provide her new reality, fully separated from that past.

On their final day in London they had visited some upmarket jewellers. David had said he wanted to buy her a ring and, even if she had not said ‘Yes’ to wearing it, at least not yet, she liked the idea of seeing what rings and other things they both liked.

She had caught his mood of enthusiasm. After trying many rings they had both agreed on a choice. In fact the word ‘Yes’ had been on the tip of her tongue since their dinner together when she told him about the baby. As he slid the chosen ring onto her third left finger she had an even more overpowering urge to say ‘Yes’, it got right to the very tip of her tongue, but somehow it stopped there.

Before he left, at the airport, she had told him that each day she was getting surer and she would be able to give him an answer when she came to Australia, she just needed to have some free thinking time, in between, to get a clear head so as to decide properly.

David, seeing this was as close as he could get, admitted that he could wait a bit longer. In fact, he told her that he had come to London with only a slim hope that anything would come of it between them. So now there was a real possibility he found himself almost bursting with excitement and was enjoying savouring the pleasure of imagining their life together while he waited. Susan could not repress a smile at his puppy like overpowering enthusiasm.

So now here she was, sitting on a plane, about to cross the world. She was filled with anticipation at seeing him again in just over a day. Nothing had happened to raise any questions about whether she should go forward except her dreams.

On their final night together in London, after the family dinner they had both gone to bed late and a little tipsy and had fallen straight to sleep, knowing a time for lovemaking would come later in the night.

Susan had found herself immersed in a dream which was so incredibly real. It was a dream of lovemaking, at first just of her and a man’s body in the night, so intimate and passionate, but totally silent. It felt like Mark and she found she overwhelmingly wanted it to be Mark. She had tried to look at the man’s face, as the ecstasy was building, but it was hidden in shadows.

Then a street light had flashed, illuminating the face, and it was Mark. She had been so happy and their pleasure together so intense, his mind was telling her that he was really here, that he loved her yet, and that both she and the child in her body belonged to him. She could feel tears of unbelievable happiness flowing down her cheeks.

Then, as the passion waned, somehow her mind left the dream behind and she opened her eyes to look at the man beside her. She knew she should have been happy, it was David and the joining of their bodies had been wildly beautiful. But her first unbidden reaction was of an intense loss and disappointment that Mark was no longer there. Her body and mind both ached for Mark’s touch, not that of the man who held her. She tried to hide it and felt she had succeeded, but it sat there like a stone at the bottom of a deeply buried pool of longing.

In David’s absence several more times versions of this dream had recurred, each one a little different and no other with full sexual consummation. But it was always Mark who held her in her dreams, and his message stayed the same, she and her child belonged to him. It felt like her life walked in two parallel paths, a real, daytime part of her life when she had given herself to David in mind and body and loved the idea of their future together. But at night and in her subconscious she walked the other path, she belonged to Mark, his half crocodile form and spirit captured her; this part of her had given over her soul to him.

She wondered if it was a form of schizophrenia, where her mind was splitting her into two people, who lived separate lives in her own body. It was not really scary but it was there, buried deep, this sense of dual possession and, as it continued night after night, she felt as if some part of her being was tearing into two. But as each new day began she would push the split existence of the night aside.

Now, as she flew to meet David, feeling a longing to be with him again, she hoped that the actuality of his presence, of him being with her all the time, would banish this other presence. She did not hate this duality but she knew that there could only be space for the one, and that only the living one was real.

Susan relaxed into her seat as the aircraft ceased its climb and enjoyed the service as the hours drifted away. She ate well and resisted the urge for a second glass of wine with her dinner, now conscious of a need to protect this baby, whoever’s it was. She was not quite ready to give it her affection but at least it had passed from being an evil object that deserved to be cut out.

Even if she and David did not work out she was starting to feel that she should keep the child, it was not its fault what its father had been, sort of like that biblical saying about ‘not visiting the sins of the father on the children’ or something like that. Even if the pregnancy was not planned, she no longer thought of it as a terrible catastrophe; David’s willingness to accept the child had helped her to see that.

After what seemed like a very short night it was light again and she was looking below at the mountains across the centre of Asia, massive snowy ridges. She remembered those same lucent white peaks, glimpsed in the dark night of her first dream and felt a strange but familiar ‘déjà vu’ kinship with this place. The plane incessantly carried her east; soon they were approaching Bangkok for their evening stopover before heading on to Sydney for a five am arrival.

It was as if the world was moving around her and she sat alone in a still place at its centre, waiting for her life to move to another phase, perhaps with this man whose company brought her pleasure, living in Australia. She slept little in this second night; it was really only the afternoon in London. Instead she watched the map as the plane slowly and inexorably came down over Australia, slicing through black sky above the red heart.

As they reached Australia she felt her mind was now made up, if he still wanted her she would marry him. With the ending of the plane trip came a sense of closure on a past life. She could now see herself with a new life in Australia, a life with this new man.

David was there to meet her, alone in the early dawn. She had wondered if he would bring Ruth to join the welcome but it was just him. She was glad; it was him she had come to see. She hugged him tight and he hugged her back, it felt good to be back together.

As they separated he looked at her quizzically and she looked back, serious for a second before she splashed him a brilliant smile. She knew what he wanted to know and she did not want to keep him in suspense.

She said, before he spoke, “If you still want me the answer is Yes, YES, YES, YES!”

He hugged her to him again. She could have sworn she saw a glisten of tears in his eyes. She felt his hands cup her face as he pushed it back and kissed it. It felt good, truly good. It was only a short drive, on this early morning, to David’s apartment, where an hour of passionate lovemaking before a couple of hours of sleep drifted by.

As Susan awoke in bright light to the smell of coffee David came in and said, “If you’re up to it I’ve just organised another lunch at Watsons Bay, call it an impromptu engagement party, the same gang as last time, plus some of my other friends, who I think you’ll like.”

It was another lovely afternoon, weather warmer than last time with a strong balminess to the day. It was hard to believe barely two months had passed since she last sat here with these people, it seemed a lifetime ago. David had not told the others about Susan and his plans, just that he was crazy about her and that she had returned for three wonderful weeks with him.

As they were clearing the plates, David suddenly looked serious and cleared his throat. The table fell silent. He turned towards Susan alongside himself and she looked at his earnest face with a tingle of excitement. Now he removed a small box from his pocket and opened it to her. It was the beautiful ring, a magnificent pale sapphire flanked by two smaller diamonds, set in white gold, the one they had both agreed upon in London.

He turned to all assembled and said, “Before I left London I asked Susan to marry me. She told me she’d give me an answer when she came to Australia. This morning she said ‘Yes’. So, in front of you all, I would like to put this ring on her finger and ask her once again”.

Then, looking only at her, he said, “Susan I’m asking you to marry me. What say you?”

“Yes, I want to and will do,” she replied. She held out her hand and he placed the ring on her finger. She could feel tears in her own eyes.

Everyone else was laughing, giggling, excitedly amazed, offering congratulations. As they admired the ring they all said how perfectly it matched the blue of her so, so blue eyes. It all felt good even though it seemed to happen too fast.

The next three weeks flew by in an excited blur. She liked being with David and had very little time for reflection on what she had decided. He was fun and good company. He introduced her to many of his friends and family. They had driven over the mountains to meet his family the next day and all had been very welcoming.

His father was not unlike Susan’s own father, slightly crusty and no-nonsense but with a wicked sense of humour. Sure enough David had a younger brother, Stephen. He was dark to David’s fair but otherwise similarly handsome. Susan thought of Anne, she would be invited out to the wedding and who knew? She should not play matchmaker but Anne had suggested this ‘brother thing’ after all.

David also had a younger sister, Rachel, who clearly thought he was wonderful. At first she was slightly standoffish with Susan. But they discovered a shared love of riding and soon became firm friends. Now Rachel was telling Susan all about her own friends, love life and hopes for the future.

David was a competent rider, who was around Susan’s level of skill. They both enjoyed riding across the trails at the back of the farm land where the mountains rose behind. It had something of the feel of the ‘Man from Snowy River’ country, even though it was at the back of the Blue Mountains, a place somewhere between Lithgow and Oberon, people told her. In the early mornings frost still crackled white under the horse’s feet though it was gone with an hour of sun.

The farm was large and prosperous for this area. It had a stud of black, Angus cattle and fields of fine wool sheep. They also had another farm two hours’ drive away on the western slopes, where they cropped wheat, barley and canola, and which made most of the farming income. The family also had a range of other investments from many years of successful farming which contributed to family finances.

In the words of David’s father, they were prosperous with more than enough for all the family and needs, without being extremely rich. Really they were rich compared to most other people Susan knew.

The only person who was not totally welcoming was David’s mother. She was not unfriendly but held a certain reserve. Over a cup of tea on the second day, when it was just the two of them, she told Susan her version of the story about how devastated David was when Nicki, his previous girlfriend, had gone off with someone else.

Her motherly concern was to protect David from another heartbreak; it was as if she had a womanly sense that this new relationship had come a bit too easy and moving too fast.

She said, “I do not want David, on the rebound, getting in too deep with someone else until you are both really sure. David is impulsive and part of me fears this may be that, not that he would let me say so.

“So please be sure before you commit your life to my son, do not let yourself be swept up by the excitement and rush of it all, unless you are really sure it is what you want too.

Susan knew what David’s mother meant; she had her own sense of the rush of it all, saying, “It seems hard for me to believe too. It has happened so fast. Sometimes I pinch myself and tell myself, ‘It can’t all be real.’ But when I think of David and look at him I am glad it is. It makes me really happy. Now I want to make him happy too.”

His mother seemed to accept what she said and, after this chat, it was like the air between them had been cleared.

Privately Susan still thought about this and tried to satisfy herself that she was sure. She understood where David’s mother was coming from and wondered herself if she had been all too caught up in the whole romantic impulse of it: boy meets girl from the other side of the world and now, in a rush, they are getting married.

Once she tried to talk about this with David, saying she did not want him to charge into marriage because she was pregnant, perhaps they should slow down the pace a bit and give their relationship more unhurried time, not break off their engagement, but just let the baby and the wedding each operate on their own timelines.

David was at his eloquent and persuasive best, he said, as they had decided, why delay? He convinced her it would be just as easy to get married quickly as slowly.

So she agreed. She would return to England to pack up her things and spend just over a month with her family and friends before she and her family came out to Australia for the wedding.

Even though tradition would have had the wedding in England they both agreed they wanted it in Sydney, at Watsons Bay, the place where they had started to get to know each other and had first really enjoyed each other’s company. There was a lovely sandstone church a few hundred yards from the restaurant. This it felt like the right place to get married. Their reception was to be only a short walk from there, in a place with beautiful afternoon and evening views out across Sydney Harbour looking towards the city skyscrapers and with vistas of sailing boats sweeping by in front of them.

Susan knew her own family could well afford the trip to Australia, and Anne had promised to come out as her bridesmaid. And she knew they were all looking forward to a holiday in Australia. So the wedding date was set for December, the church and reception had been booked and most of the guests had been invited.

On her final weekend in Australia there was a big family and friends’ engagement party, held over the mountains at David’s family’s place. It was quite delightful with so many well-wishers; all the neighbours came from miles around the farm and from the local village. Lots of David’s extended family came too, some from across country NSW, others from a mix of Australian cities. Susan charmed them all and enjoyed their company, she realised she liked the charm and courtesy of Australian country people, they lived at a slower and more polite pace than their city cousins.

She and David both agreed to say nothing of the baby at this stage. Most of the time Susan was barely conscious of it and it was not showing, in fact there was a good chance that it would be barely evident at the wedding, though Susan had chosen a loose fitting dress just in case. Time enough for everyone to know this piece of news when the time came, it is of little importance right now, she thought.

Almost before Susan knew where the time had all gone she was boarding the plane back to England, proudly wearing her engagement ring, giving David a last hug and promising to ring him every day, “at least almost always,” she qualified. Then the door closed and suddenly she was back in her own world again.

She settled into her seat and picked up her passport, now with another visitor exit stamp. She would need to sort out some more permanent residency arrangements, it was something they had both largely forgotten about in the rush of the last three weeks but she must get onto it as soon as she was back in England. She should probably begin with a trip to the Australian embassy next week, no doubt endless form filling and proofs of their relationship, perhaps she could return on her existing visa which was valid for the year.

As she was thinking about this Susan began to aimlessly flick through the various pieces of paper which were in her plastic travel wallet. She realised it was the same one that she had used when she first came to Australia about four months ago; it seemed that was in another life time, barely remembered.

Sure enough there was her boarding pass from London to Tokyo and another to Cairns. She decided that, as she had many hours to kill, and lots of arranging to do once back home, she would start by going through this wallet and discarding the rubbish, it was symbolic of her moving on, this cleaning away another part of her life. Then, when she had done that, she would make a list of things she had to do once back in London: that way she could hit the ground running.

She discarded the boarding passes from her first trip to Australia, then she pulled out the other scraps of paper that sat alongside them. There was a folded sheet with the name Janet Davidson, and below it Maggie Richards, two London addresses, phone numbers and emails.

At first it did not ring any bells then it came to her, Maggie was the girl she had met on the boat in Cairns and gone to Kuranda with, Janet was Maggie’s best friend that she travelled with, but was someone who Susan had not met. When they parted Maggie had given her this slip of paper to get in touch once she returned from her holiday. She could not remember any reason for Janet’s name being there, but maybe it was already on the paper that Maggie had torn out of her notebook. Thinking of Maggie brought a smile to Susan’s face, they had a great night out in Cairns and it would be equally great to catch up in London, if she could manage it in the next month.

She put this slip of paper aside to keep and picked up the next bit. It was a double folded piece that she had no remembrance of. Perhaps she had picked it up by mistake. Then it came to her, this slip of paper had been handed to her by the man behind her in the queue at the passport checking place. It was just before she left Darwin on her last flight out of Australia. She had slipped in here without looking, fully intending to check it later and had promptly forgotten it.

Perhaps it did not really belong to her. It also looked like a sheet torn from a notebook, with one jagged edge and faint ruled lines. Its origin was certainly not something that triggered her memory. She turned it over as she looked at it.

There, on the other side, was her name, “Susan”, written in small neat writing; so it was hers. There was something about the writing of her name that set alarm bells jangling in her brain. It was not her own writing, but it was familiar writing.

She opened the sheet, and almost dropped the paper. It felt like it was on fire and was burning her hand.

It began,

 

Dear Susan,

If you are reading this it almost certainly means I am dead. I know now that is the only way forward from here. One of us must vanish and I could not bear for it to be you.

I have written this because I wanted to say goodbye. It seems important to me now to tell you that I love you and not just vanish with those words never said.

They are words I have wanted to say to you ever since that first day on the boat when I met you face to face, though I had already been entranced by your image, glimpsed distantly on the Cairns shoreline, feet in the shallow water and hair flung back embracing the sun. It is that I have loved you utterly since even before I first met you. It was only when brought to a place of no other choices that I could say it honestly.

 

A page of close-spaced dense handwriting followed and at the bottom was a signature she knew so well,

Mark B.

 

 

 

Chapter 9 – Identification of a Body

 

Alan had been racking his brains for two weeks about how to identify this person of the billabong, really just a forearm and a skull. He had picked Sandy’s brains for all her ideas and he had done the same with many of his work colleagues. But really it was the same ideas, check for missing persons, follow all the leads he had and wait for a lucky break.

He had tried all the dentists in Darwin and Katherine for dental records which matched, but nothing. In reality there was not much to match, a couple of minor fillings which could have been done anywhere and a complete set of teeth which on X-rays looked normal and unremarkable.

So, while the experts told him that each person’s teeth were unique and distinctive, there was hardly a database of teeth images that a computer could search. And without any other identity clues going through hundreds and thousands of dental X-ray images in a range of surgeries, and seeing if they had any which resembled his specimen, was thoroughly unrewarding. So now he had almost abandoned this idea though he had left a copy of the image with each Darwin dentist he visited just in case something should jump up. But he suspected it was a waste of time.

The forearm was slightly more interesting. They had evidence of a healed forearm fracture, and also evidence of an associated gunshot injury in the form of several small fragments of lead present in the adjacent tissue. They looked like they had come from a projectile, which had disintegrated when it smashed into the bone. But all the big pieces were gone and the pieces left were only 1–2 mm in size. They would have been easy to miss, but Sandy had picked up the white flecks on the X-ray and gone digging, after taking pictures from a range of angles. Three pieces had been retrieved and analysed. All had a metal profile of lead, with traces of other specific metals. They were present in a combination which suggested Soviet military ammunition. The scar tissue around the injury indicated that the wound had been cleaned and perhaps sutured, but without internal surgical fixation of the fracture. So it was likely that this treatment was done in a third world country because in a developed country such an injury would normally have been repaired with a plate and screws, according to a surgeon that Sandy had talked to in Darwin Hospital.

So the basic identity information they had to go on was a Caucasian male, of medium to strong build, based on lower arm bone shape.

The age range was 25 to 45, on the basis of full growth plate closure but without evidence of the degenerative changes that accompanied a person’s advancing years.

Isotopic bone and tissue analysis also suggested that the person had predominantly lived in Northern Australia with some time spent in Africa and or the Middle East, but this was not definite.

The level of healing of the bone injury suggested that it had occurred when the person was an adult but at least 3 years ago. This injury had broken the mid ulna bone and had been repaired by wound cleaning and probably a plaster cast such as might be applied in a field military hospital, with limited surgical facilities.

Thus an occupation such as a mercenary in a conflict where one side was using Soviet military ammunition, with an African or Middle Eastern location, seemed a reasonable surmise.

But while these were interesting facts they brought Alan no closer to knowing the person’s actual identity. In reality he felt a bit stumped at this juncture. He had now largely moved onto other cases, while waiting and hoping that something would turn up.

Sandy had completed all her tests, analyses and reports. It was definitive that all the tissues including the blood, forearm and skull belonged to the same person. Death from a fractured skull, following a blow by a piece of broken timber to the side of the head seemed to be the likely cause.

The police had made a cast of a back left tyre missing a distinctive piece of tread and of the two human footprints found, one appeared to be that of a likely small to mid-sized female and one that of a medium to large man, whose size appeared consistent with the victim.

They also had good evidence that the site had been deliberately cleaned up after the event, including dirt scraping and brushing, fire-ash deposited in the billabong with a few interesting but small fragments which they may yet identify, an MB monogram and broken lock from what looked like a leather briefcase, with its make yet unknown. The tarnish on the brass monogram and lock fittings suggested a one to two month period in the water.

There were also other odd snips of information which may or may not be relevant. These included a report from a local fisherman who routinely came to fish further along this billabong most weekends of the dry season. He reported seeing a person unknown driving a white Toyota, around the billabong campgrounds in a way which suggested they were unsure where they were going at about eight pm on a Saturday night. This happened in the likely time period of this event. The description of the vehicle was imprecise, though he thought it was a tray back that had something white on the back, like an esky box.

So it was possible that this was a description of the vehicle used by the murderer to leave the scene, particularly if they were unfamiliar with the locality and were searching for a way out. Alan remembered how confusing all the tracks around the billabongs were in the daytime, let alone at night.

Unfortunately the fisherman was not absolutely sure which weekend it had happened, as he had been out there almost every weekend since June, but he thought it was around mid to late August.

So this may tie a person or persons and a specific vehicle to this location. But first they had to make an identification of the victim for the other information to become useful.

The case fascinated and challenged Alan. He worked on it every minute he could spare, as well as spending hours discussing it with Sandy though, since the night of her crocodile dream, he felt she had withdrawn from her desire to catch the killer.

She told Alan that she had felt such a terror coming from the lady who was in her dream that she did not want to do anything to harm her further and that, if this person had killed the man, she was sure it was for a good reason.

At first Alan had teased her a bit about this, saying it was only a dream, how could she know anything real from it. But Sandy said she was as sure as she could be that she had seen from inside the mind of a woman who was intended as a victim of the crocodile.

In return Sandy challenged him back about the sense of loss he experienced coming from the crocodile that day: “How could a dumb predator communicate with us?”

As Alan relived this memory he found he was no longer so sure it was all rubbish and stopped his mocking of her dream. After this they called this a truce. While they still talked a lot about the case, it was now about any ways he could find to identify who this man was.

Outside of work he and Sandy were getting on wonderfully, still in that first delicious period of loving infatuation when all they wanted to do was go to bed together and any time and place was good. The sex was great, but much more importantly they really liked each other and enjoyed doing things together. So days were hard work where they saw little of each other, just an occasional quick hello call. But evenings and nights were wonderful and they spent them together almost always.

They still both kept their own places but now it just served the purpose of letting them decide which would be their joint abode of the night. He liked Sandy’s place best to sleep in. It was full of her feminine nick knacks, smells and mess. Even when she went out and left him alone it still felt like her. His place was more masculine and ordered, with better furniture and a longer term feel. Sandy said she preferred it, both for the better creature comforts and because of something similar in reverse, that “it was imbued with him”, and she liked the sense of him that pervaded the place.

In reality their living was about a fifty-fifty split between both places and now they were having conversations about getting a larger place to share. He was sure it would happen as it made sense to only have the one place, both for money saving and convenience, but for now it was not a burning priority.

Everyone now knew they were an item and the novelty gossip value was fading. It felt good to have this part of their life settled and they were even planning a short Christmas trip south to meet both sets of parents. Alan found he felt really good about being with Sandy and thought, maybe, on New Year’s Eve, he should pop the question. If she said yes that really would be something to celebrate. The only question was how to manage both their careers if any babies came, but they did not need to go there yet.

Alan was doodling on his pad, part of his mind still on Sandy and last night, as he scanned some reports on a series of break and enters around Nightcliff. He was trying to get a feel for whether there was any common pattern or just some random delinquent larceny, but his attention was only half with it. His phone rang, startling him.

It was Eddie from the Vehicles Section. He said, “It may be nothing but I’ve had a call from a patrol car out near Marrara. They were called to investigate what appears to be an abandoned Toyota, parked in the service road alongside Macmillan’s Road. It’s been there for quite a while and nobody has really paid it any attention, though one of the house owners opposite was starting to wonder who owned it.

“But the night before last someone smashed the windscreen and it has just sat there since. So the owner of one of the houses opposite rang to report it. Anyway the patrol car is there now looking at it; it’s a Land Cruiser tray back with a cooler box and cage on the back. We’ve just run the plates and it shows up registered to a Mark Bennet from Alice Springs, just a postal address. I’ve looked up this person and can’t locate him on our systems, no phone number or other contact details, though the address is valid. So I’ve just asked the Alice Springs police to call round and see if they can locate him.

“Then, just a minute ago, I remembered my conversation with you, over a drink last Friday, that weird crocodile murder victim where you recovered part of a briefcase with a monogram, and you said it was an MB. It may be nothing but who knows.”

Alan could feel the excitement surge through him. It was both the initials and the way the vehicle description matched that given by the fisherman. Could this be the break he had been waiting for?

He brought himself back to the phone. “Definitely of interest, Eddie, and many thanks. Is the patrol car still there?”

“Yeah sure, I asked him to stand by for five while I ran a few checks. I was just about to tell him to leave and say we would call a tow truck to take it to a garage. Then your conversation popped into my mind. I’ll call the patrol car back and ask it to hang around if you want to go straight there.”

Alan replied, “On my way as we speak, and thanks again. I owe you one. This could be the big clue we’ve been waiting for.”

He called the constable from the desk beside him, “Are you good to go? We have an abandoned vehicle that may be linked to our Crocodile Man, out near Marrara.”

In five minutes they were there and looking from the outside at the Toyota as described. Judging from the accumulation of dust it had been there for a couple of months, though inside, other than a shower of glass scattered across the dashboard, seat and floor it looked remarkably clean, too clean for a bush vehicle.

He peered through the side window into the gloom. It was hard to see clearly but, as best he could tell, the interior looked spotless; not what one would expect from an abandoned bush basher. He climbed up on the back, also clean except for a few leaves and a film of dust. He opened the cooler. It was spotless too and it had a faint aroma of cleaning chemicals, as if it had been closed up after being cleaned, while not quite dry and the smell still lingered even though all moisture was long gone. It was this cleanness, more than anything, which set the bells ringing in his brain. There was such a similarity to the way the campsite had been systematically cleaned. He felt almost sure this was the real one, the break they needed. He looked at the back passenger side tyre. He could not see a piece of missing tread, but it was on the inside and most of the tyre was hidden up in the under-body. That was something to check once the vehicle was on a hoist.

He asked the beat police officers what they thought. One said, “Well at first nothing, just a car of someone who has gone on holidays overseas and parked close to the airport before getting on a plane. But then I thought, If a bushie is going to leave his car here for a month or two while away, why would he clean it so well first? It’s like it’s been detailed, before it was left.

“I looked underneath. While the top is almost spotless, underneath hasn’t been cleaned at all. If you were having a vehicle professionally cleaned and detailed why not clean the under-body as well with a high-pressure hose? Instead the under-body still has all the crud and lumps of mud that come from months of driving in the bush. Five minutes with a high-pressure hose would shift most. But the tyres look like someone has washed them, at least a bit. It’s definitely odd that only the topside has been cleaned so well.”

The second officer continued, “And it looks like someone has smeared mud on the number plates to make them real hard to read. I needed a couple of goes, cross-checking between the front and back, before I was sure I had the rego right.

“I can’t say I’m surprised that you find this interesting for your crocodile case. You have a nose on you for these things like a foxhound on the trail of his fox so I’m guessing now that you’ll want our vehicle recovery crew to take it to the police workshop so we can take it apart systematically, before anything else is disturbed.”

Alan nodded. “You got it. While I’d love to pop a door and have a proper look inside, I think this is one for the pros to do, we run the risk of stuffing up any evidence which remains. I don’t suppose you’ve seen any keys.” The patrol men both shook their heads.

Alan asked his constable to stay with the vehicle and make sure no one disturbed it until the vehicle recovery team came along. He told him to accompany it to the workshop and tell them what was required. Alan wanted it totally pulled apart to look for any evidence of previous users, making a careful check of anywhere where there may be DNA to see if it matched the “Crocodile Man” victim. They should also check to see if the tyre tread matched the cast in his office.

He left the vehicle and asked the patrol car to drop him back to the station. He could see a lot of work flowing out of this and wondered if he should book a flight to Alice Springs to try to get some information on this man, Mark Bennet.

Once back at the office he quickly rang Sandy to give her an update, then it was off to talk to his boss about the “where to from here”. They agreed they would hold off on any media about the vehicle for a day or two and, in the meantime, Alan would get to Alice and see if they could either locate Mark Bennet or get any information from people who knew him. If he hurried he could just make the mid-afternoon Qantas flight there today.

 

 

 

Chapter 10 – Who and Where is Mark Bennet

 

Alan touched down in Alice Springs in the late afternoon, just as the heat was going out of the day. He caught a taxi to the Alice Springs Police HQ where he talked to the officer who had called to the address earlier in the day. This man, Richard, told him it was an unremarkable third-floor flat with a locked garage to the side. There was no sign of anyone living there, or of recent use, and there was no mail other than a small amount of junk mail in the letter box, suggesting this was emptied by someone from time to time. He had knocked on the doors of the immediate neighbours but no one was home. So he had left it at that, knowing that someone was coming from Darwin for a more detailed investigation.

Richard had also called to the motor registration authority and obtained a photo from a licence issued in this Mark Bennet name. While not detailed it was an image of a man who looked to be in his mid-thirties and, at least from the photo, he had no distinctive features, having medium-brown hair and a pleasant if not highly handsome face. It was not the face of a man who would obviously stand out in a crowd. Alan slipped a copy of the photo in his wallet.

As it was now late afternoon and people would be coming home Mark asked Richard if he could accompany for a repeat visit now that it was likely neighbours would be around. Richard seemed keen to help, even though Mark could only tell him a limited amount about their investigation, as of now. Richard had heard of ‘Crocodile Man’ and Mark indicated that it may be linked to this investigation.

So they called around to the license address. It was a nondescript, relatively new but dingy building on the east side of the town. Richard said it comprised 12 two-bedroom flats. He said the flat listed as Mark Bennet’s address shared a common entrance which went up two flights of stairs. His flat was on the top level, along with three other flats opening off at the top of the stairs. To the side of the building was a car park with a row of garages whose numbers matched the flat numbers.

Mark’s flat was Number Eleven and, sure enough, the garage door was locked. They walked around the back. There was a tiny window, up high, which let in a small amount of light but, when Alan climbed up to look in, it was too dark to see anything inside. So they climbed the stairs to the front door of the flat. They knocked loudly for a minute with no answer. It was a heavy security door and there were no internally facing windows, to look in. They went back downstairs and outside to see if anything was evident from street level. They saw a small verandah with an iron railing which seemed to correspond to the flat. It was bare except for two old looking metal chairs. They could not get any view of the inside but there was no sign of life.

So they went back to the neighbours’ doors at the same level. Only one was home. When Alan showed him the licence photo he said he was not sure but he thought it could be the man. He said he had rented this flat for about a year now. In all that time he had rarely seen his neighbour from Number 11. This person was rarely there and kept to himself. He had never seen him in the company of anyone else.

They spent another hour working their way around the rest of the building with similarly little results. Only two other building residents had ever sighted the resident of this flat. They also said they were not really sure if he was the person on the driver’s licence, “he looked similar”, was all any of them would say. No one knew if he was the owner or a renter, but the longest term person had been here since the flats were built five years ago and he said this person had used that flat for at least three years. He also said that, while this man was not rude, he showed no inclination to socialise and was barely there.

Nobody could recall having seen him in the last two or three months but they said that this was not unusual, he only seemed to be at home for a few days at a time, perhaps two or three times a year.

There was a view that he probably worked out bush, as he had a white Toyota four-wheel drive with what looked like tools on the back. No-one remembered a built-in cooler box.

The one useful piece of information was that another person had been observed collecting his mail and throwing away the junk mail every week or two. He seemed to have a mailbox key and was a man who looked to be in his fifties and walked with a limp. He came on a Thursday or Friday in the late afternoon. As it was Wednesday there was a good chance that he would come tomorrow or the next day.

This seemed like the best lead to date. So Alan decided he would come back and wait near the mail box area, for the next two days in the late afternoon. Tomorrow he would see if he could find out anything else useful about a Mark Bennet from around the town.

As he had worked in the Alice on several previous occasions and had many friends and work colleagues he knew well, he had made an impromptu arrangement to meet some people he knew for a drink at Bojangles Restaurant and Nightclub, a long-time haunt. He invited Richard who said he had family commitments with two small children and would have to take a raincheck.

Alan was up early the next day and returned to the Police Headquarters. He had been assigned an office and a vehicle for his use while in town. Richard was working day shift for the next two days and was available to assist him if required.

As soon as he had settled at his desk and given a phone update to Darwin, he decided it was time to give Richard a proper briefing on the case. He was now committed to spend the next two days here trying to get leads and wanted Richard’s help. Experience had taught him that investigations worked better if everyone was fully briefed.

So he found a small conference room and asked Richard to come in. Once he had got an undertaking of confidentiality he walked Richard through everything he had found out to date. Then he asked Richard what ideas he had, as someone who lived in this town, about how to try to track this man down. His trust was well rewarded, within five minutes they had a list of more tasks than they could do in the next two days and had divided up this work between them.

Richard would focus on the flat and its ownership, he would find out from the land titles office who was its owner and, if Mark was a renter, he would get details from the real estate agent of any rental agreement, references and so on. He would also prepare a warrant to gain entry to the flat tomorrow in the event that their mail contact did not turn up or have access.

Alan would focus on the vehicle, get details of its age, original purchaser, any previous locations, records of fines, breaches or insurance claims, any information coming back from Darwin about accessories and fittings, garages where it had been serviced and look for anything else which would pin down its usage and perhaps give a clue as to where Mark went when out of town.

He would also try to obtain information on any people with the name of Mark Bennet from different record sources, such as the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages, listed bank accounts and so on. The trouble was that Mark Bennet was a common name and there may well be more than one person by that name in a town like Alice. Still Alice was still a small town from a business sense. That meant less places to check.

They would reconvene for lunch and together ring the vehicle investigation team in Darwin to see if they had anything definite from their end. Then they would plan their afternoon’s activities, including surveillance of the post box for any sign of a mail collector. They had decided they needed to cover this for the full afternoon, in the event the person came early.

They reconvened at lunchtime over a steak sandwich at a local café. Alan bought both meals on his expense account. They both agreed it had been a frustrating morning, and were amazed at the level of invisibility that surrounded this person, Mark Bennet.

The flat was owned by a corporation which had a Sydney post box address. It had not yet proved possible to trace the owner or owners behind this as it appeared to have a complex structure of ownership.

There was nothing useful coming from the vehicle to date. The purchaser was Mark Bennet, and he had purchased it new three years ago from the Toyota agent in Alice Springs. He had given as his address the flat they had already visited but no other contact details. He had paid cash for it with a bank cheque, drawn to Westpac, Alice Springs. They may be able to trace this transaction through to a bank account or other identity information in due course. The vehicle had returned for its first two warranty services when the owner paid cash for the costs incurred, but after that the vehicle had vanished from their system. He had also traced the supplier of the bull bar and winch fitted to the vehicle, just after purchase in Alice Springs, but in both cases Mark had provided no information except the same residential address. They had shown these vehicle suppliers Mark’s photo and, while all thought it could be him, none was sure; “it was three years after all,” as one said.

Together they rang the police vehicle workshop in Darwin, using Alan’s mobile, sitting in the police car, after lunch. They talked to the constable who had spent the morning alongside the crew as they started to take the vehicle apart.

All agreed that the vehicle was far too clean; the cabin had been stripped of all its regular contents and then cleaned, using both detergents and solvents, to get it to an extraordinary level of cleanness. They was little to indicate they would find any DNA of other useful evidence about former occupants, but they were yet to pull out all the seats and other fittings which may yet reveal something. The back tray and the cooler box had a similar level of cleanliness though there was some hope of a few fibres or other minor residue in its corners.

However, there was one really significant piece of news and it was a jackpot. The back passenger tyre matched the cast from the track near the billabong, down to the piece of missing rubber from the inside of the tread.

At this time the head of the workshop’s voice came over the top. “Well, Alan, if we get nothing else I think this will nail it. It as good as says that this vehicle was the one that made that track just next to the Mary River billabong where you found your Crocodile Man. So, if I was a betting man, I’d say it’s odds on that a Mr Mark Bennet is your Crocodile Man or, if not, he was at least there with him. All we need now is some of his DNA from the car, or better still from his flat, for it to be an absolute dead certainty.”

So now they now had an excellent basis for a search warrant of the flat. Richard said he would organise this if Alan wanted to go and start surveillance at the letter box.

As it was turning into a stinking hot afternoon, with some thundery cloud rising over the West McDonnell Ranges, Alan suspected this was as much about a desire for some air-conditioned comfort. But it suited him too; he liked the idea of parking himself in an obscure corner of the flats where he could see what transpired. Sometimes he got ideas for other inquiries through surveillance of this type and he did not really mind the heat, though he preferred more typical Alice Springs days when the air was dry than today with its humidity added in.

So he said, “Can you try to organise the entry for about ten am tomorrow when most people have gone to work? I’d rather keep this low key for now, though I’m sure it’ll be in Saturday’s newspapers. One way or another we’ll have to do a news conference before the end of tomorrow, or we’ll be accused of a cover-up.”

Richard nodded, so Alan asked him to drop him to the flats before he went back into town to get the search warrant and the entry team for tomorrow organised.

It was just before two pm when Richard let him off and drove away. Alan had a bottle of water and a newspaper to help pass away the long afternoon. There was a courtyard, with two seats and a table under a shady tree just inside the entrance from the street to the flats. It gave a good view across to the post boxes, so Alan settled himself down on a chair with his paper opened. An hour passed. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners and the buzz of an occasional fly willing to brave the heat. Alan could feel his shirt sticking to his back. It was bloody hot and more than a bit humid, not the best day for this. But it meant that he had no company and this suited him.

About three-thirty he heard the noise of a car motor coming along the street towards him. It was a beat-up old Ford Falcon, the sort loved across aboriginal communities. A weather-beaten man, perhaps in his fifties, got out and walked purposefully to the mailboxes, key in hand. Sure enough, he went to Mailbox Number 11, Mark’s flat. He opened it and proceeded to sort through what was there. It looked like there were a dozen items of junk mail and three letters. He tossed the junk mail into a bin and started to walk back to his car with the three letters.

It was time for Alan to act. He got up and walked across to where the man’s car was parked, reaching it just a second before the man did. He put his body between the man and the car door. Thus far the man seemed completely unaware of Alan, but suddenly he realised his path was blocked and looked up. “Excuse me,” he said in a surprisingly polite manner, “I need to get into my car.”

Alan flipped open his police identification, nodded and replied, “Sure, but I need to ask you a few questions before you do.”

The man looked perplexed and annoyed. “You think I’m nicking his mail, don’t you. Well you’re wrong. See, I’ve got the key,” he said, waving it in Alan’s face, his hostility rising.

Alan held up a hand to calm him. He could see this guy was a heavy drinker and prone to a bit of temper. He said, “Calm down, old fella, no one is accusing you of anything. We’re just trying to track down the man who owns those letters. We figured you may be able to help us. More better if you come and sit with me, under that shady tree, and tell me how you know Mark Bennett and why you collect his mail. When we have that story straight you’ll be free to go, though we might need to check those letters for any addresses. Later we may need you to come to the police station to make a statement, but that’s it.”

In five minutes Alan had the story straight. The man, Fred, normally came around five pm on a Thursday, but had come early today because he was meeting some friends later to have a drink and he needed his money. He was on a disability pension since he had hurt his back over three years ago. He said he had only met Mark the once, when he and Mark had got chatting over a drink in a bar soon after he got out of hospital. That was three years ago, just after his accident happened.

Mark had told him he worked out of town a lot and needed someone to check his mail each week, throw the junk mail away and put the real stuff into an envelope and send it on to a post box address in Katherine. In return Mark would pay him sixty dollars a month, which would come to him in this mailbox, along with his other letters.

He had now been doing this for three years and, each month without fail, the letter with his money had come, for the first year with sixty dollars a month, the next year seventy and now eighty dollars a month. There had also been the odd bit extra like a Christmas bonus.

He showed Alan the letters he had collected. There were two letters addressed to Mark Bennet, one looked like an electricity bill and the other looked like a promotional letter from the Desert Sails Resort at Yulara. Alan thought this second letter was probably just junk mail, a bulk mail-out from one of those resold mail lists, but he decided he would reserve judgement until it was opened.

The third letter was addressed to the man who sat in front of him, with his name, care of this address, printed on a sticky label, stuck on the front of the envelope along with a standard postage stamp. There was no other clue, no other writing, on the outside of the envelope.

Alan handled all the mail with care, touching only the very corners. He realised now he would have to have to bring this man down to the police station to make a statement, and take the envelope and money for analysis, along with the other letters.

So he turned to the man and said, “Listen, I’m very sorry but we think something bad may have happened to Mark, and we’re trying to trace him. So, despite what I said, I have to ask you to come to the police station now and we’ll also have to analyse those letters. But don’t worry, I’ll give you the eighty dollars you’re expecting, along with an extra twenty for your trouble and it’ll only take half an hour before you’re on your way again.”

He thought the man would grumble but was surprised when he flashed him a toothy smile. “Well I have to admit, sounds fair, just so long as I get my money. I promised me mates that I’d buy the drinks this week, it’s my turn, so I need the cash.” He continued, “While I only met that Mark bloke the once, he seemed very fair and it was more than reasonable to raise me each year. So now, if he needs a bit of help in return from me, ’tis the least I can do. Do you need the key or shall I keep up doing what I’ve been doing?”

Alan looked at him and grinned back. “If you reckon the money will keep coming you should keep the key, at least for now. Just drop in any other mail that comes to the local police station each week, even the junk mail, pick it out carefully and put it in a clean plastic bag without touching the sides of each letter.”

The man grinned back, liking this idea. “Right you are.”

Alan walked over and collected the junk mail from the bin, where the man had dropped it. “I need to check this too, just in case there’s anything that helps us find him,” he said. “One thing more, in return for the extra twenty I promised, how about you give me a drive to the station, call it a taxi fare. It’s too bloody hot and too bloody far to walk and it’ll save me having to call a patrol car or taxi to come and get us.”

The man nodded and grunted. “Mores than fair, I reckons.”

Richard looked up with surprise when Alan returned with his hobo friend. Alan quickly told Richard the story and asked Richard to witness his payment of a hundred dollars to the man, to allow him to make an expense claim.

Then Alan took one hundred dollars from his wallet and passed it to Fred, wrote a short statement, read it back to him and, when he nodded in agreement, asked him to sign it. He and Richard countersigned. Fred was free to go and left with a cheery wave.

Alan called out, “No driving that car until tomorrow if you have a skin full.” The man nodded and doffed his hat.

As he disappeared Richard turned to Alan and said, “Seems like you have a different way of doing things than how I’m allowed to. I’d have to take the money as evidence, even though I know it really belongs to the man and he would’ve been seriously annoyed not to have his drinking money.”

Alan nodded. “Much better this way, he’s happy, we got what we needed along with some goodwill and the worst that can happen is I’ll be down a hundred if they don’t refund my claim. But at the end of the day, I’m sure there’ll be the eighty in the envelope, and a taxi would’ve cost another twenty, so I’m sure my boss will approve it.

“Still I asked you to sign it just so no one can say I’m putting my hand in the honey pot. Now, how about some gloves so we can open those letters and see if there’s anything useful in them?”

The first letter was the money as expected, with absolutely nothing else but four new-looking twenty-dollar notes inside the envelope. “Off for some fingerprinting, I reckon,” said Richard, “though I doubt we’ll find anything.”

The second was an electricity account, also as expected, and the usage was miniscule, suggesting Mark Bennet had barely been at home in the last quarter. “Something to follow up re the account information, though again I doubt it’ll take us anywhere,” said Alan.

The third letter, however, was much more interesting. It was a customer follow-up inquiry, along with a bonus voucher, from the Desert Sails Resort in Yulara. Alan knew the place well; he had stayed there more than once. The letter advised that, following Mr Bennet’s recent stay in their facility, they were seeking feedback on his experience and satisfaction. In return for him taking the time to complete the survey and send it back, or alternatively fill it out online, a bonus discount voucher for 30 percent of his next stay was enclosed.

The letter did not give a date of stay but it had a reference number. By the time Richard had finished reading Alan was on the phone to Desert Sails. In a few minutes he had confirmed that a Mark Bennet had stayed there in a luxury double room for one night in early August and gave Alan that date. The lady who answered his call also told him she understood from their records that Mr Bennet had a companion; at least a room service order suggested this, with two serves of an entrée and main course for a late dinner, along with a payment for two buffet breakfasts the next morning.

Alan’s next question was the clincher. “Do you have any CCTV footage of either the reception or the breakfast buffet area?”

The lady answered, “Certainly, sir, we have it for both areas, at least for the buffet entrance. The footage is kept for 3 months. So footage for this date should still be available. I will of course need to sight your actual police authority before I’m able to allow you to view it. But, in the meantime, I’ll ensure it’s held securely.”

So now Alan had to decide, which one first, Yulara or the search of the flat. He wanted to be there for both. He asked Richard what he thought. “Definitely Yulara, I know they’ve promised to keep the footage, but you know how it is with these things; Murphy’s law being alive and well with the potential for stuff-ups.

“That flat’s not going anywhere and we can easily put it back a day. I know that makes it the weekend but it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps we can get the locksmith to try to get the door open tomorrow without smashing the lock. If that doesn’t work we’ll go in with the heavy gear the next day.”

So it was agreed, they would make the run down to Yulara tonight, and seek to view the footage first thing in the morning. Alan raised his eyebrows at Richard’s enthusiasm to include himself in the trip. “Don’t you have family commitments tonight?”

Richard grimaced a bit. “I know I do and I should go home and let someone else go with you. But I wouldn’t miss this for quids, a real live murder investigation when we may get to see our victim’s head in the flesh. I’ll have to treat the family to a special dinner Saturday night to make up. Cathy will be sweet once I explain. She’s a nurse and has the night off and tomorrow the kids will be at school.”

It was ten pm when they arrived at Yulara, bleary-eyed from 450 kilometres of driving. The duty manager met them, as expected.

Alan gave him a brief explanation. “We’re trying to trace the movements of a man who appears to have gone missing. His stay here appears to be his last known location.”

The duty manager passed over room key cards and told them he had organised for the resort manager to meet them soon after nine am tomorrow and go through the footage with them. Alan asked if tonight one of the staff could spend a few minutes showing him the layout of the buildings, including where their former guest’s room was, the route from the reception area to it and the location of any cameras which may have picked up their images.

After ten minutes they had it mapped out and were hopeful that there would be images from three or four cameras. It should be fairly straightforward as they had an exact time of check in.

Next morning Alan found himself twitching with impatience as he ate a leisurely breakfast after an early morning walk. But he could not complain; the resort was being very helpful, obviously keen to handle a sensitive inquiry in a low key way. He knew the resort needed to deal with the early morning checkout rush, the getting guests onto tour coaches, before it was reasonable to have the manager’s time.

After breakfast, around a quarter to nine, he advised reception that he was ready and waiting. Five minutes later he and Richard were introduced to the Resort Manager and a technician, who took them to a viewing room with several monitors. The technician quickly scrolled through the footage until they came to the booking date.

They had a check-in time of 8.54 pm, so they fast-forwarded again until around eight pm, then slowed to rapid view. There were three camera feeds running on adjacent screens, all showing concurrent feeds. One showed the driveway and resort entrance in wide view, one showed the reception area and one showed the final passage way heading towards their room. The time was displayed on all feeds.

At 8.50 a white four-wheel drive tray-back flashed past along the driveway, passing beyond view. Alan felt his heart skip a beat, he was sure this was the vehicle they had found. Even in the dim light the cooler box was clearly visible.

He put up his hand and the technician stopped and backed up the feed. The technician started a copying machine and the images played at normal speed. Now they watched in full detail. It was definitely the same Toyota found in Darwin. They watched as it passed from view, the brake lights coming on as it turned sideways into the car park entrance and vanished from sight.

A couple of minutes later this same camera picked up a man who looked like the photo of Mark Bennet. He walked towards and through the entrance, holding hands with a medium-sized girl with dark hair. Their manner was affectionate. The light and detail was not very good but it clearly was Mark and an unknown lady. A few seconds later Mark came clearly into view in the next camera. He was approaching reception, holding a booking slip. The girl could be seen at the edge of the monitor, standing well back and the image was less than clear. It looked like she was waiting behind as the man did the formalities. The third camera picked them up another minute later, walking down the passage way towards the room, arms around each other in an intimate manner. This time it showed a full face picture of the girl, up close and as sharp as day when the technician zoomed in.

Richard whistled. “She’s a sweet-looking thing, wonder what they will be doing for the night. With that dark wavy hair she could be Spanish or Italian, or maybe an American Latino.” They disappeared from view as they passed the camera.

A few minutes later Mark reappeared by himself. They tracked him back outside, then back in again with an overnight bag and a backpack.

Alan asked to pause and zoom in on the backpack. It looked like luggage which belonged to the girl. Maybe she was a backpacker that Mark Bennet had picked up for a night of fun, perhaps the detail of the pack could help work out where she came from.

But this image was not sharp enough for that. Maybe the police technicians could work it up more, back in Darwin. They rolled the tape again as Mark continued on. There was a period of a couple of minutes when he vanished. Then he came past reception, now also carrying a bottle of champagne. Once he passed the third camera neither Mark nor the woman was seen again for the night, just one shot of a waiter carrying the room service they had ordered a couple of hours later.

They moved to the next morning’s footage of the passage near their room, skipping through quickly except when people appeared and the technician would slow it down to work out their identities.

About eight am Mark and the girl reappeared, again very love-dovey. She looked radiant and fresh, half skipping as she walked beside him, chatting excitedly, much different from her relatively subdued manner of last night. The cameras followed them going in and out of the breakfast cafe, then half an hour later they were checking out.

Everyone leaned back and relaxed for a minute. Mark and Richard felt a bit stunned; the footage was brilliant, parts were sharp enough for a TV broadcast. While they did not know if the girl had stayed with Mark beyond this day, she was clearly more than a casual acquaintance; at least in the morning it looked like they knew each other well and were travelling together.

Alan knew he would not be surprised if she turned up again later in the story, perhaps even as the source of the footprint at the billabong. There was something in her manner which seemed to fit with the person in Sandy’s dream. He would love to show Sandy the footage and see what she thought. Perhaps if he got home to Darwin tonight he would, even though he knew this speculation was way in front of the evidence that they had seen.

The real questions were who was she and how did she know Mark? Had he just picked her up on her travels and in a day or two would she be gone on her own way again?

Suddenly Alan realised that the resort manager was talking to him. He switched his attention back. The resort manager said, “I trust that this is useful to you. We’ll be able to give you a copy in about five minutes, once we burn it to a DVD. It’s just copied to computer memory for now. I only ask that you’re discreet at this stage in your usage of it. I’d prefer not to give an impression that we spy on our guests.”

Alan replied, “For police eyes only at this stage, though we need to try to identify the girl. It’s possible that we’ll use a couple of close-up stills of her face in the media for that. I need you to hold the original footage in a secure place until we determine if we need it further.”

The manager nodded. “Yes we can do that, the original section for those two days will go in the resort safe until we hear from you as to what you want to do with it.”

Alan agreed they had what they needed from the footage for now. The last thing the needed was a copy of all the booking details including how it was paid for and any credit card number and email address used in the transaction.

Within a few minutes they had all they needed and were on their way back to Alice. As Alan drove Richard lined up the search of the flat for three pm this afternoon.

After the excitement of the CCTV footage the search of the flat was a disappointing affair. The place was effectively empty, not a single personal item to be found, no toiletries, not even a cake of soap in the bathroom. There was no food other than a few unopened tins in a cupboard, no papers except one old newspaper. Nothing but a stripped bed with clean folded sheets and a towel sitting on top of it, a table and two chairs, and a small number of plates, saucepans and cutlery in the cupboards, all shining clean.

Within fifteen minutes Alan had lost interest. As his work in Alice Springs was done he booked a seat on the next plane to Darwin leaving in just over an hour. He asked Richard to follow up the loose ends in Alice Springs, thanking him greatly for his help.

He suspected he would return next week and spend more days on the road, trying to track the movements of Mark Bennet and this girl after Yulara. Right now he wanted to get home to Sandy. He particularly wanted to show her the image of the girl’s face.

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – The Mystery Lady

 

Alan got back to Darwin about seven pm on Friday night from Alice Springs. He had told Sandy at lunchtime he was unsure if he could get home tonight but would try. She promised to be waiting when he did.

Alan remembered a saying one of his copper mates had told him, when he first started in the police. They had been out bush for a week and this man was really looking forward to returning to his wife. He had said, “The second bang will be when the screen door slams.”

Alan felt like that now. He had been thinking about Sandy in an intimate way the whole flight home and even more as he willed the taxi to get him quickly to her. As he closed the door they were already both tearing at each other’s clothes and they barely made it to the bed. Now they lay entwined together. He looked at the tangle of clothes, sheets and limbs that represented their desire for each other.

He laughed, “Ever since I met you I’ve been in a hurry to get into bed with you, but it’s never happened that fast.”

Sandy had a smug self-satisfied look on her face. “Well in the whole month and a bit we’ve been together you’ve never been away for a night, let alone two. So I think this was making up for lost time. I loved how desperate you were for me and hope for some more of it later.”

Now the rush had passed Alan remembered the DVD. He went and turned on the TV on the bedroom wall. He slotted in the DVD, saying nothing as he did. Sandy watched with disinterested puzzlement. For the first minute it showed just the empty lobby of a hotel. A white Toyota came past. Sandy was still not really paying attention.

A couple came walking up to the lobby holding hands. Now Sandy sat up in bed with a look of fixed concentration on her face. She watched with full attention as the man checked in, saying a couple of times, “I wish I could see her properly.”

Then, as the couple walked directly towards the camera in the passage and their faces came into sharp focus, Sandy let out a gasp and half scream. “It’s her; I just know it’s her, the woman in my dream at the billabong. The man looks familiar, like the guy she was with and was frightened of. But her mind picture of him is different, like looking at him from the inside not the outside.

“But it’s her face; I absolutely know it’s her. It’s strange; I’ve never seen her face from the outside. I only know what it feels like when looking through her mind, from the inside. But yet her face is clear to me, it’s a self-awareness thing. She has this razor-sharp image of herself, which is how this man sees her. It’s her image of the image which he sees when he looks at her. I sense she’s been using her body and face to seduce him and because of that, now, she can see, so very clearly, how he sees her, a sort of thought transference. It’s like her image reflected through two mirrors, the first one in his mind and the second one in her mind. But the image isn’t distorted by these reflections, it’s totally clear. And it’s the face of the girl in this video.

“Don’t ask me how I know, or even if the dream I had was real, but when I see this lady in the video, I know without a doubt that she was the person in my dreams. It was her, filled with terror, who saw the crocodile cause her lover’s destruction beside the billabong. The problem is that I don’t know what’s real and what’s just her fear and imagination. I thought I saw her tied up at some stage, I think I even told you that on the night of the dream. But now I don’t know if it’s real; the images all blur into one another.

“I cannot think of her as a killer, inside her mind is only terror and confusion, seeking escape. Maybe she pushed him into the water in an act of desperation as she tried to get away from him beside the river and then a crocodile got him, perhaps it was some sort of self-defence. But inside her mind she’s not a murderer, only a terrified girl.”

So now Alan had a psychic certainty of the man and the woman being together at the billabong on that fateful day. But it was not proof. It was not even a shred of something which would lead to proof. And, more importantly, he had no idea who this lady was. And, despite having the name of Mark Bennet for the man, he had no real idea who the man was either. If anything the man was even more mysterious than her. He had lived in Alice Springs for at least three years, but he appeared to have no friends, no one had even properly spoken to him except the mail collector three years ago. Yet he had to be a real person, he definitely had a real body; that is, of course, if the body was in fact his. The Toyota was linked to the billabong, and the Toyota was linked to him. But there was nothing to link him to the billabong, or anywhere else, except the Toyota. And that link was only because Mark Bennet’s name and photo was on his driver’s licence. All these links to links were starting to do his head in. So he must get some real evidence to join all the links together.

He had already tried and failed to get any other links back to the victim from around the Mary River. So now he would work his way south, back towards Alice Springs. He would go back towards the last known location of the man at Yulara. He would follow down along the Stuart Highway and other main roads, seeking to find someone who remembered him or the girl. While the Toyota was well set up for cross-country travel, it would still need to follow main roads at some points, and take on fuel. Taking the pictures of Mark Bennet and this girl with him and asking at road houses for anyone who remembered them, seemed an obvious way to go.

The next Monday Alan started his trip at the very top, visiting all the roadhouses once he was beyond the outskirts of Darwin. He began at Adelaide River, then went on to Hayes Creek, Emerald Springs and Pine Creek. When he came to Katherine he decided it was a too hard to check properly, it was a big town. So he made only cursory inquiries and continued on down the highway stopping at Mataranka and Larrimah, still nothing. He felt discouraged, but decided he would push on. At Daly Waters his luck changed, not much, but a glimmer.

The bar tender at Daly Waters had no real memory of Mark, but the picture of the pretty dark-haired girl woke him up. He looked at it long and hard for a minute before saying, “Well, I wouldn’t want to swear on my mother’s grave, but I reckon she stopped here for breakfast with a bloke who could be your man. It was maybe a couple of months ago. I remember her because she was a looker, and nice at the same time. She and the man were sitting up at the bar, each eating a big plate of bacon and eggs, about ten in the morning. She seemed really hungry. When I remarked on this she said they had got up and left early without breakfast. I said, ‘Did you come from Katherine?’

“She said, ‘No, from Heartbreak Hotel, such a funny name for a lovely place.’

“It’s those words that made her stick in my mind. Wouldn’t have exactly called Heartbreak Hotel lovely myself, but it was obviously special for her.”

So Alan continued out to Heartbreak Hotel. Here he got a similarly vague description of a man and a slightly clearer description of a girl: “a lovely lass from overseas, very pretty and affectionate to the man”.

Someone else remembered she had talked of driving across the huge grassy plains of the Barkly, and seeing all the cattle. So Alan thought, really just an educated guess, that they were most likely to have come up the Tablelands Highway, from Barkly Homestead, the roadhouse at the corner of the main road to Queensland.

Next morning he headed on down there, arriving mid-morning. Here he hit another jackpot. He found a girl who had worked there for the last few months and normally did the day shift. She remembered serving them, the man and woman in the photo, one morning a couple of months ago. The man had bought fuel, more than 100 litres, as his Toyota had long range tanks.

She said, “It was around this time in the morning and I remember them both well. We call the man Mark B. He fuels up here from time to time and always pays cash, which is different from most other travellers. I’ve heard from others that he does a bit of work around this area, though I don’t really know him myself.

“But I do remember the girl. She looked just the same as in the photo. I remember because we had a chat while Mark B was giving his vehicle the once-over, you know – checking oil, water, tyres – all that sort of thing. So Susan, that was what she said her name was, asked me what the time was. She said she needed to work out the time difference to England because she wanted to talk to her mum. She hadn’t spoken to her mum in more than a week, not since before she came to Alice. She worked out it was the middle of the night in England and said that was no good, that she’d leave it until her next stop.

“You could tell she really liked Mark from the way she watched him work. He was an OK-looking bloke, strong and tough, but a bit hard around the edges. He seemed like a real bushie but I’d seen him a couple of times before with other pretty girls, which made me curious. She was much classier than him and they seemed a strange match.

“So I asked her how she met Mark. She told me she’d met him just after she’d flown into Cairns. They’d been on a reef tour together and were diving buddies. After that they’d just sort of hooked up. And now they were travelling through the outback together for a couple of weeks before her plane flew out of Darwin. I could tell she was really keen on him. And he came up in the end and put his hand on her in a way that showed he felt the same way. That’s it really, we chatted for five minutes, but that’s pretty much what she told me.”

Alan asked, “Did she say she was English, or just that her mother was there?”

The lady thought for a minute. “Well she definitely talked about the time in England and ringing her mother there. She didn’t actually say she was English, but you could hardly mistake her, that lovely plummy accent, you know. Not quite upper crust but definitely well brought up, in that English sort of way.”

Alan felt like he was finally getting somewhere. He was well on the way to identifying the girl in the photo. Her first name was Susan, she came from England, she had flown into Cairns perhaps two or three weeks earlier than when she came here. While in Cairns she had gone diving on a boat tour to the outer Barrier Reef.

He rang his boss in Darwin and got his permission to go to Cairns. There was a direct flight from Alice Springs tomorrow and he could be on it if he got a wriggle on. It was over seven hundred kilometres from where he was now to the Alice, so it would be a long drive today.

Mid-afternoon the next day he was in Cairns. He called at the local police station and, to ensure that he had the required authority for his inquiries, they offered him the assistance of a local constable for the next morning. Most of the tour shops were now shutting down for the day. So he decided he would hit them early next day, along with the boat companies who ran the tours, he would start with these as they would have passenger lists for each day.

He had two names to look for, a Susan, surname unknown and a Mark, probably Mark Bennet, though the person who had checked the Katherine mailbox yesterday said a letter had turned up in the mailbox for a Mark Butler. It could just be a mistake but he would also look out for any Mark Butler while he was at it.

Next morning they struck lucky at the first visit. Alan remembered a tour on a Quicksilver boat he had done to the outer reef a couple of years ago, and knew it had diving included, which sounded like the best way to narrow the numbers.

So he and Constable Davey started with Quicksilver Tours. They provided him with a booking person to go through the records with him. He picked a three-week period, from just before the night in Yulara and worked his way back. It was slow work and they had gone through a couple of weeks of booking sheets before they found something. There it was, a Mark Bennet, booked on the eight-thirty am departure to the outer reef.

He looked for the name Susan and found four instances of this name and another three with only S initials for the first name. So they went to the diving group records and there they both were, Susan McDonald and Mark Bennet, both divers in the second group of the day. It also listed ages, 24 and 33, and diving ticket numbers which they could probably track in due course but this would take some time.

Alan was in a hurry; he could see the end in sight and wanted to wrap this case up.

So next they tried checking the international airlines, as the tour bookings had been paid for with cash. They started with international flights into Cairns on the previous days. There were quite a few so they began with the airline arrivals of the day before. Here there were lots more people, but now they had a surname it was much easier.

In five minutes they had an arrival match. It was on a flight out of Tokyo which got in mid-morning of the previous day. Now all they needed was a passport number and they would have an English identity. Sure enough another half hour on the telephone got them this record. Alan thanked Constable Davey and agreed he could take it from there. He asked if the constable could send through official copies of all these documents to the Darwin office. There was a midday flight back to Darwin and Alan was on it.

The next day he prepared an official request to go via the Federal Police for the assistance of the UK police force in locating and questioning Susan McDonald. He also wanted to see a photo, though he had no doubt he had identified his mystery girl. He now had a good brief of evidence to show she was a significant person of interest in the investigation. On the one hand she may be able to assist with putting together the picture of what happened. On the other she may be a genuine suspect in the murder herself. For now he would keep an open mind and see where the evidence led him.

After this was done he called to the vehicle workshop where the car was stored. Everything had been pulled out of it now and lots of samples had been taken for analysis. He found the workshop foreman and asked him to give a run through of what had been found, he wanted to cut to the chase rather than read lots of reports.

The foreman described how the vehicle had definitely been carefully cleaned, at least for the tray and the cabin. The only significant fibres in these locations came from common cleaning cloths. In these areas the car had been effectively stripped bare and nothing of value remained, except for three small exceptions. The first was a lipstick container which had fallen below the passenger seat and rolled under the seat mounting rails. It had been sent off for fingerprint testing and DNA checking. These results were now in, a finger and thumb imprint on the lipstick case and some DNA on the lipstick. The second was a trace of human DNA which had been found in a corner of the cooler box. It was only found when they had removed the box and cut it apart. The third was what looked like a single spot of blood. It had dripped between the passenger seat and the side door. It sat on the floor in the small gap at the edge of the vinyl floor covering, next to the bottom door sill.

The DNA from the blood spot, the cooler box and the lipstick were all a match, but different from the DNA of the recovered body. No DNA which matched the recovered body had been found to date in the vehicle. Now they needed to get a DNA and fingerprints from Susan McDonald and see if it was a match for the samples from the car.

The other significant finding related to the tyre tracks and mud found. The mud on the number plate and traces of mud found on the under-body and tyres were a good match for the soil types around the billabong. This was not conclusive but was supportive evidence. But the track of the tyre which showed a piece of missing rubber, found near the billabong, was a perfect match to the rear passenger tyre. It had both an identical tread profile and an identical place where rubber was missing. This fact alone gave at least a 99-percent certainty that the vehicle had been at the billabong around the time period.

Alan returned to the office and worked on his report. He prepared a series of questions for the UK police to ask Susan McDonald. Alan had tracked her definitely to Barkly Homestead and probably to Daly Waters, but after that she had vanished.

So the UK Police should ask her about where she had first met Mark Bennet, her relationship to him and where she had gone with him. If nothing else it would give a sense of her truthfulness. They should also ask for DNA and fingerprints. They knew she had travelled with Mark in the car. So if they matched her DNA and fingerprints to the car samples it would be supplementary evidence of this, though some locations were strange, like the cooler box. However if there was no match it meant that they were looking for another car passenger as well.

His judgement was that they should name Susan as a person of interest, not as a murder suspect at this stage, and they should ask for her cooperation in tracking Mark’s movements and determining what happened to him. The police were already under strong pressure to release the information they had found about the vehicle and the identities of Mark and Susan to the media.

Rumours were circulating about a girl, an overseas traveller having been with this Crocodile Man and being involved. He did not know how such stories got out but it was getting increasingly hard to keep a lid on it. So the media were on the trail of a double story of a Crocodile Man and a Mystery Girl. Soon the names would be out.

The police could justify tightly limiting the information released if she was cooperating, on the basis that she was giving them new leads that they were following through.

But otherwise they would have to make a statement to the press in the next couple of days seeking public assistance to gather more information on who these people were and where they went. Once they did this the story would go ballistic. It had all the ingredients, crocodiles, murder, sex, a backpacker alone with a man in the outback.

He hoped the girl would cooperate, he felt pity for her if the media hounds were loosed. Still it was out of his hands and he could only give her a couple of days to respond.

In addition he would have liked to get a footprint from her, to see if it matched the one found at the billabong, because that would then place her at the location. But the moment he asked for this she would become highly suspicious; it was much more than routine exclusionary evidence. So they would just sit on this for now and see what more they could find out.

He finished his report and cleared it with his boss, then submitted the official request form requesting help from the UK police, to the Federal Police, with a big urgent sticker on it. He would now follow up the hundred other loose ends that surrounded this case, but he knew he had found the key, the Mystery Girl, Susan McDonald. God help her when this was all through. Whatever she had done he would not want to be in her shoes. He felt a strange affection for her, as if he already knew her from Sandy’s dream.

Even though the evidence was not in, in his heart he believed that she was the murderer. But why, what could have motivated her to turn on and kill this man who she had been so affectionate to? Why was she so frightened of him?

What was the secret that was hidden at the core of this? That was what he really wanted to know. But for now he would be content with solving a murder.

 

 

 

Chapter 12 – From Beyond the Grave

 

Susan had looked forward to a relaxing trip back to England; 22 hours of laid back travel in her business class seat, gold class service, enjoying movies, good food and comfortable sleep, as this metal and glass bubble in the sky transported her across the world.

But her hand held this message from beyond the grave. As she read the first few lines she knew her life would never again be the same.

Five minutes ago she was dreamily planning for a comfortable life with David. She saw David, her and a brood of tousle-haired children, living in a comfortable house in Sydney. She saw views out over the beautiful harbour and occasional country trips in his sports car, blasting along winding roads with the wind in her hair. It was a lovely mind image, and she was as much in love with the image as the person who could bring it to pass.

Yet, in the space of a minute, this life plan had become a smoking ruin. This other man could not and would not let her go. No matter where she went and what she did he would find his way back into her life, yet again and yet again.

First he had taken over her body and mind. Then, when she excised him from these, he took over her subconscious and her dreams. He had placed his seed within her so now it was not just himself but the new life he had created which lived on in her.

She thought she had managed to put a distance between herself and all that, she had found a new man who loved her and she had promised herself to him. When David held her close in the night the dreams of the crocodile spirit were kept at bay. She had barely dreamt of them in David’s Australian bed.

But the moment David had left her side Mark had reclaimed her. This time his claim was different, it was clearly stated, it was his love. She had searched for love in words from the living man and they had not been spoken, she had looked for love, even for a fragment of affection, in the eyes of the living man. They had been hidden from her. Instead they had now been declared by the dead man’s spirit as words on a page, “I have loved you utterly since first I glimpsed you.”

She stopped reading when she reached those words, it was far too painful and she did not want to hear this now. If she had a match perhaps she would burn this page, never fully read. Instead it burned into her hand, demanding her further attention, demanding she read and know it all.

Almost reluctantly she picked the paper up and read on.

 

You probably wonder why I say this now when I could not say it to your pleading eyes just a short while ago. I cannot answer as I don’t know. All I know is that I couldn’t give you false hope for a future together in this life, to do that would have been a worse lie.

There was a time yesterday, when I was angry with you. Then I thought maybe I could kill you as I killed those others. But I knew, in that instant when you tried to jump in front of that truck, that it was impossible. In a choice between me and you, you must live; my life is of less importance. I’m sorry my actions have frightened you, I’ve seen fear of me in your eyes and I hate that. I understand why. Now I must hurt you no more. That leaves only one way. Soon, with the first light of dawn, that time of choice will come and must be acted on.

I’ve just looked at your beautiful face as you lie sleeping. It’s peaceful. I hope your dreams are good and you dream of happy times with me, there are so many memories of you in my mind now and the joy will never go away, it will be my last memory. I remember riding on the beach, sharing a helicopter dance, your eyes as I gave you the pendant and the ring. But most of all I remember loving you, holding your body in my arms, your hair in my face, loving you over and over and over again. While I’ve had you like this so many times, as I watch you sleep, I ache to feel you again this way, just one more time.

Before I write a final goodbye, I must tell you a few practical things. In my briefcase, combination 2153, you’ll find two things which I’d like you to have. Don’t give them to others, at least not until you’ve decided for yourself what you want to do with them. The first is a pouch of precious stones. They’re mine, bought and paid for in full by me. They’re all of high quality. I think their value is at least two million dollars. They now belong to you. The second is my diary. It tells of what I’ve done over the last five years. I ask that you read it so you know the good and bad of me. After this you may give it to the police or pass information in it to the families of others whose death I am responsible for. I wish I could feel guilt over them but I don’t, I didn’t set out with the purpose of harming any of them. However, you must judge this and me with your own eyes and conscience.

I have made a will. It is set between the back leaf and cover of my diary, inserted into this space which is glued closed. It’s been witnessed by two friends I trust. It leaves all I possess to you, and gives the details of how to access what I own.

Now all is said and I must say goodbye. I leave this where I hope you will find it, alongside your English passport which contains a picture of your smiling face. I have just touched and kissed this one last time. I would kiss the real face, but that may awake you too soon.

Now I go to the water’s edge. My own crocodile totem will talk to the dreamtime crocodile spirit of this place until our spirits are as one. Then I’ll swim out to join the crocodiles and offer my body to them as a gift. I’ll wait until your eyes are open, before I go. I’d rather not give you this pain, but you must see me go to know I have gone, so as to have freedom from me again.

If any of me remains when it’s done, I ask that you place the ashes of these parts in the place of the rainbow spirits, that place we looked at and loved together, when first we walked in the desert. There my spirit will walk in freedom, along with many other spirits of this land, holding forever an image of your love amongst the twilight colours.

I wish you a good and happy life with someone else, who will love you, and who you will love in return, in the same way that we have loved. I am blessed to have had this time with you.

All my love,

Mark

 

Susan sat there with tears streaming down her face. It was all she had wanted from him in life, that full and unequivocal statement of his love. But now those words unspoken between them, face to face, could never be said.

She felt a tide of bitter disappointment rise up within her. She would have taken him as he was; they could have together shared the joy of their child, and have lived a happy year or two together, perhaps longer. Then, if the past needed to be resolved, they could have tried to find a way through this together as well. But instead he had chosen self-sacrifice over opportunity, and she had aided and abetted him through murder. Yet she loved him still and must honour his wishes, to return to the story of his life and then to decide what to do with this information. It did not, it could not ever, fit with a life with David.

In Mark’s final sentence he wished her to have a good and happy life with someone she loved in the same way she had loved him. She could not see David’s face filling that space. She knew it was only stated as a wish, but nonetheless she must seek to honour that wish, both for herself and for Mark. And perhaps it was also good for David, that she not entrap him in something less perfect than that.

A minute or two must have passed as Susan sat crying silently. She became aware that a stewardess was looking her with concern. She took out a tissue and wiped her eyes and nose, then smiled back at her saying. “It’s alright, really. I was just reading something from a past life and it made me very emotional.”

 

 

 

Chapter 13 – Wedding Plans

 

By the time Susan touched down in Heathrow she was no longer so certain that she should break off her engagement with David. It was again like she had returned to being two people, one of dreams and subconscious and one of day-to-day reality.

She had promised this man she would marry him, nothing had changed her promise, and plans were now well underway for it all to happen. Her family and friends were all excited about this promise of a trip to Australia. After she and David had told them from Australia of the wedding date they were all busily arranging flights and holidays, asking her about places to visit and things to do in Sydney and side trips to other parts of Australia.

It seemed like a juggernaut was off and running and she felt powerless to stop it. Most of her conscious mind wanted it to happen and she hated the thought of derailing all these plans. And Mark had given her his blessing to be with someone else and wished her happiness. Why should she not take him literally and go off and be happy with this man.

Waiting to meet her at the airport were her family, as from last time, but also Anne, smiling and looking vibrantly beautiful and excited.

“Oh, Suz, I can’t wait to go to Australia and be your bridesmaid. Is there really a younger brother who is half as gorgeous as David? If so I can’t wait to meet him. Will he be the best man? What dress do you want me to wear, have you chosen your dress yet, how should we do our hair, shall we have a hens’ night before we go away?”

Susan held up her hand. “Whoa, so many questions, so fast, I can’t take it all in. Why don’t I just say yes to everything and then we can sit down tomorrow and talk about it properly.”

A week went by, she had met with Anne twice, and they had more or less agreed on dresses and on the other wedding things that they needed to do. Her parents had come on board easily, they both liked David, much preferred him to Edward and, though they were a bit surprised how fast it was all happening, they would support her in what she wanted.

At first her father grumbled about the wedding location, not in the local church, with all her own extended family and friends present, but in Australia. He also said he wanted to pay for a big part of the wedding costs, they were well off.

Susan understood this, partly family pride, partly his practical self. She said, “David and I are happy for you to pay a share of the wedding costs, but we also want to pay our own share.

David and his family are very well off, that’s how they talk about it, the same way as you. But really they’re seriously wealthy; they just don’t like to boast. David has also done very well in business himself over the last five years and has that income as well.

Her father interjected, “Sure, but why not get married here, where all the rest of your family and friends are. That’s the tradition.”

“The reason we want to get married in Watson’s Bay is because that’s where we got to know each other, and we love the church and the feel of the place.

“So what I most want is for all my family and for as many of my friends as possible to come out and join us.

“That’s as may be. I suspect I won’t ever seem to win this argument with you. But we should still be paying at least half the cost of the wedding; that is only fair.”

Dad, if you want to help with money how about you help pay for airfares for more of our extended family, particularly for your sister, my Scottish aunt and my cousins, to come out. We’ve enjoyed many trips up there, and they’re not so well off as our family is.

“Then there’s Mum’s brother, wife and his children. If you and Mum used your powers of persuasion, and maybe a bit of money to get as many of them as possible on a plane, perhaps even rent a big house in Sydney for everyone to stay in for a week or two so everyone could have a great holiday, that’s more than enough.”

In the end she won her father and mother around. Her father gave her a cheque, on behalf of them both, for ten thousand pounds for Susan and David to spend as they liked, whether on a wedding present or wedding costs. As well as that he was now organising bookings for at least eight members of her extended family to come, along with the big house in Sydney for them all to stay in for a week before they went on their own ways on their own travels.

Susan knew this week in Sydney would be a lovely time, nights singing songs, telling stories and playing board and card games with all her cousins, as they had done throughout their shared childhoods.

She was so busy that she barely thought of Mark and his letter, though she remembered her promise to herself to read Mark’s diary. It was there in her to do list, though postponed for now.

She had given notice to finish her laboratory job a week before she was due to fly out, to give a week to pack and make all those last-minute arrangements. Then she had almost a week in Sydney before the wedding took place. That meant she now had four weeks until she finished work. It was not much time but she felt she was getting well organised and it would be enough.

On the Friday night of the first week back she met up with Maggie and her friend, Janet, in the city. Anne came with her. It was a night of reminisces, diving in Cairns, jokes about former boyfriends. Everyone professed envy at her future.

Only one minor hiccup arose. Maggie asked her, totally innocently, “Did you ever hear again from that Mark guy, you know the one you went diving with and you seemed a bit keen on? You told me that day in Kuranda that he’d asked you out the night before but you’d already gone out with us and missed his invitation. The way he looked at you on the boat I think he had the hots for you. The way you talked about him, the next day it was as if you wished you’d connected up and had an Aussie outback affair.”

Everyone was looking at Susan. She felt flushed and did not know what to say.

Anne came to the rescue. “She did meet her Aussie bloke, David from Sydney. So obviously the other didn’t amount to anything. Can’t you tell she’s embarrassed by the subject?”

With that everyone broke into fits of giggles and the moment passed by. The night ended with promises to keep in touch. Anne invited them both to Susan’s hens’ night, set to occur on the night she finished work.

Susan was just home from work on the Monday night of her second week, when the phone rang. As neither of her parents were nearby she picked it up. The voice was very familiar.

She realised with a shock it was Edward. She was surprised that it actually felt good to hear his voice, her anger was long gone. He gave her his congratulations on her upcoming marriage, but she knew there was something else and he got to it in a minute.

He said, “I got a strange call today from Scotland Yard and a Detective Inspector Brent. He wanted to talk to you. He said that he’d got this address and phone number from the passport office, it must be the current address on your passport. Anyway he said he needed to talk to you urgently and left a number for me to pass on. He wouldn’t say what it was about, so I gave him your parents’ address and phone number as I don’t have your current mobile number. He may have already tried to ring, but I thought I should let you know.”

Susan’s heart pounded as if it would explode out of her chest. She forced the panic from her mind as she made herself talk politely to Edward for another minute about his work and life before she made her excuses and hung up.

Next morning, soon after she arrived at work, she remembered and pulled out the number. It was probably just some minor inquiry she thought, though deep down she could feel terror bubbling. Please let it not be that!

The number rang straight through and on the second ring a pleasant voice answered, “Detective Brent here.”

Susan identified herself. As she spoke her name she could feel something settle over the line, like a huge deadening weight.

He said, “I need to talk to you with extreme urgency. It’s a very serious matter and you may wish to arrange legal representation. It’s probably best if you come into our office here in Scotland Yard, though I could come somewhere to meet you if it is necessary.”

Susan felt gobsmacked, her mind frozen. She needed to think, to get her bearings. She said, “Could you tell me what it’s about please?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it over the phone, beyond saying that it concerns the trip you made Australia in July to August of this year,” replied the detective. “We understand you met a Mr Mark Bennet on this trip. Would you be able to come in and see us today? It’s really most important that you do.”

 

 

 

Chapter 14 – Scotland Yard

 

Susan declined the offer of a pick-up by a police car. She had said that she would catch a taxi to Scotland Yard, within an hour, as soon as she could organise a few critical things.

Now she sat back as her cab stopped and started through London traffic. She needed to calm her panicked mind, perhaps this was less bad than it seemed. But she must think clearly now. She wondered if she should call Anne and ask her to find a lawyer to attend. But she did not want anyone else involved in this, at least not until she had some idea what it was about.

Perhaps Mark had been reported as missing and someone who knew they had been together had remembered her name from being with him. That was most likely it.

She would say they had travelled together for a while, admit to having an affair with him but then say that she had left him at Timber Creek, he said he was going to Western Australia for work and she was going in the opposite direction to Darwin to catch her plane. She would say she was given a lift to Darwin with someone she knew only by their first name. She must decide on that name.

Her cousin was Robert Burns, the name Robert would do, Rob. If she was pushed hard about this person’s identity she could say she thought the second name was Burns but was not sure. She could say he was driving a four-wheel drive station wagon, she could not remember the type but the colour was dark blue. It was easy to remember this story, yes she could hold it together; it was simple and consistent.

She would say Rob parked outside where they had breakfast. Mark was inside for a meeting and she had said goodbye to him then come outside, looking for a way to get to Darwin. She had started chatting to Robert, he said he lived in Darwin and had offered her a lift. He seemed OK so she had taken up the offer. He had dropped her in the city late in the afternoon. Rob had seemed a nice guy, he had a wife and two kids and lived somewhere in Darwin, was on his way back from the west. They had chatted and he had been friendly, but nothing more. That was all she knew. Yes, that would be the story.

Then she realised she would have to account for a day in Darwin, perhaps a vague, stopped at a backpackers in the middle of the city, the name escaped her. That would do. When she got home she would Google some hostel names and learn the basic facts about the city. She would say she had slept most of the next day as she had been tired from the night on the Victoria River and the next morning she flagged down a taxi in the street to take her to the airport for her ten o’clock flight, going early as they would know her check in time.

Suddenly Susan was aware that the taxi was no longer moving. She was at her destination. She paid the driver. She realised that she had created a whole imaginary web of lies in her mind. She must be careful; already her concocted story was getting tangled.

She took a deep breath, she must stop having flights of fancy, let them do the talking, see what they had to say. People got themselves into trouble when they started rambling.

She went up to the counter and asked to see Detective Brent. In less than a minute she was shown to a meeting room. Two people came in, a smallish solid man and a slim and stylish lady. She felt she should smile a greeting but there was no humour in their demeanour.

They introduced themselves, Detective Inspector Michael Brent and Detective Sergeant Rebecca Lacey. Susan introduced herself, then sat back to wait. She steeled herself to appear calm, although palms were clammy and her heart was racing.

She thought they would get this interview underway by telling her why they had asked to see her. But instead they went through a few formalities, first telling her that the interview was being recorded. Then they told her that whatever she said could be used as evidence and confirmed she did not wish to have a lawyer present. She shook her head at this question. There was a longish pause.

Finally Susan, directing her gaze at Detective Brent, said “You asked me to come and see you, indicating the matter was extremely urgent, not able to be dealt with on the phone. Could you please tell me why?”

She sensed a glance of admiration from Sergeant Lacey, increased respect for her composure perhaps.

Detective Brent looked at her, seeming mildly annoyed. He flexed his fingers. Finally he replied. “Thank you for coming in, Susan. We have been asked to investigate a matter by the Australian police, in fact by the Northern Territory Police. They’ve asked us to interview you and put a series of questions to you. They concern your knowledge of and relationship to a Mr Mark Bennet, of Alice Springs. Mr Bennet has disappeared and they’re trying to ascertain his whereabouts. So, on their behalf, I have a series of questions to ask you. If you’re happy I’ll go through them one by one.”

Susan nodded.

Detective Brent placed a sheet of paper on the table in front of him. It looked like it had about ten questions on it. He began.

“Did you meet a Mark Bennet while in Australia?”

Susan answered “Yes.” They looked at her questioningly, as if to say. Is that all? She remained silent.

Detective Brent moved restlessly, as if feeling impatient with the proceedings. However Susan remained impassive. He moved on to the next question. “Where did you meet him?”

Susan answered, “In Cairns.”

Detective Brent rolled his eyes. “Could you be a bit more expansive?”

Susan replied, “On a boat tour to the Great Barrier Reef. We were two of ten people who did a dive together. We were diving buddies.”

“Did you have a continuing relationship with him after that?”

Susan answered, “Yes.”

“What was the nature of that relationship?”

Susan replied, “It was both a friendly and sexual relationship.”

Susan could sense their frustration with her minimal answers. But she knew these people were not here to help her, they were here to gather evidence that could later be used against her. So she maintained a poker face.

Brent continued. “Did you go travelling with him?”

She answered “Yes.”

“Could you tell me where you travelled and over what period?”

Susan answered, “I met him in Alice Springs around the start of August. I travelled with him in his Toyota four-wheel drive through a range of parts of the Northern Territory until we came to Timber Creek. Then I left him to travel to Darwin, and return to England. He told me he was going to Western Australia via Kununurra as he had work there.”

Brent continued. “When did you last see him?”

Susan replied, “In Timber Creek.”

Brent asked, “Did you have any conflicts or arguments with him?”

Susan could feel this make her shake inside. She tried to say nothing and maintain her poker face, pausing until she felt in control. She answered, “No.”

Brent raised an eyebrow. “Are you really sure that’s right? You travelled with a man, with whom you’ve admitted to having an intimate relationship, across the Northern Territory and had no arguments, conflicts or other heated exchanges?”

Susan said nothing.

Brent continued. “Do you have any knowledge of what happened to Mark Bennet since you last saw him and have you had any further contact with him since this time?”

Susan answered, “No to both questions.”

There was a long pause. It was as if the interview had not gone as the detectives expected. Now they seemed unsure of their next step. In the meantime they were using silence to put pressure on her. The silence seemed to go on and on.

Finally Susan said, “Will that be all?”

Detective Brent replied, “We’ve been asked to request that you provide a DNA and fingerprint sample.”

Susan’s heart sank. There must be much more to this inquiry if they wanted that. She was determined to maintain her composure. She said, “You need to explain the basis on which this is requested before I could agree to it. So, as of now, my answer is no.”

Then she asked, “Is the interview finished?”

At this juncture she watched them quietly confer for a minute. Then they both excused themselves and stood up. Sergeant Lacey asked her politely if she would wait for a few minutes. She nodded and they left the room.

Five minutes passed. An older lady, who looked like an orderly, came in with a jug of water and a glass. She said, “How are you, dearie? The inspector asked if I would offer you a glass of water and also see if you’d like a cup of tea or coffee.”

Susan nodded her thanks, and took the proffered glass of water.

The woman waited. “How about that cup of tea, I’m sure you’ve had a busy day?”

There was something kind and motherly about the way the woman asked, like she cared. Susan could feel her hard resolve crumbling. She dared not speak, lest her voice give her fear away. She shook her head mutely.

The woman said, “Right you are then,” gave her a little pat on the shoulder and walked out.

Susan felt tears start to form in her eyes at this kindness. She knew they were watching her and was determined not to crack. She steeled herself, took a deep breath, and pressed a tissue to her eyes and nose.

This time the silence seemed to go on and on, perhaps it was another five or ten minutes. Susan tried to keep her mind blank.

Finally the door opened and three people walked in, the two former police officers along with a third, older man. He introduced himself as Senior Detective Inspector Davidson. He said he headed this part of Scotland Yard, whatever part it was. He reminded her of her father, a weather-beaten face but with kindly, if sharp, eyes.

His manner was different. As soon as he sat down he turned to her in a friendly and engaging manner.

“Susan, I watched the formal interview with you a short while ago. While you answered the questions you were far from forthcoming. I’ve just been on the phone to my Australian counterparts, to seek agreement to tell you more of what this is about. They agreed that if we want your cooperation it’s only fair we tell you why we’re questioning you and what we need to find out. Then we’ll all be on the same page, and not going in circles around each other.

“So I’ll tell you what I can about the circumstances of this investigation. At the end of September part of the body of a man was found in the Northern Territory in a billabong by a fisherman. At first it was thought he had died from a crocodile attack, but then it was found that he had a fractured skull, which had occurred prior to this. The man’s identity was unknown. This was widely reported at the time. He’d been called Crocodile Man in the press. As you can imagine it was a sensational story, particularly when it became a murder investigation. The Northern Territory Police now believe this man was Mark Bennet of Alice Springs, though the press don’t yet have that information.

“The police have also obtained CCTV footage showing a person, who looks remarkably like you, shared a room with a Mark Bennet at Yulara, near Ayers Rock. They’ve provided this image from the CCTV footage,” he said, passing a sheet of paper across the table to Susan.

She stared at it, it was a full face photo of herself; it was absolutely unmistakable. The realisation was like an electric shock.

He continued, “Two days ago the police matched this photo with an image of the same person on arrival in Cairns. It gave them a name and passport number. As a result they sought our assistance. I think we’re all agreed that this person is you. Now you’ve told us you knew and travelled with Mark Bennet in the Northern Territory until shortly before he was murdered.

“At this stage your identity and that of Mark Bennet is not publicly known, but the police will have to release this information very soon. You’ll be named as a person of interest in his disappearance with a possible connection to his murder.

“As I’m sure you can imagine, when this happens your photo will be on the front page of every newspaper in Australia and Britain. There will be all sorts of lurid speculation about a beautiful English girl’s love tryst with the man they’ve termed ‘Crocodile Man’. There’ll be a frenzy of media interest in everything connected to you – friends, family, boyfriends, former school, work – the list goes on and on.

“As well as assisting the Australian police in a murder inquiry, we’re conscious of trying to protect your and British interests in this case. You’re a British citizen. What we’ve found about you in the last two days leads us to believe, while you had an affair with this man, for you to have involvement in his murder is out of character.

“So what we’re seeking, both us and the Australian authorities, is your cooperative assistance with our inquiries. We need to know who Mark Bennet was, who else he knew and met, where you went, all those sorts of thing. If you agree to assist then the information released to the media can be kept limited while we pursue our investigation, simply naming you as a person who knew and travelled with him, someone who’s assisting the English and Australian police in tracing his movements and trying to determine the identity of people, as yet unknown, who may have been involved in his murder.

“An alternative scenario, which may play out if we don’t have your cooperation, is that you’re identified in the media as a likely murderer, killing your companion in a lovers’ tiff and feeding him to the crocodiles to hide the evidence. We both know how such a story is likely to run.

“So I come in here to ask for your cooperation. I understand the request for DNA and fingerprints is for exclusion purposes at this stage, which is routine, but that’s a matter on which you may wish to seek your own legal advice.”

He finished speaking and paused for a minute, as if to let her digest this information.

Then he turned to her in an almost fatherly way and said, “Well, Susan, I’ve laid my cards on the table as honestly as I can. I don’t know what happened. You seem like a nice girl. I wouldn’t pick you for a murderer. So can you help us? We’re asking for your help in this matter. If you give it, we’ll do our best to hose down all the media sensation.”

Susan looked at his kindly face. She wanted to say yes, but could not, cooperation would mean telling all she knew of Mark and giving over all the secrets he had given her. She could not do that. And despite all that they saw of her nice girl image, the charge was true, she was Mark’s murderer. So to cooperate to tell a lie was pointless.

She would just have to let the cards fall where they may. All she could think of was playing for a bit of time so that she could at least tell David, and her family and friends that their marriage could not happen. It would all be out in the open soon enough anyway.

She took a deep breath, turned to face them all and said, “I wish I could help you more, but there is very little I know. As you say I’ll need to talk to a lawyer about giving DNA or other samples. So I would ask if you could give me a couple of days before I reply to that request.”

The glass that she had drunk from still sat in front of her. Almost absently she picked it up and wiped its surfaces, inside and out with a tissue before she carefully placed it back on the table. The detectives were all looking at her strangely.

“That was a very strange thing to do for someone who is assisting us,” said Detective Brent. She could sense his antipathy and knew she had not done anything to get him in her corner.

Suddenly it was all too much. She felt as if, inside, she had lost the will to fight. She could feel her body and resolve crumbling. She looked away. She was so tired; it was all too hard. Why had it come to this? It was not what she wanted and yet she seemed to be trapped inside this horror story that never went away. She turned to the side and covered her face with her hands. She could feel her body shaking with the effort of trying not to cry.

She took a deep breath and asked, in as normal voice as she could muster, “Can I leave now?” She directed her question to Inspector Davidson.

He replied, “If that’s really what you want to do, though I think it would be better to talk it through some more. I suggest you engage a lawyer, and if you don’t know one I can give you some names. I’ll ask the Australian Police to hold off from releasing any information to the public for another 48 hours, but that’s the best I can do.

“If we don’t have your agreement and a real demonstration of your willingness to cooperate by then I expect the Australian Police will inform the press of their information and seek public assistance to locate Mark Bennet’s killer. I think we all understand what that means.

“Susan, I know your father, not well but we’ve met a few times. He’s a man I have great respect for, a senior civil servant of Her Majesty’s Government. I’m trying to protect your interests, but I’m also trying to protect your father and your family’s interests and those of this government. I’d prefer that none of us get caught up in a distasteful and extremely sensational piece of publicity, one that will sell lots of newspapers but help none of us.

“Of course, at a public level, our police force will seek to help the Australian Government and to be impartial in relation as to where the evidence leads. Nevertheless I’m asking for your assistance, it will make it easier for us all if we can offer this to the Australian police.”

Susan stood up and just looked directly at Inspector Davidson. “Thank you for your honesty, telling me what you know. I would tell you more if I could, but I simply don’t know what I’ll do from here.”

With that Susan walked out of the room. The lady at the front counter saw her coming out and asked whether she would like her to call a taxi. Susan shook her head and walked outside.

 

 

 

Chapter 15 – A Friend

 

Susan found herself wandering away from Scotland Yard with her mind in a daze.

Her thoughts were a jumble of incoherent images, images of Mark when she last saw him, a mangled corpse in the mouth of a crocodile, images of him holding her in his arms and loving her, images of his serious half-smiling eyes, images of David in his tweed jacket leaning on the side of his sports car in the English country side, images of the little church in Watsons Bay where she and David had sat quietly together and planned their marriage, images of tabloids screaming out her name, images of the shocked faces of all her family and friends as she was exposed in the papers and then led away in handcuffs, hideous images of a gleeful ancient crocodile spirit cackling in delight at her comeuppance.

It was a November afternoon and night was rapidly descending on a bleak London day. It was not raining but the wind was blowing heavy low clouds across the sky. She only had a light jacket on. She wrapped this tighter around herself but was otherwise impervious to the outside; her mind was lost in mazes of memories.

She walked aimlessly, going at one stage along the Thames, at other stages meandering through largely deserted city streets, a couple of times coming to dead ends and having to retrace. She did not have her handbag and could barely recall where she left it. Perhaps she had put it down at the police station somewhere. She knew she should contact her parents. They would be worried when she had not come home by this time of night. There were also lots of other things she should do, but she could not think clearly enough to plan or do them.

Somehow, well into the night, her feet led her to the part of London where Anne lived. She found herself standing in front of this building, Anne’s flat was upstairs. A few lights were still on, so not everyone was in bed yet, though Anne probably was. Familiarity and force of habit made her ring the bell; she had no clear formed intention of going in. There was a long pause of silence, Susan did not ring again. A voice came over the intercom, a bit bleary. “Is somebody out there?”

Susan replied, almost mechanically, just repeating her name into the speaker, “Susan.”

Anne’s voice came back, “Susan, what in God’s name are you doing outside at this time of night? Come on in.”

The front door lock clicked open. Susan stumbled up the flight of steps to Anne’s landing. Anne was there in her nightdress.

“My God, Susan, what happened to you? You look awful.” Anne put her arm around her friend’s shoulders and led her inside. As she came into the warm Susan started to shiver violently. Anne pushed her into a chair, picked up a blanket, draped it over her and said, “First things first, a hot cocoa for us both then you can tell me what this is all about.”

She heard Anne bustling in the kitchen. A minute later a hot cup was pressed into her hands. Susan tried to lift it to her lips but her hands were shaking too much. Anne took the cup from her and placed it on the table.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Spit it out, whatever has happened to you?”

Susan tried to think of how to say something, but the mass of fragments inside her head would not connect. “I, it, they, Mark Bennet, David, a billabong in the Northern Territory, I went to work, I must have lost my bag.”

Susan put her hands to her face. “Oh, Anne, it’s all too hard, it’s just such a confusing mess. My head’s spinning. I’ve walked around for hours trying to think what to do. I didn’t plan to, but somehow I ended up here and I don’t want to dump this on you either.”

Anne looked at her with an expression showing confused irritation. “Dump what?”

Finally Susan got together a coherent thought. “The police asked me to come to Scotland Yard this afternoon.” She stopped there, trying to think what came next.

Anne said, “And?”

The “And” gave Susan a place to go on from. There were so many ands. Now they came spilling out.

“When I went travelling to Australia I met a man called Mark Bennett, and I went travelling with him in the Outback, and I’m going to have his baby and he’s been murdered, and crocodiles have eaten him, and the police know I was with him, and they want me to tell them what happened, and I can’t tell them, and I can’t, and I can’t marry David. It’s not fair to him and I’ll probably be in jail. Oh, Anne, it’s all such a total fucked-up mess. I want to crawl into a hole and die.”

Anne came over and put her arms around her. “Oh, my poor, poor Suzie. I knew there was more to the Australian story, but this is much more, so much more, than even I thought. Just stop worrying for a minute. I’m your friend. I know you’re a good person, regardless of this mess, as you call it. So, when you’re ready, tell me about it. At least tell me what you can without upsetting yourself too much.”

Then Anne picked up Susan’s cocoa and gave it back to her. “Now, no more talk until you’ve drunk all this,” she said, in her most official, school teacher type voice.

Susan sipped slowly; her hands were under control now. She stood up and walked over to the mirror in the hall. She really did look like a ghost, hair sticking out in all directions, wild eyes, white drawn face, and clothes askew and dishevelled.

Suddenly she looked at Anne and smiled; a big smile. Anne smiled back, bemused. Susan started to giggle and then laugh. Anne could not help herself, she was laughing too. After a minute Susan controlled herself. “It all seems so ludicrous that I only half believe it’s true. It’s like the last night I spent with Mark; the situation was awful; it had spun out of control. Then suddenly we started laughing together. Next thing we were friends and lovers again. It solved nothing but was wonderful, and this situation feels sort of the same.”

Then she put on her serious face. “Anne, you’re a good friend and I’ll tell you what I can. There are parts I cannot tell you about because if you knew it you’d need to report this information to the police or you’d become an accessory to what I’ve done. I’ll tell you the rest.”

Susan began back in England with Edward and the split up. She knew Anne knew it, but still it was the beginning of the story. She said, “When I broke up with Edward, I didn’t really miss him, but I really did miss the sex, that part at least was good. So, once I got to Australia, I had more or less made up my mind to have an affair, perhaps with another tourist, perhaps with an Australian. On my first day out on the reef, I met Mark, we were diving buddies. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but he had something, a fearless vitality with a wild and dangerous edge. I was really attracted to him and I could tell he was to me. When I missed him, that night in Cairns that Maggie told you about, I was disappointed that I had missed my chance with him.

“The day after I left Cairns I went to Magnetic Island. It’s another place on the reef, three hundred miles south of Cairns. I checked into a backpacker hostel on the beach. As I was eating my lunch Mark walked in. From then on we just clicked. That afternoon we walked in the bush to a little secluded beach and made love. For the next five days we were continuously together, riding, swimming, sailing, but mostly having sex. I’ve never had anything like it with anyone else. It was wild and possessed me. I could think of almost nothing else when we were together. He only had to look at me and we’d start wanting it again.

“Finally I had to fly on to Sydney and he had to go to do some work in the Outback. I was really sad. I thought I’d never see him again. Then he said he’d be in Alice Springs in a few days. I had told him I might be flying back that way. So, he gave me his mobile number, no promises but a half offer to come travelling with him in the Outback.

“Part way through my Sydney stay I got in touch with Mark and arranged to meet him and travel through the Northern Territory with him the next week. But at the same time I had met David. He was really keen on me. At first I didn’t like David much, but my cousin, Ruth, sort of pushed us together. We spent lots of time in each other’s company, and I started to really like him too, not in the same way as Mark, but David is so incredibly good-looking and there’s something very kind and honourable about him.

“I didn’t intend to have an affair with David. I was meeting Mark the next week. On the second last night it was just the two of us in the pub, after the others had left. It just sort of happened. I was a bit drunk and he was so handsome, so I ended up back at his place in his bed. The sex was only okay but still I really liked him. So we kept doing things together until I left Sydney. But then I was going to Alice Springs the next week to see Mark, and I was totally captivated by him. In the end I wasn’t very nice to David, he asked me to stay on, he offered to fly anywhere in Australia to see me again. I wasn’t interested, but to spare his feelings I gave him my phone number and address back in England and told him to write to me. You know the story after that.

“Once I got to Alice Springs I forgot all about David. With Mark it was even better than before, not just the sex but there seemed to be this incredible bond growing between us. Part of him was really wild but another part of him was like a lonely little boy. He lost his mother when he was little and was beaten up by his dad and others. As he grew up he learned how to retaliate and became really dangerous.

“Mark had done some really terrible things which I gradually found out about. I didn’t know what to do with this knowledge. In the end, when you texted back, I knew I had to leave him, but I was trapped. I used my body to seduce him and got away but Mark was dead. I flew back to London, hoping no one would ever know what had happened between us.

“Now the police have discovered his body, most of it was eaten by crocodiles. They know I was with him in the Northern Territory, they’re running a murder investigation. The police at Scotland Yard called me in for questioning today. They have my photo from CCTV with Mark. They know we were together not long before he died. They asked me to cooperate with their investigation on behalf of the Australian police.

“In two days this story will be on the front page of every Australian and English paper, the English slut who fed her lover to the crocodiles. It’s going to be terrible beyond belief, bad enough for me, but even worse for David and my family, my friends like you, everyone will be caught up in it. I think they’ll seek to extradite me back to Australia on a murder charge.

“And to make matters worse I’m expecting Mark’s baby and I’m engaged to David with my wedding set down for just over a month. David knows about the baby. Even though I slept with him, I’m almost sure it’s not his. I told David this, and he’s been so good about it, promising to love it as if it was his own, offering to come and live with me in England while I have it. He’s such a good man, and all this will break his heart. I haven’t told him about Mark, only that I went with another man in Australia who I think was the father, but I won’t be seeing this person anymore.

“I have one day, two at most before all hell breaks loose, and I don’t know what to do. I have to tell David, I have to tell my parents, I have to cancel the wedding. Mark left me his diary, it tells the story of the last five years, where he went and what he did. I need to read it. I should give it to the police, but I cannot. If I tell them they’ll take it and I’ll never get to know about this man who is my child’s father. I thought of having an abortion but now it’s too late even for that.

“So that’s my story in simple terms. I cannot tell you more about the awful things that Mark has done, I cannot tell the police more about this either, at least not now, I cannot tell you what happened in the end between him and me and how he died. I really should not have told you about his diary but it just sort of came out.”

Susan looked at Anne with great earnestness. “Please promise me this. You’re the only person I felt I trusted enough to tell even this. It has to stay our secret. Perhaps one day, when I’ve read Mark’s diary I’ll be able to tell more. For now I cannot.

“You see, despite all the awful things he’s done my first loyalty is to him and he’s also the father of my child. I gave myself willingly to him to allow this baby to happen, without thought for the consequences. I can’t casually give information which would destroy his name and forever tarnish my child. And, despite all he has done, I love him still and must be true to this.

“I feel love and great affection for David, but it’s not the same as what I felt for Mark. For a while I thought it might be enough. Now I know it is not. I think I was more in love with the image of being married to David than with the reality. It’s an awful thing to end our relationship at this late stage. But it’s better than living a lie. And I’ll not be in any position to continue with David if I’m charged with murder, even if he wanted it. I couldn’t do this to him.”

She had disgorged these words in a big flow, barely taking a breath, lost in her own world of memory. But now she had run out of things to say. It was as if she had to get it out or her nerve might fail. Now she looked at Anne to see how she was taking it.

Anne had a bemused expression on her face as if she was struggling to really understand everything she had been told. Susan did not find this surprising; if the situation had been reversed six months ago she would have found it all pretty hard to take in.

Anne said, “My head feels like it’s spinning almost as much as yours after all that. It sounds unbelievable and yet I’m sure it’s real. It’s not something to make up, and it explains tonight. And now I start to understand that text you sent me.

“My God, Susan, you’re right, there are things I shouldn’t know. If it was me I’d go crazy, they would’ve already locked me up in an asylum. Of course I won’t tell anyone what you’ve told me. Sooner or later what happened to those girls has got to be told to their families. But only you can do that, and it’s not for me to stand in judgement.

“First we need a plan of what’s really urgent to do. The thing we must do now is let your parents know you’re here. I’ll ring them in a minute, no need for you to talk to them tonight. Tomorrow we can decide what you need to do about telling other people and about your wedding. One more night will not change anything.

“Now we both need a brandy nightcap to put some distance from today or we’ll never sleep. But first let’s have a hug, that’s what friends should do at a time like this.”

She came and put her arms around Susan, the way a mother would do. Susan put her arms around Anne and they held each other. Susan felt so comforted. She let everything slide away from her mind as she was enfolded in her friend’s warmness.

Anne walked into the kitchen, returning with two liberal brandy glasses. “Here’s to us, friends through all adversities. We’ll get through this one too, though I’m stuffed if I know how.”

 

 

 

Chapter 16 – Into Hiding

 

Susan woke up the next morning wondering where she was. Then she realised she was in the other side of Anne’s king bed. After the brandy Anne had quickly rang her parents and then Anne had lent her a nightie and given her half of the bed. There was another small bed in the spare room but it was not very comfortable and the room was full of junk so they both agreed it was better if Susan slept in Anne’s room. They had done this lots of times, between men, or just when they had been on a girls’ night out together.

Once in bed they chatted for a while, both deliberately avoiding the momentous event of the day, then they both started to yawn and after a few minutes Anne turned off the light.

Before Susan knew where the night had gone it was a new day. There was no sign of Anne, but a note on the kitchen table said,

Gone to work early for an hour to sort out a few things and make space in the day. I’ve also rung your work to say you won’t be in until after lunch. Back by 9ish and will see you then.

Susan felt a welling of affection for her friend; she really loved that girl, best friends since part way through school. Anne was so good at organising other people’s lives, the lawyers at work, boyfriends, family. The older sister bossy gene Susan always joked, though she was an older sister too and also pretty organised. But Anne left her in the cold for sheer efficiency. And because she did it with such charm others rarely got offended.

As Anne had said to Susan, in one of her flashes of brilliance, late last night, “I’ll help you sort out some of the things that need to be sorted. That way you can get on with what’s most important, reading the diary of the crazy former boyfriend of yours, though why you’d want to do it beats me.”

Susan looked at the clock, ten to nine. Anne would be back soon, she was rarely late. She found one of Anne’s smaller dresses and went to the shower. She felt much better with clean clothes, and had just finished drying her hair when Anne came back in, fresh pastries and coffees in hand.

Susan had a strange sense of apathy about the future, but she went along with most of Anne’s plans. There were two things she would not agree to. The first was engaging a lawyer. In her mind she was guilty as charged. The second was facing the music with her head held high, declaring her innocence with confidence, saying it was all some ghastly mistake, that she was cooperating but knew nothing further, that she had done nothing to be ashamed of. To continue to proclaim innocence implied continuing with her life, staying at work, postponing rather than cancelling her wedding outright.

But Susan had run out of will to fight it. Instead she would go off and disappear from life, find a place to stay where others would not find her, break her links with the past. She would neither cooperate with nor obstruct the police, she would give the fingerprint and DNA sample they requested, but she would not help with their many other inquiries, no drawing of others into this investigation, or aiding in discovering information which may be harmful to Mark.

There was a relief in not running and fighting anymore. She would meet her parents, tell them of the coming storm, she would ring David’s mother and tell her of her decision and why. She had asked Anne to ring David and tell him about it, she just could not find the words to tell him of what she had done and yet could not bear to lie to him either. And she did not have the mental energy to debate with him whether it was the right thing or not, or even to decline his offers of help which she knew would come. She did ask Anne to say she sent her love, but to also say he must not hope for a future together, that was impossible. So in the end Anne had agreed, said she would ring as soon as Susan left, although she was clearly reluctant.

So now her day’s tasks were clear and she was on her way. Anne had lent her fifty pounds to go to Scotland Yard, where she would provide her fingerprints and a DNA sample, and would collect her purse. Then she would go to work, tender her immediate resignation, pack up all her things, collect her car and drive home. She expected to be home by lunchtime, no one else would be there during the day.

She would get out the diary and photograph all the pages. She would place the images on a micro SD card, something too small for others to find but which she could read on her Smartphone. She would take the diary and the pouch of gemstones and arrange for them to be placed in secure storage, where no one else could access them.

Then she would be home early to meet her family and tell them what was coming. Her Smartphone would get a new SIM with the number only known to her parents, Anne and the police. Her parents and Anne could make any statements they wished to the media but she would not talk publicly to anyone.

She would rent a tiny bedsitter in an obscure part of London so she could have some privacy. She would go there later tonight. Then she would be on her own until either the storm of media subsided or the police charged her. She would not oppose extradition if charged; she would return to Australia and let events run their course. She may even go back to Australia of her own volition to find out more about Mark.

At some stage, before the baby’s birth, she would change her identity. That way her baby and her would have a new name and could start a new life. She did not know what she would do if she was in prison when her baby came, that was a story for another day.

It was as if in the night something had changed inside Susan. The joyful and funny girl had gone and in her place was a hard relentless person, one that would give no quarter to anyone, take no prisoners. She still loved Anne and her family dearly and felt affection towards David. But to the rest of the world she was indifferent. She told herself that she had just grown up the hard way.

Even though Susan thought she was indifferent to other things, she found it had been a tough morning, as she drove back to her parents’ house. She felt bad about dumping the phone call to David on Anne, but knew it was an impossible conversation and her being on the other end of the line would not improve it.

The provision of samples at the police station had been mundane, but telling Inspector Davidson that she would not be providing any further information to the police had been hard. It was not as if she did not want to help, she just could not. But she also could not explain it and, with him reminding her of her father, it felt like a further act of betrayal to act in this way.

Turning up at her work and announcing her resignation, effective immediately, was also bad form. Her colleagues had been so helpful in accommodating her recent absences. They were planning a big party to say goodbye at the end of the month. So, to vanish like this was a shock to all. She felt like a deserter. In the end she had gone around and talked to the people she knew to say individual goodbyes, not that she could explain the reasons but it was better than nothing.

Then she headed home, via a real estate agent in north-west London. She rented an ugly and depressing little bedsitter, in a busy street in a disgusting neighbourhood. She had taken it sight unseen; the only requirement being it was in a building with a security door which separated it from the street, to help with privacy. Its best feature was it was inexpensive but close to things, so she could get rid of her car if needed. She had money to live there for up to six months but did not expect to be there for more than a month or two. After paying for the first month today she could pay by the fortnight.

It was now past one o’clock and she wanted a couple of hours to photograph Mark’s diary. She would use her underwater camera. It took high-resolution images, the batteries were fully charged, and had an almost empty 16GB memory card which was more than enough. Then she could transfer the images to her laptop and from there onto a tiny card that she could hide deep in her purse and read on her phone.

Once at home she took out the diary and the jewel pouch. After a quick look to ensure the jewellery contents were there, she settled down in the conservatory, where the light was good, to photograph the entire diary. There were about 200 pages in this book, and the last 50 were untouched. First she wrote a page number in the corner of every page. That would make it much easier to keep track of the separate images. She deliberately avoided reading any parts. She just treated it as a document copying job, beginning with the front and back covers and then working her way through from start to finish. It took almost two hours before she was happy with the product. Then she loaded the memory card from the camera into her laptop, did a quick scan to ensure all the images which were sharp and clear, and then copied them all to her laptop, before putting the memory card from the camera in her purse. Tonight, she would move these files to a tiny memory card, and remove them from her laptop, just in case the police came with a search warrant and decided to check her computer.

Now that she had finished this copying she found herself sitting and staring at the book, wondering why she was so set on keeping this secret, wondering if everything she was doing was a terrible mistake.

On the front cover was a printed scrawl Mark B, claiming a clear ownership and on either side of the name were two little monogram type images, something like the crocodile totem he had once shown her and let her hold. It felt creepy but fitting to the man she’d discovered

She thought, Maybe I should just take this thing to the police and cooperate; pleading self-defence in Mark’s death. But she knew, with his child and his letter to consider, she could not let herself do this. It would constitute a final act of betrayal of him before she read the diary and tried to understand who he was and why he had become so.

So now she must find a secure place to hide the diary. She thought of finding a place in Reading, but it was a bit too obvious should anyone search. Wokingham was the next big town on her side of Reading and she knew it well. There was a company there that rented out safe deposit boxes, like in a bank but in a private facility, with either key or security code access. She did not want to have a key. It was another thing to carry and link her to a location, but an access code was good. She had an excellent memory and would make a couple of backup copies of the numbers. So she drove there, paid three hundred pounds to rent a box for two years and placed the jewels, the original memory card from her camera, which had both the diary photos and the photos from her trip to Australia, and the diary itself into the box. As an afterthought she added in the letter Mark had written to her at the end, it was in her purse too. She locked the deposit box door, then drove back home.

Her family would be home in about an hour and she needed to forewarn them. It was possible that she would be front page news in tomorrow’s paper so she needed to move out tonight, lest tomorrow there were journalists at her front door. She packed up her room, leaving things that she did not need in the cupboards. Once it was done she had two suitcases of clothes and other personal items along with a few cardboard boxes of miscellaneous items. She carried these outside and loaded up her car.

She heard someone come in as she was carrying the last boxes to the car. It was Tim, and he must have heard her because next thing he was standing next to her car, looking in at all her things. “What’s up, Sis?” he said, looking at all her things. “I thought you were staying here until you flew to Sydney for the wedding.”

His face was so bright and hopeful; he thought of her new life in Australia as an exciting adventure and was looking forward to the wedding trip. He knew nothing of what was coming. She hated the idea of his disappointment, not to mention that of so many others. Susan’s bravado crumbled, she turned her face away. Tim came and put his arm around her shoulders. She cried her heart out, finally having had to acknowledge to herself and someone else her world was collapsing.

She looked up at his concerned face through her teary eyes. “Oh, Tim, it’s such a God-awful mess. I can’t get married. I’m in big trouble with the Australian police, and I think I’m about to be charged with murder. Tomorrow it’ll probably be on the front page of every newspaper. I have to get away from here. I couldn’t bear to have a thousand sleazy journalists trying to shove cameras into my face.”

She looked up. There was her mother standing a few feet behind Tim, with a totally shocked look on her face, she must have heard it all. But of course, they had come home together from university.

Her mother said, “Susan, what have you done?” It was not condemnation, it was incomprehension. Susan found herself crying so much that she was unable to speak. She had not meant to tell them like this, she had intended to be in control.

Within a minute her mother had picked up her mobile and dialled her father. “You need to get home right now, Susan needs you, take a taxi to Paddington and catch the next fast train.”

Then her mother brought her into the kitchen and made her a cup of tea. “No talking until your dad gets home, it’s best if you tell us all properly once, rather than have to say it over again to each of us.”

Susan sat at the kitchen table, with a cup of tea and slice of cake while her mother clucked around. She liked this domestic certainty and hated the thought that it was about to end. From tomorrow this life would be over. It was impossible to comprehend.

As she sat and waited the phone rang. Her mother picked it up. “It’s David. He demands to talk to you. I think this is a thing you must do.”

Susan took the phone. His voice came down the line, saying, “Is that you, Susan?” She could barely answer she was crying so much, all she could say, over and over again, was, “Oh, David, I am so sorry,” along with a few other incoherent phrases.

In the end her mum took back the phone and talked to David. She could tell her mum was trying to talk him out of flying straight to England. “No I think she’s too upset for that at the moment, she needs to try to work this out herself first, I’ll ask her to talk to you when she’s less upset. I promise I’ll tell her you love her and that you don’t want to call the wedding off.”

Finally her mum put down the phone, looking weary and resigned. She came over and put her arms around Susan, hugging her the way she had when she was a little girl. They stayed like that, in a wordless embrace, until they heard her father arrive.

Susan told them the story, similar to what she told Anne, but without the intimate parts, or the part about the diary or missing girls. At first there were no questions and she just talked. Then her father’s practical brain started to ask questions, the how and what, the options.

At first Susan tried to answer them, but finally she put her hands up. “You need to stop now, Dad; you can’t undo this, I can’t undo this, nobody can undo this. The police will investigate and I’ll neither help nor hinder them, I won’t resist any charges they lay, I’ll tell the truth in court if it comes to that. I’m tired of running and hiding this. And I’m going to have this man’s baby, good or bad as that may be.

“The reason I need to disappear now is that I need privacy from the press, I don’t want to feed the gossip or speculation. You’ll have my phone number and address though it’s best if you don’t come around in case someone follows you, and I won’t come back home for now though we can meet somewhere else now and then.”

Her father replied, Of course we believe in you and will help you. We are on your side. But I think you are making a big mistake in not cooperating with the police and telling them what you know. Please reconsider and think seriously about doing this.

Her mother nodded too, “Susan, please help yourself. I refuse to believe you did something so awful that you cannot say!”

Her brother looked away, as if unwilling to believe.

Susan broke contact with her parents’ eyes. “Please don’t push me away too. I won’t tell them anymore and I cannot tell you anymore. The more you ask the harder it gets but I will keep saying no, even if everyone asks another hundred times. So don’t make it even harder by making me fight with you too.”

She could see the hurt and disappointment on both their faces, but they nodded their agreement, “Okay, if that is what you want.”

That was the end of the talking. After that they ate a subdued family dinner and talked of small things. It was very poignant as she hugged them to say goodbye.

Her father said, “You know we’re all here for you, Susan. We’ll support you, no matter what.”

Her mother said, “How about we meet for a family dinner once a week. We can start with a restaurant meal until we see what happens.”

Tim said, “Can’t wait to read about you in the paper and discover all the awful things you’re supposed to have done. I’ve never had a family member who’s a true celebrity.”

Her father cuffed his ears, her mum tried to look outraged, but Susan laughed for the first time all day. “Trust you to find a silver lining, you publicity junkie.”

Susan got into the car and drove away, trying to feel upbeat about her future, but she could not stop the tears silently sliding out.

***

Anne sat at home, alone, as the evening passed. She could not watch TV or bring herself to read to occupy herself. Her mind looped round and round in an endless circle of remembering.

An hour ago Susan had rung briefly to give her new phone number and say thanks for helping last night and for talking to David. But Susan had given no details of where she was or what she would do from here, stonewalling each time Anne tried to probe. Anne recounted to Susan the phone call that was asked of her in the morning and how it had been awful but was done. She was determined to leave that part of her day behind.

Instead Anne found herself thinking over and over again about her friend and how she had changed. The bright and confident Susan she knew before last night had become something broken when she came to Anne last night, but still with a kind and soft centre.

But overnight something had changed. Today she felt Susan had retreated inside herself as a last line of defence. She was dismayed by the change as if, during the night, Susan had become autistic. In the morning Susan had still tried to smile at her with her old trademark smile, but it was glitter over a steel cage.

As Susan had left in a taxi that morning she felt she had lost her best and most loyal friend. She felt dismayed. Still she would do what was asked, she knew that Susan would never survive another betrayal.

 

 

 

Chapter 17 – The Diary

 

The flat was even more disgusting than Susan had imagined with a mouldy, airless smell. She opened the windows for a minute but the air outside was freezing. It took three loads to carry all her things upstairs. She almost wished the police would lay charges tomorrow to get her out of this hole. So much for the life of a recluse!

She had planned to do work tonight, to begin reading the diary and compiling her own narrative which summarised it. But she felt too depressed and apathetic. In the end she just crawled into her bed. Her one real comfort was a big fluffy doona that her mum insisted she take, and on this sat her favourite teddy which she hugged to herself. She picked up her mobile phone; there were three missed calls and messages from Anne.

She dialled and spent five minutes talking to Anne. David had taken it much worse than even Anne had expected, she said it was awful and she had ended up feeling really sorry for him. “You’re right he really is such a decent guy,” Anne said. “He said he’ll only agree to postpone the wedding for now; he won’t call it off or break the engagement until he meets with you and hears it from your mouth. But at least it’s all put on hold for now. I’ve promised to ring him each week and tell him any news about you I can; I hope that’s alright.”

Susan said that was fine and thanked her friend profusely; she knew it had been a terrible job to give Anne, cowardice on her own part. But at least it was done now. She told Anner about Tim’s parting comments which made her laugh and then she said goodnight, cutting off Anne short each time she tried to ask questions.

Awful though it all was, and particularly the place she was staying in, she did feel better; she was on a path to somewhere and would never again let herself be diverted by minor emotions. It was as if she had closed the door to a part of her life and could begin to look towards another part, bleak though that seemed from here.

She drifted off to sleep. Tonight her dream of Mark came back, but it was as if, while he was in her arms, he was temporarily free of the crocodile spirit. He told her that while he was with her he was free of his past, in a happy place, and his crocodile spirit was pushed away. He loved her and she loved him and it was wonderful.

She told him about the child he had made and he pushed his face against her belly, as if to hear the beating heart of new life. She stroked the short hair on the back of his head. They made plans to live in their own secret place, somewhere in the heart of Australia where no one would ever find them, and have children by the score. It was a sort of mixed up place that they went to, with the tribe of running brown bodies like those from that morning tea at Seven Emus.

Susan woke in the morning wishing the night could have lasted forever. Now she did not want to let go of sleep, and wished it was night again so that they could resume their loving.

She got up and washed, then dressed herself in warm winter clothes to keep the chill at bay. It seemed strange to have a day with nothing to do. She walked down the street and found a corner shop where she bought enough supplies to last a couple of days, along with the morning paper. It made no mention of her on the front pages. She bought a copy and settled into a seat in the corner of the café to read. On page seven she found a small article which mentioned her name.

 

Australian police have sought the assistance of Scotland Yard to investigate an English connection to the likely murder of a man in the Northern Territory. This man, dubbed Crocodile Man, was first thought to have been taken by a crocodile but then a post-mortem revealed he had been murdered.

This man has now been identified as Mark Bennet of Alice Springs. Scotland Yard has been asked to interview an English citizen, Susan McDonald, as a person of interest. It is believed that Miss McDonald was last seen travelling with Mr Bennet shortly before his murder. Susan McDonald is believed to have returned to London. Scotland Yard has declined to comment.”

 

So the hounds were out and pursuing the fox. Susan was pleased that no picture of her had yet emerged. Once this happened she would have to be much more careful going out in public. Perhaps she would need a head scarf and dark glasses.

After half an hour she returned to her flat. She transferred all the image files to her tiny memory card, for now she would only work on that. One by one she checked them to ensure that all were of good quality. A couple of times she found duplicates’ which she discarded. A few pictures she rotated or cropped slightly to make them easier to read. She decided that for now she would work and read on her laptop, it was easier. But she would leave no files on it, only work off the ones on the memory card.

She opened a new word document, she would use this to compile and keep track on what she found. She named this “The Diary” and saved the blank document. A quick scan of the diary contents showed that it appeared to be mostly chronological but often without dates to link to, sometimes things like Saturday or two days later, but only occasionally a real date which she could fix in time. Then there would be places with business notations, work orders, and other information. Things like, “booked to work Argyle Mine, 23–30 August, Halls Creek 250 litres, fuel, Ring Fred Smith 89887018.” It would be hard going picking the wheat from the chaff.

She decided she would try to find the place where Mark first mentioned her name, or something that sounded like her. Then at least she would have some sort of narrative to work with. She started at the end and worked backwards, just scanning for her name or a description of some place that sounded like where they had been together. She skipped back about six pages seeing occasional references or things about herself. Her eyes caught something.

 

Beach Girl, beautiful. She stands there with her toes in the little waves, hair flung back like a Greek goddess, arms stretched out to the morning sun. She is enchanting and I want to know who she is. I stand on the shore path, watching her in the bright light. When she looks my way I move behind trees, now I can only glimpse her. Then she comes my way, I keep out of sight, it might look like I’m spying.

She has stopped at an ice cream stand. Now she walks on, licking a cone with such pleasure, the ice cream trickles down her fingers and she licks it off. I wish I was an ice cream drop. Now she is looking at tour signs, perhaps I can accidentally meet her on a tour. She goes into a shop. I see her discussing her choices with the man at the counter. Now she is booking, now she is finished. I must go inside and see if I can get him to book me on the same tour. I pull on my eagle cap and some dark glasses to hide my face. She passes me at the door, leaving as I enter. Her eyes are beautiful, cornflower summer blue. I see her and I’m entranced. Even though she looks at me she sees me not.

Quickly I go inside, pretending to be rushing and running late, apologising as I go. I say – My girlfriend has just made a reservation for some tours here. I saw her leaving just before I got here, the girl with the dark hair and blue eyes. Can you book me on the same tours please?

Sure – so that will see you on the Quicksilver Tour to the Outer Reef tomorrow.’ I agree. ‘How about the Kuranda Rainforest by Train Tour the next day?’ Two trips in two days where I run into her may seem a bit obvious. I say ‘No, I’ll skip that.’ I pay my money but the confirmation is slow. I want to rush out to see where she goes.

By the time I come out she has vanished. Was it a dream, did I imagine something so lovely. Tomorrow I’ll find out.

 

This entry was followed by a few doodles and notations then another entry.

 

I feel like I’m in love, I wonder if I have really ever felt like this so quickly before. I’ve had so many girls and many of them have been beautiful. But this is different. I only talked to her for half an hour over lunch and spent an hour diving with her yesterday. It was delightful, we were sharing a meal and she was telling me about her life, with that soft English charm. She told me where she was staying, the Excelsior Hotel and then where she was going on to, Magnetic Island. I suggested a hostel there to stay at. Now the seed is in her mind I think she will remember and go there. Magnetic Island is for three days, so I will find her even if she chooses another place, and when she sees me she will think I’m a long lost friend.

Today would have been perfect except that, at the end of lunch, she met another English girl and then they were talking like two old school friends, sharing jokes I don’t understand. So I left her to her friend’s conversation and declined to go diving with them both together.

Tonight I went to her hotel to ask her out for a drink but she had already gone out elsewhere. So I left her a note.

I’m sure I will find her again. She is too lovely to let her escape so easily. Today I found two stones in my pouch that match her eyes. They are my most favourite pale blue ovals. I’ll send them off to be made into a pendant and a ring, which I hope to give her when I meet her next.

 

Then another couple of days later she read.

 

I found her again yesterday. She was staying at the hostel where I suggested she go. It was like an electric shock passed between us when I saw her again. She was wearing the skimpiest bikini, the same cornflour blue as her eyes. It barely covered anything. I could not help but look and she knew I looked and liked my looking. We were alone there and sat side by side and ate lunch together, gazing out to the sea. Each time our bodies lightly brushed I could feel a jolt of connection between us.

Then we walked to the beach at the end of the headland and made love in the waves. Wow, it was just so amazingly good. Then we slept together under the stars. I’ve just sent her to her own bed, as the first dawn light comes. Every time I look at her blue eyes my insides turn to mush. I am definitely in love. What will come of it – who knows, I’m not good to be around, and I must be careful, so, so very, very careful. She is too precious to harm.

 

Susan put her laptop down. It was too beautiful and she could not bear to read anymore right now. It was as he had said in his letter. Did she love him so quickly, as he loved her? Perhaps not quite, but it had been extraordinarily fast. It was hard to separate the joy and pleasure of the sex from the love of the man; she certainly was in love with him by the time she left Magnetic Island. She wished she had told him then and there, not held it inside, lest it sound like over-commitment.

She also now knew he had purposefully set out to entrap her, the man with the eagle cap, but she did not care. She would want him to do it again, in just the same way as that, if the chance came again. The only difference was she would tell him how she felt straight away. She regretted the time wasted while they had danced around their feelings for one another; it was not until the last night, when it was really too late, that it had all come tumbling out.

She decided she would savour these words in Mark’s diary slowly, draw out the pleasure, taking in small bits each day. She knew there would be bad bits too, where he told of the other girls and what he had done. But she did not care. In the last hour she had discovered the Mark she loved, hidden within the other.

His words were like beautiful poetry, a song of bush ballads. She had glimpsed the poetry of his mind in the stories he told, but the words he wrote were much richer.

Now she would walk in the late autumn leaves and savour his words in her mind, roll them off her tongue. Then she would return to her little room and return to him in her dreams.

For days Susan read, walked and slept. Her dreams were dreams of Mark; her waking thoughts were thoughts of Mark. She knew there was a storm raging in the world around and her name was at its centre.

She glimpsed this briefly from her conversations with Anne, from her occasional meetings with her parents. But she did not care; her world was one of loving delight. She had not read the bad bits of the diary yet, she did not want to go there. She just wanted to drown in the delight of Mark’s words. These words and memories consumed her; they filled all her waking moments and overflowed into her dreams, leaving no room for other.

 

 

 

Chapter 18 – Brazen English Hussy

 

“Crocodile Man’s Brazen English Hussy.” That was the headline that the tabloids were screaming out in different variants, the word “Slut” was also used frequently. It had taken a week to build to this level of hysteria.

Susan’s disappearance had both aided and constrained the story. The responsible journalists and newspapers stated that allegations of this nature were circulating and they were seeking to locate Susan to get her side of the story, but she had gone to ground. The trashy tabloids were not going to let the truth get in the way of a good story. So where they had no information, because they could not find her, they simply made a story up.

After a week of blocking them out of her mind, Susan started to read the range of stories and opinions on her laptop with a sort of morbid fascination. She had largely stopped going out except at night, because her face had become so well known that she did not want to take a chance that some stranger would recognise her or, even if they only thought she looked like the “English Hussy”, bring the journalistic wolves to where she lived.

She knew it had been really hard for Anne and her own family. They had defended her in a limited way, but mostly they just declined to comment. Her father said that the whole family loved their daughter dearly and all the speculation was both highly offensive and totally out of character to the person they knew.

He also said his daughter was unwilling to answer questions because she did not want to feed the media frenzy any further and she believed it would be impossible to get a fair hearing in this situation. He received many offers of people asking to be put in contact with Susan in order to tell her side of the story in a sympathetic manner, many with offers of cheques running to five and six figures attached. After the first couple of days he maintained a stony silence. For Anne it had been much the same, and she had handled it in the same way.

David and his family in Australia had been wonderful. He had maintained his total support for her, refusing to discuss in any way what it meant for their relationship. He simply dismissed as nonsense any questions put to him about her moral character, saying, “Unlike you, I know her and I know she’s a good person.”

Her friends had generally stuck by her, refusing to speculate, and continuing to defend her decency. However one or two cracks appeared; people she thought were solid friends who seemed to have fallen to the inducements of cheque book journalism and had disgorged some more lurid stories of her university days, wild parties and the like. But it did not have much substance.

She could feel the vacuum for real news getting stronger and pulling ever harder as it searched for new shock revelations. And she knew, with certainty, they would not be long in coming.

The funny thing was, when she read the tabloid stories portraying her as an evil hussy who seduced a man from the outback, murdered him and fed his body to the crocodiles, she preferred their version of events. At least these stories had a ring of truth, which was more than she could say for the positive stories which tried to embellish her good character. She had grown to dislike reading about ‘Saint Susan’. She thought these people were just fawning to her and her family in the hope of getting under their guard and snaring a juicy titbit.

In her private life she still dreamed dreams of Mark each night. In these the passion they felt was undiminished. By day she kept reading parts of the diary, but their power to thrill her was declining. She had discovered some other parts about her which were less positive. There was a place where he said of her “that bitch keeps wanting to know about my past life and it’s driving me crazy.” She began to realise, that while he may have loved her, there was something a bit crazy and unhinged about his emotions, even his love for her.

She had also found some similar expressions toward other girls, descriptions of being incredibly smitten with them, telling of their looks and appearance, descriptions of wonderful lovemaking. She realised that some of these had been really special to him too, particularly Bel, who she thought must be the French girl, Isobel. Part of her felt jealousy to those who had gone before, part of her wanted to see how he looked at them, whether with the same tenderness and affection.

There was nothing which was quite the unequivocal declaration of love that he had made towards her. She could also see how, when other girls were not totally in line with what he wanted, a mean and darker side of him could emerge. Of one, Amanda from America he stated, “She has started to really hassle me and try to push me around. I told her to shut her fucking mouth or I would shut it properly for her.”

She found herself increasingly unable to read about the other girls, their relationships with Mark and what had happened to them. Instead she found herself re-reading the bits about herself and other parts which gave voice to his private thoughts and emotions. As yet she really did not know what had happened to any others and found that she did not want to cross this bridge to knowledge. Now she avoided anything that looked like it was about another girl.

She had come to understand that this diary was a private therapy place for Mark and not everything he said in it was fully true. Some of it was written as a form of escape where he could blow off steam, to give him relief from real life. She also saw it as an outlet for the thoughts of a man who thought much but was mainly silent in real life. All that life of his mind must go somewhere so parts of his writing flowed out as great streams of thought onto the paper. There was a real brilliance in some places which belied his limited education.

She also began to realise that at his core a part of him was deeply lonely and searching for affection. She sensed that the absence of a mother or other affection figure in childhood had left a hole that he searched to fill with temporary liaisons and infatuations with many girls. But the hole was never really filled by them and he kept moving on, looking for a new hope. In a way she was just the newest and latest of these infatuations, the new Goddess.

Deep down she understood that he felt worthless at his core, he thought that his badness must be due to the character he inherited from his father, that he could not be of much value if his own mother did not treasure him or fight for him, at least a bit.

Then slowly she came around to thinking she was not just one of many. The way he talked about her was subtly different; it had a different and more realistic character. It was as if he was beginning to both see and understand her in a realistic fashion and at the same time gain a real insight into himself and the impacts of his behaviours. It was as if he was trying to find ways to move beyond these and put his past behind him. Over time she again understood she really was special in his eyes, he had not done for others what he did for her, the jewellery had been for her only, the tender words were almost all for her.

The things she loved most in the diary were his descriptions of the land and its people in both passages of poetry and prose, often intermingled. It was as though in these words his spirit was set free. A love for the land and its people flowed out of him, incredibly moving descriptions of joy in telling tales around a campfire, a sunset by himself in the desert. His poetry was often simple little couplets that she could feel he had rolled around his tongue until the words came out right and which she now rolled around her tongue, a pleasure shared. Sometimes it would be a page of dense writing half way between poetry and prose, where he described a place or a situation with incredible richness. She felt it was a sort of autism but where written words allowed him to unlock his frozen mind.

She particularly loved his obscure and eclectic little anecdotes with which he peppered the pages, like his own description of the morning at Seven Emus.

 

We came to Shadforth Central, where the emus used to live. Now no self-respecting emu would be found dead in this junk heap. But out of such junk heaps grow powerboats, helicopters and little brown children. Our gift pig was taken by the old Chink. Despite appearances, he is stronger than you or eye. His magic wand conjured dumplings and spiced pig meat, which we all did then eat with great relish. Susan loved this place. I loved it too but most I loved her blue eyed love of it. Tonight, I’ll give to her a thing to make her blue eyes shine even brighter, brighter than a desert sky.

 

Susan read at random. She had ceased to follow her intent to understand what happened to the other girls, she had not even fully grasped the sequence of stories he wove around her. But she lived and loved the joy of the little insights that came from his poetic soul. She had a vague guilt for not using her days of leisure in a more purposeful way. But still, in her meanderings through his written words, she felt she was coming to understand him, and that satisfied her need to begin to really know and understand who this man was.

On the tenth day the dam broke; the news had been starting to die down through an absence of anything new. Now they had it. The Times reported:

 

Miss McDonald in Murder Car day before Mark Bennet’s death.

Despite a statement by Susan McDonald that she left Mark Bennet at Timber Creek and caught a lift back to Darwin, while he went on to Western Australia, the Northern Territory police have found out this version of events is untrue. A credible witness has confirmed that she saw Susan go into Mark Bennet’s Toyota and fall asleep on the passenger seat outside Timber Creek Hotel. An hour later Mark Bennet was seen to come out and drive in the direction of Katherine with Miss McDonald still inside. This was the last time that anyone saw a living Mark Bennet.

Two days later Miss McDonald flew out of Darwin on her own. Information has emerged that she drove Mr Bennet’s vehicle to Darwin to catch her plane back to England after systematically cleaning the murder site and the vehicle to remove any evidence of her presence.

It is understood that the Northern Territory Police will shortly be issuing a warrant for the arrest of Miss McDonald. They will seek her extradition from the United Kingdom to Darwin, Australia, to stand trial for Mr Bennet’s murder.

 

After this the papers sought to exceed each other in their histrionics of condemnation. Susan sat inside her flat and waited for the call. It did not come the first day though a brief phone call came from her parents. It did not come on the second day though a brief phone call came from Anne. It did not come on the third day. Instead David rang. She was surprised. He admitted he had persuaded Anne to give him her number as he said he needed to talk to her in person at least once more.

She found she was glad he had called, he remained the decent person that she had known and she enjoyed talking to him. It was a fig leaf of normalcy in a world of craziness. In the end she was sad when he said he had to ring off. They had not discussed their relationship, they had just talked as friends, and friends were in short supply right now. He had wanted to fly to England to come and see her.

She said, “No. I will not be opposing extradition when the warrant comes, so I’ll be in Australia soon enough. You can come and see me there if you want.”

On the fourth day the call came.

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – A Charge called Murder

 

Inspector Davidson’s voice came through her mobile. “Susan I think you know what this is about. In response to a request by the Australian police the United Kingdom police have sought a warrant for your arrest. It was issued this morning.

“A police car will be arriving in about half an hour to collect you from your flat. I ask that you be ready and I suggest that you also pack a small bag with a couple of changes of clothes. You’ll be held in custody for up to 24 hours while we and the Australian police undertake initial questioning and investigation of this matter. After this there’ll be a hearing before a magistrate where you can seek bail if you wish.

“As you’ve declined to have legal representation to date I’ve arranged for a solicitor to be present at the initial meeting, who may represent you if you wish. I strongly recommend that you use his services unless you choose to engage your own legal representative.”

Susan knew she should care, but she did not. Instead she felt relief that the waiting was over and pleased that this was the first step in her return to Australia which would bring her closer to Mark. She was glad she had got rid of her laptop when the latest news broke as she did not want any searches through this. She had slipped it into the rubbish, just before the dump truck came. She watched as it gathered this container of trash and emptied it into its gaping maw of crushing plates. It was beyond retrieval now. She felt safe.

She quickly rang her dad and asked him to come and pack up her flat, not that there was much to do. She also rang Anne to let her know. She took the tiny memory card with Mark’s story, made a tiny hole in the lining of her bra and pushed it through, under the fabric. Unless they strip searched her, which seemed unlikely, no one would get to look there and even if they did a body search she felt sure she could hide it. In reality it was unlikely that she could read it unless she had a mobile phone or a computer, but she liked having this link to him with her, right next to her body.

Then she packed an overnight bag and went down to the street to wait. The car pulled up and she was inside before they had barely opened the door and then they were away. She felt no regret leaving this place. It had given her a place of refuge but it held no significance. Her life was now lived within her mind and her external surroundings were irrelevant.

Twenty minutes later the car was outside the police station. At the front gate there were an army of reporters, all clamouring to get a look at her, however the car windows were tinted and stayed closed. As people pushed towards the car the gate opened automatically and they were through it and away from the crowd.

Detective Davidson met her as she stepped from the car. He gave her a smile; she flashed him a smile back. It was actually nice to see him, she liked him and, despite the circumstances, she knew he had a soft spot for her. He brought her inside to a small meeting room, where he asked her to wait for a minute. He came in with another youngish man. He was a solicitor, Dylan Madden, who could represent her if she chose. As she liked the look of him she shrugged, which was taken as an equivocal consent. Inspector Davidson excused himself and said he would leave them together for a few minutes to discuss the case. The questioning, with the Australian police present, was due to start in about fifteen minutes.

Once the door was closed Susan took the initiative. Her mind was quite clear. She said, “Thank you for coming, Dylan. I’m happy for you to sit with me as the questioning proceeds, but I don’t really require any representation or legal advice. I’m quite clear on my position and what I’ll say. I’ll be polite to everyone but I will not be answering any questions except confirming who I am and the summary details about meeting Mark Bennet and travelling with him in the Northern Territory. I will not seek bail or oppose in any way my extradition to Australia. I’m quite happy to return and let events run their course. I don’t intend to state either my guilt or my innocence. It’ll be up to others to judge this.”

The lawyer looked taken aback. “Are you saying you don’t want me to represent you?”

Susan replied, “No, I didn’t say that. I’m happy for you to attend. I’m agreeing to please Inspector Davidson, my family and friends. You may speak on my behalf, provided it’s in accordance with what I’ve said. I don’t agree to anything other than that. To the extent that they ask me something which you consider is prejudicial or inappropriate, I’m happy for you to object. But I wish to be clear that I don’t want you to try to prevent me from returning to Australia to face this charge as soon as possible.”

On that basis they went together to the interview room where the Australian police were waiting. There were two officers a Detective Sergeant Alan Richards from the Northern Territory police and Detective Inspector Margaret Ryan from the Australian Federal Police. From the moment the interview started it was clear that the real person running this was Sergeant Alan Richards from the NT police.

Detective Inspector Ryan was a middle-aged, solid lady with a no-nonsense manner, not unfriendly but businesslike. She had obviously been in many of these situations before and her serious face gave no clue to what she was thinking. It was clear she was here to represent the Australian Government and to ensure the all the correct processes were followed.

Detective Sergeant Alan Richards, by contrast, had an open and friendly face which felt familiar. There was also a certain indescribable “outback” character which sat around him like an aura. It was probably more about his mannerisms than his looks, but there was a raw honesty to his manner, something she had seen in many people she had met from those parts of Australia.

Susan could not help but like this man, though she reminded herself that he was not here as her friend. Yet she subconsciously sensed he was not against her, he simply wanted to find out what had happened. She wished she could just answer his questions. It would be far preferable than the silent refusal she was determined to adopt.

The questions began with confirmation of her identity. She agreed that she was Susan McDonald and that the passport identification they cited was her. She confirmed that she had travelled to Australia on the specified flight and date and departed Australia on the specified flight and date. She confirmed that she had met Mr Bennet and travelled with him in the Northern Territory beginning in Alice Springs and continuing to Timber Creek. On each question seeking further detail she would shake her head and her lawyer would make the statement, “My client is unwilling to answer your question.”

It went on like this for over an hour and she could sense the growing frustration from all present. It was now well past lunchtime, and Susan had not got round to eating or drinking anything this morning. Her back was starting to ache; perhaps it was an early sign of pregnancy. She was also feeling light-headed, like the whole thing was unreal. She found she was no longer listening to the endlessly repetitive questions. She looked up blankly, aware of not having heard what Sergeant Richards had just said.

She said, “I’m sorry I’m finding it hard to concentrate, do you think we could stop for a minute?”

Her lawyer immediately came in. “My client is asking for a short recess. As she has patiently answered your questions for over an hour, I think that request is reasonable.”

The others nodded and all leaned back in their seats. She sensed they were about to get up and go out of the room. However before they did so Inspector Davidson put up a hand and said, “With your agreement I’d like to talk off the record for just a minute.”

All nodded. He said, in a clear voice, “Please stop this recording.” A little green light went off in the centre of the table.

Now he turned to Susan saying, “Susan, you may not believe this. But all of us here think there’s much more to this story than what you’ve told us. I, for one, having observed your character over the last couple of weeks and, having talked to many people who know you, find it inconceivable that you deliberately set out to murder Mark Bennet.

“Something must have happened, an event that changed what was an apparently affectionate relationship, which lasted all the way to Timber Creek, into a situation where, within a period of 48 hours, Mark Bennet was dead and you were fleeing the country in a way where you sought to remove all evidence of you being together. There’s clearly enough evidence for a charge of murder, but it doesn’t make sense.

“So I’m appealing to you, as if you were my own daughter. Even if you won’t tell us what happened, please tell us why you’re unwilling to speak about it. Did something happen between you and Mark Bennet which changed your whole relationship, something that put you in great fear of him?”

Susan could not help it; she gave a little involuntary nod of her head. Then she shook her head violently, turned her face away and buried it in her hands. She bit on her hands till the pain became so severe she could think of nothing else and, without looking up, forced herself to slow her breathing and regain control.

As she looked up she could see blood on her hands from where her teeth had broken the skin. She felt really angry; they had tricked her, using kindness, into making an admission.

She looked up at them all with flaring rage. “I’ve sat here for an hour and patiently answered all your questions, even though you kept asking me the same pointless questions, over and over. Now I’ll make a short statement which I’d like you to record and after this I will have nothing further to say, not now, not ever. Before I do, if you need any further DNA please take it now,” she said, pointing to the blood that oozed from the teeth marks on her hands.

They all shook their heads, it was as if she had stunned them to silence.

Susan saw the green light was back on so she started talking again. “My name is Susan McDonald. I admit to travelling in the Northern Territory, in August this year, in the company of Mark Bennet, between Alice Springs and Timber Creek. I’m not prepared to answer any further questions in relation to this time or what happened. I will not seek bail if charged with Mr Bennet’s murder. I’m happy to return to Australia to stand trial for this murder if that’s what the authorities determine should happen. I don’t now, nor will I in the future make any admissions or pleas in relation to my guilt or innocence in this matter. Beyond that I have nothing further to say. You may continue this interview if you wish but I won’t be answering any further questions.”

She turned her chair sideways so she was looking at the wall and not at any of them. She was vaguely aware of their consternation and of a few attempts to engage her. But she was in a frozen place inside her mind where nothing but her anger was real.

After about ten minutes she became aware they had all left the room. In a few more minutes a different female police officer came in and took her by the arm and led her to a cell. She checked Susan’s bag and removed her belt and anything else that might be used for self-harm, then she left Susan alone.

Susan sat on her bed, immobile. The rage was still surging through her. She was determined to hold onto it, lest her self-control slip and she start crying. An hour later she was aware that someone had placed a food tray in her cell. She picked listlessly at it. Another hour later there was a knock on her cell, and her solicitor, Dylan, was let inside. He sat on a chair, next to her bed and talked to her even though she had not acknowledged his presence.

He said, “I’ve been in conference with the others for the last two hours. As you haven’t told me that you wish me to cease acting for you, I’ve been following your instructions in these meetings. I’ve found it necessary to repeat them several times. The others seem to have great difficulty in accepting your instructions at face value.

“Tomorrow you’ll go before a magistrate who will consider whether there’s a reasonable basis for you to be charged with murder. At this hearing, unless you object, I plan to read out the instructions you gave today to all present. It’s likely that the magistrate will find that a prima facie case exists for you to stand trial for murder in Australia, and agree that you be sent there for trial. If this occurs a formal request will then be made by the Australian Federal Police for your extradition.

“I’ve indicated that you don’t intend to object to this; however you can change your mind at any stage. If you object to extradition there would be a court hearing to rule on this. If you agree it’s then up to the Minister for Justice to approve this request after which you’ll be transported to Australia in the company of these police officers.

“If this proceeds without objection by you, it’s likely you’ll be taken to Australia in one to two weeks’ time. In the meantime I’ve been told you’ll remain in custody here until your departure. I also expect that you’ll be held in custody in Australia until your trial occurs.”

Finally Susan looked up at him. She tried to smile, it was not his fault and he was doing his best. She said, “Thank you for what you’ve done. I’m happy with the arrangements that you’ve made and ask you to continue representing me in England on that basis.”

Then he said, “Two more things, firstly, do you need anything, and secondly your parents and your friend Anne have sought permission to visit you, do you wish to see them?”

Susan replied, “I’m happy to see my parents and Anne tomorrow. Today I would prefer to be left alone. I have everything else I will need for today.”

In the end the extradition took over three weeks to process. While Susan sought no delay there was now a crowd of well-wishers who had started a “Save Susan Campaign”. They were lobbying, advocating that the government oppose her return to Darwin, citing all sorts of obscure reasons why justice would not be served if she was extradited.

Concern was expressed for her mental welfare, her unwillingness to state her guilt or innocence seemed to be of great concern to some along with the passive role she was taking as to what happened. There were suggestions that she was mentally ill, profoundly depressed or suffering from some physical ailment.

Examining doctors and psychiatrists were called. They asked her many questions. She answered politely about everything except the actual case, where she maintained stony silence.

She was informed that the opinion given was that, while she was otherwise sane and healthy, she appeared to have been profoundly traumatised by some unknown event which had happened in the Northern Territory while she was there. One specialist gave the opinion that the government should delay and provide treatment for PTSD before she returned to Australia.

Susan let this all go without any comment. In a way she supposed their conclusions were accurate, her grief and mental anguish were real, but she had no intention of undertaking any treatments.

It was funny, but no one sought to test her pregnancy status, or to even question whether this was a possibility, despite two separate physical examinations. She politely declined requests to provide blood and urine samples, saying, “My health is good, this isn’t needed.”

Finally the day came. She was handcuffed to a female police officer, and taken to the airport in a police car with Sergeant Alan Richards sitting alongside and Inspector Davidson in the front. At the boarding gate Inspector Davidson stepped up to say goodbye.

She found her anger from that day when she was brought into custody was long since gone. She reached out and took his hand and looked directly at his face. “Thank you. I’m sorry I couldn’t cooperate. I’m also sorry that I got angry with you. I do understand that you were only trying to help.”

“Thank you, Susan; I know it will all come out alright somehow. Whatever you’ve done you’re a brave young woman. I admire that.”

As Susan sat on the plane she looked at the date on her boarding pass. It was December 7th. This was the day she had been due to fly back to Australia to get married. She started to cry.

 

 

 

Chapter 20 – The Blue Girl

 

Alan sat on the Airbus 380 looking at this woman who sat beside him as the tears streamed down her face. Her crying was not audible, though her body shook with an occasional sob. He felt a great desire to put his arm around her shoulder and pull her towards him to comfort her.

He knew he must not though. Perhaps if it had been only them, then he would have. His police companion on the other side of Susan sat stony-faced and unmoved, as if she found such displays of emotion a bit of a bore. He would be glad when she continued on the plane to Sydney; when he exited at Bangkok for the Darwin flight, she had hardly been an exciting companion for the last three weeks.

He looked back to Susan. She was such an enigma, sitting here and crying her heart out, yet so resolute and in control at other times. Her rage in the interview room had been terrifying, as if a switch had flipped in her brain. In that minute she had been capable of anything. He knew in that instant that she could have killed someone. And the way she had bitten down into her hand to suppress her emotions and regain control; the teeth marks were still clearly evident nearly three weeks later. Yet, here she was, crying her heart out like a school girl whose pet dog had died. Now she just seemed fragile and vulnerable.

She turned her face to him, looking slightly embarrassed. Before, he had thought her pretty, but no more than that. Now, as her blue eyes glistening with tears, focused on him, giving him her total attention through a watery but radiant smile, he realised she was sensationally beautiful, and her eyes were totally captivating. In that moment he sensed another type of danger, one which flowed from her. It was the power of her unconscious beauty. It could captivate men’s souls. It was the unconscious nature of it that made her so dangerous.

With her free hand, the one that was not shackled to the arm rest, she touched him lightly on the forearm and said, “I’m sorry. It was just that, when I saw today’s date on my boarding pass, it all came crashing in on me; how my life has run off the rails. Today I was due to fly to Sydney to get married. It seemed like a fairy tale. Yet here I am flying to Darwin to go to jail. I’m alright again now, but just for a minute it all seemed so futile and got the better of me.”

It was funny how, in that minute, a strange friendship was born. If Alan was truthful he was more than a little bit captivated by her. It was good the flight was only for a day and he was returning to Sandy, really wanting to see her.

But there was something that seemed intrinsically good and decent about this girl that tore at his heartstrings. Forever after he would remember her that day, on the aeroplane, as the Blue Girl, the blue brilliance in her eyes and a deep blueness in her soul, that he wished he could help mend, but that was for someone else. Yet he knew, in that instant, he was one of many men who were a little bit in love with her.

As the hours drifted by they spent more and more time talking. At first it was just nibbles of conversation, polite pleasantries, but as the hours went by it became deep, a meaningful sharing of souls. But the strangest thing was part of the time he could have sworn he was looking at and talking to Sandy. Several times he felt strongly that it was Sandy, not Susan, who was looking at him and talking to him. It made it even more intense, like being entranced by two people at once.

Alan first justified it as a way of coming to understand this person, his murder suspect, and that this might assist in cracking the case properly. But he knew this was not the real reason; there was a much deeper bond between them. It was partly that sense of kinship Sandy had formed with this unknown person before she was even a known face, But there was also a much more direct connection to him too.

At first he could feel resistance from their travelling companion, Inspector Ryan; an unspoken message that fraternising with the enemy was inappropriate. But as time went by he could feel Susan start to win her over too. It was the way that she listened intently as she looked with those eyes, loveliness radiated, but with room for all. So by the time they reached Bangkok they had all become friends of sorts, even though from here their lives would take different trajectories.

Susan seemed to have no need to sleep. Sometimes she looked out the window at the ocean, sometimes she watched TV or read a magazine, but mostly when not talking or listening she sat there living a life inside her head. Once, after a burst of conversation, she said, “I’m sorry I’m talking so much. I’ve sat alone and silent for most of the last month, waiting for things to happen. It’s as if I’ve stored up all these words to say. Tomorrow I’ll be silent again, I promise.”

He said, “It’s good to hear you talk, to know there’s a real person inside there.”

She had told him of her life in England, her former boyfriend, Edward, her engagement to David and the recent trip to Australia and wedding plans, her friend Anne, her life as a child riding horses and walking with her father in the Scottish hills.

He, in return, told her about his life in Australia and particularly his work in the Northern Territory, some of the cases he had worked on, some of the communities he visited, crazy tales of the aboriginal people, his girlfriend Sandy and their hopes together.

He was surprised of her apparent knowledge of places he had been, the characters and history of the Northern Territory. It seemed a huge amount to have absorbed in a couple of weeks of travel. But there was so much about this lady that was remarkable.

The one thing they did not talk about was the case they were both part of. He knew it was a taboo subject for her, and he did not want to spoil this pleasant interlude. After Bangkok Detective Ryan parted and they caught a new flight; Detective Ryan was on the continuing direct flight to Sydney from here and Alan assured her that it would be fine with just the two of them from here to Darwin.

He liked the idea of just the two of them, him and Susan, on the last leg of the flight. It would be nice to talk privately without the third person, and they now had a full row of seats to themselves. As they sat down he removed the handcuff from his wrist, and then, rather than clip hers to the seat rest he indicated for her to hold it out and he took it off her too. She smiled thanks with those brilliant blue eyes, and he could feel himself more smitten.

Susan sat in the seat next to the window and at first he sat next to the aisle. They ate the meal that was served and after it was packed up she said, “Why don’t you come and sit next to me? It’s easier to chat when we’re side by side rather than separated by a seat.”

He nodded and moved across. Now she took his hand and said, “I’m glad it’s just the two of us now. It’s better that way. I know there’s something you want to talk to me about and there’s something I want to tell you. I’ll go first; it’s easier for me to begin.

Alan said, “OK, your turn first.”

“About two months ago, when you first found the body of Mark, and you and Sandy were not yet lovers but wanting to be, I had a dream. In that dream I was carried across the ocean, from my house in England, back to that billabong. You and Sandy slept in two mosquito nets, side by side. As I reached that place, I found myself inside Sandy’s dream, and she was also inside my mind. But at the same time I was being pulled towards a crocodile spirit which wanted to capture me and keep me for itself.

“I was very frightened. Sandy could feel my fear and she became terrified too. When I realised that she was feeling this terror I made myself pull out of her mind. She didn’t see all of it, but she’d already seen much and knew much of what had happened.

“Now she’s seen my mind from the inside, and I’ve seen hers too. And part of that link remains, even now. Don’t ask me to explain it; I just know it is so. It makes us like sisters. I know she didn’t want you to arrest me. From the inside of her mind I also know of her attraction to you. Through her I feel and share some of that feeling too, although it is different as I love another. And you feel some of the attraction for me that you feel for her because she and I have become kindred spirits. But you too love her more than your attraction for me.”

Alan said, “Yes, Sandy has told me of the same dream.”

“When I was leaving that place of death I saw her come to you, and I saw you desired her greatly but just held her close and comforted her. Because of that trust, soon after you became lovers. At that time some part of me desired you too, because I felt her desire for you, our minds and desires were shared and intermingled.

“So it means that I trust you and we should be friends. And despite this pull of attraction for one another, which we both feel, our other loyalties will keep us apart. It means that from here we’ll be the closest of friends and we’ll be able to give strength to each other through our minds. Sometimes our bodies will desire one another, but even so our friendship will be stronger.”

Alan felt amazement at her insight and could feel himself nodding in reply as she spoke.

“I know you want me to tell you of that night and new day, the killing time. I can’t tell you what you want to know, the why and how it happened. That’s for you to find out, if you can. I’ll neither help nor hinder you. Much of the knowledge already lies in Sandy’s mind, though she doesn’t really understand it yet. Perhaps it’s better if she never does, that knowledge wasn’t meant to pass to either of you.

“That’s why I was so angry with Detective Davidson; through our friendship he tricked me into revealing what wasn’t rightfully mine to tell. He did it for good intentions but it still led me to betrayal. My anger over it still remains.

“So, if you want to know what happened, you mustn’t seek it from my mind, either directly or through Sandy’s knowledge. That will only tear at her loyalties and give her a sense of betrayal, like that time when my secrets were stolen through trust.

“The answer is already out there for you to discover through other means. And to do so you must do your job and take no account of me. It may be that when this is finished I will spend many years in jail for what happened, but that mustn’t influence you. I don’t want that, but there is justice in it for my actions. I’ll pay that price if I must.

“Since that time I can feel part of my mind becoming crazy, withdrawing to an imaginary place where I still feel the love of the other, the one whose death I’m charged with yet still loved. I know it’s not good and yet I’m powerless to stop it, my desire for him is so overwhelming.

“There’s a crocodile spirit that comes from my lover and it draws me in too. It’s both good and evil in mixed parts. Both parts are now within me, taking me over too like a cancer of the soul. Perhaps it will win, the court trial will find me insane and I’ll spend my life locked up, a place with only dreams and memories for company.

“But fighting against that is a new life growing inside my womb. It’s his child, the child of my lover. My lover wants for it to survive, to grow healthy and carry his spirit forward.”

With that she took his hand and placed it on that place on her lower belly. It was an incredibly tender and intimate thing to do. She looked deep into his eyes with that brilliant blue. “You may not feel the movement, but open your mind to feel the spirit which moves within me, the spirit of new life; the continuance of that man.”

And Alan could feel something, like a tiny bright light pushing out from within her, only just a little light yet but he could feel its power. They sat like that for a minute in their intimacy.

Alan could feel his body aroused by her closeness and the feel of the soft skin on her belly. He desired to stroke her there and realised his fingers, were moving over her skin, barely separated by the filmy fabric of her dress. He could feel her arousal too, her belly pushing against his hand. Slowly she pulled his hand downwards. He could feel all the private places of her body beneath his fingers. Her fingers pressed his hand down and her body pushed up against him. He stroked and caressed that place, loving her warm softness, her slightly panting breathing. He rested his fingers there in total intimacy.

She turned to him and said, “Thank you, just for one minute I needed to be touched like a woman when a man desires her.”

Then she slowly pulled his hand back to the other place, where the life grew. After that she laid her head against his shoulder and cuddled into him. He felt her joy and for himself contentment. She seemed to fall asleep for a while, transported to another place of happy dreams.

When she woke she kissed him lightly on the cheek and said, “Thank for sharing this, it has helped me and given me new strength. You have become my brother, in another life you could’ve been my lover. Now you must tell me of what else is in your mind.”

He said, “There’s nothing more to say, you’ve told it all. For me it was only to tell you how Sandy spoke of you, she knew your face when first I showed her your picture, she knew of your love and terror. But you know all that already.”

It was almost bittersweet when the plane landed in Darwin; she would go to her cell and he would go to his lover. He returned the cuff to both their hands. She smiled at him as he did and said, “Now our hands are linked again. Inside our souls will always be linked. Take care, my friend, what you’re doing and where you’re going is a very dangerous place, that place of the ancient crocodile spirit, but my love goes with you, with both you and my sister, your lover.”

That night as he lay with Sandy after their loving he told her of his trip and the girl with the so, so blue eyes. He even told of her power over him, that sense of attraction. He did not say of their touching.

Sandy said, “I knew it already. I too have felt the pull of the other man who loves her, and felt within myself the desire she feels for him. But you and I are the lucky ones. We love in flesh and blood. They can only love in dreams.”

Suddenly she sat up. She slapped him hard on the face, twice. “That’s just to remind you, I’m your woman of both flesh and dreams. Never forget that. I may be her sister but she may not share my lover.”

Alan laughed, rubbing his stinging face. “You pack a mean punch. Maybe you’re even more dangerous than she is.”

Sandy laughed back. “The word is not maybe but definitely!”

 

 

 

Chapter 21- Search for the Truth

 

Alan knew the truth. Susan McDonald had killed Mark Bennet, but it was not based on real evidence. And he did not know why. The why ate at him. There must be a solution. He would gather all his evidence and lock himself away with it for a couple of days until some new secret emerged, giving him a light of understanding.

Meanwhile the trial of Susan was proceeding apace. Two days after she arrived in Darwin there was a preliminary hearing. It was merely a formality, it confirmed that she would stand trial for the murder of Mark Bennet, with a date currently set for March next year.

Alan had provided his evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions who was of the opinion that the case for Susan McDonald being the murderer was compelling and should proceed forward to trial without delay. The use of the evidence he had gathered thus far was now out of his hands. The DPP would prepare the case for the prosecution. He would be a key witness. Apart from that his role in the court case was finished.

They had now matched Susan’s footprint to the one at the billabong campfire site. That was the final link needed. This made it clear that a woman of her size had been at the billabong, just after the deliberate clean-up of the site occurred. That footprint, made in then wet soil, was not like a fingerprint where it was totally conclusive, but a foot size and shape match was very compelling. So the evidence was more than adequate to go forward to trial.

Alan’s role should be over. He should now move forward to work on other cases and put this one aside. But he knew he could not do that. There was a whole other story that must be told for this to make sense. And he was certain that the telling of that story would lead to Susan’s exoneration and redemption. It would give her life back to her.

Since their trip together he felt a tug of responsibility for all that had come to pass. If not for his investigation it was likely that her role would never have been discovered, and she would not have been arrested. He knew that justice must roll on yet it somehow felt like injustice to him. So he must try to do something to right this. He was the only one with the understanding and commitment to find out the real story. So find it out he must.

Since that day on the plane he felt bound to her in a way which meant he must do all within his power to help her. He must ensure she did not spend the next twenty to thirty years in jail. She would not try to help herself, so instead he must help her. He knew she had entrusted him to do this on that day.

Since that day, the day on the plane, she had shown no signs of recognition of him, no acknowledgement of that friendship. It was as if that 24 hours, when they sat side by side in such intimacy, was only an imagined memory. She had retreated inside a shell. He understood; it was her way of trying to gain protection from something she found too horrific even to think about.

At the committal hearing she had entered no plea, she had refused legal representation and she had made no statements. She had merely listened in silence as others outlined the evidence against her.

He had hated having to give testimony against her, even though it was inescapable. Fortunately it was brief, little more than a recitation of a few key facts. Before giving his decision the magistrate had looked at Susan and specifically asked her if she had anything to say.

She had shaken her head. The magistrate pressed her, asking her to confirm this by words. So she said one word, “No.”

That was the entire defence contribution to her indictment to stand trial for murder. Alan sensed the magistrate was deeply uncomfortable to proceed on that basis. But he had no choice, so he had confirmed the charge and that there was a case for her to answer, and committed her to stand trial for the murder of Mark Bennet in three months.

Alan could tell that even the prosecution lawyers were seriously uncomfortable with the way it had gone. One of them said after, “It felt like punching a defenceless person.”

Since the hearing Susan had barely spoken, even to her friends and family. Alan felt an appalled sympathy for her predicament, she left alone now with only her demons for company.

Alan had met briefly with Susan’s parents at the hearing and had seen Anne and David who he felt he knew from Susan’s descriptions. Now Anne and David were running their own private investigation and, as part of this, were requesting a meeting with him. His supervisor strongly recommended against it, so Alan had declined, using a range of excuses to avoid them.

Alan knew they were digging for information about Susan’s guilt or motives but he could not talk about her guilt – that was for the court. They were also trying to get through to her, seeking any insights as to why she was behaving this way. He understood they were trying to help Susan and he would have loved to help them, to share his concerns and suspicions which matched their own.

But this was not possible; it would compromise his position further, should he be seen to be helping others to undermine the case. Instead he must focus on an even more thorough examination of the evidence, to let the evidence do the talking as Susan had intimated. Despite the time and conversations with her on the plane her motives baffled him too, except for some vague sense of betrayal of the man, Mark, and protection of their joint child.

Her mother, father and brother were still in Darwin, trying to talk to Susan. They had also asked to meet him next week which had had also declined but, in the end, someone had put through a call from them and he had talked to them on the phone. He understood they had all met with Susan on two occasions. Susan had barely said a word to any them, just a couple of polite phrases assuring them she was alright, before she went back inside her head.

When they had tried to push her she had got stubborn and asked them to leave, saying, “Thank you for your concern. I know what I need to do. If you can’t accept it and support me in the choice I’ve made, I’d rather not see you. I don’t want to discuss it.”

He found it hard to understand why these people, Susan’s family, would want to see him anyway, perhaps it was desperation. In their place he would feel anger at the person responsible for pursuing Susan, obtaining the evidence outlined in the English court which led to her extradition and was now likely to result in the ruin of her life.

What they thought Alan could do to help he could not imagine. He worked for the other side. He had been instrumental in getting her to this place. Nevertheless they seemed to sense his empathy for her. He understood their fear, not so much for the trial and its consequences, but because she was losing her mind. They all knew of her pregnancy, but no one else seemed to yet. The thought of her giving birth in prison, only to have the baby taken from her, was also awful to think about. Perhaps her parents could seek adoption.

It was crazy stuff, like her mind was living in a separate place from reality, but the harder people pushed the greater her resistance and withdrawal became. There were even serious discussions that she was mentally unfit to stand trial. But, when she heard that the prosecution lawyers had suggested this and called for a psychiatric assessment, Alan was told she had become very upset, almost distraught, saying to her warden, “Please don’t let them go down that path. I want it to be over, whatever happens. Then at least I’ll have my life back. I’m as sane as others are, I just don’t want other people trying to make me do what I will not agree to.”

So Alan knew that time was fast running towards an inexorable result. He must somehow change that path or he would be responsible for a great injustice which would destroy this lovely girl with the blue eyes, for whom he felt huge affection.

He could see the result, she convicted of murder, her child taken away and then she having a complete nervous breakdown and being declared totally crazy. In a year’s time all that would remain was a shell. It was up to him to make sure that did not happen; but how?

He talked about it with Sandy. She, like him, was on Susan’s side. He was also concerned for Sandy as this progressed, knowing that she shared some of Susan’s pain. This horror was inside her mind too, even though she could barely comprehend it. He had not pushed her for information, remembering Susan’s advice.

Still, Sandy seemed to want to talk to him about it. She had told him of the fragments of memories she had, a man’s body being torn at by two crocodiles, a man squatting next to the water and communing with crocodile spirits, an image of a man’s startled face a split second before something momentous happened. Most of all she remembered feeling Susan’s overflowing terror, which swamped all else.

So they had agreed, this Sunday, when no one else was around, they would go into his office and together work their way through all the evidence. There must be a clue which would get him started down a path to the full truth.

On the Sunday they both awoke in the half light of dawn. Suddenly neither was sleepy. They wanted to get at it. It was before six-thirty in the morning when Alan swiped his pass key. He had come in the back way so the duty officer did not see him.

He and Sandy went to his office. They collected all the material he had on the case and took it to where there were several desks outside the office. They arranged the evidence into groups on different desks, the pathology of the skull and arm in one place, the exhibits from the murder site on another, the third had a map showing Susan and Mark’s probable course through the NT along with the bits they had gathered at each place, photos at Yulara, the testimonies from Barkly Roadhouse, Heartbreak Hotel, Daly Waters and Timber Creek. On a fourth table they put the few things they had found out about Mark Bennet, a driver’s licence and vehicle registration, and a small pile of mail.

It was a pitifully small amount to represent the life of someone who appeared to have lived in the Northern Territory for several years. They both looked at it, perplexed. Of Susan they knew plenty. Once they had her name she had been easy to discover and now they had the complete story of her life. But for him, even though they had had his name for longer than hers, they still had almost nothing. He was an enigma, a person whose only humanity was a name.

“Why?” Sandy voiced what Alan was thinking. “He’s the key to the puzzle. We have to unlock his life. We keep thinking that Susan is the one who can explain this. But she goes, in a single day, from being a madly adoring girlfriend to killing this man who she’s still patently in love with. And she was so terrified. I know this because it’s that feeling that overwhelms everything else that I can feel inside her on that day. She kills him in terror. Why do that?

“The only explanation I can think of is that he’s the cause. He’d done something, or she found out something about him that scared her witless. So she killed him in fear of what he would do to her. Then, once it’s done, she’s full of guilt or regret. Does that mean he’s not really guilty of what she believed when she killed him? Or is her level of love and loyalty so strong that she’s prepared to overlook something terrible in him. Perhaps her motivation is that she knows something terrible about him, but cannot bear for others to find out. She can’t reveal her secret because that would be to betray him. But without telling she must share his guilt and also face inevitable guilt as his murderer.”

Sandy stopped talking and raised an eyebrow. “Is that all mad speculation, or could it be an explanation, somehow?”

Alan scratched his head. “There may be something in it even though, if you look at it from the outside, it seems a big stretch. However there are two things that do sort of fit with it. The first I don’t think I have properly told you about. On the day we arrested Susan the lead English detective seemed to be quite friendly with her. I could tell that he liked her, a sort of daughter-like affection. He didn’t really believe she had done this thing. He appealed to her for cooperation. When that failed he looked for another way to get through to her. Up to that moment she was being pleasant.

“He asked something like what you said a minute ago. I think his words were, ‘What happened on that day? Did something happen to make you change?’ And, without meaning to, she gave a little nod of agreement. It was involuntary. It would’ve hardly meant anything but for what she did then.

“It was the only time I’ve ever seen her totally lose it. First she shook her head violently as if to deny her own admission. Then she buried her face in her hands, it was as if she was crying, but she was shaking with rage and what seemed like a sense of betrayal. And then she bit into her hand, so hard it made it bleed and left big bite marks which were still there three weeks later. It was as if she was grief stricken and angry for what she had done.

“But I also thought she was punishing herself for her lapse and perhaps it was partly theatre to distract us from her admission as well as a way to get her control back.

“Her self-control after was formidable; she sat there for twenty or thirty seconds, biting into her hand. It must’ve really hurt but she was so concentrated on getting her body to follow her mind and not let us find weakness. Her jaw was clenched, her muscles were shaking, she was locked inside her mind, in a place of rage and pain, oblivious to all else. And slowly she forced herself back to a calm place, but still with implacable rage. When she looked up again her demeanour was like steel. After that she never again spoke another word, except yes or no, to any of us until we left the country.

“On that day her anger was really terrifying. In that moment I could see a danger in her that could’ve easily killed someone. The only difference was her anger was mostly directed towards herself for being tricked into a betrayal, she told me that later on the plane.

“And in that moment the only thing she had revealed was that something or someone, other than herself, had caused what happened. It was like, in her mind, she was first guilty of killing him, and then in that moment she had also become guilty of betraying him. She was appalled at what she had done and also furious with us for tricking her.

“So I think it must’ve been due to him. If there wasn’t some bad thing she knew about him, or some bad thing she saw him do, I can’t see what there would’ve been to betray.

“It was only when we left England that she seemed to come back from that place of rage. I think it was at that time that this awful reality, reaching far out into her distant future, of the consequences of the thing she’d done, including spurning all our help, started to sink in. First she apologised to Inspector Davidson, it was really quite gracious. Then on the aeroplane she was so lost and friendless, crying her heart out for the wedding she would never have. I don’t think she really wanted to marry David, but it was her realisation of her loss of a future.

“She said, ‘Today I should’ve been leaving London to get married. Instead I’m going to jail.’

“The second thing was something else she said on the plane. It was, ‘You must find out the reason yourself. I will neither help nor hinder you.’ I already knew, and she knew that I knew, that she was a good person, if not innocent. In that moment she was telling me again there was a reason for what she did. She was clear that she couldn’t tell me the reason; that would be betrayal. But part of her was willing me on to go and find it out, to give her a way out of this situation. Ever since then I have felt like she entrusted me with finding a solution or, at least, she was hoping that I could find one.

“So, let’s stick with your theory that it was about him, that his actions were the reason why he was killed, he provoked her action. It was no capricious lovers’ tiff, but something that appalled and frightened her enough to make her kill him. We can speculate what that might be but that’s of no use.

“We must find out about him, who he was, what he’s done. There must be something in his life before he met Susan that will tell us. Let us start by double-checking everything we have about him, just in case we’ve missed anything obvious.”

Sandy said, “There’s one more thing to think about before we do, and it sort of fits too. Susan is really clever and she knows a lot about DNA and pathology from working in a lab and she has incredible self-control, we’ve all seen it.

“Once he was dead she should’ve come and told us. That’s what any normal person would do. At worst she may have been up for manslaughter, maybe self-defence if he’d threatened her. But she didn’t do that, she made a decision to conceal what happened. But it is not only a decision to hide her role; it is a decision to hide his identity. I’ve wondered about it many times.

“It comes through in the way she cleaned up after she killed him. Let’s assume she fractured his skull by hitting him on the head with a piece of wood and then he either staggered or she dragged his body to the edge of the water where the crocodiles finished it. That’s what the evidence of the site told us, that blood trail and the dirt she had scraped away, leading to the water’s edge.

“After it was done his body was gone. No one knew he was there, the day before he was in Timber Creek, and the same with her. If his vehicle was just found abandoned in that place or even in Darwin it would’ve been strange but people would’ve just wondered where he’d gone and expected him to turn up. Maybe, after months, he would’ve been listed as a missing person. Perhaps the vehicle would’ve been checked and her DNA found in it.

“But that would’ve proved nothing; she didn’t deny that she’d travelled with him to Timber Creek, by then she’d spent ten days with him, and it would be expected we’d find her DNA and fingerprints in lots of places. All she’d need to say was they’d travelled together for several days to explain this. He’d vanished after that. In fact that’s what she did say at first.

“So why remove everything, not only her things but every last thing that had been his? He clearly had business papers; we found his briefcase with a smashed lock. But she burned it, and presumably all the papers it contained. And every other last thing of his was gone too. When travelling in the outback he would’ve had a range of gear, we saw some of it sitting on the back in the CCTV when he came to the Desert Sails at Ayers Rock that night. The people in Alice Springs also describe the vehicle as having boxes and tools on the back. And yet every last bit of his things has gone.

“It’s as if she was determined to remove any trace of his identity that she could, remove everything that connected him to anywhere. Perhaps she found something incriminating in the car, and she couldn’t bear for it to be found.”

Somehow it seemed to make sense and Alan nodded agreement. “OK, let’s accept the premise that there’s something about him that they both wanted to stay hidden. Now we have to find out what. I fear she’s done such a good job of destroying all the evidence that there’s nothing left for us to find.”

Sandy said, “You don’t really believe that do you? He lived for at least three years in the NT and had enough money to buy a brand new car, take it where he wanted and pay for things with cash. So he had access to plenty of money. He clearly was careful about revealing his identity. But no one can live in a place and earn money for three years without leaving traces behind.

“There’ll be people who know him, somewhere in the outback, and know real things about him. We already have information to suggest he did regular work somewhere around the Barkly and there are not so many stations, aboriginal settlements and mines to check. We just have to be thorough.”

Alan said, “And I will have to find some justification to keep on investigating. I wish I could do it on the phone, from my desk. But many people out there will only talk to other real people. That’s how I’ve got the evidence thus far.

“Now, as far as my boss is concerned this murder is solved and I should be working on other cases. I can probably fudge a day or two each week working on loose ends. But I can’t go travelling around the back of the NT on what others will call a wild goose chase, not unless I can think of a good reason.”

Alan walked over to Mark’s little pile. It was really just half a dozen letters, mostly junk mail. Not all of them had been opened; the advertising fliers had been put to one side. He looked at them all one by one. He knew it was probably futile but he opened the unopened ones anyway, finding only as expected.

The last letter, with a mobile telephone logo on it, was addressed to Mark Butler. It was probably just another piece of junk mail sent to Mark Bennet in error, probably a telephone promotion of the sort that seemed to come in Alan’s mail every second day. But what was there to lose? He opened it.

It was a phone bill, a mere dozen calls and a similar number of texts in a month; hardly a big user. The numbers were meaningless, most were calls to other mobiles. The first ones originated from or came to his phone when in Queensland, two in central Queensland and two in Mount Isa. The later ones came from or went to him in the Northern Territory, a couple from Tennant Creek and a couple from Alice Springs. This was all hardly remarkable for a person who lived in the NT.

But a bell was ringing in Alan’s brain. There was a pattern somewhere which he suspected was eluding him. He realised it was the vague story of their first meeting and subsequent travel together that he had got from the girl in Barkly Roadhouse. Mark Bennet had met Susan in Cairns and had then come back to the NT. The obvious route was through Mount Isa and Tennant Creek before he met her in Alice Springs and the dates on the phone bill did seem about right.

So he thought, even if it is not him, just a coincidence, what harm is there to check it out. I’ll ring through to these numbers and see who it is that answers.

The first number rang through to the message bank of a company somewhere in Queensland. Not too promising. The second was the same, this time a voice on a message claimed to represent a big multinational. He rang the third; it was a helicopter operator, based out of Mount Isa. That at least was a bit interesting and gave something to follow up.

Sandy had come over and was standing alongside him listening to the messages. Then there was the same number four times over about a week. First a text received, and later that night a text sent. Then a phone call received and finally another text sent. He dialled the number, “I’m sorry, this phone number has been disconnected.”

He kept going, another helicopter operator, this time based in Borroloola. “Hello this is Vic from Carpentaria Helicopters. I’m probably flying if I don’t take your call. If you need to book my services please ring after seven pm or send a text. I’ll call back as soon as I can.”

He sent a text. “Vic, please ring Sergeant Alan Richards of the NT Police on this number.” There was nothing in the rest of the calls that seemed of any value, though he could not help but be intrigued by the bracket of 4 calls and texts to the same number in a few days. It was definitely worth following that up. Tomorrow he would run a trace on that number.

Alan and Sandy spent another couple of fruitless hours looking at everything from all angles. They were both getting hungry. They had decided it was time to go out and eat a late breakfast when Alan’s mobile phone rang.

The caller said, “Vic from Carpentaria Helicopters. Is that Alan Richards?”

Alan replied, “Yes, thanks for calling back. I’m just trying to trace a Mark Bennet. You don’t know anyone by that name, do you?”

Vic replied, “Name doesn’t ring a bell. Any reason why it should?”

Something made Alan cagey. This guy did not seem to know about the murder, he mustn’t see a lot of TV or newspapers. So he said, “Actually I’m just trying to trace his movements from around August this year. He seemed to do some work in your neck of the woods and for a while was travelling around with a girl named Susan. Doesn’t ring any bells does it?”

The moment he said “Susan” he heard something on the other end of the line, like an indrawn breath; it seemed to show surprise.

The voice came back loud and clear. “I have a good friend called Mark Butler, done a load of work with him over the years. Around the time you asked about he was travelling with a girl called Susan, a lovely English girl. In fact I took them fishing on the Calvert and Robinson Rivers. Perhaps you have the name wrong. Does Mark Butler sound like your man?”

Alan’s heart was pounding, he almost dropped the phone. He pulled himself together. “Could be, listen I have this bloke’s photo and it’s really important that I show it to you as soon as I can. I need to check whether it’s the same guy. Where are you?”

Vic replied, “At Mataranka as we speak, but just about to ferry into Katherine for an overnight stay before I do a job on Scott Creek first thing tomorrow.”

Alan said, “OK, where can we meet in Katherine later today? I can be there in about three hours. Any time after that is good, just name the place.”

Vic laughed. “Must be urgent, but sure, I’m staying at the Paraway Hotel and I should be there by then. Just ask for Vic, the chopper pilot, they all know me.”

 

 

 

Chapter 22 – The Helicopter Pilot

 

In a minute they were on the Stuart Highway heading for Katherine. Alan and Sandy both felt a huge hit of adrenalin. It was like their first discoveries together at the Mary River billabong, only much bigger.

When they reached Adelaide River, Sandy said, “We should slow down for a bit, stop for something to eat. We need to have a think about how we approach this. If this is Mark’s friend and we come in too hard, we could make him cagey. We need to let him know about our need to discover an unknown Mark and get his trust.”

Alan said, “Stuff that, we just need to know what he knows. Surely he will help us when he knows his mate is dead.”

Sandy put her hand on his arm, “Slow up cowboy, not like you to be in such a rush when you need to put your brain into gear. Let’s stop for ten minutes, eat something and gather our thoughts.”

Alan nodded, albeit reluctantly, as she continued. “Then, when we get there, we won’t barge in and make a mess. It’s not like Vic is going anywhere today and we’ll arrive in the early afternoon. People will be resting in the shade then so it’ll be a good time for a leisurely talk.

“I suggest you first show him the photo. Then, if he agrees we’re talking about the same person you should tell it as a bit of a story to get him in. As you say, if Vic is his friend I’m sure he’ll want to help.”

They arrived to find Vic was sitting by the pool, with a cool drink in his hand. He was a wiry mid-sized man with dark skin and dark features, not quite aboriginal but something like. He had a big grin on his face when he recognised them.

“Wouldn’t put it past my mate Mark to go by another name, sly bugger. What’s he been up to this time, a bit of cattle stealing? Once you said the name, ‘Susan’, it was hard to believe it was anyone else.”

Alan pulled out the two photos. He held out a photo taken at Yulara, a nice clear full head shot of Mark. “Is that him?”

Vic barely glanced, “Sure, hard to mistake.”

Then Alan held out the photo of Susan. “How about this one? Is it the girl, Susan, who was with him?”

Vic took it and looked at it intently. He nodded. “She’s even prettier than in my memory, not that this photo shows those gorgeous blue eyes. I’ve seen Mark with quite a few girls and most of them looked good, but this one was special.

“I said to her, when we first met, ‘If he ever lets you go, make sure you let me know.’ And I meant it. Then another time I said, ‘Why don’t you trade him in for a helicopter pilot, someone with a bit more class?’

“She laughed, ever so nicely, and said, ‘I’m sure you’ve had many girls join you in the mile-high club.’

“I only spent the day with them but I could tell she thought the sun shone out of Mark. She was so gorgeous, not just to look at but in her manner, that I was a bit hooked by her myself. You know; best mate and all that Mark was, if she was interested it would’ve been hard to stop myself. But he was the only one she had eyes for that day.”

Then suddenly Vic was serious. “But you didn’t drive all that way in such a hurry just for a social chat. What’s this all about?”

Alan looked at him. “Not a big news or TV watcher, I gather?”

Vic looked a bit sheepish. “Well the last three months I’ve been real busy, haven’t had a day off since I saw them, you know that frantic rush to get all the mustering done before the rain comes. Come the end of this coming week I’ll be done and have a fortnight off. All the places are shutting down for Christmas at the weekend. But I’m flat out until then. Today is my first half day off in ages. I thought I might catch up on the news this afternoon, though a beer in the pub would also be nice. Anyway tell me what it’s about?”

Alan took a deep breath. There was no nice way to say this. “This man,” he said, pointing to Mark Bennet’s photo, “was murdered less than a week after you saw him in August. And this lady,” he said, pointing to Susan, “is on trial in Darwin for his murder.”

Vic looked dumfounded. For a minute he could not speak. Finally he said, “Are you sure?” He was pointing to Mark. Then, before Alan could answer, he pointed to Susan and said, “That thing that you said about Susan, Murder, it just can’t possibly be true. It does not fit.”

He looked back to Mark and said, “How do you know it’s him? Are you sure it’s him? I knew this man as Mark Butler for almost ten years, yet you say he’s Mark Bennet. How do you know it’s him? Is there a photo that definitely matches his face from after he died?”

Alan said, “Why don’t I start at the beginning and I’ll tell you what I know.” So over half an hour he filled in the gaps. Vic in return told him how he knew this man.

Alan admitted that the only thing that said this person was Mark Bennet, not someone else, was a photo on a driver’s licence. He explained how the car was linked to the billabong and the car was registered to Mark Bennet. But all they had was a skull and a bit of forearm. They could not really tell if these matched the driving photo.

Vic asked, “Which arm was found?”

Alan said, “It’s the right arm.”

Vic said, “Did you find anything funny about it, like an old gunshot wound?”

Sandy said, “How could you possibly know that?”

“Well,” said Vic, “he had a bit of a bump on the bone on that arm. One day he was working cattle in a trap yard. A metal gate flew open and hit him right on that spot. It looked like he would pass out. He was grey with the pain.

“Later I asked him what it was about; he was a tough bastard who rarely showed anything. So I knew it must’ve really hurt. Normally Mark would say nothing about his life before. But we’d become really good friends. I’d told him about my family, all the Afghan, aboriginal and Scottish relatives. So I think he felt he should tell me something about his life from before.

“Mark put my hand on the lump to feel it. It wasn’t very big but it was quite distinct. Then he said, ‘I was working overseas as a mercenary in Africa and I took a bullet right there. It smashed out a piece of bone. The hospitals and doctors weren’t good, no surgery. All they could do was clean out the hole, remove as much of the bullet and rubbish as they could find and fill it up with antibiotics. Then I strapped up my arm and went on my way. It took nearly a year before my arm was better and I couldn’t do much with it. I had to teach myself to write with my other hand. Now it’s as strong as ever, but that pointy bit of bone is still tender, perhaps there’s a little bit of the bullet still in there.’”

Sandy said, “You know that’s the first real confirmation that the body we found is that of the man who’s called Mark Bennet or Mark Butler, whatever the name is. I’ve X-rayed that bone. I’ve seen the bullet fragments. It’s Russian ammunitio