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Inside Looking Out

Inside Looking Out

Box Set – Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Books 2 and 3

 

Graham Wilson

 

 

 

Copyright

Inside Looking Out

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2016

BeyondBeyond Books Edition

ISBN: 9781370364770

 

 

 

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.

 

The Diary

Crocodile Spirit Dreaming – Book 2

Novel by Graham Wilson

 

 

 

Copyright

The Diary

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2014

BeyondBeyond Books Edition

ISBN: 9780987197160

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the various people who have reviewed and commented on the book since the initial version has been published. These comments have been valuable 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 Just Visiting and also of how this book contributes to the rest of the series.

 

 

 

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, something of the order of 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, whose stories have been passed down from stories of 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 also mixed with and shared influences with many other migrant communities. Many aboriginal people not only trace their aboriginal history but also that of many European, Chinese, or Afghan or other ethnic groups.

 

 

 

Synopsis of the Series Story so Far

 

[* Book 1 -Just Visiting *]

The first book of the Crocodile Spirit Series, Just Visiting, follows an English backpacker, Susan, who comes to Australia on a holiday. Here she meets an Australian man, Mark, while diving on the Barrier Reef. He works in the Outback and has a wild and reckless charm.

They have a passionate affair and she is captivated by him. But she notices odd behaviours of his which seem asocial. Despite some reservations she accepts his invitation to meet him again and travel through the outback of the Northern Territory with him. She decides not to tell anyone else where she is going.

At first the trip goes well. But chance discoveries lead her to believe he is not who he says he is, and that he may have harmed other backpackers. He also has an obsessive love of crocodiles. Yet, notwithstanding her growing suspicions the relationship grows ever more intense.

Then he discovers her suspicions and her love turns to terror. She believes he will kill her and feed her body to the crocodiles to hide her existence. She seeks to escape through use of her sexual attraction. She distracts him, knocks him unconscious then drags his body to the edge of the waterhole where the crocodiles take him. She is alone, filled with shame and remorse. As no one knows she is here she decides to hide the evidence, remove signs from the waterhole and destroy evidence of his identity, pretend it never happened. She catches her flight back to England, determined to block out the experience and ensure nobody ever finds out what took place. She was just visiting and now the trip is past, she tells herself over and over again.

 

 

 

Chapter 1Darwin – 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 now. 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 the sweat. By lunchtime a lie-down under a 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 the stinking October heat was nothing to him. Then he could hit the 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 mum 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 some 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 when she wanted to visit, and a place where Charlie could stay with her, mostly he had stayed in a dormitory with other boys around his age.

But she kept coming to see him at least every week, bringing his own brother and sister, and she kept making sure his uncles, aunts and the old people came to see him too. She also found ways to bring him out of the home a lot, so he kept getting 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 at Retta Dixon. She had lived for most of her childhood on Goulburn Island, and her family had come from the Alligator Rivers, somewhere around Jim Jim. She was a half-caste, like him. She had been taken away from her parents at a camp near the South Alligator when she was only little. However, her family could not 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.

So she had come to Retta Dixon. From the first time he had seen 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 wanted 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.

However, 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, and early on had told his own mum about her and made sure she still kept visiting too. So gradually he had 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, and 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 where the Jim Jim Creek came over those big waterfalls.

But she had lost her own tribal knowledge as a child and only lately got a little bit back through tracing some cousins. So now she was mostly Larrakia but with a bit of the Gagadju culture.

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 fish, 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 the Roper, 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 too. Then Elsie was like his Becky was now, doing the calming down.

The one useful thing his own father had done for him when he was a lad was taking him fishing and teaching him the ways of fish. He supposed his dad had also given him a way with horses, even if he more learned that 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 favourite fishing spots out on the Mary and Wildman Rivers and taught him the many ways and places to jag a big fish.

So 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 and 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 and 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 cackle.

“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 the 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 good five minutes, looking for any sign that a big lizard was lurking.

There was a strange murky mist over the water further out and 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 an incredibly ancient dreamtime crocodile spirit rose in his mind, as if warning him to be gone from this place which was claimed by another. But he pushed the image away, determined not to let his blackfella side get drawn into this superstitious stuff.

Instead he just 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 really 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 first one line started to twitch then the other; 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 the definite bait pick-up feel on the right line and gave that line 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 the two together, got two hands and arms haven’t I?

So, rather than trying to haul them in 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 backwards to pull in the line, now and then, making quick movements to wind the loose line onto the reels, so as to keep himself close to the bank.

Finally he had both fish on less than six feet of line. He could see them sitting in the water just below. Time to get them out of the water, before a hungry gator tried to grab an easy feed.

Grasping the two 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 some water lilies maybe ten metres out. So he baited a line to cast it into this space. As the line swung he was seized by powerful dread, that 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 and watched 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 had better haul in and check the bait is still on, then try a different spot. But now his hook snagged something heavy. It’s a too far out for a tree root, maybe a water lily bulb.

He gave a firm pull. Now it came free. He was dragging something heavy in on the line. It felt the weight of a good-sized fish but there was no fish-sized tugging. 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 there was 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 person object; a human spirit which sought release from this place of its crocodile destiny, as if to return to the lands of people; and a crocodile spirit which sought to hold fast to one of its own.

In the end the human spirit had won but the crocodile spirit stayed beside it, still calling out, “Return to the water.” Charlie broke the mind connection with the spirits and as he did his own world returned.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – Who Owns This

 

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 try to come and retrieve it. He was not going to touch it but the hook seemed well attached so he half lifted 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 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 crocodile food the way the crocodile spirit had tried to hold him in the water.

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, 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 while, no fish bite and me think, Maybe little fish eat bait. So I go to pull in and instead I catch this thing, man head. I pull it to here, and cover 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 again to a spot, a bit over ten yards out, where he had cast. He 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 and 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, not 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 just 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. 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 and eyeing him off, angry to have lost its prize. Just superstitious nonsense, his mind said, but still he shuddered.

Then he thought, The 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 him 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 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 also looks like a man of young to middle age.”

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. Then she tracked a mix of scuff marks and damp spots to the final destination. 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.

Then she carefully scrutinised the rest of the site, looking from where she was standing, next to the bucket.

She said, “Before I look in detail at this head I’d would like to look around the site, just in case there’s any dried blood or other information from the time 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. Her face was kind of nice when she laughed. 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. 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 had mostly been covered by leaves. “Unless I’m mistaken someone has used a spade to scrape some 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 leaves and dirt, 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 and we’ll photograph it and then I’ll collect some in a sample jar?”

Alan called over his constable, who carried a camera, and had him take several photographs. Then Sandy returned with a jar and scalpel. She dug out a small piece of rust-coloured soil and placed it in the jar, then labelled it. By the end of an hour of careful searching together they were almost sure they had worked out 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 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 a few 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 really leave it cooking in the hot sun any longer. What do you think, 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.

So 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 was at 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 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 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 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 fe el. Another person was here with the victim who had gone to considerable lengths to hide the evidence of the death. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe accidental; but if so why so much effort to cover up the signs?

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 the intent seemed 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 to break the spell, then walked to his car and drove away.

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 of 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 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 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 just 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. Somehow 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 that 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 unlikely. So why did she even let her mind go to this place?

But it was 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 right now, she told herself. She started reading, half saying the words aloud to give it 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 now he was arriving in two days. It was now Saturday morning and 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 with another man. She winced and shuddered. It would not be like that, he was not like that. David was good and honorable, 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 4Darwin – 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; 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 were 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.”

Then she led 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 on 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 their own time there would be much more to doing it together, they were already planning lots more doing 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.

Alan 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 there. It still freaks me out when I think about it.”

Sandy shrugged, not understanding and 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 five-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 Mark 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 some 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 he 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 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, Your 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 came across 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 his search findings a second diver took his place and the crate 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. “Bit hard to say really. Nothing specific; there was not anything that looked like human remains or objects that particularly related 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. There 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. “So 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 samples to a second bucket.

As 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 great 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 briefcase to identify it in a personal way.

“I wonder if our gentleman was Mr MB. It looks like someone’s initials, though of course it may just be a brand.”

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 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 are even a couple of places where it looks like a person scraped the surface to remove marks and also a place where someone broke off branches a month or two ago; so 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 all seem a bit too tidy.”

Then the man continued. “But 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.

“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 some 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,” he said. He removed the sheet and pointed to a place on the ground. “I know you looked at this the other day, but then it was covered with a fine layer of dust and leaves. Now we’ve carefully taken that away.”

Alan whistled. “I think you’re right, this is really something.” Indented into the dirt right at the edge of the fireplace depression was a single footprint.

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’ll 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 and then, while it was wet, they stepped on the wet ground with one foot. If it had 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 they had finished using the fire to burn whatever it was, took a bucket of water and threw it on the fire so as to put it out enough to shovel the ashes into the water. Maybe they even washed themselves off in the same place too. But in the process, in this place right at the edge where the soil was soft and wet, they left us a clear footprint of a right foot. I suspect that at least one of the people here was a woman and 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 and across a drainage line like a small creek. The earth in this was still slightly damp. It was a road driven over by many over the last few days, but at the very extreme left edge as they walked towards it someone had placed an orange road marker. “Just to ensure no-one else drives over the exact same place,” Bill said.

Under the marker, in slightly damp soil was a foot long tread pattern just half a tyre wide. Bill said, “This is a standard Land Cruiser tyre tread; nothing remarkable about it, ten million of these tyres in the NT. But note that place just 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 and they cut this corner a bit hard, the sort of thing you’d do if you were unfamiliar with the place or the vehicle, particularly driving at night if you weren’t quite sure where the road went.

“There’s nothing to prove this was made by that car, 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.

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 along 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. There was an awkwardness between them now. Alan felt s a desire to progress their relationship but was uncertain about the next step.

Finally after they had walked a few hundred yards they were well out of sight of the others. Alan knew he should do or say something. He was not quite 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 that a thing 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 placewith you.

He put his arm around her shoulders and she put her arm around his waist and they walked back towards the camp. It’s 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. As he looked over her head towards the water he sensed that something was watching him. Far out, at least 100 metres across the billabong, but directly opposite where they stood, were the same huge eyes he had seen watching him last time.

Alan thought it would stay in the distance, just watching. However the eyes were getting closer. First they had been far out, well towards the other side. Now they were halfway across heading directly towards them.

Now it was not only eyes, but 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. As it came closer it kept getting bigger. Originally Alan had thought it large, now he knew it was huge. He had seen many crocodiles including some that others called big. But this was much larger again. Its head seemed 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 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 now. 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 was 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 can picture some kind of life force coming from it inside my mind. It seems to be saying, ‘This body which you’ve found belongs to me. When you take it away you’re taking part of my own 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. However, whenever he looked across at the crocodile, it was just there, a huge immobile presence he could reach out and touch if he went to the water’s edge. His mind wondered, if he was to touch it, would it have a solid form under his hand, hard knobbed skin and scales, or was it just something conjured from the light and shadows that sat at the joining place of the water and the air.

A couple of times it opened its mouth in an apparent huge yawn, showing row on row of yellow peg like structures, each one a tooth which looked to be 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 when they were starting to wonder where this would all end it slowly submerged, until only the barest tip of its nostrils were showing. Then, with slow purpose, these nostrils began to move away and, after a few more metres, they too vanished.

Alan and Sandy stood motionless for another minute or two, barely believing in the reality of what they had seen. Then 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, but it also 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 other crocodiles we see.”

Then he added, “If it’s OK with you I don’t plan to say anything about this to the others back at camp, it seems like 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 you, if I 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’ll 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 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 for them. 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 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 the 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. That meal would be me. This man had me tied up so that, when morning came he’d give me to the crocodile.

“They were like brothers, both sharing one spirit. I knew it soon would be daylight. Then I’d go into the belly of that awful creature. I was so, so scared. There was a knot of terror 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. Then, 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 think I should return to my own swag again. The night is almost past and whatever is between us will have to wait for another time.

When he awoke the sun was just breaking the horizon and Sandy was rolling her swag. He wondered if he had 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. “Thank you for minding me so carefully in the night. I felt so safe sleeping next to you and only left when I woke as it was getting light. 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 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.

So 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. I just wanted 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 he placed his hand on her breast, to feel her swollen nipple.

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.

 

 

 

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 that jolt of shocked realisation when she thought about the absence of her period, followed by looking in the mirror where she saw the unmistakable changes in her body, and a dawning realisation 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. Was it just remotely possible he could be the father instead?

She had sent a quick rushed email suggesting that she meet him next 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 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.

So now he knew she was actually there and available he did not intend to leave anything to chance. 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 – that was almost exactly how he described his intentions. 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 slightly 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 was going 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. Any little prickle of anxiety about another trip with another man was safely buried, she was sure of that.

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. She 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, eyes reflecting starlight. She was not really frightened but felt a strange 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 huge and 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, which drew her towards it. At its furthest side were two mosquito nets and 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 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 the 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 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, defective though these emotions were. To dismiss this and turn him into an imaginary monster did not do justice to either.

Mark was a torn person, torn between crocodile and human love, torn between gentle kindness and danger. But Mark was a real person, made of good and bad parts and she had to come to accept that as who he was. She had to accept who he was, in order to make 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 likely not to be his. She did not see how Mark 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 suddenly 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 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 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 you 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 all 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 began with a leisurely drive though autumn colours heading west from London, calling to Stonehenge in the morning and to a castle in the afternoon. 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 his arm or shoulder. A couple of times he stopped the car at high places and walked out together with his arm around her.

As they looked out towards a rolling hillside landscape, in the late afternoon, Susan said to David, “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.”

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 seem to 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 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 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 take her.

As David held her close her 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. 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 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 away, determined that this should 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 with the proviso that for his final night they would 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. Then 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’ll 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’re your children I’ll 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’s something we could probably find out if you want.”

He thought for a moment and said, “You know, it’s 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’ve happened, that doesn’t 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 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, along with 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 reservation was it all 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. As in some distantly remembered song, “it is the cracks that let the light get in.” Perhaps one or two flaws in David’s perfection would bring her a comforting sense of reality.

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, he liked the idea of seeing what 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 enthusiasm.

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 arisen 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 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 his 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.

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 knew that there could only be space for the one, and 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 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, like that biblical saying about ‘not visiting the sins of the father on the children’ or something like that. And, for her, 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 in this place. The plane incessantly carried her east, now 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 came over 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.

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 some 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 a couple 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 only a couple of 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’d like to put this ring on her finger and ask her once again.”

Then, looking back 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. Now 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 almost 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 after all.

David also had a younger sister, Rachel, who clearly thought he was wonderful. At first she was slightly standoffish with Susan. But then they discovered a shared love of riding and had become 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 and 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.

So her motherly concern was to protect David from another heartbreak; it was as if she had a womanly sense that this new relationship was a bit too easy and moving a bit too fast. She did not want David, on the rebound, getting in too deep with someone else until they were both really sure. She told Susan that David was a prone to being impulsive and so she feared this whole thing may be another impulse. She wanted Susan to be sure before she committed her life to her son, not herself just to be swept up by the impulse of the moment.

Susan understood what David’s mother meant; she had her own sense of the rush of it all. She told his mother that it all had happened so fast that sometimes she too felt it could not be real. But then, when she thought about being with David, she was really glad it was. 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 sometimes wondered herself if she had been all too caught up in the whole romantic impulse, boy meets girl from the other side of the world and now with great haste they are getting married.

Once she tried to talk about this with David, saying she did not want him to rush 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 really lovely, with so many well-wishers; all the neighbours came from miles around the farm and from 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.

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 Davison, 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 that 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’ve 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’re words I’ve 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’s that I’ve loved you utterly since even before I first met you, and 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 disintegrated when it smashed into the bone. But all the big pieces were gone and the pieces 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 properly 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 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 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.

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 also 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 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 minute 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 1–2 month period in the water.

There were also other odd snips of information which may or may not be relevant, such as a report from a local fisherman who routinely came to fish further along this billabong most weekends of 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 around the likely time period of this event. The description of the vehicle was imprecise, though it was probably a tray back and the man thought he had seen 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 around mid to late August.

So, all these things 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 him?”

As Alan relived this memory he found he was no longer so sure it was all rubbish and stopped his mocking of her dream. So, after this, they called this a truce. While they still talked a lot about the case, it was 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 was just for the purpose of deciding 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 regular 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 with medium-brown hair and a pleasant if not highly handsome face, not 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 it was more likely that 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 the Crocodile Man and Mark indicated that it may be linked to this investigation.

So they called around. 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 area with a row of garages with numbers which 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 the 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 time 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 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.

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 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 corporation as it appeared to have a complex structure of ownership behind it.

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 bank accounts 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 vehicle yard 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 workshop 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 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 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 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 back to the station, I’ll 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 the man, wrote a short statement, read it back to him and, when he nodded in agreement, asked him to sign it. He and Richard countersigned. The man 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 people out 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 definitely was Mark and an unknown lady. A few seconds later Mark came 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, well back, and not clearly. It looked like she was waiting behind as he 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 hair she could be Spanish or Italian.” 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 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, a strap from the backpack over his shoulder. 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 little 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 her face feels like 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 work 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.

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 on to Hayes Creek, Emerald Springs and Pine Creek. When he came to Katherine he decided it was a bit hard, it was a big town. So he made a cursory effort there and continued on down the highway stopping at Mataranka and Larrimah, still nothing. He felt a bit 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 darkhaired 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. He 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 she remembered 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 needed 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 that was no good, 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 and 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 the 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. They also had ages, 24, and 33, and diving ticket numbers which they could probably track in due course but it 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 their movements and determining what happened to Mark. 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 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.

Now, with the first light of dawn, that time of choice has come and must be acted on.

I’ve just looked at your beautiful face as you lie sleeping. It’s peaceful and I hope your dreams are good. I hope 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’ve made a will. It’s 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’ve 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 spoken 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 was like a juggernaut that 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 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.

“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. So, if you want to help with money how about you help pay for airfares for more of my extended family, particularly for your sister, my Scottish aunt, and my cousins to come out. You know how much we’ve enjoyed all our 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 it 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 the 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 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.

She 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 and 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.”

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’s 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 and said they had been travelling together. 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. She introduced herself, then sat back to wait, steeling herself to appear calm, though 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, and not able to be dealt with on the phone. Could you please tell me why?”

She sensed a glance of admiration from Sergeant Lacey, an increased respect for her composure perhaps.

Detective Brent looked at her, seeming mildly annoyed and flexed his fingers. Finally he replied. “Thank you for coming in, Susan. We’ve 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 about 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?”

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 felt a sinking feeling. 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 away, so 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 is 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 but you seem like a nice girl and I wouldn’t pick you for a murderer. So can you help us? We’re asking for your help in this matter and 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.

So she took a deep breath, turned to face them all and said, “I wish I could help you more, but there’s very little I know. As you say I’ll need to talk to a lawyer, particularly 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 as 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 in locating Mark Bennet’s killer. I think we all understand what that will mean.

“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 the door. 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 and 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, what’s happened to you?”

Susan tried to think of how to say something, but a 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 something like 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 just 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 missed the sex, that part at least had been good. So, when I went out to Australia, I had more or less made up my mind to have an affair, perhaps with another tourist, perhaps with an Australian. Then, 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 really disappointed.

“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 were 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 nothing else whenever we were together. He only had to look at me or I at him 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 and he was really keen on me. At first I didn’t like him much, but my cousin, Ruth, sort of pushed us together. So 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 had 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 soon 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 can’t.

“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, without any 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’s 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 she had her baby she would change her identity so her baby and she 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.

Anne felt Susan had retreated inside herself as the last line of defence. She was dismayed by the change, as if during the night Susan had become autistic. She still smiled at Anne with her old trademark smile, but it was glitter over a steel cage. As Susan left in a taxi 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.

Even though Susan thought she was now indifferent to other things, she had found it had still 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, the way he reminded her of her father, acting this way felt like a further act of betrayal.

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, and were planning a big party to say goodbye at the end of the month. So, just 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 had headed home, via a real estate agent in north-west London. She had rented an ugly and depressing little bedsitter, in a busy street in a disgusting neighbourhood. She had taken it sight unseen, with 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 that 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 wondered if she should just take the original document to the police and cooperate; pleading self-defence in Mark’s death. But she knew that, with his child and his letter to consider, she could not do this, it would constitute a final act of betrayal of him to do this before she had spent the time reading the diary and trying to understand.

So now she had to 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 she knew 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 thought 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. Now she was crying her heart out, having finally had to acknowledge to herself and someone else, that 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 and she hated that thought.

As she sat and waited the phone rang. Her mother picked it up. “It’s David and he demands to talk to you, I think that this is something 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 for a while. 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 it 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.”

That was the end of the talking. After that they ate a subdued family dinner. It was very poignant as she hugged them all 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 all try to 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.

 

 

 

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 her about Tim’s parting comments which made Anne laugh and then she said goodnight.

Awful though it all was, and particularly the place she was staying in, she did feel better now. 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 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 herself.

 

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. She was just leaving as I came in, 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 and 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 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 two 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. Instead we 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 getting 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 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 about 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 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, 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 obviously 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 recording 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 to change 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. 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’d prefer to be left alone. I have everything else I’ll 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 that in that instant 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. 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. 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.”

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.

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; she was on the continuing direct flight to Sydney from here and he assured her that it would be fine with just the two of them.

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.

“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 and 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’s 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 it too, even though for me it’s different, I love another. And you too feel some of the attraction for me that you feel for her. In part she and I have become kindred spirits. But you also love her more than your attraction for me.

“When I was leaving that place of death I saw her come to you, and 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 our friendship will be stronger.

“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’ll spend many years in jail for what happened, but that mustn’t influence you. I don’t want that, but there’s 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, and part of both is 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, and 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. Now you’re 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, 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 her being the murderer was now 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. They 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 still 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 hug 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, 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 would have loved to help them, to share his concerns and suspicions.

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’d 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 that he’d done, 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. Then I think 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, there 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 the 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’ve 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’s not only a decision to hide her role; it’s 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.

“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 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’ll have to find some justification to keep 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 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 the numbers and see who 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 worth following that up. Tomorrow he should 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, 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 that 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 three hours. Anytime 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 may make him cagey. We need to let him know about our Mark and get his trust.

“Let’s stop for ten minutes, eat something and gather our thoughts. 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. If this 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. What has 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 till 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 I 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 could 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 ammunition, and it tells us this man has worked in Africa or the Middle East. So now, thanks to you, we really do know that it’s your friend Mark. Now we need to know who he was and what he’s done, to try to understand why Susan is involved. Can you help us?”

With the mention of Susan’s name Vic turned his attention to her. “Where is she, why is she accused, what has she said?”

So Alan explained the evidence he had gathered and Vic listened intently. When Alan told Vic about her complete refusal to cooperate, her absolute silence, Vic shook his head. “It just doesn’t make sense, she was no weakling, but the way they acted together, it just doesn’t make sense. She was captivated by him and he was by her. It sounds like she was there alright but there must be another explanation.”

Alan agreed. “That’s why we were so desperate to see you, we need to find out. So far, beyond Susan you’re the only person who has admitted to knowing this man. So we need your help, please tell us anything you know about him or of others who might know him?

“In three months her trial will happen and unless she helps herself or we can find a reason for what happened it’ll be over in a day and she’ll spend most of her life in jail.”

Vic shook his head, still finding it hard to believe. “Of course I’ll help you. Mark was my friend and, no matter what happened. I know he wouldn’t have wanted something like this to happen to Susan. So I must help her, both for her own sake and to do what he would’ve wanted. I’ll tell you what I can remember now, and then, while I’m working next week, I’ll put my mind to trying to remember anything else that will help.

“And I must talk to Susan as soon as I can. Perhaps I can help her find a way out of this mess. Maybe she’ll trust me because I’m Mark’s friend.”

So they sat beside the pool in the heat of the afternoon. Vic talked and both Sandy and Alan wrote notes.

Vic told them how he had worked with Mark on many jobs, on many stations, over the last ten years. He told them what a crack marksman he was, how he was an accomplished horse rider and a jack of all trades. Vic described his vehicle and all the things it used to carry, particularly his rifles; they were something he was a bit obsessed with. He tried to think of other people who were Mark’s friends or who he had seen him with, those who might know an earlier Mark, but here he knew little. He said, “Mark’s past was like a closed book, something he wouldn’t talk about with anyone.”

Then he said, “But Susan really wanted to know, she was head over heels in love with him, anyone could see it, and Mark seemed to have a real big crush on her too. Mark told me how, in Borroloola the next day, he was going to collect some jewellery he had had made up for her, some really special blue opals that he said matched her eyes.

“Before her he never seemed to be able to keep the girls around, they would come for a week or two and leave. But with her it was different; she really wanted to know all about him. He didn’t want to tell her about his past, he must have had some bad secrets. I think he was abused as a child. His mother died young, he never quite said it but you pick up little bits.

“But anyway Susan wanted to know all and Mark didn’t want to tell her, it was the only thing that spoiled how perfect it all was between them. Yet he was totally smitten and the jewellery sounded to me a bit like a marriage proposal, if he could have he would have.

“Mark was a tough bastard and fearless. But I never saw him do anything bad. He was gentle with animals, and kind to the aborigines and old people. I never saw him hurt anyone, not even in a punch in a bar fight. He would scrap but it was good-natured, as if it was a joke. Mostly he ducked and stepped out of the way of the odd loose punch, then sent the other bloke to the ground with a well-directed shove.

“But there were a couple of stories about people who tried to bully or cheat him, that were scary. Sometimes he’d get a look in his eye with one of these blokes, where you knew it would end badly for someone and not for him. But the times I saw, it was the other guy in the wrong. Fortunately these people weren’t so brave. They backed down when Mark called their bluff. Mind you he could be mean enough when he thought someone was an arsehole and the word gets around here so people knew better than to cross him.”

By the end of two hours they had all that Vic could remember, or at least would tell them. It was funny, but as the afternoon wore on it was as if he was changing. His warmness towards Susan seemed to fade and there seemed to be an edge of anger when they tried to dig into Mark having done something bad.

But still he kept telling them what he knew. It was much yet little, and Alan sensed there were still a couple of secrets withheld. There were little hints but yet the enigma remained just as great. This man, Mark B, that was what Vic called him, was kind and gentle with most people. There was a ruthless, dangerous side too. But when the telling was done his past was as hidden as ever.

As to Mark’s real identity Vic remained guarded. He said that everyone called him Mark B; almost no one used his surname. He signed always as Mark B. It was just for things like tax invoices that he used his surname; that was how Vic knew it.

Vic said, “Of all the people who knew Mark I reckon less than one in ten knew his surname.” But Vic did not say if he knew what Mark’s real name was. When they asked he dodged the question.

 

 

 

Chapter 23 – Vickram Campbell

 

Vic was perplexed when the call had come in asking him if he knew a Mark Bennet. While the initial reaction was to say he had no knowledge of a person by that name, at the same time his mind was working in parallel thinking about the strange situation on the morning he and Mark last went flying.

It was then he had known there was something different about the relationship between Susan and Mark.

He knew Mark had few real friends, and that he himself was as close to one as there was. From the time they had first worked together, ten years ago, they had struck up an unlikely bond. He thought it had to do with them both having mixed ancestry and muddled identities; both of them had really left their past identities behind as they forged new careers working across the outback.

Mark was a city kid who had grown up really hard and tough in order to protect himself. Vic was a black kid who had done much the same. The real difference was Vic had a loving family, a mother who always had time for him and a tribe of sisters and brothers.

But the Alice Springs town camp of his home had hardly given him an ideal childhood. Drunkenness and violence was endemic, several of his relatives had been killed in drunken fights or from alcohol-related diseases, liver failure, kidney failure, diabetes. And half of his childhood friends sniffed glue or petrol or stole things for a living.

Vic was the youngest and his mother had a fierce determination to not let this crime and delinquency happen to him. In part it was her and his mixed ancestry that made her want something better. She called herself an Arrente woman, but in reality that was only half of her lineage. She had an Afghan grandfather on one side and a Scottish grandfather on the other side. So she had kept the Campbell name for herself and continued the Afghan name in Vickram, though most everyone only knew him as Vic; Mark was the exception.

He and Mark were not so different except that he had a mother who wanted something better for him. His mother had watched her other five children run off the rails. He still liked his brothers and sisters but only one other, his next sister, Polly, had amounted to anything. Both his older brothers had already spent several years in jail. One of his sisters had been pregnant at fourteen, and now had three children by different fathers and lived totally off social security. The second had married an older violent, drunken man, who regularly beat her.

His third sister was three years older than him. After a patchy start when she had been one of a gang of kids who was into shoplifting and rapidly heading towards jail, she had suddenly grown up. She seemed to have found religion and stability when she was seventeen. She had left home then and got a job in Alice Springs and a place of her own. Now she spent most of her time on church activities and trying to help other kids from the neighbourhood.

She, as much as his mother, had been determined that Vic would do better. He was both bright and a gifted athlete. Perhaps it was that he had inherited the best of his mixed ancestry. He had played Australian Rules for a local team and had been seriously looked at by Melbourne teams; he had the speed and agility to weave through a gap. An offer was made for him to go to Melbourne for a year and train for a big name club. But it would have interrupted his last year at school and Polly wanted better for him than that. She had driven him to finish high school and get good marks. Then, when she found out he had his heart set on working on a station, she looked for something better he could do and still work in the outback. From the first time he had seen a helicopter muster he had been hooked on these metal birds of the sky.

So his sister had encouraged him to pursue that interest. She had gone looking for work he could do at the airport and found him an apprenticeship with a company there, where he could both learn an aircraft mechanic’s trade and have an easier way to get flying lessons.

He had stayed with her while he got his mechanic’s ticket and scrimped and saved to get money, doing other odd jobs anywhere he could. All his money went into flying lessons. At the age of twenty-one he got his fixed wing pilot’s licence and at the age of twenty-three a helicopter licence. Then he had worked for Helimuster and other firms for a few years, building his savings until finally, three years ago, he had the money to get his own machine, based in Borroloola and doing work mostly for miners and cattle stations

Mark was one of the few whitefellas that his mum really liked. He had brought him home early on, just a couple of years after they first met, when they were doing a job together out to the north east of Alice, up on the Sandover River. It was like his mum had seen something good in Mark, as well as recognised Mark’s need for family.

So she had sort of adopted Mark, no questions asked. Now, when Mark came to town he nearly always went and saw her, even when Vic was far away.

He and Mark had stayed firm friends ever since. A couple of times over the years they had little fallings out over girls, they both had plenty but occasionally they had fancied the same one. They seemed to have very similar taste in this; it was a sort of blood brother thing. When they first met they had scored girls they saw and wanted to both hit on. They nearly always got the same score. It was just a game, but a couple of times they had skirmishes about this and had done a bit of pushing and shoving at each other. But it was not real, the girls would choose and whichever won, the other was a gracious loser and sometimes they had shared. So their mateship had continued.

Neither had found a girl they really wanted to settle with, at least as far as Vic knew, though he suspected there were a few in the past that Mark would not talk of that had been more. That was until Susan came along. From the moment Mark rang him and asked him to find a day to take them flying in the Gulf, in a place along the Calvert and Robinson which they both loved, he sensed there was something different. Mark told Vic that an English girl would be travelling there with him, and it was something in his voice that let Vic know she was different; he said he really wanted to show her a good time and also explain his love for this country to her.

And from the moment Vic met her he understood why, she had a real affection for Mark, like they connected at a different level. There was also real class to her. She was no prude, but she had elegance and grace, combined with a tomboy sort of devil-may-care attitude. He would not have said she was classically beautiful, more pretty, but she had something indefinable that made her so attractive. He had been with a lot of beautiful girls over the years, flying around in a helicopter had that effect, and he had only met a few like her.

There was something in Susan’s eyes which drew you in. And when she talked to you, there was no one but you in the room. But she was his best friend’s girl; he would not go there, even if she had shown interest which she did not. Apart from a few friendly quips he had not let himself think about her, though her image was still very clear.

Since Mark and Susan had gone on with their trip his feet had barely touched the ground. It was his busy time of year and work was booming. But he remembered that day of flying so clearly, one of life’s magic moments.

And, even more, he remembered what had come before. Just before they took off Mark had asked to talk to him in private for a minute. Mark made out like it was for planning the route or for other business dealings. But that was all done over the phone, just an invoice to be done at the end of the day at mate’s rates. They had already agreed the price.

Instead Mark had been more frank than useful. He had pulled out a piece of paper. It had the words “Last Will and Testament of Vincent Marco Bassingham” written on the top. Mark said, “Just in case you’re wondering, that’s my real name and I want you to sign this. It’s my will.” Vic saw it named him as an executor of Mark’s estate.

Mark then said, “We’ve been best friends for ten years. I know both you and your family but I’ve told you little about me. There’s some bad stuff I’ve done I could tell you about, but I’d rather not. But I have this feeling that something bad, a sort of payback, will happen soon. It may be my imagination, but you never know. Sometimes I see these things coming. I decided I want to make a will, just in case.

“Until now there has never been a person who I wanted to share my life with. But then I met Susan. I’m crazy about her but I can’t tell her who I am. However if anything should happen to me I’m asking you to help ensure that what I have goes to her. My will names her as my main beneficiary, with some to go to you and a few other friends. In the will I also give instructions about how to access what I own.

“If anything happens to me I want you to be like my brother for Susan, help her and make sure she gets this. Will you do that for me?”

Vic had been tempted to ask more. But Mark had been so serious and earnest, so he had merely nodded and said, “Like a brother, yeah, can do. But you have the nine lives of a cat with eight left yet. You’ll outlive us all.”

Mark had replied, “I’m probably down to my last one. I’ve had my share of good luck and can’t ask for more. The crocodile spirits have been calling, those blackfella totem ones from that Top End country where they gave me my skin name.”

So Vic had signed the will and then Mark put it in the car, giving him an enigmatic smile. Soon after they had gone flying and later Susan and Mark left. That was the last he had seen or heard of either of them.

Today the cops had rushed to Katherine to see him and told him the real story. That was it. Mark’s strange prophecy was fulfilled.

And he had helped those cops, well sort of. They had wanted his help to save Susan, this girl who they knew was guilty and yet believed was not, or at least was somehow justified in what she did. They sought his help in discovering the real Mark.

At first he had helped them out, feeling affection for the girl in her trouble, remembering her fondly from the day in the helicopter. But as the afternoon wore on and he told of his knowledge he started to see her differently.

He had not let himself think about Mark’s loss and what it meant until now. But he really missed this man. He was the brother he would have wanted if he could have chosen. He was not the crying type but felt sort of choked up thinking of that last day, and the magic of the hunt and the fishing hole. There were ten years of other magic times as well.

Still, shit happens. Tomorrow it could be his turn: the thread that holds one to life is so thin that one puff of wind can break it, he thought.

Somehow he could not put Susan in the same frame as Mark’s death. But the cops had been convincing in the story they told him, evidence was evidence. Thinking about her killing Mark, whatever Mark may have done before, made him feel really angry towards Susan. Mark was his mate, they had shared so much together and she had taken him away. He could feel his affection for her turning into something dark, a desire for payback.

But yet Mark had made him promise to treat her like a sister. And Mark had told him, though he had barely read it, that he, Vic, was the executor of his will and Susan was the principal beneficiary. It was all completely whacky.

So he must do what he promised, but also find out the truth. As soon as he had finished his year of mustering he would go and see Susan and get the real story. He would beat it out of her if he had to, sure he would look after her, as he had promised, but she would tell him the truth if it killed him. He was not one to be taken in by tears and silence; he had seen too much crazy stuff in his life to let that stop him.

When the cops had shown him her photo he had really warm thoughts about her, more like lust really. But now, when he thought about her killing Mark, the image was all changed. He saw her as an evil, dangerous and calculating bitch, perhaps charming his friend to get at his money and then getting rid of him when it suited. But then the cops did not talk about her that way, they said she seemed to be totally infatuated with his friend.

Stuffed if he knew what to make of it; but he would find out, of that he was sure.

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – Crocodile Spirit Capture

 

Since he had discovered the man’s head in the billabong, Charlie felt weird much of the time. It was like there was something almost always inside his head trying to talk to him. It was not quite a voice, more like an alien presence that did not belong there. It sent unexplained images into his head, things he was only partly aware of that kept bumping into his ordinary thoughts.

He could be working away in the shed, making something out of wood, like some new timber shelves for the kitchen, and he would become aware there was someone or something else there with him who was watching with him from the inside, using his Charlie’s eyes to see the world outside. Other times, like when he was working with Elsie in the kitchen, say stuffing a chook for dinner, he could feel this creature’s hungry eyes watching as well, and more than watching, almost salivating with desire to have such a tasty morsel for itself. He had half talked about it with Alan, like when he had warned him about the dangerous crocodile spirit in that place and had half talked about it with Elsie, but it was hard to properly describe what was happening without seeming a bit mad. He did not think he was mad, the rest of him seemed as sane as ever and yet this thing was there.

It seemed like something had got inside his head on the day when he pulled up the man’s head, in that tug of war with the crocodile spirit. At that time when he had fought it as it was trying to pull its thing back into the water he thought he had won; that once that horrible object was in his possession the spirit had returned to the water.

Now he was not so sure. It seemed like a part of it had embedded itself into his mind, hiding somewhere out of sight, but never gone. When his mind relaxed, as he smoked or day-dreamed, it would start to creep out. At night it would come out much further when his mind gave it free space as it shut itself down to rest. Then he could feel it roaming around inside his head creating strange images and sensations.

Sometimes he dreamed he was a crocodile himself and knew the feeling of power that came as he seized his prey, felt it struggle to exhaustion and then pull it underwater. But as his waking brain reasserted itself this creature would slide away and disappear below the surface of his awareness again, like its real reptile cousins, silently slipping back into a hidden position, where it waited, known but unseen until another opportune time.

He felt like his mind could control it but was unable to remove it. And sometimes he wondered if his sense of control was just an illusion; that it was waiting in deep ambush until the right time came to attack again. Charlie felt too it was growing in power, feeding on part of his spirit and from that it was drawing more strength. Each week he sensed a little more of it in there, in the same way that a living creature grew as it fed.

Its message seemed to be, “You have taken something which belongs to me and in return I have taken a part of you.”

The message gave him a strange compulsion, a compulsion to return to the place of the man’s head, to talk directly to the ancient creature he had struggled with there, one on one. He wondered what the relationship was between the thing inside his head and the ancient crocodile spirit of the billabong. Were they one and the same, the part in him just a part of the greater whole or was it like cousins, a tribe of creatures who lived in that place together, each seeking out human and animal souls to claim.

Charlie would not give in to that compulsion to return to the billabong; he knew if he went back he may be powerless to stop it pulling him into the water, seizing his body in return for what he had taken. At times he thought if he went there with something to placate it, perhaps the carcase of a big pig; that may be enough. But he was far from certain the trade would be accepted.

One night, as they were sitting down to a roast dinner, he found himself staring at Elsie with eyes that were not his own, they were hungry eyes, hunger for the meat but also with strange hunger for Elsie, not his usual hunger for this woman he loved but something more predatory.

Elsie looked up at him, part way through eating and said, “Why? Why do you keep looking at me with those hungry crocodile eyes?”

So he found himself telling her, explaining it as best he could. That night, a couple of times, she woke him from crocodile dreams where he and a huge crocodile were together, swimming through the water side by side and hunting for food. Each time she woke him and touched him the crocodile that was inside him would slide away, leaving him alone, but as the sleep returned it would slither back.

Next morning he woke late to find that Elsie had already packed the car and had his breakfast waiting, a steaming plate of bacon and eggs.

She announced, “Today, we go to my country, the stone country. We have an old medicine man who can talk to the spirits. I ask him to tell this crocodile spirit to stop bothering you, to go away back to its own and leave you in peace.”

They drove east into the morning sun, first crossing the Adelaide and then the Mary River. Each time they passed over a large river he could hear, as if from far away, the crocodiles of the river which passed below him calling out to his own hidden crocodile and it was calling back. At the Mary River this calling was much stronger, saying they were his brothers and sisters. As they passed the road turning off to the billabong Charlie found he had to force his arms to resist the compulsion to turn the car that way. The spirit inside was calling him to take it home to the billabong from whence it came.

Charlie could feel his arms shaking with tension as he continued driving east along the main highway. As they crossed the next rivers, the Wildman and West Alligator, then the mighty South Alligator with its huge brown tide flowing below, the voices were still there but their power was weaker.

They followed the main road, the Arnhem Highway, almost to Jabiru. Elsie indicated to turn south, heading to Pine Creek. As they went south Charlie watched the silent ramparts of the stone country rise before them, outlines softened by heat haze of the late morning light, their browns, yellows and oranges subdued by glare of the midday sun. Elsie watched too, smiling in delight as her own special country came into view.

Soon after crossing Nourlangie Creek, Elsie indicated to Charlie to pull over, saying, “From here I drive. That way I bring you back to my own tribal country. It will please the Dreamtime Spirits. I bring us both back to show respect. Today I must talk to my ancestor spirits, those of the wallabies that live up amongst the big rocks, the Nabarlek Dreaming Spirits.”

Charlie nodded knowing this was her sacred land in which her ancestor spirits held power. He did not wish to offend them. They drove along a rough and winding track for half an hour which led them away from the main road, closer and closer to the towering ramparts of the hills which loomed above them. At a small spring in the trees they came to a bush camp.

Children rushed out to greet them, black bodies glistening in the midday sun. A crowd of people, young and old, gathered around, laughing and talking in their own language. Charlie only partly understood but Elsie chattered freely back. In the cooking fire were turtles and yams and a large flat damper, it surface encrusted with ash and charred bits.

They sat in a circle, passing succulent portions of steaming turtle and yam along with chunks of white floury damper, along with cups of sweet tea. When the eating was done they shared stories of their families and the events across the tribes from near and far, using kinship terms to place people into their clans. Then they stretched out on the sand and lay dreaming in the midday heat until the sun began to slide westward, lowering towards a smoky horizon. Now the hills above and beside them were glowing in iridescent light, the colours come alive. A chattering and thumping sounded on a nearby hill.

Elsie stood up and stretched, indicating to Charlie to come with her. “It’s my ancestor, Nabarlek, calling. Time we go and see our medicine man. He lives in the place where they drink.”

She led him along a sandy scuffed path towards the high cliffs. He followed her single file. After a few more minutes they came to the start of the hills, a ridge which ran alongside and below the big cliffs above. Small wallabies with patches of red and dark fur bounded away, these were the Nabarlek of Elsie’s totem.

Charlie followed her as she climbed the path up onto the ridge and looked back across a commanding view of the woodland and floodplains extending far to the west. Elsie pointed out the main features, Jim Jim Creek, where it met the South Alligator River in the place she called Woolwonga, home of buffalo and big crocodiles. It was a place she had camped, as a girl, when her father worked for the buffalo shooters, him skinning the big buffalo bulls they shot out on the plains, while she and her mother gathered water lily bulbs, yams and turtles, and caught catfish for their dinner. “It was a good time, before they took me away,” she said, lost in her own nostalgia.

Then they walked on to the base of a massive cliff, towering hundreds of feet above them, its myriad colours bright in the western sun as they stood in the shade far below. At the base of a crack in the cliff stood a small clump of green trees, figs and other trees with big leaves. As they came close they saw a pool of water with a white haired man and woman sitting in the sand beside it. He painted patterns in red and brown ochre on a sheet of bark while she worked at weaving a yellow and orange string basket. Elsie called out in their language and they looked up, faces smiling in welcome.

Elsie explained to Charlie, “They’re my tribal grandmother and grandfather, medicine people of our tribe, those who can talk to the spirits.” She led Charlie over and they sat in the sand opposite, while Elsie spoke rapidly to them in her own language for a few minutes.

They nodded back, speaking occasional words and questions, as the story unfolded. Then the old man and woman stood up and came beside him, each taking a hand of his in theirs and placing their other hands on his head.

As they did he could hear them searching for and questioning the spirit which was within him. At first it tried to stay hidden, but they told it clearly they could see it and slowly it slid out into view. Soon the questions ceased and they turned again to Elsie and resumed speaking directly to her.

When they had finished she translated back to Charlie. “They say they have spoken to the crocodile spirit inside your head. He is not the big old spirit, the one of the ancestor crocodile dreaming, but another crocodile spirit, a younger cheeky one. One day he came to the billabong of the big crocodile and the big crocodile caught him and ate him up. So then he was inside the big crocodile, along with the many other spirits of the creatures eaten. He did not like it there, always having to fight with other spirits for a place at the table. Over time the big crocodile kept capturing more and more spirits. But it was trapped in there and the big crocodile spirit would watch him closely to make sure he did not escape.

“Then, one day, when the big crocodile spirit was fighting with you to keep the man’s head, and because it was a big fight, he could no longer guard all the spirits inside him. So it slid out and then, knowing it needed a new body, went inside you instead. He slipped inside you without you knowing because your own dreaming spirit, the catfish spirit was busy fighting with the big crocodile sprit over the man’s head. So it’s like it tricked its way in and now doesn’t want to leave. Our medicine man says we must try to trick him it out and into another body, a real crocodile body, again. As this spirit inside you is not old and clever they think they can trick it.

“Tomorrow, in the early morning when the fish and crocodiles are feeding, we’ll go to a billabong by the big river, and find a new crocodile to take away the spirit from inside you.”

As the sun was setting they all returned to the camp. Over a dinner of roast kangaroos, a big one with more than enough meat for the whole clan, the medicine man explained his plan. He needed the two best hunters of the tribe to help him, one to catch a magpie goose and one to catch a crocodile in the first light of the early morning, the time when spirits could no longer roam freely in the darkness but must find a safe place to hide.

Once the clan had agreed on who the hunters would be, they returned to their feast. Charlie watched a circle of bodies in the flickering firelight tapping sticks and dancing. He soon fell asleep on the sand, covered by a blanket.

Elsie woke him when the stars were still shining brightly in the night sky. He could hear bird calls telling him that the coming of the light was not far away. Four other shadowed bodies stood in a semi-circle. Soon all were driving to the big billabong. They arrived as the first streamers of light were touching the eastern sky to a noisy chorus of frogs and the faint honking of geese in the reed beds to the side. The billabong water was dark and still except for swirls as hungry fish fed.

The medicine man sent a hunter to the reed beds, where the geese were roosting, with instructions to catch a live goose and bring it back. The man walked off quietly, carrying a loop of string attached to a pole. They watched as he came close to the reeds, crouched then slid on his belly into them, vanishing from sight. Soon a chorus of honking and flapping wings erupted. The man returned, proudly holding up a goose with its neck held in a string noose. He trussed its wings and legs to prevent escape.

Now they turned their attention to the dark water, all squatting and watching intently. The second hunter signalled silently. He had seen his quarry surface a few metres out. Just two nostrils and eyes were visible. The first hunter carried the goose to the water nearby. It honked plaintively. The eyes and nostrils in the water drifted closer, sensing food. Charlie sensed his own crocodile spirit within him was sliding out, watching with hungry eyes, desirous the goose would become its meal.

Charlie watched the hunter raise a spear as the eyes drifted ever closer. Now they were bare feet away. A blur of movement as the spear shot forward, burying a harpoon head into scales a foot behind the eyes. The water became a thrashing and splashing place.

Now the two hunters held tight to a cord line, attached to a spear, attached to this twisting and rolling creature. They slowly hauled it to shore and dragged it from the water, wet scales gleaming in the first light. They held fast to the spear, to keep it in place. It was only a big man’s length, jaws waving and snapping. One man kept holding the spear while the other walked quietly behind. He jumped forward and sat on the body, legs astride, away from the biting teeth.

The medicine man came close to the head holding a big branch, as thick as an arm. He waved this at the snapping head, baiting it, encouraging it to bite but each time drawing it away as the teeth snapped closed. As the mouth opened extra wide for the next bite he jammed the wood into its gaping maw. Now the man on the body leapt forward, pushing his weight over the head, forcing the jaws closed. The other hunter let go of his spear and added his weight to the man astride, pinioning the crocodile with its jaws clamped on the stick. The medicine man took the cord from the end of the spear and wrapped it around the jaws to keep them closed, still biting into the wood.

The medicine man slid a long arm within the gullet of the crocodile, into a space between its teeth where its mouth was held open, right alongside the wooden gag. In a few seconds he pulled out a dark shiny object, a flat stone the size of a small fist. He brought this over to Charlie and told him to hold it, saying it contained a part of the spirit of this new crocodile. Now he was to bite on the goose, as if to eat it.

As Charlie bit down, he sensed that he was now one with the spirit of the speared crocodile, and together they were consuming the goose. He could feel hunger and jealousy of the first crocodile within him, desiring the same goose, not wanting to let the crocodile of the stone take away its prize. This creature within him rushed from his mouth into the body of the goose to take possession of it for its own.

In that split second, when it was gone from him, the medicine man knew. He broke the neck of the goose and pulled it away from Charlie. Now the crocodile spirit that came from him was trapped inside the goose. Charlie had sensed, in that last second as the goose died, that this creature knew it was tricked and tried to come back. But the spirit of the crocodile stone in his hand gave him the power to repel it.

Now the medicine man carried the dead goose over to the crocodile held on the ground by the hunter. He placed the goose body within the open jaws and pushed its head within the crocodile’s gullet. Then he removed the harpoon from its shoulder, unwound the cord from its jaw and flicked the piece of wood aside. The jaws snapped shut, driving teeth into the goose held between them.

The hunters stood up and released their hold on the crocodile. As it became aware of its freedom, it shook its head to the side and chomped its jaws, gauging the new item in its mouth. Then, knowing it as food, it opened its jaws wide and took it fully within and swallowed it down. The crocodile looked at them with a baleful eye before it walked to the water’s edge and slid away.

Elsie was grinning, the medicine man was grinning, the hunters were grinning. Charlie was grinning the most.

The trick had worked; the alien spirit was gone from his body. Now he was just Charlie, man of the catfish dreaming and catfish fisher again. In his hand he felt the smooth dark stone, a thing imbued with the spirit of another crocodile and its power. The crocodile which once owned it would grow on now with a second spirit inside it, the spirit which had tried to live in him.

In its place he knew a part of the spirit from the crocodile they had captured would stay in the stone. When he held this stone he felt it connected him to the spirits of other crocodiles without them harming him, giving a conduit between his spirit and theirs without danger to him. He felt safe for now.

He put the stone in his pocket; he would keep it to guard against future need. He did not know why but he had a strong feeling that his battle with this dreamtime creature was not yet finished.

Before he left this place he would catch a big catfish, it was a fitting present from his spirit to the spirits of this clan who had helped him.

 

 

 

Chapter 25 – Susan alone

 

Susan felt like she had been kept in a cage by herself for months now. It seemed like a lifetime since she had walked down a street on her own. Was it really only about a month? It was hard to remember.

At first, when they had put her in a cage, she had been so angry, that detective trying to trick a confession out of her. Then gradually a lost feeling had come over her, her life slowly descending into gloom, endless days of staring at cell walls, no other people to talk to. There were no more happy days with friends, no loving nights with men except in her dreams.

And even the dreams were turning bad now. There were occasional tender moments with Mark, loving embraces. But he was getting hard to see clearly, sometimes he had a crocodile snout, sometimes scales on his body, or long pointy teeth, or slit like yellow crocodile eyes.

When she awoke there were hours and hours of nothing. She found herself unable to read, she kept losing her place in novels and found that not much made sense. So now she mostly just sat and stared. She also found people’s visits hard to bear. They reminded her of another life out there which she could not experience. And everyone kept asking her to tell the truth.

They all knew the truth, the evidence did not lie. She had been with him, she had killed him and then she had tried to hide what she had done. They were the ones that refused to accept what was there before their eyes. They wanted to see her as Saint Susan. But she was not, she was just someone who had done a terrible thing and now she must pay for her crime. Why was it so hard for everyone to understand?

There had been one day of sunshine, one day when the shadows went away. It was that day on the aeroplane; the kindness of that policeman, Alan, along with her double connection with him through his girlfriend and their shared memories. Her words had come tumbling out, such a relief after the silence. He had talked, but she had talked much more. And there was the simple physical pleasure of being in the company of an attractive man, one that found her attractive too, it somehow made her feel good about herself, if just for a day.

Really what she wanted was to feel a man’s arms around her, a real man loving her in the night, bodies joined, the way she remembered with her other lovers, with Edward, with Mark, with David. She knew this act could push the darkness away. Even if it was only for an hour she would accept that gratefully. Instead her life was filled with endless hours of darkness. So, even one hour of escape would be wonderful.

She particularly remembered Alan’s male arousal when she had put his hand on her lower belly. Then how, after he sensed the life in her, she had moved his hand down lower. She had felt his touch so clearly, they both knew what was being done. She had pressed down over his fingers with her other hand, and had tried to bring her body up to meet his fingers. He had moved his fingers over and stroked and caressed her there. His fingers touched her with such exquisite sensitivity. Part of her wanted to cover them both with a blanket. Then he could lift her skirt and touch more. In privacy what followed would have been inevitable.

But eventually, though really only a minute later, she had taken his hand and moved it up again. She had explained to him how they could not be lovers, how they were bound to others. Really neither believed it, it was a convenient fiction to help them stay separate.

It was not that she would choose him over Mark, or even David; it was just that she had such a great need for physical comfort and affection in her place of emptiness. And after, for a short time, she had felt comforted by the remembrance of this man’s touch. So instead she had cuddled into him, the way one does with a lover after pleasure. And for just a short time she had a beautiful sleep in a place where no horrors dwelt.

Then that had ended, the flight was over. They led her away to her cell, and he went to his real lover. She felt a pang of jealousy for what she knew they would be sharing. Since then the darkness had fully enfolded her, the days were dark, the nights were even darker, she could not remember how many had passed. Her dreams of Mark were now infrequent; mostly it was other reptilian monsters who shared her dreams.

Her friends and family came to visit but she could barely hear them speak, it was like they were talking underwater. And, always, they asked her to explain, to tell the truth. But there was nothing left to explain, only a loud silence which tried to muffle the screams in her soul. Now they barely came anymore, perhaps the underwater talking was hard for them too.

The only thing she knew with certainty was that she wanted it to be over, she did not know what over was, but there must be a different place to this, one where she could walk in the sunshine and talk to the animals if not to people. Perhaps they would give her a puppy to play with. That would be nice. Then she could skip and dance, like a little girl once again.

One day, she did not know when, she realised the warden was trying to talk to her, to tell her something. Finally some underwater sounds reached her brain. It was the words, “You have a visitor.”

She asked what day it was. The warden said, “It’s two days before Christmas.”

The visitor was a man who had dark skin, well sort of a yellow brown. He was old and not very tall. He had grey hair and wrinkled skin on his forehead. He said his name was Charlie.

He walked with her to a visitor’s room. The warden left. Charlie sat opposite her. She looked at him intently; she felt she should know him. Finally she realised that he was the cousin of the “Chink” who had cooked the pig at Seven Emus, the one in Mark’s diary. She did not know how she knew they were cousins, but he looked like him, at least a bit.

It was the only thing that seemed clear in her muddled brain. That was good, she had liked that man and she remembered the taste of the food. Perhaps they could make pork dumplings together, here in this room, using the stove that she could now see in the corner where she had only seen a bare wall, when he came in. He must have carried it in with him, but she could not remember that.

Charlie was trying to get her to look at him, she realised he was pointing to her and talking. She tried to hear what he was saying but it sounded garbled. He indicated that he wanted her to hold out her hand, put it on the table. She did and he took it in his.

Suddenly the fog cleared from her brain. She could see and hear clearly now for the first time in days. She went to pull back her hand, almost involuntarily, feeling suddenly confused by all the brightness and noise around her. He held on firmly.

She looked down at the table. Both his hands were laid there, side by side. One was firmly around her own hand, the other was holding something flat and round. She looked at it in puzzlement. Now he took her hand that he was holding and turned it palm uppermost. He placed the round object into her hand. It felt cool and smooth, like a flat river stone. As her fingers closed around it he let her hand go.

He sat still and looked at her with an appraising face. Her mind remained clear. She could feel something passing from her, going into the stone; it was like it was drawing the darkness out of her mind. She asked, “What is it?”

He answered, “A crocodile spirit stone, very powerful medicine.”

Charlie could see she did not understand so he explained.

She nodded, even though she could not understand it seemed to make a strange sense.

Charlie continued talking. “Last week, man and lady, bit old but not so old as me, they come to see me. Sergeant Richard, Alan, he tell them, maybe they should come and talk to me. They is trying to understand this bad thing. They say they is your mother and father. They say very worried because you sit in this room, say nothing, talk to no one, like you cannot hear.

“I know you, you that one they say kill the man in the billabong, out longa Mary River. I find that head, man who belong to crocodile. Find it when I was fishing for catfish. I see the bad spirit try take him back. He fight with me, when I find that head, try to pull it back, I already caught two big catfish for Elsie to make fish curry. Then I try to catch one more fish, but instead I catch head. When I catch head, that crocodile spirit pull back, try to take it away from me.

“But that man, him belong head, him not want to go back with that crocodile spirit. He want to come out, he want to see you, he want you to touch him, even if dead. But that bad crocodile spirit, him really want to keep head too. I’m in tug-of-war middle. I pull head one way, crocodile spirit pull other way. But finally I win. Now crocodile spirit very angry and sad.

“I think, maybe if crocodile spirit cannot have man it try to have you instead. Man love you, you love man but kill him because frightened. Now man comes to you in dream, you still love man, but crocodile spirit comes too, gets inside your head, make it a dark and bad place. Rest of world goes dark. You can’t hear, can’t see, can’t think proper.

“So when the mother and father tell me this I say I’ll try to help. I’ve been to see medicine man and I have crocodile stone. It helped me too, helped take bad crocodile spirit away from me.

“In my country we hunt and kill crocodile, eat meat of crocodile. Sometimes we find this stone inside crocodile belly, we call crocodile spirit stone. When crocodile eat fish or kangaroo, everything goes away, all taken and used up by crocodile. The spirit of other animals goes into crocodile and makes it stronger. But this stone left behind. Crocodile cannot take it, is even stronger spirit than crocodile. It holds the spirit of many creatures, some crocodile, some fish, some of lots of things; all leaves a part of their spirit within it.

“So, when you hold it, it can stop other bad crocodile spirit coming from outside, where stone is other bad crocodile spirit not come.

“So we call crocodile spirit stone. Is very valuable stone, hard to get. But medicine man help me, he put hand inside crocodile belly and take it out. He give stone to me to keep me safe from bad crocodile. In return for stone Elsie make him special catfish curry.

“Now you keep stone, put stone in hand or pocket all times, have stone next to you when you sleep. While stone is close, bad crocodile spirit cannot come. In one week may two week, crocodile spirit get tired and go away.

“Now I go away, but I come to visit you next week and bring Elsie’s curry. It help make you strong too.”

So Susan kept the stone touching her skin that night. It was the first night in months her dreams were clear. Next morning she woke able to think clearly. She knew what day it was. She knew where she was. It did not take her troubles away or make her happy but at least she could see and hear the world again.

Around lunchtime there was the sound of visitors arriving, not just one or two but several. There was her mother and father and Tim, there was Anne and David. They had set up a little Christmas tree on a table, with presents around it and a Christmas cake and treats. For two hours they all sat around, laughing and talking and listening to Christmas carols. They would not be able to visit tomorrow, but this was the next best thing. Susan felt grateful for another ray of sunshine, though she was sad when they were gone.

She settled into the late afternoon, determined today, now that her mind was clear to read a book to try to pass the time. Maybe she could even read tomorrow as well so she did not feel so lonely.

There was a banging sound on the door. It was past visiting time. It could not be another visitor for her. There were a man’s voice raised, not heated, but in serious discussion. The warden came to her cell.

“You have another visitor, I know it’s past time, but he’s very persuasive, so I’ve told him he can see you for half an hour.”

 

 

 

Chapter 26Knowing the Truth?

 

Susan wondered who could have come to see her and talked his way in, so late in the day. Hopefully not the police with a new revelation or another delaying tactic!

She sat in a chair facing the table and waited, feeling anxious.

She could hear a man’s voice saying, “I need you to leave us alone, undisturbed for at least ten minutes. I promise I won’t hurt her or try to smuggle something in to her, you may search me if you want.”

Then some more muttering voices, and finally the door opened.

In front of her stood a mid-sized, wiry man. He had dark hair and features. Susan knew she should know who he was but, out of practice thinking, her mind seemed to move very slowly. He walked up towards her, business like, without emotion.

He said, “Hello, Susan, remember me?”

Finally recognition dawned. It was Vic, actually Vickram, the helicopter pilot from that day in the Gulf; it seemed like a century ago. She remembered his former trademark grin and smiling face, with mischievous twinkling eyes, but there was no sign of any of this now. His face had a hard, angry set.

But he was her friend and Mark’s friend, they had spent a wonderful day together, she could not remember him without pleasure and affection. A spontaneous smile came to her face. “Vic, it’s hard to believe, it seems so long ago, can it really be you?” Then she pulled up her babble, seeing his face had not shifted. She tried to be business like too. “Thank you for coming to see me, can I help you in some way?”

She could see him calming himself, he was definitely angry. He said, “Last Sunday the police came to see me, a Sergeant Richards. I had not heard the news for several months, not really since I last saw you. He told me that, at the end of September, the body of my best friend, Mark, had been found in a billabong. The policeman said he had been murdered and the murderer was you.”

Vic spoke words that sounded unreal, like a news report about someone else. Susan found it hard to believe he was talking about her as a killer, it must be someone else.

Vic continued, “At first I couldn’t believe it, that you’d done it. So he took me through the evidence. In the end I agreed, it seemed clear. But it didn’t make sense. So I’ve come to see you to ask you to your face. Did you murder my friend Mark, and if so why?”

Susan felt shocked when she heard him say those words. There was no courtroom courtesy or police politeness in the way he asked the question. He spat it out in barely suppressed anger. He was angry with her, really angry. She could not quite understand the reason. She muttered something to herself; she did not know how to reply. She turned her head to the side, seeking time to think.

In a flash Vic had come round the table, pulled her from her chair and hauled her to her feet to face him, face to face, only inches away. He asked again, speaking slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable, “Did you kill my friend Mark?”

She tried to look away from the ferocious eyes. His hand flashed at her face, hitting her cheek with an open handed slap. She turned her face away from the blow. He hit her again with his other hand, another slap to the other side of her face.

It seemed he had broken something inside her mind, a wall of silence and denial. She could not avoid his eyes anymore. They bored in to her, determined to know. Part of her felt like crying. Another part felt an exultant joy knowing this man cared and grieved for his friend, her Mark.

She faced him squarely and looked back. “Yes,” she said. “Yes I killed Mark. That’s what everyone says and it’s true. I stabbed him with a knife then hit his head with a piece of wood. As he lay on the ground not moving, I dragged his body to the water so the crocodiles could take and finish him.”

Vic looked stunned now. She thought he had expected more silence or denials, not this. He turned his face away from her, she could see his shoulders shaking, she realised he was crying.

A minute passed. He looked at her, composed again. “Why? Did you really have to kill him? I thought you loved him. I know he loved you. Whatever happened? Surely you could’ve worked it out, if you had a fight. Why did you kill him?”

Susan realised that she could not run away from this answer with him. For others it was just a legal formality. They did not know the man, they did not really care. But this man compelled her to answer. He knew Mark, he cared that he was dead. So she must tell the truth at least as far as she could without adding another betrayal to Mark.

She said, “I killed him because I was frightened. I thought he was going to kill me. I know now I was wrong. And I must live with that terrible thing I did for the rest of my life.”

With her answer it seemed like the anger and fight went from Vic, he looked deflated. He sat now with his body slumped into his chair. Susan sat down, facing him across the table. She waited; it was his turn to speak. He sat silent for a minute, looking uncertain. Then he said, “Please tell me why you were frightened of him. What did he do?”

Susan shook her head. “Please believe me, I would tell you if I could. But I cannot. I must face the consequences of my actions. When this is over I expect I’ll be in jail for a long time for what I’ve done and that’s fair. Until today, when I saw you, I was going to remain silent in the trial; I wasn’t going to enter a plea. But that would be wrong. It would keep the truth from people like you who knew Mark and care. So now I see it clearly. I’ll plead guilty. I’ll say, ‘Yes I killed him,’ as I said to you. The court must then determine my punishment for deliberate murder, the reason isn’t relevant and I won’t be saying it.”

Vic said, “I’m sorry I hit you, but I needed to know.”

Susan replied, “I’m glad that you did, it showed me you cared. Until today I haven’t met anyone who cared what happened to Mark. So I don’t want you to undo that slap, it told me something really important, that Mark mattered to someone else, like he does to me.”

Vic looked back at her. “But what about you, don’t you care what will happen to you, just to protect a secret?”

Susan said, “Sometimes secrets are worth protecting. One must pay the price that loyalty requires. I don’t look forward to a life in prison. But if that’s my only choice, then I’ll do it, as best I can.”

There was something unnaturally calm in Susan’s demeanour. Vic knew it was a sign of trouble to come. She pretended to be strong but was not strong enough for this.

She said, “There’s one thing I must tell you. I’m carrying his child. In part my choice is to protect our child and its legacy. It’s enough that this child has a killer for a mother, any more would be too big a load for any child to bear.”

Vic replied, “There’s something I must also tell you. On that day I met you, before the helicopter trip, Mark asked me to witness his will which named you as his beneficiary. I don’t know what’s become of it. Mark also told me, in the event of his death, that he was relying on me to protect you, in the way a brother would do. I promised I would try. So it seems I have two obligations to fulfil. I’m not doing well in meeting either.

“In addition there’s one more thing I want to ask you, it’s only a request. In the years when Mark and I worked together he’d often go off, early in the morning, and write into his diary. I sometimes asked him what he wrote and why. He would say, ‘It’s both to release my demons and tell of my joy. The paper on which I write is the window into which my soul speaks. It tells of all, both the good and bad.’

“Once he read me a little story he wrote in it about my helicopter, as viewed by a bird flying outside. It was very funny. The bird told of my strange looks and antics, how clumsy I was compared to its skill in the air. I asked if I could read it for myself. Mark said, ‘No, it’s private, for my eyes only while I live. But if anything happens to me, it’ll be yours to read. Then you’ll know of the real me, the good and the bad, particularly the bad. After that you may tell the world my story if you chose, even the bad.’

“I’ve never seen Mark’s bad, I know only of his friendship. But I’d wish to hold him to his promise, to know who he was and what’s lost. As you were the last person to see him I ask if you know what became of this book, his diary. It was kept in his briefcase, which was stored behind his seat. But when the car was found everything of his was gone. So I ask you, on account of his promise to me, can you tell me what became of this book, that which told the story of his life, his diary?”

Susan sat quiet and still for a long time. It was as if she had not heard what he had said. Mark had entrusted the diary to her and he had also promised it to Vic. The promise to Vic had been made long before the promise to her. Did his promise to her invalidate this same promise to Vic, to allow him to read and decide what to tell the world after Mark was gone?

It was his ultimate sign of trust to allow another to see his inner-most soul, with all of its secrets. He had given to both of them an unconditional right to do so and in giving it to her he had not taken it away from his friend. So she must honour this promise to Vic. Knowing some of what was to be told her mind trembled at the consequences. But trust was trust and promises must be respected. Even her unborn child could not stand in front of this.

So now she sat down and took off her left shoe, a plain black sandal with a leather instep. With her fingernails she prised its leather edge loose in the centre. Underneath lay a small plastic square. She removed this plastic-coated object, a memory card wrapped in sticky tape. It was barely a centimetre by a centimetre by a millimetre thick.

She placed this tiny object into Vic’s hand. “He has entrusted this to me to give to you. It’s yours to use as you see fit. The memory of the man it holds is precious to me, so I ask that you use it with great care.”

Vic closed his fingers over it and nodded. “I will; that’s my promise to you.”

After Vic had gone she sat quietly holding the stone in her hand, that stone from the belly of a crocodile, imbued with the presence of so many things.

It was just a plain black stone, flattened and rounded, a sort she had skipped on ponds as a child only larger and heavier.

It was good that it let her think clearly. It allowed her to think of Vic and his serious solemn eyes as he gave her his promise, to treat the story with care. Those eyes had given her a sliver of hope that there could be some way out of this place for her.

But the presence of the stone did more. She let her mind sink into its depths. At its centre, under all the other layers of existence sat an incredibly ancient being, in part it was the monster of her dreams.

But it was so much more, it was the part that sat at the core of every crocodile which had every walked or swum across this land, the Dreamtime ancestor spirit of all. It had the power to both protect her and harm her; she did not know which it would ultimately be.

But she understood, at least in this instant, that while she had lost something when she killed Mark, she had also gained something. A part of her was now intricately joined to this spirit creature of an ancient dreaming, it was part of her soul and she was part of its. She wondered if this joining could ever be undone or whether it would consume her and incorporate her spirit within its own as it had done to her lover.

Part of her knew a desire for freedom and part of her ached to be forever within its thrall, alongside and joined to the man she loved.

 

 

 

 

 

The Empty Place

Book 3 – Crocodile Sprit Dreaming

 

 

Novel by

Graham Wilson

 

 

 

Copyright

Just Visiting

Graham Wilson

Copyright Graham Wilson 2014

BeyondBeyond Books Edition

Published by Shakespir

ISBN 9780987197177

 

 

 

Authors Note

 

This book is set in the Northern Territory of Australia, a place which covers a sixth of the Australian Continent, the top centre part of a map of Australia. It lies in the tropics. Its capital, Darwin, is closer to Indonesia and other Asian centres than the rest of Australia.

Deserts lie to the south, centred around the town of Alice Springs. Large rivers run to the north, with a wealth of wildlife. Most famed is the fearsome Salt Water Crocodile, the world’s largest reptile. Large crocodiles grow longer and are heavier than a car, capable of dragging other large animals, like a bull buffalo, into the water to kill. They stalk from below the water and capture in a silent and deadly ambush. The crocodile is of great totemic importance to the coastal aboriginal tribes. In dreamtime stories it is one of the earliest ancestral beings. The crocodile and its totemic spirit play a central role in this book series. Crocodiles have killed many people across the north of Australia and the author of this book, as a young man, survived his own attack by a large crocodile.

This book is a work of fiction but many of its places and characters have a strong factual basis, based on the author’s personal knowledge from a large part of his life lived here.

A central location in this book is the Fitzmaurice River which flows into the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, where the Northern Territory coastline meets the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is a very remote and rugged place. Here peak tides rise and fall by about ten metres. In a running tide it is a white water gorge as the river thunders through its constricted passage. Very few have reason to come to this place, one of the earth’s places empty of human occupation. Even emptier is the place inside a person who is devoid of hope.

 

 

 

Part 1 [*:*] Lost in an Empty Place

Chapter 1 – Anne

 

Anne was conflicted, really conflicted; it was all so bloody hard and it was driving her crazy. She was out here, in Australia, to support her best friend and try to talk some sense into her; that seemed hopeless, continually hopeless. Susan was buried in a morass of self-absorption. She seemed bent on trashing her own life. And she was doing a good job of making a mess of many other people’s lives as well; David’s, her own parents, not to mention the havoc being played with Anne herself.

But Susan was still her best friend, and yet. And Yet – she, Anne, was slowly and inexorably being drawn towards Susan’s fiancé. It would not have been too bad if it was just her, she could have got on a plane and returned to London, put some distance into it, there was nothing to be done for Susan right now. But the same chemistry seemed to be working on David too. And with two magnets pulling towards each other it had become real hard to keep the pieces apart.

So now, here she was on a plane, early on Christmas morning, flying first class to Sydney with this man, David, sitting next to her. David had drifted off to sleep, seemingly well pleased with having her for company on the flight. They had left Darwin at one o’clock in the morning. Christmas Eve was ended and Christmas Day begun. They would be in Sydney for breakfast on Christmas Day.

Anne could not help but feel excitement at her first visit to this famous city. The circumstances were all wrong, the attraction was all wrong. And yet!

And yet, she could and would enjoy the company of this man. She and he had been thrown together by a collision of circumstances, all of Susan’s making. So now she was on the plane and it was past a time for regret. She would just have to make sure nothing came of it; she was stronger than Susan that way, less impulsive. The idea of getting entangled with her best friend’s fiancé, even if that other relationship was now doomed, must stay out of bounds in her mind; she could not let herself go there. But she was still determined to enjoy the trip and his company, even if just as friends.

But still, as she looked at the beautiful face with its tousled golden hair that slept in the seat next to her, she could not help but feel strong regret that they could have not met at another place and time. She knew it would take just one little move from her to start the ball rolling.

All in all it had been a strange day. First they had gone to have a cup of tea with that old aboriginal man, Charlie. They had a conversation about an evil crocodile spirit and a crocodile stone that Charlie had given Susan yesterday. It had sounded like mumbo jumbo and neither she nor David had really believed it. Susan’s parents had encouraged this meeting; they had located Charlie, somehow, and met with him themselves two days ago. This morning, when she and David met Charlie, he had told them of his visit to Susan yesterday. He told how, after she took that stone in her hand, the bad spirit had gone away and her mind had become clear.

They liked the old man but thought the story would turn out to be nothing. Yet it was the first time in two months that something resembling her old friend had been there in the room with her; Susan’s laugh, smile, and mental clarity had returned. Anne remembered that night in London when Susan had come to her for help. That was the last time, before today, that she felt she knew this person. It was not that Susan had shown any signs of changing her mind today about what to do, that was still just as hopeless. But at least she seemed to know and understand the world around her. She could smile and hold an ordinary conversation.

With this sense of the return of the real Susan she and David had felt real relief. But that also added to the problem. With their anxiety lowered about Susan it was now more important to start dealing with the ongoing attraction between them that came from both physical desire and from spending so much time together.

She had spent eighty percent of her waking hours over the last three weeks, since she had arrived in Darwin, in David’s company. With Susan’s unwillingness to talk to lawyers she and David had become Susan’s de-facto legal team, both determined to try and gain an understanding of what had happened as a first step in marshalling evidence which would give Susan a way out.

She thought back to their first meeting and all the times in between. That first night, a sort of unofficial engagement party for David and Susan in London, both she and David had been a bit wowed by each other. Even though David was totally enraptured by Susan then, something like a primal attraction had flashed between them when they first met.

Anne had dressed to wow the party, and it had worked judging by David’s open mouth when he first saw her red hair, green dress and flashing green-hazel eyes. And she had been equally awestruck by this gorgeous man, even though Susan had already told her he was seriously handsome. That night she had asked Susan if he had a brother she could meet. She was only half joking, the power of the physical attraction was so strong.

Of course she had been really pleased on Susan’s account that she had met such a gorgeous man; but deep down she had been a little jealous as well, not that she would let that come out.

Then Anne remembered that awful phone call she had to make when Susan’s trouble began, after Susan was called into the police station. From that time Susan had known she could no longer marry David; that, despite the hurt that it would cause, she must end it.

But Susan could not bring herself to ring and tell him it was finished, all she could do was run away. So she had asked Anne to be her emissary. Anne, despite strong qualms, had reluctantly agreed to call David and tell him that the engagement was off.

She remembered the shocked silence on the other end of the phone as she bumbled her way through Susan’s message, then anger and denial, followed by a slowly dawning acceptance of it being real as the actuality came out, then David’s refusal to accept from anyone except Susan that the engagement was over.

As the conversation went on and as he began to grasp both the loss and the futility of it all, his grief came down the phone line to her. In that minute she had felt so sorry for both him and Susan. She had said and truly meant it that she wished her message was otherwise.

Anne had promised, and kept her promise, to continue to ring him on a weekly basis, to give him any new news as the legal processes in England unfolded. It had taken great effort on her part to dissuade David from flying to England.

Only by saying that Susan did not want him there, Susan did not want his photos as the jilted fiancé in the English tabloids, that Susan had already made up her mind to return to Australia and face the charges, could he be convinced.

As time went on, with these weekly phone calls and seeing him on the television, she gained ever increasing respect for both David’s decency and mental toughness. He refused to get into sordid speculation; he simply kept a consistent line of knowing that Susan was a good person. He also briefed his family to say the same. He had answered all the journalists’ reasonable questions with politeness, but there were times when a line was crossed and she had felt white fire coming from him.

He would allow no one to say offensive things about Susan’s character or about her family to him; he made this very clear and others, even the worst journalists, stepped back.

Then, when Susan was extradited to Darwin and Anne had cleared her work sufficiently to fly there for the committal hearing, David had booked her a business class flight and insisted that he pay. He said that Anne was trying to help his fiancé. Her finding time to act as a friend was more than enough for her to cover. So he had paid for her flight and for her hotel accommodation ever since she arrived.

Anne understood he could well afford it. But, even so, it seemed very decent and kind, both to her and to Susan. It was not that Anne was poor but her family were not as well off as Susan’s were. And, on a legal secretary’s salary, she had little money left over each week after she paid for her little London flat. So, while Anne would have found a way to come anyway, even if she had to borrow the money, David’s help had made her life much easier.

She had been quite apprehensive about meeting him again in Darwin; she was the messenger of the train wreck which had come his way. But, as she came off the plane, he was standing there, waiting for her. From that first minute he had been so polite and gracious, saying how much he appreciated all she had done and tried to do and as well how he really appreciated her honesty.

This had meant a lot to her. It had been very hard for Anne too; the nasty press speculation which enveloped everyone who knew Susan, Susan’s unresponsive state, then Anne needing to juggle time and money to help. It felt good that someone else appreciated her many efforts.

Anne liked Susan’s family, but they had more than enough troubles of their own. They had not seemed to understand the cost of all this to Anne herself, particularly emotionally, whereas David seemed to understand this intuitively.

David had announced, the day after Anne arrived in Darwin that, despite Susan’s lack of response, he was still totally committed both to her and to her gaining her freedom, no matter what happened with their relationship.

David appointed himself as Susan’s unofficial legal representative, and asked Anne to help him in this task. Anne’s work as a legal secretary was of great assistance and the two of them set up an office in his hotel suite living room, along the passage from her own room.

They had worked long days for three weeks since then, gathering any fragments of evidence that they could find from various parties and sources; the pathologist, police, prosecutors, witnesses. Despite them having no official status most people seemed to really want to help. It was as if, despite the continuous horrible speculation about Susan in the papers, there was a general sense that this story did not make sense and there must be more to it. And, so, many people welcomed someone else trying to get to the bottom of what had really happened.

The only person who they had not managed to talk to was the initial investigation officer, Sergeant Alan Richards. They had been told his work on this case was now finished and that since the committal hearing he had been assigned to other work and therefore he would not be able to help with their inquiries. Anne knew his face from the English legal proceedings and they had seen him briefly in court at the first Australian hearing. But despite making numerous phone calls and leaving equally as many messages, they had been unable to talk to him and he had not returned their calls.

She wondered if he was hiding something, perhaps his own discomfort about the way the investigation had turned out. She knew that when he first found the head in the billabong he could never have believed that it would unfold in such an awful way. Susan had told her about their strange friendship on the plane trip and Anne still felt he was searching for the truth, even if he seemed to be avoiding them.

As their investigation proceeded the one thing that Anne had not been able to tell David about was the information that came from Susan on the night that she first sought Anne’s help; two things really; the existence of the diary and the holiday text exchange with Susan. The sum of these was that there must be a good reason for what Susan had done; she had been in fear for her life.

The reason Anne could not tell David about this information was that, regardless of its importance, she must honour her promise to Susan. Susan must have one person in her corner that she could trust. Even though Anne knew David was on her side too, telling him would betray that trust.

In a funny way she understood Susan’s dilemma. Susan had loved this man she was charged with murdering. Now she was carrying his child and she could not, and would not sully his reputation. Therefore Anne could not, at least not in any deliberate way, act contrary to Susan’s intent. Instead she felt she was fighting for Susan with one hand tied behind her back.

So Anne realised it was for others to go there. In her place she must try to think of things that could point that way but without requiring her collaboration. Unfortunately, as they had gathered the evidence Anne had to admit it did look bad for Susan, and Susan was doing zero to help her own cause, she was like a diver caught in a sinking submarine without an escape hatch.

As she and David had worked side by side, with a quiet desperation, trying to find something in Susan’s favour, this other thing had happened, a moving beyond simple physical attraction to something much deeper, an intense liking for each other.

United by a common purpose they started to notice each other. Anne had always been very aware of this attractive man, but had kept that part of her mind closed off; he was still her best friend’s fiancé.

But she would find herself looking forward to his smile of greeting when he first opened the door to her in the morning. And she loved the way that he did little things to improve her life in this place and did them with subconscious charm.

Each morning he would have a breakfast platter of croissants, pastries and orange juice set up on his verandah looking out across Darwin harbour. He insisted that they begin each day with breakfast together and as the weeks went by they started to chat about themselves and other things beyond Susan at these times. He always had lunch brought in when they were not out at meetings. And despite the long days of work, he always insisted they go out to eat a proper meal each night in one of the many Darwin restaurants. Sometimes it included Susan’s family, a couple times there were other business acquaintances or legal people and a couple times it was just with her.

As these weeks passed there was clearly something happening between them that they both tried to deny, a deep sense of mutual attraction. Sometimes, when she turned to look at David unexpectedly, she caught his eyes looking at her in a way that seemed more than just friendly, and he had seemed embarrassed and looked away. And she herself was the same. Occasionally she felt an almost deliberate touch as he brushed off her, and it gave her a little thrill.

David also insisted they both take a full day off each Sunday. He had taken her sightseeing locally on these days, once to Berry Springs, first to the zoo and then for a swim at the lovely crystal clear natural pool, again with Susan’s family along, once on a boat trip in the harbour with some business friends.

When she saw David’s bare body in his swimmers the power of his physical attraction really hit her, and she could tell the same was happening in reverse whenever she wore a skimpy top and shorts or bikini that showed off her body. That day at Berry Springs she almost swum up to him without thinking and wrapped her arms around his body, it was something she ached to do but once done there would be no undoing it. It was lucky Susan’s family was there as well that day.

And, a couple times in the morning, she had come into his room and he was still in bed. Each time she had an almost overpowering urge to climb in beside him, and she could feel his sexuality willing her to do this. But from there, there would be no way back, either.

Then, when he arranged for her to come to Sydney with him it felt as if a line had been crossed and they were heading down a path towards something more. It was particularly the way this was a private invitation directed just to her. She knew she should not go there, she did not want to be disloyal to her friend, and yet. And yet there it was, this mutual attraction, and it just kept on working on them both and drawing them together, like a rubber band stretched tighter and tighter until one day it must inevitably break.

So now, as she sat on this aeroplane early on Christmas morning, almost three weeks of her month in Australia was gone and despite all her effort she had done little to help Susan’s cause. After the New Year, when she returned to Darwin there were only four days before she must catch a plane back to London and return to work, she had well and truly used up all her work credit and goodwill.

So part of her felt that her loyalty to Susan required that she stay in Darwin with her until then and keep trying to help her. But she knew it would have been a miserable time in Darwin between now and the New Year; Susan in prison, she alone in a hotel room, her own family in Reading, and all her other friends in other places.

If Susan’s parents had stayed in Darwin it would have been easier. But they were also flying to Sydney tomorrow, for a week, to see Ruth and Jess, the Australian cousins. They would return early in the New Year, after which they would refocus their efforts on helping Susan for another fortnight before they needed to return to the UK.

Anne, herself, did not have enough money for a side trip for this time and did not feel she could ask anyone else to help with this, even though, if she had the money, she might have flown to Cairns for a couple days to visit the Barrier Reef; like Susan she loved diving. But she had not told this to anyone, she did not want to put others under a sense of obligation for her own enjoyment.

Then, yesterday, David had made the suggestion that she come home with him for Christmas and, even though she had not said yes, feeling uncomfortable about getting in deeper with him, the next day, actually just this morning, he had presented her with a return ticket to Sydney, saying his family had invited them both to come and stay for a few days over Christmas and after that he was determined to show her the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney before they returned to Darwin.

Despite her reservations she had agreed to go. In that moment she knew that a line had been crossed.

The week together in Sydney passed in a rapid but exhilarating manner. On arrival she re-met Susan’s cousin Ruth, who was one of David’s best friends. She had met her a couple times before in England. After a quick brunch and news exchange they drove, in David’s sports car across the mountains, to reach his home in time for Christmas dinner.

It was a thoroughly traditional affair with all the trimmings. The whole family made Anne feel very welcome and in return she could not help but like them, thinking what a nice family Susan had come into when she met David, and being glad she had now got to know them all too.

The next few days there were driving trips in the country and endless visits to and by relatives, combined with endless cups of tea and slices of Christmas cake. It was such a breath of fresh air after the last few months of Susan’s high dramas.

Occasionally Anne felt guilty about how Susan was locked up while she was enjoying herself; but she knew it was beyond her to help Susan at this time and her unease soon passed. Two days before New Year they said goodbye to all the family and returned to Sydney. David had organised for her to stay in the spare room at Jess’s place, perhaps sensing he should minimise temptation for them both as well as avoid the risk of gossip.

On the way David told her he would not be able to come back to Darwin right now as a red hot issue had come up for his business and he needed to spend a couple weeks in Sydney to sort it out. He asked her if she wanted to continue in Sydney rather than fly back to Darwin on New Year’s Day, as she was currently booked to do.

Their relationship was much more relaxed and honest since coming away. She knew both of them were happy to enjoy doing things together and for now, would park their desire for anything more.

She told him, “I would much rather stay here with you, I have really enjoyed this time. However my first loyalty needs to be with my friend. Seeing I have less than a week before I return to work I will spend as much of it as I can with her. I must see what I can do to get her to help herself; not to pressure her, but instead to try and help her find a way to tell the story of what really happened, to unblock her fear of whatever she is hiding from.”

David took her hand and squeezed it. “Thank you, you have been such a good friend to us both and I have enjoyed my time with you so much too.”

“But you are right, Susan is the priority for both of us now, I will be back in Darwin about a week after you leave. Perhaps it is better if each of us meets and talks to her alone. She may be more open on a one on one basis. It seems that whenever people try and put pressure on her together she feels we are ganging up on her, gets defensive and fights back.

“But I want you to come back as soon as you are able, certainly we will both need to be with her for a week or two before the trial starts. Will you be able to get away from your work?

Anne replied. “You can count on it.”

They had a lovely New Year’s Eve, on a boat on the harbour with Ruth, her boyfriend Steve, Jess and her partner Robbie and a couple of other friends.

Then the next morning it was off to the airport. They hugged tight as they said goodbye and that was it. As they pulled apart each said “I will miss you,” to the other. The question about them still remained but they both knew that now was not the time.

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – Helicopter X

 

Vic was flying low and fast, enjoying the thrill as he twisted his helicopter through the gorges of the Fitzmaurice River; he had done a job between Wyndham and Derby yesterday and was due at Timber Creek tomorrow to do a scenic trip for some tourists who wanted to see the country where the Victoria River cut through the broken river valleys in the ranges to the south of the town. These people were obviously well heeled and, in the wet season, regular work was a bit quiet; so today he had a day to kill in the little town.

He had logged his flight with flight control on leaving Wyndham, putting in a flight path from Wyndham Airport direct to Timber Creek, a sleepy town on the Victoria River.

But, feeling bored with the idea of a whole day in this quiet little town and knowing he had full fuel tanks and a couple of spare jerrycans giving plenty of flying time, he had taken a diversion from this route, flying east north east over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, a place of monumental tides, rather than south east direct to the town. As he crossed over the Gulf he noted the tide in its huge river estuaries was full but still running in. That fitted with the almost new moon he had seen late yesterday.

He had been avoiding reading the document that Susan had given him on the tiny memory chip. He knew he needed to read it; he had bullied Susan into giving it to him. He did not feel proud about that, he had promised Mark that he would take care of her. Yet, in his rage, he had slapped her up; he could still see the shock and the red mark outlined on her face from when he had backhanded her.

Now, even though he should still be mad with her, he just felt sorry for her. It had come to him, with dawning clarity as she talked, that Mark had done something really, truly awful and she had found out. Yes, she had killed him. But Mark was a wild and dangerous man, notwithstanding being a brother, always living at the edge and sometimes way past the edge. Vic had sensed in Mark a dangerous spirit that sometimes drove him to do bad things.

So something bad had happened between them which had tipped her over the edge. In the heat of it Mark had ended up dead. It somehow seemed a fitting way for his mate to go, killed by a lover then given to the crocodiles which were his other true love.

He knew part of the story of the bad Mark lay hidden in the diary which Susan had given him. But he wanted to hold on, just for a little bit longer, to the good memory of his friend. That was the real reason why he was avoiding reading it. He knew that, once he read this story, his mind’s image of his friend must mind must inevitably be transformed for the worse. He did not want to go there.

So, in the meantime, Susan was ‘holding the can’ for this awful thing. He was sure Mark would not want that. So he must bring himself to read and understand Mark’s story, then decide what to do. But, for now, he was in avoidance mode, at least for another few days. This helicopter thrill ride was part of this avoidance, just like the other things he had done to fill up his days since he found out about Mark’s diary, days when he could have found time and means to begin reading, but did not want to.

He justified that it was still only a few days after Christmas, actually the day before New Year’s Eve and most shops were closed, his laptop could not read this tiny memory card that Susan had given him, he needed a Micro SD card holder that fitted into a regular memory card slot. He had not got the chance to buy one yet, he had not been in a town on a day when the shops were open – they were his excuses anyway, even if only half true.

He would go into Katherine for a couple days after New Year’s Day and he would do it then. In the meantime he was flying in one of those beautiful remote places of the Territory, the Fitzmaurice Gorge. He had only ferried over the top of it in his helicopter a couple times, and looking down as he flew over he had marvelled at the massive cliffs that fringed this river, which was really in the middle of nowhere. In his mind he had always thought of this block of country as the empty place and he had heard other locals talk of it that way too, the emptiest and most godforsaken part of the NT, so hard to get to and almost completely uninhabited. Even the Daly Reserve blackfellas, his coastal cousins, rarely came here and he knew why. It was too rough to walk through and with the big tides and lots of supersized crocs only a madman would come here in a small boat, particularly a dugout canoe.

Today he had decided he would have an up close look. This morning there was a big fresh flow thundering down the gorge, the result of big storm rains up around the back of Pine Creek.

It was such a blast skimming over thundering white water, running hundreds of metres wide, with beetling cliffs rising alongside. It was sort of like those Gulf Rivers, but even wilder, here the wet season flows combined with the thundering tides to be just awesome.

It was hard to think of a more inaccessible place, particularly in the wet, it must be a hundred miles to the nearest trafficable road, not even a rough bush track within 50 miles. God help anyone who got stuck out here. No one would ever find them and it was hard to see any way out of a place like this.

The helicopter engine was running like a dream, such a steady and sweet thump came from the blades of his metal bird. He passed a big creek running in from the right hand side, swelling the river with its own flow. There was a big sharp turn coming up, a hard turn to the right, with cliffs rising up straight ahead; he would go with it using his reflexes and the engine’s power to pull him and his chopper around the river bend before it. It would take full power to pull the old bird around this tight corner.

The cliff came racing towards him. He held off on his turn, wanting the thrill of pushing the limit of the machine. Now he must turn, it was barely a hundred yards to the cliff, right directly in front and he was closing at seventy knots. He had to make a thirty degree right turn to stay in the gorge and there was nowhere else to go; even with his machine at full power he could not pull a sharp enough climb to get out of here.

At that last critical moment when he knew he had to respond, he pulled the control stick hard right, what was wrong? It would not move; it felt jammed solid. He tried to flare up, jammed that way too. He threw all his weight behind the stick to move right. It felt like steering a Mack truck without power steering. He managed to move it a few millimetres with huge effort, turning the helicopter to the side so the skids came up towards the cliff.

With sudden clarity he knew it was way too late, this would be his date with destiny. He had just a half second to turn off the power before the helicopter slammed into the cliff face, fifty feet above the raging river. He reckoned his speed was still fifty knots in that split second before impact.

He felt a fleeting sense of his life passing before his eyes as this metal thing crumpled around him and his body crumpled inside. Then, as full impact hit, he felt nothing.

The hawks, soaring overhead, watched as this strange metal bird first attached itself to the cliff with a crashing and grinding sound and then slowly fell away into the river below. It was picked up by the raging white water and swept along with the current around the bend and then on down the river. For a minute or two it was partly visible on the surface as it bobbed along. Then it vanished from view.

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – Missing

 

Buck got a strange phone call just as dusk was settling over Victoria River Downs station. It was from the publican at Timber Creek. It was more puzzling than anxious. But there was something strange and fearful in this whole affair with Mark. He had just found out about it last week and that made him quite uneasy over and above this.

He had missed all the papers and TV news at the time that the Mark connection was made with the Crocodile Man. And, even then, if he had listened to the news, he was unsure whether he would have paid heed. November and December were often the busiest months of the year and this year was no exception. TV watching was lost in distant memory and the unread papers lay in a pile in the office.

So, when Vic had turned up the week before Christmas to do a job for him, to clean out the scrubbers from the top end of the station, where the river ran into the gorge country, he had been none the wiser. But he could tell, from the moment he laid eyes on Vic, that something was seriously wrong. No surprise, he and Mark had been like brothers for as long as Buck knew either of them. They had done so many jobs together. They had an understanding of how to work together which was much better than any other pilot and contract musterer he knew.

So, despite having his own machines and plenty of others to pick from, he still regularly booked the two of them for these tough jobs, the rough country clean-ups where the wrong operator had the ability to lose every animal that was mustered in one critical minute, and Buck would be left with an empty yard and a big helicopter bill to pay.

So he had wanted to book both Mark and Vic for this clean-up. For some reason he had never been able to run Mark to ground. Mark had not been seen around these parts for two or three months, not since he had come through with that pretty English lass, Susan; when they had helped to bring some cattle up the Wickham Gorge. Buck hadn’t thought much about it; Mark was like that; he sometimes dropped out for a couple months, then he would reappear when he was ready.

So, in the end, he booked another contractor to work with Vic and clean up that pocket of country in the week before Christmas. He had the idea that Vic might be able to shed some light on where Mark had gone; he expected the story would be something like an unexpected trip to the Middle East; that had happened at least once before that he could remember.

But the moment he had seen Vic’s face he knew there was more to this story, it was like a sixth sense. They had no time to talk until the mustering was done. It had gone well, Vic had lost none of his touch and Billy, who had run the ground side of the operation, was good, if not quite the class act that Mark was. So he had got 59 big scrub bulls in the yards and about the same number of cows and heifers, three quarters were cleanskins now wearing the VRD brand, along with a scattering of young stock that would go into the paddocks. It had been a good morning’s work.

But, as they sat down for a cup of tea at the end of the job, Vic pulled him aside, and asked him if he knew about Mark.

Buck’s perplexity had been obvious. He had replied, “Only that I have not been able to get in touch with him since August and that’s why, a month ago when I still had not heard from him, I booked Billy to work with you I hoped you could tell me where he was.

Vic’s reply was his usual direct self, “Yeah I wondered that too where he had gone, but I never really thought about it, too busy. Now I know; we won’t be seeing him anymore, he is dead; they say he has been murdered by that British bitch he was travelling with.”

So the story had come tumbling out. Buck still found it hard to believe. It was hard to imagine Susan, she seemed such a sweet girl, doing that, or even that it was Mark’s body they found. But Vic had no doubt; something about an old bullet injury that Mark had to his arm had made him certain that it was Mark. Then Vic explained about the two surnames used by Mark and it gradually became clear as to why the name Mark Bennet on the news had not connected. He knew him as Mark Butler, same as Vic. Mark was a common name.

He could tell Vic was really angry, there was a cold, calculating rage bubbling inside him at the idea that someone would kill his best mate, whatever the reason. And that was only the half of what was odd.

There was also the way that, on that last night he had seen him, Mark had asked him to witness his will, right after dinner. The will was made in yet another name again, “Vincent Mark Bassingham.”

Mark explained this had been his name as a kid. But because his father was a bad bastard he had run away from home as soon as he was old enough. So he had kept the name Mark, but changed the surname he used, though the other was still the legal name.

That seemed fair enough but what was really odd was that the will gave all his possessions, apart from a few minor gifts, to the girl Susan who he was travelling with. Mark said to Buck that Susan knew nothing about it and probably would not agree if she was told.

Buck had only half read the will as he witnessed it, but it was pretty short and there it was for all to see. It was not something he was likely to forget.

When he’d questioned Mark as the whether he was sure about that bequest and why it was so important, Mark had admitted to Buck he was quite smitten with this girl. Plus he had a bad feeling that his nine lives were running out. So Mark had told Buck he had decided that if something happened, whatever it may be, then all his things would go to her, some of his stuff was worth real money and he preferred she should have it rather than it go to the state or to his mongrel father.

He said it with such quiet certainty that Buck did not argue back anymore; he had just signed the document and handed it back to Mark who had nodded his thanks.

Then Mark had laughed the whole thing off as superstition, saying that it must mean he was getting old if he was starting to see shadows dancing on his grave. But, notwithstanding, he was quite sure it was what he wanted. He also asked Buck to be an executor should the need to act on the will arise.

Buck knew nothing about Marks affairs, but hell, Mark had been his mate, they had worked together on a lot of jobs over the last seven or eight years. What were mates for if not to see you right if something bad happened? So he had said yes to being an executor as well. Now he wondered where the will was?

So, since that day when Vic told him that Mark was dead, he had been thinking about what his course of action should be; should he talk to the police, should he visit Susan? He had intended to discuss it with Vic when the chance came. He had noted, that night when he signed the will, that Vic’s name and signature sat alongside his own.

And now Vic was missing, that’s what the inquiry from the publican at Timber Creek was about. Vic had been due there by mid-afternoon. The publican said Vic had told him on the phone from Wyndham last night to expect him at Timber Creek today, and hold a room for him. But the day was over and Vic had not come.

The publican said he also had two tourists staying there that night. They were expecting a scenic flight with Vic early tomorrow. They wanted to confirm the arrangements and had expected to plan out the route with Vic tonight.

So it occurred to the publican that Vic might have diverted to VRD station today and would come over to Timber Creek first thing in the morning instead. On that basis he had rung to check.

Now they were both perplexed, Vic was super reliable, always called flight control to cancel his flights. Buck had immediately made a call to Darwin Flight Control. This confirmed that nothing had been heard since this morning when Vic left Wyndham about 9 am. Flight Control had not initiated any action as it was not unusual for helicopter pilots to fail to cancel their flights and, with a massive storm over Darwin this afternoon, the radio reception had been terrible. Now that storm had moved south over Pine Creek and the Daly River so the radio reception was still just as bad from down that way.

The one other thing Flight Control in Darwin told him, in case he had not heard it on the radio, was there was a cyclone watch along the coast between Darwin and the border of Western Australia. The low system which had been sitting in the Arafura Sea, north of Arnhem Land, for the last couple days, had become a cyclone this afternoon. It was now heading in a south westerly direction at ten kilometres per hour. It was about 150 kilometres out to sea, and its current trajectory would bring it down over the western NT coast somewhere between the mouth of the Daly River and the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.

That meant it was headed this way and the weather was likely to deteriorate badly tomorrow, particularly in the afternoon, if the cyclone held its course. Of course it could swing further to the south and clobber Darwin or break further to the west and hit the Kimberley coast. But, as things stood, the place where Vic was flying through today was in direct line for this super storm and it did not improve the odds of finding him tomorrow, should a search be required.

Off course Vic could have landed somewhere and not been able to get the machine to start again. But, if this was the case, why had he not called in. He could have used a local frequency to let someone down this way know to ring Darwin if he could not get through directly. But then, maybe he had a flat battery or a radio problem.

So tomorrow they needed to locate him early or it would be time for a full scale search for a missing helicopter. With bad weather forecast as the day progressed they needed to get cracking early.

This was something that Buck did not even like to think about. Two pilots he had known had gone down in his decade in the industry up here. They had been awful affairs for all concerned, one burned to a crisp so that what remained was past resembling a person. Buck had been one of the first on the scene and he still remembered that awful stink and the charred mess.

Anyway that was for tomorrow, nothing more he could do tonight bar call the other stations en route; Legune, Auverge and Bulloo River for starters, and see if anyone had sighted him. He would have some dinner first then make the calls before he went off to bed.

 

 

 

Chapter 4 – Christmas Alone

 

Susan sat in her cell. The outside light was fading. Christmas Day was almost over and it had a surreal empty feeling. No presents, no visitors, no singing or laughing; just her and the crocodile stone for company.

Prison was a strange place, the warders talked about how overcrowded it was, but she had a cell to herself and it seemed to be a bit separate from the other cells, so there was no one next door to talk to. She was in the remand section, awaiting trial, and at this stage it seemed that, despite there being lots of men on remand, that she was the only woman in the maximum security section facing a serious charge. So it was just her in a block of several cells with its own visitors’ room. She rarely saw or heard anyone, other than in the far distance.

It was often hot and steamy with no fans or other cooling here, even though the visitor’s room was lovely and cool with its air conditioned comfort. At night she would pull a sheet over her head to keep the buzzing mosquitos away from her face. Last night, late at night, there had been a huge storm with endless flashes of lightning and rain banging down and, for a while afterwards, the air was cool. But today there was an airless, hot steamy feel to the atmosphere, both inside and out of her cell.

Normally she did not mind the solitude, she really did not want to talk to others about what she had done and this was the question they invariably wanted to ask. But solitude on Christmas day felt wrong, where had all the laughter in her life gone?

Today she had tried to pass the time by reading a cheap and trashy romance novel that she had been able to take from the visitors’ room bookshelf. But now she was bored with it, it was not much of a story. Still she persevered trying to read, just to pass the time, sitting with her legs crossed, on her bunk, with the crocodile stone in her lap.

A few times she had put the stone aside and tried to pretend it was just superstition, not really influencing what was happening inside her head. But each time, within a few minutes, she could feel the fog return, the malevolent crocodile spirit was insinuating itself back into her mind. Then, as her hand returned to touch the stone, clarity would return.

She felt grateful for the visit yesterday of her family; Mum, Dad and Tim, along with Anne and David. They had brought brightness into her life for a couple hours. David had flown back to Sydney last night for a family Christmas. She knew he wanted Anne to go with him; she could feel the spark there and was glad – if something happened between them she would feel a bit less guilty for her own contribution to messing up his life.

She had not formally broken off the engagement but it was time. She would delay and spare the ructions this would cause for another week or two. But, as soon as the New Year was passed, she would act. She suspected that both David and his family would be relieved.

Susan sensed that Anne was better for David than she was. Both she and David were impulse driven, Anne was steadier and would balance that part of David in a way she could not. But that was all speculation, not based on anything more than a hunch. Still she was glad it might happen, she did not feel jealous, just a little envious of the freedom they both enjoyed. She wanted something good like this for them both; they were both friends she cared for. Of course it may be imagination on her part.

She was also glad that her mind had been clear enough to talk to her own parents properly yesterday; it had been so hard with the fog in her head. But, even though they did not have a deep and meaningful conversation, she could sense something approaching relief in them that their daughter’s mind had returned.

She was not really free of the crocodile spirit now but at least she had a way to keep it back. Thanks to the clearness that the stone gave her mind, along with the way Vic confronted her about what she had really done, it had come to her yesterday that she needed to plead guilty. She must stop this farce of pretence, saying that she would neither confirm nor deny what she had done.

So, as soon as the New Year came, she would tell of her killing Mark, hitting him on the head then dragging his body to the water; that part matched the evidence they already had, so it would be believed. But that was all she would tell.

Anything more would lead down a path which destroyed Mark’s reputation. Once done her child would have to live with that, once done there was no going back. It was better that this story remained untold – nothing could undo the past harm done. Nothing was gained by opening up the cesspit of Mark’s bad actions.

She was determined that the good memories of him held by her and his friends, not be destroyed through a revelation leading to others spilling out a different Mark story across the airwaves.

That story would travel down through generations, guilt by association. Always people would ask whether the child of a psychopath would become like the father, turn into a monster. She had come to understand the two sides to Mark; she was prepared to live with this dual person, to love and honour the memory of the good part.

She wished he had been open to having a life with her after she knew; they could have had months or even years together, sharing their child. It was not much, but compared to the nothing she had now, it would have been enough. God she hated the lost chance.

She wondered if she had done the right thing in giving the memory card with his story to Vic. But a promise was a promise and she must honour the one given by Mark, even if it caused more harm. Vic must shoulder responsibility for what he did with that knowledge.

Overall she felt relieved that she had shared this burden. Now Vic could agonise over it like she had. She had found herself more alive in Vic’s presence than she had been for months, even if it was only to rise to the challenge of being slapped.

It was good that Vic cared about Mark and what happened to him, cared enough to rage at her in his loss. She touched her face where a tender spot remained from his hand and smiled at the memory. It was the most alive thing that had happened since she returned to Australia.

So now she wanted to get the trial over with. She knew she would end up spending years in prison if she pled guilty. So she would have to make arrangements for when her child was born. She would ask her parents to adopt the child. That way she could see him, at least now and then, when they visited. She did not know why but she was sure that the child would be a boy. But she was sure, and she had decided that Marco would be his middle name too, a continuity of life and memory from father to son.

This imagined future was not much of a life to look forward to; maybe prison for twenty years until her child was grown. But it was justice for the life she took away and it would bring closure to what had happened. She must find useful things to keep herself sane in prison and then make a new life when it was done.

She felt that, with the visits by the old man Charlie and Vic, some clarity had come back into her life. Now she was able to think and plan again. It was so much better than sitting trapped in a fog all day. She hoped they would both visit her again soon. Their visits had lifted her out of despair. She sensed she would need more help from them both and then more help still, to stay sane in this place.

The one thought that really terrified her now was that she would go back into that trapped place in her mind, where it was only her and that awful crocodile spirit for company. She thought she would eventually kill herself if she stayed there. There was a certain allure to escaping that way, Mark was in that place. But she would not dwell on that thought before her child was born.

In the meantime perhaps Charlie and Vic could help her put that bad place behind her, at least she hoped so. There was steel in Vic and he would know what to do. He could help her find a place beyond this place here, a place where her torment would cease. He would honour Mark’s memory but he would help her too, that she knew.

So she would ask the prison officials, as soon as the Christmas New Year period was over, ask them to put her in touch with the lawyers for the public prosecutor so she could make an early guilty plea.

Then all these people, who were hanging around in hope of a miracle, would get on with their own lives and she could get on with her life too, wherever it led. She felt a sliver of satisfaction now that she could see a way forward.

Now, with her mind clear and the crocodile stone in her lap, she would read more of this book to pass the rest of this day. She had had her fill and more of Christmas alone and wanted tomorrow to come.

 

 

 

Chapter 5 – Michael Riley

 

Two days after Christmas the warder announced to Susan she had a visitor. She was perplexed as to who it could be, David and Susan were in Sydney, as were her parents. She did not imagine that either Vic or Charlie would be back so soon and she could not think of anyone else that she knew. Still a visitor was welcome to break up her day and she almost skipped out of her cell with a light heart.

As she walked down the passage into the visitor’s room she could see bright sunshine outside, just a few fluffy clouds, none of the big lightning and rains of the last day. Her mood lifted with the sunlight, even if just glimpsed through the window from the air conditioned visitors building.

She saw a weather beaten old man sitting at the table, wearing a cowboy hat. She did not recognise him. As she walked towards the table he stood up and doffed his hat in a polite greeting.

Recognition came to her; the bar tender from Top Springs, the man who had made the strangely prophetic announcements about Mark and the crocodile spirit. He had given her that cryptic warning that now made a sort of sense. She did not know his name, she was unsure if Mark even introduced him, despite them talking to him for two hours. She felt uncertain how to respond to this man, again a friend of Mark’s.

She must have shown the uncertainty in her face, because he seemed to realise that a more formal introduction was called for. He stood up, “Michael Riley at your service Maam. Not sure if you remember the day that you and that larrikin, Mark, stopped to tell stories at my bar at Top Springs.” With that he gave her a big broad toothy grin.

Susan could not help herself, she smiled back in response, there was something a bit mad and infectious in the mood she caught from him.

Susan gestured, “Please sit down Mr Riley. Of course I remember you, who wouldn’t, you and all your prophetic crocodile tales. I told Mark you were a bit fey, he said it was the spirit of the Johnny Walker talking.”

The man shook his head in reply. “Well, you’d think he’d get that one thing right at least. Paddy’s is the drop I always drink.”

Then he continued, “Just before Christmas I got word that you had set that crocodile spirit free, and they had locked you up for it. So me, I thinks, I am here in Darwin for a Christmas visit, perhaps I should pay you a visit, to pay me regards, like.

“You see, me, I know what you done girl; I felt it on that day. A choice was coming, one to go with the crocodiles and one to stay. So it had to be him to go and you to stay, him having the crocodile spirit, like. It could not have been another way.

“He was not a bad man, all in, but he had done bad things. His time had come to pay. Since the deed was done, his spirit has bin talking to me, telling me things. He says tis better this way, he wants for you and the child you share to be happy, his life will go on through the child. You must have no fear for the child, not try to protect the child from the truth. You must tell his story for all who would hear.

Susan found herself protesting. “But you can’t know what it is you are asking. You can’t expect me just to tell the world what happened!”

Mathew looked at her with a sad and perplexed manner, as if he could not see where to go from here. Then he shrugged his shoulders with a sad expression before he spoke again.

”That is his message for you that he said I must tell.”

With that he nodded, stood up and walked out the door.

Susan sat there alone, feeling mystified. What did it mean? Was she to tell her child when grown who the father was and what he had done? Was she to tell the lawyers, her family or the police about the Mark she knew and what she had discovered?

She was not ready to do that, no matter what the supposed messengers said. Everyone always promised to help her, encouraged her to tell the truth. But none of them had to live with what followed; the consequences of the truth; she did. The truth could never be told, that she knew. She would think on it no further.

With that she dismissed this strange event from her mind.

 

 

 

Chapter 6 – The Search

 

Buck was awake an hour before first light. He quickly ate breakfast and got onto Flight Control. There still had been no reports of Vic or his helicopter, and Buck’s phone calls last night had yielded nothing.

So a search had been organised at first light, based out of Kununurra and Katherine, as the weather in Darwin was currently too bad to fly out of there. The cyclone was hovering out to sea, about 150 kilometres north-west of Darwin, with its track still much the same though starting to bear more south. It had now intensified from a Category Three to a Category Four, with wind gusts at the centre rated at upwards of 200 kilometres per hour. Based on the current speed and trajectory they would have four to six hours of search time before the weather would force them to call it off.

Buck offered to send the fixed wing and two helicopters based at the station to start searching the area just north of Timber Creek while the Kununurra planes concentrated on the area between Western Australia and the mouth of the Victoria River and the Katherine planes concentrated on the rough and broken country on the east side of the Victoria River, and back north towards the Daly River, in case Vic had decided to divert to Katherine or Darwin for some reason.

Since Vic’s take-off yesterday morning about 9 am, when he had confirmed his destination and flight track and signed off after take-off, there had been nothing heard and no sightings or other information to tell where he might have gone. So it was a huge area to search, over 500 kilometres east west and 300 north south. But they would do their best.

By lunch time nothing had been found. They pushed on, racing against the clock and the weather. By 2 pm the weather had deteriorated such that the flying had to be abandoned. The cyclone was now stationary about 100 kilometres out to sea north-west of the mouth of the Daly River. It was still intensifying and all knew that huge rains and winds were coming this way. Already light rain had started at Timber Creek and overnight Pine Creek had received over a hundred millimetres from a large storm cell on its southern edge. That meant that the Daly would be coming down and soon all the rivers to the south would be running a banker as well.

Buck had not abandoned all hope; Vic struck him as a survivor, though he had thought the same about Mark. But it was a bad time for a machine to crash. The hopes of even looking, let alone finding anything, in the next three to four days, were extremely poor.

That first search afternoon, just after lunch, he got the VRD plane to fly him north to Timber Creek and out across the swollen rivers which burst out of the rough hills. He looked at the flooding water and the grey scudding clouds sweeping in from the north with a growing sense of hopelessness. If Vic was still alive he would not die of thirst. But the chances of ever finding him or his helicopter were becoming vanishingly small. Buck flew home. They battened down for the heavy rain and big wind which was coming their way.

By that night it was raining steadily at VRD and over the next three days they got three hundred millimetres and Timber Creek got five hundred millimetres. Now every river west of Darwin was in flood. The cyclone, as expected, had come down over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf and the residual low pressure system was now somewhere down over the southern Tanami Desert, west of Alice Springs and expected to bring rains over a wide belt of inland Australia.

 

It was three days before the weather was good enough to fly again. For the next three days of good weather a widespread search was made across the northern VRD and west Kimberley. But in the end, with absolutely nothing found, it was abandoned.

In due course there would be an official investigation but for now the case was closed and Vic had vanished, presumed dead in a crash somewhere in that empty place. To Buck it felt like a pointless waste of a promising life.

He must now take carriage of the will which Mark had entrusted to him. He would go and see the police and Susan, he was unsure whether anything was to be done for her, and she had bigger problems than an inheritance, where a will may or may not exist.

But still he needed to advise both the authorities and her of his knowledge in this matter, not that it seemed relevant as Mark had said he was not going to tell her. But still it was a little piece of the jigsaw.

A month later a fishing trawler, working off the coast west of Darwin, sighted some wreckage floating in the water. It was hauled aboard and taken back to Darwin. Here the experts determined it was, almost certainly, a fuel tank from a Bell 47 helicopter, badly damaged, as if from a crash impact.

So the opinion was that it was most likely a part of the helicopter flown by Vikram Campbell on the morning of December 30th and that he had probably crashed somewhere around the mouth of the Victoria River, with the helicopter wreck then washed out to sea.

Another two days were spent searching this area around the mouth of the Victoria River but still nothing was found. So the search was officially ended and the files were passed on to the coroner’s office for its consideration.

Buck and a few friends held a wake in the Timber Creek hotel, one steamy afternoon in early February. A thunderstorm was turning the sky purple, with flashing and rumbling far out to the north, out near where the Victoria River met the sea. It seemed that the Gods had joined in the ceremony too.

“Vikram Campbell, helicopter pilot extraordinaire, RIP”, they said, as they downed their drinks in his memory.

 

 

 

Chapter 7 – Fragments of Investigation

 

Alan found it hard to return to work in Darwin in mid-January after his holidays with Sandy since Christmas. She was staying on in Sydney until the end of the month to start to get the ball rolling on wedding plans for the end of the year and to have a bit more time with her family.

They had flown together to Sydney, her home town, on Christmas Eve and had a great couple of days with her extended family in and around the city, before going to visit his family in country NSW, up past Scone in the Upper Hunter. They both got on well with the other’s families, and had done lots of holiday things together; country driving, beach swimming, meals in pubs. They returned to Sydney for New Year’s Eve. Over dinner in a restaurant looking out toward the bridge he had proposed to her. He had been really nervous despite thinking he was in control of this emotional stuff.

He felt great elation when she said, “About Bloody Time, and before you change your mind the answer is YES.” He loved her directness and that night together was special. Now he had left the arrangements to her and was glad of it, this complicated family stuff was not his thing and it was good they lived in the NT and escaped most of it.

It had been a wrench to say goodbye when his holidays were up, he would have loved to stay with her until the end of January and to travel back together. Since returning he had missed her presence in his life each day, mainly the little things like a good morning smile or the way she arched her eyebrows or kicked him under the table when he talked crap.

But he had a stack of work to do; he had neglected other things while he was working on the Crocodile Man case before Christmas. No one else had done his other work while he was away and now it was all piled up waiting for him. His career was on the rise after the work he had done in tracing the leads in that case, his name was becoming well known as the man who had cracked this case, and nobody seemed to have any doubt he had got it right. Susan was definitely in the frame, she had more or less admitted it, that hers was the hand that struck the fatal blow.

The problem was not with what she had done but why. He knew there was a whole other story that needed to be brought to light before this made sense, loving girlfriends do not bash in the skulls of their lovers and feed them to crocodiles without a reason.

But he seemed to be the only one who wanted to get to the bottom of this, the prosecution lawyers seemed to only care that the case against Susan was watertight, and it clearly was that. And, when he had explained his concerns to his superiors, they had said that, from the police point of view, they had the evidence needed for the conviction and the rest was window dressing, so now he needed to get on with other work. His immediate boss had told him that he did not mind him spending a couple hours a week chasing up the loose ends on “Croc Man” but that was the limit, other work must come first.

Now they had just assigned him to a major role in the investigation of a criminal syndicate with suspicion of both murder and drug smuggling around the NT coastline. That was taking sixteen hours a day, leaving little time for anything else.

But he sensed a great injustice was rolling forward while he let this, “Croc Man” case slide. A week after he came back he wentin to work on the Saturday, an unpaid day, to get his old paperwork done, all the stuff that was in the less urgent piles. He beavered away all day and by the end of the afternoon he had shrunk the pile from a foot high to two inches.

As he sorted through things he came across a scribbled note that he had left aside. It had got mixed up with this other stuff. It was the name “Vic” and a mobile number; he dug in his memory for a Vic.

It came to him, that helicopter pilot he had met in Katherine with Sandy that afternoon. It was the trace from the mobile phone record that had found him Vic and this link also showed that Mark used the assumed name Butler as well as the name Bennet from his driver’s license.

He remembered that day clearly now; at first the link they had made to this pilot seemed to hold such promise and they had rushed off to Katherine to meet him. After all, this pilot had known their murder victim for ten years. They had been sure he would lead them back to something that started to make sense. There was no doubt he, Vic, knew their man, Mark, knew him better than almost anyone else in the NT. But, as to getting beyond that association and digging deeper, they had again drawn a blank about who Mark really was.

The ephemeral Mark seemed to drift in and out of people’s lives like a smoke ring, seen, gone, seen again. While at first this guy, Vic, was open and told what he knew, as the afternoon wore on he seemed to harden inside, they could sense his tolerance for their questions was slipping, not evasion but something held back.

So now Alan had it in mind to have a beer with Charlie, the catfish fisherman, before going back to the flat for a night on his own. Before he did he rang the pilot’s mobile number. He got one of those “sorry-leave a message” recordings. He decided not to leave a message, less notice was better if he wanted to get something useful from this bloke, the element of surprise was more likely to dig out that hidden ten per cent.

So he drove to Charlie’s place. As expected Charlie was on the verandah by himself, no sign of anyone else in the house. Charlie told him that Rosie was visiting relatives for a few days out in the Kakadu country.

So they got to chatting, first about Sandy. Charlie grinned broadly when Alan announced the wedding, “Maybe that catfish curry” he winked. “I give it to her when you meet her, now you must marry her. I get it for the marriage of my Becky, now maybe for another marriage. We have big celebration party when Sandy comes back.”

Alan nodded, liking the idea.

The conversation moved on to the murder investigation. Alan trusted Charlie’s judgement about people so he asked him. “What do you reckon, did she kill him?”

Charlie nodded and there was silence for a few seconds. Then he said, “Bad crocodile spirit, it make her; him, Mark fellow, dangerous man, him like crocodile, it is like he bite her, then she hit him.”

It was all cryptic but made a sort of sense, attack and strike back. But if so why was she hiding it?

Alan kept digging, “But why Charlie, why? This man seemed to like her, all the witnesses who saw them say they were like love birds, like you and Rosie, like me and Sandy. So why would he want to attack her and why would she hit back?”

Charlie gave one of his expansive shrugs. “Her I know, I visit her in prison just before Christmas and give her crocodile stone to keep crocodile spirit away. She not bad person, just frightened, so much frightened. But this man, Mark, I do not know, you must find someone who know this man, really know, not pretend know. Man is answer not woman.”

Alan nodded in return. “Yes I know that too, just before Christmas I found a man, a helicopter pilot, Vic Campbell. He said he had known this man, Mark, for ten years, and even after all that time he still did not know why. But I know he was hiding something from me. Perhaps he half knows something, something he guessed or glimpsed, but he does not want to say it. So now I must find him and get him to tell the truth, for her sake.

“I tried to ring him before I came, but he did not answer his phone, tomorrow I will try again.”

Charlie looked at him intensely. “What you say that helicopter pilot name?”

“Vic Campbell,” Alan replied.

Charlie shuffled off and returned with a pile of newspapers. He laid the papers on the table between them. “What Mr Policeman, you not read newspapers?”

Charlie shuffled through the papers and pulled one to the top.

The headline read – “Hope fades for the survival of missing helicopter pilot, Vikram Campbell.” It was dated January 7th, two weeks ago. It described how more than four days of searching had found no trace of Vic or his helicopter, missing since December 30. It also said how a severe tropical cyclone, a Category Four system, had passed through the area where the helicopter had been recorded as flying, the day after it was last seen, causing the search to be suspended. Then the search had resumed on January 3rd and had continued for three more days. It said that the search had now been ended, as no trace of pilot or helicopter was found and the hopes of his survival were considered very low.

Alan looked at the paper in shock, in part for the loss of this bright young pilot, in part for his most promising lead just snuffed out.

Without a trace back to the real Mark and without someone who knew him it all seemed futile, he just did not have the time in the next month to keep following the other fragments of threads. But he must not let it beat him; too much was at stake for that. He wracked his brain trying to think of some other way forward.

Charlie seemed to sense his consternation. He laid his hand on Alan’s arm and said, “If you find one person who knew him then you find more. Still this Vic will help you.

“You find the people who he worked with, this Vic, the people who knew him. Some of them will know Mark too, it is always the way. Even if he hides his secrets well, someone will know something. Tomorrow I start to find out about this missing helicopter pilot, and when I find someone who knows this Mark I give you a name.”

Alan spent the next day working again through all the clues he had about Mark, but nothing stood out. Then he remembered the barmaid from Timber Creek who had given the evidence that Susan and Mark had left there together, despite Susan’s claim they had separated there and gone different ways. The barmaid had only known him as Mark B, without a second name, just an initial, but still she seemed to know him well by sight, well enough to watch what he did and where he went. He still had her statement somewhere, though he had not read it in more than a month. Perhaps they had a fling at some stage; he sensed that something had motivated her to come forward and give evidence about this event, more than just being a responsible citizen. Perhaps she could give him some leads. Then he thought he remembered hearing in December, when he had met her at the committal hearing, that she was on her way home to Perth. Perhaps it was just for a Christmas break.

Alan rang the Timber Creek Hotel and talked to the publican. Unfortunately Tanya had left in December and was not returning. His only forwarding address was her mother’s place in Perth, just an address not a phone number. Alan knew he could run her to ground but it might take a few days.

While Alan had the publican on the phone he thought he should ask him about Vic, the paper said his intended destination on the night he disappeared was Timber Creek. Now he had something. The publican knew him well enough; he said Vic had stopped there several nights in the last year since he had bought the hotel. The publican told how he had rung the manager of Victoria Downs Station, Buck Owens, on that evening when Vic failed to arrive, as he knew Vic did a lot of work in the VRD and he also knew that Buck was a good friend of Vic’s.

Alan felt elation, friends of friends, Charlie was right. He rang the VRD station number and got the station manager’s wife, Beverly Owens. She was sorry that Buck was out and not expected back until about dark, but she would ask him to ring tomorrow, as he was doing a day of paperwork in the office. That is unless it was really urgent and she could call him on the two-way radio now.

Alan assured her that tomorrow was fine, even though he could feel his impatience.

About 9:30 in the morning the call came through, a booming outback accent, sounding like someone used to yelling out across a set of cattle yards. Alan was conscious of needing to handle this carefully after Vic had become defensive. So he started by explaining that he was trying to find out about a good friend of Vic’s and that he understood that Vic did work and was well known at VRD.

As he spoke the names of Vic and Mark he could almost feel a reserve come down the line.

Buck said “Yes, I did know them both quite well.” Then he asked if it had something to do with Mark’s murder.

Alan hesitated, he did not want to give too much away, but he needed this man’s help and sensed that bullshit would not wash. So he said, “Yes that’s right, I am trying to find out who this man Mark was that nobody seems to know.”

Another long silent pause ensued. Alan started to wonder if Buck was still there.

Then his voice came back, asking what Alan’s movements were on Wednesday, as he would be coming to Darwin.

Alan knew they were doing a night surveillance operation that night, which would begin with coming into the office about 3 pm. So that morning he was to be off duty. He replied, “Officially off duty until 3 pm, but happy to see you if up this way before then.

Buck replied “If it’s OK I would prefer to talk to you somewhere other than the police station. I am driving up from Katherine so could we make it for about ten o’clock, say for morning tea.

They agreed to meet in the café at the local shopping centre which they both knew. Alan felt intrigued by Buck’s wariness; it seemed there must be something here to know.

Over the next two days he barely had time to think of it; full time planning for the surveillance operation was all consuming.

But it was top of his list on Wednesday morning and he arrived early, treating himself to a big cooked breakfast. Buck was early too, Alan was just starting into his meal when a burly bloke came walking in and instantly spotted him, striding over and holding out his hand.

He looked with admiration as Alan’s plate of food and ordered the same for himself. Alan put the money down before Buck could pay, and was rewarded by a grin, “Anyone who buys me that sort of breakfast is worth talking too!”

Somehow they each trusted each other from then, they both had a no nonsense desire to make sense of this situation. So, rather than a round-about explanation, Alan just launched into his story, the discovery of the body, the cover up at the billabong, the trail of Mark and Susan’s movements to Timber Creek and then how they vanished until she flew out of Darwin, alone, two days later.

He told Buck of Susan’s total unwillingness to answer any questions about what happened after Timber Creek, the way she had turned on them when they had extracted the confession that she had been frightened. He even told Buck the story of the trip on the plane with this lovely girl and of her almost willing him to discover the truth, which she could not say.

He ended by saying. “I know there is more to this story, all the evidence points to her killing Mark, she does not deny it. But it does not make sense. I must find out why or she will end up spending twenty or more years in jail. The only other clue I have is that she is expecting Mark’s baby, she told me that on the flight, and she seems to feel loyalty to him as well as guilt for making a mistake.

Buck then told him of his long friendship with both Mark and Vic, that strange request to witness Mark’s will, his attempt to locate Mark after, his ignorance of his death until just before Christmas when he met Vic and now of Vic’s disappearance. It was a back and forwards story, jumping all over the place, as he remembered and sorted out the facts and memories as he spoke.

Of the real Mark Buck said he knew almost nothing, just that he was already working in the Territory when he had taken this job up at VRD after managing a station in Queensland. He told of Mark’s lack of any family or personal history and the way he drifted in and out of work but always seemed to have money, how he would occasionally disappear, at least once to the Middle East.

He described Marks work skill and ability in so many things and his fearlessness, but with a rough, slightly dangerous edge, how it was not uncommon to meet different girls travelling with him, clearly intimate, but then a month later there would be a different one and all Mark would say was “Easy come, easy go.”

Then how Susan seemed special, that when they left VRD after that day of cattle droving, that all he knew was that they were doing a job that night on the Victoria River up near its mouth, measuring the flow; that was all Mark would say, except the money was good. It was obvious they had returned from the job OK.

Buck had made his own inquiries and found out that their last known sighting was breakfast the next morning at the Timber Creek Hotel, and that Susan had stumbled out and climbed into the Toyota to sleep, looking exhausted, before Mark followed her out and drove away, with her still apparently asleep about an hour later. Mark had said in passing to the barman that they were both off to have a sleep under a shady tree as they had barely slept the night before with their work on the river.

Buck told how Tanya a barmaid at the hotel had a bit of a crush on Mark, and had watched and reported on all this when Mark’s identity was discovered, but that he had not known this for months and had only found this out over Christmas, not from Tanya, but from others she had told who had then told him.

He said Mark had mentioned an intention of a trip to Kakadu to him and then spending a final night with Susan in Darwin before she caught her plane. So it made sense for them to be heading that way. Buck thought it was not surprising that no one had seen them on that trip as Mark had a vast knowledge of, and often used back-roads, plus if they slept a few hours it may have been late in the day when they travelled.

But Buck knew something strange must have happened because, from what Vic and Alan had told him, the evidence indicated that by the time Susan flew out, Mark was dead and she was trying to hide his existence. It really was peculiar, as if she had discovered something awful that she wanted to hide. It was beyond him to explain, try as he might.

He told about the day they both spent at VRD, the helicopter mustering and the horse riding, how much they had both loved it, how affectionate they were together. In a way he had not really been surprised how hooked Mark was by this girl. In his heart of hearts it did not fit for her to kill him in a cold blooded way, she seemed to like him equally.

Then Buck told of how Mark asked him to witness the will naming Susan as the beneficiary.

As the story was concluding he said to Alan. “The only thing I can think of that may help you is that I may know his real name. It was not Mark Bennet or Mark Butler, I am 99 per cent sure it was Vincent Mark Bassingham, that was the name on the will. Mark told me it was his legal name.”

“That same night Mark told me he had a lot of money, he did not say how much but it was clearly plenty, so somewhere there must be a trail to that money. His will named me as an executor of his estate, but I have never seen his will since and I have no clue as to where his money is.

“One thing I am concerned about is that his money could be used by other people to make a motive for his death. I don’t believe for a minute that Susan killed him for his money. In fact Mark said he would not tell her about the money or the will, the will was made just in case something happened. He had some premonition and talked about it like he was the cat with nine lives which were all gone. He said the will was a precaution as he did not want the state or his father to have his money.

“But if this comes out some people may say that was the reason, Susan discovered the money, took it and killed him, thinking no one would ever know. They will say she has it yet, but has hidden it away somewhere. But if that is the case why does she not say he attacked her, she could plead self-defence. The money will be of no use to her locked up in prison.”

Buck then said he was going to talk to Susan in prison, he was going to visit her this afternoon, and would ring Alan and tell him if she gave any more clues.

He finished by saying. “When Mark made me his executor and gave the money to Susan I felt he was saying to me that he trusted me to look after her, no matter what.

“So I don’t know what she has done or why she has done it. But, now that Mark is clearly dead, I have this obligation, given as a promise to a mate. I must honour it. So I will see what I can do to help her.

“That is why I have told you all I know. I trust you not to use what I have said in a way that would cause Susan further harm. You must judge what to say about the will. No such document may exist anymore and, unless it is found, I am concerned that it will only cause harmful speculation by those who seek to find a motive for what has happened.

“If Vic was here I would ask him. But he is now vanished too and I fear he will never be found. So it rests with you and me to try and find the truth for Mark’s sake, for Vic’s sake and particularly for Susan and for Mark’s child’s sake.”

 

 

 

Chapter 8 – A Month in a Cage

 

As January reached its end Susan looked back on it as an endless month in a cage. It had three high spots when that great and good God, if such a being existed, decided to give some temporary respite.

It was funny how, for the month of December, when she was in this same place, but enveloped in a mental fog, both time and her surroundings had barely seemed to matter. Now that her mind was clearer time passed with excruciating slowness. A restless impatience ate at her; every day seemed so long.

Despite a clear mind she found it very hard to read or otherwise distract herself. An underlying inability to concentrate properly on anything had infected her mind. Since she had decided to plead guilty it seemed like she had lost all passion for anything along with her will to fight. She had not changed her mind about saying nothing but that was the only place where her mind had a clear focus and purpose.

She could no longer see Mark’s face clearly; he seemed to have vanished with the crocodile spirit’s departure from her mind. Without some sense of him she felt really lonely.

Now that she had seen off her three lots of supporters, there was a vacuum about her. No one else seemed to have interest in her or wanted to see her. She had a premonition of the rest of her life, this place of total emptiness, just herself alone, no one else in this space; no one that she cared for or who cared about her.

She cast her mind to her encounters of the month, those few days of visits, now concluded.

First came Anne; it was the day after New Year’s Day when she came in, looking fresh and blooming, her holiday had obviously agreed with her. Susan steered the conversation to how Anne was going and before long it became about David. She could tell Anne was trying to skirt about this subject but Susan was determined not to let that happen.

Susan burst the topic wide open by saying, “You know, Anne, it is time for me to bring my engagement to a formal end. There is no future for David and I as a couple. Before you say anything I know he is pretty keen on you and you on him. I don’t want this to have any bearing on what you and he do together.

“I don’t want to push you together out of loneliness and shared sympathy for me, but if there is something good between the two of you don’t let what happened between me and David to keep you apart.

“I should have been stronger and never let myself get involved with him, knowing how this event could follow me. But it is a part of my history that I can’t change. All I can say is, if something happens between you two, I hope it is really good. Don’t rush it; let it grow, if it will, in its own good time.”

She watched Anne closely as she spoke.

By the time she finished Anne had tears in her eyes. “Oh Suz, am I that obvious, yes I really like him and I think he feels the same, but it is all mixed up by what has happened to you and I don’t know if we can undo the tangles.

”So thank you for your advice. I won’t see him now for at least a couple months. I think it is a good thing to put some distance between us and all this. It might be that when we meet again we have each moved on and it is no longer important. But thank you for your kindness; you have so many troubles of your own without worrying about me.”

With that they both put their arms around each other and hugged for a long time. No more words were required. The next three days Anne visited her all the time she could. She brought little treats, chocolates, lollies and the like, giving a big pile to the warders. The warders soon had a soft spot for Anne; she talked to them so politely, and charmed them with a smile. In return they bent the rules as far as they could in allowing her to extend her visits.

They talked very little about the case, more just about life and history of times past. One day Susan told of her decision to plead guilty; at first Anne was inclined to try and talk her round, to try and find some way out. But Susan was so clear in her mind about what she was going to do that in the end Anne let it be and concentrated on being the best friend she could. It did not seem right to abandon Susan to this fate. But she was as trapped as Susan was by her knowledge.

They were both very sad when the final day came and it was time for Anne to say goodbye, as she was flying back to London early the next morning.

The next week came visits by her Mum and Dad. Tim had already gone back to university in Reading. Her Mum and Dad had stayed an extra week in Sydney, having been invited up to visit David’s parents. Susan told them she really wanted them to go, saying that Anne would be here to see her every day, and she would prefer to spread out the visits to have more time with them all, rather than having them all come together.

Once again it had ended up being a nice but emotional time. She told her parents, at the outset, of her decision, to plead guilty. It had been hard to watch the shocked look on both their faces, both in response to her admission of what she had done, and in realising the consequences for their daughter, she expecting to spend a large part of her life in jail.

Their first question was, “But why?”

All Susan could say, and she said it over and over again was, “I am sorry, I cannot tell you.”

Her Mum had been in tears and her father not far away. But, as she explained it slowly and as rationally as she could, that she was facing the consequences of her actions, and please that they not ask why anymore, they slowly accepted this awful choice.

She told them, then, that when David returned next week, she would end her engagement to him. She said it was impossible that there be any relationship between them from here, and he must move on with his own life. She told them that she appreciated, so much, how good David and his family had been to her with all this, and she was glad that they and David’s parents had met and become friends. She would write a letter to David’s parents thanking them for all their support. She said she hoped that she and David could still remain friends, but that was all there was left for them.

Her Mum and Dad could see the good sense of all this and told her they thought she had made the right choice in the circumstances.

Then she came to the last and, for her, the hardest thing. It was about the baby. She said that she knew she would not be able to keep her baby in jail and so she asked them to take and adopt the child when it was born, to give it the good life that she could not. She just wanted to choose the name, and she hoped that they would all come and visit at least once a year so that she could see her child and watch him grow, and he would know that his mother loved him.

Now Susan’s mother really was in tears, but it was agreed. After that was all said they spent their visits talking about other things and too soon they were also gone.

The final visitor was David; it ended up only being a day as she asked him not to come back after that, at least for a few weeks, as she needed time on her own. Not that she had other things to do, but it was too painful for now being with him, with her life in tatters, that was how she put it.

She knew it needed time and separation to let the healing begin. First she told him about the decision to plead guilty. He seemed stunned, he had willed himself to believe that there was another explanation; that it was not really her; yes she had had an affair with this man, but she was not his killer.

When he tried to deny that it could be so, she looked straight at him, and told him directly, “David, it is true, I hit him on the head with a piece of wood and killed him. Then I tried to cover up what I had done. I cannot tell you why so please don’t ask. But I cannot and do not want to escape from the consequences of my actions, so I will plead guilty, that is it, it will not change.

“So please, get on with your own life. I ask you now to agree that our engagement is over. I could just tell you but I want your agreement that it is so, a mutual decision which we both hold to. You must understand and believe that our relationship is over, you must move on or we will both be trapped by something that cannot be.”

She could feel him squirm and try to avoid facing up to the reality and admitting it. But she persisted and finally the words were said. “I agree.” She had thought she would talk with him of Anne but decided this was a step too far for this day.

For a minute, when all was said, they both tried to make polite conversation. But it was too hard. So, after about five minutes, she said. “I think I would like you to go now, it is just too hard; there is part of me that is really sad it has come to this. I just hope that in weeks or months to come we can be friends again. I want you to remember me as someone bright and happy, not someone whose life is in broken pieces, so please go now.”

They too hugged tightly for a minute and then he was gone.

She was pleased the talking was done but now she just felt so alone and empty.

A week passed. She was still alone. She had barely spoken ten words to the warders and had said not a word to anyone else. It had all become so dark and dreary. Part of her was tempted to put the crocodile stone aside to have something to fill her mind, even that awful crocodile spirit seemed preferable to nothingness; but for now she resisted.

She wrote out a letter to David’s parents and another to the Director of Public Prosecutions and asked the warder to send them. When that was done there was just silence again. It was an endless emptiness that went on and on and on.

Susan was half way through the second week of solitude, the days all muddled in her mind. Someone was calling her name, she looked up; the warder was seeking her attention.

“You have a visitor.”

Susan had no idea who it could be, neither Vic nor Charlie had ever returned, perhaps it was one of them, perhaps that policeman from the plane or a lawyer from the DPP. She heard a big booming voice come down the corridor; it sounded familiar, but from where?

“Now where is that girl, surely she can see me, I have driven for eight hours to visit, surely she can find some time.”

She opened the door to the visitor’s room. A burly stockman greeted her; there was totally genuine delight in his face to see her.

“Buck,” she cried in pleasure, almost flinging herself at him.

After hugging her he held her at arm’s length and looked at her critically. “What has happened to that lovely English bloom, getting a bit thin and pasty in this awful place. Sorry, I could not bring Firefly with me on a horse trailer, he would have really sparked you up.”

Now she was laughing and he was laughing too. It was the first proper laugh she’d had in longer than she could remember. Tears streamed down both their faces as the laughter eased, she was breathless.

“That’s better,” he said, “needed a little ray of sunshine. I am sorry it has taken me so long to come and see you. I only heard two days before Christmas, and then Vic was missing and there was the Cyclone with lots of flooding so it is only now I could get away.“

Susan looked at him perplexed, “What did you say, Vic is missing? Do you mean Vic the helicopter pilot?”

Buck looked at her, puzzled and anxious, “Yes that is Vic,” he replied. Then he smacked his hand to his forehead. “Oh Lordy, don’t suppose many papers come here, or radio or TV?

“I found out about Mark just before Christmas from Vic, and then on the day before New Year’s Eve, Vic and his chopper vanished, somewhere en route from Wyndham to Timber Creek. It is a month now and nobody holds out much hope anymore, though he is such a tough little bugger that if anyone can survive out in the middle of nowhere it will be him. So I am not prepared to fully write him off just yet, nobody has found a crash site or a body. But I have to admit it is looking real grim.”

Susan sat down on the chair and laid her head on the table. All her forced jollity had drained away. It felt like someone had put a pin in a balloon. It was as if, since giving him the diary, she had a thread of hope that he may help her find some way out of this. Now that bubble was popped too. But more, she grieved for the loss of the one person who seemed to genuinely care about what had happened to Mark.

And beyond that she liked this man, really liked him, his humour, his vitality, his zest for life, his dark, handsome, wiry features. On that day, when he had jested that she pass Mark over in his favour and she had reposted that he had plenty already in the mile high club, a part of her subconscious had known that if she wasn’t with Mark she would have done the mile high thing with him too.

It was not that she had sought anything other than Mark, but she had recognised this man also had a primal attraction for her. But that was history. Like all that was good in her life he was gone too. She had thought her life felt empty before, now she understood what true emptiness was, that place when all future life hope ran into a dry well.

She realised after a minute that Buck was still standing there looking down at her with serious eyes. “What an idiot I am,” he muttered, “I assumed you would know, that is if you knew Vic at all. It was a major land and sea search which was on top of the news every night for a week.”

She lifted tear glistened eyes and tried to conjure a smile. “No, it is not your fault. As you say, I barely knew him. I only met him the once, with Mark. Then he came to visit the day before Christmas. It is just that, of all the people I have met since I came here, he is the only one who really cared about what I had done and who cared about Mark. The others – for them it was just a story or a crime to be solved, it could have been anyone. Vic cared he had lost his brother, that’s what he called Mark. He was so angry with me for killing him.”

She saw surprise on Buck’s face at the open admission, “That’s right,” she said. “I did kill him, and I am going to plead guilty. I made a mistake; I can’t explain it more than that. But it is past time for pretending.”

Now Buck sat down on the seat opposite looking stunned too. He shook his head as if it was hard to think of anything useful to say after that. After a while he leaned back and folded his arms.

“I came here with a plan to help you, imagining that you wanted to get out of this place. But the more I look at it the more it seems that you have decided you like it best in here in this cage. So much so that you are determined to stay here, come what may.

“So, maybe I am a bit daft, but there is an elephant in the room and everyone is trying to pretend it is not there, even as it is trampling on us. There is plenty that I don’t know, but I have just spent an hour talking to Sergeant Alan Richards, and I am starting to put a few pieces together. It is far from a full story, but I am about to tell you what I know, what I don’t know and what I think.

“You can nod or shake your head, or look blank, or act dumb, as you choose. But the story I am going to tell you needs to be said and, like it or not, I am determined to make you stand up and fight, even if it is only to fight back at me.

“Mark was my friend too, as was Vic. One is definitely dead and the other may well be. So it seems to me that I am the only one left standing in your corner. And the person you have to thank for that, like it or not, is Mark. He appointed me. So here I am, because I know that is what Mark would have wanted.

“He would not have cared a fig what this story said about him but, as sure as I know my name, I know he would have wanted your freedom, not to mention the freedom and the chance of a better life for his child that you carry.”

Susan could feel her resolve begin to crumble before this onslaught, the tears only a second away. She put her hands to her ears. “Please Buck, please, stop now. Don’t you see that is what this is about? If it was just about me, it would be simple, but it is about the future of our child. Others can think what they like, but I carry the responsibility.

“I cannot bear to have my child know the truth about his father. I know there was another Mark, a good Mark, but once the genie is out of the bottle it can never go back in. So I am imploring you. Don’t go there. It is not a good place to go. I would rather spend my life in jail and die with the secret. So yes, there is a secret, a terrible secret and I cannot tell it, even to you. For a minute I entrusted it to Vic, despite my fear.

“But it is an omen, now he is gone too with the secret untold. So it will not come from me, I will help no one who tries to go there. I will kill myself after the child is born to keep the secret locked away if I must. So go now, please seek the truth no further. I will not help you and I will stop you if I can. For my sake, for Mark’s sake, for Vic’s sake, but most of all for our child’s sake, just let it be.”

Buck looked completely stunned. He turned to walk away. But before he did, he looked at her with great sadness and said. “If that is your wish I will respect it.

“But before I go there is something I must tell you. On the night at the station, when you stayed there, Mark came to see me. He asked me to witness his will. He named me as an executor of his estate, he named you the sole beneficiary, and in doing so he placed on me the responsibility to help you anyway I can.

“I know he would not have wanted it this way, he named you because he loved you. So from here, whatever I do, it will be a betrayal either of him or of you. I only do what you ask because I think he would have me abide by your wishes, even if they are wrong.”

Susan looked at this strong man she had bent to her will and felt ashamed. Why were there no good choices and why did it always have to be so hard.

She walked over and put her hand on his arm. She said, “Thank you Buck, it is hard for me and even harder for you. Mark would know he could not have asked for a better friend. I know about his will and I know about his love, and I wish, with all my soul, I could bring him back. But I cannot, so now I must live without him in an empty place.”

Buck replied, “Wrong though I know you are, even Mark would have been impressed by your courage. God Damn you are one obstinate woman.” He gave her a half smile.

Suddenly she refused to be bowed. She smiled brightly and looked up at him saying. “Thank you so much for coming and visiting me. It was good to laugh and remember happy times. Please stay my friend and come to see me when you can. It would mean much to me.”

 

 

 

Chapter 9 – Who is Vincent Bassingham

 

Alan rang Buck on his mobile just before he logged on to work in the mid-afternoon, having been told that he would be finished his prison visit by then. Buck picked up on the first ring. “Buck here.”

“Well how did the visit go?”

He heard a hesitation come down the line, but then it cleared, just a half grunt then nothing for a few seconds. It was as if Buck was reflecting for a second what to tell.

“I was just doing a mental back flip about what to say. “Then I thought, we have been straight this morning, we might as well stay straight, and let the cards fall where they may.

“Actually I can’t tell you much. She is her normal charming self, quite gorgeous actually. I told her I was sorry that I could not bring Firefly, the horse she rode last time. She starting laughing. It was the most delightful and unaffected laugh, we both laughed till tears ran down our faces.

“But then I told her about Vic. Like you she had not heard the news, she had no idea it happened. When I told her he was missing and almost certainly dead it was as if someone put a knife through her soul’s brightness, her light was gone. She sat in the chair with her face on the table, tears streaming down her cheeks, she looked so defeated.

“She told me she had flown with him in the Gulf with Mark and he had visited the day before Christmas; that he was the first person she had met who really cared about Mark. Now he was gone she was devastated, as if emptiness would swallow her.

“Then she said she had told Vic something really important that day he visited, she said she had trusted him with a secret. It was like she had some hope he could help her get out of this mess, and with his loss her hope had crumbled. She looked so forlorn.

“So I told her how Mark had entrusted me to try and help her. Then I tried to push her into telling me what the real story was, I started to spell out what I thought might have happened.

“But she has a steel core. I have never met such a tough cookie. Just for a minute I thought she would crack and give me something. But it was like you told me about that day when you first brought her in for questioning in London. She starts to soften, then something happens.

“This staggering self-control pulls her back. She is determined not to tell, she knows, you know and I know that something happened on that day, or maybe the day before, that told her that Mark was not who she thought he was.

“We are only guessing but she knows something real. I don’t begin to know what it is but she is determined never to let it out. She more or less told me that she had a secret that could never be told, she would protect it with her life. She even suggested she would kill herself rather than let it out. She said it was to protect her baby.”

“She told me she knew about the will, then she said she had killed Mark, but in doing so she made a terrible mistake. Now she is determined to plead guilty and take the punishment for her crime.

“She implored me not to try and find out, not to seek the truth, she said it was much better that I did not know. In the end I gave her my word I would not try and find and reveal this secret. So, in a way, I am compromised by her determination for secrecy too.

“I told her I would let it go. And so I must. That is why I hesitated. But I did not promise that I would not share this knowledge with you. And someone must find out. I have been thinking what to do for the last hour since I saw her. In the end I knew. I must hold to my deal with her, be her friend and dig no further.

“But Mark was my friend too. I shared good times and bad with him over eight years. He must have done something terrible, but he has given me responsibility for her. If it came to a choice for him between him and her I know, with certainty, he would have chosen her. It was obvious every time he looked at her; there was something so tender and protective in his eyes when they were together.

“So I cannot sit by and watch her spend twenty plus years in jail, to protect something she knows about him. I am completely sure Mark would not have wanted that. So I decided I must at least tell you what I know, perhaps it will open up a way to find who Mark was. There must be an explanation in his past life. In a way it makes sense, the man with no history is like the man who can never allow his history to be known.

Perhaps he killed his parents as a child, perhaps he murdered a brother or sister in a fit of rage, perhaps he is wanted for a terrible crime in another country; there is something and she knows it.

But she will not tell it. I have promised I will not try to discover it myself. If Vic was here perhaps he could. But my hope is dying that Vic and I will again sit together by a campfire and share more stories.

So all I can do is tell you what I know. I leave it for you to see if you can get to the truth. I cannot swear a deposition that there was a will naming her or that Mark’s real name was Vincent Bassingham. But perhaps in that name lies a history that will open up this story.

Alan felt a weight descend on him as these words were said. It was up to him, and his bosses had effectively closed the door on him working on this, at least officially. But yet he must find a way. He was glad Sandy was coming back in three more days. It might help to seek her wise counsel on this matter. He would struggle to find a way to chase this down without some real evidence. He contemplated making a sworn deposition that he had received this information from an anonymous source, in order to give him a basis to investigate. He was bound by his word to Buck, notwithstanding that he was an officer of the crown, just as Buck was bound by his word to Susan. Still a name was a name.

Knowing that he could do nothing further this week and his life was about to be consumed by his new job he parked it in his mind. Remember Vincent Mark Bassingham!

The next three days were frenetic and he barely had time to think. He was whacked when he logged off late Saturday, having just worked over forty hours in the last three days. He went home, showered, shaved and fell onto bed, having set the alarm to get up at 11 pm to meet Sandy off her Sydney plane.

Homecoming was lovely, bed was even better, though a bit more sleep would have been nice. In the early morning, after renewing their intimate acquaintance yet again, Alan told Sandy about his need to find if this man was really Vincent Mark Bassingham.

After a minute of silence Sandy looked at him and laughed. “Well you might have been pulled off the case. But no one has given any such instructions to me. And, as best I can recall, I am still the official pathologist on the case.

“I have a man with two names and possibly a third. Clearly I still have an identification to make. If he may not be Mark Bennet, or even Mark Butler, and may even be this new name, Vincent Mark Bassingham, then I have good grounds for further investigation of his identity, to try and locate the next of kin, to try and correctly inform the court as to his true identity, perhaps even to investigate, based on his DNA, whether he is related to any of the identities he claims.

“So leave it to me to try and hunt down Vincent Mark Bassingham. It is an uncommon name, so even though it may take a month or two, it should be possible. At least I will try.

“It is funny, but as I was by myself in Sydney, after you came back here, I sensed my work on this case is far from finished, that there is more for me to do. Perhaps it is some kind of funny thought transference from Susan and that strange crocodile spirit that I have sensed. So I am pleased to do this, particularly if it helps her. In the same way that Vic talked about Mark as his brother, I feel that Susan is my sister.

“I think to start with I will visit her in jail. After all I have never actually met her, just glimpsed her in court, despite how well I feel I know her. I will not try to pressure or frighten her, but talk to her, woman to woman, ask her my own questions and see if my female intuition, combined with my pathology investigation skills, will lead me anywhere.”

 

 

 

Chapter 10 – Meeting of Spirit Sisters

 

It was Wednesday before Sandy could arrange a prison visit. She decided to do it in a fully official manner, to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. So first she explained to the senior pathologist about the dual identity; that two people had identified her murder victim with different names, albeit similar. So she must attempt to determine the victim’s true identity. She proposed to start with a visit to the prisoner, to seek further information on a true identity. Then she would pursue other leads which might be of value, particularly DNA based.

Her senior officer agreed that this was the correct thing to do and sent her an email of confirmation. Once this came through Sandy talked to the prison officers and scheduled her visit for 11 am the following day.

On arrival at the jail the warder asked Sandy if she needed her to stay in the visitor’s room.

Sandy shook her head, “No thank you, I am sure there will be no trouble.”

The warder showed her a button to push to notify them when she was finished, or to use as an alarm if the need arose. With that she nodded and left to fetch Susan.

Sandy looked at the CCTV behind her realising it was all on camera and running through to a central console somewhere. A minute later the warder brought Susan in, directed her to the seat opposite, then left locking the external door behind her.

Sandy was surprised that, up close, Susan was both prettier and more diminutive than the image she had formed. In the distant court view and in dreams of Susan’s face, as seen through the mirror of Susan’s own mind, she was a bigger and plainer person. Perhaps this image was influenced by the media portrayal of her as some sort of seductive monster. Sandy had also imagined, from Alan’s description of her on the aeroplane, that Susan would be more fragile and vulnerable. Sandy was sure that if it was her sitting in Susan’s seat that would certainly have been the case.

Instead the real Susan who sat opposite had a very self-composed presence about her and the image that now formed in Sandy’s mind was closer to sprung steel than a porcelain doll, despite the pretty face.

As she sat down opposite Susan Sandy felt as if she should go through the formal introduction process. Instead Susan, without introduction, started the conversation. “I am so glad to meet you at last Sandy, as I feel I already know you. Both since the night of my dream of you at the billabong and more, since you gave evidence in court, I have this sense of having known you for a long time.”

Sandy looked at her in surprise, it was so much what she had been thinking and yet had been reluctant to say. To put it into words seemed somehow a bit crazy. Yet this lady spoke as if it was perfectly natural to know somebody from a dream shared months ago when they lived on opposite sides of the world.

It felt creepy, this thought communication thing. Yet she had encountered so much that was strange in this case, beginning that day at the billabong with that hugest ever crocodile that seemed to have sought out her and Alan. It had swum up right next to them and just stared, as if telling her and Alan something. Then the way Charlie had told her of the bad crocodile spirit of that place which needed to be placated, how it had fought him for the man’s head he had caught, in a tug of war, Sandy’s own knowledge of this girl’s face before she saw it on CCTV. So this shared connection was no more unusual than all the rest.

Susan continued, “I am really glad you have come to visit me, I have felt very much on my own lately and all visitors are nice, but you especially. I wanted to see if I liked you as much in person as I had imagined through seeing into your mind. And I am pleased that my first impression is that I do.

“After that day on the aeroplane with Alan I feel like we have all been friends for a long time, even though today is our first meeting. So I am really glad to meet you now,” she said, holding out her hand.

Sandy felt delighted and charmed at this positive response but also a bit flummoxed. She had come to meet a person who she sensed was in great need of help. Yet this young woman opposite, very much her own age, seemed the perfect gracious host welcoming her to her house for a garden party, not someone facing a murder charge for killing a lover and feeding him to the crocodiles. It was all so incongruous. Sandy thought it would be more real if a needy or angry person sat opposite her.

Her puzzlement must have shown on her face because Susan picked up the cue. “You are probably wondering why I do not appear tormented or crazy, with what has happened. In a way I am, I have had very dark times; me in my own company with endless regret; it is an awful empty place. But I am coming to realise that I have to make the best of what I have, to treasure the pieces of blue sky and sunshine, like your visit today. I am trying hard to learn how to live in the moment and act with joy. Sometimes all I see is darkness and I feel my life has burned away, leaving only cold ashes which fill the barren place surrounding me. But then you come along and the darkness burns away for an hour.

“But you did not come to hear me tell you about my feelings. You came seeking information, to try and find out who Mark really was, the man with the different names. Is that not so?”

Sandy nodded, even more amazed. Was there anything this woman did not know of her own thoughts? It was like her mind was an open book allowing direct thought transference.

Sandy sensed the purpose of this visit was being pushed away from what she intended, she wondered if it was deliberate. This woman was an adept mind reader. Now she gained a sense she was being manipulated by a superb actress, one who could kill her lover in one minute and then share cake and tea in the next.

She made herself rise to the challenge and felt a sense of satisfaction come back from the other. She realised Susan had been testing her, seeing what substance was present in her character, and was now pleased she had pushed back, making her a worthy friend and contestant. So far it had all happened unsaid, within the space of their two minds.

Sandy pushed her body back in her chair, stretched and said, in a measured way, “You are right, I do want to ask some questions while I am here. But that is only a small part of the reason I came. Most, I too wanted to meet you, to see if our imagined friendship was real, to talk to you as I would to my other friends, to see what you were like.

“So please, tell me about how you find it being here, what is good and what is bad? I cannot imagine how I would cope with being locked up in this place. I would go crazy, alone by myself, day after day. Alan has told me you are expecting a baby. Tell me about that?

Susan replied, “I would like that, just to talk to you about ordinary things. Since coming here I have barely spoken any words and I feel consumed by silence.

“First I must say, I killed him, very much in the way your report described. But do not ask me about what happened on that day or why, that is off limits.

“Anything else I know I will tell you. I would like it if you would be my friend and visit me when you can. While I can offer little in return, as you can see, I can return friendship.”

So they sat and talked, like sisters who had known each other all their lives but had not met for a decade and now were full of news to exchange.

Once or twice Sandy thought, this is crazy, me going out of my way to befriend someone who is self confessed murderer.

Again Susan read her thoughts, saying. “It is crazy that we should be friends like this. But think of me as a silly young girl who became infatuated, did something she regrets, and now must make recompense.”

At first they talked about their shared interest and knowledge of pathology.

Sandy said, “Now I understand, it was what struck me when I went to the billabong; that the clean up after was done by someone who knew what they were doing and planned it carefully. It so nearly worked; if the head was not found, or if it had rained first, nobody would have ever known. Is it luck or is it destiny that it turned out this way?”

Susan answered with perfect clarity. “It is much better this way. At first I thought I could run away and hide from what I did. Now I know I could not and I am glad I don’t have to live that lie. It would have been like a cancer inside me, eating out my insides across all my future. For me the truth is better, even if my future is a bitter pill to swallow.”

Then they talked about the baby. Susan told her about David and Sydney, then meeting Mark again in Alice Springs, how excited and infatuated she had been, how pregnancy protection had been left aside. “As best I can tell I got pregnant in the middle of August; that makes me between five and six months now.

“It is funny but none of the officials seem to have noticed, though it is really beginning to show. I have told my friends but it never seemed important to tell others. I have asked my parents to adopt him, my baby, as I will not be able to keep him in prison; his middle name will be Marco, like his father’s name was.”

Susan continued, “Mark told me his proper name was Vincent Marco Bassingham. It is the only thing I know about his life before except that he told me he had a happy memory of fishing with his uncle in Brisbane. Oh, and he told me his mother died when he was a boy, I do not know her name but she was Italian and the name Marco came from her brother who died young. Also he told me he ran away from remand school after getting caught shoplifting when he was about twelve and he hated his father who was a bully, and has never seen him since.

“So if you can locate Mark’s true family that would be a good thing. While Mark hated his father, he seemed to like his uncle. Perhaps it would be good for my child to know any extended family from Mark’s side. That is why I am happy that you try to trace him. As you have Mark’s DNA that should assist in confirming any family links you find.”

Sandy asked if Susan would like her to notify the prison officials of her pregnancy. Susan she said she thought this was a good idea. In the end their visit was cut short by the warder saying that she was sorry but the time was up and Sandy would have to leave now.

On the way out Sandy notified the prison office of Susan’s pregnancy status and asked whether it would be possible for her to organise a doctor to visit or did it need to be handled by the prison. They said they were uncertain and would call her back.

As she walked away Sandy felt both pleased and perplexed. Her liking of Susan was real and instinctive, it was as if they were very much kindred spirits, the term “spirit sisters” resonated in her mind. Their friendship was natural and easy. Susan had great charm and was almost impossible not to like. And she sensed Susan was telling the truth about the terrible dark times she had lived through since the event, Mark’s death. She also had to admit that her own ego felt gratified that what happened on that day had been the way her pathology report described, an affirmation of her professional skill.

But there was an undercurrent here that made her uneasy, what was it? She chewed over it in her mind and by the time she reached her car in the car park it came to her. It was too easy; getting the past information on the identity of Mark was too easy. This consummate actress was steering her. She had no doubt that Susan had told the truth about the likely true identity of her murder victim, along with the fragments of childhood memory that he had conveyed, even down to the remand school. They were provided as details to check and help locate a person. It was in stark contrast to the secret of Mark now.

At the time Susan had told her these things she had accepted Susan’s facile reason for the disclosures, that it would be good for the child to know something about the father’s family. She and Alan had discussed how this former identity might be the lead that could crack the case open, get to the true Mark. It was based on the idea that, in Mark’s distant past there might lie the clue to who he was, something which would explain what had happened between them. Perhaps it was still so, that there was an important clue hidden there.

But she realised that this woman had detected Sandy’s desire to go down this path, and had steered her actively towards it. Susan was deliberately hiding a secret and yet she had steered Sandy towards what she and Alan thought may be the key. The name that had been whispered to them, Vincent Mark Bassingham, was now official and would justify an investigation to locate this new identity. Birth records, marriage records, next of kin records, DNA checks, thus giving the victim a face and identity. Susan had readily assisted in providing information for this search.

But why? Too easy, much too easy was how it seemed!

 

 

 

Chapter 11 – Susan’s Plan

 

Yesterday afternoon Susan had been told that the pathologist wanted to visit her and ask her some questions about any knowledge she had of the prior identity of the murder victim before she met him.

It immediately raised a red flag in her brain. Her overwhelming motive for everything she had done since she had first been arrested in London was to hide the real Mark from public view. At first, when they arrested her, it had seemed that officials had been happy enough to let Mark fade from view, they had a license ID for a Mark Bennet, she assumed there would be enough of a trail for people to confirm that to be the identity of her Mark, and, having got that far, people would let it drop.

But once the association had been made with the second assumed name, Mark Butler, Susan realised that this could be trouble, it raised a question of what was Mark’s true identity.

Last night Susan had another dream. In her dream Mark’s secret was in great peril, with people investigating what had happened on her trip from Alice Springs and tracing her phone calls and text messages to Anne. In the process they were starting to link Mark to his victims. If the text asking Anne to investigate the missing girls and Anne’s reply was found, then it would all unravel. She did not think that Anne would volunteer information, but she knew that Anne was conflicted. However, on balance, she thought that her friend’s loyalty to her would come first.

Anne did not really know the story. But she knew about the initial inquiry and Susan had effectively admitted that this was Mark. So Anne would see the link between her, Mark and those cases, and she also knew of the existence of Mark’s diary. However, with Susan’s admission to the murder and her stated intention to plead guilty, she felt she was closing a door to the danger of that revelation; at least once she was sentenced.

However the dream seemed to be warning her otherwise. In the dream Alan and Sandy were talking, exchanging the name Vincent Mark Bassingham and saying they would trace this person, at least Sandy was, planning to use DNA to confirm the link to other family members.

Last night, in her dream, she had heard Sandy whispering to Alan, who is Vincent Mark Bassingham. He is the key, if we can trace him we can find the true Mark. She felt strongly Sandy’s desire to get to the real story, the why.

In their minds they were doing this to help her. She understood this logic, stated as, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set ye free,” that Biblical line from her Presbyterian Sunday School.

But for Susan this truth was not freedom, but a whispered secret. Its retelling would become all that anyone knew of this case, its memory would follow on for decades.

It was already sensational enough; it did not bear thinking about how a new revelation would play out. While she had previously considered the option to plead self-defence, reveal about Mark, and then once released to vanish under a new name, she knew this would be easier said than done. In this IT age true disappearance was extraordinarily hard, particularly when she wanted to still have her own family and friends, the people her child would need as a growing boy.

But most of all she would not go there because it was fundamentally disloyal to Mark, it would turn him into a monster when the truth was much more complex. She was glad he was the father of her child; she did not believe he was evil absolute; she had glimpsed and tasted goodness at his centre, despite all. But that story would never be told in the court of public opinion. So she would not allow his identity and person to be treated that way.

In the dream Alan was trying to revisit all the other information about Susan and Mark and see if any of it would give more clues to who Mark was and why Susan had killed him. He was poring over records he had tracked down about Mark and in the process had got Susan’s mobile number, the SIM card she had bought in Cairns.

It was funny that no one had ever gone digging into this before; but then, once they had made her identification all those other minor details were ignored as extraneous. From this dream she understood that Alan had been taken off the case, but Sandy was stepping into the breach. So they were still working together and exchanging information.

She could sense Alan’s frustration. He was hamstrung by other work, he had little time to use, plus his boss had told him to drop it, the case against her was open and shut, that no one else cared about the why, it was only guilt that mattered.

Susan wished that Alan would just drop it like the rest. But she also understood it from his point of view; he saw an injustice happening and was trying to prevent it. In part it was that because he had first uncovered the murder he felt obligated to have the whole truth told. At the same time he also thought he was helping her.

At the time she had met him on the aeroplane she had willed him to help her like this. But that was when her mind was in a mess. Now she saw clearly that Mark’s secret must stay hidden. She wished she had not encouraged him, but she had. So now she must think of a way to prevent his desire for truth from succeeding.

In the dream Alan had linked a number on Marks phone to her, and following from that was now tracing all the calls she had made. The only item of concern was the text to Anne and Anne’s reply.

As she woke from the dream she realised she had to find a diversion to throw them off track of tracing this, to make them feel they had another better lead to follow and to put their time into that. The name Vincent Mark Bassingham kept coming into her brain. They had the name and would follow it, like a bloodhound on a scent.

At first this idea had filled her with fear. Then it dawned on her. Let them follow it; it was the name of a child of twenty years ago, a boy abused by his father who had run away. The story of the child was all this name would tell. So there would be family information about the child to run down, it would take a while to find, but the adult would not be there. As best she could understand it was only after Mark went to the Middle East, when he was about twenty, that the callous and wanton killing begun. Revelation of that Mark was what terrified her. By then he was a man who worked under other names and took great care to hide his true identity. So the child was not the man, nor the man the child.

She must throw a false trail, one that seems to lead somewhere but actually lead away, where the sum of a month or two of investigation would be zero. They would know the real identity, know a bit about his difficult childhood perhaps, things that would bring sympathy, but then it would all vanish.

He would be someone who had changed his identity because of an abusive father, and had made a new life in the NT under names based on his middle name and initials, not so remarkable really. It would feed the gossip mills for a day or two and then would become yesterday’s story. Beside this old identity the new one would fade. The police would stop using the name Mark and just call him Vincent. She would admit to Vincent’s murder.

It would serve the purpose of occupying a month or two of official time, seen as doing an important job in getting to the bottom of this mystery. By the time they had got to the ends of this, to where this trail led, the time to investigate would have passed; she would have been convicted and sentenced. She would be one of many prisoners serving out their time, soon forgotten as public attention and police investigations moved on to new juicy stories.

So that is what she would do. She would give them the name they were seeking, send them off following this trail, all the while letting the story she was protecting slide away.

But she must be careful. Sandy was clever. In the same way she could glimpse parts of Sandy’s mind, Sandy could do so with her. It was a cat and mouse game, throw bait one way for the cat to pounce on while you quietly crept off in a different direction.

She wished it was a guilt free and painless process. She liked Sandy, Sandy could be her friend, she would gladly accept any friendship offered. It was the same for Alan and Buck. Yet here she was, acting out a role for their apparent benefit, which had the purpose of deceiving them. She did not feel good about herself. The old, decent Susan was slowly sliding away, replaced by a manipulating and conniving actress.

In trying to hide the true Mark, she had become a shadow figure of her former self, now she was the great dissembler, the one who showed people a face they wanted to believe in and then used all her tricks to make it seem true. That was the face of the Mark she had discovered. Now she had become him, a person trapped by bad decisions and poor choices into perpetual dishonesty.

The only person who had seen through this was Vic, on that day when he had refused to accept her meaningless answers. Now he was gone too and she was left alone, ever and always alone, in an empty place.

 

 

 

Chapter 12 – The Children and the Crocodile Stone

 

Two days after Sandy visited Susan was notified of a doctor coming to visit her and examine her baby. Sandy arranged this visit; the doctor was someone she had met through medical circles.

Susan was unsure, but in the end agreed, thinking it was not about her comfort, it was insurance that her baby got the best treatment. Once she had met the person she could decide on what to do and how to pay.

At 10 am she was escorted to the visitor’s room to meet the doctor, Christine something, a gynaecologist who had qualified last year and joined a busy practice at Darwin Private Hospital. This doctors’ formal role was unclear as she normally saw private patients not prisoners and had only made these arrangements as a favour to Sandy.

As Susan came in a pleasant lady in her early thirties rose to greet her. Susan liked her instantly, the no nonsense professional competence, and a ready smile.

She had a portable ultrasound machine which she plugged into the power in the visitors room. She asked Susan to liey down on a towel on the table and checked her carefully by palpation and ultrasound. She soon had a picture of her baby on a laptop screen attached to the ultrasound. Then she asked Susan if she wanted to know the sex?

Susan nodded.

“As best I can tell it is a girl, you will have a beautiful daughter.”

Susan was thrown; she was so sure it would be a boy. She asked, “Are you sure? I was certain it was a boy.”

Christine reworked the image, zooming in on the child again and going to the lower body. “Well it is hard to be 100% at this stage, between five and six months, but it is pretty clear. You can see the place and there is nothing there where the penis and testicles should be. It seems a bit small for your date and how big your tummy is. I think we should run a few tests just to confirm everything is OK, bring you in to hospital for a day next week to check it out more thoroughly.”

Susan nodded, not wanting to take a chance with the health of her child. They discussed the tests for next week. Christine left the ultrasound head resting on Susan’s belly, the laptop screen facing her.

There was a movement. Something that looked like a leg zoomed into view, showing a tiny foot with five toes. It seemed to come from a different place than from the baby they had been looking at. Susan pointed, open mouthed. Christine’s eyes followed her finger.

“Oh my God, that leg does not belong to the child we have been looking at. There is a second baby.”

After five minutes of further checking it was clear, there were twins, a boy and girl. Now the sizes were right.

Christine finished a few minutes later. Susan said she had some cash to pay her for today, but would need to work out how to pay for future treatment. Christine waved her aside. “Plenty of time to sort that out later and Sandy told me she would pay if needed.

“First things first! With two babies there are extra risks. I need to have you come in to hospital next week for more tests. I will arrange it with the prison authorities.”

The hospital visit was booked for the next Monday. A prison van would take her and she would be escorted by a warder for the day. Not that she was considered a significant risk, having returned to Australia voluntarily, but appearances must be maintained.

Susan woke early on the Monday, feeling an eager anticipation to leave her cell and walk in the open air. It was the first time she had left this place since her court appearance over six weeks ago. That seemed like an eternity ago. She walked outside in handcuffs acutely aware of the shame of being treated like a wild animal.

Someone must have tipped off the press. Several journalists and camera men were gathered in the car park, long telephoto lenses pointing her way, trying to get her picture. Her protruding stomach was there for all to see as she walked the few steps from the prison door to the waiting van. She was whisked away, glad to be hidden inside the van’s windowless sides.

It was a day of waiting between different tests and procedures, enclosed in a locked room on a high floor. At least there was a TV she could watch, her first real taste of the happenings in the outside world since her arrest in England.

In between procedures she sat with her eyes glued to the TV. The morning passed slowly, a rolling rotation of chat shows and soap operas. The midday news came on. She felt disconnected from it all and was inclined to flick back to a soap opera. There was too much pain and longing as she watched normal people go about their real everyday business.

She was about to flick the channel button when she saw a headline.

“Remnants of missing helicopter found.” Now the TV had her full attention. The report was to the point. A fishing trawler picked up some refuse floating in the water about 100 kilometres west of Darwin yesterday and brought it to port last night. This morning experts from the Department of Aviation confirmed that it appeared to be an extensively damaged fuel tank of a Bell 47 helicopter.

The reporter stated, “It is likely to have come from missing helicopter of Vikram Campbell, whereabouts unknown since 30th December. It is considered most likely to have been washed out to sea from the rivers of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf following the cyclone in that area in the days after Mr Campbell’s disappearance. A new search of this area for any other crash evidence will commence tomorrow.”

Susan felt profoundly depressed. She had had a little hope before, despite Buck’s optimistic unwillingness to concede the likely; but now her hope was extinguished. The helicopter really had crashed and with this damage which had broken the machine apart, the outcome was obvious. She knew they must go through the formalities of the search but there would be no happy ending, even if further wreckage was found. It just reinforced her determination to keep on the path she was following. She sat there musing on the way her life was going, drifting further and further into darkness.

Suddenly her own image on the TV pulled her attention back. It was her, at least a telephoto image of her taken this morning; a woman with a bloated belly walking the few steps to the prison van. Now she turned her attention in to the sound.

“Breaking News, Crocodile Man’s lover and alleged murderer was taken to Darwin Hospital this morning for medical tests to confirm her pregnancy. Is Crocodile Man the father of her child?”

She remembered the grainy images seen of Lindy Chamberlain’s pregnancy, replayed from when Lindy was in prison and the awful speculation that had gone with it, all the Devil child rubbish. Was that to be her fate – mother of another devil child? Susan wished she had just stayed in prison and let the prison doctor deal with her.

She just wanted to return from this hostile place to her cage again; it kept the outside away. It was better to be alone than to have to watch this feeding frenzy as the public took delight in the news of one tragedy after another.

She realised her mind was slowly being refilled with the missing crocodile spirit, she had left the crocodile stone in her cell, and with it her defence was gone. So now, as the day wore on, she could feel it pushing and insinuating its way back into her mind.

She realised she did not care anymore. It was easier this way, lost in a mindless oblivion. As she let the crocodile spirit take her she again felt Mark’s presence, he seemed real again inside her mind. She had missed him so much and here he still was. In her search for freedom all she had found was an empty place where nothing and no one lived. Here, in her mind, she had a companion again, and it had less power to hurt her than what lay outside.

Suddenly she was glad she was carrying two children. They could continue her life, and Mark’s, in the outside world. They would be company for one another and grow up strong and healthy, with no taint from this past. Her parents would take good care of them.

And when they left her she would say goodbye. Not just goodbye to them until she saw them next, but a final goodbye to them and her parents, and all that this awful life had dealt her.

It was simple, she would leave this world. She would write a simple will and ask that they put her body in the ground next to what was left of Mark’s, she would return to him and, as two crocodile spirits together, they would watch from afar. That was as close to heaven as either of them could get and it would have to be enough.

 

 

 

Chapter 13 – Return to London

 

Anne found the return flight to London to be like a poignant time warp. She was leaving a place of heat, humidity and relentless anxiety, the watching of her best friend’s life as it disintegrated, the trying not to get drawn into another relationship, the anxiety about keeping her job and how to deal with her increasing pile of undone work in London. Now she was leaving all that behind and returning to her home, her flat, her network of friends, her family, and the ability to rescue her job and make sense of that undone work.

She should be feeling relief and excitement at her return. Instead she felt strangely let down and empty, as if she had moved her centre of existence to the other side of the world; that London was the unreal artefact and the Darwin hotel room was permanency.

It was not that she was not looking forward to seeing her family and friends again, or having her own things in her own place, or even creating order from the chaos she knew would await her at work. She was, and yet. And yet it was as if the centre of gravity in her world had shifted to a previously unknown and unimagined place.

It was not just David and Susan and their lives there, though that was definitely a part of it. It was that a part of her, a part that she did not know existed before, had been captured by the spirit of the place. It was about identification. She, the quintessentially English girl now felt that part of her soul lived across the sea in that other strange harsh land. It was a far less pleasant place to live than her home, but it was there, and it was in her now.

However she must park this nostalgia for now and knuckle down to do all the things that her life in London demanded of her. She had promised to ring David at least once each week and she suspected it may be even more often.

It was midday Sunday before she cleared the airport, then came back to her flat for a couple hours of creating order before dinner with her family out in Reading. They were not quite neighbours to Susan’s family, but near enough; that was where the friendship at school had begun. She did not stay late after dinner but headed back to town, knowing she must be up early for work in the morning. Her jet lag was not too bad thanks to the business class seat that David had bought her.

A week flew by; it was so full on that she barely knew where time went. The second week she started to catch up with social friends, all anxious for the news, both of her and Susan. It was hard to tell them much but she soon realised that their interest and understanding were pretty superficial, they were busy with their own lives here.

She and David had taken to calling each other in alternate turns, mostly every second or third day. It was wonderful to hear his voice and she always felt like she was walking on air after she put down the phone; they both had plenty and nothing in particular to talk about, but what both most wanted was to hear the other’s voice.

While neither quite said it, since Sydney they had transitioned into something more than friends. One day, in the second week after she was back, she had expected him to call and he did not. She slept fitfully that night and finally next morning, early, she rang, knowing it was evening now in Australia. He picked up immediately and she asked if he was okay; she could feel something in his voice that said otherwise.

He told her about his visit to see Susan the previous day, and how she had broken off the engagement. He told her the full story, including Susan forcing his agreement, that it be a joint decision to end it. He said, “It is funny, I have known since before Christmas it was inevitable, I even told my Mum that and she agreed. And yet, when she said it and made me agree, I felt so gutted.

“It was as if I was finally forced to confront what I should have always known, that despite my dream of perfection with her, it would never be, perhaps could never have been. It is like we are souls who at one level were pulled together, but at another level were never quite fashioned to fit together. That does not mean that I did not love her, a part of me will always be a bit captured by something in her, but yet I have had to face the fact that it could never be, and it was somehow bad for us both to try and make it so.

“So today I can look at it with something approaching equanimity, but yesterday it was far too raw even to say it to you. I just needed time to grieve alone; today I can talk of it.”

Anne replied, “When I saw her that week in Darwin Susan told me something similar. She said that deep inside she knew from the outset that it was not meant to work, but yet there was a pull of attraction that drew you together, at least for a time. With her, too, she said it seemed like an idea of perfection, but it was a dream of perfection that was not real. But it still hurt a lot to break it for her too.

“So I am glad you have both reached a similar place. She is still my best friend. I hope you and she can stay friends too.”

David said, “Of course, we will always be more than best friends; far too much has passed between us to ever be less. But now I can see clearly that the other is over and we can both move on with separate lives. That is a good thing for us both.

“Speaking of which, how soon can you come back out to Australia, I can’t wait to see you again.”

She replied, “David I am not yet back in London for a fortnight, I have almost caught up on my work by working until ten most nights. I have just broached the need to be back in Australia in just over a month for Susan’s trial, and my work has reluctantly agreed to give me a fortnight for that. So that is the best I can do. But, like you, I find myself impatient even though that fortnight is hardly likely to be a bundle of joy.”

He said, “OK, tell me your dates, I will book your flights and be there to meet you as you step off the plane.”

 

 

 

Chapter 14 – Finding Vincent Marco Bassingham

 

Sandy pushed on with her work of locating the real Mark.

First she double checked the two other names. Neither was obviously false, they had a trail of sorts but after following both back a few years they rapidly descended into mush, and in both cases they were common names with far too many people to trace. So, without a known birth location, it was hard to run them to ground quickly.

So she began work on tracing a Vincent Bassingham. Unfortunately the registries of earlier births, deaths and marriages in each state were not fully computerised. So she would need to do some manual leg work. Each state had its own system along with the Northern Territory, so that meant potentially up to seven state administrations and systems to deal with, and in her experience requests coming from the Northern Territory did not get top billing.

That would mean phone calls to clerks and registries to seek cooperation and stress the priority. If she had a real age for Mark that would help but the two licenses gave ages almost three years apart. So she suspected that she needed to cover a fair range to ensure she did not miss out. She also was not fully sure of name spellings, it was a verbal construct from Susan, though Buck had glimpsed a written name, but was not completely certain. The best help was that the surname, including a range of variants, was reasonably uncommon.

She decided to start in Brisbane with the Queensland register, based on Susan’s story of an uncle there. That drew a blank, in both the regular name version and the likely variants. NSW drew another blank, as did Victoria. She was feeling perplexed, she had been fairly certain it would be one of these three most populous states that would provide some clues to Mark’s identity and background.

She worked her way fully around the country, everywhere except the NT; somehow the idea of him being born here never occurred to her. Two of her precious weeks had passed and she was feeling frustrated.

She went to visit Susan each week and told her of her progress or lack thereof. She was worried about Susan. She had read about her visit to the hospital in the NT papers and seen it on the news. They had even found out somehow she was expecting twins. She got a taste of the vile speculation that was doing the rounds, particularly from internet trolls – kill the bitch, feed her to the crocodiles, cut out her babies and watch the crocodiles jump.

Sandy felt ashamed at what some people could do with all this stuff and was glad that most had passed Susan by. She, herself, would have preferred not to know, but she was using all the tools at her disposal, including her own internet searches. It was surprising how much of this rubbish came up in her searches.

The warders had now taken to bringing Sandy direct to Susan’s cell to visit and this gave her an insight into just how desolate Susan’s life was. Her sense of Susan as an actress who turned on and off performances had grown much stronger; the Susan she found here was a much diminished person, a much better fit to her former mental image of her. There was a worrying lethargy and fatalism about Susan, as if she had resigned herself to what was coming and had given up trying.

As Sandy came in she would see Susan pick up that flattened oval crocodile stone, the one that Charlie had told her about, to keep the evil crocodile spirit out of her mind. If it worked she wondered why Susan did not keep it with her all the time, put it in her pocket or something like that. That seemed to be the way she used it when she first met her, and Susan had been a lot sharper then.

Now, when she first arrived, Susan seemed to be completely spaced out, her mind lost in another place. It would take a few minutes before any glimpse of that other person, the original Susan, was visible. Her answers were often vague and woolly, “Yes if you think so”, or “Whatever you think, I don’t know”. So different from the person with the razor sharp mind that Sandy had first met. Sometimes flashes of the old Susan returned, sometimes they would laugh together till their sides hurt at the silliest things, and Susan was always much better after this.

She tried to get Susan to tell her about her feelings and got occasional insights. On the last visit Susan had told her about that day in hospital, at first feeling excited to discover she had twins, and leaving the prison.

Then how it all collapsed on seeing the lunch time TV news, the first TV she had seen in months.

She told her how the first news item was about the wreckage of the helicopter crash which meant that Vic was really dead. Susan said it with such a flat, despairing finality that it broke Sandy’s heart, such a palpable feeling of emptiness and desolation flowed out of her. Sandy wondered why it upset her so much when she barely knew this man. But then he was a real friend of Mark’s; perhaps that was it.

Then Susan told of seeing her own self on TV, her fat bloated belly in telephoto view. She said it felt just like the photos she had seen of Lindy Chamberlain, when everyone was saying it was the Devil’s Child, only now they were saying the “She Devil’s Children”, and making sick jokes that her babies were not human but crocodilian.

It was such an excruciating description of a visit which Sandy had hoped would be an escape from the dreariness of this place.

Susan finished the story by saying that at least it would be over soon, her babies would be born and have each other, and her parents, and wouldn’t need her any more, and she would be able to escape all this. There was a chilling finality to this statement; it felt like a suicide note.

Now today was Sandy’s fourth visit, meaning three weeks had passed since she first came. It was now only a fortnight until the trial date. There was a pre-trial conference next week when the lawyers would meet with Sandy one day to discuss preparations for the case and then with Susan the next day to discuss how it would all run.

As she walked up to the prison Sandy ran through how the case was unfolding in her mind.

She had heard that Susan had not employed any defence counsel; she refused all offers saying she was pleading guilty and could speak for herself; she did not need others to say the words on her behalf. Everyone else was deeply uncomfortable about the way events were shaping; even the prosecution did not like it even though it made their work easy. Public opinion was starting to swing behind Susan and suggest the investigation was incompetent as they had not come up with a better reason than what was currently being put forward, a lovers tiff gone wrong.

All thinking people knew it did not make sense. It was too out of character; it was portrayed as too planned and calculated, and her total unwillingness to make any defence as to why, was incomprehensible.

But Sandy knew Susan just wanted it over and the prosecution wanted it wrapped up, their case was solid and the public opinion would pass once the trial was out of the news. So the trial would proceed as scheduled.

Even though Sandy saw a problem with Mark’s dual identity, neither the prosecution nor Susan was overly concerned, there was a real person, his name was Mark, and they had a body, so it was murder. Investigations about the correct name could take their own course.

The one fly in the ointment was an independent barrister who was advocating for a parliamentary or judicial inquiry, seeking a full and proper investigation into the identity of the victim if the police or prosecution would not do it before the case went to trial.

Sandy half wondered if this was being done as a delaying tactic by Susan’s friends or family to try and buy some space. She half wished it would succeed as she really wanted more time. She knew that both David, Susan’s former fiancée, and her best friend Anne were flying in to Darwin again this weekend and wondered if either of them had had a hand in this advocacy.

Now, today, when Sandy visited, Susan was different. She had washed her face, done her hair and put on a pretty dress, one which was loose enough to diminish her pregnant look. And she was smiling brightly and gave Sandy a hug and cheek kiss as she came in.

Sandy should have been delighted but instead her alarm radar went into the red alert zone, though she tried to give no clue about her concern.

Once Sandy sat down they talked about who the real Mark could be, and any lines of investigation they could follow to get to the real person. Susan said she had been wracking her brain for any other clues from her time with Mark, and had wondered about two things; could he have been born and lived as a small child in the NT, and could he have been born or perhaps lived for a time as a small child in either London or Italy.

Sandy agreed these were definitely lines of inquiry worth pursuing. The other suggestion that Susan made was that she was almost sure that Mark’s fathers name was Vincent Bassingham, she said that Mark had told her this, it was part of his unwillingness to take his father’s name at school. So could they try and trace the father and work it out that way instead, try and find a birth or marriage certificate for a man by that name. It was all eminently sensible and Sandy agreed to get on to it.

But suddenly Sandy saw, with a shocking clarity, that the difference in Susan was all a ruse. Previously she had had a vague unformed suspicion that Susan was steering her. Now she knew it with certainty. She glimpsed a gloating place in Susan’s mind as she took up these ideas. She saw that Susan was directing her to these places and was now secretly gleeful that she had taken the bait.

She tried to pull her mind back from her desire to look into Susan’s mind, this was danger. If she could see what Susan was thinking then it would probably be the same in reverse. In a split second she saw it in Susan’s eyes, fear of overreach that she had let Sandy see.

Now Susan was subtly backpedalling, “Perhaps that is a silly idea after all – it is not really so important to know who Mark was.”

It was such a subtle and skilful seduction, a piece of consummate acting, that anyone who had not had Sandy’s insights into the way Susan’s mind worked would have missed it. But now she knew and Susan knew she knew.

Sandy decided she had to think on this. Tonight she must talk about this with Alan. She started to pack up to leave. Now Susan wanted to keep her, wanted to keep her talking, break the link of the insight from its importance.

Sandy sensed a desperation she had not sighted before. Susan was really desperate to hide something, something about Mark. She let these thoughts wash through her mind like an unconscious flow, making no attempt to trap and catch them, hoping that without formed intent Susan could see no more of her own thoughts and plans.

She forced herself to give Susan her full attention and felt her affection for this girl flooding back. Despite the deception there was such goodness here, a simple and decent person who needed all the help she could get. Spontaneously she came over to her and hugged her. “I am so glad you seem to be a bit better today.”

Susan hugged her back, feeding on her warmth, opening her mind to Sandy unconsciously.

In a split second, within that warmth Sandy saw the outline of a dark and terrible secret which she knew with certainty was the real reason for all this. She tried to let it wash through her mind as if unnoticed.

Susan had a future planned which ended almost as soon as her children were born. She would give her children to her parents to care for, safe in the knowledge that they would have each other and be well cared for. And then, once they were safely home in England, Susan would end her life and go to join her crocodile spirit partner. There was a joy in this inside Susan that she was incapable of hiding and it chilled Sandy to the bone, though she must not let it be seen.

That night she and Alan talked it through. Alan was finished his surveillance operation and now had a couple days in the office to clean up paperwork before starting on a significant new case next week. However this work was not urgent and he thought it could be deferred for at least a couple weeks. He also knew his time would be in demand next week as the trial approached, going through evidence, lawyers meetings, polishing all the statements that he and others would put before he court. He thought it was a complete waste of time, certain that Susan would make a guilty plea.

But the crown prosecutor had pointed out that plenty of people had changed their plea, even five minutes before they stood in the court and that was a right available to all. So they must assume that it would be a full jury trial and prepare accordingly, expect to have all the evidence contested. If it did not end that way well, that was a bonus.

So Alan knew he would have some time, but not a lot, to help Sandy pursue the identity question. Sandy also wanted him not to be fully drawn into this path, she knew that this was what Susan intended; enough attention to get the true identity of Mark at the eleventh hour just before they stood up in court, closing off that issue but leaving no time to pursue anything else.

They decided they would both put maximum effort into this next week and then Alan would try and find a couple days to pursue leads relating to Mark’s life since he had come to the NT, because they suspected this was what they were being steered away from.

He would try and focus on the part of Mark and Susan’s trip life between Barkly Homestead and Timber Creek, particularly after the day flying in the helicopter with Vic. That seemed to be the part where something had arisen in their relationship or Susan had gained knowledge that had led to the murder.

He knew that was a wishful guess, but he must try and find a door to open. He knew he could not revisit the whole of Mark and Susan’s two week trip looking for a new clue, and therefore he must start in the closest part, the last 3 or 4 days. From his initial meeting with Vic he knew the date of their helicopter flight in the Gulf, there had been no shadows that Vic had seen in the sky then and he was pretty sharp.

Vic had said they were heading on for Seven Emus and Borroloola the next day, and then the day after they had come across to VRD. Buck had given him that date and also the details that the previous night they had stayed in Heartbreak Hotel along with brief stop overs in Daly Waters and Top Springs.

So he would try to get to all those places, just in case there was something important at one of them. If that trawled nothing then, after the trial and before sentencing, which he knew would be deferred; he would try and close out the other loose ends. Particularly he would try for Katherine connections, after all the Mark Butler identity seemed to be centred there.

But this next week both he and Sandy would put maximum effort into working out who Vincent Mark Bassingham was, or whatever the hell his name was.

So Alan used his two days to get all his other affairs in order and start making discreet inquiries about what contacts Mark might have had in the Gulf or VRD. First he rang Buck to update him, seeking any insights he had about people worth talking to out his way.

Buck had a several suggestions but no strong leads and his ideas of who else might know more about Mark were spread all over the Northen Territory and the Kimberley region. Mark had done a lot of work in over in north Western Australia, on Argyle Diamond Mine as well as at stations and some dude lodge up around the Mitchell Plateau. He had also worked on the aboriginal communities out towards the Tanami, Hooker Creek was one. And yes he was good mates with one Michael Riley, publican at the Top Springs Hotel, a mad Irishman if ever there was one and a bit fey; even his guesses would be worth listening to, that’s what Buck’s sixth sense said.

So in the end Alan and Buck both concluded that the rest were too scattered and these places had not been on Mark and Susan’s trip, but that the man from Top Springs was worth talking to.

When Alan mentioned the name to Sandy she said, “That is funny, I am sure I saw that name in the log of visitors that Susan had. We each write our name in a book each time we visit and there have not been many visitors, so the name sort of stuck out when I looked at it as someone I did not know.”

Alan had already talked to the publicans at Daly Waters and at Heartbreak Hotel, he doubted he would get more there, though now his focus was different so who knew. But he had never worked on the trip from Redbank Mine to Heartbreak in the Gulf, with likely stopovers at Borroloola and Seven Emus. So he would follow up these; a visit in person would be best.

If he could crack a whip he reckoned he could cover the ground in three days. He tried to think how he could slot it in. Trouble was the pre-trial conference was next Wednesday, he had a lot of work to do getting ready for that and on running down the identity angle before then. The trial proper started the following Tuesday, meaning he had to be back in town for the Monday in time for final barrister meetings and all the last minute pre-trial work. That left a four day window, but then he ruled out the Thursday knowing that he would have follow up work to do after the first pre-trial meeting. So that left the Friday and the weekend.

He hated giving up his weekends with Sandy, and he and she had both been busy lately leaving little time for play, and he really wanted to play some more – with her!

Then it came to him, why should she not come with him, they were both working on this case together. Plus, so often their shared insights were much better than what just one or the other would see.

He picked up the phone and rang through. “Fancy a trip to the VRD and Gulf next weekend, leave Friday early and back Sunday, probably late. I am trying to backtrack and trace the trip Susan and Mark made; there must be a clue somewhere. I have yet to clear it with my boss but think I can swing it.

“He is starting to feel the political heat from Susan, he called her “Saint Susan” this morning and said he was scared they would canonise her next week before they burnt her at the stake for murder the week after, “a sort of Joan of Arc trick” was how he described it. So he is getting a bit desperate for something better than what we have now as an explanation, the “why did a nice girl suddenly go crazy” question”.

Sandy said, “Shut up and stop talking. I know you just want a weekend away with me, and a real dirty weekend in the bush beckons, what could be better. Count me in.” With that she clicked the phone off with a lascivious smile on her face. Her colleague, across the bench, looked at her with surprise and she flushed bright red.

Sandy set to work following up the suggestions that Susan had given her yesterday about trying to locate the real Mark. She could have kicked herself for having ignored the NT as a birth place and the English and Italian connections were definitely worth following.

In half an hour she rang Alan back, her hands were shaking. “I can’t believe I missed it. He was born in Darwin, his birthday is November 3rd so he is a Scorpio, and he would have been 34 years old this November gone if he was alive.

“I have a birth certificate for a Vincent Marco Bassingham. His parents are listed as migrants, English migrants, though the mother’s nationality is listed as Italian. They are mother, Rosalie Adriana Moretti, father Vincent Bassingham, no middle name.

“So it suggests we have our man, though I suspect they did not live here in Darwin long. Now we have to try and work out where they lived after that.

“I need to visit Susan to see if she can give me anything Mark told her about the mother. I am almost sure he told Susan that she committed suicide. There was also a suggestion that the police wanted to lay charges against her husband for beating her up, and there may have been other violent incidents where he was charged. So there may be some police records in this name.

“How about you try and pursue these and I will try and find out where the mother died. It should not be too hard if I can get an approximate date of death, even if we don’t know where. Death certificates are pretty reliable and ones from that era are computerised across Australia now.

“So once I can pin it down to a year or two it should only take half an hour.

“Bye and love, and don’t forget about our weekend away. I can’t wait to get you down and dirty in the real bush. I want to find out whether there is a real bushie lurking in there or just an Akubra wearing city slicker.” Sandy felt herself flush red again as she clicked off the phone and looked up, her work mate was looking curious again.

By the Friday afternoon Sandy had all the pieces together; she had found a real Vincent Marco Bassingham who had vanished from remand school when thirteen only to turn up a couple times over the next five years in slightly suspicious circumstances by being linked to deaths of other unsavoury people he had worked with but with no real evidence of his involvement, just a couple notes on files of a suspicion. Then he had faded from view fifteen years ago.

She had also tracked down the family, she had a death certificate for Mark’s mother in Melbourne when he was seven, there was a charge of assault for the father from ten years ago in the same city which was dropped when the victim refused to testify. They had located Rosalie’s own parents in Naples, Italy, both still alive though elderly. They had confirmed that she had a dead brother Marco, who had died in a tragic accident about a year before their Mark was born. They had also located another brother, Antonio who lived in Brisbane and had agreed to provide a DNA sample. They should have the results through next Monday in time for the pre-trial conference. Then they would know for definite whether they had their man, though it was 99 per cent certain in Sandy’s mind already.

She felt almost pumped as she walked out the office door on the Friday, at least until she thought of Susan. She was scheduled to meet Susan on Monday, usually it was on a Wednesday but it was early next week with the legal proceedings scheduled.

When she thought of Susan sitting alone in her cell, lost and defeated, resigned to a life in jail, probably already planning her suicide in just a couple months, it all seemed suddenly so pointless. Yes Sandy knew who the real Mark was.

He was Vincent Marco Bassingham, but so what.

It was what Susan had wanted, to waste a month of their time and divert attention.

But it was not what she, Sandy, wanted. She must keep fighting to save this silly girl, even if she did not want to be saved.

Sandy was assuaged by a terrible feeling of guilt. She saw herself listening to the radio in two or three months’ time, in that first month post natal. It was an announcement that Susan was dead and there were no suspicious circumstances, in other words suicide.

That was a post mortem she could never bring herself to do, never would she cut up this beautiful girl’s body.

Instead she would sit alone as someone else did. And she would know that irreconcilable guilt; that if she, in her cleverness, had not spotted the clues by the waterhole, then the case would have died right there and then. If this case died then a good person would still be alive and only a bad person would have died.

She took a deep breath. She could not go there. She understood now, suddenly and so clearly, Susan’s dilemma; bad choices could never be undone, and in the trying madness lay.

Well she would just have to work harder to try and make sure that there was another choice that was not bad, like all the ones she could see just now.

 

 

 

Chapter 15 – Just a Guilty Plea

 

Susan sat in a conference room with a prison officer by her side. Sitting opposite her was a barrister and solicitor for the prosecution. Sitting at one end of the table was Alan, as principle witness for the prosecution, though he was only there to clarify any evidence that was unclear and not to otherwise speak, or so it had been explained to her.

Actually she wished she could have a few minutes to talk to him alone. She had not seen him at close quarters since they spent a day sitting next to each other on the aeroplane that returned her to Australia. Not that she had anything specific to say, but she felt affection for him and knew he was trying his best for her despite her best endeavours to lead him and Sandy in the wrong direction. That was just a necessity, it was not personal, and she would have liked to exchange a few friendly words, friends that she could talk to were so few. But instead she turned her attention to the business at hand.

Everyone had tried to get her to retain counsel to represent her in the trial and she kept declining all their offers. In the end the judge had made a ruling that, while he would not appoint a counsel against her wishes, he would appoint a legal representative to act on the courts behalf and seek to protect her interests where feasible.

Susan did not care, she was just glad she had got to this place without further delay. It was nearly over and she wanted it to be over. Today was really just about confirming a few basic facts to save an argument over them in court. “To narrow the scope of what has to be determined during the trial,” was how the prosecution barrister had put it.

She nodded when someone laboriously explained it all for the umpteenth time.

“Yes I get that,” she said. “I don’t need you to keep repeating it and I am not clear why you are bothering when I have told you that, once I am able to enter a plea, I will stand up and state that I wish to plead guilty and at that stage it should all be over. So I struggle to see what this whole process is about.”

She saw the barrister from the other side, the man who would stand up to bury her on behalf of the state in six days’ time, roll his eyes in weary exasperation. “Nevertheless Miss McDonald, we are obliged to go through this process, to outline the evidence we will lead, just so there are no surprises, no suggestions that we have relied on information not provided to the defence in establishing your guilt.”

Susan rolled her eyes in return and replied in her own weary exasperation. “But you do not need to prove anything, I will simply admit to the truth of the key facts which you state. These are that I killed Mark Bennet, or rather I should now say, Vincent Marco Bassingham, by striking him on the head with a piece of wood, and then, as he lay on the ground, either dead or unconscious, I don’t know which, that I dragged his body to the edge of the billabong where it was taken and consumed by three large crocodiles which tore the body apart between them.”

Susan could see Alan’s eyebrows raised in surprise; the description of the multiple crocodiles and what they had done when he lay on the ground was a new admission, which she had deliberately made to forestall any discussion that might ensue about how the separated body parts arose. However no one else seemed to notice.

The barrister replied, “Yes, Miss McDonald, we know all that. Like us you have made your points before, but I need to go through the rest of the evidence we will lead.

“We will establish you met Mr Bassingham in Cairns where you went diving with him. We will establish you met him again after arriving in Alice Springs, that you travelled with him to Yulara and then on, over the next week and a half, to Timber Creek through a range of Northern Territory locations including the Barkly Roadhouse and Heartbreak Hotel. Do you agree to those facts?

“Yes,” said Susan, “I have already provided that in an amended statement to the police.”

“Then we will establish that you travelled on with him to the billabong on the Mary River where his body was found.”

Susan sat up and looked intently. This was something new she had not thought about. She asked, “How will you establish that? I have admitted to being with him at the Mary River on the morning of that Saturday in August when I killed him. I have made no admissions about how I got from Timber Creek to the billabong, so how do you propose to establish that?”

She continued, “I do not propose to admit that fact or otherwise as nothing turns on it. It is only relevant that I was at the location where he was killed, at the time he was killed, in order to establish that I could have killed him, and I have already admitted to that.

“So no, I will make no admissions of how I got from Timber Creek to the billabong, because it is not relevant. As far as I can see you have no evidence of how I got there. So I am sorry but I will not agree to that as evidence. You can contest it in court if you choose.”

She glanced to the end of the table where Alan sat. She saw him trying to maintain a poker face but with the edge of a smile creeping into his eyes. He was enjoying this. She had to admit she was too. It was a long time since she had used her brain in an intellectually challenging way. Perhaps the day in court would be more fun than she had thought.

Unfortunately the barrister on the other side seemed to lack a sense of humour and kept grinding away. Yes she agreed to all the facts relating to the murder that she had already admitted. Duh!

Now they moved on to what had happened after the murder.

The barrister droned on. “We will establish you set out to systematically hide the evidence of the murder. That you scraped blood stains away from the place where his body first lay and from where you dragged him to the water.”

Susan replied. “I don’t consider that it relevant to whether or not I murdered him, so I do not admit it however you can seek to prove it if you wish.”

The barrister continued “We will establish that you burnt all the items which belong to the victim to conceal his identity.”

Again Susan replied. “I don’t consider that it relevant to whether or not I murdered him, so I do not admit it however you can seek to prove it if you wish.”

The barrister continued. “We will establish that you removed and destroyed all the victim’s identity papers and other items which belonged to him, yourself or other persons unknown, and which may have provided a link between him, yourself and the murder site.”

As the barrister described persons unknown the four passports, which she had tried never to think of since that day, came bursting into her head, along with Marks diary.

Instinctively, before she had time to think, she shook her head. “No, that is not true.”

The barristers barely seemed to notice, but she saw Alan look at her sharply. She knew he had picked it up though he said nothing.

She clarified. “I don’t consider that it is relevant as to whether or not I murdered him, so I do not admit it. However, you can seek to prove it if you wish.”

After another half hour it was all done. It was really a waste of time but so be it. She would fight those items that she was not admitting, line by line on the day, a few they could prove, most they could not. It would help her get through what she knew would be a gruelling day, her trial date, as her parents and friends watched on.

It was OK here, it was just pretend blood sport, but in there it would be for real. She was pleased she had come here today rather than refusing to attend. It had toughened her up for the real thing when there would be a crowd baying for her blood and her parents and friends were watching it all in horror.

But she also knew that she had made a mistake, an admission which might provide a worm hole for that policeman, Alan, to burrow through. She thought he would be hard pushed to find anything on the basis of that little admission.

But she had as good as said there was still stuff she had not destroyed, that it was still out there to be found. Of course the finding would be much harder but it was not impossible. She was glad that nobody had thought to use sniffer dogs when they first searched the site. Even after a month or two they may have found the passports where she had buried them. Now, with the wet season rain, she knew that chance had passed.

Still she felt a grudging admiration for Alan; he was nothing if not sharp. She was no longer so sure that all her secrets would stay hidden. If they ever found the metal box with those things she had buried it would all be over.

 

 

 

Chapter 16 – David and Anne

 

David and Anne both flew into Darwin on the Sunday before the trial, though David had arrived on the lunch time flight and Anne did not get in until later in the afternoon. Anne had also talked to Susan parents and knew they had come two days earlier, though Tim had stayed at University knowing that there was little he could do for his sister.

Anne felt like a giddy school girl as the plane touched down, she could not believe her excitement at the prospect of seeing this man again. She felt almost disloyal to Susan for allowing David to dominate her mind, but then she knew Susan would be well pleased. She and Susan had exchanged two letters in the meantime and their friendship was as strong as ever.

Susan had specifically mentioned David in the last letter and wished her well when she met him on this trip. At the side of the writing she had placed little cryptic symbols and drawings of families and babies, as if to hint she should go for it. Anne herself had more or less decided to throw caution to the wind and let whatever would happen, happen.

She just hoped that David would not find it all too painful watching what unfolded with Susan. Anne had very low expectations about anything good coming out of the trial. She understood that sentencing would be delayed for a couple weeks to allow submissions to be made specifically on the punishment, the length of the custodial sentence. She had decided to put all her effort into this space, as she knew that nothing would change Susan’s mind on her guilty plea. But there was some hope that she could convince Susan to explain her fear, once the guilty conviction was made and this, along with character references, could be used to get a large reduction in sentence.

Anne waited; suppressed impatience mingled with nervousness, as everyone filed down the aisle of the plane and queued their way through customs. At last she was outside.

There was David, blue short sleeved shirt with muscular arms and tousled blond hair, gorgeous as ever. He was a bit slow spotting her as she was behind a bigger group.

She ran around them and flung herself into his arms. He let out a whoop of delight and picked her up and swung her around then planted a big kiss on her lips; it was more than a friend’s kiss.

They talked frenetically on the way to the hotel; he had booked them adjoining rooms. She went in and freshened up and then they went down for a drink and dinner. Finally with dinner, she felt obliged to turn the conversation to the serious business they were here for and they spent the next hour discussing all the ways they could approach it to try and improve what happened, whatever the outcome might be.

Anne was very tempted to tell him about the text from Susan all those months ago, but something held her back. Now with the wine she was beginning to feel sleepy, and realised that, with the frantic rush to pack and leave and the two short days on the flight, her time was all out of sync. It had been lovely in business class but she had not slept as well as last trip; a mix of anticipation and nervous anxiety that everything hung in the balance for Susan from here.

She felt a huge yawn come over her. David signed the chit for the bill and escorted her upstairs telling her she needed to get to bed and have a good night’s sleep.

Anne felt vaguely disappointed that the night had ended so soon but almost as soon as she lay down she fell into a deep sleep. She woke at 4 am feeling cold and wishing there was another warm body alongside her.

She thought, there is a warm body just next door, what am I waiting for?

There was a connecting door between their rooms. She tried it, it was unlocked.

She made out David’s shadowy outline in the bed. He was sleeping soundly. Part of her felt disappointed but another part was pleased to give him a surprise when he woke up. She cuddled in next to him, lay her head on his chest and fell into a dreamless sleep.

In the early morning light she woke and saw David lying there motionless and looking at her intently. “You are so beautiful,” he said, and gently stroked her hair as she pushed her face into him.

They did not make love then, but there was something nicer in their casual friendship and intimacy. As they got up to face the day she went into her room and carried her things into his.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she saw him watching her closely. “I just decided last night, when I woke by myself, that I wanted much more to be with you and was tired of stopping myself on account of anyone or anything else.

“So I figure we can both share this room though, if you really want to, we can keep the other room as well, just for appearances.”

David replied, “I am glad that’s how you feel, I have felt unsure how to be with you, wanting something much more than friends, yet being constrained by what has gone before and also by what Susan and I had, even though by the time I met you in Darwin last year it was really over. So I, like you, don’t feel inclined to waste time wishing for something when the alternative is to enjoy it now.”

Then Anne walked over and kissed him on the lips lightly before taking off her dressing gown and walking naked into the bathroom, giving her bottom a saucy wiggle as she closed the door part way, still leaving enough open so that he could watch her as she showered.

He looked at her. She caught his eye. She could sense his desire as she turned on the shower.

“Why don’t you come and join me, then we can wash each others’ backs” she said.

He came in alongside her, his erection throbbing.

She looked at it, bent down and kissed it, then took it into her mouth.

She looked up at him and said, “There is another part of me that needs to feel it more.”

He nodded, he had not spoken. He put his hands behind her thighs and lifted her up.

She felt it go all the way inside, it felt wonderful.

She said “Let’s stop messing around and go and fuck properly. I want you to fuck me as hard and long as you can. Then, when you are finished, I want you to do it all again. I am so horny to feel you moving inside me. Whatever else happens I want this part right now.”

The sex was better than they could have imagined and even on that first time they both came together. Soon they were doing it again and then they slept for another hour and did it again. About nine o’clock they decided they must have some breakfast and face the day.

Both felt good about what had happened and Anne told David what Susan had said.

David replied, “I think I am the luckiest man alive having had the two most gorgeous women in England. But after the second course I don’t want to go back to the first.”

Anne replied. “I don’t mind her coming before me. But she better not come after me or I will cut that thing off.” She said it with such ferocity that he believed she would.

They visited Susan after lunch and told her about themselves.

Susan seemed genuinely pleased. She said, “It is funny, but I knew, David, right from the first day you met Anne that she was my main danger with you, not a crocodile. At the time I was a little jealous of your instinctive reaction to Anne. It was like she and you had a deeper level of attraction than with us. I see now that is how it was meant to be. So, truth be told, I am really glad for you both, and not jealous, well not more than a tiny bit.”

She turned to Anne and giggled. “No little brother for you Anne, imagine that.”

Anne giggled back and soon the three of them were laughing then hugging together.

It felt good to them all that life had moved on, at least for that part.

Now Anne turned to Susan, totally serious and said, “What can we do to help, we are here at your disposal. Can I find a lawyer to represent you in court? I know you said you don’t want a lawyer, you can speak for yourself, and that is your right. But you having someone in your corner, watching that the other side acts fairly from a legal viewpoint; that could be useful.”

Susan laughed and said, “Actually I sort of have one; the judge has taken it into his own hands to appoint someone in that role. He sat in at the pre-trial conference last week. I could see his mind was sharp. I kinda liked him, he did not try to barge in when I was speaking. So, as long as he does not try and take over and change what I have to say, you can retain him on my behalf. His name is James Patterson. Just make it clear that I do not intend to change what I have already said. I am just asking the court to make its judgement on the facts. I am not asking for any deals or any special consideration.”

Then she turned to Anne and said, “Did you know I am going to have twins, a boy and a girl? My parents will adopt them once they are born and take them back to England to live with them and have a good life. They can give them a much better life than I could ever have. So I am glad it will soon be over.

“There is just one thing I would like to ask you both, whether you stay together or not. I would like to name them Anne and David, but with Marco as the middle name for the boy, and Rosalie as the girl’s middle name, Mark’s mother’s name. It would make me happy if you would agree to that. And I would like you to be their godparents, I daresay my parents will have them baptised in the local Presbyterian Church in Reading, so perhaps you could both go along and make your promises on my behalf, seeing I won’t be able to come.

Then, after, I would like you to be like and aunt and uncle to them and, if anything happens to my parents I would like you to take responsibility for their upbringing. You don’t have to adopt them but you must at least make sure they can stay together in a good happy family, well provided for. Could you agree to all that? It would help set my mind at rest for the future.”

They agreed. Susan could see it was heart wrenching for them both, it was forcing them to confront the future that lay before not only her but them all.

Then Susan turned to David and said, “David, you have been unbelievably good, kind and forgiving to me through all this. I am sorry for any hurt I have caused you and for not being more honest with you at the outset; it would have spared you this. I also want to thank your parents again for their kindness, I wrote to them in January but could you still pass on my thanks and how sorry I am that they also have had to endure this.”

David had tears glistening in his eyes as he replied, “I have never regretted a minute I spent with you and you have nothing to feel bad about in anything you have done towards me. And, of course, I would not have met Anne but for you.”

Then Susan turned to them both and said. “Thank you for visiting, you should now go and do what you have to do. I just can’t wait for it all to be over and to get out of this place forever. I am glad it won’t be much longer now.”

She said it with a bright and happy smile, like in a month or two she would walk out again into the bright sunshine and be free.

Inside Anne something quailed. Those were almost the same words one of her friends had used last year the day before she took her own life.

She walled off that thought, surely not that, there must be another way out. Now she felt really trapped. Should she break it all open, and tell all. But as she walked away she looked back at Susan’s desperate pleading eyes. It was a look into her soul that only she saw, and Anne knew she was still bound to Susan and there could be no good way tell Susan’s secret without betrayal of her friend.

 

 

 

Chapter 17 – The Bush Trip

 

It was Friday morning and Sandy felt really excited. A bush trip, just for the two of them! They were heading down to Timber Creek via Katherine today. Buck was putting them up at VRD tonight then tomorrow they would head east, stopping at Top Springs for morning tea, then Daly Waters and Heartbreak Hotel en route before Borroloola became their next night time destination, a long seven hundred kilometre drive. The following morning they would go further east to Seven Emus and meet the people there before the long, thousand plus kilometre, drive home to Darwin that night.

She knew it would be a lot of long and boring hours of driving and yet she could not wait to be gone, both to get a taste of the vast expanses of this land and to be with Alan, uninterrupted, for this time.

Normally they slept at her flat and used Alan’s as a store, even though his place was bigger and more comfortable. Alan said he liked all her girly things and all her smells, her scent in the bed particularly, it was a real turn on, and she liked him being turned on.

As a child no one ever told her that sex could be so much fun. So she had been a slow starter, but with him it was just so, so, delicious; she felt herself blush inside at the thought. Then she thought, we have 3 days away together and that is one thing there will be plenty off.

Last night they had slept in Alan’s flat. It was big and comfortable but a bit impersonal for her taste. Soon they must get rid of it and just keep the one place until they were married; it would help save their money. But they had come here because he kept his bush gear here, like his swag that he wanted to bring.

Now it was six thirty in the morning and she was fixing a quick breakfast while he shaved in the shower. He came out in his towel and swept her into a huge hug. Then his towel fell away. She saw his aroused body and before she knew it they were back in bed, even better than her randy thoughts over toast.

But now they really must be away, so they packed quickly and headed out. They took turns driving, both were Officers of the Crown, and legally authorised to do the trip. They made the six hundred kilometre trip to Timber Creek in time for a late lunch. They questioned everyone they could find who knew Mark, particularly any who had seen him and Susan together, but the pickings were slim.

Tanya, the main witness was gone, but Alan had met her briefly in Darwin before she left to return home and had her statement. It was good to see this place in person. He had sent an officer to investigate here and, even though he had seen photos, it was different seen with his own eyes.

He picked up and read Tanya’s statement again and looked at the photos. He worked out where Marks vehicle had been parked when Susan came out to it. He looked back to the pub from there. It was in clear view from the kitchen window, where Tanya said she was working, so that part added up, there was no reason not to believe it was as she described.

The way the vehicle had been parked, facing Katherine, meant the passenger door would have been facing her window. Tanya described how Mark got a pillow from the back of the car and propped in under Susan’s head before he walked around to his side and drove away, heading towards Katherine. So that was it, the last time anyone other than Susan had seen Mark alive.

Alan read back over the full statement again. Susan had come out a bit after 8 am yawning and looking very sleepy. She took out her phone, as if to check for messages, before she climbed into the car, then lay down on the seat and apparently fell asleep, Tanya saw her lie down and disappear from view. The car window was open so she could see clearly. While she did not watch Susan every minute she had not seen the door open or her sit up.

The next thing that happened was when Mark came out. Tanya was pretty sure of the time when Susan had come out; the morning news on the radio had just come on which meant 8 am. Mark’s time she was less sure about but she had finished serving breakfasts and was doing the washing up so it must have been around 9am.

It all fitted and it all seemed so idyllically normal, just how he could imagine he would have been with Sandy if she had fallen asleep. So what had happened to change it? The description of Susan checking her phone jangled in his brain, something he had never even noticed when he had read the statement before. Not that it was unusual, everyone checked messages these days, and the reception out here was limited.

But still it seemed a bit odd to be checking messages when half asleep first thing in the morning, unless of course one was expecting a message, but why? Perhaps she was seeking a confirmation of flight details or something similarly mundane. He shrugged, he would park that one for now though when Tanya came to Darwin next week to give evidence he must ask her more, dig for any little thing.

Speaking of which he must ring his boss in Darwin and give a quick update. He pulled out his phone, damn, just a flickering half bar of signal, not enough reception to ring from here. He walked along the road for fifty yards. Now the signal was better. He had two bars and the phone rang through.

They drove on to VRD station getting there in the late afternoon. There were only a couple people still working here who had met Mark and Susan on that night, apart for Buck and Julie, his wife, both of whose stories they already knew. Again slim pickings, though one person remembered that Mark and Susan had both gone to bed early pleading tiredness and how Mark had given Susan a very lascivious look as she was yawning, just before leaving, and she had gone bright red. But they had slept in separate rooms, because only dormitory bunks were free that night. That was it really.

Sandy and Alan also retired early after one of those friendly dinners in the kitchen with all the other station workers, presided over by Buck and Julie, plain station food but satisfying. An almost full crew was on hand as the mustering season was just about to start. They got their own room, with a full sized double bed, and made good use of it.

Alan and Buck were now fast friends, and Sandy could feel herself really getting to like Julie, even though she and Alan had only met her today for the first time.

They were away early next day, it was Top Springs first stop, and that was where things started to get interesting.

The barman Mike was still sweeping and mopping as they arrived. He finished up and wiped the sweat off his forehead with a dirty rag, it was already getting hot. He waved them inside to the bar, cool and inviting in the dim light.

Alan said, “I am the policeman who talked to you on the phone a couple days ago, Sergeant Alan Richards, and this is my partner Sandy.” They all shook hands.

Mike replied, “Yeah I remember, about my old mate, recently deceased, Mr Mark B.”

So they got to talking. It was a rambling tale, interspersed with side anecdotes of which there were many. Eventually it got to the point.

“Known Mark mebbe ten years; proper good bloke, but wild, with a mean and dangerous streak.”

“What do you mean dangerous?” asked Alan.

“Well, they tell me I am a bit fey, must be de Irish in me, came out as a young fella from the green land, and back dere tis always talk of spirits and divils, faeries and the like. So sometimes I see what ordnary folks doesn’t.

“Ever since I fust met Mark I could see a sort of divil sitting on his shoulder, not a proper divil, more like a bad spirit which filled an empty place inside him. Used to call it crocodile spirit, cos he always carried dat crocodile totem, sometimes touchin it like. But I could see it there, sort of in the shadow behind him. Some blackfellas from round dis way, dey could see it too. So, even before I see him do anything, I knew he was dangerous.

“Then there was the odd story to be told, ye know, bar talk, nuthin nobody had seen direct like, but how somebody knew somebody he had hurt bad, on account of when a man had tried to bully him and stuff like dat”

“He would pass through here a lot, more often than not with a pretty girl alongside. It used to be a joke, never the same one twice. Once or twice someone would ask why all different girls. He would say, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.’ You sorta got used to it after a while.

“He was a popular guy, always buy a drink for a mate, no job too hard for him and he worked like a Trojan. And he was good to the local blacks, would fix up houses, give dem meat, lend dem money if he thought it legit, though he was no soft touch.

“So we all sort of liked him and stuck by him. He was one of us, though nobody ever knew more about him than his first name. He introduced hisself as Mark, sometimes Mark B. I niver knew his proper name, though once I heard tell from a VRD ringer it was Mark Butler, said he sees it on a bit of paper.

“Anyhow one night Mark was drinking here, beers and rum chasers. We all had a bit, three other blokes in the bar, along with Mark and me. One fella was a fair tosser, big burly bloke, up from the south for a year or two, good bit bigger than Mark or the rest of us. He was always tellin how it was all done much better down there. Sometimes we would say if he loved it so much he should piss off back there.

“Well, after we had been drinking steadily for an hour or two, all good company like, this bloke turned to Mark and said, ‘What no girl tonight? Why do you keep changing them girls anyway? What do you do, root them, shoot them and chuck them in a hole?’ Then he laughed at his own joke, a sort of nasty laugh.

“There was a split second of dead quiet. I was watching Mark’s eyes and after it was said he had the most evil look I have ever seen, dead scary it was, like a cobra about to strike.

“So he picked up this guy’s beer, he always drunk from a glass like a true city slicker. Mark flings the beer in his face, and tips the rum over his head. Then he says, ‘Now shut yer fuckin mouth and don’t ever talk like that again. If you do I will kill you.’

“The guy fires up, ‘What you do that for? Can’t you take a joke?

“Mark points a finger at him and says. ‘Shut the fuck up. And if you don’t like it why don’t you just follow me outside?’

“Then Mark walks out and closes the door.

“This guy is bridling up, full of piss and bad manners, reckons he doesn’t need to cop shit like that, he was just makin a joke. He thinks it will be easy enough to sort Mark out as he’s got the size and fancies himself as a bit of a pub room fighter.

“We all tells him to calm down, not to fuck with Mark, but just be glad he didn’t get his teeth broken for the trouble. But he keeps firing himself up, muttering that he won’t cop that shit, he will show him.

“So, after a minute, he goes charging outside, yelling, “I am comin to git you, motherfucker.”

“We sort of ignored him, hoping Mark was gone and he would fall over in the dark and sober up for a minute. We heard a couple grunts but nothing much.

“After a while, maybe ten minutes, one of the other blokes, Fred, says, ‘Think I better check outside, just make sure all is fine.’ He goes out and a minute later he calls out ‘Jasus Fuckin Christ, Boys I need some help. Bring some light.’

“We goes out and finds the big fucker lying in the dirt, it looks like he had been hit by an express train, face is smashed pretty much to pulp, and he looks like shit, big ragged breaths like he could croak anytime. Of Mark there is no sign.

“So we call the flying doctor, air lift him out and the paramedic tells me it was touch and go. The face looked the worst, but he had several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a busted liver. Don’t know what Mark did but it was like he hit him with a sledgehammer a few times.

“Anyway the bloke gets better, goes back to Sydney with a slightly patched up face but not too much worse for wear. The rest of us decide that he got what was comin his way and say nuthin. And the guy is obviously not goin to complain lest Mark come and finish the job.

“Well, like I say, Mark is a dangerous man; we all sort of knew it before but after that the word got around our parts and you can be sure no one since tried to pick a fight with him on a dark night.”

Now that Mike had finished his tale he leaned back on the bar, pulled out a can of coke for them each and cracked his knuckles. “I guess you gets what I mean about dangerous, so.”

Alan nodded. Now Sandy spoke. Do you remember the day he came through with the girl, the one you visited in jail.

Mike turned to her with a grin, “Well, you are the sharp one, aren’t you. Now how did you be knowin dat?

Sandy grinned back, “Even a city slicker like me can read the name of Michael Riley in the prison visitor book.”

Mike continued, “Yeah, sure, I remember her well enough, she was somehow different, she really liked him, I could tell that from the start, not that it was so unusual, plenty really liked him, though for her maybe it was a bit deeper, serious like. But what was different was that he really liked her too, it was writ all over him.

“So we talked away for a good while and they had a feed, ye know, Mark and me tellin bush stories, all fine and dandy. Then, as they gets up to go, I had this real powerful vision of her being in great danger. That crocodile spirit, I sees it now, coming round to the front of him, like it was protecting him. I sensed that it wanted to attack her, even kill her. It was not him, Mark, but the bad spirit. He could not have harmed her; she was like the light in his life, but it had the power.

“I knew then there was danger for her and I tried to warn her. Not that I could say it clearly. And with that warning Mark got sort of protective of her and the spirit pulled back to behind him. Then I saw that while the danger was for her, there was something protecting her and it would turn the danger back on him.

“In that minute I knew he was not long for this world. I knew then that, in the next few days, a choice would come for him and her. One of them would have to go; the evil spirit would take its own. But now Mark had properly understood that this bad thing was coming. So I knew he would choose for her to live and him to die.

“There is one more thing I can tell you. Since that silly fucker said that thing about the girls and Mark, it got me thinking. Even though he was mouthing off it told me something.

“I think how Mark acted was saying it was at least part true. That bad spirit acted to protect its own that night by almost beating the life out of that man. Marks hands did it, no doubt, but what I saw in his eyes was not my friend Mark, it was like this pure evil beast that would keep its secret.

“It did not come to me straight out, but over months and years, the little pieces joining together in my head since that time when it happened, maybe two, three years ago. And then, on that day with Susan, it was like a war was happening inside him, a war between that beast and his better part. In the end I knew his better part would win, but only through letting the beast take him instead of her.

“So I went and tried to talk to her in jail, to tell her I knew what the good part of him wanted for her and it was not to end her life in jail to protect his name. But her love for him was too strong. She would not listen. In the end I knew I could help her no more. Now you must try.

“She wants to be with him, and she thinks the only way she can is to surrender her soul to the evil, to let the crocodile spirit take her to join him. The only thing keeping her in this place is the babies she is yet to have. Once they be born she is in great danger from herself.”

For the last five minutes, since he had told of Susan, it was like the man had spoken to them from a trance, looking from somewhere deep inside himself, seeing a truth that the world could not see, something in the place of shadows dancing.

Sandy felt goose bumps run up her arms and neck. It fitted too well with what she had glimpsed inside Susan to treat this as an old man’s mad ravings.

Suddenly Mike returned to his normal banter, the shadow was gone. He looked at the clock, went to the bar and pulled out three beers. “One for the road; one for each of ye, tis on the house. And one for me to give me the strength to finish me cleaning.”

They thanked the man and left. As they went out Sandy gave Mike a spontaneous hug, a sign of affection that felt like it came from both her and from Susan for his attempt to help. The old man winked at Alan and said, “Watch out, this one is like that Susan girl, she is smart and her mind can see shadows too, maybe you both can. So take care.”

Alan and Sandy exchanged a puzzled look as they walked out.

Late in the day they came to Borroloola with nothing useful found out in Daly Waters or Heartbreak Hotel. They were both struggling to come to terms with what they had heard at Top Springs. To any normal person it would sound like the man, Mike, was mad, and yet.

They had tried to talk about it, the idea that a part of Mark wanted to kill Susan and that instead he had deliberately chosen to sacrifice himself for her. It did not quite fit with the facts, but there was a truth somehow hidden within this story. It could not be dismissed but yet it could not be understood. Still there was something of vital importance locked within the puzzle he had given them, if they could only see it.

Now they were tired of talking and thinking. They wanted to hold close to each other’s bodies in the night and push the shadows they had glimpsed away.

Next morning they woke to a bright clear sunny day. The muggy heat and humidity was gone. Instead a light, cool breeze was blowing from the south east, the start of the dry season, Alan said.

They knew Borroloola was an intended destination for a visit by Mark and Susan and they may have spent a few hours here. It was not clear whether anyone would know or recognise either from a photo after all these months. So they each took a part of the town to work their way round, showing the photos and seeking recognition.

Alan said he would go first to the police station; the local copper might have some clues, if not through recognising one of them, by suggesting where to ask.

Sandy said she would start with the hotel, petrol station and local shop. She walked into the hotel bar. It looked like it had only just opened. It was dark and felt cool. She let her eyes adjust and walked over to the counter where a solid middle aged man looked up.

She explained her mission and passed over the photo of Susan.

He held it to a light, looked at it for a bare half second and nodded. “Yes I remember her quite clearly, a pretty girl with an English accent, like you say sometime around last August. The reason I remember was her nice manners mixed with something, a sort of anxiety, like she needed to do something unpleasant and did not want to.

“She ordered a lemon lime and bitters and went and sat in that corner just next to the door you came in through, and she kept glancing towards it as if to check whether someone else was coming. When she was first at the bar she asked me what time it was. When I told her, just about 12 am, she said that meant it was around three o’clock in the morning in England.

“Then she asked if she could charge up her phone, said the battery was getting pretty low and she needed to send a text, that she could not ring her friend in England at that time of night so she would text.

“So I pointed to the power point just next to that seat and she plugged her phone in and sat there to have her drink. I did not take a big lot of notice but I saw her pull out a tiny notebook from her purse and look carefully at it while she was sending the text.

I thought maybe flight details home or something like that. It took her a few minutes; it was like she was trying to work out what to say as she did it, and she was nervous, the way she kept looking up. Then, when it was done, she finished her drink, unplugged the phone and walked outside. Actually a bloke came in and she went out with him.”

Susan showed him Mark’s photo. “Is that him?”

The barman replied. “Could be, not sure, I barely looked at him. Only she obviously knew him and was pleased to see him. But she had already put her phone away, soon as she was finished, and the moment he came in she left.

The strangest thing is that I am sure I have seen her picture since, like on TV or something but I am dammed if I can remember when, it just seems too familiar.”

Sandy sat at the bar for a few minutes and wrote out the details and then read them back to the man. He confirmed their accuracy so she thanked him and left. She decided she had something significant so she rang Alan and found out where he was.

He too had found a man with information, someone who knew Mark. Alan gave her directions to find him. It took five minutes to walk to the corrugated iron building where a middle-aged, non-descript man was showing Alan a photo of two beautiful blue stones, one set in a pendant and one set in a ring.

Sandy heard the man say, “Those are what he collected. Said they were for his sweetheart, the nearest thing he could get to an engagement ring for someone who lived on the other side of the world.

“I have had dealings with him from time to time over the last five or six years, ordering things in, selling off gemstones for him and the like. I suppose I am a bit of a wheeler dealer and have contacts all over the place, and that is a bit the way he struck me too.

“He was usually pretty guarded, never said much about his business, but always had plenty of cash and early on once he gave me his license details for ID; Mark Butler was his name though most people just called him Mark or Mark B. He seemed to know quite a few of the people round here, particularly the aboriginals, they would shout his name when they saw him in the street and he seemed often to have meat and fish to give away to them.

“I had not seen him for a few months but he had rung a couple weeks before and asked if he could have a delivery made to my place which he would collect on his way through.

“It was in a small box and I would not have known what it was except that I had to sign that it was received in good order. So I opened the box and checked its contents and that was what I saw. I took a picture just in case it was stolen, for insurance purposes.

“The thing I best remember was that he was different on that day, normally he was serious and deadpan. That day he was excited when he collected it, he had a lovesick puppy look. He opened it to check in front of me and then he told me what it was for, the way I already said. He also gave me an extra fifty for my troubles.”

Alan asked if he could get a copy of the photo. So they brought it outside and he copied it on his digital camera. Then they were on their way. They felt they had got what was most useful to know in this town. It seemed that Mark’s main purpose in coming here was to collect this gift. It sounded like it was intended as a present for Susan; they must check now whether anyone saw her wearing it. It was obviously valuable from the photo.

But the thing that seemed most significant was that Susan had sent a text to a friend in England when it was the middle of the night there; her demeanour suggested she was anxious when she did it and it was done when Mark was not with her, and then she had put her phone out of sight before he met her again.

It may have been nothing but both felt the key was here. Now Alan kicked himself for never following up before whether Susan had a phone in Australia, if so what the number was and where it was now. His first job for back in Darwin was to trace it.

They drove out to Seven Emus for an early lunch. The people were very hospitable. They knew Mark quite well and remembered him with Susan. They told of a morning tea of Chinese dumplings and spiced pork, they told of Mark and Susan’s affection for one another, but could tell them nothing else that was useful.

So then it was a long afternoon of driving before they arrived in Darwin in the early hours of the next morning, both feeling completely whacked.

Alan knew he had one burning priority, he must find the phone that Susan had used.

 

 

 

Chapter 18 – The Trial

 

Susan was awake early in the morning. She should be calm but could feel anxiety swirling around inside. This was a critical day and she needed to get through it without any major mistakes. She had been almost continuously anxious since that pre-trial meeting blunder. She had been worried about them tracing her phone calls before.

Now on top of that was a whole new line of inquiry. Could they find the box she had buried with the four missing girls passports and Marks multiple fake IDs? Why had she left them together? The passports on their own did not link to Mark, but to be found alongside all his own documents, well that was game set and match for association. She could read through Sandy’s mind Alan was closing in on her.

Why had she willed him to do this on the aeroplane? An average lazy copper would have been gloating that he had nailed her and have looked no further.

But this was a man on a mission and she had a premonition he would succeed. What would she do then? Perhaps she would find a way to kill herself and her unborn children so that they would all be gone and never have to live with this. But no, she could not countenance that, the children did not deserve to die. Well, once she was gone the whole story would fade away, and by the time her children were old enough to know it would all be long buried under yesterday’s news.

Then she realised she was being silly, nothing had happened, no startling revelations. After today it would pretty much be too late; Conviction, Guilty, Move On.

So now she must focus on getting her mind into the right state for her murder trial. She must be a credible witness to her own guilt, not too abject, let them all think she was a conniving bitch who was playing games with the truth. So she would plead guilty as planned.

But she would contest the evidence about her attempt at concealment, about what had happened before and after and any speculation as to motive. She would gloat a bit at her little wins which would come when they overplayed their hand. Most would probably not succeed but the performance would give some entertainment to the assembled cast and audience and give the press some new dead end leads to follow. In particular her performance would not endear her in the public mind. They wanted to think of her as an evil witch; well let them; it would be her role for today.

The trial went pretty much as planned. She was glad that she had her own barrister in the end. He stuck strictly to her instructions though she could tell he did not like it. But it was her show, she was the star and she was playing her cast character how she wanted.

As the day unfolded she realised that today was little different to any other theatrical production. She had a flair for this acting stuff: Saint Susan today, Slut Susan tomorrow.

The only difference was that the stakes now were higher; they were all playing for her life. But what the hell she had already conceded that, so there was nothing more to lose.

It was simple really, a game of chess. When the game was lost you knocked your king over. As he lay dead on the ground everyone else knew it too, the game was really over.

So the day ground its slow way forward and she ground out her acting, worth an Oscar, she thought.

When the prosecution had finished its tortuous and contested trail of evidence, she took the stand, swearing to tell the truth, she blocked the word ‘whole’ out of her mind, she would tell no lies.

Her evidence took barely a minute and her guilty plea was entered. She could see everyone squirming, saying this is not enough, there must be more, there must be something, the why.

She looked the devil in the eye and laughed; her trademark grin to the audience. She heard gasps from the back stalls at her obvious lack of remorse and noticed a reporter furiously scribbling a line to crucify her.

From a far off place she heard the judge asking her, most earnestly, to provide some better explanation, something that would help him understand and reach a verdict. A tale that balanced justice with a story that made sense of the situation for the whole community who watched on, not least for her family and friends and her many other supporters.

She looked him in the eye, smiled brightly again and said, “Your honour I have told you that I killed him, when I killed him and how I killed him. What more is there that you need to know before you reach your verdict?”

She could have sworn he muttered a curse under his breath and she allowed herself a further tiny smile of victory. He called a short recess and asked to speak to her with just her barrister present.

The judge explained to her that he saw no choice but to find her guilty by her own admission but he found the whole thing very distasteful, unsatisfactory and disturbing, that she would willingly submit herself to spending many years in jail without offering any resistance. He implored her to give him some explanation of why or what she was hiding or protecting. He said he would be delaying sentencing for 2 weeks and would require her to undergo psychiatric assessment as he was very concerned about her mental state. He asked her to give it one last consideration before he walked back into the court and made a ruling.

Susan could feel something like a great weight pulling at her to give something, at least to admit her fear or that, in the end she knew it had been a mistake. But every step forward from where she was now opened the Pandora’s Box, if fear then of what, if a mistake then why. She hardened her resolve again and answered.

“Your honour, I am not being deliberately contrary, I would dearly like to help you, the court and all my friends to understand why I did this. But I just am not able to say, I refuse to say, that is my right under law. Therefore you will have to rule only on the facts which are before you. I, like you, wish it was otherwise. But it cannot be so.”

So she walked back to her place and the judge walked back to his bench and he ruled that she, Susan McDonald, was guilty of the murder of Vincent Marco Bassingham. He made no findings as to premeditation or otherwise. He announced that sentencing would occur two weeks from tomorrow when he would consider any submissions that the parties wished to make. In the meantime he ordered that she go for psychiatric assessment.

Susan thought she should savour her success, but it now left such a bitter taste in her mouth and such an empty place in her soul; betrayal on betrayal. She did not care about the sentencing. It held no fears; it could not undo the verdict. So, only one last real step remained, well perhaps two when she counted her babies, before she would be free.

 

 

 

Chapter 19 – Anne’s Dilemma

 

Anne felt appalled as she watched the trial unfold.

This beautiful girl, her friend, playing the acting performance of her life, as, with deliberate purpose, she condemned herself to death. She saw it so clearly now, this was not death in some metaphorical sense. This was the real thing. The babies would be born, Susan’s parents would adopt them and take them back to England, she and David would both attend the baptism.

While they were all gathered there, a fitting place for the funeral after the body was returned, the phone call would come saying that Susan, lovely beautiful Susan, was dead. Anne could try and protect her, ask for extra watches and removal of anything dangerous, but it would be futile, Susan was way too clever and would find a way.

So, as Anne walked away from court, after the sentence was pronounced, she knew she had a choice to make, to let her friend die, or betray her promise. Suddenly there was no choice to make anymore; the answer was clear and simple.

But she would let it wait until a minute before midnight, only when it was almost finished. She would provide the evidence to Susan’s barrister right at the time he stood to sum up on sentencing day, the last possible moment before the judge pronounced sentence. And she would build a safety catch, just in case anything happened to her. She would tell David but she would hold him to the same promise which bound her. She would transcribe the two text messages; they would only take one sheet of paper. She would make a copy for David to keep and a copy for herself and she would lock her phone in the hotel safe, where it could be produced when required to verify the transcript.

The lawyers would hate evidence produced at this very late stage; they would talk of ambush and use all sorts of high sounding legal names to deplore what she had done. But the evidence would be accepted, the evidence would show that Susan was in real fear for her life just before the murder, and therefore it would be deemed, that even if she was guilty her actions were justified, really self-defence, but the lawyers could argue the finer legal points of that.

Once back at their hotel room she sat and wrote it out, then woke David who was napping in the bed and read it out to him, after she had extracted his promise. He was a bit fuzzy from sleep, but then the light went on in his brain.

He said, “Suddenly it all makes sense.” Now he was bursting for action, “We must trace these people, the named girls, their last movements, show Mark could have been responsible, I can get ten people onto it in the morning.”

Anne shook her head. “No, my impulsive one!

“I have promised her I will not reveal this. I only choose to do so because I know she will commit suicide after the babies are born. I will only do it if there is really no other choice. That means, as her barrister stands up to speak, he will be passed the note and asked to read it immediately. He will not like it but he will do it. And he will be obliged, in the interests of justice, to demand that it be admitted into evidence.

“It will mean, almost certainly, that the judge will suspend his sentencing decision. It is also highly likely that Susan will be released on bail. Even doing it this way is a very high risk. I will make sure that a 24 hour watch is placed on her cell if she stays in jail. I will stay with her all day and every day until she gives birth. I will make sure she holds and loves her babies and knows she cannot abandon them. It gives us a fighting chance. But the element of surprise is everything. That means it can only happen then. Because, if the texts are revealed in advance, she may not wait for her babies to born before she ends it.

“And I do not want to betray her trust. I will do so only as an absolute last resort. I know that Alan is following similar lines, Sandy was asking me about her phone when I saw her yesterday but I just played dumb. So they may discover this too and I would rather it comes from them, though again later is better.

“So don’t get any crazy ideas about becoming a super sleuth. That will be the job of the police. Our job will simply be to point them in the right direction.”

Then she shook her head, “I hope one day Susan will thank me, but l doubt it, however I am sure it is what I must do. But even with this I am still very afraid for her. It is the way she talks now in the past tense about her life, in her head she has already decided it is over, it is the way she smiles brightly as she looks towards an impossible future, it is the way she acted in court today as if she was playing a chess game for her own life. She acts as if there will be no tomorrow. It is because, for her, she has already decided there will not be one.”

 

 

 

Chapter 20 – Phone Links

 

Alan had only seen the second half of Susan’s performance but was equally appalled. He had just two weeks now to crack this one. He had two leads remaining. One was the phone, one was that admission, made in the pre-trial meeting, that she had not destroyed everything. She had not said it quite like that but he was certain that was what she meant. And it was obviously important the way she sought to smooth over those words, as if they had no meaning.

So he must trace her phone, the calls and the text she sent. Could she have found something out by text which prompted her change in behaviour? But what, a text was only a short string of characters, a few sentences at most. It could give a date, an ETA, a place or name. But to try and find information from other parts of the world one needed the internet. She could have use the internet at Borroloola, the corner store had it. Instead she had just sent a text; perhaps it was a happy birthday message to family or friends.

What about the other lead, the something not destroyed angle. That meant something kept which meant something hidden, but where. If she had hidden something back in England she would have no concern he would find it. But he had seen the little tell tales of alarm when she realised she had made a mistake. So, if it was a mistake of concern, it must be in Australia. So the where must be here in the NT, it was the only place she had been before she caught the plane, and her time after she was at the billabong until the plane left was pretty tight, there were some free hours, but hours was all, particularly as based on the report from the witness about someone driving around there in the early evening, it was likely that she had not departed until after dark. Therefore, as best he could judge, she had just driven from the site to where she parked and abandoned the car, and she had done so at night when her view of the surrounding countryside was very limited. So either at the site, somewhere on the way, or at this end must be a hiding place holding something important. The site had to be the place to start.

It was possible that, when she had driven there with Mark, she had seen another location on the way that would serve as a hiding place. She was clever enough to have seen a place and returned on the run; perhaps while she was driving there she had seen a landmark and come back there. But seeking that was futile, too many options. He must begin with the site.

He knew that, now the trial was over and the guilty plea was entered, his official work was done. It was not for him to make a case for leniency. Tomorrow his bosses would be expecting him back at work to dump a new case on him; he would be buried by next week. So how to find the time this investigation required.

He decided that he would just have to make time. He guessed that the media would throw plenty of mud back on to the police after this verdict in tomorrow’s papers. Using that for cover he would claim a new discovery based on her testimony; she had indicated that she had hidden some critical evidence at the site and they needed to do a new search.

Tomorrow he would scout the area and formulate a search plan. The day after he would get a party of searchers, he reckoned about eight blokes would do it and they did not have to be highly skilled. They would go over the site again with a fine toothed comb and look for a hidey hole, probably something big enough to hide a box or bag of documents. There was certainly a missing will, and while she may have burnt most of Mark’s papers her reaction said that she had kept back something. It was needle in the haystack stuff but he would have to try.

So, early in the morning, he drove out to the Mary River and first walked along the billabong. The edge gave a good reference point and there were some tree hollows and a couple piles of rocks and crevices along it which made possibilities. He walked the campsite looking again for disturbed earth areas though it was much harder after the wet season’s rain. He swept the edges going out twenty or thirty metres; there were a few other possibilities, places to be worked over but nothing really suspicious.

He looked around the surrounding area, going out to a few hundred metres for any landscape features. There was one small hill, perhaps 500 metres away, that was distinctly visible; that was well worth looking at. He walked across to it. It was bigger than he first thought. Lots of rocks and boulders lay on its sides but no obvious cracks or crevices. He walked to the back and stood on a low flat rock on the edge, and surveyed the ground in both directions. This hill was the sort of feature that someone might pick, but there was no obvious hiding place.

Should he send a couple people to probe and dig around it tomorrow, look for any loose rocks or soft soil. If he had ten blokes and a D9 dozer for a week he would pull the hill apart and perhaps they would find something. But, on balance, it was less likely than a closer place. He needed to concentrate his limited resources for the one day he had on more likely places.

He was back in the office by about lunch time and told his boss of his plans. He could see him look sceptical but he let it pass, the papers had given the police the expected bullocking. As he started to walk out his boss told him he was on a special operation all next week in Eastern Arnhem Land. It ran from Monday to Sunday, with long hours, so maybe he should find time for a break before then.

Next day they got to the site early and worked everywhere but the hill over thoroughly and found nothing. He walked back over to the hill for one last look and tried to lift up some of the more promising rocks, in case there was something underneath. But all the ones he tried were well embedded in the dirt and did not lift easily. There were hundreds more like them and he did not have time to try them all.

Now he wished he had done the hill as well properly but it was too late. By three the crew were all pretty shagged and it was a Friday. So he ordered knockoff and told them he would shout them all a beer at the Bark Hutt Inn, for them to head off and buy a round and tell the publican he would pay when he came in five minutes after them.

The work crew headed off leaving Alan alone by the water. He knew he had tried and failed with this roll of the dice. He walked right to the edge, to the place where they had found the man’s footprint beside a little bush. He squatted there alongside that place where the earth had been carefully dug out to make a plaster cast and now only a small hole remained.

The water was incredibly still and all seemed so placid. It was hard to believe that, only months ago, a man had been torn apart by crocodiles, just metres from here. He knew he should move back from the edge as the danger was no less acute now than then. But he wanted to imagine himself in this man’s shoes on that fateful day, knowing more about him now that he did when he had first come to this place.

He stood then sqatted down right alongside where the man’s footprint had been found. He had a sense of now being in the shoes of this man, Mark, squatting and contemplating his future, knowing he had a choice to make, what was it that the Top Springs bartender had said – to choose between himself and the girl.

Maybe she, Susan, believed she was the intended victim of the crocodiles because she knew something awful about Mark, while he, unknown to her, had decided that that the victim had to be him.

So perhaps he was here, squatting and contemplating the end of his life before he joined the crocodiles. If Susan did not know, but fearing for her life, struck an unexpected blow to his head, then that could be how his injury happened. If she then discovered a message from him telling her otherwise, then that would constitute the mistake she talked about.

It was at least a theory which fitted a couple pieces together. He was not convinced but it might help make sense of it.

Alan’s heel slid sideways into the hole as he went to stand up and he found himself overbalancing into the small bush. His hand went out sideways to steady himself, landing on the ground covered by the bush. It lodged on a hard misshaped object among the leaves lying there. His fingers closed around it as he steadied himself. He retrieved his hand still holding the object.

It was a palm sized piece of wood, carved into a crocodile shape, with faded charcoal and ochre markings. He realised that this must be the crocodile totem carving that the bartender had described. It seemed a confirmation of his theory, not proof but one more step along the path to understanding.

He looked closely at this carved object. At first glance it seemed small and insignificant but as you looked more closely you saw that it was a representation of an old and massive crocodile, a being of power. He could almost sense its spirit reaching out and connecting to the other crocodiles of this place. He looked out across the water and far away saw the head and eyes of a real crocodile contemplating him, unmoving. It was not the big one, but still seemed to be sending a message to his mind, this totem is for you to take to help you discover its owner.

He placed it in his pocket. He should submit if as evidence but it seemed too significant for an exhibit bag. Perhaps it would help him gain understanding from here, a connection between his mind and that of Mark, somehow like that between Sandy and Susan. He would log it but hold it for now, it would hold no forensic clues after months lying in the weather and perhaps it would help to link his mind to the real Mark who to date he had only glimpsed as a shadowed outline, and somehow bring him towards a point of truth.

As he drove back to Darwin he realised he was down to his last option; tracking the phone. He had the rest of today, tomorrow and Sunday before he was sent off, so he would see what he could do. He decided to start with the obvious thing of asking Susan’s family and friends if she had a mobile as he needed to trace the calls she might have made in Australia. Her father promptly told him that yes she did and read out the number.

Alan called David a minute later and he confirmed the same number. It was an English number but it had international roaming so it was possible that she had used it. It took an hour or two of chasing but finally he got through to the British company that supplied the service. After getting authority from Scotland Yard, giving identification and sending verification of his credentials he got access to the call records.

There were plenty of calls before and after but nothing during the period of the Australian trip. There was also a gap for a bit over a week after Susan got back to England so he asked the operator about this. “Oh, that is because she got a new handset. She told us the previous one had been lost in Australia.”

This was really interesting; it seemed like more than coincidence. He rang her father back and asked if he knew anything about a new handset after Australia.

Susan’s father replied, “That sounds right, when she got back she said her luggage had got lost on the bus and her phone was with it. So she bought another phone but got the old number reissued. That way all her friends still had her number.

Then Alan asked, “Do you know anything about her having a different phone or SIM card while she was in Australia, a local one?”

Her father thought and said. “Not that I can think of. In fact she barely rang. The only time I can recall a phone call was from her cousins in Sydney, where she stayed for a few days. But that day they rang on their land line because they all had a bit of a chat to our family, if I remember right. Of course you could ring them and check if they had a local number for Susan or I will if you like.”

Alan said, “Could you do that please and when you find out leave a message. I am just on my way home now but I will pick it up in the morning. And please don’t tell Susan about this or ask her.”

On the Saturday Susan’s father rang back. “They think she had an Australian number that she got in Cairns but none of them have been able to find it. I have asked them to find their own phone bills and go through them from the time Susan was there and see if they can find anything. It does not sound like I will be able to get it for you inside a day or two as they were all heading off for a weekend of camping when I called and are gone now.”

Alan could feel his frustration rise but he knew her father was trying to be helpful and did not really understand what was at stake. So he put it aside.

The weekend passed in a blur, he thought he would have time to follow up further on this phone but in the end did not.

Then the weekend was gone and he was off away. The operation was in a remote part of the Top End, out watching a part of deserted coastline a couple hours’ drive from the town of Gove, where a tip off of a drug landing was received. They were flown in for the week, not back out until the following Sunday. It was a continuation of the drug surveillance operation from before. Alan could feel the time slipping through his fingers but there was nothing he could do.

On Thursday he had a flash of inspiration, he was almost sure where to find the phone number. He remembered the Mark Butler phone bill, the one that had linked him to Vic. There were a handful of calls on that he had never followed up once he got on to Vic. He seemed to remember there were three of four calls in the few days before Susan had come to Alice Springs. He had wondered at the time about the cluster of calls, but had not paid it much mind, not thinking this phone had even belonged to their victim. But it had, perhaps it was not his only one, but Alan had a really strong feeling that those calls would have been to and from Susan, making arrangements for the trip.

He could feel his impatience to get back to Darwin to follow it up. He also realised that nobody had looked in the Katherine mailbox where this phone bill was found since before Christmas, three months ago. He knew because he still had the key on his desk.

Well that was another job for Monday, to get someone to Katherine to go through any mail, perhaps some more contacts of Mark’s would emerge. He thought of getting a constable to go now. In the end he decided there was too much at stake and he would go himself.

He used the radio at their base to get clearance from his boss to go to Katherine for the first two days of next week. It was duly given. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was not much, but two days should be enough to get to the bottom of this phone story. Who knew what else he might also find in this town where Mark seemed to spend time.

It was late afternoon Sunday before he was home. Sandy wanted some of his time after a week away so he postponed his visit to the office, deciding he would call first thing in the morning en route to Katherine.

Last week he had radioed the Katherine police station which had organised an office for him to use there for his next two days enquiries.

He was in Katherine before ten and went through the log of calls from Mark’s phone that he had brought with him. He tried to ring the number from the call cluster but was advised it was disconnected so he got to work with tracing it. Late in the afternoon he finally got the advice that it was indeed a SIM card purchased in Cairns by a Susan McDonald.

Now to get the log of the calls she made on it. There were only about ten, most when she was in Sydney, a couple from Cairns and Melbourne and then just two texts from the Northern Territory, one sent from Borroloola and the other received at Timber Creek, both from the same UK number. He had the times of the texts but not the content. Still he knew he was on to something when he saw the time of the second text, 9.05 am on the date when Mark and Susan were last seen leaving Timber Creek.

He remembered that day in Timber Creek, two weeks ago, standing outside the pub just where their car was parked. His own phone was in a dead zone, and he had to walk along the road for fifty yards before he got reception. So when Susan checked her phone at 8 am she would have got nothing. Then she was asleep at 9.05 when the message was received. But it would have been there on her phone when she woke up.

Imagine if it was something bad about Mark, some record from overseas, something terrible, even something to do with a missing girl, the way that Mike from Top Springs had hinted. And imagine if Mark had found out about it and had known he had to stop Susan from talking. Perhaps she was still asleep when the text came in, he had heard the ping, picked up the phone to look and, suddenly, he knew.

There were plenty of possibilities but his police intuition told him that this was the real thing, all the rest was window dressing. It fitted too well with what happened later on. If she knew and he knew that she knew, then unless she agreed to keep his secret and he knew he could trust her, she was in great peril. And if he needed her to disappear, what better than a crocodile, it fitted the crocodile symbols which surrounded him.

Perhaps in that moment she somehow turned the tables and he had taken her place. Then, knowing that the secret must be hidden, she had decided she must cover all evidence of them coming to this place. She had done such a good job that it had almost worked. If not first for Charlie finding the head and then, if not for him and Sandy and their little game of one upmanship, it would have been missed.

But fate had intervened and, despite all the odds, the head, the murder and the cover up had been found. Of course she had never tried to hide her movements until that fateful day. But caught she was and now convicted. It must be that she had decided not to reveal it for the sake of her unborn children; that was what she had told Buck.

So if Mark had killed one or more other girls, the way Mike had suggested, then that was a secret he could imagine someone wanting to take to the grave if they still loved the other person, and Susan clearly did. So it all hung together, was plausible and, most important, it made sense of the facts. But it was not evidence yet, just an educated guess.

Well enough speculation. Now that UK number had to be traced, and he also needed the content of the texts. The lady told him that that the UK number was part of UK Vodafone and he would have to contact them to get details of the owner. In terms of getting text details she told him she would put in a request but it could take several days.

After some time sweet talking and cajoling her she admitted that it may be possible inside of 48 hours and the absolute best case was a bit over 24 hours, perhaps late tomorrow afternoon. She assured him she would put it to the top of the pile and mark it highest priority and she would also follow it up tomorrow morning when she was back on duty.

Alan thanked her; he knew he had got the best result possible. Late in the night he got an identity on the owner of the English phone. It was Anne, Susan’s best friend. Alan did not feel surprised. He knew she worked as a legal secretary in London, just the sort of person one would ask to trace other missing persons.

About 4 pm the next day his phone rang. It was the operator he had spoken to the previous day. She said, “I have the texts, I will email you the transcripts though I can also read them out if you like.”

He said “Thanks, but no,” not wanting any chance of thisinformation being broadcast in the office where perhaps others would hear. He also needed to see a hard copy in front of his eyes, daring not to let his imagination run away, lest he mishear or misunderstand.

So he said, “Could you email them through straight away please.” Within a minute a new email pinged on his phone. His hands were shaking as he opened it. It was a one line document with two files attached, each a text transcript. Now he read.

 

Message sent at 11.57am, Australian Central Standard Time.

The date was Susan’s day in Borroloola.

It read.

 

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

Names

Fiona Rodgers Age 25, Aberdeen Scotland

Amanda Sullivan, Age 24, Newark New Jersey USA

 

The reply was three days later, received at 9.05 am, Australian Central Standard Time.

It read

 

Dear Suz,

This FREAKS me, what I found:

Those girls came to Australia but are missing.

USA one came 3 years ago, last seen Daintree, Qld. 3 months later.

UK one came 2 yrs ago, last seen Adelaide, SA, 6 months 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

– 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 a couple days before last seen.

– One friend thought this man’s name was Mark – no such person located

– Parents are convinced of abduction or worse

– Re Fiona Rodgers, that was her real name but everyone called her Kate – dead sister’s name she used from when a little girl – weird

This all makes me scared – Be Careful!!! Take extra care if you meet a Mark.

Love Anne

 

This was the smoking gun, this was dynamite. Now it all made sense, an almost exact fit to yesterday’s speculation. This must be Mark, her Mark.

Alan must just confirm that the two girls were still missing. That would be a job for tonight, when offices on the other side of the world were open. Then he must get back to Darwin in the morning before the sentencing hearing was finished. He must give this evidence to both barristers and the judge.

He rang Susan’s barrister, a man who he knew socially. They had an off the record chat where Alan advised him that by tomorrow he would be in possession of new evidence that would dramatically change the complexion of the whole case, but it might be mid-morning before he had it all, as he needed to get some information from the USA tonight.

The barrister advised that Alan would need to be there by 2 pm sharp as he would begin his summing up around then and needed anything he could give him at that time. He could stall a bit but once he was finished it would be too late, the judge would make his decision and it would be very difficult to reopen the case after that.

He also advised Alan that he did not want him to come early as before that all the different parties’ depositions would be made. So he wanted that all out of the way before he produced this. “In fact,” he said, “when you arrive the best thing would be to approach the bench directly on your own behalf, but send me an advance copy just in case anything happens to delay you.”

Alan printed the text. He put it inside in an envelope and wrote on the outside, “Only to be opened if I do not arrive in time.” Then he put this into an overnight express bag, marked with the barristers address and dispatched it.

 

 

 

Chapter 21 – The Rat Trap

 

Susan smelt a rat, she knew the minute she saw Anne’s face two days after the trial, when she came to visit, that something had changed. Anne was no longer in her corner. For a minute she felt overcome by panic, what could she do. If Anne released the texts it would all be to no avail. Anne did not seem to pick up that Susan was on to her, so Susan tried to let nothing show from her side, though her mind was churning.

Once Anne was gone she made herself think rationally. What would Anne do with this information? Now she saw her error. It was in asking Anne and David to be godparents. She remembered her final words as they left, “I just can’t wait for it all to be over and to get out of this place forever. I am glad it won’t be much longer now.” She had caught a flicker on Anne’s face as she said this, now she turned these words over in her mind again. It was like when she had said them on that day they had been pre-formed in her mind.

They were what she was thinking but they were words that someone else had used, that she heard and replayed, as they fitted her own life too. Now she remembered. These were word that Anne had told her almost a year ago. They were the words Anne’s friend, Beverly, had said on the day before she committed suicide. Anne had been pretty broken up about that, and by the fact that, if only she had listened better she would have acted, and if she had perhaps she could have stopped it.

Now she had taken those words from her subconscious memory and played them back to Anne with exactly the same meaning. And if there was any doubt her bravura acting performance of the day before yesterday was the sort of thing that would only be done by someone who had a no-future end game. So with her desire to leave with a blaze of glory, a self-indulgent piece of theatre, she had pushed Anne into action. That court acting was yet another mistake, she really was getting careless.

But what would Anne do? When would she act? She was a careful and reasoned person. She would not act impulsively like Susan did. She would make a plan and determine the best time for the revelation. Anne would realise that the danger would only become real once the babies were born and Susan’s responsibility for them ended. So she did not need to rush. The deadline would be to act before the judge pronounced sentence. But she would delay it to as late as possible before then. If she was playing this endgame for the other side, she would pass a note to her barrister just before he stood to sum up. Then, as he read the content of the texts, he would realise that the whole basis of this case had shifted and he must bring this into evidence before the judge decided.

Yes that was the most likely time. Anne would not want to open the Pandora’s Box if there was another option. So she would delay and hope that she would not be the one to betray her friend. She would hope that Alan could dig something up to make her admission unnecessary.

Now Susan realised her own plan needed to cover this eventuality too. Sandy had visited this morning before Anne, and from her ongoing glimpses into Sandy’s mind she saw that Alan was planning to re-search the billabong site today and tomorrow, looking for whatever was hidden. She saw that Alan had told Sandy of the hill but decided that, with just one day he would ignore this, he had walked around it and it did not seem promising. Then she knew he would be away next week and could do nothing further until the two days just before the trial. She could not see into Sandy’s mind about the trip they had made last weekend down to the Gulf, she knew they had gone but the details were not available to her. Sandy had got much better at hiding her thoughts now she realised how well Susan could see them. So she could not see here, but she had a sense that the texts would have been part of what they were looking for, though she knew nothing specific had been found, that would have been too big in Sandy’s mind to be hidden.

At best Alan would have one or two days to pursue these phone records before the sentencing date. Anything he found would get admitted very late, probably on the day; so his timing and Anne’s would be almost the same, should a revelation come. Her feeling was very strong that something would happen but it was only a guess. So she must wait and see, not act precipitately herself; even with Anne she was not fully sure.

She must think of a way to forestall this. She could not bring her sentence date forward; she must shift the other time. There was a six week gap after sentencing until her babies were due. What she needed was for her babies to come early, no later than sentence day, or perhaps if she went into labour on that day that would work. Her babies would be premature and later was better for them.

So in her mind she made a plan. If she could induce her labour to start on the date of sentencing, no later than just before the judge stood up to give his sentencing then that would throw a massive distraction into this whole circus. She suspected it would result in sentencing being delayed until after the babies were born. They would rush her off to hospital and deliver the babies, maybe a Caesar, with an anaesthetic. So while she was in recovery she would act; potassium into her drip line would be best, perhaps she could also use some of the anaesthetic that would be accessible in this place. She had seen the things available in the hospital and knew the security was weak. She could easily get her hands onto something lethal, that was the benefit of her medical background; that she knew what all these things were and how they worked. She would only need a minute to do it and she could feign sleepiness to get her chance before they removed her from recovery. She was better than ninety per cent sure it would work, that seemed like the best odds she could hope for. And once she was gone the trial or sentencing would be over, no guilty party would remain, case closed. Sure they might try to dig into Mark, but there was no useful evidence. Vic was gone so that closed off the diary. Alan might pursue what happened to the missing girls but Mark had more or less told her that he had covered his tracks too well for anything substantial to be found without other evidence, that is the passports or the diary and neither of them would come to light – she was almost certain that with them gone that search would also come to nought. So that was her plan.

It was not ideal but it was the best option she could think of. It was now Friday; on Monday she would be going to the hospital for her routine pregnancy checkup. That would give her a chance to check out the opportunities and hopefully put something in place.

She thought about what to use to induce her labour on sentencing day. The best drug was Oxytocin, and she needed a loaded syringe of this to be on hand that day. It was routinely used in the obstetric ward she would be visiting on Monday and she was confident she could find some on a trolley; no one really watched her closely these days, they had decided she was not a risk.

So, mostly, the prison guard with her read a book or watched TV and barely looked her way. With her medical knowledge she would often chat to the nurses and doctors doing their medical rounds. So she was sure a chance would come to get what she needed.

Then on sentencing day in court she would watch like a hawk and, unless something gave an early alert, either Alan coming into the court or some signal of impending action from Anne, she would act just before the judge started to sum up; that would create maximum impact and drama. She would have the loaded syringe close at hand. Only a couple of seconds would be required to inject it and drop the syringe behind her, unseen.

She re-ran it through in her mind to make sure she had the script and timing right in her head for what she knew would be her last and best performance. Unless Anne acted right now, which she was sure would not happen, she should win. Once she went in to labour other things would be forgotten and then, when the babies were safe out, she could end it all. A hospital was an ideal place, so many alternatives and she knew the range of things to use. She would be on a drip and so running an extra drug into the drip line would be easy peasy. It would barely take a minute before it was too late.

The next Monday, once she arrived at the hospital, she checked with the doctor how her babies were going. The doctor told her they were doing just fine.

She asked what would happen if all the stress of the trial sent her into early labour, would it still be OK. The doctor assured her the babies were already big enough to be delivered by Caesarean, and by this time the odds were better than 99 percent that they both would be fine. Susan decided she could live with that chance.

She found a trolley left parked nearby with two ampoules of oxytocin on it and secreted these plus an empty syringe and needle on her person. That would be more than enough to bring her into labour. Normally they gave it in an IV drip but an injection into the muscle of her leg would work just fine.

When the time came all she needed was to plunge the needle into her leg and inject, it would take barely a second and her labour would begin. It might take an hour or two but she could fake an hour or two until the real thing kicked in. They would take her to hospital, cut her open and take her babies out to safety. Then, when this was done, she could either load up her IV drip with some potassium or disconnect her alarms and dial up the anaesthetic to a sufficient dose and in a few minutes it would be over.

She felt pleased it would be that easy and painless, she was tired of all this other stuff and did not want the ending to be hard.

When she returned from the hospital she put away the crocodile stone and returned to her crocodile spirit dreaming, loving being in the presence of Mark. She felt really impatient for the end day to come.

On the morning of the sentencing hearing, bright and early, she loaded the syringe and needle and strapped them to the inside of her thigh where she could get to them quickly when they were required. It was good to be in control of some things. They had thought they had sprung the trap. Instead she would open it and set the rat free.

 

 

 

Chapter 22 – Sentencing Day

 

They were all gathered in the court. The only person Susan could not see was Alan, but then perhaps he did not want his nose rubbed in the disappointment of failure, and he may still come yet, but she had a plan for that. Still Sandy was there. The judge ordered the court into session and said he was here to rule on the sentence to be given to Susan McDonald after finding her guilty of the murder of Vincent Marco Bassingham.

David and Anne had organised innumerable petitions of support, character references and statements from prison officials as to Susan’s behaviour and conduct as a model prisoner. Susan had agreed to them making submissions on her behalf. They said her life was there for all to see, the model school girl and University student, successful laboratory technician; a person who had made a misstep and admitted it and was now willing to pay for what she had done. But they and her barrister would now argue that compassion from the law was required, to allow her to have a life with the children which would soon be born.

Even the prosecution had indicated a willingness to be reasonable as they saw it. Rather than seeking that she spend the rest of her life in jail, never to be released, as would be a reasonable expectation for such a cold and callous murder, they had indicated that they would be happy with a sentence of a minimum of twenty five years, and a non-parole period of around twenty years, and the betting seemed to be that this was about right, even though the judge was noted for no nonsense sentencing.

Still, even the judge seemed to feel some sympathy for her, but in reality his hands were tied too, sentencing rules for crimes like this were pretty clear, with a not guilty plea it would be 30 years plus and with a guilty plea, remorse and good behaviour, release was possible in around twenty years. So people were saying that Susan would only be around 45 and still have life in front of her when released.

But Susan found herself unable to care.

Tonight her babies would be delivered. Then it would end. So whether a sentence was given of ten years, twenty or thirty, or it was deferred, it would matter little. They would have carried her away in a box and this awfulness would be over. She had longed for this day to come, the day when she could stop fighting the world and deceiving her friends and let it end. She had even worked out how to do it with minimal discomfort. She did not even feel really frightened at the prospect. It could not be that hard after everything else she had been through since she had met Mark. It was just one last test of character, one which she knew she could pass.

So she found herself only half listening as the various parties opened sentencing submissions. The prosecution was reasonably short and to the point, saying that in a case like this they would have normally sought life in jail, but in view of the guilty party’s early guilty plea, her apparent remorse and otherwise good character they would be prepared to agree to a sentence of 25-30 years. However despite sympathy for the plaintiff in some quarters of the community they could not go agree to anything below this, as a strong deterrent message was also required. Hence they demanded an absolute minimum non parole period of twenty years.

Then it came the turn for her side. Her legal representative called witness after witness. The judge was limiting the time for people to ensure he finished today, he said he normally would have limited this component to a couple hours but in view of the level of support for Susan, he was prepared to allow continuation until a maximum time of 2 pm, after which both parties would have a short time to sum up before he made his ruling. The case was to be concluded by 3 pm, the end of normal court sitting time.

The morning drifted away, a lunch recess was called. She could see it all drifting away from her side. After lunch it was only Anne and her parents still to be called. She knew this part would be really hard for her to watch, it had been hard enough to watch when David had come to the stand but it must just be borne and she would do her best to close her mind and emotions.

It was funny, normally without the crocodile stone in court she found herself very distant, like someone watching proceedings from on high. But, despite her disinterest of the first part of the day, somehow this final part of the trial had captured her attention. This was her life they were talking about, and slowly as they talked it started to flash before her eyes like a fast running movie camera, and she had this huge sense of loss. Was this all the life she would get to live? It seemed such a waste.

After lunch was much worse than she had imagined; Anne had to stop herself from crying on several occasions, her Mum was the same, and her father, even though without a tear, had been even more excruciating as she watched him put everything in to fight for his daughter. She had even seen a couple of prosecution members dab their eyes a couple times as they watched and listened, though their senior counsel sat stony faced.

Then it was closing submission time for both sides. The argument for the prosecution only took five minutes, just a quick reiteration of their previous points.

Her counsel was just standing up to speak. She saw an orderly pass him a sheet of paper, signalling he needed to give this urgent attention. He looked annoyed at the interruption. He was looking around as if waiting for something and then picked up the piece of paper as if to start reading it. She looked at Anne; her face was white with tension. She knew in an instant. The paper was a transcript of the texts but her barrister did not know their contents. He looked like he was about to start reading it but was still distracted as if waiting for something else to happen.

Susan felt for the syringe strapped to the inside of her upper leg. It was there, she fumbled as she pulled it clear and then pulled off the needle cap. She was hidden from sight where she sat on her own. Her prison warder sat behind her. She only needed another two or three seconds to plunge it into her thigh and inject it. She gave a quick glance down yes it was all in place and ready.

Once that was done she would let out a big scream to draw all the attention to herself and clutch her belly, saying her contractions had come. She looked up and took a deep breath to steel herself for the last roll of the dice.

As she looked up, the back court door was opened and two people walked in, one she recognised as Sergeant Alan Richards. Why had he suddenly arrived so late? Of course he had come for the same purpose as Susan, so nothing was changed there.

She turned her eyes to the other man. It was an almost skeleton of a man, so thin and emaciated, and he hobbled with a severe limp. His hair was long, ragged, unwashed, and his beard was long and straggly. His clothes were clean but hung on him like bags. There was something fierce and uncompromising in his face and eyes.

At first Susan could not comprehend what it meant.

Then suddenly recognition came. The eyes turned towards hers and looked at her with recognition and penetrating intensity, and then she knew. This walking skeleton was Vic, suddenly returned from the dead, yet so obviously alive. She put her hand to her mouth and let out a muffled gasp. The syringe fell from her hand to the floor. Susan spoke his name, loudly and clearly so all could hear her.

Vic raised his hand in acknowledgment and gave her a trademark grin. She wanted to run to him and hold him but she was restrained by a handcuff which attached her left hand to the rail.

Alan glanced at her and nodded but then immediately turned his attention to the bench.

“Your honour, I am sorry to interrupt. I am not normally in the habit of barging into a court in session. But something really significant has happened in this case. “I have just obtained information today which I consider has a vital bearing on this case and any sentence you impose. I ask that you order a short recess to allow me to inform your honour of it on a one to one basis.”

She saw the prosecution barrister start to rise to object, her side seemed less surprised but then perhaps they had known something. Alan walked over and spoke briefly to the prosecution counsel. This barrister nodded then said, “Your Honour I would agree to a short recess as I accept this is relevant and of great importance.”

The judge then looked at the defence barrister and he nodded his assent. So the judge ordered a 15 minute adjournment and he, Alan and the two senior counsels walked out. Everyone else stood there dumbfounded.

 

 

 

Part 2 [*:*] Escape from the Empty Place

Chapter 23 – The Crocodile Watcher

 

Vic had a vague sense of being still alive and hurting, really hurting. His mind seemed to be unable to focus, but he had a vague awareness of being wet and cold and also that one of his legs felt like it was on fire. He seemed to drift in and out of awareness over and over again. He had this woolly memory of the helicopter refusing to respond to the controls and then a smashing and tearing impact as it hit the cliffs.

Based on this his mind said he should be dead, people did not survive crashes like that. But his leg hurt like hell, and the rest of his body and head hurt in lots of places too – now his mind formed a muddled thought. I hope this is not hell, with all this endless pain; this would be a seriously bad place to end up if I have died. And he was so thirsty, he badly needed a drink and soon. Apart from the pain in his leg he thought his thirst was the thing forcing him to wake up.

At last his mind seemed to get enough clarity to open his eyes and try and look around. He realised that was lying tipped back and to the side and his body was held against something that was behind him. He tried to look up but his vision was blocked by a huge wall of rock and something on his head. He looked down towards where the pain in his leg was coming from. His leg seemed bent back under whatever he was lying on at a funny angle; that did not look good and no wonder it hurt.

As his mind began to clear he tried to feel his hands. He brought one up to his face, and with it felt for the other which was squashed under him at his side. With his good hand he pulled the other hand free and it seemed to work too. Now he looked at them both. Yes they were both there and neither looked too bad, a few cuts on the knuckles of one, his left hand, but the other hand looked just fine. This left hand, on the side underneath him, transmitted pain to his shoulder when he moved it but the other, the right one, seemed to move OK and did not even hurt to move.

With this right hand he started to explore his surroundings. First he tried to feel his face and work out what was blocking part of his view. He realised that it was his helmet which was still on his head. As he felt around towards the helmet’s left side he realised that his head was resting up against an uneven rock and there was a series of cracks and fissures running through this side of his helmet, like a broken egg still held together with sticky tape. He felt under his chin, sure enough the strap that held the helmet on his head was still closed. It took a few goes but finally he managed to click it free.

Now he needed to try and take the helmet off his head so that he could see properly. First he tried with just his right hand. That brought pounding pain into his head as the helmet twisted sideways while staying in place. Nothing for it but to bring his left hand into action too. This hand seemed to be able to move OK but Christ his shoulder hurt as he tried to grip the other side of the helmet at the same time. It felt like something had pulverised the muscles of that shoulder. He touched rock below this shoulder. He was lying pushed into the rock and had probably landed hard that way, bruising lots of muscles. But he could move it so he did not think anything was broken.

He took a deep breath, this was going to hurt, whatever he did. He might as well get on with it. He gritted his teeth and with two hands together managed to pull the helmet free of his head. Both his head and left shoulder felt like they were on fire and waves of fog flowed through his brain along with the surges of pain. He lay still for a minute, willing the pain to stop. As it receded the thirst and pain in his leg came flooding back. He knew he had to keep going.

So now he explored his head with his fingers. There was a bit of sticky stuff that felt like dried blood on the side of his head next to the rock and some parts that really hurt to touch. But nothing felt like it was broken there either, so perhaps the broken helmet had saved a busted skull and instant death.

Now he used his hands to feel what was behind and under him. It was flat and smooth and slippery. As his brain slowly processed this information it came to him that he was still strapped into the helicopter seat. He and the seat were lying on a rocky shelf at the base of a huge rock cliff.

The realisation dawned on him that the helicopter seat, with him strapped into it, had torn free from the rest of the helicopter and fallen down the side of the cliff until it hit this rocky base. He made himself lift his head and look around. Now he could begin to get his bearings. As his eyes travelled upwards they followed the line of a huge rising cliff, going almost directly up for what looked like hundreds of feet. The only things that could get up there would be birds and ants. It was beyond all ordinary animals to climb this rock face, well beyond a rock wallaby or even a cat. He tried to look over his shoulder and behind him. His view was blocked by something that must be the seat.

He could hear a roaring and gurgling noise from behind him, it must be the river, bare metres away. His body was wet and cold, his clothes were drenched. He wondered if he had been in the river. But that seemed unlikely if he was still strapped in and the seat had landed here. More likely rain had made him wet.

As he had this thought a huge flash of light, followed by an almost instantaneous crash bang, told him he was in the middle of a great thunderstorm. As the flash died away he realised that it was approaching dark, only a small amount of light remained in the sky. He must have lain here since mid-morning, probably eight hours ago. No wonder he was thirsty, despite the rain, after lying in this valley for most of a hot wet season’s day.

Suddenly rain came cascading down onto his face, huge cold splashes. He turned his face towards it and drank in the large drops, not enough to quench his thirst but the moisture cleared his mouth and helped him to think more clearly.

First he must unstrap himself from the seat; then he must try to extricate and attend to his leg. After both these things he would get a proper drink and try and work out what to do. He felt for the belt release in his waist and pressed the release mechanism. It popped free and his body slumped sideways coming to rest hard against the rock, sending spasms of pain through both his leg and his shoulder.

He felt towards his foot, trying to determine the source of the excruciating pain. He realised it was twisted at a strange angle and trapped under part of the seat. He discovered that by turning his body further to the side and facing down the pain in his leg was eased. In this position he could get both his hands underneath him. He pushed himself upwards and, as his weight came fully off the seat, a spasm of pain shot through his leg, like boiling water tipped on it. His body dropped back towards the hard rock but that set off another even worse pain in his leg. This time he cautiously lifted himself, inch by inch. It eased the pain up to a certain place and then it started to increase again. He watched what happened. Initially his lower leg straightened which reduced the pain. But then it started to twist the other way bringing the pain surging back.

What he needed was a way to lift the seat base clear of his leg so that he could get his leg out from underneath and put it straight. The bones in his lower leg must have broken to let it twist like it had. So he got himself into a half kneeling position on his opposite hand and knee. With the other hand he gradually levered the seat out of the way. At last its weight took over and it fell sideways, away from his leg. As it moved it was accompanied by another pain spasm, but now his leg was clear.

He moved his body to bring it into line with his foot. Using a half kneeling gait he slowly dragged his body away from the edge of the cliff and towards the water. This was visible as a phosphorescent glow in the near dark, as it thundered its way down the gorge. At the edge he used his good arm to scoop up handfuls of water into his mouth. He was tempted to shove his face into the water to quench his thirst but knew it was best to drink slowly. After a few minutes of sucking handfuls of water his thirst eased.

He lifted up his head to gaze out across the wild white water. It was an endless thundering cascade that stretched to the other side of the gorge where another similarly sheer cliff rose, maybe 200 metres away. His place by the water was sheltered by a protruding rock, a couple of body lengths in front of him. It was three times his height and about two metres wide. It jutted out into the cascading water, and gave a relatively calm edge for him to access.

A movement at the periphery of his vision caused him to look to his side, down river. Barely a metre away two eyes sat in the water watching him. He realised it was an enormous crocodile. With one swish of his tail it could have lunged forward and grabbed him, finishing the work of the crash.

But it did not move, it just stared, motionless in the water. It seemed to be watching him with purpose but not with malicious intent. He almost felt it was guarding him; perhaps it was not hungry now and would look to feed later. As imperceptibly as he was able he eased back from the water. His leg protested but that was secondary to survival. The silent watcher remained.

Now that he had drunk and relieved some of the pain in his leg he could barely move. Every muscle and bone in his body felt bruised. Each crawled step took great effort. It was barely five metres from the edge of the water to the cliff face and the back of the rock ledge was little more that a metre above the flow.

He realised if the crocodile decided to come after him there was nowhere he could go. Slowly he dragged his body back as close to the cliff edge as he could go. It was raining still and now he was shivering with cold. He pulled up the remains of the seat and propped it against the rock wall forming a roof and barrier of sorts from the river. This gave some shelter from the torrential sky. He curled his body under it as best he could.

He slept fitfully. Every time he moved spasms of pain shot through his leg, his shoulder throbbed continuously and the hard rocks dug into tender parts of his body. But he needed to rest and this was his best option for now. He woke in the early predawn light.

The sky was still a heavy grey but the rain had stopped. In the night the river had risen and half of his rock shelf was now gone. He realised he could not stay here. If the water rose two more feet all his dry land would be gone.

He eyed off his options as the light slowly brightened. The cliff on the other side of the river seemed slightly less forbidding. But there was no way he could cross over two hundred metres of thundering water, even if his leg was not broken and, with only one leg to kick with, it was totally hopeless. If his dry land was taken by the river it would claim him anyway and he would let it wash him where it willed, until rocks smashed him apart.

But for now he was still alive. When he contemplated his survival it felt miraculous; to have landed in a way where his seat and helmet protected him from death and to have found shelter on a tiny rock ledge just beyond the water seemed remarkable despite everything else about his circumstances seeming totally grim.

It reminded him of the story Mark had told him of the bullet wound to his arm, and how he had to patch himself up and make the best of it for many days without medical attention apart from a bandage and a few antibiotic tablets. He felt a kinship to Mark in this place; he did not understand why. As he thought about it more he remembered the crocodile from last night. He felt as if it had been sent by Mark to guard and protect him, perhaps help him to find a way out of this mess.

He looked around the water’s edge, wondering where the crocodile had gone while he slept. At first he saw nothing. Then he made out a shadowy outline in the stiller water. It was still there, sheltered by the jutting rock. As he watched, first a few scales along the back and tail broke the surface and then more of the head and body emerged. This animal was truly monstrous, he had nothing to work from to measure its size, but when he thought about the length of his helicopter from tail rotor to nose, it did not seem to be much different. That was well over twenty feet in length, way bigger than anything he had seen before.

Funnily enough the crocodile’s head was now facing the other way from last night, facing down river. Vic was tempted to try and head up river. It seemed the most logical way to go, in the direction of civilisation. There was a rock ledge five metres upstream which ran about five metres above him where the sheltering rock joined the cliff. He looked at it wondering if he could scale it. It would bring him higher above the water which seemed extremely desirable with a rising river. But as he surveyed it, he could see no way up its smooth edge. He may have managed to climb it with two legs and two properly working arms but with one good arm and leg he could not.

He looked at the crocodile again. Was it his imagination or did it seem to be waving its head and tail in a way which pointed down river. It must be my crazy imagination, he thought, but there did seem to be something of Mark in it which was trying to direct him; a whispered message from Mark’s crocodile brother saying, “Come this way.” He tossed up what to do.

In the end he decided to defer his decision while he checked the helicopter seat more carefully in case it held something useful. Then he needed to examine his broken leg properly and see if he could find something to splint it with. His glance in the half light had shown a massive area of purple bruising six inches above the ankle and he could feel the bone ends move and his foot flop around when he moved his leg, with stabs of shooting pain. So it was clearly broken, but at least the foot still seemed to have feeling and the skin was not broken, so those were good signs.

He decided he would watch the level of the river for a few minutes and see whether it was still rising while he also looked for a way to support this broken leg. It would be very difficult to travel far the way it was, and the continual movement of the bone ends must be doing further damage, not to mention the pain.

First he carefully examined the seat. Apart from a few jagged bits of metal which had come with it when it was torn from its mountings, that was all it was, a single vinyl covered pilots seat along with a piece of the floor, perhaps two feet square that ended in the bubble doorway on his side. There was also a small bit of metal attached above the seat’s left side where the seat belt mounting to his seat had torn away from the rest of the helicopter body and his belt was still attached. He looked more carefully at the piece of floor. He realised that this is what had landed on the side of his leg and trapped it, breaking the bone, somewhere in his fall down the cliff to the ground. He felt lucky he had remained strapped to the seat as he fell. It seemed to have protected him from being smashed apart on the rocks. He was also lucky that his leg had been struck by the rounded edge of the floor piece, where the door met the floor, not by some of the other jagged pieces of metal. Hence the skin on his lower leg was bruised but not torn open. His shoe also seemed to have protected his foot from serious damage. He was wearing just shorts and a tee shirt. He remembered he had put his other clothes in a small overnight bag which went into the space behind the seats when he left Wyndham yesterday. That was gone. He felt his front pockets, wondering if his wallet was there with that infernal memory card, cash and ID. No sign of it; must have fallen out too. Not that it was useful now. Still he had his boots on and they were a good solid pair, he would need them to try and walk to help if he could escape the river.

He resumed his search. In the back pocket of the seat he found his plastic covered flight map of this part of the NT and with it was one other thing. The map was handy but the other thing was of immense value. It was a pocket knife of sorts, one of those multi tool ones. He vaguely remembered having it a couple years ago when he bought this helicopter. But he could not remember having seen it in more than a year. Here it was, this discovery was very timely now.

He looked around the rock shelf where he was to see if anything else useful was in sight. There was no vegetation but there were a few small bits of timber and one reasonable sized stick that he could see; maybe four or five feet long and one to two inches think, a bit knobbly but fairly straight. He wondered if he could use that as a splint for his leg. If there was some wiry grass or bark handy he could use that to wrap around his leg and tie it to the timber to make a splint.

He wondered what else he could use. He knew he needed to support and protect his leg to give it a chance to heal if he was to find his way out of here. He wondered about cutting up his map, maybe the plastic would be strong enough to use to tie the splint together.

Then it came to him. He had all he needed right here, the seat itself. He could use part of the foam lining to provide padding and he could cut the seatbelt and vinyl cover into strips to tie it all in place. He worked away for an hour dismembering the seat with his little pocket knife. Now he had a pile of foam rubber pieces, about twenty pieces of seatbelt strapping and vinyl strips in various sizes up to few feet in length and a few bits of cording and wire from the seat’s internal contents. His tool even had pliers with a cutting edge that he could cut wire with.

He set to work binding his leg. First he padded his leg with pieces of foam tied into place with some of the thinner strips of vinyl. Then he broke the piece of stick into two lengths, each about two feet long, one of which was placed on each side of his leg, running from knee to ankle. He took the stronger and longer seatbelt and vinyl pieces and with them he tied the whole contraption together in several places. Finally he wrapped the cord and wire around as well for good measure. It was not perfect but it kept his foot and leg straight and felt like it would not fall apart when he moved.

As he worked he watched the water level. Now barely a foot of clearance remained from his work space to the water’s edge and it was still rising steadily. That storm further up the catchment last night must have been a serious one, he thought. He suspected there was lots more water to come through yet.

Well, there was nothing for it but to follow the crocodile’s lead and head down river. He looked out and then down the river. It was funny, even though the water was continuing to rise, he felt as if the flow had slowed. Last night’s foaming and thundering white-water river seemed to have eased into something else, still fast and dangerous but less wild, the tumbling whitecaps were gone. It was now almost a metre higher than when he had gone to sleep and the volume flowing was huge, but the broken surface had smoothed to a tea coloured swirling, running tide.

He looked up the river – the cloud above had broken into threads and patches, one of which obscured a weak sun. Sitting below it, between the cliffs, was a thin crescent moon, palely seen in the morning light. Something in his brain clicked, new moon, running tide – that was it. At least part of the rising water and slowing flow was due to the in-running tide.

He remembered yesterday morning that at this same time, as he flew across the coast from Wyndham, it was high tide in the big estuaries then and still running in. It was one of those king tides which came up twenty feet. Around mid-morning the tide was full. Today high tide would be about an hour later. It was acting like a huge dam, holding the new water pouring into the river back and forcing it to rise. The tide was slowing the flow to something more manageable than last night’s thundering rapid. That would have smashed him to bits; maybe he could swim or float in this. He chucked a piece of stick out beyond the protruding rock. It moved downstream at a fast running place, tricky but manageable, he thought.

Slowly his mind absorbed the implications of this. He could not stay here, that was apparent; the tide had another hour or two of rise yet and this water would flood his rock shelf completely within the hour. But it was now possible that he could float downstream in this river, at least until he came to a place where there was a break in the cliffs which would give him a place to drag himself out.

So, rather than fleeing the rising water, he needed to use it to help his escape. If only he had a boat or raft, something that would give him buoyancy as he went down river. He looked around. There were not enough pieces of dead wood to make a raft. Could he tie some small bits together? It would help a bit but there was not really enough to add much flotation. His eyes fell again on the seat. It came to him with a flash of clarity.

The seat was full of foam rubber, full of tiny bubbles of air. He thought of trying to use the whole seat. It would probably float but the metal parts would weight it down, and it would be cumbersome to hold on to it and to swim with it. No, what he would do was cut out pieces to use. He had cut some out to pad his leg, but the vast majority remained in two big lumps, one at the bottom and one at the back. He would cut these out in the largest pieces he could manage. Then he would tie them together with more strips of vinyl. The strips would give him something to hang onto. If he managed it right he could largely float as he was carried along by the flow of the water.

Somehow he had left that huge crocodile out of his consideration. Sharing the water with it gave him a pang of fear. But it had had plenty of opportunity to harm him already and had done nothing. And it was not like he had any choice. If the water kept rising he would be forced into it soon enough. Then he and the crocodile would be in it together. Better to do it with control, perhaps he could break off a piece of metal from the seat and use this to push it away if it came too close.

He looked at the size of this enormous animal and realised this idea was ludicrous; it could swallow him in entirety in a single mouthful. Still he felt better with the idea of some protection, even if only token, and a piece of metal might come in useful somewhere else in his trip. Come to think of it, he should pull the seat apart and look for anything else useful in it before he left. It was the only vaguely useful object in his surroundings.

So Vic set to work. First he cut out two large pieces of foam which he tied together. It was nice and light so the buoyancy would be good. Then he stripped what remained of the vinyl which he cut into long strips for future ties. It was hard work with the little knife, and his bad shoulder pained.

At the back of the seat was an elastic mesh holder, with gaps of about a centimetre between the threads. Perhaps, if he could make up a frame, this could be used as a fish net. He packed all these pieces into his broken helmet which served as a useful basket and then stripped all other pieces of cord, wire and any other metal fittings he could remove.

Now he really only had the metal frame remaining. He cut it free of the seat remnants. He looked closely at it. It was only light aluminium so it should be brittle if he could find a way to break it. A fissure ran into the cliff face just behind him so he jammed one end into that. Then he found a rock to bash into the middle where the metal curved around. After several blows he had cracked it through. Now he worked on the other end and broke it through too.

That gave him two curved pieces of aluminium, each about four feet long. As gently as he could he bent each one into a reasonably straight shape, though one had a hook like bit at the end. The pieces did not break or buckle so that was good, they looked strong and could be used as poles to push off rocks and otherwise guide his passage.

Now, only the broken shell of seat remnants remained. He poked around at it seeing if there was anything else useful left. He picked it up to look underneath. As he did he saw a small object fall from a crack between the upright portion of the seat and the base, which were still held together with fragments of fabric.

He looked at it in amazement. It was a transparent plastic cigarette lighter, not something he would ever use as a non- smoker himself. But someone else must have; perhaps the previous owner of the machine was a smoker. It must have sat there for at least a couple years, fallen out of a pocket into that gap, unnoticed.

Remarkably he could see it was still about half full of what looked like lighter fluid. It seemed too good to be true; if he could think of a single extra thing he would need to survive beyond his knife this was it. He felt almost scared to touch it, but he flicked it open. Sure enough a spark and flame came. Quickly he shut it off. Its precious contents must be preserved.

Now the water was starting to bubble around his feet and he knew that, ready or not, he must take to it. But he had one last thing he needed to do. He still had his plastic flight map of the area. He must survey it and determine where he might find a way to get out of this river valley. Even though it was at a large scale the detail was surprisingly good.

So he located the Fitzmaurice River and followed his route of yesterday, up the course of the river until that tight bend there and the fatal cliff. He remembered a big creek off to the other side just back. If he was on that side it would be an obvious way out. But despite his float there was no way he could get to the other side of this huge torrent.

His best bet was to stay close to this edge, where rocks and ledges slowed the flow a bit. So he followed the valley down on the map with his eyes. He had a vague memory of a steep and jagged gully cutting down a couple miles back. Not much more than a crack in the cliff really, but something to aim for. Sure enough that looked like it and the map showed it running back into the hills for a way, so it looked like a creek ran down it in the rain. Now he had a destination to aim for.

The water almost completely covered the rock shelf now. He clipped his helmet to a strap around the foam float, he pushed the metal poles into the straps where they would not fall out and pushed the lighter into the smallest pocket of his shorts and zipped it closed. He half stumbled, half crawled to where the rock shelf fell away into the deeper water. He deliberately avoided looking at the crocodile lest his nerve failed.

Suddenly the current picked him up and he was floating down the river about 5 metres from the edge. He decided to go out a bit further, it gave him a better view forward along the cliff and he was also less likely to be bashed into rocks on the edge. He looked around, the crocodile was nowhere in sight.

He tried to estimate the distance he was covering and his speed by taking reference points along the cliff, estimating their distance away and counting how long it took to reach them. It was far from accurate but his estimate was that he was doing something around 10 kilometres per hour. He barely kicked or paddled, deciding to save his energy and watch as the cliff faces swept past him.

He estimated that at this rate it would take between twenty and thirty minutes to reach the place he wanted to try and climb out from. It was only a guess but it was good to have something to occupy his mind as he felt very vulnerable floating down this large river knowing that at least one crocodile was somewhere nearby. He just hoped that the place he was heading for would have somewhere to climb out of the water; where he was travelling now the cliffs rose sheer from the water for more than a hundred feet.

After what seemed like about fifteen minutes he noticed a thin crack visible high on the cliff line, a few hundred yards in front of him. He wondered if this was it, but there was nothing further down the cliff and as he reached and passed under this place he realised that this crack must be a creek which ended in a waterfall. He watched a thin line of water fall a hundred feet into the river below. He moved a bit further out into the river as he passed below it, both to avoid its spray and to widen his angle of view. Another green line in the cliff was coming up in a few hundred yards. This one seemed to track all the way to the bottom. He began to paddle and kick his way back towards the edge. It was slow work as he could only use his good leg. Each time the broken leg got jerked around by the current pain shot through his body.

Now he could see it clearly. There was no obvious rock shelf but a ribbon of green ran all the way to the water’s edge and a couple of the trees at the bottom appeared to have their trunks partly covered by water. So if he could get into those it would give him something to hang onto and stop his passage.

Now the gap to the trees was closing and he could see better. One tree looked like it had two trunks about a foot apart. He would try to aim for the point where the water ran between them and jam himself tightly into the gap while he grabbed on to one side. He looped his arm through the strap between the bundles and tried to maintain his line. As he closed the gap, the trees seemed to be rushing towards him very fast.

He was there, his body slammed into part of the trunk with a huge weight of water behind him. His broken leg bashed into the trunk lower down and he almost screamed aloud with the pain. He wondered if his body would be torn through the gap with the still rising water but it jammed firm. The weight of the water was too strong to get out of this place, he could not push free. He must hang on and hope that the water either slowed further on the incoming tide, or fell low enough later in the day for him to get out of this tree and up the bank. It would be easier said than done. From here he could see no way out up the creek; the crack in the cliffs just vanished into gloom behind a wall of trees and creepers though he could hear the noise of running water coming down the hillside from behind. He forced himself to relax and stay calm, to savour the pleasure of having made it thus far.

Now he felt very tired and his body craved rest. He realised it was mostly hunger; it was over a day since he had eaten anything and in this cold water he was burning energy fast. He felt a light headed dreamy feeling steal over him. He thought of bars of chocolate, bowls of steaming stew and slices of bread and butter as his stomach growled. He decided to let the fantasy take him to block out the reality and pass the time.

The sun sat in a mid-morning position. He thought of yesterday’s breakfast, a large plate of fried eggs and bacon, on thick toast slices, washed down with steaming coffee. Then he thought of his mother’s cooking, her light and fluffy cakes, served with cream or ice cream. He deliberately followed the food trail in his mind; great slabs of steak, hot buttered potatoes, bowls of pasta and rice.

He may have dozed in this dreamy state. He realised that his body was being lifted up the tree, now the gap was widening between the two trunks, he had risen at least a foot, maybe more, and in about another foot the gap would let him pass through. Now he must turn his attention to what to do next, the force of the water had definitely eased.

He measured the distance to the edge, where other trees grew and where the flow was slack. There was a batch of trees about five metres downstream and a similar distance across from where he was. If he could get to them they may allow him to get to the bank or the rock face edge, or whatever lay out of view beyond the trees. He thought about how best to do it. When his body was high enough to pass between the trunks he would use his good leg to push off from this tree trunk as far as he could go toward the next destination. Then kicking with his good leg he could put out an aluminium pole and try to hook a tree before the current carried him past.

It did not quite work out that way, the flow was still strong and he was not yet high enough to pass through. But it had eased enough to let him slide around the side of the trunk, away from the centre. He pushed his way out and around, inch by inch, his injured shoulder hurting as he used this arm to help force himself back against the current. But at last he got free and then got his float free.

Now he rested for a minute holding tightly to the one trunk; that exertion had taken a big part of his reserve of strength. When he felt the tiredness ease he bunched himself up with his good leg against the trunk, took a deep breath, pushed and struck out. The current was much stronger than it looked and he was rapidly being swept along the bank and back towards the main river. He only had two more metres to cross but was fast coming to the edge of the treed place, just a bare rock cliff again.

With all his effort he paddled and kicked for the edge, missing the last tree but managing to grab hold of the protruding rock of the cliff where the fissure ended. He realised that the creek running out of the gap in the cliff also had a strong flow and was pushing him back into the main channel.

He had stopped right where the creek met the main river and there was a slight back eddy where he was, so it was easy to hold on. Now he had a good grip of the edge he set about pulling himself back along the rock edge following the creek up into the fissure. He had to do this by inches now, to bring himself around the rock edge into the side channel and then along its side. The hand holds at water level looked few and far between and he was terrified that if he lost his grip he would be swept back into the river. He needed to stop and think before he did something stupid.

He looked above. There was a broken slope rising up above him for about five metres which he thought he could climb, using hand holds and the occasional foothold. Up there it looked like there was a ledge running back along the side of the fissure that he could follow.

Climbing with only one leg and with one shoulder which hurt to move and lacked strength, was extraordinarily hard, particularly carrying his gear. But he was determined not to surrender it to the river; he carried his future survival in that small bundle. His bruised shoulder screamed protest. He realised he had got soft from days sitting on a seat in a helicopter but he pulled himself clear of the water. He rested for a minute. Then he began to climb up the rock face, little by little, it was about a sixty degree face, not sheer but mostly a dead lift with his arms. It seemed to take forever but at last he came to a clear flat ledge, about a foot wide. He lifted his bottom onto this and turned to sit, facing out to the river, arms feeling like jelly and his whole body trembling with fatigue.

As he did he looked below at the raging river. He saw that the tide had started to fall away. While the river level had not fallen appreciably the rate of flow had increased again, with a white broken surface returning. The sun was now at its highest and it said his river trip so far had taken two or three hours. He realised that if he had not got out here and now he would have been taken again and smashed by this water, it was now too strong to swim against.

As he watched a shape emerged from the water, next to the edge just below him, tail waving steadily to hold against the current. It surfaced, almost its full length, raised its head as if to nod to him, and opened and closed its nearest eye. He could have sworn it winked. He felt a sense of Mark speaking to him, “I have got you here; now you must do your part; Susan needs your help, you must return.”

Vic could not help himself, he knew it was ridiculous but could feel himself grinning. He raised his hand and waved back. He called out, “Message received, over and out.”

With that the crocodile rolled its body over and slid sideways into the water, disappearing with the flow. Vic knew from here it was all up to him. And he did not give a damn whether others called it ‘superstitious claptrap’. He knew his mate had returned and given him something he must do. It was the least he could do for his brother of the crocodile spirit.

 

 

 

Chapter 24 – Struggle to Escape

 

Vic looked at his walking stick. He had carved thirty notches into it. That meant 30 days had passed since the Crash Day. He had come perhaps 5 kilometres from that place, as the crow flies, but it felt like he had walked 100 miles and climbed Mount Everest.

He could feel the long hair on his face, now past itchy. He looked at his one set of clothes – tee shirt and shorts now were starting to fall apart, there were several holes in the shirt and the shorts were threadbare and almost worn through in several place. He looked at his skinny arms and legs and wondered where the muscle had gone.

That was the trouble with mostly eating things he could catch with his hands; lizards, frogs, an occasional bird and bush rat; plus he ate insects in any shape and size he could find except ants. He had tried a wide range of plants, seeds and fruits, tested slowly and carefully after early stomach cramps, but only a handful passed the real food test.

He should feel depressed; it had been extraordinarily hard and his journey was barely begun. But he had made it to the top and he still had both legs and feet, and the second one was only a bit crooked. He still could not take weight on it, but at least it had mostly stopped hurting, except when he banged it.

He looked out across the barren stony landscape in front of him. As best he could tell from his map it was something around 300 kilometres in a fairly straight line to either of the two main roads he could head for, either the Stuart Highway, somewhere around the Edith River Crossing 50 kilometres north of Katherine on the road to Darwin, or the Katherine-Timber Creek road, somewhere around the Flora River crossing a similar distance west of Katherine. The way he would have to go, up and down hills, following creeks and ridge lines, it was probably 400 kilometres.

So if he could manage five kilometres a day that meant 80 days of walking and if he could up it to 10 kilometres per day then perhaps a bit over a month, as long as there were no major setbacks. He figured it was now about the end of January. So assuming sixty more days he may see civilisation about the end of March. Of course he could get lucky and strike someone out here, but his chances during this wet season were low; it was a big one with a lot of flooding and water to run away yet.

He refused to countenance the fact that he may not make it, his survival thus far felt miraculous so this did not bear thinking about. Still, it seemed like a bloody long way to walk.

What he wouldn’t give now for a cold beer, big steak and a plate of chips, was hard to imagine. That would be his motivation to keep driving on. That, plus surprised looks on the many faces which had given him up for dead, along with a big hug from his Mum and sister, that would be reward enough.

But his first destination was to get to Darwin and talk some sense into that silly girl of Mark’s, stop her sacrificing herself to honour Mark’s imaginary memory. The real story must come out, whatever it was, that surely was the purpose of Marks message to him. A day after he got off the river he had realised he still had his wallet in a back pocket of his shorts, he thought he had lost it. There was not much in it, just a license ID, credit card and about $100. But the memory chip Susan gave him was still there, and even if he had yet to read it, soon enough he would and then the real story, the one he knew Mark wanted told, would be out there for all to know. He was past hiding secrets.

He looked at his meagre possessions, a makeshift backpack made out of strips of vinyl and bark, padded with foam to make it soft to carry; a spear, with a harpoon like head, cut and ground out of a piece of aluminium frame from the helicopter; a knife made of similar material, with a wooden handle; his stone cooking bowl; his fire kit – some smouldering embers wrapped in damp bark; a timber water scoop; a fishnet on a pole; an instant paperbark humpy, really just sheets of paperbark to sleep under to keep the rain off him, with a couple sticks to support it,; and a few other odds and ends, penknife, cigarette lighter, bits of metal, twine and wire.

He wrapped his paperbark shirt over his shoulders to minimise the sunburn and insects, he put on his bark and vinyl hat, he adjusted his makeshift pack, so it sat in balance on his good shoulder and took the weight off his gammy leg, he put his walking stick to the ground next to his bad leg, and stepped out.

He had picked a ridge line on the horizon to head to, due east for now, though he would adjust between north east and south east depending on the lie of the land. He had decided to break his journey into manageable bits, like this one to that next ridge line. After each bit he would stop, rest and see what he could find to eat. Of course he would also stop whenever he came to something promising like a little swamp with frogs; several frogs on a stick made a tasty barbeque. But he could not just hang around in this empty place and catch food, he had a destination to reach, and sooner was better, that steak and chips beckoned!

As he walked he relived the events of the last month. It had begun when he made it to that little ledge and said goodbye to the river with that strange crocodile; in his mind now it almost seemed to have a human face, Mark’s face, it certainly conveyed a presence beyond a mindless predator. Sometimes he wondered whether all that early part had been a hallucination, invented in his imagination in that time of pain and no food.

He remembered how he had crawled along that ledge, the weather steadily worsening as the early morning sunshine was covered over by ever thickening clouds and gusts of wind, blowing in from the north. They got ever stronger as the afternoon progressed. He had edged his way above the gully, with its own thundering creek, weak with hunger. As the rain started to set in he knew he must find shelter, along with the hunger he was getting really chilled with the cold wet wind.

So he scoured the hillside for openings and finally found a reasonable sized crack in the rock, dry with a sandy floor and sheltered from the wind. He dragged himself into it and curled up, too exhausted to move, though the hunger was eating into his belly.

As best he could remember, he had mostly laid inside there for the next three days. The wind and rain surrounded him and the water poured down the hillside. He came out just occasionally to drink water, pee and look at the rain streaming down and the wind lashing the trees.

Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, it started to blow itself out. By this time he was almost delirious with hunger, the pains came and went but a constant belly ache remained. He knew he must eat soon to allow his body to repair. In the late afternoon the cloud broke into high streamers, with occasional light showers and patches of sunshine.

He had started to survey his locale for food. It was not promising around the cave, but beyond it the ledge opened out onto a rocky slope, extending up into a barren hillside. So he found a stick for support and half crawled, half walked as he slowly worked his way around, looking for something edible, anything would do. He thought the best chance would be a reptile sunning itself. Finally he spotted a fat bluetongue sitting on a rock in the afternoon sun, ten yards away.

With all the patience he could muster he slowly crawled towards it until it was in reach of his stick. A well-directed blow gave him his first meal. He was tempted to rip into it and eat it raw. But the grass and leaves on the rocks were drying and he thought he could light a fire. So he had gathered a few dry twigs and leaves from his cave, and from these he slowly built his fire, adding drier bits from nearby. After ten minutes it was large enough to dry out and burn bigger sticks which were scattered around the hillside.

When he had a good bed of coals he had dropped his lizard on and let it cook. The taste of that meat, with the juice and fat dribbling down his chin, was one of the most exquisite things he could ever remember. He finished it way too soon, but that was good with his stomach so shrunken.

Since then he had shepherded his fire, bringing it to his cave that night and keeping it continuously burning now for thirty days. He had worked out a way to wrap embers in many sheets of damp paperbark and carry this in his helmet. In that way he could keep it alive for many hours and ready to spring back into life when he stopped and blew on it. He had his lighter but that was only a reserve, it would be gone in no time if he used it to make a fresh fire each day.

The next day he had set to work creating things he could use to aid his survival. He had used the mesh from the seat, with some wire and a pole to make a hand net. With that he had caught tadpoles and frogs in the streams, and sometimes little fish. He had found a flattish hollowed out piece of stone, and worked on it to grind it out further; until it held about a cup of liquid. If he slowly heated it in the fire he could make an acceptable tadpole soup. Various insects made tasty additions, grubs, termites, caterpillars, even the odd cockroach; he only drew the line at ants. He would have loved salt to flavour the soup, but it gave a nourishing feeling as he swallowed it. From this base he added various plant foods, like the starchy roots of water lilies, as he determined what was edible and safe to eat. So after that his survival kit included a fire ember bundle, a fishing net and a cooking stone.

He laughed thinking what his mother would say, “You become proper bushman, Vic, what happened to that takeaway hamburger?” But hell, beggars could not be choosers.

For two days after the weather broke he had concentrated on feeding himself and rebuilding his strength. He had made a better splint for his leg, now starting to set at a slightly crooked angle. It was beyond him to fix properly, but he set it as straight as he could in the splint, using pressure on the bent side to pull it back. He would tighten the binding until it hurt a bit, then do something to block the hurt out and after an hour or two the pain would ease back. So over the last month, while he had not got it fully straight, it had improved and at least the bone ends were together and the pain was now mostly just a dull ache. He had also made a good walking stick with a shoulder support, padded with some seat foam, so that he could walk effectively just lightly tipping the foot on the ground as he swung along.

He used his knife to cut strips of tree bark and pandanus leaves and twisted these together into heavy and light twine that he could use to tie things together. He made some simple spears out of lengths of wood with fire hardened tips, or a jagged metal pieces from the floor of the helicopter wreck. When his leg and balance got better he tried to spear larger fish or small animals he got close to. A couple of times he had succeeded, though nothing big enough for a feast.

So he made better weapons. He broke one of his metal poles into shorter lengths and used one piece to fashion a strong knife, better for cutting and digging. With the second piece he fashioned a harpoon like spear head with a tip that would not slip back out of a big fish or other animal. He tied light but strong twine to the back of the timber shaft and carried it with the end tied to his pack. His logic was that if he hit something big that would stop it getting away, the creature could not run or swim fast or far dragging his pack. So far he had caught nothing other than a couple of good sized fish but he would keep trying for a big wallaby or kangaroo.

The idea of a whole wallaby roasting in the fire grew large in his imagination, though as yet he had only glimpsed these in the distance. He also made a couple of shorter throwing sticks, slightly curved, that he could use to try and bring down a low flying bird.

Now he wished he had paid more attention when his grandfather tried to teach him desert bush craft. He could surely use those skills now. They were foreign to a town camp boy, but at least he was learning.

He had kept an eye out for a bit of hollow branch which he could block at one end to carry water, and finally found a piece burnt in an old bushfire and now used that to hold water. He had also searched for any soft clay that he could use to make an eating or cooking pot, and remove the need to carry his heavy stone, but that had not materialised so far.

On the third day, when he had made all the urgent things he needed and started to rebuild his strength, he had set out to explore his surroundings. He cave was on a shoulder of the hill with the creek to one side. It still flowed steadily but had fallen to a level where he could cross it in knee deep water.

The hill shoulder went for a few hundred yards on a moderate slope before it came up against a huge cliff, hundreds of feet high. At one end it curved around making an impenetrable barrier up against the river, where the gully cliff merged with the river cliff. At the other end he could see the hill shoulder with the cliff behind it narrowing in towards the gully where the creek flowed out of higher hills. It followed this path as it curved out of sight. This direction, away from the river, was where he would look for a path to the top.

It sounded easy, and he tried to trace it on his map. But his map gave him no detail at this scale; it simply showed a broken place running in the rock and going back for several kilometres before it vanished somewhere towards the top of the mountains. He knew he must get to the top of these mountains before he could head out cross country.

By his figuring he had to climb up at least several hundred more feet until he reached this place at the top. In the end he had used a process of trial and error to work out a way. These hillside valleys were treacherous places with areas of loose sliding rock and sheer cliffs, where an apparent path suddenly ceased, vanished into thin air and a chasm of hundreds of feet lay before him.

He had planned to just set off and carry his gear to the top then head overland, but he it was much more difficult than that. With his level of incapacity he could not explore safely and carry his gear at the same time. So he had evolved an approach where he would explore alternate days and shift his base camp on the other days. The exploration was to find a safe path higher and further away from the river, as well as a place with food, water and shelter to allow him to stop and rest.

The day after he found a new campsite he would first shift his gear and then spend the rest of the day fixing and improving his equipment and building up his stores of food. He experimented with cooking and drying the animals he caught, At the start the frogs were plentiful, then he caught a couple of fish which were big enough to smoke, and one night on dusk he managed to bring down a fruit bat with a throwing stick.

He had also worked out how to make a cake with a starchy plant root that grew in the soft dirt in gullies. He would pound this up into a paste, shape it into palm sized, flat cakes and cook them on a hot stone. Their flavour was close to disgusting but they did not upset his stomach and after he had eaten a couple he would feel better, as if he had part satisfied the hunger which sat always beside him.

He had figured that he needed a reserve of food, and tried to achieve this while he could, sensing that the going could get much harder in some places. What he had really hoped for was a wallaby, because then he could dry a large amount of meat in one sitting, as well as fully satisfy his current craving for meat. He experimented with making snares, which he set on likely looking trails along rock edges, fashioned out of wire and bark twine. He had succeeded in catching a couple bush rats in them, but the bigger game eluded him.

The search for an escape from the maze of cliff valleys had been much harder than expected. His first creek soon broke into several branches each climbing along its own valley gorge. He would follow the winding passage along a rocky creek bed, slowly clambering up and down over boulders only to find it ended in a fifty foot waterfall with no way to get to the top. He also tried the hillsides to see if they gave ways to come around the sides of steeper cliffs, but again he mostly struck dead ends.

In the end the most promising valley system had seemed to be a large secondary creek which ran off the main creek about a kilometre up from the main river. It climbed steadily following a relatively open valley, with steep but not sheer hills flanking it.

Twenty notches had been cut into his stick by the time he got to a place which he reckoned was about five kilometres along it. At this point it turned suddenly hard right. As he came around this bend he saw towering cliff all around and no way up. Looking at it he had begun to think it was impossible to get to the top, a maze with no exits.

At that point he had contemplated a return to the river, to try and fashion a raft which would allow him to float down to the mouth and from there he could use the tide to bring him up the Victoria River until he came to somewhere like Bulloo River where he could get help. He decided to give it one more week of trying for the top before he retreated and sought an escape that way.

He backtracked along this valley for about a kilometre to where he remembered a significant branch to the right. At that time the country to the right had seemed steeper and it had seemed counter intuitive to go up there. But he must try.

By then, despite the limited food, his body was getting much stronger; he was using his broken leg, not to take real weight, but to give him an extra hold and counterbalance as he climbed. He had seen movies where mountaineers used pegs driven into rock crevices, for hand holds and thought that was worth a try. There were a couple places where, early on, he had to retreat from ten foot cliffs which, if he was fully able, he could have scaled, but which were beyond him in his then state.

So he had reasoned that wooden pegs could be driven into rock cracks to surmount these, and twine used to lift his pack up after him. He found a place by the creek where several large saplings grew. He bent and broke these into lengths which he put in the fire and burnt theme through in their middles into increasingly smaller lengths. When it was done he had twelve solid wooden sticks, each one to two feet in length, with fire hardened points at one end.

That, plus about ten metres of bark twine, which could hold his weight, became his climbing equipment. As he worked along this new valley he had looked at it with different eyes, looking for parts of the sides which might be scalable with his new climbing gear.

About a kilometre along this new creek he came to a waterfall of about twenty feet, where the rock ledge blocked him. But at the sides were cracks in the rock which he thought he could scale. It took several hours and quite a few goes, but his techniques improved with practise and in the end he mastered a crab style, sideways climb where his strong arm and leg pulled him to the next level while his weaker side gave an anchor. By nightfall that day, using three pegs left in key locations, he made it to the top of this waterfall.

He rested there and the next morning he replenished his stores. To his great delight he had caught two fish of eating size in his dip net. He set off again in the late morning and by about lunch time he came to another similarly sized cliff. This time, his climbing technique much better, it only took an hour and he pushed on again.

From there the creek bed was covered in large boulders higher than his height and his progress had been incredibly slow. The valley sides had become much too steep to climb. Slowly he had advanced, only making a few hundred feet a day. For three days he followed this narrow valley. It twisted and turned like a corkscrew but he climbed steadily.

By the end of that time he had felt he must be nearing the top of the mountain. In the late afternoon he had rounded another twist in the valley, conscious of a noise ahead. As he got a clear view, in front of him had been a beautiful waterfall, flowing over cliffs into a lovely circular pool of water. Above this waterfall it had looked like the hillside ended, at least from his view below he could see no more hills rising behind. But all the cliffs in front of him and to the sides were sheer. There was nowhere that a mountain goat or rock wallaby could scale, let alone a half crippled man.

He had felt a burning disappointment to be trapped there despite the majestic waterfall. The beauty of the scene took his breath away, but he had wanted to scream in frustration at being so near and yet so far.

He had made himself rest for two hours. He had swum in the waterfall pool, luxuriating in its crystal clarity and speared a fat catfish, the best meat he had found thus far. With this food in his belly he knew he must not give up.

It took another five days to get to the top and the application of a different logic. He backed up to the first useful looking side valley, but this time rather than trying to think as a person he tried to think as a rock wallaby.

He sat and watched these elusive creatures. He looked for places where they had left their dung, he looked for places where they rested. But he particularly looked for their trails. If there was a place where they could get up and down the side of these hills then he would do so too, even if he had to crawl.

After a couple of blind tries which left him exhausted and still at the bottom of the valley he cracked it. It was really an unobtrusive place; it just looked like a fissure and crack in the rock. But as he watched and learned he realised that rock wallabies were following this path from the high sides of the hill down to water.

So he worked his way up, just himself this time, his gear left on the valley floor. In the end it was surprisingly easy, a couple of times he had to worm around narrow gaps sliding over smooth rocks on his belly, but he suddenly found himself on a gently rising rock scree slope that continued for a few hundred yards to a low ridge. At the top he came out into an open valley, a sort of grassy woodland, with deep soil and a creek meandering along it before it plunged over the cliff edge. Behind it were only low ridges of upland hills.

That was two days ago. He had felt so elated; he had made it to the top and at the top was food aplenty. It had taken the rest of the day to bring his things to the top, but it was easy labour knowing the way ahead was open. That night he had caught a large fish in the creek and a duck, both of which he roasted and fed on until he could eat no more, then he had dried the leftover meat.

He had rested more yesterday and replenished his larder, making a good batch of his flat cakes. He had even found a native bee nest in a low branch and broke out a piece of hive. The sugary bush honey was a wonderful energy lift and he had used some as flavouring to hide the bitter taste of his cakes.

He had thought of setting a snare on this narrow path to catch one of the wallabies, it was the perfect place and he was sure it would have succeeded. But within a minute of thinking this he had decided he would not do that; like the crocodile the wallabies had helped his escape and in return he would do them no harm.

Now on this new day, his thirtieth day he was leaving nowhere and on the way to somewhere. He walked on with purpose, despite pain in his shoulders and an already aching leg. At last he crested his first ridge and thought, a kilometre down, only 399 to go.

 

 

 

Chapter 25 – The Long Walk

 

Dawn of day 31 was cold and cloudy, though the rain had stopped. A big thunderstorm had swept over Vic in the night, and despite his paperbark shelter, which had kept most of the cold rain off his skin, wetness still found ways through. For the last two hours before he arose, in the predawn light, he shivered almost uncontrollably. In that first pale dawn he dug deep in the covered coal bed of the fire and found some still glowing embers. He would not cook now, but wanted to feel some warmth creep into his skin and bones before he set out on another day of walking.

Then he decided it was not worth the effort. Although it would be comforting to sit by a burning fire and soak it up, he would warm just as fast by walking and, with everything so wet, it would take half an hour to get the fire burning well enough to offer much comfort. Now it was light enough to see he could get to the next milestone in that half hour.

A couple of times in the night, when he was most cold, he had thought of getting up to start walking and warm up that way. But with the thick cloud the night was very dark and walking with only one good leg was fraught with peril when he could not see. He could not afford another broken leg, or even to badly re-injure the damaged one, that would make walking out of here impossible.

He reckoned he had made six kilometres yesterday. It was only an educated guess, but it fit with the geography he could read from his map. Six kilometres did not sound like much; hell if he was fit with two good legs he could have done that in an hour. But he could not step on one leg, only lightly touch it to the ground. And that meant that every second step he had to swing his body forward on the walking stick, it taking the place of his bad leg. It was not too bad to go a hundred steps like that, even two or three hundred. But after five hundred his shoulder, which was still tender from the crash, was burning like fire from supporting his body with each alternate step. Five hundred steps was the limit before his body needed to be rested. If he pushed it further he started to make mistakes, once he had missed a hole and his stick had gone into it, upending him. Another time, when he flinched from the pain in his shoulder, he had not made the step properly and landed badly. In the attempt to correct he had tried to take full weight on his bad leg. Christ it had hurt, but worse it had seemed to give a little, like he was starting to tear at the weak joining of the bones. So he knew he must be careful. But he could not sit and wait here for another month until his leg was strong enough to take full weight.

Anyway enough daydreaming huddled around the non-existent fire. He quickly packed embers for a fire around midday when there would be enough dryness for the wood lying around to catch fire and burn properly. He loaded his pack and other items and walked on. Slowly he made his steps and the steps added into tens, hundreds and thousands.

Each day merged into the next, the routine so similar.

Walk two hundred steps, rest until he counted to fifty, walk another two hundred, rest, walk, rest, walk rest, until a thousand steps were passed. Then sit down on a flat rock or log for ten or fifteen minutes, chew a honey cake or piece of dried fish and let the muscles get their energy back to do it all again. At four thousand steps he would stop for lunch, reckoning that as four kilometres, a big break.

He would light a fire, heat his cooking stone and make a soup with whatever was to hand, part drunk, part eaten. Then look for midday food opportunities, a reptile in the sun, a fish in the shallows, perhaps a low flying bird with a stick, or some bush apples or plums. Then walk two more kilometres in the afternoon, before searching out a stopping place, stopping while the sun was still high enough, He would find a place near a creek or waterhole, where frogs and other water creatures promised easy food. Snares were set for a bush rat or other likely meal. Then time was spent digging for yams and roots, lily bulbs or whatever was to hand, fresh cakes for dinner and cold cakes for breakfast. Any excess meat got dried and smoked over the fire.

He always ate yesterday’s food first unless it was fully dried; it was safer than keeping food for longer and seeing it go mouldy and he did not want to get food poisoning. Sometimes when his evening preparations were done he would allow himself an hour to lie and sleep in the falling sun. It helped give his exhausted body strength to hunt and prepare a proper evening meal and at that time there were less mosquitoes to disturb his sleep than in the night.

He did not know what was worse, the chronic tiredness or the chronic hunger. Both were always present even when he felt his belly was full or he had just slept for the night. He knew he really needed better nutrition for both his strength and stamina. He craved fat and sugar and fresh fruit and vegetables. But his mind was in a positive place as he was going forward and each day his bad leg grew a bit stronger and his body continued to heal its injuries.

In the late afternoon he would get a good fire going, waiting for the evening meal. Then that hour just on dusk was his hunting hour. He would watch where birds landed, so he could sneak up as they roosted. He would watch for fish movements in the shallows, a chance to use his spear. Sometimes he would stake out a track to a waterhole and wait patiently for an animal to come to drink; twice in his first two weeks he had got a wallaby that way, and spent the next morning smoking and drying all the surplus meat.

He now had several pounds of dried meat and about twenty yam cakes as a food reserve. He decided he would try and walk further each day, increase to eight kilometres or eight thousand steps. His progress on the map seemed to line up with these distances pretty well, maybe a bit less, though it was hard to judge with the ups and downs and detours. The extra two thousand steps was really hard for the next week, then it got easier so he went to nine thousand and then ten.

He found his need for food increased as he walked further, and he had started to use his reserve. He could also feel the muscles on his body start to fall away further and he realised he was losing strength. He decided he would look for a good place to stop for a couple of rest days, to build up his reserves, and then try to maintain a steady eight to ten thousand steps per day from there.

He realised now that ten thousand steps was falling short of ten kilometres on his map, perhaps eight kilometres was closer, but if he could do eight or nine thousand that was still around seven kilometres.

He found a good cave in a low rocky hill near a big waterhole and decided that this was his rest place. Each day now he let himself sleep until the mid-morning, those early cool morning hours gave the best rest. Then he hunted, fished and dug roots for the rest of the day. During his days in the cave, he caught two fat magpie geese, two good sized catfish, speared in the clear water, and one wallaby. Plus he had as many yam cakes as he could carry. His stick now had over fifty notches. He wanted to be out of here before he got to one hundred.

His leg could now bear the weight for a half shuffling step, though he still used his stick to ensure he did not stumble and do himself damage. Day followed day, sixty days passed then he was at seventy. That meant he had been walking for forty days now, making it early March by his calculations. Mostly he did between eight and ten thousand steps, though there were places were the country grew very rough and he only made five of six thousand, and also places where the hills and gullies forced him to detour from his intended path or even backtrack. He realised he was going as well as possible but also that he was burning out his body and slowly destroying it. He needed more starch and fatty foods, dried meat was good but the chewing now took effort and his vegetable diet was limited and also hard to chew.

He was now in the very top of the Fitzmaurice catchment and his map showed a place called Wombungi Outstation somewhere near here. He decided he would try and find that, perhaps there would be someone there, perhaps some food. On his seventy second day, his mind was wandering as he walked, ever returning to steak and chips, alternating with pictures of his mother.

And then there was an image of Susan, always Susan was in his mind or nearby now as he walked. She was the purpose, the thing that most strongly drove him on. He had a sharp etched memory of her face that day he last saw her, bold and challenging and yet with a quiet hopeless desperation. Mostly hidden, but there to read for those who looked right in. He knew she really needed him.

So he kept walking, one step and then a second with part support from his stick, repeated a thousand times before he needed to lie down and rest and often fall asleep. It was all he could manage now. Then he would wake up and make himself repeat it, perhaps two or three times in a day. He realised his body was starting to fail him but he just had to force himself to keep going.

Suddenly he found his way stopped. He looked down at what was in his path. It was a four barb cattle fence. In the last week he had seen an occasional scrub bull in the distance, or a track, but he and they had kept away from each other. Now a sign of real cattle. And with real cattle maybe food and people.

He followed the fence now. It was easier than walking blindly through the bush. And it had a graded track along the edge so the walking was easier. Just on dusk he reached a corner with another fence, so he followed this. In the last light he saw some station buildings in the distance. He hoped it was Wombungi, it must be Wombungi.

He did not know this place or its people. He had a memory that it had been a cattle station but had been sold to the aborigines, though he some vague idea that it had an outside manager and ran cattle, but it was only second hand hearsay.

Still whether it was a cattle station or an aboriginal camp he hoped there would be people would know about him and help him. He wished he could hear a generator or see some lights but there was nothing.

He came to the front door and banged but it was closed. He tried the door; it was locked. He walked around outside but there was no easy way in. He wondered if there was a car or some other vehicle he could drive, or maybe something else useful. Maybe even a store of food.

He checked the outbuildings, not much on offer there; he found a tin which would serve as a billy can and a half packet of biscuits on the shelf of a shed. He ate the packet of biscuits and, exhausted, lay down on the shed floor to sleep. He woke to thunder and lightning in the early morning, then the sound of rain on the tin roof, but rolled over and slept on, pleased to be dry and out of the rain.

In the morning light he better explored his surroundings. It was clear that the station was used, at least in the dry season. But it appeared to have been abandoned over the wet. There were no cattle in the close in yards though he had seen some fresh tracks in the big paddock he had walked around. The house was locked up tight. He knew that he could break in if he made an effort and would probably find some food. But unless there was a phone, which was uncertain, it was of limited use. The one thing he found which was useful was a big map hanging on the wall of the shed. It showed the paddocks and roads.

There was a road to Dorisvale Station, which looked like it was thirty of forty kilometres, and there was a road to Innesvale Station which looked like it was seventy or eighty kilometres.

Dorsivale Station was closer but he did not know the people there. He was far from sure it would have people there in the wet season, and if not it was a long way to walk to Pine Creek or the Darwin road.

Innesvale he knew, another now aboriginal owned station, but with a manager. He had not done work there but had met the manager and his family in Katherine at the Show. He knew there would at least be someone there over the wet, it was also not too far from the Katherine Timber Creek road should he be wrong.

So he decided to walk to Innesvale. He decided he would give up with finding food, now he would just eat the remaining food that he carried and walk as far and fast and he could each day.

He abandoned his pack and other possessions except for the walking stick and billycan, which he filled with his food. He found an old piece of canvas which he wrapped around his shoulders to replace the paperbark. If he was fit he knew he could have walked it in two days, he hoped he could do it in three days.

It was an hour after dawn on the fourth day when he stumbled up to the station house to find a caretaker eating his breakfast.

The man did not know him but took one look at him and pulled out an extra chair. “Reckon you could do with a feed he said, you look a bit hollowed out.”

The kettle was hot, a cup of tea was poured and loaded with sugar and in few minutes there was a plate of toast and eggs in front of him. As he took in the food he could feel the sugar give him strength and his mind begin to clear. The caretaker did not seem to know about him and the helicopter crash, he realised that some people lived in their own world and left the outside world behind.

But the caretaker had a car and could drive him to Katherine. And there was a phone so he could ring ahead. Finally he managed to get put onto Sergeant Alan Richards, just starting work for the day.

When asked who he was he said he was Mr Campbell but that did not mean anything at the other end of the phone. It took three calls to track Sergeant Richards down. He just happened to be working that day in Katherine, and at first he sounded impatient when he got put on the line.

Vic suspected he had no idea who a Mr Campbell was.

But Sergeant Richards put on his polite voice and said, “Yes, Mr Campbell how can I help you?”

Vic used his own polished voice and said, “I understand you are the detective who led the investigation into Susan McDonald, the lady charged with Mark Bennet’s murder. I have some important evidence in relation to this. I thought you should know about it. I hope it is important enough to change what happens in her trial.

Silence came from the other end of the line. Then, “What did you say your name was?”

“Vic Campbell, you and your partner met me at the Paraway Hotel in December.”

Now he could hear the penny drop. “Vic, the helicopter pilot. But you are supposed to be dead, they told me your helicopter crashed out west, somewhere near the mouth of the Victoria River, they found wreckage floating in the water. Where are you, and what is going on?

Vic replied. “Well as best I can tell I am not dead, but a bit skinny and hungry looking. I had a long walk to get here, took me upwards of 75 days, or at least I have 76 notches on my walking stick without one for today.

I have just arrived at Innesvale station which, as I understand it, is a couple hours’ drive west of Katherine. The caretaker here has just offered to drive me to Katherine, and I thought maybe we could meet and I could fill you in.

Sergeant Richards then said. “I imagine you have not heard any news for a bit, and I can fill you in as we drive. But you should know that Susan has been found guilty of Mark’s murder at a trial two weeks ago. Today she is to be sentenced.

“I have been frantically working here in Katherine, looking for information that might change the outcome of that. Within two hours I hope to have all of what I need. Then I was going to hop in the car and drive frantically to Darwin and ask the judge to take it into consideration before he makes his sentencing decision this afternoon, soon after 2 pm. That is why I sounded a bit rushed.

“If you could get to Katherine no later than ten thirty this morning then you could come with me to Darwin and we can talk on the way. What I have now will certainly help her but anything you add will make it better. I know she doesn’t want my help but I am determined to give it anyway, and you are the one person who I think she will listen to.”

So they were on their way. Vic decided to skip the shower in the interests of time but found a clean pair of shorts and tee shirt even if a couple sizes too large. He also put clean socks on his feet and returned them to his slightly battered boots. With that they left.

 

 

 

Chapter 26 – Deliverance

 

It was a crazy rushed drive to Darwin, even though they stuck more or less to the speed limits. As they drove they talked. They both felt in a great hurry but with three hours of driving there was no rush to tell all.

As they started driving Alan gave Vic a muesli bar to eat, saying he looked like a starved Ethiopian and he could not afford the time to stop for a meal, so he would have to make do with that. Vic chewed it slowly, savouring every delicious morsel. It was not much but he could feel the food returning more of his strength and his mind sharpening with each bite.

As he ate Vic filled Alan in on his miraculous escape. He even told him about the crocodile and how it seemed to be giving him a message from Mark about helping Susan and at the same time protecting him. Alan looked at Vic quizzically a couple times as he talked about the crocodile. But Vic stuck to his guns.

So Alan told him his own story about the huge crocodile out at the Mary River and how it appeared to be grieving as they took away the parts of Mark’s body. He said, “Sandy and I both saw it and we have told it to Charlie, the aboriginal fisherman who found the head, and he gets it. But we have not told anyone else because we did not want to be called crazy.

“So don’t worry, I believe you. I don’t know what it is about this guy Mark, your friend, but it is clear that he and crocodiles have some deep affinity.”

Vick laughed back, “Did you know he has a crocodile skin totem from east Arnhem Land, says the blackfellas out there kinda adopted him when he first went there to work. And now he carries a little carved crocodile as his totem crocodile spirit wherever he goes.

Alan dug in his pocket and pulled out the carved crocodile he had found at the billabong. “It doesn’t look like this I suppose. I found this on the bank of the Mary River about a week ago and somehow I feel like it is guiding me forward too. “

Vic nodded and laughed. “I suppose neither of us should admit it to the rest of the world or they will all call us nuts. To me it somehow seems like Mark is out there pushing and pulling the levers, the clever bastard, that he and his crocodile friends are helping us. I suppose that should be past tense, but somehow, since I met that crocodile out on the Fitzmaurice River, deep down I think of Mark as still alive.

“I know the truth will be bad for what people say about Mark. But I am sure he wants the truth out; he does not want to have Susan carry the can for what he did. That was the message he gave me out on the river and he entrusted me to deliver it. So I made myself just keep walking, step after step, even when my body wanted to lie down and give up.

“When we used to work in the bush together most mornings Mark would go off early and write into a diary. Once or twice he read stuff out aloud to me, like how he described me and my helicopter as a metal bird which the real birds laughed at for its clumsiness. It was very funny, he had a gift to tell a good story.

“Anyway I asked if I could read it. He said no, it told all the bad stuff about him as well as the good and that he did not want me to know the bad stuff. I knew he was a mercenary in Africa, that is how he took the bullet in the arm, and he killed people there, but there was obviously more bad stuff as well that he did not want me to know about.

“But he said that, when he died, I would have his diary and I could read it all and know both the good and bad, like a brother should, and if I wanted I could tell the world his secrets.

“It was like he had a kind of death wish. He knew he would not live to be an old man, he said he was like a cat with nine lives but one day all his lives would run out and he thought it would be soon. He was not afraid, just determined to live life until it was over and then that would be that. He was completely fearless you know. Something must have happened to take away all the fear and put a hard dangerous thing in its place. All of us, his friends, could sense that dangerous part though we pretended not to notice.

“But there was a good side too, kind and generous to his friends, good to bush people. He really got on with my mother, she told him she had adopted him even though he did not ask to be adopted, and he said he was pleased to have her as a mother as it really made me his brother. She said, having a brother was not so important, what he needed most was a mother to take the place of the one he never had and most of all to give him some love inside, and that would be her job. I think she thought if only he was given enough love to replace what he had missed when he was little the bad part would go away. But it never did.

“So I think Mark looked to the girls to fill that space. There were lots of girls over the years but most of them never stuck. If they tried to hold on too tight he pushed them away. Once or twice I thought he really liked one, but a lot were just good time girls out for their own pleasure too and soon went on their way.

“He did not seem to mind a lot, “Easy come, easy go,” he used to say. It was like he was never prepared to invest much in them emotionally and so when they left it just proved they were not worthwhile. Some were gorgeous and he could really charm them, but it never seemed to go anywhere.

“Deep down I think he was looking for someone special, sort of like the mother he never had. The girl he needed had to be strong enough to stand up to him but not too pushy. Any girl who liked him and wanted to stay there could not hang on too tight. He really hated people who tried to bully him, either physically or with emotion.

“Then Susan came along and from the first minute it was different. He told me he saw her first on the beach at Cairns, before she saw him and right from then she somehow captured him, like by magic. So he went on a dive with her and made friends and the next thing they were lovers.

“By the time he left Cairns he had pretty much made up his mind she was the one. But then there was all this bad stuff he had done and he did not want her to see it. It was like he was trying to charm her, be open with her, yet something inside him kept closing her out.

“She was as captivated by him as he was by her and she was determined to find out who he was. I don’t know what the bad stuff was, but she found out something, something really bad, she as good as told me that.

“And that is when it went all wrong. Before that he had made a will which I witnessed, giving all he owned to her, not that she knew. And he made me an executor to the will, and made me promise, that no matter what, that I would look after her.

“But then when I found out what she had done, that day you told me at the Paraway Hotel, I was real mad at her. I went and saw her in prison and made her tell me what she had done. At first she tried to pretend, but I slapped her, told her I needed to know if she had killed my best friend and brother.

“She said ‘Yes, she had made a mistake and wished now she had not.’ She would not tell me why. But I knew, deep down, that she had discovered something terrible about him.

“Then I asked her for the diary. I said Mark had promised it to me.

“So she gave it to me. Not the full sized thing. But a tiny memory chip that fits in a phone and which had a copy on it. It was hidden in her shoe in prison. She said that it was given to me to respect his promise.

“She told me it was mine to read but to be careful with what I did about it, that it had bad stuff inside it about Mark, and that she did not want to poison his memory through this, particularly so the child she would have did not know this about his father.

“I think I knew about Mark’s bad stuff, deep inside me, before she said it, but then it was in my face. It made me responsible too. I knew then, that as I read the diary I would share her secret and so too I must share the decision about Mark’s future, to decide along with her what the world should know.

“So I still have the chip. It is almost the only thing that I have from the crash. It was wrapped in sticky tape and I put it in my wallet, which is still in my pocket. The chip may be wrecked from the water for all I know. But, even if it is, the original diary will be somewhere and the story will be in it.

“When Susan gave it to me, just before Christmas, I did not want to read it straight away. I did not want to know the bad things Mark had done. I knew they must be very bad for Susan to hide them the way she was. All I can think of is that, perhaps, he did something bad to some of those girls I met.

“So I never tried to read his diary before I crashed. But when I got out of the water, and I knew Mark was helping me survive, I also knew the tale had to be told and Susan could never tell it, it would mean destroying his memory and she will not do that.

“Susan thinks her silence will protect him but she is wrong. It will only harm her without helping him and that is an even greater wrong. Even if she locks this secret away inside herself so she can never tell, someone will still find out one day.

“So I knew that when I got back I must tell what I know. And if I cannot read the diary on the chip I will make her tell me where the original diary is kept. I know that is what Mark wanted. Even she cannot be allowed to stop him from having his story told.”

Alan nodded as Vic talked. It made sense and fitted with what he had found out. He saw too that this truth had sat before Mark’s friend’s eyes over years past but loyalty had made him blind. It was left to this slip of an English girl to summon the courage to search and find. Now her own courage was destroying her. If she stayed locked up or worse, her blood would be on Vic’s head too, as it would be on his and Sandy’s for their own role in her destruction.

Alan told Vic his own discoveries; first about Mark’s real name and childhood; then about the suspicion of Mark’s role in a couple deaths as a teenager, but with no evidence they had never gone anywhere.

Next, that Mark had just vanished when he waseighteen, except for a single record when he was twenty, leaving on a plane going to London. They had not been able to find him overseas and assumed he must have taken another identity.

Then he came to the final piece of the puzzle, the text message from Susan to Anne asking her to investigate two names, and Anne’s reply. He told of the contents and how that message had been picked up in Timber Creek at 9.05 am on the last day anyone had seen Susan and Mark together, just at the time when Mark was seen driving out of town, with her asleep in the passenger seat. He told Vic how he had just found out this morning that the two girls were still missing. The American girl had taken a while to trace and the final phone call from the USA had not come in until ten am this morning.

Now it was Vic who was nodding. “Yes she must have found out later that day when she woke up, and Mark must have found out what she knew. So it fits with what she told me, that she was frightened when she killed him, believing he would kill her.”

Alan continued, “Yes she must have thought it would be the same for her as the others.

Alan then told Vic that, on the basis of the evidence of the text messages, he intended to go to the judge and ask him to delay sentencing until he could make an investigation about what happened to these other girls. He would point out that this gave grounds for self-defence or a greatly reduced sentence, regardless of what Susan herself admitted to.

So now, even though he had nothing directly against Mark, he had good grounds for a further investigation. And most importantly he had a story which made sense.

The reason he was in Katherine was that he had been allowed a couple days to work on chasing up the leads to the Mark Butler identity which seemed to be centred in Katherine. He had convinced his boss that this was required once he had the Vincent Bassingham stuff. It was just luck that he had still been there this morning getting the final bit of information before returning to Darwin to go to the court.

He had deliberately avoided telling his superiors what he had found out in the last day, because he knew they would want to do it all officially using the lawyers, media management and lots of care. But he knew there was not time and the publicity would be dangerous.

He told Vic he was very fearful that Susan had become suicidal and that once the judgement was given she would find some way to end it all for herself. So he thought his best chance was to break it all open in court; ask the judge to delay sentencing, even release her on bail, while his investigation proceeded.

Vic said he would provide support by his evidence of the diary, he would tell the judge that and he would make his copy available to Alan or whoever was given the job of doing the investigation. It would support Alan’s story and give a further and better explanation of who Mark was and what he had done.

They were both confident this would be enough to change the court decision. But for Alan the real worry was Susan. He was terrified of what she might do when the truth she had been so desperate to hide came out.

Vic turned to Alan and said, “You worry about convincing the judge, let me worry about Susan. That is my real purpose in walking all this way here, to help her see the real truth. There is a truth that she has become blinded to, that Mark wants her to see. It is that she will betray him and his legacy if she seeks to harm herself or deprive her children of their mother, as Mark was deprived of his mother. I grew up with a mother, Mark did not.

By the time my mother found him and adopted him, it was too late to rescue him from himself. Susan sees danger if her children know their father and the evil he did. Much greater is the danger to her children if they never know their mother’s love for them, never know the joy of being held in her arms and comforted.

“This is what I must make her see; that of all the people here she is the best, the one who most deserves to live, the one who still has the most she needs to give.

I was lost in an empty place but I escaped, with the help of my brother Mark. Now she too must escape from her own soul’s empty place. I will lead her out, as Mark led me. It will be enough to bring her to the place where she holds her own children. Once she holds them, as my mother held me, she will know a better love than what she had for Mark, and that love will hold her fast.

So do not fear from here. In the moment of truth she will hate us both, she will fight to keep her secret. But there is a power in this truth that even all her will cannot stop. And, as the crocodile spirit protected me, his brother, from the river, so too will the power of this crocodile brother’s spirit protect her in her moment of danger”.

They arrived at the Supreme Court building in Mitchell Street, Darwin. The time was 2.05 pm.

 

 

 

Chapter 27 – Judgement

 

They had walked into court as a barrister was just standing up to start speaking. Alan obviously knew him and they gave each other a subtle acknowledgement. Vic remembered the communication between himself and Alan about the timing of their arrival.

The court was jam packed; there were so many people that it was hard to separate familiar faces amongst the sea. However Vic’s eyes were not really for the court at large, he was looking for Susan, searching towards the front of the field of faces, to the central place where she should be, awaiting the courts judgement. He kept moving his eyes from face to face until he found her. Despite his words of surety to Alan a bare minute before, he now felt uncertain at how his mission would be received.

Not that he would be turned aside; his purpose was both to meet a promise to Mark and to help Susan, whether help was wanted or not. But it mattered to him what she thought. Suddenly his eyes found her and in a split second their eyes were locked on each other.

He realised in the first instant that she had not recognised him, hardly surprising when he thought what he must look like. But as their eyes locked he felt her recognition like an electric shock. She called out his name, loudly and with joy across the silent court room, and then smiled towards him, an overwhelming and radiant smile. He could tell she wanted to come running towards him, fling her arms around him, and he wanted that too, so much.

He felt his heart skip a beat; she was more beautiful in person than the image in his mind. He smiled back; basking in her warm smile then he waved his arm back toward her in acknowledgement, needing to do something to signal his affection direct to her. Her face lit up even more, she looked so delighted to see him, unable to believe it was true.

It was hard to think straight at a time like this. Must not let myself get distracted, have a job to do and must not let her influence me.

He realised Alan was speaking to him. “Would you just wait here for a second while I approach the judge and seek his permission to talk to him directly, one on one.”

Vic stayed where he was and watched as Alan walked forward and made his request. Initially the judge looked unsure and then he looked to the two barristers for reaction. Vic saw Alan walk over to the barrister for the prosecution and say something quietly to him, this person obviously already knew Alan, and after a few seconds of speaking he saw the barrister nod his head in agreement and, with his partner barrister and Alan they followed the judge from the court.

Vic turned his attention back to Susan; she was sitting with her hand over her mouth looking stunned, her eyes boring into him, intense and pleading. He gave her another quick and intense smile, trying to convey comfort and certainty. Then he found himself unable to meet her gaze, knowing he must do something that she was fighting the whole world to prevent, telling the truth about Mark.

He saw Sandy, who he recognised from the meeting in Katherine, sitting next to Buck and his wife. Buck was trying to greet him with a delighted wave and then he whispered to Sandy who was now waving too.

He walked over and they made a narrow space between them. They were both speaking at once, trying to ask the same questions, what happened to you, where have you been?

Both he and Alan had decided to tell no one en route of his return, they would let the news spread from here, they did not want a media pack waiting for them and interfering with what they had come to do.

Vic could feel a rising murmur of gossip spread behind him, people trying to work out who he was, mostly clueless both as to his identity and to why he had come. He saw a tight knit group of people extending to the side and behind Buck all looking at him intently, seeking an introduction or explanation. It was all too much, everyone clamouring for him and he suddenly felt faint and dizzy, needing to grasp at the side of the rail as he sat down. He realised it was a long time since he had eaten and his reserves were running low.

Buck looked at him with concern. Vic had still not found any words. Buck reached into his pocket and found a chocolate bar. I think you need this. You were always built like a greyhound, now you look like a greyhound who has been starved for three months. Vic took it with thanks. He tore of the wrapper and took a big bite, letting the sugary sweetness fill his mouth, and lift his brain into action.

“Thank you my friend,” he said to Buck, “You have no idea how much I needed that. Not quite the steak, chips and beer I have dreamed of over the last 75 days as I walked across that Godforsaken Empty Place from where I decided to park my chopper, but it still tastes so good. Now what were you saying. Oh yes, where have I come from? Well as best I can remember it is a gorge about ten miles upstream from the mouth of the Fitzmaurice River.

“I was lucky to run into your bloke in Katherine,” he said, turning to Sandy, “and he offered me a lift to this establishment to join in the free entertainment, otherwise known as the hanging of our good friend Susan.

“But Alan and I, we both think we may have a thing or two to say which may upset all the well laid plans to bury her in a cell for a couple of decades.”

He suddenly realised that everyone else had stopped talking and whispering and his voice was resonating across this part of the court. Now Vic looked embarrassed, “Just a private conversation between me and my good friend Buck here. I will stop talking and keep eating now if it is OK.”

Buck’s wife, Julie, broke into delighted giggles. “Oh Vic it is just so good to see you alive and well, if a bit thin. And still with the ability to make a joke about the worst of things.”

It was like a circuit breaker; Vic felt like he was home and slumped back in the seat, surrounded by his friends.

Around him the conversation rose from a murmur to an almost roar, everyone clamouring to spread their part of the story they were just starting to understand.

Suddenly the judge’s gavel rapped on the bench. Everyone subsided into stunned silence. The judge’s assistant spoke in a loud voice, looking a bit surprised at the effect of his banging. “His honour has requested Mr Vickram Campbell join him in his chambers.”

Vic stood up and walked across, following the man from the court.

He found himself seated in the centre of a group of four men, Alan he knew, the other three he realised were the judge and two barristers, all minus wigs. They all looked up at him expectantly and brief introductions were made.

The judge asked Vic to briefly tell him about his meeting with Susan and the object he had been given. He reached into his pocket, removed his wallet and found the small chip wrapped in plastic and gave it to the judge. He explained, “I asked Susan for Mark’s diary which he had promised when he was alive, to let me read it. I think it will explain the reason for what happened between her and Mark which led to his murder.

“Susan told me a copy of Mark’s diary was on this memory card. I did not get to read it before I crashed, and it has been in the water many times since so I don’t know if it will work. But I believe that the truth about Mark and why she was frightened of him is here.

The judge passed this to Alan. “I assume you can get this transcribed and provided back to me with some analysis of what it means in the next few days, that is if it is not damaged. And even without it there is a clear inference from the texts as to why she was afraid.

“So, on this basis I am prepared to make a ruling to suspend my sentencing until your investigation has been given a chance to gather information.

“I am also inclined to make a ruling that this lady, this remarkable lady I would say, should be released on bail forthwith.

“It is clear, whatever is found from here on, that she had a real fear of this man and there are good grounds for a retrial with this new evidence or even dismissal of the charge, though the guilty plea makes it more problematic.

“Because of the way this evidence involves other parties, where there is grave concern about their fate, I will also impose a ruling that all the evidence I have heard here is to be held in total confidence to the parties here until the investigation has had the chance to occur. Do I have the agreement of all of you to what I propose?”

They all nodded.

“With your permission I should like to speak briefly to Susan’s friend Anne before I announce my ruling, just to confirm from her own mouth about the text in question. Then, after I announce my ruling, I will talk to Susan McDonald and ask for her cooperation if she is willing to give it. Not that it will change my ruling if she does not; she has been through more than enough.

So Anne was called in, and the judge briefly confirmed in the presence of the others that she had received and sent the texts which were referred to. Anne nodded her head and then smiled her grateful thanks to Alan.

She said, your honour, “I promised her I would keep her secret until such time as she was able to tell it. I still do not know what it means but I have been so conflicted, keeping this hidden, knowing the way it would go for her if it was not revealed, but yet being bound by my promise to her. Today I had decided that regardless of my promise I must reveal it. But it would still have been a betrayal so I am glad that this did not come from me.”

The judge nodded and gave her a fatherly look. “I would feel lucky to have a friend as good as you. We both know your duty to the court but friends are friends, and promises are promises.”

Anne walked out and Vic followed her back into the court room with the others trailing behind.

When all were seated the judge started his ruling. “Ladies and gentlemen, as you may gather very significant evidence has just been brought before the court and it raises serious questions about whether the original guilty plea made by Ms Susan McDonald should, in the interests of justice, be allowed to stand.

“I have therefore suspended my judgement as to passing sentence until this new material is investigated. As this material would appear to be highly favourable to Ms McDonald’s ultimate exoneration from these charges I have also ruled that she should be released on bail of ten thousand dollars forthwith.

“In addition, while I do not require it, I seek her cooperation to assist us with the investigations we need to pursue to resolve this matter.

“Until this investigation is complete I am not prepared to disclose any further information as to the nature of the new information. In addition I make a suppression order, effective immediately on all parties who hold the information to which I refer, that has just been laid before the court, that none of it is to be disclosed without the specific approval of this court. Its premature release has potential to harm this inquiry.

I permit the release of my ruling today, but all other evidence I have heard today about Mr Vincent Marco Bassingham is hereby suppressed until I rule otherwise.”

With that he rapped his gavel and stated the court was dismissed, then he walked out of court and returned to his chambers.

For a minute there was total stunned silence as people tried to grasp the meaning of what they had just heard. Slowly the people started talking amongst themselves, though still nobody had moved.

A minute later the judge’s associate came back out and asked that Susan accompany Sergeant Alan Richards and Vikram Campbell to the judge’s chambers. Susan was accompanied by a prison guard. The judge waved to him and to Susan’s handcuffs.

“You can take them off now, I have ordered her release, and I am assured that bail will be posted before she leaves the court.” The handcuffs were removed and then the judge indicated to the prison officer to leave, suggesting he may wait in the court building proper if he needed further instruction.

The judge looked at Susan in a kindly way. “I think you have had a pretty rough few months and can stop fighting us all now.

“We know enough now to know that while you have told us the truth about what you did, it is far from a full and satisfactory explanation of what happened. We do not know the full answer to why, but we know some things thanks to Sergeant Richards here.

“For instance the key evidence which was brought before me and led to this ruling was the transcript of the text sent by you to your friend Anne and her reply to you, which makes it clear that there were deep suspicions held by you about the role of the man you knew as Mark Bennet in the disappearance of two other backpackers.

“So I have ordered an investigation into these matters by the NT police, to which Sergeant Richards will give his urgent attention. As you have heard I have suppressed all information relating to this out of respect for the potential victims and their families.

“In addition, Mr Vikram Campell has informed me he holds a copy of his friend Mark’s diary which was given to him by you. I have instructed that this be provided to the NT police to assist in their investigation and Mr Campbell has already done so, though we are unsure whether it has sustained water damage during the last three months.

“Now Ms McDonald, many people have tried to compel you to do things over the last few months and all we can say is your strength of will has been extraordinary, and now we have this new knowledge we at least begin to understand the reasons why.

“Instead I ask you earnestly to assist us with this investigation, as you hold most of the real understanding about these events. I could order you to do so but I see no point, you are clearly not intimidated by any punishment at my disposal.

“So I just ask you, for the sake of the many people who have fought for your freedom and for the sake of these missing girls, whatever their story may be, to assist us all.

Susan could think of no words to say. She had fought so long and so hard and it had all been futile, now the truth was out anyway. Nothing she could do could put the genie back in the bottle now. Even her thoughts of suicide seemed empty now that Vic had been returned to her, she could not, she would not waste that gift of life restored by what she saw now was a selfish act. Mostly she just felt exhausted and stunned.

She just looked up and nodded. Then she covered her face in her hands and her shoulders started to shake. She sat there, at first crying quietly then sobbing as if her heart would break.

After a minute Vic walked over to her and put his thin arms around her shoulders, brought her to her feet and led her outside. He realised that the main job for which he had returned was not to find her justice, not even to protect her from herself, but to hold and comfort this woman and bring her beyond this place of desolation.

He grieved for Mark; she grieved for Mark and for so much more, the loss of her joy and innocence, the destruction of a belief in human goodness. Together they would share and let go of their empty place and find a meaning beyond it.

As they reached the corridor outside she suddenly hugged herself so tightly to him.

“I am so glad you came back. I am so tired of being alone. When you were gone too I felt I had lost every friend in the world. Now you are back I don’t want to ever let you go. I just want you to stay with me and hold me like this forever.”

Vic pulled her head into his bony shoulder and stroked it and kissed away her tears. “We are together and we will each make the other strong again,” he said.

Suddenly Susan started laughing. “We are such an odd couple aren’t we? The fat pregnant prisoner with the huge belly who waddles when she walks and the crippled wild man fresh from the jungle, who looks like he hasn’t washed or eaten a proper meal in three months, and who is mostly skin, hair and bones.”

Vic laughed back, “Well you have me described to a T, but you were a bit kind to yourself, you forgot your tear stained face with mascara all down your cheeks and the fact that, now that I have hugged you, you are starting to look and smell like me, with smears of bush dirt added to your pretty dress.”

Susan screwed up her face in a mock grimace. “Vic hug me again, I want more of your smell and feel on me, it is more real and better than anything else I can think of.”

So he pulled her too him again and they wrapped their arms around each other and held close for a long time. This time somehow it was more than a hug, it was a promise.

Susan thought of the syringe lying on the court room floor. She was glad it was there and she was here. She saw suddenly and clearly that a great madness had possessed her mind.

 

 

 

Chapter 28 – Release

 

At last they separated and walked into the court room together. A handful of people had left but most were still sitting there, still looking stunned.

As she and Vic started to walk in the door together, holding hands all eyes turned towards them. Suddenly a spontaneous cheer erupted and people started clapping for her, perhaps for Vic too, but it seemed mostly for her.

It came to her, I thought most of these people were my enemies, wanting to see me locked away, in previous days they would have been calling for my blood. But most of these people are actually on my side. It was a big room with more than a hundred people packed in and most of them were clapping and cheering for her, celebrating her freedom.

She looked around. There were Anne, David, her family, her cousins from Sydney, Buck and other station people, Sandy, Charlie and Rosie. But there were lots of others that she did not know, people who had no reason to care what happened to her. Yet here they all were, come out to support her. She stopped in the middle of the empty courtroom floor and smiled and waved, tears running down her face.

She said, “Thank you everybody, thank you with all my heart.”

Then she turned to Vic and said, loudly and clearly, so all could hear. “And most of all thank you to this man. For those of you who do not know him, his name is Vikram. He is the pilot of the helicopter which crashed on the Fitzmaurice River just before New Year’s Day.

“He has walked without stopping for the last 75 days with a broken leg to get here today. He tells me that now he has made it all he wants to do is go to the pub for a cold beer with a big plate of steak and chips. So if you will excuse me that is where we are headed.”

With that she gave him another hug and then walked across to her family and friends to say her thanks to them as the clapping and cheering continued.

It was far from over but she had hope again.

 

 

 

About the Author

Graham Wilson lives in Sydney Australia. He has completed and published eight books, including three in the Old Balmain House Series and five in this Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series.

His first novel in the Old Balmain House Series, tells the story of a small girl who went missing 100 years ago with her best friend and was never found, leaving a trail of grief down through generations until the finally her story is discovered. It is set in the real Balmain, an early inner Sydney suburb, with its locations and historical events providing part of the story background. The next two books in this series tell the story of another family who lived in the same house and the important role which this missing girl plays in their lives

Graham has also written five novels in this Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series. The first novel “Just Visiting.” tells the story of an English backpacker who visits the Northern Territory and becomes captivated and in great danger from a man who loves crocodiles. The second book in this series (and the first part of this box set), “The Diary follows the consequences of the first book based around the discovery of this man’s remains and his diary and the main character being placed on trial for murder. The third book,(also in this box set) “The Empty Place” is about the struggle of the main character to retain her sanity in jail while her family and friends desperately try to find out what really happened on that fateful day before it is too late. The fourth book in the series tells of the search for what happened to the missing girls whose faces live on in the passports found in the first book. The final book of the series, Sunlit Shadow Dance concludes the series and portrays a girl who has lost her memory and identity and seeks to remake her life.

Graham has also written a family memoir “Children of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope.” It tells of his childhood in an aboriginal community in remote Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, one of its last frontiers. It tells of the people, danger and beauty of this place, and of its transformation over the last half century with the coming of aboriginal rights and the discovery or uranium. It also tells of his surviving an attack by a large crocodile.

In his non writing life he is a wildlife veterinarian working with zoo animals and on national parks. After living for several years in Balmain in the house which became the subject of his first book, he now lives in an old terrace house in the inner city area of Sydney called “The Rocks” the site of the earliest Australian settlement. Whenever possible he travels to the Australian Outback as its vast open spaces feed his imagination and ongoing story telling.

 


Inside Looking Out

She sits inside a cage looking out, watching the world pass her by. One cage - bars that enclose her, the other cage within her own mind. Trapped by consequences of past actions, she sees no way out. Inside this place is another presence, an ancient predatory being. It wants her for its own. Her will to fight it is gone. She will let it take her. Outside others still search for a way to get her out. This box set contains books two and three of the Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series. In book 2 Susan thinks she has escaped the horrors of her trip to Australia told in book 1. But police has found a man's body, first thought killed by a crocodile, but now known to be murdered. And they have linked her to this man when it happened. Now she is in jail - waiting for it to be over, just wanting it finished so she can escape from her own private hell the only way she knows how, by ending it all.

  • ISBN: 9781370364770
  • Author: Graham Wilson
  • Published: 2016-08-15 06:20:27
  • Words: 157646
Inside Looking Out Inside Looking Out