Creature of an Ancient Dreaming
Crocodile Spirit Dreaming – Book 2
Novel by Graham Wilson
Copyright Graham Wilson 2014
BeyondBeyond Books Edition
Shakespir Edition, License 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.
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.
This book was previously called ‘The Diary’, but now in a new edition it has been renamed ‘Creature of an Ancient Dreaming’ to better reflect the story which has unfolded since I originally conceived this novel and series.
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.
[* 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.
Charlie was getting old. He could feel it in his bones. The weather was moving out of the Gurrulwa, or big wind time, into the Dalirrgang, or 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 lunch time 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 he 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 he 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 a 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, 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, who she had just promised to marry.
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 even 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 end reminiscing about his good life and 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 goose bumps 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 to 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 in to 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, each well above ten pounds. 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 will 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 sunk 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 will 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 is 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 whatever 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.
Charlie looked at this 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 decided to try and 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 hard 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.
Now he forced the spirits to leave his mind and looked away again, looking 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 now too.
He looked at this part of a person. Poor bugger, this once was someone who should have 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 lunch time 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. He pointed and told them his story, saying he had begun fishing, hoping for a catfish and this was what he had pulled up instead. A policeman lifted off the bucket, but it was smelly now and he soon covered it again.
The police spent ten minutes talking to him. Seeing the line and hook still attached to the head it seemed pretty obvious that it came from the water. He told them how he had lifted the head with the line to carry it away from the water so a croc did not try and get it, but that once he had put it down he had not touched or moved it since, except to cover it with the bucket. He told them he had not been to this billabong since the same time last year when he had also come here to catch catfish.
They asked him a few questions but it all seemed clear.
Once they had the basic story straight they asked him to show where he had cast to. He pointed then threw a stone which landed almost exactly on the spot.
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 license.
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 days and it is 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 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 meet 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, singular, 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 mixed with a desire to prove herself.
Back on site it was clear that she was sharper and tougher than he 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 likes the upper left side of the skull has been fractured, perhaps from the force of a bite. You can see it is 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.”
Then she did the careful walk around, noting the slight drag mark where the head had come out of the water and been pulled across the dirt. Then she tracked a mix of scuff marks and damp spots to the final destination. Then she pointed to two other drag marks, nearby but to one side of the one that led to the head. They were about two feet apart and came in from the bank for about two metres, ending in two flattened areas in the dirt with some damp patches.
She said. “It looks like something else has been pulled out of here, probably this morning too,” pointing to still damp patches of mud.
“It’s a pity that the man who hooked this head is not still here. I would have liked to ask him about this. It looks like he caught a couple of fish first and, if so, it would 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 carefully from where she was standing, next to the bucket.
She said, “Before I look in detail at this head I would like to carefully look around the site, just in case there is 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. If Charlie tried to fob them off they could get more serious. 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 are 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 would 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 steps back and never turn your back to the edge when you are 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 will trust you for the bush sense and you will 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 am 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 am ninety percent sure that is a patch of dried blood, like someone had scraped up most but missed that bit,” she said. “Can you keep your eye on the place and we will photograph it and then I will 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 also sampled.
There was also 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 will 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 have figured this all out without my help.”
Then she screwed up her nose in mock disgust. “Well I have 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 will 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 to the lab to see her and get some initial results in the morning. It was mid-afternoon before their initial 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 out 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. He had been doing this since before Alan was born, and was the best.
He waved his two constables off and said he would follow behind in the second car. He said they could go straight home; their work for today was done. They said they may stop for a quickie at the pub, something to eat and drink. He nodded and watched them leave.
Before he left he stood in the shade, just back from the edge of the billabong, for a few minutes. He had always found this last look was valuable, it grounded him in the scene and helped get perspective.
He reviewed what he knew in his mind. Male adult victim, high likelihood of crocodile involvement, but getting a murder scene feel. Another person was here with the victim who 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 lost.
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 pint glasses of lemon squash to replace the lost fluids and drove back to Darwin, towards the red ball of a setting sun, falling towards a smoky horizon.
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 and said. “More better to taste than talk.”
Charley continued. “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 will 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 is crocodile spirit body, body belong to crocodile and crocodile belong to body.”
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% 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 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 man 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 a really lovely man, 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 man.
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 that 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 will start the required arrangements; I am 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 and work out the future right now, she told herself. She started reading, half saying the words aloud to give it reality.
I missed you more than I can say after you left. I am 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 am 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 have 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 5 pm.
Should you have some time to catch up while I am there, I would really love to see you. I have 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 do not want to intrude on your other relationships or commitments, but I am hoping you are able to come away with me. Please let me know if you do not want to see me.
I won’t try to contact you again if I don’t hear from you. I will 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 her address but it was given 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 and 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.
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 her 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.
Thank you so much for writing. I am 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 am still not quite sure myself how I feel about it all, but I do like the idea of a country trip with you.
I have 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 is the address on your letter.
I know my parents will be keen to meet you, and my Mum is a great cook. So there is bound to be something edible on the menu.
There is 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.
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 am sure it is 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 will save me one pain in the butt. Charlie is OK and I would not 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 am good for another plate of fish curry next time, otherwise I will never get to have that pleasure again.”
Sandy nodded in return, 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 have 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 is 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 is bleeding inside the brain associated with it. Even if he did not die immediately he would have 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 looked 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 is a trick question, but I would have said splinters of wood.”
She continued, “That is what I found embedded in the skin and bone over the skull fracture. I agree, it looks like bits of wood to me too. I have looked under a microscope and am almost certain that is what we are 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 looked at 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 will send the samples off for more advice or tests but I think it is 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 have 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 is my opinion.
“I have sent off tissue samples from the head for DNA testing, and also tested the soil samples for blood. The initial test results suggest that is what it is, though it is yet to be verified. We will also do DNA analysis on this blood, to see if it matches the skull tissue.
“I have also taken dental X Rays as these may assist in getting an identification. It will take a couple days for the DNA results to come through. However I can write you a preliminary report this afternoon if that helps.”
Then she added with a mischievous smile. “If you like I will 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 it was time for him 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 and 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 Toyota 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 asked if she could be asked to wait for a minute, that 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.
He suggested she come in, explaining he was a couple minutes off finishing his own report and would just like to go through what she said, and make sure it fitted with what he had written. Then he could finalise his report and provide both to his senior officer.
She agreed, she seemed curious to see where and how he worked and in no rush. In the end 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 am 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 is assuming that you meant it and it was not 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 is someone who lives here I would 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 has 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 are just trying to run away from that Elsie, you know she will 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 is much cleverer than me and saw what you had done straight away.”
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. They both knew that, in their own time, there would be much more to doing it together, they were already planning lots of doing things together including another visit to the billabong tomorrow.
The only thing that spooked them 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 am 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 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.
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 if so 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 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 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 did not seem to have much time for men. I mostly turned down the dinner invitations, using work as an excuse.
“I think I had my mind fixed on getting away for quite a while and did not want to get too attached, in case it held me back. Now I am glad to be here, but I am still a bit cautious about the attachment thing.
“So, while I don’t stay at home by myself whenever I am off work, I am 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 am a prude, but I think there must be a 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 am probably a bit like that myself.”
She nodded back, “I know, I think that is 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 really specific, nothing that looked like human remains and nothing that looked like objects that particularly related to anybody. A couple old soft drink cans and some other common rubbish.
“But there was one thing that did match what I was told to look for. Someone said to me, before I started, that there could be stuff from an old fireplace which had been burnt and thrown in the water and I was to keep a lookout for anything like that. And there was a place in the corner closest to the bank, barely a metre out, which looked like that. Quite a bit of charcoal and grey ashy stuff. It was in a layer a few inches thick and a couple feet across. It started right at the edge and ran down the slope to the bottom, with most of it in a pile there.
“I could not 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 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 which had the letters MB forming a raised profile one side, with a flat backing plate on the other side. She looked at it from all angles, handling it with great care.
“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 is funny but this place is almost too tidy for what you would 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 would 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 is almost nothing. It is like someone has spent a lot of time going around, tidying and cleaning the site, making sure there was no evidence left to find. And you could almost imagine that someone has swept it as well.
“It is four or five months since it has rained. So you would 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 is like someone has swept the dirt surface, maybe using a branch. There are even a couple 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 could not 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 is 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 have found that are older than the last couple 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 are old from the dirt, twigs and leaves which have gathered in them. They are 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. I can almost see a man squatting here, contemplatively gazing over the water, for a long time before moving.”
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 have carefully taken that away.”
Alan whistled. “I think you are right, this is really something.” Indented into the dirt right at the edge of the fireplace depression was a single footprint. But it was much smaller, not child sized, but more the size you would expect from a small to medium sized woman.
Bill continued. “Unless I am mistaken, that is 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 will see the ground at the edges where it was not dug out, has a different look to the other ground around. It is 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 have been dry and there would 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 is 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 divers finds, Bill said “I have just one more thing to show you, a couple 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 tire 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 tire.
“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 would do if you were unfamiliar with the place or the vehicle, particularly driving at night if you were not quite sure where the road went.
“There is 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 was not made by it, plus the track age is wrong. So it is 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 is 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 that Bill had finished his tour it was clear that 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 to the camp 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. He 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, as if they were conscious of their mutual desire to progress their relationship but uncertain about what was the next step.
Finally after they had walked a few hundred yards and 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 is 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. “I suppose that sort of describes us too,” she said. “On the surface we are placid like that water. In our work we get on beautifully together. That is on the outside. Underneath there is a dangerous place we have to cross, that path from friends to maybe something more.
“Some people seem to find it easy; it is like they can take that step without having to give anything real of themselves. But I am not like that. I want to take that next step but that part of me is scared. I have 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 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 have 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 is enough. If you had promised me eternal love and happiness I would have known that was not truth. So what my body desires is that when this day of work is over I want you to bring me to my home, my little cramped room in Darwin which has not known another man, and be my lover.
“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 are friends, ever since you caught me out about the fish and did not tell, secondly we are workmates who can do great work together. Then lastly there is something else. It is 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.”
He put his arm around her shoulders and she put her arm around his waist and they walked back towards the camp. It is a lovely companionable feeling, he thought. When they were about half way there, she stopped and separated, then came up to him on tiptoes and kissed him on the lips. “That is 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 half way 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 twenty five 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 is as if it is 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 have found belongs to me. When you take it away you are taking part of my own spirit.’ It is like it is 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 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 is like Charlie told me; there is a huge crocodile in this place, but it also has a spirit which can leave its body. I am not normally superstitious, but there is more to this than just a huge crocodile. It is as if we have 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 is 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 am 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, a while ago we were not sure about the lover thing, now we will have children to tell, I like it.”
Sandy blushed, “It was just a figure of speech.”
Alan mocked “I will choose to consider it prophetic.”
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 are doing the last dive for today now; that is three for each diver. Then we are 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 are welcome to come with us for dinner. We will leave one of the men, our most junior constable, to maintain camp security while we are away. So you can either stay with him, or come in with us. There is 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 will 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 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 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 lunch time 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 is a cut above my class, or at least for a one nighter, maybe, she’s a keeper.”
Bill winked and said. “Well I will 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 have just had the most scary, terrible dream. I am 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 is 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 was not 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 would give me to the crocodile.
“They were like brothers, both sharing one spirit. I knew it soon would be daylight. Then I would 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 could not cry, I could not think, I was just so afraid.
“Then I woke up and saw your outline and heard your quiet snoring. 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.
When he awoke the sun was just breaking the horizon and Sandy was rolling her swag. He wondered if he had imagined his 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.
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 have 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 we should get this back to the lab, not that I expect anything other than it belongs to the same person. It is the right size for a man similar to the one to whom the head belonged. Interestingly there is a bump on one of the bones of the forearm, the ulna, which looks like an old break that has healed unevenly.
Then Sandy said to Alan, “Any chance of a girl getting a lift home now 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 had found the arm I knew that was all that we are going to get.
“And suddenly I just wanted you to bring me home. We can call quickly to the lab to drop off the sample. But then I want you to bring me back to my little flat and come in with me and stay with me for the rest of the day and night. I have been thinking about the feel of your body next to mine ever since I woke up. Suddenly 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 are going to do, but I know I want it to be with you, whatever else happens after today.”
So they drove back to Darwin, she cuddled into his arm, and a couple 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.
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? The surprise when she realised he was to be in England within two days and he really wanted to see her again, in fact he wanted to spend a week with her, driving into the English countryside.
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 am struggling to believe it is really you after a month of silence. I wanted to hear your voice again to know it is really you. I am still pinching myself with surprise to hear from you at this late stage and to know I will 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 is obviously of great importance if you can take a week out of a busy life just for him. He must be a real Mr Special to get you to give up a whole week of your precious time. Not something I remember you doing for the others!”
Susan could only laugh; it was hard to get cross with others trying to send her up when she felt so upbeat herself. It seemed as if the idea of an unwanted pregnancy was now buried in one of the deepest recesses of her mind. All she could now think about was seeing David again and being with him. She loved this mind image of the two of them happily driving through green England with the wind in her face and her hair swept back.
It was only as she settled into bed and lay for a minute thinking of the day that she came down slightly from the top of the roller coaster. 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.
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, probably unwisely. But 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 and 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 physical hunk. So now it was time to just enjoy the visit.
David rang her on Monday, at lunch time, 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 though a car salesman had come to visit.
David roared laughing, quite unabashed. “It is 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 am from the country bunyip aristocracy, come to lord it over city folks. But you are right; I rented it straight off the show room floor. It’s just my attempt to impress Susan when we go travelling. But I am 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 begun as a farmer’s daughter herself and had visited some Australian stations in her early life, 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 is 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 have changed my mind. I hope it is 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 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 have 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 is 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 is coming up to ten o’clock so I thought I should wake you. They have 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 is 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 have 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 have 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 have 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 is very likely that it is the other man’s child. However I cannot say for sure and there is a small chance that you are 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 do not want the child of this other man and I know I won’t be seeing him again.
So, after you leave, I will have to deal with this. I did not want it to spoil our time together for the last week which is why I did not 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 am sorry I cannot 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.
He replied. “We have both been in relationships and had lovers before. In my heart of hearts I knew I was not 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 did not stop what I felt for you then and it does not 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 have told me this now when, on the day after I leave, you could have had a termination and told no one.
“I have not told you about the girl, Nicki, I was with until about a year before I met you. She was from my town and we had 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 years ago we started to drift apart. I had always thought we would 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 did not 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 would not two-time with him.
“While I had been with other girls I had always thought of them as temporary dalliances which meant nothing, she was the one for me. Nicki was more straightforward, she did not like the other men thing. She had been hurt when I had been with other girls even though we lived separately. Even though we decided, when we came to Sydney, that our relationships with one another were not 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 have 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 half way through I realised that there was something unsatisfying in that and so I started to keep more to myself. There were still a couple girls I kept going with. But it was more like meeting a need for both of us than love.
From the night I first met you I have been completely captivated by the girl with the blue eyes and the bewitching smile who sits in front of me. So, while I did not want to rush you with a hasty proposal, now I find myself here that is what I want to say.
“If you will have me I want to stay with you for as far into the future as I can see and I want to be the father of your child, and hopefully of more to come. And because they are your children I will love them in the same way I love you. So what I am 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 have said. I can’t pretend I am 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 am not saying no, but I have not 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 had hoped that, for you, it would be as clear, no ifs or buts. But I can understand what you are saying. All I ask that you don’t decide to terminate the baby until you have thought through what you want.”
Susan looked at him puzzled. “Don’t you care whether the baby is yours or not? I thought this might be important to you. It is something we could probably find out if you want.”
He thought for a moment and said. “You know, it is funny, I feel I should care more than I do. It is like it belongs to a part of your past life, and even though we were together for a night in Sydney when it could have happened, that does not seem so important. From here it feels like my real relationship with you began when I came to England. The other was something lovely but temporary, in another place and time. Even though I loved you then, you were only beginning to like me.
“Now I feel our life together has really begun, in a public and exclusive way. And that child who grows inside you is a real part of you. So, while a part of me would love the thought that it was my own child from the outset, if we stay together it will be anyway. I will watch a baby be born, I will hold it once it is born; that feels like my child to me. So, from here on, it is just part of what makes up you, the Susan I love.
“So I do not need to know about this, and I am 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 is 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 are 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 would 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 is 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 am here for the purpose of expanding my business into the UK.”
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 Leonard Cohen 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 a couple hours of sleep drifted by. As Susan awoke in bright light to the smell of coffee David came in and said, “If you are up to it I have 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 will 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 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 desert 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 would give me an answer when she came to Australia. This morning she said ‘Yes’. So, in front of you all, I would like to put this ring on her finger and ask her once again”.
Then, looking back at her, he said. “Susan I am 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.
If you are reading this it almost certainly means I am dead. I know now that is the only way forward from here. One of us must vanish and I could not bear for it to be you.
I have written this because I wanted to say goodbye. It seems important to me now to tell you that I love you and not just vanish with those words never said.
They are words I have wanted to say to you ever since that first day on the boat when I met you face to face, though I had already been entranced by your image, glimpsed distantly on the Cairns shoreline, feet in the shallow water and hair flung back embracing the sun. It is that I have loved you utterly since even before I first met you, 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 hand writing followed and at the bottom was a signature she knew so well,
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 now 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 8 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 help 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.
However the case fascinated and challenged Alan and 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 she had withdrawn a little 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 women in this place, 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 and, 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 have 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 has 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 have just run the plates and it shows up registered to a Mark Bennet from Alice Springs, just a postal address. I have 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 have 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 will 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 have 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 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, they 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 what they thought. One of them said, “Well at first nothing, I thought, Just a car of someone who has gone on holidays overseas, and parked close by 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 is like it has been detailed, before it was left.
Then I looked underneath and, while the top is almost spotless, the underneath has not been cleaned at all. If you were having a vehcile professionally cleaned and detailed, why not do 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. However the tyres look like someone has washed them a bit.
And it looks like someone has smeared a mud on the number plates to make them real hard to read. I needed a couple goes, cross checking between the front and back, before I was sure I had the rego right. It is definitely odd that only the topside has been cleaned so well.
I can’t say I am surprised that you find this a bit interesting for your crocodile case. You haven’t said it yet, but you have a nose on you for these things like a foxhound on the trail of his fox. I am guessing now that you’ll be wanting our vehicle recovery crew to take it to the police workshop. That way we can take it apart systematically, before anything else is disturbed.
Alan nodded. “You got it. While I would 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 have 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. Then he should accompany it to the workshop and advise them on 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 and 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.
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 license 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 mid 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 her 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 twelve 2 bedroom flats. He said the flat listed as Mark Bennet’s address shared a common entrance which went up 2 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 license 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 license, “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 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 and 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 it down its usage and perhaps give a clue to where Mark went when out of town.
He would also try and 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 lunch time 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 through to bank accounts or other identity information in due course. The vehicle had returned for its first two warranty services, and the owner had 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 is 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 would say it is 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 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 and organise the entry for about ten am tomorrow when most people have gone to work. I would rather keep this low key for now, though I am sure it will be in Saturday’s newspapers. One way or another we will have to do a news conference before the end of tomorrow, or we will 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 2 pm when Richard let him off and drove away. He had bought a bottle of water and a newspaper to help pass away the long afternoon. There was a little 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 mail boxes, key in hand. Sure enough, he went to Mailbox Number 11, Marks 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 am nicking his mail, don’t you. Well you are wrong. See, I have 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 are 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 will 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 is it.
In five minutes Alan had the story straight. The man normally came around 5 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 a bit 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 am very sorry but we think something bad may have happened to Mark, and we are trying to trace him. So, despite what I said, I have to ask you to come to the police station now and we will also have to analyse those letters. But don’t worry; I will give you the eighty dollars you are expecting, along with an extra twenty for your trouble and it will only take half an hour before you are 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 would 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 have 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 is anything that helps us find him” he said, then. “One thing more, in return for the extra twenty I promised, how about you give me a drive back to the station, I will call it a taxi fare, it is too bloody hot and too bloody far to walk and it will 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 make an expense claim.
Then Alan took one hundred dollars from his wallet and passed it to the man, wrote a short statement for the man, 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 am allowed to. I would have to take the money as evidence, even though I know it really belongs to the man and he would have been seriously annoyed not to have his drinking money.”
Alan nodded back, “Much better this way, he is happy, we got what we needed along with some goodwill and the worst that can happen is I will be down a hundred if they don’t refund my claim. But at the end of the day, I am sure there will be the eighty in the envelope, and a taxi would have cost another twenty, so I am sure my boss will approve it.
“Still I asked you to sign it just so no one can say I am putting my hand in the honey pot. Now, how about some gloves so we can open those letters and see if there is 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 will 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 will 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% 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 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 am able to allow you to view it. But, in the meantime, I will ensure it is 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 have 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 is not going anywhere and we can easily put it back a day. I know that makes it the weekend but it does not really matter. Perhaps we can get the locksmith to try and get the door open tomorrow without smashing the lock. If that does not work we will 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 would not miss this for quids, a real live murder investigation when we may get to see our victim’s head in the flesh. I will have to treat the family to a special dinner Saturday night to make up. Cathy will be sweet once I explain. She is a nurse and has the night off and tomorrow the kids will be at school.
It was ten pm when they arrived at Yulara, a bit bleary eyed from 450 kilometres of driving. The duty manager met them, as they were expected around now. Alan gave him a brief explanation, “We are 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 9 am tomorrow and go through the footage with them. Alan asked if 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 8 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 minutes later this same camera picked up a man who looked like the photo of Mark Bennet. He walked towards and through the entrance, holding hands with a medium sized girl with dark hair. Their manner was affectionate. The light and detail was not very good but it clearly was Mark and an unknown lady. A few seconds later Mark came clearly into view in the next camera. He was approaching reception, holding a booking slip. The girl could be seen at the edge of the monitor, 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 minutes when he vanished. Then he came past reception, now also carrying a bottle of champagne, a strap from the backpack now 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 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 8 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 will be able to give you a copy in about five minutes, once we burn it to a DVD. It is just copied to computer memory for now. I only ask that you are discreet at this stage in your usage of it. I would prefer not to have an impression given that we spy on our guests.
Alan replied “For police eyes only at this stage, though we need to try and identify the girl. It is possible that we will use a couple 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 this 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 that a few unopened tins in a cupboard, no papers other than 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 and he particularly wanted to show her the image of the girl’s face.
Alan got back to Darwin about 7 pm on Friday night from Alice Springs. He had told Sandy at lunch time 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 others’ 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 have been in a hurry to get into bed with you, but it has never happened that fast.”
Sandy had a smug self satisfied look on her face, “Well in the whole month and a bit we have been together you have 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 is 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 is her face; I absolutely know it is her. It is strange; I have 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 is a self-awareness thing. She has this razor sharp image of herself, which is how this man sees her. It is her image of the image which he sees when he looks at her. I sense she has 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 is like her image reflected through two mirrors, the first one in his mind and the second one in her mind. But the image is not distorted by these reflections, it is totally clear. And it is 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 is real and what is 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 do not know if it is 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 is 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 license. 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 dark haired girl woke him up. He looked at it long and hard for a minute before saying. “Well, I would not 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 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 is 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 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 have 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 had not 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 would 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 had seen him a couple 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 had met him just after she had flown into Cairns. They had been on a reef tour together and were diving buddies. After that they had just sort of hooked up. And now they were travelling through the outback together for a couple 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 is 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 did not 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 with 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 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 weeks of booking sheets before they found something. There it was, a Mark Bennet, booked on the 8:30 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% 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 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.
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 tousled 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 now, 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 do not know. All I know is that I could not 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 am sorry my actions have frightened you, I have 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 have just looked at your beautiful face as you lie sleeping. It is 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 me 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 have had you like this so many times, as I watch you sleep, I ache to feel you again this way, just one more last time.
Before I write a final goodbye, I must tell you a few practical things. In my briefcase, combination 2153, you will find two things which I would like you to have. Do not give them to others, at least not until you have decided for yourself what you want to do with them. The first is a pouch of precious stones. They are mine, bought and paid for in full by me. They are 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 have 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 do not, I did not set out with the purpose of harming any of them. However you must judge this and me with your own eyes and conscience.
I have made a will. It is set between the back leaf and cover of my diary, inserted into this space which is glued closed. It has been witnessed by two friends I trust. It leaves all I possess to you, and gives the details of how to access what I own.
Now all is said and I must say goodbye. I leave this where I hope you will find it, alongside your English passport which contains a picture of your smiling face. I have just touched and kissed this one last time. I would kiss the real face, but that may awake you too soon.
Now I go to the water’s edge. My own crocodile totem will to talk to the dreamtime crocodile spirit of this place until our spirits are as one. Then I will swim out to join the crocodiles and offer my body to them as a gift. I will wait until your eyes are open, before I go. I would 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 is 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
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 of 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 is alright, really. I was just reading something from a past life and it made me very emotional.”
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.
“O 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 are 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 is 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 have enjoyed all our trips up there, and they are not so well off as our family is.
Then there is 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 is 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 innocent? “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 had asked you out the night before but you had 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 had 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 did not amount to anything. Can’t you tell she is 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 had 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 would not 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 is a very serious matter and you may wish to arrange legal representation. It is probably best if you come into our office here in Scotland Yard, though I could come somewhere to meet you if it is necessary.”
Susan felt gobsmacked, her mind frozen. She needed to think, to get her bearings. She said, “Could you tell me what it is about please?
Detective Brent replied “I am 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. We understand you met a Mr Mark Bennet on this trip. Would you be able to come in and see us today? It is really most important that you do.”
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 some 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 the 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 have been asked to investigate a matter by the Australian police, in fact by the Northern Territory Police. They have 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 are trying to ascertain his whereabouts.
“So, on their behalf, I have a series of questions to ask you. If you are happy I will 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 is right? You travelled with a man, with whom you have 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 has 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?”
Finally Detective Brent replied. “They have asked us 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 would 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 am sure you have 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 that happened with you a short while ago and while you answered the questions you were far from forthcoming. So I have just been on the phone to my Australian counterparts, to seek their agreement to tell you more of what this is about. They have agreed that if we want your cooperation it is only fair we tell you why we are questioning you and what we need to find out. Then we will all be on the same page, and not going in circles around each other.
“So I will 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, and he had 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 do not 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 have 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 are all agreed that this person is you. Now you have 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 will be named as a person of interest in his disappearance with a possible connection to his murder.
“As I am 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 have termed “Crocodile Man.” There will 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 are conscious of trying to protect your and British interests in this case. You are a British citizen. What we have 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 are 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 is 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 are identified in the media as a likely murderer, killing your companion is a lovers tiff, feeding him to the crocodiles to the 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 is 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 have 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 would not pick you for a murderer. So can you help us? We are asking for your help in this matter and if you give it, we will 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 is very little I know. As you say I will need to talk to a lawyer, particularly about giving DNA or other samples. So I would ask if you could give me a couple 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 is really what you want to do, though I think it would 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 will ask the Australian Police to hold off from releasing any information to the public for another 48 hours, but that is the best I can do.
“If we do not 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 have met a few times. He is a man I have great respect for, a senior civil servant of Her Majesty’s Government. I am trying to protect your interests, but I am also trying to protect your father and your family’s interests and those of this government. I would prefer that none of us get caught up in a distasteful and extremely sensation 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 am 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 do not know what I will 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.
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 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 and 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 have seen a ghost. Spit it out, what has 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 is all too hard, it is just such a confusing mess. My head is spinning. I have walked around for hours trying to think what to do. I did not 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 am going to have his baby and he has 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 is not fair to him and I will probably be in gaol. Oh Anne, it is 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 am your friend. I know you are a good person, regardless of this mess, as you call it. So, when you are 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 have 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 is true. It is 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 are a good friend and I will tell you what I can. There are parts I cannot tell you about because if you knew it you would need to report this information to the police or you would become an accessory to what I have done. I will 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 did not 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 was not 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 is 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 have 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 would 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 would never see him again. Then he said he would 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 did not 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 is something very kind and honourable about him.
I did not 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 was not very nice to David, he asked me to stay on, he offered to fly anywhere in Australia to see me again. I was not 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 are 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 is 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 will seek to extradite me back to Australia on a murder charge.
And to make matters worse I am expecting Mark’s baby and I am 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 am almost sure it is not his. I told David this, and he has 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 is such a good man, and this will all break his heart. I have not told him about Mark, only that I went with another man in Australia who I think was the father, but I will not be seeing this person any more.
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 will take it and I will never get to know about this man who is my child’s father. I thought of having an abortion but now it is too late even for that.
So that is 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 are the only person I felt I trusted enough to tell even this. It has to stay our secret. Perhaps one day, when I have read Mark’s diary I will be able to tell more. For now I cannot.
“You see, despite all the awful things he has done my first loyalty is to him, and he is also the father of my child. I gave myself willingly to him to allow this, without any thought for the consequences. I cannot 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 is not the same as what I felt for Mark. For a while I thought it might be enough. Now I know it is not. I think I was more in love with the image of being married to David than with the reality. It is an awful thing to end our relationship at this late stage. But it is better than living a lie. And I will not be in any position to continue with David if I am charged with murder, even if he wanted it. I could not 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 is spinning almost as much as yours after all that. It sounds unbelievable and yet I am sure it is real. It is not something to make up, and it explains tonight. And now I start to understand that text you sent me.
“My God Susan, you are right, there are things I should not know. If it was me I would go crazy, they would have already locked me up in an asylum. Of course I won’t tell anyone what you have 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 is not for me to stand in judgement.
“First we need a plan of what is really urgent to do. The thing we must do now is let your parents know you are here. I will 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 will 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 will get through this one too, though I am stuffed if I know how.”
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 have 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 will help you sort out some of the things that need to be sorted. That way you can get on with what is most important, reading the diary of the crazy former boyfriend of yours, though why you would 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 lunch time, 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 to 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 choose to go back to Australia of her own volition in order 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 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 is such a God-awful mess. I can’t get married. I am in big trouble with the Australian Police, and I think I am about to be charged with murder. Tomorrow it will probably be on the front page of every newspaper. I have to get away from here. I could not 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 is 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 is 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, he said, “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 is too upset for that at the moment, she needs to try and work this out herself first, I will ask her to talk to you when she is less upset. I promise I will tell her you love her and 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 cannot undo this, I cannot undo this, nobody can undo this. The police will investigate and I will neither help nor hinder them, I won’t resist any charges they lay, I will tell the truth in court if it comes to that. I am tired of running and hiding this. And I am 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 will have my phone number and address though it is 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 are all here for you, Susan. We will 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 are supposed to have done. I have never had a family member who is 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.
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 are right he really is such a decent guy,” Anne said. “He said he will only agree to postpone the wedding for now; he will not call it off or break the engagement until he meets with you and hears it from your mouth. But at least it is all put on hold for now. I have promised to ring him each week and tell him any news about you I can; I hope that is 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 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 and 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 am 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 am 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 will 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 will find out.”
This entry was followed by a few doodles and notations then another entry.
“I feel like I am in love, I wonder if I have really ever felt like this so quickly before. I have 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 am 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 am 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 will 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 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 have 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 am 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.
“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 is 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 will 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 will be in Australia soon enough. You can come and see me there if you want.”
On the fourth day the call came.
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 will 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 will be a hearing before a magistrate where you can seek bail if you wish.
“As you have declined to have legal representation to date I have 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 am happy for you to sit with me as the questioning proceeds, but I don’t really require any representation or legal advice. I am quite clear on my position and what I will say. I will 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 am quite happy to return and let events run their course. I do not intend to state either my guilt or my innocence. It will 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 did not say that. I am happy for you to attend. I am agreeing to please Inspector Davidson, my family and friends.
You may speak on my behalf, provided it is in accordance with what I have said. I do not agree to anything other than that. To the extent that they ask me about something which you consider is prejudicial or inappropriate, I am happy for you to object. But I wish to be clear that I do not want you to try and prevent me 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 lunch time, 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 am sorry I am 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 would 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 is much more to this story than what you have told us. I, for one, having observed your character over the last couple 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 is clearly enough evidence for a charge of murder, but it does not make sense.
“So I am appealing to you, as if you were my own daughter. Even if you will not tell us what happened, please tell us why you are 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 have 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 will make a short statement which I would 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 am 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 am happy to return to Australia to stand trial for this murder if that is what authorities determine should happen. I do not 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 will not 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 have been in conference with the others for the last two hours. As you have not told me that you wish me to cease acting for you, I have been following your instructions in these meetings. I have found it necessary to repeat them several times. The others seem to have great difficulty in accepting your instructions at face value.
“Tomorrow you will go before a magistrate who will consider whether there is 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 is 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 have indicated that you do not 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 is then up to the Minister for Justice to approve this request after which you will be transported to Australia in the company of these police officers.
If this proceeds without objection by you, it is likely you will be taken to Australia in one to two weeks. In the meantime I have been told you will remain in custody here until your departure. I also expect that you will 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 have done. I am happy with the arrangements that you have 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 am happy to see my parents and Anne tomorrow. Today I would prefer to be left alone. I have everything else I will need for today.”
In the end the extradition took over three weeks to process. While Susan sought no delay there was now a crowd of well wishers who had started a ‘Save Susan Campaign’. They were lobbying, advocating that the government oppose her return to Darwin, citing all sorts of obscure reasons why justice would not be served if she was extradited.
Concern was expressed for her mental welfare, her unwillingness to state her guilt or innocence seemed to be of great concern to some along with the passive role she was taking as to what happened. There were suggestions that she was mentally ill, profoundly depressed or suffering from some physical ailment.
Examining doctors and psychiatrists were called. They asked her many questions. She answered politely about everything except the actual case, where she maintained stony silence.
She was informed that the opinion given was that, while she was otherwise sane and healthy, she appeared to have been profoundly traumatised by some unknown event which had happened in the Northern Territory while she was there. One specialist gave the opinion that the government should delay and provide treatment for PTSD before she returned to Australia.
Susan let this all go without any comment. In a way she supposed their conclusions were accurate, her grief and mental anguish were real, but she had no intention of undertaking any treatments.
It was funny, but no one sought to test her pregnancy status, or to even question whether this was a possibility, despite two separate physical examinations. She politely declined requests to provide blood and urine samples, saying, “My health is good, this is not 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 am sorry I could not co-operate. I am 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 have done you are 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.
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 were 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, focussed on him, giving him her total attention through a watery but radiant smile, he realised she was sensationally beautiful, 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 am 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 am 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 am sorry I am talking so much, I have sat alone and silent for most of the last month, waiting for things to happen. It is as if I have stored up all these words to say. Tomorrow I will be silent again, I promise.”
He said, “It is good to hear you talk, to know there is 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 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 is easier to chat when we are side by side rather than separated by a seat.”
He nodded and moved across. Now she took his hand and said. “I am glad it is just the two of us now. It is better that way. I know there is something you want to talk to me about and there is something I want to tell you. I will go first; it is 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 too I made myself pull out of her mind. She did not see all of it, but she had already seen much and knew much of what had happened.
“Now she has seen my mind from the inside, and I have seen hers too. And part of that link remains, even now. Don’t ask me to explain it; I just know it is so. It makes us like sisters. I know she did not 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 is 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 will be the closest of friends and will 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 cannot tell you what you want to know, the why and how it happened. That is for you to find out, if you can. I will neither help nor hinder you. Much of the knowledge already lies in Sandy’s mind, though she does not really understand it yet. Perhaps it is better if she never does, that knowledge was not meant to pass to either of you.
“That is why I was so angry with Detective Davidson; through our friendship he tricked me into revealing what was not 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 must not seek it from my mind, either directly or through Sandy’s knowledge, that will only tear at her loyalties and give her a sense of betrayal, like that time when my secrets were stolen through trust.
“The answer is already out there for you to discover through other means. And to do so you must do your job and take no account of me. It may be that when this is finished I will spend many years in jail for what happened, but that must not influence you. I do not want that, but there is justice in it for my actions. I will 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 I whose death I am charged with yet still loved. I know it is not good and yet I am powerless to stop it, my desire for him is so overwhelming.
“There is a crocodile spirit that comes from my lover and it draws me in too, it is 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 will 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 is 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 are my brother, in another life you could have been my lover.
Now you must tell me of what else is in your mind.”
He said, “There is nothing more to say, you have 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 are doing and where you are 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 is just to remind you, I am 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 are even more dangerous than she is.”
Sandy laughed back, “The word is not maybe but definitely!”
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 Question ate at him. There must be a solution. He would gather all his evidence and lock himself away with it for a couple 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 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 linked 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 and 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 with 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 have made, I would 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 will have my life back. I am 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 license 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 is 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 is still patently in love with. And she was so terrified. I know this because it is 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 is the cause. He had done something, or she found out something about him, that scared her witless. So she killed him in fear of what he would do to her. Then, once it is done, she is full of guilt or regret. Does that mean he is not really guilty of what she believed when she killed him? Or is her level of love and loyalty so strong that she is 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 not 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 did not really believe she had done this thing. He appealed to her for co-operation. 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 have hardly meant anything but for what she did then.
“It is the only time I have 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 have 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 have 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 have been due to him. If there was not some bad thing she knew about him, or that he had done, I cannot see what there would have 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 had 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 have been leaving London to get married. Instead I am 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 could not tell me the reason; that would be betrayal. But part of her was willing me on to go and find it out, to give her a way out of this situation. Ever since then I have felt like she entrusted me with finding a solution or, at least, she was hoping that I could find one.
“So, lets’ 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 is of no use.
“We must find out about him, who he was, what he has 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 have missed anything obvious.”
Sandy said, “There is 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 have all seen it.
“Once he was dead she should have come and told us. That is what any normal person would do. At worst she may have been up for manslaughter, maybe self-defence if he had threatened her. But she did not do that, she made a decision to conceal what happened. But it is not only a decision to hide her role; it is a decision to hide his identity. I have 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 is 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 have been strange but people would have just wondered where he had gone and expected him to turn up. Maybe, after months, he would have been listed as a missing person. Perhaps the vehicle would have been checked and her DNA found in it.
But that would have proved nothing; she did not deny that she had travelled with him to Timber Creek, by then she had spent ten days with him, and it would be expected we would find her DNA and fingerprints in lots of places. All she would need to say was they had travelled together for several days to explain this. He had vanished after that. In fact that is 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 have 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 is 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 could not bear for it to be found.”
Somehow it seemed to make sense and Alan nodded agreement. “OK, let’s accept the premise that there is something about him that they both wanted to stay hidden. Now we have to find out what. I fear she has done such a good job of destroying all the evidence that there is 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 will be people who know him, somewhere in the outback, and know real things about him. We already have information to suggest he did regular work somewhere around the Barkly and there are not so many stations, aboriginal settlements and mines to check. We just have to be thorough.”
Alan said. “And I will have to find some justification to keep 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 is how I have 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 cannot 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 will 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 am 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 am probably flying if I don’t take your call. If you need to book my services please ring after 7 pm or send a text. I will 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 am 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 am 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 blokes photo and it is really important that I show it to you as soon as I can. I need to check whether it is 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 am staying at the Paraway Hotel and I should be there by then. Just ask for Vic, the chopper pilot, they all know me.”
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 will arrive in the early afternoon. People will be resting in the shade then so it will be a good time for a leisurely talk.
“I suggest you first show him the photo. Then, if he agrees we are 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 am sure he will 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 is even prettier than in my memory, not that this photo shows those gorgeous blue eyes. I have 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 am sure you have 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 have been hard to stop myself. But he was the only one she had eyes for that day.”
Then suddenly Vic was serious. “But you did not drive all that way in such a hurry just for a social chat. What is 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 have 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 will be done and have a fortnight off. All the places are shutting down for Christmas at the weekend. But I am 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 is 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 is him. Are you sure it is him? I knew this man as Mark Butler for almost ten years, yet you say he is Mark Bennet. How do you know it is him? Is there a photo that definitely matches his face from after he died?”
Alan said “Why don’t I begin at the beginning and I will 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 license. 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 is 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 have really hurt. Normally Mark would say nothing about his life before. But we had become really good friends. I had 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 was not 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 were not 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 is as strong as ever, but that pointy bit of bone is still tender, perhaps there is a little bit of the bullet still in there.”
Sandy said, “You know that is the first real confirmation that the body we found is that of the man who is called Mark Bennet or Mark Butler, whatever the name is. I have x-rayed that bone. I have seen the bullet fragments. It is 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 is your friend Mark. Now we need to know who he was and what he has done, to try and 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 does not make sense, she was no weakling, but the way they acted together, it just does not 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 is why we were so desperate to see you, we need to find out. So far, beyond Susan you are 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 will be over in a day and she will spend most of her life in jail”.
Vic shook his head, still finding it hard to believe. “Of course I will help you. Mark was my friend and, no matter what happened. I know he would not 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 have wanted. I will tell you what I can remember now, and then, while I am working next week, I will 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 will trust me because I am 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 Marks 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 would not 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 of two and leave. But with her it was different; she really wanted to know all about him, he did not 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 did not 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, about people who tried to bully or cheat him, that were scary. Sometimes he would 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 were not 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.
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 women, 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 pilots license and at the age of twenty three a helicopter license. 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 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 times over the years they had little fallings out over girls, they both had plenty but a couple times 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 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 a couple times 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 couple 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 her 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 is my real name and I want you to sign this. It is my will.” Vic saw it named him as an executor of Mark’s estate.
Mark then said, “We have been best friends for ten years. I know both you and your family but I have told you little about me. There is some bad stuff I have done I could tell you about, but I would rather not. But I have this feeling that something bad, a sort of payback, will happen soon. It may be 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 am crazy about her but I cannot tell her who I am. However if anything should happen to me I am 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 will outlive us all.”
Mark had replied, “I am probably down to my last one. I have 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 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. Marks 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.
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.
Its message seemed to be, ‘You have taken something which belongs to me and in return I have taken a part of you.’
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.
It also 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 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 is my ancestor, Nabarlek, calling. Time we go and see our medicine man, who 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 are 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 is like tricked its way in and now does not want to leave. Our medicine man says we must try and 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 will 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 would be the hunters 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, though 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 and soon all were driving to the big billabong. They arrived when 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 sliding out, watching with hungry eyes desirous that the goose would become its meal.
He 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. Now they both held 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 it at the snapping head, baiting it, encouraging it to bite but each time drawing it away at 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 biting into the wood.
The medicine man now slid a long arm into the gullet of the crocodile, into a space between its teeth where its mouth was held open, 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 he bit down, he sensed that he was now one with the spirit of the speared crocodile, 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. The creature within him rushed from his mouth into the body of the goose to take possession of 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 spirit from him was trapped inside the goose. Charlie sensed, in that last second as the goose died, 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, 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 within its gullet and swallowed it down. It 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, and 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. He knew a part of its spirit would stay in the stone. When he held it he felt 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.
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, and 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, 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. 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 is 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 Marks 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 it is?”
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 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 talk to me. They trying to understand this bad thing. They say they 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 murder the man in the billabong, out longa Mary River.
“I find that head, man who belong to crocodile, 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, he 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 am 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 cannot hear, cannot see, cannot think proper.
“So when the mother and father tell me this I say I will try to help. I have 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, and 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. Very valuable stone, hard to get. But medicine man help me, he put hand inside crocodile belly and take out, give it to me to keep me safe from bad crocodile. In return 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 make you strong”.
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 lunch time 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 and 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 is past time, but he is very persuasive, so I have told him he can see you for half an hour.”
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 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 Vikram, 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 is 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 could not believe it, that you had done it. So he took me through the evidence. In the end I agreed, it seemed clear. But it did not make sense. So I have come to see you, to ask you to your face. Did you murder my friend, 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 is what everyone says and it is 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 have 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 will be in jail for a long time for what I have done and that is fair. Until today, when I saw you, I was going to remain silent in the trial; I was not 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 will plead guilty. I will say, ‘Yes I killed him’, as I said to you. The court must then determine my punishment for deliberate murder, the reason is not relevant and I will not be saying it.”
Vic said, “I am sorry I hit you, but I needed to know.”
Susan replied, “I am glad that you did, it showed me you cared. Until today I have not 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 do not look forward to a life in prison. But if that is my only choice, then I will do it, as best I can.”
There was something un-naturally 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 is one thing I must tell you. I am carrying his child. In part my choice it is to protect our child and its legacy. It is 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 is 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 has 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 am not doing well in meeting either.
“In addition there is one more thing I want to ask you, it is only a request. In the years when Mark and I worked together he would 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 is 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 is private, for my eyes only while I live. But if anything happens to me, it will be yours to read. Then you will 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 have never seen Mark’s bad, I know only of his friendship. But I would wish to hold him to his promise, to know who he was and what is 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 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 finger nails 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 is 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 is 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. But it 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 inextricably joined to this spirit creature of an ancient dreaming, it was part of her soul and she was part of its.
A fisherman finds a unidentified head in a waterhole in Northern Australia. I seems to be the possession of a huge and ancient crocodile which lives there and does not want to let it go. The police are called to investigate and they too are awed by the crocodile which lives there. At the same time what first appeared to be a crocodile attack turns into murder. Who is this man who no one seems to know. Susan, the English backpacker of Just Visiting, returns to England, pregnant after her escape. She becomes engaged to another man but her past returns to haunt her. She must read the diary of her former lover, she must decide her unborn child's fate This book follows the consequences of the actions which conclude the first book, In this series, Just Visiting, where Susan, an English backpacker, comes to Australia, gets caught in a terrifying relationship and barely escapes with her life. She carries this man's child but another glittering relationship beckons. Her future seems bright. But slowly and inexorably the truth of what really happened in Australia emerges. The police have her photo. They are closing in on her identity. It seems to Susan that the malevolent spirit of the crocodile which pursued her in the first book is slowly taking her over and consuming her mind. She must make yet more terrible choices in order to save herself and her sanity and to avoid another betrayal. She has her former lover's diary, she hopes it holds the key.