Girl in a Cage
Crocodile Sprit Dreaming Series
Girl in a Cage
Copyright Graham Wilson 2017
BeyondBeyond Books Edition
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior and specific approval of the author.
For permission to use contact Graham Wilson by email at
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.
Thank you to many people who have had input in this revised edition of The ‘Empty Place’, third book in the Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series, now called ‘Girl in a Cage’. This is the darkest book in the series and some find it too much so. However it is a story of two empty places, one inside a person’s mind with no hope, and the other in a place remote from everywhere and with almost nothing required for a person to survive and yet with hope, the hope of escape, and the hope of success of a painful but vital action which must be done.
For the input of my editor, Alexandra Nahlous I give particular thanks, as well as for the input of many readers and reviewers on all the many ebook and reading sites where this book was widely distributed as a first edition ebook and who have sent me many comments and suggestions for improvement, all of which I have read and considered and many of which I have incorporated.
Thank you all!
Reviews of this book
5 stars Fantastic Good read
How can the author think up this stuff?? Almost unbelievable story of a young pregnant woman confessed to a murder. Also involved is a helicopter pilot who crashed into a cliff where it was inevitable he would die
After finishing this book I have changed my mind about the series being slow and am grateful. I have just pre-ordered the next book
Review of Book 1 in Series
Five Stars- Just Visiting –Excellent!!!!!! -So good! So impressed w/this story, can't wait to read the whole series! This book has it all romance, suspense danger, secrets, beauty, culture, family, friends, travel and so much more! The description of the country of Australia is wonderful,
Review of Book 2 of Series –
Dreamtime, hypnotic, great atmosphere,… it’s superb
Reviews of Full Series
I read this series one volume at a time, over the last two years. It’s very entertaining, well-written and really makes you feel like you’re there with the characters. I can’t praise it highly enough!
Five stars – very good read. The entire series is well worth the time. This author knows how to write a story that is suspenseful enough to make you want to keep reading. You care about the characters. He knows how to bring the location to life. The descriptions of Australia make me feel as though I have visited there
A compelling story, told with sincerity. It would make a good plot for a television mini-series! The first book sets up an intriguing situation that is played out at length in the subsequent four books…Vivid descriptions of Australia’s remote places are a definite highlight
I’ve read all the books in this series, and can highly recommend them. A storyline that begs to be read and characters you’ll never forget. The wonderful Australian backdrop is the icing on the cake.
This book is set in the Northern Territory of Australia, a place which covers a sixth of the Australian Continent, the top centre part of a map of Australia. It lies in the tropics. Its capital, Darwin, is closer to Indonesia and other Asian centres than the rest of Australia.
Deserts lie to the south, centred around the town of Alice Springs. Large rivers run to the north, with a wealth of wildlife. Most famed is the fearsome Salt Water Crocodile, the world’s largest reptile. Crocodiles can grow longer and heavier than a car, able to drag other large animals, like a bull buffalo, into the water to kill. They stalk below the water and capture in a silent, deadly ambush. The crocodile is of great totemic importance to the coastal aboriginal tribes. In dreamtime stories it is one of the earliest ancestral beings. The crocodile’s totemic spirit plays a central role in this story. Crocodiles have killed many people across Australia’s north. As a young man, I survived my own attack by a large crocodile, which is recounted in the memoir ‘Children of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope’.
This book is a work of fiction but many places and some events have a factual basis, from my experiences in the large part of my life lived here.
A central location in this book is the Fitzmaurice River which flows into the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, where the Northern Territory coastline meets the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This is a very remote and rugged place. Here tides rise and fall by up to ten metres. In a running tide this river becomes a white water gorge as the river thunders through its constricted passage. Very few people come to this place, one of the earth’s places most empty of human occupation.
Even emptier is that place inside a person who is devoid of hope.
Anne was conflicted, really conflicted; it was all so bloody hard and it was driving her crazy. She was here, in Australia, to support her best friend, to try and talk sense into her. But that was hopeless, continually hopeless. Susan was buried in a morass of self-absorption. She seemed bent on trashing her own life. And she was doing a good job ofack making a mess of other people’s lives as well; David’s, her own parents, not to mention the havoc being played with Anne herself.
But Susan was still her best friend, and yet. And Yet – she, Anne, was slowly and inexorably being drawn towards Susan’s fiancé. It would not have been so bad if it was only her, she could have caught a plane back to London, put some distance into it. There was nothing more to be done for Susan right now. But this same chemistry seemed to be working on David. And with two magnets pulling towards each other it was really hard to keep the pieces apart.
So here she was, on a plane early on Christmas morning, flying first class to Sydney with this man, David, sitting next to her. David had drifted off to sleep, seemingly well pleased to have her for company on the flight. They had departed Darwin at one o’clock in the morning. Christmas Eve was ended and Christmas Day begun. They would arrive in Sydney in time for breakfast on Christmas Day.
Anne could not help but feel excitement at her first visit to this famous city. The circumstances were all wrong, the attraction was all wrong. And yet!
And yet, she could and would enjoy the company of this man. They had been thrown together by a collision of circumstances, all of Susan’s making. So now she was on the plane and it was past a time for regret. She would have to make sure nothing came of it; she was stronger than Susan that way, less impulsive. The idea of getting entangled with her best friend’s fiancé, even if their relationship was doomed, must stay out of bounds in her mind; she could not let herself go there. But she was still determined to enjoy the trip and his company, even if just as friends.
But as she looked at the beautiful face with its tousled golden hair sleeping in the seat next to her, she could not help but feel regret that they could have not met at another place and time. She knew it would only take one little move from her to start the ball rolling.
All in all it had been a strange day. First they had gone to have a cup of tea with that old aboriginal man, Charlie. They had a conversation about an evil crocodile spirit and a crocodile stone that Charlie had given Susan yesterday. It sounded like mumbo jumbo and neither she nor David really believed it. Susan’s parents had encouraged this meeting; they had located Charlie, somehow, and met with him themselves two days ago. This morning, when she and David met Charlie, he had told them of his visit to Susan yesterday. He told how, after she took that stone in her hand, the bad spirit had gone away and her mind had become clear.
They liked the old man but thought the story would turn out to be nothing. Yet it was the first time in two months that a resemblance of her old friend was in the room; Susan’s laugh, smile, and mental clarity had returned. Anne remembered that night in London when Susan had come to her for help. That was the last time, before yesterday, that she felt she knew this person. It was not that Susan had shown any sign of changing her mind about what to do, that was still just as hopeless. But at least she seemed to know and understand the world around her. She smiled again and could hold an ordinary conversation.
With this sense of the return of the real Susan she and David had felt great relief. But that added to the problem. With anxiety lowered about Susan it had become more important to start dealing with the ongoing attraction between them that came from both physical desire and from spending so much time together.
She had spent eighty percent of her waking hours over the last three weeks, since she had arrived in Darwin, in David’s company. With Susan’s unwillingness to talk to lawyers she and David had become Susan’s de-facto legal team, both determined to try and gain an understanding of what had happened as a first step in marshalling evidence which would give Susan a way out.
She thought back to their first meeting and all the times in between. That first night when they met, a sort of unofficial engagement party for David and Susan in London, she and David were a bit wowed by each other. Even though David was totally enraptured by Susan, a thing like a primal attraction had flashed between him and her in that first instant.
Anne had dressed to wow the party. It had worked judging by David’s open mouth when he first saw her red hair, green dress and flashing green-hazel eyes. And she had been equally awestruck by this gorgeous man, even though Susan had already told her he was seriously handsome. That night she had asked Susan if he had a brother she could meet. She was only half joking, the power of the physical attraction was so strong.
Of course she had been really pleased on Susan’s account that she had met such a gorgeous man; but deep down she was a little jealous as well, not that she would let that come out.
Then Anne remembered that awful phone call she had to make when Susan’s trouble began, after Susan was called into the police station. From that time Susan had known she could no longer marry David; that, despite the hurt that it would cause, she must end it.
But Susan could not bring herself to ring and tell him it was finished, all she could do was run away. So she had asked Anne to be her emissary. Anne, despite strong qualms, had reluctantly agreed to call David and tell him that the engagement was off.
She remembered the shocked silence on the other end of the phone as she bumbled her way through Susan’s message, then anger and denial, followed by a slowly dawning acceptance of it being real as the actuality came out, then David’s refusal to accept from anyone except Susan that the engagement was over.
As the conversation went on and as he began to grasp both the loss and the futility of it all, his grief came down the phone line to her. In that minute she had felt so sorry for both him and Susan. She had said and truly meant it that she wished her message was otherwise.
Anne had promised, and kept her promise, to continue to ring him on a weekly basis, giving him first hand news about the legal processes in England as they unfolded. It had taken great effort on her part to dissuade David from flying to England.
Only by Anne saying that Susan did not want him there, that Susan did not want his photos as her jilted fiancé in the English tabloids, that Susan had already made up her mind to return to Australia and face the charges, could he be convinced.
As time went on, with these weekly phone calls and seeing him on the television, she gained ever increasing respect for both David’s decency and his mental toughness. He refused to get into sordid speculation; he simply kept a consistent line of knowing that Susan was a good person. He also briefed his family to say the same. He had answered the journalists’ reasonable questions with politeness, but there were times when a line was crossed and she felt white fire coming from him.
He would not tolerate anyone saying offensive things about Susan’s character or her family to him; he made this very clear. Others, even the worst journalists, now stepped back before this line was crossed.
Then, when Susan was extradited to Darwin and Anne had cleared her work sufficiently to fly there for the committal hearing, David had booked her a business class flight and insisted that he pay. He said that Anne was trying to help his fiancé. Her finding time to act as a friend was more than enough for her to cover. So he had paid for her flight and for her hotel accommodation ever since she arrived.
Anne understood he could well afford it. But, even so, it seemed very decent and kind, both to her and to Susan. It was not that Anne was poor but her family were not nearly as well off as Susan’s were. And, on a legal secretary’s salary, she had little money left over each week after she paid for her little London flat. So, while Anne would have found a way to come anyway, even if she had to borrow the money, David’s help had made her life very much easier.
She had been apprehensive about meeting him again in Darwin; she was the messenger of the train wreck which had come his way. But, as she came off the plane, he was standing there, waiting for her. From that first minute he had been so polite and gracious, saying how he appreciated all she had done and tried to do and how he really valued her honesty.
This had meant a lot to her. It had all been very hard for Anne too; the nasty press speculation which enveloped everyone who knew Susan, Susan’s unresponsive state, then Anne needing to juggle time and money to help. It felt good that someone else saw and valued her many efforts.
Anne liked Susan’s family, but they had more than enough troubles of their own. Still they did not seem to understand the cost of this to Anne herself, particularly emotionally, whereas David seemed to understand this intuitively.
David announced, the day after Anne arrived in Darwin that, despite Susan’s lack of response, he was still totally committed both to her as a person and to her gaining her freedom, no matter what happened with their relationship.
David appointed himself as Susan’s unofficial legal representative, and asked Anne to help him in this task. Anne’s work as a legal secretary was of great assistance and the two of them set up an office in his hotel suite living room, along the passage from her own room.
They had worked long days for three weeks since then, gathering any fragments of evidence that they could find from various parties and sources; the pathologist, police, prosecutors, witnesses. Despite them having no official status most people seemed to really want to help. It was as if, despite the continuous horrible speculation about Susan that went on and on in the papers, there was a general sense that this story did not make sense and there must be more to it. So, many people welcomed someone else trying to get to the bottom of what had really happened.
The only person who they had not managed to talk to was the initial investigation officer, Sergeant Alan Richards. They were told his work on this case was now finished and that, since the committal hearing, he had been assigned to other work and therefore he would not be able to help with their inquiries. Anne knew his face from the English legal proceedings and they had seen him briefly in court at the first Australian hearing. But despite making innumerable phone calls and leaving as many messages, they had been unable to talk to him and he had not returned their calls.
She wondered if he was hiding something, perhaps his discomfort about the way the investigation had turned out. She knew that when he first found the head in the billabong he could never have believed that it would unfold in such an awful way. Susan had told her about their strange friendship on the plane trip and Anne felt he must still be searching for the truth, even if he seemed to be avoiding them.
As their investigation proceeded the one thing that Anne was not able to tell David was the information that came from Susan on the night that she first sought Anne’s help; two things really; the existence of the man’s diary and the holiday text exchange with Susan. The sum of these was that there must be a good reason for what Susan had done; she had been in fear for her life.
The reason Anne could not tell David about this information was that, regardless of its great importance, she must honour her promise to Susan. Susan must have one person in her corner that she could fully trust. Even though Anne knew David was on her side too, telling him would betray that special trust .
In a funny way she understood Susan’s dilemma. Susan had loved this man she was charged with murdering. Now she was carrying his child and she could not, and would not sully his reputation. Therefore Anne could not, at least not in any deliberate way, act contrary to Susan’s intent. As a result it felt she was fighting for Susan with a hand tied behind her back.
So Anne understood it was for others to go there and discover these secrets. In her place she must try to think of things that could point that way but without requiring her collaboration. Unfortunately, as they had gathered the evidence, Anne had to admit it did look bad for Susan. And Susan was doing zero to help her own cause, she was like a diver caught in a sinking submarine without an escape hatch.
As she and David had worked side by side, with a quiet desperation, trying to find something in Susan’s favour, this other thing had happened, a moving beyond simple physical attraction to something much deeper, an intense liking for each other.
United by a common purpose they started to notice each other. Anne had always been very aware of this attractive man, but had kept that part of her mind closed off; he was still her best friend’s fiancé.
But she would find herself looking forward to his smile of greeting when he first opened the door to her in the morning. And she loved the way that he did little things to improve her life in this place and did them with unconscious charm.
Each morning he would have a breakfast platter of coffee, croissants, pastries and orange juice set up on his verandah looking out across Darwin harbour. He insisted that they begin each day with breakfast together and as the weeks went by they started to chat about themselves and other things beyond Susan at these times. He always had lunch brought in when they were not out at meetings. And, despite the long days of work, he always insisted they go out to eat a proper meal each night in one of the many Darwin restaurants. Sometimes it included Susan’s family, a couple times there were other business acquaintances or legal people and a couple times it was just with her.
As these weeks passed she realised there was clearly something happening between them that they both tried to deny, a deep sense of mutual attraction. Sometimes, when she turned to look at David unexpectedly, she caught his eyes looking at her in a way that seemed more than just friendly, and he had seemed embarrassed and looked away. And she herself was the same. Occasionally she felt an almost deliberate touch as he brushed off her, and it gave her a little thrill.
David also insisted they both take a full day off each Sunday. He had taken her sightseeing locally on these days, once to Berry Springs, first to the zoo and then for a swim at the lovely crystal clear natural pool, again with Susan’s family along, once on a boat trip in the harbour with some business friends.
When she saw David’s bare body in his swimmers the power of his physical attraction really hit her. She could tell the same was happening in reverse whenever she wore a skimpy top and shorts or bikini that showed off her body. That day at Berry Springs she had almost swum up to him without thinking and wrapped her arms around his body, it was a thing she ached to do. But once done there would be no undoing it. It was lucky Susan’s family was there as well that day.
And, a couple times in the morning, she had come into his room and he was still in bed. Each time she had an almost overpowering urge to climb in beside him; she could feel his sexuality willing her to do this. But from there there would be no way back either.
Then, when he arranged for her to come to Sydney with him it felt as if a line had been crossed and they were heading down a path towards something more. It was particularly the way this was a private invitation directed just to her. She knew she should not go there, she did not want to be disloyal to her friend, and yet. And yet there it was, this mutual attraction, and it just kept on working on them both and drawing them together, like a rubber band stretched tighter and tighter until one day it must inevitably break.
So now, as she sat on this aeroplane early on Christmas morning, almost three weeks of her month in Australia was gone and despite all her effort she had done little to help Susan’s cause. After the New Year, when she returned to Darwin there were only four days before she must catch a plane back to London and return to work, she had well and truly used up all her work credit and goodwill.
So part of her felt that her loyalty to Susan required that she stay in Darwin with her until then and keep trying to help her. But she knew it would have been a miserable time in Darwin between now and the New Year; Susan in prison, she alone in a hotel room, her own family back in England in Reading, and all her other friends in other places.
If Susan’s parents had stayed in Darwin it would have been easier. But they were also flying to Sydney tomorrow, for a week, to see Ruth and Jess, the Australian cousins. They would return early in the New Year, after which they would refocus their efforts on helping Susan for another fortnight before they needed to return to England too.
Anne did not have enough money for a side trip for this holiday time and did not feel she could ask anyone else to help with this. If she had the money, she might have flown to Cairns to visit the Barrier Reef; like Susan she loved diving. But she had not said this to anyone, she did not want to put others under a sense of obligation for her own enjoyment.
Then, yesterday, David made the suggestion that she come home with him for Christmas and, even though she had not said yes, feeling uncomfortable about getting in deeper with him, the next day, actually just this morning, he had presented her with a return ticket to Sydney, saying his family had invited them both to come and stay for a few days over Christmas and, after that, he was determined to show her the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney before they returned to Darwin.
Despite her reservations she had agreed to go. In that moment she knew that a line had been crossed. So now they were descending into Sydney, and even though nothing had really happened between them she felt as if she had stepped onto a roller coaster from which she could no longer get off.
The week together in Sydney passed in a rapid but exhilarating manner. On arrival she re-met Susan’s cousin Ruth, who was one of David’s best friends. She had met her a couple times before in England. After a quick brunch and news exchange they drove, in David’s sports car across the mountains, to reach his home in time for Christmas dinner.
It was a thoroughly traditional affair with all the trimmings. The whole family made Anne feel very welcome and in return she could not help but like them, thinking what a nice family Susan had come into when she met David, and being glad she had now got to know them all too.
The next few days there were driving trips in the country and endless visits to and by relatives, combined with endless cups of tea and slices of Christmas cake. It was such a breath of fresh air after the last few months of Susan’s high dramas.
Occasionally Anne felt guilty about how Susan was locked up while she was enjoying herself; but she knew it was beyond her to help Susan at this time and her unease soon passed. Two days before New Year they said goodbye to all the extended family and returned to Sydney. David had organised for her to stay in the spare room at Jess’s place, perhaps sensing he should minimise temptation for them both as well as avoid the risk of gossip.
On the way David told her he would not be able to come back to Darwin right now as a red hot issue had come up for his business and he needed to spend a couple weeks in Sydney to sort it out. He asked her if she wanted to continue in Sydney rather than fly back to Darwin on New Year’s Day, as she was currently booked to do.
Their relationship was much more relaxed and honest since coming away. She knew both of them were happy to enjoy doing things together and for now, would park their desire for anything more.
She told him, “I would much rather stay here with you, I have really enjoyed this time. However my first loyalty needs to be with my friend. Seeing I have less than a week before I return to work I will spend as much of it as I can with her. I must see what I can do to get her to help herself; not to pressure her, but instead try to help her find a way to tell the story of what really happened, to unblock her fear of whatever this thing is that she is hiding from.”
David took her hand and squeezed it. “Thank you, you have been such a good friend to us both and I have enjoyed my time with you so much too.”
“But you are right, Susan is the priority for both of us now, I will be back in Darwin about a week after you leave. Perhaps it is better if each of us meets and talks to her alone. She may be more open on a one on one basis. It seems that whenever people try and put pressure on her together she feels we are ganging up on her, gets defensive and fights back.
“But I want you to come back as soon as you are able, certainly we will both need to be with her for a week or two before the trial starts. Will you be able to get away from your work?
Anne replied. “You can count on it.”
They had a lovely New Year’s Eve, on a boat on the harbour with Ruth, her boyfriend Steve, Jess and her partner Robbie and a couple of other friends.
Then the next morning it was off to the airport. They hugged tight as they said goodbye and that was it. As they pulled apart each said “I will miss you,” to the other. The question about them still remained but they both knew that now was not the time.
Vic was flying low and fast, enjoying the thrill as he twisted his helicopter through the gorges of the Fitzmaurice River. He had done a job between Wyndham and Derby yesterday and was due at Timber Creek tomorrow to do a scenic trip for some tourists who wanted to see the country where the Victoria River cut through the ranges south of the town forming a series of spectacular carved out river valleys. These people were obviously well heeled and, in the wet season, regular work was quiet; so today he had a day to kill in Timber Creek, just a a sleepy place on the Victoria River, barely more than a two horse town.
He logged his flight with flight control on leaving Wyndham, putting in a flight path from Wyndham Airport direct to Timber Creek.
But, feeling bored with the idea of a whole day in this quiet little backwater and knowing he had full fuel tanks and a couple of spare jerry cans, giving plenty of flying time, he had made a diversion from his logged route, flying east north east over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf, a place of monumental tides, rather than going south east direct to the town. As he crossed over the Gulf he noted the tide in its huge river estuaries was full but still running in. That fitted with the almost new moon he had seen late yesterday evening.
He had been avoiding reading the document Susan had given him on the tiny memory chip. He knew he needed to read it; he had bullied Susan into giving it to him. He did not feel proud about that, he had promised Mark that he would take care of her. Yet, in his rage, he had slapped her up; he could still see the shock and the red marks outlined on her face from when he had backhanded her.
Now, even though he should still be mad with her, he just felt sorry for her. It had come to him, with dawning clarity as she talked, that Mark had done something really, truly awful and she had found out. Yes, she had killed him. But Mark was a wild and dangerous man, notwithstanding being a brother, always living at the edge and sometimes way past the edge. Vic had sensed in Mark a dangerous spirit that sometimes drove him to do bad things.
So something bad had happened between them which had tipped her over the edge. In the heat of it Mark ended up dead. It somehow seemed a fitting way for his mate to go, killed by a lover then given to crocodiles, which were his other true love.
He knew part of the story of the bad Mark lay hidden in the diary which Susan had given him. But he wanted to hold on, just for a little bit longer, to the good memory of his friend. That was the real reason why he was avoiding reading it. He knew that, once he read this story, his mind’s image of his friend must mind must inevitably be transformed for worse. He did not want to go there.
So, in the meantime, Susan was ‘holding the can’ for this awful thing. He was sure Mark would not want that. So he must bring himself to read and understand Mark’s story, then decide what to do. But, for now, he was in avoidance mode, at least for another few days. This helicopter thrill ride was part of this avoidance, just like the other things he had done to fill up his days since he found out about Mark’s diary, days when he could have found time and means to begin reading, but did not want to.
He justified it that it was still only a few days after Christmas, actually the day before New Year’s Eve. So most shops were still closed, his laptop could not read this tiny memory card that Susan had given him, he must buy a Micro SD card holder that would fit into a regular memory card slot. He had not got the chance to buy one yet, he had not been in a town on a day when the shops were open – they were his excuses anyway, even if only half true.
He would go into Katherine for a couple days after New Year’s Day and he would do it then. In the meantime he was flying in one of those beautiful remote places of the Territory, the Fitzmaurice Gorge. He had only ferried over the top of it in his helicopter a couple times, and looking down as he flew over he had marvelled at the massive cliffs that fringed this river, which was in the middle of nowhere. In his mind he had always thought of this block of country as an empty place and he had heard other locals talk of it that way too, the emptiest and most godforsaken part of the NT, so hard to get to and almost completely uninhabited. Even the Daly Reserve blackfellas, his coastal cousins, rarely came here and he knew why. It was too rough to walk through and, with the big tides and lots of supersized crocs, only a madman would come here in a small boat, particularly a dugout canoe.
Today he had decided he would have an up close look. This morning there was a big fresh flow thundering down the gorge, the result of big storm rain up around the back of Pine Creek.
It was such a blast skimming over thundering white water, running hundreds of metres wide, with beetling cliffs rising alongside. It was sort of like those Gulf Rivers, but even wilder, here the wet season flows had combined with the thundering tides to be just awesome.
It was hard to think of a more inaccessible place, particularly in the wet, it must be a hundred miles to the nearest trafficable road, not even a rough bush track within 50 miles. God help anyone who got stuck out here. No one would ever find them and it was hard to see any way to get out of a place like this.
The helicopter engine was running like a dream, such a steady and sweet thump came from the blades of his metal bird. He passed a big creek running in from the right hand side, swelling the river with its own flow. There was a big sharp turn coming up, a hard turn to the right, with cliffs rising up straight ahead; he would go with it using his reflexes and the engine’s power to pull him and his chopper around the river bend before it hit those beetling cliffs. It would take full power to pull the old bird around this tight corner.
The cliff came racing towards him. He held off on his turn, wanting the thrill of pushing the limit of the machine. Now he must turn, it was barely a hundred yards to the cliff, right directly in front and he was closing at seventy knots. He had to make a thirty degree right turn to stay in the gorge and there was nowhere else to go; even with his machine at full power he could not pull a sharp enough climb to get out of here.
At that last critical moment when he knew he had to respond, he pulled the control stick hard right.
What was wrong? It would not move; it felt jammed solid. He tried to flare up, jammed that way too. He threw all his weight behind the stick to move it right. It felt like steering a Mack truck without power steering. He managed to move it a few millimetres with huge effort, turning the metal bird to the side so the skids came up towards the cliff.
With sudden clarity he knew it was way too late, this would be his date with destiny. He had just a half second to turn off the power before the helicopter slammed into the cliff face, fifty feet above the raging river. He reckoned his speed was fifty knots in that split second before impact.
He felt a fleeting sense of his life passing before his eyes as this metal thing crumpled around him and his body crumpled inside. Then, as full impact hit, he felt nothing.
The hawks, soaring overhead, watched as this strange metal bird first attached itself to the cliff with a crashing and grinding sound and then slowly fell away into the river below. It was picked up by the raging white water and swept along with the current around the bend and then on down the river. For a minute or two it was partly visible on the surface as it bobbed along. Then it vanished from view.
Buck got a strange phone call just as dusk was settling over Victoria River Downs station. It was from the publican, Jack, at Timber Creek. His big booming voice came down the line. “Jack from Timber Creek, have you seen Vic, chopper pilot? Was expecting him midday and he’s done a no show. Thought maybe you booked him for a job at short notice and he diverted down to VRD Station.”
It was more puzzling than anxious. But there was something strange and fearful in this whole affair with Mark. He had found out about it last week and it made him uneasy, over and above this.
He had missed all the papers and TV news at the time that the Mark connection was made with the ‘Crocodile Man’. And, even then, if he had listened to the news, he was unsure whether he would have paid heed. November and December were often the busiest months of the year and this year was no exception. TV watching was lost in distant memory and the unread newspapers lay in a pile in the office.
So, when Vic had turned up the week before Christmas to do a job for him, to clean out the scrubbers from the top end of the station, where the river ran into the gorge country, he had been none the wiser. But he could tell, from the moment he laid eyes on Vic, that something was seriously wrong. No surprise, he and Mark had been like brothers for as long as Buck knew either of them. They had done so many jobs together. They had an understanding of how to work together which was so much better than any other pilot and contract musterer he knew.
So, despite having his own machines and plenty of others to pick from, he still regularly booked the two of them for these tough jobs, the rough country clean-ups where the wrong operator had the ability to lose every animal that was mustered in one critical minute, and Buck would be left with an empty yard and a big helicopter bill to pay.
So he had wanted to book both Mark and Vic for this clean-up. For some reason he had never been able to run Mark to ground. Mark had not been seen around these parts for two or three months, not since he had come through with that pretty English lass, Susan; when they had helped to bring some cattle up the Wickham Gorge. Buck hadn’t thought much about it; Mark was like that; he sometimes dropped out for a couple months, then he would reappear when he was ready.
So, in the end, he booked another contractor to work with Vic and clean up that pocket of country in the week before Christmas. He had the idea that Vic might be able to shed some light on where Mark had gone; he expected the story would be something like an unexpected trip to the Middle East; that had happened at least once before he could remember.
But the moment he saw Vic’s face he knew there was more to this story, it was like a sixth sense spoke to him. They had no time to talk until the mustering was done. It had gone well, Vic had lost none of his touch and Billy, who had run the ground side of the operation, was good, if not quite the class act that Mark was. So he had got 59 big scrub bulls in the yards and about the same number of cows and heifers, three quarters were cleanskins now wearing the VRD brand, along with a scattering of young stock that would go into the paddocks. All in all it had been a good morning’s work.
But, as they sat down for a cup of tea at the end of the job, Vic pulled him aside, and asked him if he knew about Mark.
Buck’s perplexity had been obvious. He had replied, “Only that I have not been able to get in touch with him since August and that’s why, a month ago when I still had not heard from him, I booked Billy to work with you. I hoped you could tell me where he was.
Vic’s reply was his usual direct self, “Yeah I wondered that too where he had gone, but I never really thought about it, too busy. Now I know; we won’t be seeing him anymore, he is dead; they say he has been murdered by that British bitch he was travelling with.”
So the story had come tumbling out. Buck found it hard to believe, even now. It was hard to imagine Susan, she seemed such a sweet girl, doing that, or even that it was Mark’s body they found. But Vic had no doubt; something about an old bullet injury that Mark had to his arm had made him certain that it was Mark. Then Vic explained about the two surnames used by Mark and it gradually became clear as to why the name Mark Bennet, told on the radio news, had not connected. Buck knew him as Mark Butler, same as Vic. Mark was a common name.
He could tell Vic was really angry, there was a cold, calculating rage bubbling inside him at the idea that someone would kill his best mate, whatever the reason. And that was only the half of what was odd.
There was also the way that, on that last night he had seen him, Mark had asked him to witness his will, right after dinner. The will was made in yet another name again, “Vincent Mark Bassingham.”
Mark explained this had been his name as a kid. But, because his father was a bad bastard he had run away from home as soon as he was old enough. So he had kept the name Mark, but changed the surname he used, though the other was still the legal name.
That seemed fair enough but what was really odd was that the will gave all his possessions, apart from a few minor gifts, to the girl Susan who he was travelling with. Mark told Buck that Susan knew nothing about it and she probably would not agree if she was told.
Buck had only half read the will as he witnessed it, but it was pretty short and there it was for all to see. It was not something he was likely to forget, just a few lines of minor beneficiaries, he half saw his own name and Vic’s there though never bothered to read any detail of what was given, and then there were a couple pages of paper at the back that listed some other assets. It seemed like quite a bit of stuff for a bloke who never showed any signs of owning more than himself and his vehicle. But again he did not give it more than a passing glance. Truth be told he did not think it was likely that anything would come of it. Mark was such a tough bastard; he’d watched him survive close shaves too many to count. Buck though it was fanciful to believe anything would ever touch him.
When he’d questioned Mark as the whether he was sure about that bequest and why it was so important, Mark had admitted to Buck he was smitten with this girl. Plus he had a bad feeling, ‘sort of karma’, that his nine lives were running out. So Mark had told Buck he had decided that if something happened, whatever it may be, then all his things would go to her, some of his stuff was worth real money and he preferred she should have it rather than it go to the state or to his mongrel father.
He said it with such quiet certainty that Buck did not argue back. He had just signed the document and handed it back to Mark who took it and nodded his thanks.
Then Mark had laughed the whole thing off as superstition, saying that it must mean he was getting old if he was starting to see shadows dancing on his grave. But, notwithstanding, he was quite sure it was what he wanted. He also asked Buck to be an executor should the need to act on the will arise.
Buck knew nothing about Marks affairs, but hell, Mark had been his mate, they had worked together on a lot of jobs over the last seven or eight years. What were mates for if not to see you right if something bad happened? So he had said yes to being an executor as well.
Now he wondered where the will was?
So, since that day when Vic told him that Mark was dead, he had been thinking about what his course of action should be; should he talk to the police, should he visit Susan? He had intended to discuss it with Vic when the chance came. He had noted, that night when he signed the will, that Vic’s name and signature sat alongside his own.
And now Vic was missing, that’s what became clear as he talked to the publican at Timber Creek. Vic had been due there by no later than mid-afternoon. Jack said Vic had told him on the phone from Wyndham last night to expect him at Timber Creek today “best guess around time for lunch”, and hold a room for him. But the day was over and still Vic had not come.
Jack also said he also had two tourists staying there that night. They were expecting a scenic flight with Vic early tomorrow. They wanted to confirm the arrangements and had expected to plan out the route with Vic tonight. So they were wanting to know where he was too.
When the sun set with no helicopter it occurred to Jack that Vic might have diverted to VRD for a job or some maintenance, he was a chopper mechanic after all and they had a workshop there. If so he thought he could have changed his plan to come over to Timber Creek first thing in the morning instead. Hence he had rung to check.
Now they were both perplexed, Vic was super reliable, always called flight control to cancel his flights. Buck had immediately made a call to Darwin Flight Control. This confirmed that nothing had been heard since this morning when Vic left Wyndham about nine o’clock. Flight Control had not initiated any action as it was not unusual for helicopter pilots to fail to cancel their flights and, with a massive storm over Darwin from early afternoon, radio reception had been terrible. Now that storm had moved south over Pine Creek and the Daly River so the radio reception was still just as bad from down that way.
The one other thing Flight Control in Darwin told him, in case he had not heard it on the radio, was there was a cyclone watch along the coast between Darwin and the border of Western Australia. The low system which had been sitting in the Arafura Sea, north of Arnhem Land, for the last couple days, had become a cyclone this afternoon. It was now heading in a south westerly direction at ten kilometres per hour. It was about 150 kilometres out to sea, and its current trajectory would bring it down over the western NT coast somewhere between the mouth of the Daly River and the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.
That meant it was headed this way and the weather was likely to deteriorate badly tomorrow, particularly in the afternoon, if the cyclone held its course. Of course it could swing further to the south and clobber Darwin or break further to the west and hit the Kimberley coast. But, as things stood, the place where Vic was flying through today was in direct line for this super storm and it did not improve the odds of finding him tomorrow, should a search be required.
Off course Vic could have landed somewhere and not been able to get the machine to start again. But, if this was the case, why had he not called in. He could have used a local frequency to let someone down this way know to ring Darwin if he could not get through directly. But then, maybe he had a flat battery or a radio problem.
So tomorrow they needed to locate him early or it would be time for a full scale search for a missing helicopter. With bad weather forecast as the day progressed they needed to get cracking early.
This was something that Buck did not even like to think about. Two pilots he had known had gone down in his decade in the industry up here. They had been awful affairs for all concerned, one burned to a crisp so that what remained was past resembling a person. Buck had been one of the first on the scene and he still remembered that awful stink and the charred mess.
Anyway that was for tomorrow, nothing more he could do tonight bar call the other stations en route; Legune, Auverge and Bulloo River for starters, and see if anyone had sighted him. He would have some dinner first then make the calls before he went off to bed.
Susan sat in her cell. The outside light was fading. Christmas Day was almost over and it had a surreal empty feeling. No presents, no visitors, no singing or laughing; just her and the crocodile stone for company.
Prison was a strange place, she overheard the warders talking about how overcrowded it was, but she had a cell to herself and it seemed to be a bit separate from the other cells, so there was no one next door to talk to. She was in the remand section, awaiting trial. At this stage it seemed that, despite there being lots of men on remand, that she was the only woman in the maximum security section facing a serious charge. So it was just her in a block of several cells with its own visitors’ room. She rarely saw or heard anyone, other than in the far distance.
It was often hot and steamy with no fans or other cooling here, even though the visitor’s room was lovely and cool with its air conditioned comfort. At night she would pull a sheet over her head to keep the buzzing mosquitos away from her face. Last night, late at night, there had been a huge storm with endless flashes of lightning and rain banging down and, for a while afterwards, the air was cool. But today there was an airless, hot steamy feel to the atmosphere, both inside and out of her cell.
Normally she did not mind the solitude, she really did not want to talk to others about what she had done and yet this was the question they invariably wanted to ask. But solitude on Christmas day felt wrong, where had all the laughter in her life gone?
Today she had tried to pass the time by reading a cheap and trashy romance novel that she had been able to take from the visitors’ room bookshelf. But now she was bored with it, it was not much of a story. Still she persevered trying to read, just to pass the time, sitting with her legs crossed, on her bunk, with the crocodile stone in her lap.
A few times she had put the stone aside and tried to pretend it was just superstition, not really influencing what was happening inside her head. But each time, within a few minutes, she could feel the fog return, the malevolent crocodile spirit was insinuating itself back into her mind. Then, as her hand returned to touch the stone, clarity would return.
She felt grateful for the visit yesterday of her family; Mum, Dad and Tim, along with Anne and David. They had brought brightness into her life for a couple hours. David had flown back to Sydney last night for a family Christmas. She knew he wanted Anne to go with him; she could feel the spark there and was glad – if something happened between them she would feel a bit less guilty for her own part to messing up his life.
She had not formally broken off the engagement but it was time. She would delay and spare the ructions this would cause for another week or two. But, as soon as the New Year passed, she would act. She suspected that both David and his family would be relieved.
Susan sensed that Anne was better for David than she was. Both she and David were impulse driven, Anne was steadier and would balance that part of David in a way she could not. But that was all speculation, not based on anything more than a hunch. Still she was glad it might happen, she did not feel jealous, just a little envious of the freedom they both enjoyed. She wanted something good like this for them both; they were both friends she cared for. Of course it may be imagination on her part.
She was also glad that her mind had been clear enough to talk to her own parents properly yesterday; it had been so hard with the fog filling her head. But, even though they did not have any deep and meaningful conversations, she sensed something approaching relief in them both that their daughter’s mind had returned.
She was not really free of the crocodile spirit but at least she now had a way to keep it back. Thanks to the new clearness that the stone gave her mind, along with the way Vic confronted her about what she had really done, it had come to her yesterday that she needed to plead guilty. She must stop this farce of pretence, saying that she would neither confirm nor deny what she had done.
So, as soon as the New Year came, she would tell of her killing Mark, hitting him on the head then dragging his body to the water; that part matched the evidence they already had, so it would be believed. But that was all she would tell.
Anything more would lead down a path which destroyed Mark’s reputation. Once done her child would have to live with that, once done there was no going back. It was better that this story remained untold – nothing could undo the past harm done. Nothing was gained by opening up the cesspit of Mark’s bad actions.
She was determined that the good memories of him held by her and his friends, not be destroyed through a revelation by her, leading others to spill out a different Mark story across the airwaves.
That story would travel down the generations, guilt by association. Always, after, people would ask whether the child of a psychopath would become like the father, turn into a monster. She had come to understand the two sides to Mark; she was prepared to live with this dual person, to love and honour the memory of the good part.
She wished he had been open to having a life with her after she knew; they could have had months or even years together, sharing their child. It was not much, but compared to the nothing she had now, she believed it would have been enough. God she hated the lost chance.
She wondered if she had done the right thing in giving the memory card with his story to Vic. But a promise was a promise and she must honour the one given by Mark, even if it caused more harm. Vic must shoulder responsibility for what he did with that knowledge.
Overall she felt relieved that she had shared this burden. Now Vic could agonise over it like she had. She had found herself more alive in Vic’s presence than she had been for months, even if it was only to rise to the challenge of being slapped.
It was good that Vic cared about Mark and what happened to him, cared enough to rage at her causing in his loss. She touched her face where a tender spot remained from his hand, smiling at the memory. It was the most alive thing that happened since she returned to Australia.
So now she wanted to get the trial over with. She knew she would end up spending years in prison if she pled guilty. So she would have to make arrangements for when her child was born. She would ask her parents to adopt the child. That way she could see him, at least now and then, when they visited. She did not know why but she was sure that the child would be a boy. But she was sure, and she had decided that Marco would be his middle name too, a continuity of life and memory passing from father to son.
This imagined future was not much of a life to look forward to; maybe prison for twenty years until her child was grown. But it was justice for the life she took away and it would bring closure to what had happened. She must find useful things to keep herself sane in prison and then make a new life when it was done.
She felt that, with the visits by the old man Charlie and Vic, some clarity had come back into her life. Now she was able to think and plan again. It was so much better than sitting trapped in a fog all day. She hoped they would both visit her again soon. Their visits had lifted her out of despair. She sensed she would need more help from them both and then more help still, to stay sane in this place.
The one thought that really terrified her now was that she would go back into that trapped place in her mind, where it was only her and that awful crocodile spirit for company. She thought she would eventually kill herself if she stayed there. There was a certain allure to escaping that way, Mark was in that place. But she would not dwell on that thought before her child was born.
In the meantime perhaps Charlie and Vic could help her put that bad place behind her, at least she hoped so. There was steel in Vic and he would know what to do. He could help her find a place beyond this place here, a place where her torment would cease. He would honour Mark’s memory but he would help her too, that she knew.
So she would ask the prison officials, as soon as the Christmas New Year period was over, ask them to put her in touch with the lawyers for the public prosecutor so she could make an early guilty plea.
Then all these people, who were hanging around in hope of a miracle, would get on with their own lives and she could get on with her life too, wherever it led. She felt a sliver of satisfaction that she could now see a way forward.
Now, with her mind clear and the crocodile stone in her lap, she would read more of this book to pass the rest of this day. She had had her fill and more of Christmas alone and wanted tomorrow to come.
Two days after Christmas the warder announced to Susan she had a visitor. She had been told she would not be permitted visitors until the New Year, as only a skeleton staff was rostered on, not able to supervise visitors. But some people seemed to find ways around rules.
Still she was perplexed as to who it could be, David and Susan were in Sydney, as were her parents. She did not imagine that either Vic or Charlie would be back so soon and she could not think of anyone else that she knew. But a visitor was welcome to break up her day. She almost skipped out of her cell with a light heart.
As she walked down the passage into the visitor’s room she could see bright sunshine outside, just a few fluffy clouds, none of the big lightning and rains of the last day. Her mood lifted with the sunlight, even if just glimpsed through the window from the air conditioned visitors building.
She saw a weather beaten old man sitting at the table, wearing a cowboy hat. She did not recognise him. As she walked towards the table he stood up and doffed his hat in a polite greeting.
Recognition came to her; the bar tender from Top Springs, the man who had made the strangely prophetic announcements about Mark and the crocodile spirit. He had given her that cryptic warning that now made a sort of sense. She did not know his name, she was unsure if Mark even introduced him, despite them talking to him for two hours. She felt uncertain how to respond to this man, again a friend of Mark’s.
She must have shown the uncertainty in her face, because he seemed to realise that a more formal introduction was called for.
He stood up, “Michael Riley at your service Maam. Not sure if you remember the day that you and that larrikin, Mark, stopped to tell stories at my bar at Top Springs.” With that he gave her a big broad toothy grin.
Susan could not help herself, she smiled back in response, there was something a bit mad and infectious in the mood she caught from him. She gestured, “Please sit down Mr Riley. Of course I remember you, who wouldn’t, you and all your prophetic crocodile tales. I told Mark you were a bit fey, he said it was the spirit of the Johnny Walker talking.”
The man shook his head in reply. “Well, you’d think he’d get that one thing right at least. Paddy’s is the drop I always drink.”
Then he continued, “Just before Christmas I got word that you had set that crocodile spirit free, and they had locked you up for it. So me, I thinks, I am here in Darwin for a Christmas visit, perhaps I should pay you a visit, so as to pay me regards, like.
“You see, me, I know what you done girl; I felt it on that day. A choice was coming; one had to go with the crocodiles and one was to stay. So it had to be him to go and you to stay, him having the crocodile spirit, like. It could not have been another way.
“He was not a bad man, all in, but he had done bad things. His time had come to pay. Since the deed was done, his spirit has bin talking to me, telling me things. He says tis better this way, he wants for you and the child you share to be happy, his life will go on through the child. You must have no fear for the child, not try to protect the child from the truth. You must tell his story for all who would hear.
Susan found herself protesting. “But you can’t know what it is you are asking. You can’t expect me just to tell the world what happened!”
Michael looked at her with a sad and perplexed manner, as if he could not see where to go from here. Then he shrugged his shoulders with a sad expression before he spoke again.
”That is his message for you that he said I must tell.”
With that he nodded, stood up and walked out the door.
Susan sat there alone, feeling mystified. What did it mean? Was she to tell her child when grown who the father was and what he had done? Was she to tell the lawyers, her family or the police about the Mark she knew and what she had discovered?
She was not ready to do that, no matter what supposed messengers said. Everyone always promised to help her, encouraged her to tell the truth. But none of them had to live with what followed; the consequences of the truth; she did. The truth could never be told, that she knew. She would think on it no further.
With that she dismissed this strange event from her mind.
Buck was awake an hour before first light. He quickly ate breakfast and got onto Flight Control. There still had been no reports of Vic or his helicopter, and Buck’s phone calls last night had yielded nothing.
So a search had been organised at first light, based out of Kununurra and Katherine, as the weather in Darwin was currently too bad to fly out of there. The cyclone was hovering out to sea, about 150 kilometres north-west of Darwin, with its track still much the same though starting to bear more south. It had now intensified from a Category Three to a Category Four, with wind gusts at the centre rated at upwards of 200 kilometres per hour. Based on the current speed and trajectory they would have four to six hours of search time before the weather would force them to call it off.
Buck offered to send the fixed wing and two helicopters based at the station and to start searching the area just north of Timber Creek while the Kununurra planes concentrated on the area between Western Australia and the mouth of the Victoria River and the Katherine planes concentrated on the rough and broken country on the east side of the Victoria River, and back north towards the Daly River, in case Vic had decided to divert to Katherine or Darwin for some reason.
Since Vic’s take-off yesterday morning about nine o’clock, when he had confirmed his destination and flight track and signed off after take-off, there had been nothing heard and no sightings or other information to tell where he might have gone. So it was a huge area to search, over 500 kilometres east west and 300 north south. But they would all do their best and hope luck was on Vic’s side.
By lunch time nothing had been found. They pushed on, each searching an ever widening sector, racing against the clock and the weather. By two o’clock that afternoon the weather deteriorated such that the flying had to be abandoned. The cyclone was now stationary about 100 kilometres out to sea north-west of the mouth of the Daly River. It was still intensifying and they knew that huge rains and winds were coming this way. Already light rain had started at Timber Creek and overnight Pine Creek had received over a hundred millimetres from a large storm cell on its southern edge. That meant that the Daly would be coming down and soon all the rivers coming from further south would be running a banker as well.
Buck had not abandoned all hope; Vic had always struck him as a survivor, though he had thought the same about Mark. But it was a bad time for a machine to crash. The hopes of even looking, let alone finding anything, in the next three to four days, were extremely poor.
During that first search afternoon, just after lunch, he got the VRD plane to fly him north to Timber Creek and out across the swollen rivers which burst out of the rough hills. He looked at the flooding water and the grey scudding clouds sweeping in from the north with a growing sense of hopelessness. If Vic was still alive he would not die of thirst. But now the chances of ever finding him or his helicopter were becoming vanishingly small. Buck told the pilot to turn around and they flew home where they battened down for the heavy rain and big wind coming their way.
By that night it was raining steadily at VRD and over the next three days they got three hundred millimetres and Timber Creek got five hundred millimetres. Now every river west of Darwin was in flood. The cyclone, as expected, had come down over the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf and the residual low pressure system was now somewhere down over the southern Tanami Desert, west of Alice Springs and expected to bring rains over a wide belt of inland Australia.
It was three days before the weather was good enough to fly again. Buck, along with more than a dozen other aircraft, used the next four days of good weather to do a widespread search across the northern VRD and west Kimberley. But in the end, with absolutely nothing found, it too was abandoned.
In due course there would be an official investigation. For now the case was closed. Vic had vanished, presumed dead in a crash somewhere far out in that empty place. To Buck it felt like another pointless waste of promising life.
He must now take carriage of the will which Mark had entrusted to him. He would go and see the police and Susan, he was unsure whether anything was to be done for her, and she had bigger problems than an inheritance, where a will may or may not exist.
But still he needed to advise both the authorities and her of his piece of knowledge in this matter. Not that he expected her to know about the will as Mark had said he was not going to tell her. But still it was a little piece of the sad and unintelligible jigsaw he had inherited.
A month later a fishing trawler, working off the coast west of Darwin, sighted some wreckage floating in the water. It was hauled aboard and taken back to Darwin. Here the experts determined it was a fuel tank from a Bell 47 helicopter, badly damaged, as if from a crash impact.
So the official finding was that it was most likely to be a part of the helicopter flown by Vikram Campbell on the morning of December 30th and he had most likely crashed somewhere in the lower reaches of the Victoria River, with the helicopter wreck then washed out to sea.
Another two days were spent searching this area around the mouth of the Victoria River but still nothing was found. So the search was officially ended and the files were passed on to the coroner’s office for its consideration.
Buck and a few friends held a wake in the Timber Creek hotel, one steamy afternoon in early February. A thunderstorm was turning the sky purple, with flashing and rumbling far out to the north, out near where the Victoria River met the sea. It seemed that the Gods had joined in the ceremony too.
“Vikram Campbell, helicopter pilot extraordinaire, RIP”, they said, as they downed their drinks in his memory.
Alan found it hard to return to work in Darwin in mid-January after his holidays with Sandy since Christmas. She was staying on in Sydney until the end of the month to start to get the ball rolling on wedding plans for the end of the year and to have a bit more time with her family.
They had flown together to Sydney, her home town, on Christmas Eve and had a great couple of days with her extended family in and around the city, before going to visit his family in country NSW, up past Scone in the Upper Hunter Valley. They both got on well with the other’s families, and had done lots of holiday things together; country driving, beach swimming, meals in pubs. They returned to Sydney for New Year’s Eve. Over dinner in a restaurant looking out toward the bridge he had proposed to her. He had been really nervous despite thinking he was in control of this emotional stuff.
He felt great elation when she said, “About Bloody Time, and before you change your mind the answer is YES.” He loved her directness and that night together was special. Now he had left the arrangements to her and was glad of it, this complicated family stuff was not his thing and it was good they lived in the NT and escaped most of it.
It had been a wrench to say goodbye when his holidays were up, he would have loved to stay with her until the end of January and to travel back together. Since returning he had missed her presence in his life each day, mainly the little things like a mussy good morning smile, the way she arched her eyebrows or kicked him under the table when he talked crap, and most of all the feel of her body next to his in bed.
But he had a stack of work to do; he had neglected other things while he was working on the Crocodile Man case before Christmas. No one had done his other work while he was away and now it was piled up waiting for him. His career was on the rise after the work he had done in tracing the leads in that case, his name was becoming well known as the man who had cracked this case, and nobody seemed to have any doubt he had got it right. Susan was definitely in the frame, she more or less admitted that hers was the hand that struck the fatal blow.
The problem was not with what she had done but why. He knew there was a whole other story that needed to be brought to light before this made sense, loving girlfriends do not bash in the skulls of their lovers and feed them to crocodiles without a reason.
But he seemed to be the only one who wanted to get to the bottom of this ‘WHY?’; the prosecution lawyers seemed to only care that the case against Susan was watertight, and it clearly was that. And, when he had explained his concerns to his superiors, they had said that, from the police point of view, they had the evidence needed for the conviction and the rest was window dressing, so now he needed to get on with other work. His immediate boss told him that he did not mind him spending a couple hours a week chasing up the loose ends on ‘Croc Man’ but that was the limit, other work must come first.
Now they had just assigned him to a major role in the investigation of a criminal syndicate with suspicion of both murder and drug smuggling around the NT’s 6000 kilometre coastline. That was taking sixteen hours a day, leaving little time for anything else.
But he sensed a great injustice was rolling forward while he let this ‘Croc Man’ case slide. A week after he came back he went in to work on the Saturday, an unpaid day, to get his old paperwork done, all the stuff that was in the less urgent piles. He beavered away all day and by the end of the afternoon he had shrunk the pile from a foot high to two inches.
As he sorted through things he came across a scribbled note that he had left aside. It had got mixed up with this other stuff. It was the name ‘Vic’ and a mobile number; he dug in his memory for a ‘Vic’.
It came to him, that helicopter pilot he had met in Katherine with Sandy that afternoon. It was the trace from the mobile phone record that had found him Vic and this link also showed that Mark used the assumed name Butler as well as the name Bennet from his driver’s license.
He remembered that day clearly now; at first the link they had made to this pilot seemed to hold such promise. They rushed off to Katherine to meet him. After all, this pilot had known their murder victim for ten years. They had been sure he would lead them back to something that started to make sense. There was no doubt he, Vic, knew their man, Mark, knew him better than almost anyone else in the NT. But, as to getting beyond that association and digging deeper, they had again drawn a blank about who Mark really was.
The ephemeral Mark seemed to drift in and out of people’s lives like a smoke ring, seen, gone, seen again. While at first this guy, Vic, was open and told what he knew, as the afternoon wore on he seemed to harden inside, they could sense his tolerance for their questions was slipping, not evasion but something held back. Whatever he was hiding was a thing to think on for another day but maybe he should arrange another chat. Then it would be time leave this pile of paper.
Alan had in mind to have a beer with Charlie, the catfish fisherman, before going back to the flat for a night on his own. Before he did he rang the pilot, Vic’s, mobile number. It rang out then he got one of those “sorry-leave a message” recordings. He decided not to leave a message, less notice was better if he wanted to get useful ideas from this bloke, the element of surprise was more likely to dig out that hidden ten per cent.
So he drove to Charlie’s place. As half expected Charlie was on the verandah by himself, no sign of anyone else in the house. Charlie told him that Rosie was visiting relatives for a few days out in Kakadu country.
So they got to chatting, first about Sandy. Charlie grinned broadly when Alan announced the wedding, and winked, “Maybe catfish curry I give her when you meet her make her like you. So now you must marry her. That last time I get it for the marriage party of my Becky, now maybe I get for another big catfish for another marriage. We have big celebration party when Sandy comes back.”
Alan nodded, liking the idea.
The conversation moved on to the murder investigation. Alan trusted Charlie’s judgement about people so he asked him. “What do you reckon, did she kill him?”
Charlie nodded and there was silence for a few seconds. Then he said, “Bad crocodile spirit, it make her kill man; Mark fellow, him dangerous man, him like crocodile. I think it’s like he bite her, then she hit him.”
It was cryptic but made a sort of sense, attack and strike back. But if so why was she hiding it?
Alan kept digging, “But why Charlie, why? This man seemed to like her, all the witnesses who saw them say they were like love birds, like you and Rosie, like me and Sandy. So why would he attack her and why would she hit back?”
Charlie gave one of his expansive shrugs. “Her I know, I visit her in prison just before Christmas. That day I give her crocodile stone to keep crocodile spirit away. She not bad person, just frightened, so much frightened. But this man, Mark, I do not know, you must find someone who know this man, really know, not pretend know. Man is answer to why not woman.”
Alan nodded in return. “Yes I know that too, just before Christmas I found a man, a helicopter pilot, Vic Campbell. He said he had known this man, Mark, for ten years, and even after all that time he still did not know why. But he was hiding something from me. Perhaps he only half knows something, something he guessed or glimpsed, but he does not want to say it. So now I must find him and get him to tell the truth, for her sake.
“I tried to ring him before I came, but he did not answer his phone, tomorrow I will try again.”
Charlie looked at him intensely. “What you say that helicopter pilot name is?”
“Vic Campbell,” Alan replied.
Charlie shuffled off and returned with a pile of newspapers. He laid the papers on the table between them. “What Mr Policeman, you not read newspapers?”
Charlie shuffled through the papers and pulled one to the top.
The headline read – “Hope fades for the survival of missing helicopter pilot, Vikram Campbell.” It was dated January 7th, two weeks ago. It described how more than four days of searching had found no trace of Vic or his helicopter, missing since December 30. It also said how a severe tropical cyclone, a Category Four system, had passed through the area where the helicopter had been recorded as flying, the day after it was last seen, causing the search to be suspended. Then the search had resumed on January 3rd and had continued for four more days. It said that the search had now been ended, as no trace of pilot or helicopter was found and the hopes of his survival were considered very low.
Alan looked at the paper in shock, in part for the loss of this bright young pilot, in part for his most promising lead just snuffed out.
Without a trace back to the real Mark and without someone who knew him it all seemed futile, he did not have the time in the next month to keep following the other fragments of threads. But he must not let it beat him; too much was at stake for that. He wracked his brain trying to think of some other way forward.
Charlie seemed to sense his consternation. He laid his hand on Alan’s arm and said, “If you find one person who knew him then you find more. Still this Vic will help you.
“You find the people who he worked with this Vic, the people who knew him. Some of them will know Mark too, it is always the way. Even if he hides his secrets well, someone will know something. Tomorrow I start to find out about this missing helicopter pilot, and when I find someone who knows this Mark I give you a name.”
Alan spent the next day working again through all the clues he had about Mark, but nothing stood out. Then he remembered the barmaid from Timber Creek who had given the evidence that Susan and Mark had left there together, despite Susan’s claim they had separated there and gone different ways. The barmaid had only known him as Mark B, without a second name, just an initial, but still she seemed to know him well by sight, well enough to watch what he did and where he went. He still had her statement somewhere, though he had not read it in more than a month. Perhaps they had a fling at some stage; he sensed that something had motivated her to come forward and give evidence about this event, more than just being a responsible citizen. Perhaps she could give him some leads. Then he thought he remembered hearing in December, when he had met her at the committal hearing, that she was on her way home to Perth. Perhaps it was just for a Christmas break.
Alan rang the Timber Creek Hotel and talked to the publican, Jack. Unfortunately Tanya had left in December and was not returning. His only forwarding address was her mother’s place in Perth, just an address not a phone number. Alan knew he could run her to ground but it might take a few days to get on to her.
While Alan had the publican on the phone he thought he should ask him about Vic, the paper said his intended destination on the night he disappeared was Timber Creek. Now he had something. The publican knew him well enough; he said Vic had stopped there several nights in the last year since he had bought the hotel. Jack told how he had rung the manager of Victoria Downs Station, Buck Owens, on that evening when Vic failed to arrive, as he knew Vic did a lot of work in the VRD and he also knew that Buck was a good friend of Vic’s.
Alan felt elation, friends of friends, Charlie was right. He rang the VRD station number and got the station manager’s wife, Beverly Owens. She was sorry that Buck was out and not expected back until about dark, but she would ask him to ring tomorrow, as he was doing a day of paperwork in the office. That is unless it was really urgent and she could call him on the two-way radio now.
Alan assured her that tomorrow was fine, even though he could feel his impatience.
About 9:30 in the morning the call came through, a booming outback accent, sounding like someone used to yelling out across a set of cattle yards. Alan was conscious of needing to handle this carefully after Vic had become defensive. So he started by explaining that he was trying to find out about a good friend of Vic’s and that he understood that Vic did work and was well known at VRD.
As he spoke the names of Vic and Mark he could almost feel a reserve come down the line.
Buck said “Yes, I did know them both quite well.” Then he asked if it had something to do with Mark’s murder.
Alan hesitated, he did not want to give too much away, but he needed this man’s help and sensed that bullshit would not wash. So he said, “Yes that’s right, I am trying to find out who this man Mark was that nobody seems to know.”
Another long silent pause ensued. Alan started to wonder if Buck was still there. Then his voice came back, asking what Alan’s movements were on Wednesday, as he would be coming to Darwin.
Alan knew they were doing a night surveillance operation that night, which would begin with coming into the office about 3 pm. That morning he was to be off duty. He replied, “Officially off duty until 3 pm, but happy to see you if up this way before then.
Buck replied “If it’s OK I would prefer to talk to you somewhere other than the police station. I am driving up from Katherine so could we make it for about ten o’clock, say for morning tea.
They agreed to meet in the café at the local shopping centre which they both knew. Alan felt intrigued by Buck’s wariness; it seemed there must be something here to know.
Over the next two days he barely had time to think of it; full time planning for the surveillance operation was all consuming.
But it was top of his list on Wednesday morning and he arrived early, treating himself to a big cooked breakfast. Buck was early too, Alan was just starting into his meal when a burly bloke came walking in and instantly spotted him, striding over and holding out his hand.
He looked with admiration as Alan’s plate of food and ordered the same for himself. Alan put the money down before Buck could pay, and was rewarded by a grin, “Anyone who buys me that sort of breakfast is worth talking too!”
Somehow they each trusted the other from then, they both had a no nonsense desire to make sense of this situation. So, rather than a round-about explanation, Alan just launched into his story, the discovery of the body, the cover up at the billabong, the trail of Mark and Susan’s movements to Timber Creek and then how they vanished until she flew out of Darwin, alone, two days later.
He told Buck of Susan’s total unwillingness to answer any questions about what happened after Timber Creek, the way she turned on them when they had extracted the confession that she had been frightened. He even told Buck the story of the trip on the plane with this lovely girl and of her almost willing him to discover the truth, which she could not say.
He ended by saying. “I know there is more to this story, all the evidence points to her killing Mark, she does not deny it. But it does not make sense. I must find out why or she will end up spending twenty or more years in jail. The only other clue I have is that she is expecting Mark’s baby, she told me that on the flight, and she seems to feel loyalty to him as well as guilt for making a mistake.
Buck then told him of his long friendship with both Mark and Vic, of that strange request to witness Mark’s will, of his attempt to locate Mark after this, his ignorance of his death until just before Christmas when he met Vic and now of Vic’s disappearance. It was a back and forwards story, jumping all over the place, as he remembered and sorted out the facts and memories as he spoke.
Of the real Mark Buck said he knew almost nothing, just that he was already working in the Territory when he had taken this job up at VRD after managing a station in Queensland. He told of Mark’s lack of any family or personal history and the way he drifted in and out of work but always seemed to have money, how he would occasionally disappear, at least once to the Middle East.
He described Marks work skill and ability in so many things and his fearlessness, but with a rough, slightly dangerous edge, how it was not uncommon to meet different girls travelling with him, clearly intimate, but then a month later there would be a different one and all Mark would say was “Easy come, easy go.”
Then how Susan seemed special, that when they left VRD after that day of cattle droving, that all he knew was that they were doing a job that night on the Victoria River up near its mouth, measuring the flow; that was all Mark would say, except the money was good. It was obvious they had returned from the job OK next morning.
Buck had made his own inquiries and found out that their last known sighting was breakfast the next morning at the Timber Creek Hotel, and that Susan had stumbled out and climbed into the Toyota to sleep, looking exhausted, before Mark followed her out and drove away, with her still apparently asleep about an hour later. Mark had said in passing to the barman that they were both off to have a sleep under a shady tree as they had barely slept the night before with their work on the river.
Buck told how Tanya a barmaid at the hotel had a bit of a crush on Mark, and had watched and reported on all this when Mark’s identity was discovered, but that he had not known this for months and had only found this out over Christmas, not from Tanya, but from others she had told who had then told him.
He said Mark had mentioned an intention of a trip to Kakadu to him and then spending a final night with Susan in Darwin before she caught her plane home. So it made sense for them to be heading that way. Buck thought it was not surprising that no one had seen them on that trip as Mark had a vast knowledge of, and often used back-roads, plus if they slept a few hours it may have been late in the day when they travelled.
But Buck knew something strange must have happened because, from what Vic and Alan had told him, the evidence indicated that by the time Susan flew out, Mark was dead and she was trying to hide his existence. It really was peculiar, as if she had discovered something awful that she wanted to hide. It was beyond him to explain, try as he might.
He told about the day they both spent at VRD, told of the helicopter mustering and the horse riding, how much they had both loved it, how affectionate they were together. In a way he had not really been surprised how hooked Mark was by this girl. In his heart of hearts it did not fit for her to kill him in a cold blooded way, she seemed to like him equally.
Then Buck told of how Mark asked him to witness the will naming Susan as the beneficiary.
As the story was concluding he said to Alan. “The only thing I can think of that may help you is that I may know his real name was. It was not Mark Bennet or Mark Butler, I am 99 per cent sure it was Vincent Mark Bassingham, that was the name on the will. Mark told me it was his legal name.”
“That same night Mark told me he had a lot of money, he did not say how much but it was clearly plenty, so somewhere there must be a trail to that money. His will named me as an executor of his estate, but I have never seen his will since and I have no clue as to where his money is.
“One thing I am concerned about is that his money could be used by other people to make a motive for his death. I don’t believe for a minute that Susan killed him for his money. In fact Mark said he would not tell her about the money or the will, the will was made just in case something happened. He had some premonition and talked about it like he was the cat with nine lives which were all gone. He said the will was a precaution as he did not want the state or his father to have his money.
“But if this comes out some people may say it was the reason, Susan discovered the money, took it and killed him, thinking no one would ever know. They will say she has it yet, but has hidden it away somewhere. But if that is the case why does she not say he attacked her, she could plead self-defence. The money will be of no use to her locked up in prison.”
Buck then said he was going to talk to Susan in prison, he was going to visit her this afternoon, and would ring Alan and tell him if she gave any more clues.
He finished by saying. “When Mark made me his executor and gave the money to Susan I felt he was saying to me that he trusted me to look after her, no matter what.
“So I don’t know what she has done or why she has done it. But, now that Mark is clearly dead, I have this obligation, given as a promise to a mate. I must honour it. So I will see what I can do to help her.
“That is why I have told you all I know. I trust you not to use what I have said in a way that would cause Susan further harm. You must judge what to say about the will. No such document may exist anymore and, unless it is found, I am concerned that telling of it will only cause harmful speculation by those who seek to find a motive for what has happened.
“If Vic was here I would ask him. But he is now vanished too and I fear he will never be found. So it rests with you and me to try and find the truth for Mark’s sake, for Vic’s sake and particularly for Susan and for Mark’s child’s sake.”
As January reached its end Susan looked back on it as an endless month in a cage. It had three high spots when that great and good God, if such a being existed, decided to give some temporary respite.
It was funny how, for the month of December, when she was in this same place, but fully enveloped in a mental fog, both the passage of time and her surroundings had barely seemed to matter. Now that her mind was clearer time passed with excruciating slowness. A restless impatience ate at her; every day seemed so long.
Despite a clear mind she found it very hard to read or otherwise distract herself. An underlying inability to concentrate properly on anything had infected her mind. Since she had decided to plead guilty it seemed like she had lost all passion for anything along with her will to fight. She had not changed her mind about saying nothing but that was the only place where her mind had a clear focus and purpose.
She could no longer see Mark’s face clearly; he seemed to have vanished with the crocodile spirit’s departure from her mind. Without some sense of him she felt endlessly lonely.
Now that she had said goodbyes to her three lots of family and friend supporters, there was a vacuum about her. No one else seemed to have interest in her or wanted to see her. She had a premonition of the rest of her life, this place of total emptiness, just herself alone, no one else in this space; no one she cared for or who cared about her.
She cast her mind to her encounters of the month, those few days of visits, now concluded.
First came Anne; it was the day after New Year’s Day when she came in, looking fresh and blooming, her holiday had obviously agreed with her. Susan steered the conversation to how Anne was going and before long it became about David. She could tell Anne was trying to skirt around this subject but Susan was determined not to let that happen.
Susan burst the topic wide open by saying, “You know, Anne, it is time for me to bring my engagement to a formal end. There is no future for David and I as a couple. Before you say anything I know he is pretty keen on you and you on him. I don’t want this thing with me to have any bearing on what you and he do together.
“I don’t want to push you together out of loneliness and shared sympathy for me, but if there is something good between the two of you don’t let what happened between me and David to keep you apart.
“I should have been stronger and never let myself get involved with him, knowing how this event could follow me. But it is a part of my history that I can’t change. All I can say is, if something happens between you two, I hope it is really good. Don’t rush it; let it grow, if it will, in its own good time.”
She watched Anne closely as she spoke.
By the time she finished Anne had tears in her eyes. “Oh Suz, am I that obvious, yes I really like him and I think he feels the same, but it is all mixed up by what has happened to you and I don’t know if we can undo all those tangles.
”So thank you for your advice. I won’t see him now for at least a couple months. I think it is a good thing to put some distance between us and all this. It might be that when we meet again we have each moved on and it is no longer important. But thank you for your kindness; you have so many troubles of your own without worrying about me.”
With that they both put their arms around each other and hugged for a long time. No more words were required. The next three days Anne visited her all the time she could. She brought little treats, chocolates, lollies and the like, giving a big pile to the warders. The warders soon had a soft spot for Anne; she talked to them so politely, and charmed them with a smile. In return they bent the rules as far as they could in allowing her to extend her visits.
They talked very little about the case, more just about life and history of times past. One day Susan told of her decision to plead guilty; at first Anne was inclined to try and talk her round, to try and find some way out. But Susan was so clear in her mind about what she was going to do that in the end Anne let it be and concentrated on being the best friend she could. It did not seem right to abandon Susan to this fate. But she was as trapped as Susan was by her knowledge.
They were both very sad when the final day came and it was time for Anne to say goodbye, as she was flying back to London early next morning. So they held hand, talked and hugged for a long time.
The next week came visits by her Mum and Dad. Tim was already back to university in Reading. Her Mum and Dad had stayed an extra week in Sydney, having been invited up to visit David’s parents. Susan told them she really wanted them to go, saying that Anne would be here to see her every day, and she would prefer to spread out the visits to have more time with them all, rather than having them all come together.
Once again it had ended up being a nice but emotional time. She told her parents, at the outset, of her decision, to plead guilty. It had been hard to watch the shocked look on both their faces, both in response to her admission of what she had done, and in realising the consequences for their daughter, she expecting to spend a large part of her life in jail.
Their first question was, “But why?”
All Susan would say, and she said it over and over again was, “I am sorry, I cannot tell you.”
Her Mum had been in tears and her father not far away. But, as she explained it slowly and as rationally as she could, that she was facing the consequences of her actions, and please for them to not ask her why anymore, they slowly accepted this awful choice.
She told them, then, that when David returned next week, she would end her engagement to him. She said it was impossible that there be any relationship between them from here, and he must move on with his own life. She told them that she appreciated, so much, how good David and his family had been to her with all this, and she was glad that they and David’s parents had met and become friends. She would write a letter to David’s parents thanking them for all their support. She said she hoped that she and David could still remain friends, but that was all there was left for them.
Her Mum and Dad could see the good sense of all this and told her they thought she had made the right choice in the circumstances.
Then she came to the last and, for her, the hardest thing. It was about the baby. She said that she knew she would not be able to keep her baby in jail and so she asked them to take and adopt the child when it was born, to give it the good life that she could not. She just wanted to choose the name, and she hoped that they would all come and visit at least once a year so that she could see her child and watch him grow, and he would know that his mother loved him.
Now Susan’s mother really was in tears, but it was agreed. After that was all said they spent their visits talking about other things and too soon they were also gone.
The final visitor was David; it ended up only being a day as she asked him not to come back after that, at least for a few weeks, as she needed time on her own. Not that she had other things to do, but it was too painful for now being with him, with her life in tatters, that was the way she put it.
She knew it needed time and separation to let the healing begin. First she told him about the decision to plead guilty. He seemed stunned, he had willed himself to believe that there was another explanation; that it was not really her; yes she had had an affair with this man, but she was not his killer.
When he tried to deny that it could be so, she looked straight at him, and told him directly, “David, it is true, I hit him on the head with a piece of wood and killed him. Then I tried to cover up what I had done. I cannot tell you why so please don’t ask. But I cannot and do not want to escape from the consequences of my actions, so I will plead guilty, that is it, it will not change so please spare me any more questions about it.
“Instead I want you to get on with your own life. I ask you now to agree that our engagement is over. I could just tell you but I want your agreement that it is so, a mutual decision which we both hold to. You must understand and believe that our relationship is over, you must move on or we will both be trapped by something that cannot be.”
She could feel him squirm and try to avoid facing up to the reality and admitting it. But she persisted and finally the words were said. “I agree.” She had thought she would talk with him of Anne but decided this was a step too far for this day.
For a minute, when all was said, they both tried to make polite conversation. But it was too hard. So, after about five minutes, she said. “I think I would like you to go now, it is just too hard; there is part of me that is really sad it has come to this. I just hope that in weeks or months to come we can be friends again. I want you to remember me as someone bright and happy, not someone whose life is in broken pieces, so please would you go now.”
They too hugged tightly for a minute and then he was gone.
She was pleased the talking was done but with it all finished she just felt so alone and empty.
A week passed. She was still alone. She had barely spoken ten words to the warders and had said not a word to anyone else. It had all become so dark and dreary. Part of her was tempted to put the crocodile stone aside to have something to fill her mind, even that awful crocodile spirit seemed preferable to nothingness; but for now she resisted.
She wrote out a letter to David’s parents and another to the Director of Public Prosecutions and asked the warder to send them. When that was done there was just silence again. It was an endless emptiness that went on and on and on.
Susan was half way through the second week of solitude, the days all muddled in her mind. Someone was calling her name, she looked up; the warder was seeking her attention.
“You have a visitor.”
Susan had no idea who it could be, neither Vic nor Charlie had ever returned, perhaps it was one of them, perhaps that policeman from the plane or a lawyer from the DPP. She heard a big booming voice come down the corridor; it sounded familiar, but from where?
“Now where is that girl, surely she can see me, I have driven for eight hours to visit, surely she can find some time.”
She opened the door to the visitor’s room. A burly stockman greeted her; there was totally genuine delight in his face to see her.
“Buck,” she cried in pleasure, almost flinging herself at him.
After hugging her he held her at arm’s length and looked at her critically. “What has happened to that lovely English bloom, getting a bit thin and pasty in this awful place. Sorry, I could not bring Firefly with me on a horse trailer, he would have really sparked you up.”
Now she was laughing and he was laughing too. It was the first proper laugh she’d had in longer than she could remember. Tears streamed down both their faces as the laughter eased, she was breathless.
“That’s better,” he said, “needed a little ray of sunshine. I am sorry it has taken me so long to come and see you. I only heard two days before Christmas, and then Vic was missing and there was the Cyclone with lots of flooding so it is only now I could get away.“
Susan looked at him perplexed, “What did you say, Vic is missing? Do you mean Vic the helicopter pilot?”
Buck looked at her, puzzled and anxious, “Yes that is Vic,” he replied. Then he smacked his hand to his forehead. “Oh Lordy, don’t suppose many papers come here, or radio or TV?
“I found out about Mark just before Christmas from Vic, and then on the day before New Year’s Eve, Vic and his chopper vanished, somewhere en route from Wyndham to Timber Creek. It is a month now and nobody holds out much hope anymore, though he is such a tough little bugger that if anyone can survive out in the middle of nowhere it will be him. So I am not prepared to fully write him off just yet, nobody has found a crash site or a body. But I have to admit it is looking real grim.”
Susan sat down on the chair and laid her head on the table. All her forced jollity had drained away. It felt like someone had put a pin in a balloon. It was as if, since giving him the diary, she had a thread of hope that he may help her find some way out of this. Now that bubble was popped too. But more, she grieved for the loss of the one person who seemed to genuinely care about what had happened to Mark.
And beyond that she liked this man, really liked him, his humour, his vitality, his zest for life, his dark, handsome, wiry features. On that day, when he had jested that she pass Mark over in his favour and she had reposted that he had plenty already in the mile high club, a part of her subconscious had known that if she wasn’t with Mark she would have done the mile high thing with him too.
It was not that she had sought anything other than Mark, but she had recognised this man also had a primal attraction for her. But that was history. Like all that was good in her life he was gone too. She had thought her life felt empty before, now she understood what true emptiness was, that place when all future life hope ran into a dry well.
She realised after a minute that Buck was still standing there looking down at her with serious eyes. “What an idiot I am,” he muttered, “I assumed you would know if you knew Vic at all. It was a major land and sea search which was on top of the news every night for a week.”
She lifted tear glistened eyes and tried to conjure a smile. “No, it is not your fault. As you say, I barely knew him. I only met him the once, with Mark. Then he came to visit the day before Christmas. It is just that, of all the people I have met since I came here, he is the only one who really cared about what I had done and who cared about Mark. The others – for them it was just a story or a crime to be solved, it could have been anyone. Vic cared he had lost his brother, that’s what he called Mark. He was so angry with me for killing him.”
She saw surprise on Buck’s face at the open admission, “That’s right,” she said. “I did kill him, and I am going to plead guilty. I made a mistake; I can’t explain it more than that. But it is past time for pretending.”
Now Buck sat down on the seat opposite looking stunned too. He shook his head as if it was hard to think of anything useful to say after that. After a while he leaned back and folded his arms.
“I came here with a plan to help you, imagining that you wanted to get out of this place. But the more I look at it the more it seems that you have decided you like it best in here in this cage. So much so that you are determined to stay here, come what may.
“So, maybe I am a bit daft, but there is an elephant in the room and everyone is trying to pretend it is not there, even as it is trampling on us. There is plenty that I don’t know, but I have just spent an hour talking to Sergeant Alan Richards, and I am starting to put a few pieces together. It is far from a full story, but I am about to tell you what I know, what I don’t know and what I think.
“You can nod or shake your head, or look blank, or act dumb, as you choose. But the story I am going to tell you needs to be said and, like it or not, I am determined to make you stand up and fight, even if it is only to fight back at me.
“Mark was my friend too, as was Vic. One is definitely dead and the other may well be. So it seems to me that I am the only one left standing in your corner. And the person you have to thank for that, like it or not, is Mark. He appointed me. So here I am, because I know that is what Mark would have wanted.
“He would not have cared a fig what this story said about him but, as sure as I know my name, I know he would have wanted your freedom, not to mention to give freedom and the chance of a better life for his child that you carry.”
Susan could feel her resolve begin to crumble before this onslaught, the tears only a second away. She put her hands to her ears. “Please Buck, please, stop now. Don’t you see that is what this is about? If it was just about me, it would be simple, but it is about the future of our child. Others can think what they like, but I carry the responsibility.
“I cannot bear to have my child know the truth about his father. I know there was another Mark, a good Mark, but once the genie is out of the bottle it can never go back in. So I am imploring you. Don’t go there. It is not a good place to go. I would rather spend my life in jail and die with the secret. So yes, there is a secret, a terrible secret and I cannot tell it, even to you. For a minute I entrusted it to Vic, despite my fear.
“But it is an omen, now he is gone too with the secret untold. So it will not come from me, I will help no one who tries to go there. I will kill myself after the child is born to keep the secret locked away if I must. So go now, please seek the truth no further. I will not help you and I will stop you if I can. For my sake, for Mark’s sake, for Vic’s sake, but most of all for our child’s sake, just let it be.”
Buck looked completely stunned. He turned to walk away. But before he did, he looked at her with great sadness and said. “If that is your wish I will respect it.
“But before I go there is something I must tell you. On the night at the station, when you stayed there, Mark came to see me. He asked me to witness his will. He named me as an executor of his estate, he named you the sole beneficiary, and in doing so he placed on me the responsibility to help you anyway I can.
“I know he would not have wanted it this way, he named you because he loved you. So from here, whatever I do, it will be a betrayal either of him or of you. I only do what you ask because I think he would have me abide by your wishes, even if they are wrong.”
Susan looked at this strong man she had bent to her will and felt ashamed. Why were there no good choices and why did it always have to be so hard.
She walked over and put her hand on his arm. She said, “Thank you Buck, it is hard for me and even harder for you. Mark would know he could not have asked for a better friend. I know about his will and I know about his love, and I wish, with all my soul, I could bring him back. But I cannot, so now I must live without him in an empty place.”
Buck replied, “Wrong though I know you are, even Mark would have been impressed by your courage. God Damn, you are surely one obstinate woman.” He gave her a half smile.
Suddenly she refused to be bowed. She smiled brightly and looked up at him saying. “Thank you so much for coming and visiting me. It was good to laugh and remember happy times. Please stay my friend and come to see me when you can. It would mean much to me.”
Alan rang Buck on his mobile just before he logged on to work in the mid-afternoon, having been told that he would be finished his prison visit by then. Buck picked up on the first ring. “Buck here.”
“Well how did the visit go?”
He heard a hesitation come down the line, but then it cleared, just a half grunt then nothing for a few seconds. It was as if Buck was reflecting for a second what to tell.
“I was just doing a mental back flip about what to say. “Then I thought, we have been straight this morning, we might as well stay straight, and let the cards fall where they may.
“Actually I can’t tell you much. She is her normal charming self, quite gorgeous actually. I told her I was sorry that I could not bring Firefly, the horse she rode last time. She starting laughing. It was the most delightful and unaffected laugh, we both laughed till tears ran down our faces.
“But then I told her about Vic. Like you she had not heard the news, she had no idea it happened. When I told her he was missing and almost certainly dead it was as if someone put a knife through her soul’s brightness, her light was gone. She sat in the chair with her face on the table, tears streaming down her cheeks, she looked so defeated.
“She told me she had flown with him in the Gulf with Mark and he had visited the day before Christmas; that he was the first person she had met who really cared about Mark. Now he was gone she was devastated, as if emptiness would swallow her.
“Then she said she had told Vic something really important that day he visited, she said she had trusted him with a secret. It was like she had some hope he could help her get out of this mess, and with his loss her hope had crumbled. She looked so forlorn.
“So I told her how Mark had entrusted me to try and help her. Then I tried to push her into telling me what the real story was, I started to spell out what I thought might have happened.
“But she has a steel core. I have never met such a tough cookie. Just for a minute I thought she would crack and give me something. But it was like you told me about that day when you first brought her in for questioning in London. She starts to soften, then something happens.
“This staggering self-control pulls her back. She is determined not to tell, she knows, you know and I know that something happened on that day, or maybe the day before, that told her that Mark was not who she thought he was.
“We are only guessing but she knows something real. I don’t begin to know what it is but she is determined never to let it out. She more or less told me that she had a secret that could never be told, she would protect it with her life. She even suggested she would kill herself rather than let it out. She said it was to protect her baby.”
“She told me she knew about the will, then she said she had killed Mark, but in doing so she made a terrible mistake. Now she is determined to plead guilty and take the punishment for her crime.
“She implored me not to try and find out, not to seek the truth, she said it was much better that I did not know. In the end I gave her my word I would not try and find and reveal this secret. So, in a way, I am compromised by her determination for secrecy too.
“I told her I would let it go. And so I must. That is why I hesitated. But I did not promise that I would not share this knowledge with you. And someone must find out. I have been thinking what to do for the last hour since I saw her. In the end I knew. I must hold to my deal with her, be her friend and dig no further.
“But Mark was my friend too. I shared good times and bad with him over eight years. He must have done something terrible, but he has given me responsibility for her. If it came to a choice for him between him and her I know, with certainty, he would have chosen her. It was obvious every time he looked at her; there was something so tender and protective in his eyes when they were together.
“So I cannot sit by and watch her spend twenty plus years in jail, to protect something she knows about him. I am completely sure Mark would not have wanted that. So I decided I must at least tell you what I know, perhaps it will open up a way to find who Mark was. There must be an explanation in his past life. In a way it makes sense, the man with no history is like the man who can never allow his history to be known.
Perhaps he killed his parents as a child, perhaps he murdered a brother or sister in a fit of rage, perhaps he is wanted for a terrible crime in another country; there is something and she knows it.
But she will not tell it. I have promised I will not try to discover it myself. If Vic was here perhaps he could. But my hope is dying that Vic and I will again sit together by a campfire and share more stories.
So all I can do is tell you what I know. I leave it for you to see if you can get to the truth. I cannot swear a deposition that there was a will naming her or that Mark’s real name was Vincent Bassingham. But perhaps in that name lies a history that will open up this story.
Alan felt a weight descend on him as these words were said. It was up to him, and his bosses had effectively closed the door on him working on this, at least officially. But yet he must find a way. He was glad Sandy was coming back in three more days. It might help to seek her wise counsel on this matter. He would struggle to find a way to chase this down without some real evidence. He contemplated making a sworn deposition that he had received this information from an anonymous source, in order to give him a basis to investigate. He was bound by his word to Buck, notwithstanding that he was an officer of the crown, just as Buck was bound by his word to Susan. Still a name was a name.
Knowing that he could do nothing further this week and his life was about to be consumed by his new job he parked it in his mind. Remember Vincent Mark Bassingham!
The next three days were frenetic and he barely had time to think. He was whacked when he logged off late Saturday, having just worked over forty hours in the last three days. He went home, showered, shaved and fell onto bed, having set the alarm to get up at 11 pm to meet Sandy off her Sydney plane.
Homecoming was lovely, bed was even better, though a bit more sleep would have been nice. In the early morning, after renewing their intimate acquaintance yet again, Alan told Sandy about his need to find if this man was really Vincent Mark Bassingham.
After a minute of silence Sandy looked at him and laughed. “Well you might have been pulled off the case. But no one has given any such instructions to me. And, as best I can recall, I am still official pathologist on the case.
“I have a man with two names and possibly a third. Clearly I still have an identification to make. If he may not be Mark Bennet, or even Mark Butler, and may even be this new name, Vincent Mark Bassingham, then I have good grounds for further investigation of his identity, to try and locate the next of kin, to try and correctly inform the court as to his true identity, perhaps even to investigate, based on his DNA, whether he is related to any of the identities he claims.
“So leave it to me to try and hunt down Vincent Mark Bassingham. It is an uncommon name, so even though it may take a month or two, it should be possible. At least I will try.
“It is funny, but as I was by myself in Sydney, after you came back here, I sensed my work on this case is far from finished, that there is more for me to do. Perhaps it is some kind of funny thought transference from Susan and that strange crocodile spirit that I have sensed. So I am pleased to do this, particularly if it helps her. In the same way that Vic talked about Mark as his brother, I feel that Susan is my sister.
“I think to start with I will visit her in jail. After all I have never actually met her, just glimpsed her in court, despite how well I feel I know her. I will not try to pressure or frighten her, but talk to her, woman to woman, ask her my own questions and see if my female intuition, combined with my pathology investigation skills, will lead me anywhere.”
It was Wednesday before Sandy could arrange a prison visit. She decided to do it in a fully official manner, to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. So first she explained to the senior pathologist about the dual identity; that two people had identified her murder victim with different names, albeit similar. So she must attempt to determine the victim’s true identity. She proposed to start with a visit to the prisoner, to seek further information on a true identity. Then she would pursue other leads which might be of value, particularly DNA based.
Her senior officer agreed that this was the correct thing to do and sent her an email of confirmation. Once this came through Sandy talked to the prison officers and scheduled her visit for 11 am the following day.
On arrival at the jail the warder asked Sandy if she needed her to stay in the visitor’s room.
Sandy shook her head, “No thank you, I am sure there will be no trouble.”
The warder showed her a button to push to notify them when she was finished, or to use as an alarm if the need arose. With that she nodded and left to fetch Susan.
Sandy looked at the CCTV behind her realising it was all on camera and running through to a central console somewhere. A minute later the warder brought Susan in, directed her to the seat opposite, then left, locking the external door behind her.
Sandy was surprised that, up close, Susan was both prettier and more diminutive than the image she had formed. In the distant court view and in dreams of Susan’s face, as seen through the mirror of Susan’s own mind, she was a bigger and plainer person. Perhaps this image was influenced by the media portrayal of her as some sort of seductive monster. Sandy had also imagined, from Alan’s description of her on the aeroplane, that Susan would be more fragile and vulnerable. Sandy was sure that if it was her sitting in Susan’s seat that would certainly have been the case.
Instead the real Susan who sat opposite had a very self-composed presence about her and the image that now formed in Sandy’s mind was closer to sprung steel than a porcelain doll, despite the pretty face.
As she sat down, opposite Susan, Sandy felt as if she should go through the formal introduction process. Instead Susan, without introduction, started the conversation. “I am so glad to meet you at last Sandy, as I feel I already know you. Both since the night of my dream of you at the billabong and more, since you gave evidence in court, I have this sense of having known you for a long time.”
Sandy looked at her in surprise, it was so much what she had been thinking and yet had been reluctant to say. To put it into words seemed somehow a bit crazy. Yet this lady spoke as if it was perfectly natural to know somebody from a dream shared months ago when they lived on opposite sides of the world.
It felt creepy, this thought communication thing. Yet she had encountered so much that was strange in this case, beginning that day at the billabong with that hugest ever crocodile that seemed to have sought out her and Alan. It had swum up right next to them and just stared, as if telling her and Alan something. Then the way Charlie had told her of the bad crocodile spirit of that place which needed to be placated, how it had fought him for the man’s head he had caught, in a tug of war, Sandy’s own knowledge of this girl’s face before she saw it on CCTV. So this shared connection was no more unusual than all the rest.
Susan continued, “I am really glad you have come to visit me, I have felt very much on my own lately and all visitors are nice, but especially you. I wanted to see if I liked you as much in person as I had imagined through seeing into your mind. And I am pleased that my first impression is that I do.
“After that day on the aeroplane with Alan I feel like we have all been friends for a long time, even though today is our first meeting. So I am really glad to meet you now,” she said, holding out her hand.
Sandy felt delighted and charmed at this positive response but also a bit flummoxed. She had come to meet a person who she sensed was in great need of help. Yet this young woman opposite, very much her own age, seemed the perfect gracious host welcoming her to her house for a garden party, not someone facing a murder charge for killing a lover and feeding him to the crocodiles. It was all so incongruous. Sandy thought it would be more real if a needy or angry person sat opposite her.
Her puzzlement must have shown on her face because Susan picked up the cue. “You are probably wondering why I do not appear tormented or crazy, with what has happened. In a way I am, I have had very dark times; me in my own company with endless regret; it is an awful empty place. But I am coming to realise that I have to make the best of what I have, to treasure the pieces of blue sky and sunshine, like your visit today. I am trying hard to learn how to live in the moment and act with joy. Sometimes all I see is darkness and I feel my life has burned away, leaving only cold ashes which fill the barren place surrounding me. But then you come along and the darkness burns away for an hour.
“But you did not come to hear me tell you about my feelings. You came seeking information, to try and find out who Mark really was, the man with the different names. Is that not so?”
Sandy nodded, even more amazed. Was there anything this woman did not know of her own thoughts? It was like her mind was an open book allowing direct thought transference.
Sandy sensed the purpose of this visit was being pushed away from what she intended, she wondered if it was deliberate. This woman was an adept mind reader. Now she gained a sense she was being manipulated by a superb actress, one who could kill her lover in one minute and then share cake and tea in the next.
She made herself rise to the challenge and felt a sense of satisfaction come back from the other. She realised Susan had been testing her, seeing what substance was present in her character, and was now pleased she had pushed back, making her a worthy friend and contestant. So far it had all happened unsaid, within the space of their two minds.
Sandy pushed her body back in her chair, stretched and said, in a measured way, “You are right, I do want to ask some questions while I am here. But that is only a small part of the reason I came. Most, I too wanted to meet you, to see if our imagined friendship was real, to talk to you as I would to my other friends, to see what you were like.
“So please, tell me about how you find it being here, what is good and what is bad? I cannot imagine how I would cope with being locked up in this place. I would go crazy, alone by myself, day after day. Alan has told me you are expecting a baby. Tell me about that?
Susan replied, “I would like that, just to talk to you about ordinary things. Since coming here I have barely spoken any words and I feel consumed by silence.
“First I must say, I killed him, very much in the way your report described. But do not ask me about what happened on that day or why, that is off limits.
“Anything else I know I will tell you. I would like it if you would be my friend and visit me when you can. While I can offer little in return, as you can see, I can return friendship.”
So they sat and talked, like sisters who had known each other all their lives but had not met for a decade and now were full of endless news to exchange.
Once or twice Sandy thought, this is crazy, me going out of my way to befriend someone who is self confessed murderer.
Again Susan read her thoughts, saying. “It is crazy that we should be friends like this. But think of me as a silly young girl who became infatuated, did a thing she regrets, and now must make recompense.”
For a while they talked about their shared interest in and knowledge of pathology.
Sandy said, “Now I understand, it was what struck me when I went to the billabong; that the clean up after was done by someone who knew what they were doing and planned it carefully. It so nearly worked; if the head was not found, or if it had rained first, nobody would have ever known. Is it luck or is it destiny that it turned out this way?”
Susan answered with perfect clarity. “It is much better this way. At first I thought I could run away and hide from what I did. Now I know I could not and I am glad I don’t have to live that lie. It would have been like a cancer inside me, eating out my insides across all my future. For me the truth is better, even if my future is a bitter pill to swallow.”
Then they talked about the baby. Susan told her about David and Sydney, then meeting Mark again in Alice Springs, how excited and infatuated she had been, how pregnancy protection had been left aside. “As best I can tell I got pregnant in the middle of August; that makes me between five and six months now.
“It is funny but none of the officials seem to have noticed, though it is really beginning to show. I have told my friends but it never seemed important to tell others. I have asked my parents to adopt him, my baby, as I will not be able to keep him in prison; his middle name will be Marco, like his father’s name was.”
Susan continued, “Mark told me his proper name was Vincent Marco Bassingham. It is the only thing I know about his life before except that he told me he had a happy memory of fishing with his uncle in Brisbane. Oh, and he told me his mother died when he was a boy, I do not know her name but she was Italian and the name Marco came from her brother who died young. Also he told me he ran away from remand school after getting caught shoplifting when he was about twelve and he hated his father who was a bully, and has never seen him since.
“So if you can locate Mark’s true family that would be a good thing. While Mark hated his father, he seemed to like his uncle. Perhaps it would be good for my child to know any extended family from Mark’s side. That is why I am happy that you try to trace him. As you have Mark’s DNA that should assist in confirming any family links you find.”
Sandy asked if Susan would like her to notify the prison officials of her pregnancy. Susan she said she thought this was a good idea. In the end their visit was cut short by the warder saying that she was sorry but the time was up and Sandy would have to leave now.
On the way out Sandy notified the prison office of Susan’s pregnancy status and asked whether it would be possible for her to organise a doctor to visit or did it need to be handled by the prison. They said they were uncertain and would call her back.
As she walked away Sandy felt both pleased and perplexed. Her liking of Susan was real and instinctive, it was as if they were very much kindred spirits, the term “spirit sisters” resonated in her mind. Their friendship was natural and easy. Susan had great charm and was almost impossible not to like. And she sensed Susan was telling the truth about the terrible dark times she had lived through since the event, Mark’s death. She also had to admit that her own ego felt gratified that what happened on that day had been the way her pathology report described, an affirmation of her professional skill.
But there was an undercurrent here that made her uneasy, what was it? She chewed over it in her mind and by the time she reached her car in the car park it came to her. It was too easy; getting the past information on the identity of Mark was too easy. This consummate actress was steering her. She had no doubt that Susan had told the truth about the likely true identity of her murder victim, along with the fragments of childhood memory that he had conveyed, even down to the remand school. They were provided as details to check and help locate a person. It was in stark contrast to the secret of Mark now.
At the time Susan had told her these things she had accepted Susan’s facile reason for the disclosures, that it would be good for the child to know something about the father’s family. She and Alan had discussed how this former identity might be the lead that could crack the case open, get to the true Mark. It was based on the idea that, in Mark’s distant past there might lie the clue to who he was, something which would explain what had happened between them. Perhaps it was still so, that there was an important clue hidden in his distant past.
But she realised that this woman had detected Sandy’s desire to go down this path, and had steered her actively towards it. Susan was deliberately hiding a secret and yet she had steered Sandy towards what she and Alan thought may be the key. The name that had been whispered to them, Vincent Mark Bassingham, was now official and would justify an investigation to locate this new identity. Birth records, marriage records, next of kin records, DNA checks, thus giving the victim a face and identity. Susan had readily assisted in providing information for this search.
But why? Too easy, much too easy was how it seemed!
Yesterday afternoon Susan had been told that the forensic pathologist wanted to visit her and ask her some questions about any knowledge she had of the prior identity of the murder victim before she met him.
It immediately raised a red flag in her brain. Her overwhelming motive for everything she had done since she had first been arrested in London was to hide the real Mark from public view. At first, when they arrested her, it had seemed that officials had been happy enough to let Mark fade from view, they had a license ID for a Mark Bennet, she assumed this would give a trail for people to confirm the identity of her Mark, and, having got this investigators would let it drop.
But once the association had been made with his second assumed name, Mark Butler, Susan realised that this could well cause trouble, it raised a question of what was Mark’s true identity.
Last night Susan had another dream. In her dream Mark’s secret was in great peril, with people investigating what happened on her trip from Alice Springs and tracing her phone calls and text messages to Anne. In the process they were starting to link Mark to his victims. If Susan’s text asking Anne to investigate the missing girls and Anne’s reply was found, then it could all unravel. She did not think Anne would volunteer this information readily, but she knew that Anne was conflicted. However, on balance, she thought her friend’s loyalty to her would come first.
Anne did not really know the story. But she knew about the initial inquiry and Susan had effectively admitted that this was Mark. So Anne would see the link between her, Mark and those cases, and she also knew of the existence of Mark’s diary. However, with Susan’s admission to the murder and her stated intention to plead guilty, she felt she was closing a door to the danger of that revelation; at least once she was sentenced.
However the dream seemed to be warning otherwise. In the dream Alan and Sandy were exchanging the name Vincent Mark Bassingham and saying they would try to trace this person, with Sandy planning to use DNA to make a link to other family members. She heard Sandy whispering to Alan, “Who is Vincent Mark Bassingham. He is the key, if we can trace him we can find the true Mark.” And through her mind link she knew of Sandy’s burning desire to get to the real story, the why.
She read in their minds they were doing this to help her. It was like the old logic of her childhood, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set ye free,” that Biblical line from Presbyterian Sunday School.
But for Susan this truth was not freedom, but a whispered secret. Its retelling would be all anyone knew of this case, its memory would follow on for decades.
It was already sensational enough; it did not bear thinking about how a new revelation would play out. While she had previously considered the option to plead self-defence, reveal about Mark, and then once released to vanish under a new name, she knew this would be easier said than done. In this IT age true disappearance was extraordinarily hard, made even more so if she wanted to still have her own family and friends, the people her child would need as a growing boy.
But most of all she would not go there because it was fundamentally disloyal to Mark, it would turn him into a monster when the truth was far more complex. She was glad he was the father of her child; she did not believe he was evil absolute; she had glimpsed and tasted goodness at his core, despite all. But that story could never hold up in the court of public opinion. So she would not allow his identity and person to be treated that way, it would be a further betrayal of him.
In the dream Alan was trying to revisit all the other information about Susan and Mark and see if any of it would give more clues to who Mark was and why Susan had killed him. He was poring over records he had tracked down about Mark and in the process had got Susan’s mobile number, the SIM card she had bought in Cairns.
It was funny that no one had ever gone digging into this before; but then, once they had made her identification all those other minor details were ignored as extraneous. From this dream she understood that Alan had been taken off the case, but Sandy was stepping into the breach. So they were still working together and exchanging information.
She could sense Alan’s frustration. He was hamstrung by other work, he had little time to use, plus his boss had told him to drop it, the case against her was open and shut, that no one else cared about the why, it was only guilt that mattered.
Susan wished Alan would just drop it like the rest. But she also saw it from his point of view; an injustice was happening and he was trying to prevent it. In part it was that because he had first uncovered the murder he felt obligated to have the whole truth told. At the same time he also thought he was helping her.
At the time she had met him on the aeroplane she had willed him to help her like this. But that was when her mind was in a mess. Now she saw clearly that Mark’s secret must stay hidden. She wished she had not encouraged him the way she had done so. So now she must think of a way to prevent his desire for truth from succeeding.
In the dream Alan had linked a number on Marks phone to her, and following from that was now tracing all the calls she had made. The only item of concern was her text to Anne and Anne’s reply.
As she woke from the dream she realised she needed to find a new diversion to throw them off track of tracing this, to make them feel they had another better lead to follow and to put their free time into that. The name Vincent Mark Bassingham kept coming into her brain. They had the name and would follow it, like a bloodhound on a scent.
At first this idea filled her with fear. Then it dawned on her. Let them follow it; it was the name of a child of twenty years ago, a boy abused by his father who had run away. Mark’s story as a child was all this name would tell. So there would be family information about this child to run down, it would take more time to find, but the adult would not be there. As best she could understand it was only after Mark went to the Middle East, when he was about twenty, that the callous, wanton killing begun. Revelation of that Mark was what terrified her. By then he was a man who worked under other names and took great care to hide his true identity. So the child was not the man, nor the man the child.
She must throw a false trail, one that seemed to lead somewhere but actually lead away, where the sum of a month or two of investigation would be zero. They would know the real identity, know a few bits about his difficult and abusive childhood, things that would perhaps bring some sympathy, but then it would all vanish.
He would become someone who had changed his identity because of a violent father, and had made a new life in the NT under names based on his middle name and initials, not so remarkable really. It would feed the gossip mills for a day or two and then would become yesterday’s story. Alongside this old identity the new one would fade. The police would soon stop using the name Mark and begin call him Vincent. She would admit to Vincent’s murder. And adult Mark would fade away.
It would serve the purpose of occupying a month or two of official time, seen as doing an important job in getting to the bottom of this identity mystery. By the time they had got to the ends of this, to where this trail led, the time to investigate other things would have passed; she would have been convicted and sentenced. She would be one of many prisoners serving out their time, soon forgotten as public attention and police investigations moved on to new juicier stories.
So that is what she would do. She would give them the name they were seeking, send them off following this trail, all the while letting the story she was protecting slide away.
But she must be careful. Sandy was clever. In the same way she could glimpse parts of Sandy’s mind, Sandy could do so with her. It was a cat and mouse game, throw bait one way for the cat to pounce on while you quietly crept off in a different direction.
She wished it was a guilt free and painless process. She liked Sandy, Sandy could be her friend, she would gladly accept any friendship offered. It was the same for Alan and Buck. Yet here she was, acting out a role for their apparent benefit, which had the purpose of deceiving them. She did not feel good about herself. The old, decent Susan was fast sliding away, replaced by a manipulating and conniving actress.
In trying to hide the true Mark, she had become a shadow figure of her former self, now she was the great dissembler, the one who showed people a face they wanted to believe in and used all her tricks to make it seem true. That was the face of the Mark she had discovered. Now she had become a second him, a person trapped by bad decisions and poor choices into perpetual dishonesty.
The only person who had seen through this was Vic, on that day when he had refused to accept her meaningless answers. Now he was gone too and she was left alone, ever and always alone, in an empty place.
Two days after Sandy visited Susan was notified of a doctor coming to visit her and examine her baby. Sandy arranged this visit; the doctor was someone she had met through medical circles.
Susan was unsure, but in the end agreed, thinking it was not about her comfort, it was insurance that her baby got the best treatment. Once she had met the person she could decide on what to do and how to pay.
At ten o’clock she was escorted to the visitor’s room to meet the doctor, Christine something, a gynaecologist who had qualified last year and joined a busy practice at Darwin Private Hospital. This doctors’ formal role was unclear as she normally saw private patients not prisoners and had only made these arrangements as a favour to Sandy.
As Susan came in a pleasant lady in her early thirties rose to greet her. Susan liked her instantly, the no nonsense professional competence, and a ready smile.
She had a portable ultrasound machine which she plugged into the power in the visitors room. She asked Susan to liey down on a towel on the table and checked her carefully by palpation and ultrasound. She soon had a picture of her baby on a laptop screen attached to the ultrasound. She asked Susan if she wanted to know the sex?
“As best I can tell it is a girl, you will have a beautiful daughter.”
Susan was thrown; she was so sure it would be a boy. She asked, “Are you sure? I was certain it was a boy.”
Christine reworked the image, zooming in on the child again and going to the lower body. “Well it is hard to be 100% at this stage, between five and six months, but it is pretty clear. You can see the place and there is nothing there where the penis and testicles should be. It seems a bit small for your date and how big your tummy is. I think we should run a few tests just to confirm everything is OK, bring you in to hospital for a day next week to check it out more thoroughly.”
Susan nodded, not wanting to take a chance with the health of her child. They discussed the tests for next week. Christine left the ultrasound head resting on Susan’s belly, the laptop screen facing her.
There was a movement. Something that looked like a leg zoomed into view, showing a tiny foot with five toes. It seemed to come from a different place than from the baby they had been looking at. Susan pointed, open mouthed. Christine’s eyes followed her finger.
“Oh my God, that leg does not belong to the child we have been looking at. There is a second baby.”
After five minutes of further checking it was clear, there were twins, a boy and girl. Now the sizes were right.
Christine finished a few minutes later. Susan said she had some cash to pay her for today, but would need to work out how to pay for future treatment. Christine waved her aside. “Plenty of time to sort that out later and Sandy told me she would pay if needed.
“First things first! With two babies there are extra risks. I need you to come in to hospital next week for more tests. I will arrange this with the prison authorities.”
By the time Christine left it was arranged. The hospital visit was booked for the next Monday. A prison van would take her and she would be escorted by a warder for the day. Not that she was considered a significant risk, having returned to Australia voluntarily, but appearances must be maintained.
Susan woke early on the Monday, feeling an eager anticipation to leave her cell and walk in the open air. It was the first time she had left this place since her court appearance over six weeks ago. That seemed like an eternity ago. She walked outside in handcuffs acutely aware of the shame of being treated like a wild animal.
Someone must have tipped off the press. Several journalists and camera men were gathered in the car park, long telephoto lenses pointing her way, trying to get her picture. Her protruding stomach was there for all to see as she walked the few steps from the prison door to the waiting van. She was whisked away, glad to be hidden inside the van’s windowless sides.
It was a day of waiting between different tests and procedures, enclosed in a locked room on a high floor. At least there was a TV she could watch, her first real taste of the happenings in the outside world since her arrest in England.
In between procedures she sat with her eyes glued to the TV. The morning passed slowly, a rolling rotation of chat shows and soap operas. The midday news came on. She felt disconnected from it all and decided to flick back to a soap opera. There was too much pain as she watched normal people go about their real everyday business.
She was about to push the channel button when she saw a headline.
“Remnants of missing helicopter found.” Now the TV had her full attention. The report was to the point. A fishing trawler picked up refuse floating in the water about 100 kilometres west of Darwin yesterday and brought it to port last night. This morning experts from the Department of Aviation confirmed it appears to be an extensively damaged fuel tank of a Bell 47 helicopter.
The reporter stated, “It is likely to have come from missing helicopter of Vikram Campbell, whereabouts unknown since 30th December. It is considered most likely to have been washed out to sea from the rivers of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf following the cyclone in that area in the days after Mr Campbell’s disappearance. A new search of this area for any other crash evidence will commence tomorrow.”
Susan felt profoundly depressed. She had had a little hope before, despite Buck’s optimistic unwillingness to concede the likely; but now her hope was extinguished. The helicopter really had crashed and with this damage which had broken the machine apart, the outcome was obvious. She knew they must go through the formalities of the search but there would be no happy ending, even if further wreckage was found. It just reinforced her determination to keep on the path she was following. She sat musing on the way her life was going, drifting onwards, further and further into darkness.
Suddenly her own image on the TV pulled her attention back. It was her, at least a telephoto image of her taken this morning; a woman with a bloated belly walking the few steps to the prison van. Now she turned her attention in to the sound.
“Breaking News, Crocodile Man’s lover and alleged murderer was taken to Darwin Hospital this morning for medical tests to confirm her pregnancy. Is Crocodile Man the father of her child?”
She remembered the grainy images seen of Lindy Chamberlain’s pregnancy, replayed from when Lindy was in prison and the awful speculation that had gone with it, all the Devil child rubbish. Was that to be her fate – mother of another devil child? Susan now wished she had stayed in prison and let the prison doctor deal with her.
She just wanted to return from this hostile place to her cage again; it kept the outside away. It was better to be alone than to have to watch this feeding frenzy as the public took delight in the news of one tragedy after another.
She realised her mind was slowly being refilled with the missing crocodile spirit, she had left the crocodile stone in her cell, and with it her defence was gone. So now, as the day wore on, she could feel it pushing and insinuating its way back into her mind.
She realised she did not care anymore. It was easier this way, lost in a mindless oblivion. As she let the crocodile spirit take her she again felt Mark’s presence, he seemed real again inside her mind. She had missed him so much and here he still was. In her search for freedom all she had found was an empty place where nothing and no one lived. Here, in her mind, she had a companion again, and it had less power to hurt her than what lay outside.
Suddenly she was glad she was carrying two children. They could continue her life, and Mark’s, in the outside world. They would be company for one another and grow up strong and healthy, with no taint from this past. Her parents would take good care of them.
And when they left her she would say goodbye. Not just goodbye to them until she saw them next, but a final goodbye to them, her parents, and all that this awful life had dealt her.
It was simple, she would leave this world. She would write a simple will and ask that they put her body in the ground next to what was left of Mark’s, she would return to him and, as two crocodile spirits together, they would watch from afar. That was as close to heaven as either of them could get and it would have to be enough.
Anne found the return flight to London to be like a poignant time warp. She was leaving a place of heat, humidity and relentless anxiety, the watching of her best friend’s life as it disintegrated, the trying not to get drawn into another relationship, the anxiety about keeping her job and how to deal with her increasing pile of undone work in London. Now she was leaving all that behind, returning to her home, her flat, her network of friends, her family, and the ability to rescue her job and create order in all that undone work.
She should be feeling relief and excitement at her return. Instead she felt strangely let down and empty, as if she had now moved her centre of existence to the other side of the world; so that London had become the unreal artefact and the Darwin hotel room was permanency.
It was not that she was not looking forward to seeing her family and friends again, or having her own things in her own place, or even creating order from the chaos she knew would await her at work. She was, and yet. And yet it was as if the centre of gravity in her world had shifted to a previously unknown and unimagined place.
It was not just David and Susan and their lives there, though that was definitely part of it. It was that a part of her, a part that she did not know existed before, had been captured by the spirit of the place. It was about identification. She, the quintessentially English girl now felt that part of her soul lived across the sea in that other strange harsh land. It was a far less pleasant place to live in than her home, but it was there, and it was in her now, a sort of ambush and capture.
However she must park this nostalgia for now and knuckle down to do all the things that her life in London demanded of her. She had made a promise to ring David at least once each week and she suspected it may be even more often.
It was midday Sunday before she cleared the airport, then came back to her flat for a couple hours of recreating order before dinner with her family out in Reading. They were not quite neighbours to Susan’s family, but near enough; that was where the friendship at school had begun. She did not stay late after dinner but headed back to town, knowing she must be up early for work in the morning. Her jet lag was not too bad thanks to the business class seat that David had bought her.
A week flew by; it was so full on that she barely knew where the time went. The second week she started to catch up with social friends, all of them anxious for news, both of her and Susan. It was hard to tell them much but she soon realised that their interest and understanding were superficial; they were busy with their own lives here.
She and David had taken to calling each other in alternate turns, mostly every second or third day. It was wonderful to hear his voice and she always felt like she was walking on air after she put down the phone; they both had plenty and nothing in particular to talk about, but what both most wanted was to hear the other’s voice.
While neither quite said it, since Sydney they had transitioned into something more than friends. One day, in the second week after she was back, she had expected him to call and he did not. She slept fitfully that night and finally next morning, early, she rang, knowing it was evening now in Australia. He picked up immediately and she asked if he was okay; she could feel something in his voice that said otherwise.
He told her about his visit to see Susan the previous day, and how she had broken off the engagement. He told her the full story, including Susan forcing his agreement, that it be a joint decision to end it. He said, “It is funny, I have known since before Christmas it was inevitable, I even told my Mum that and she agreed. And yet, when she said it and made me agree, I felt so gutted.
“It was as if I was finally forced to confront what I should have always known, that despite my dream of perfection with her, it would never be, perhaps could never have been. It is like we are souls who at one level were pulled together, but at another level were never quite fashioned to fit together. That does not mean that I did not love her, a part of me will always be a bit captured by something in her, but yet I have had to face the fact that it could never be and it was somehow bad for us both to try and make it so.
“So today I can look at it with something approaching equanimity, but yesterday it was far too raw even to say it to you. I needed time to grieve alone; today I can talk of it.”
Anne replied, “When I saw her that week in Darwin Susan told me something similar. She said that deep inside she knew from the outset that it was not meant to work, but yet there was a pull of attraction that drew you together, at least for a time. With her, too, she said it seemed like an idea of perfection, but it was a dream of perfection that was not real. But it still hurt a lot to break it for her too.
“So I am glad you have both reached a similar place. She is still my best friend. I hope you and she can stay friends too.”
David said, “Of course, we will always be more than best friends; far too much has passed between us to ever be less. But now I can see clearly that the other is over and we can both move on with separate lives. That is a good thing for us both.
“Speaking of which, how soon can you come back out to Australia, I can’t wait to see you again.”
She replied, “David I am not yet back in London for a fortnight, I have almost caught up on my work by working until ten most nights. I have just broached the need to be back in Australia in just over a month for Susan’s trial, and my work has reluctantly agreed to give me a fortnight for that. So that is the best I can do. But, like you, I find myself impatient even though that fortnight is hardly likely to be a bundle of joy.”
He said, “OK, tell me your dates, I will book your flights and be there to meet you as you step off the plane.”
Sandy pushed on with her work of locating the real Mark.
First she double checked the two other names, the Butler name and the Bennet name. Neither was obviously false, they had a trail of sorts but after following both back a few years they rapidly descended into mush, and in both cases they were common names with far too many people to fully trace. So, without a known birth location, it was hard to run them to ground quickly.
So she began work on tracing a Vincent Bassingham. Unfortunately the registries of past births, deaths and marriages in each state were not fully computerised. So she would need to do some manual leg work. Each state had its own system along with the Northern Territory, so that meant potentially up to seven state administrations and systems to deal with, and, in her experience, requests coming from the Northern Territory did not get top billing.
That would mean phone calls to clerks and registries to seek their cooperation and stress the priority. If she had a real age for Mark that would help but the two licenses gave ages almost three years apart. So she suspected that she needed to cover a fair range to ensure she did not miss out. She also was not fully sure of name spellings, it was a verbal construct from Susan, though Buck had glimpsed a written name, but was not completely certain of it. The best help was that the surname, including a range of variants, was reasonably uncommon.
She decided to start in Brisbane with the Queensland register, based on Susan’s story of an uncle there. That drew a blank, in both the regular name version and the likely variants. NSW drew another blank, as did Victoria. She was feeling perplexed, she had been fairly certain it would be one of these three most populous states that would provide some clues to Mark’s identity and background.
She worked her way fully around the country, everywhere except the NT; somehow the idea of him being born here never occurred to her. Two of her precious weeks had passed and she was feeling frustrated.
She went to visit Susan each week and told her of her progress or lack thereof. She was worried about Susan. She had read about her visit to the hospital in the NT papers and seen it on the news. They had even found out somehow she was expecting twins. She got a taste of the vile forms of speculation doing the rounds, particularly from internet trolls – kill the bitch, feed her to the crocodiles, cut out her babies, watch the crocodiles jump and feast.
Sandy felt ashamed at what some people could do with all this stuff and was glad that most had passed Susan by. She, herself, would have preferred not to know, but she was using all the tools at her disposal, including her own internet searches. It was surprising how much of this rubbish came up in her searches.
The warders had now taken to bringing Sandy direct to Susan’s cell to visit. This gave her an insight into just how desolate Susan’s life was. Her sense of Susan as an actress who turned on and off performances had grown much stronger; the Susan she found here was a much diminished person, a much better fit to her former mental image of her. There was a worrying lethargy and fatalism about her, as if she had resigned herself to what was coming and had given up trying.
As Sandy came in she would see Susan pick up that flattened oval crocodile stone, the one that Charlie had told her about, to keep the evil crocodile spirit out of her mind. If it worked she wondered why Susan did not keep it with her all the time, put it in her pocket or something like that. That seemed to be the way she used it when she first met her, and Susan had been a lot sharper then.
Now, when she first arrived, Susan seemed to be completely spaced out, her mind lost in another place. It would take a few minutes before any glimpse of that other person, the original Susan, was visible. Her answers were often vague and woolly, “Yes if you think so”, or “Whatever you think, I don’t know”. So different from the person with the razor sharp mind that Sandy had first met. Sometimes flashes of the old Susan returned, sometimes they would laugh together till their sides hurt at the silliest things, and Susan was always much better after this.
She tried to get Susan to tell her about her feelings and got occasional insights. On the last visit Susan had told her about that day in hospital, at first feeling excited to discover she had twins, and leaving the prison.
Then how it all collapsed on seeing the lunch time TV news, the first TV she had seen in months.
She told her how the first news item was about the wreckage of the helicopter crash which meant that Vic was really dead. Susan said it with such a flat, despairing finality that it broke Sandy’s heart, such a palpable feeling of emptiness and desolation flowed out of her. Sandy wondered why it upset her so much when she barely knew this man. But then he was a real friend of Mark’s; perhaps that was it.
Then Susan told of seeing her own self on TV, her fat bloated belly in telephoto view. She said it felt just like the photos she had seen of Lindy Chamberlain, when everyone was saying it was the Devil’s Child, only now they were saying the “She Devil’s Children”, and making sick jokes that her babies were not human but crocodilian.
It was such an excruciating description of a visit which Sandy had hoped would be an escape from the dreariness of this place.
Susan finished the story by saying that at least it would be over soon, her babies would be born and have each other, and her parents, and wouldn’t need her any more, and she would be able to escape all this. There was a chilling finality to this statement; it felt like a suicide note.
Now today was Sandy’s fourth visit, meaning three weeks had passed since she first came. It was now only a fortnight until the trial date. There was a pre-trial conference next week when the lawyers would meet with Sandy one day to discuss preparations for the case and then with Susan the next day to discuss how it would all run.
As she walked up to the prison Sandy ran through how the case was unfolding in her mind.
She had heard that Susan had not employed any defence counsel; she refused all offers saying she was pleading guilty and could speak for herself; she did not need others to say the words on her behalf. Everyone else was deeply uncomfortable about the way events were shaping; even the prosecution did not like it even though it made their work easy. Public opinion was starting to swing behind Susan and suggest the investigation was incompetent as they had not come up with a better reason than what was currently being put forward, a lovers tiff gone wrong.
All thinking people knew it did not make sense. It was too out of character; it was portrayed as too planned and calculated, and her total unwillingness to make any defence as to why, was incomprehensible.
Sandy knew Susan just wanted it over and the prosecution wanted it wrapped up, their case was solid and the public opinion would pass once the trial was out of the news. So the trial would proceed as scheduled.
Even though Sandy saw a problem with Mark’s dual identity, neither the prosecution nor Susan was overly concerned, there was a real person, his name was Mark, and they had a body, so it was murder. Investigations about the correct name could take their own course.
The one fly in the ointment was an independent barrister who was advocating for a parliamentary or judicial inquiry, lobbying lots of key people for a full and proper investigation into the identity of the victim if the police or prosecution would not do it before the case went to trial.
Sandy half wondered if this was being done as a delaying tactic by Susan’s friends or family to try and buy some space. She half wished it would succeed as she really wanted more time. She knew that both David, Susan’s former fiancée, and her best friend Anne were flying in to Darwin again this weekend and wondered if either of them had had a hand in this lobbying and advocacy.
Today, when Sandy visited, Susan was different. She had washed her face, done her hair and put on a pretty dress, one loose fitting enough to diminish her pregnant look. And she was smiling brightly and gave Sandy a hug and cheek kiss as she came in.
Sandy should have been delighted but instead her alarm radar went into red alert zone, though she tried to give no clue about her concern.
Once Sandy sat down they talked about who the real Mark could be, and any lines of investigation they could follow to get to the real person. Susan said she had been wracking her brain for any other clues from her time with Mark, and had wondered about two things; could he have been born and lived as a small child in the NT, and could he have been born or perhaps lived for a time as a small child in either London or Italy.
Sandy agreed these were definitely lines of inquiry worth pursuing. The other suggestion that Susan made was she was almost sure Mark’s fathers name was Vincent Bassingham. She said that Mark had told her this, it was part of his unwillingness to take his father’s name at school. So could they try and trace the father and work it out that way instead, try and find a birth or marriage certificate for a man by that name. It was all eminently sensible and Sandy agreed to get on with it.
But suddenly Sandy saw, with a shocking clarity, that the difference in Susan was all a ruse. Previously she had had a vague unformed suspicion that Susan was steering her. Now she knew it with certainty. She glimpsed a gloating place in Susan’s mind as she took up these ideas. She saw that Susan was directing her to these places and was secretly gleeful that she had taken the bait.
She tried to pull her mind back from her desire to look into Susan’s mind, this was danger. If she could see what Susan was thinking then it would probably be the same in reverse. In a split second she saw it in Susan’s eyes, fear of overreach, that she had let Sandy see too much.
Now Susan was subtly backpedalling, “Perhaps that is a silly idea after all – it is not really so important to know who Mark was.”
It was such a subtle and skilful seduction, a piece of consummate acting Anyone who did not have Sandy’s insights into the way Susan’s mind worked would have missed it. But now she knew and Susan knew she knew.
Sandy decided she had to think on this. Tonight she must talk about it with Alan. She started to pack up to leave. Now Susan wanted to slow her departure, to keep her talking while shifting the topic, to break the link of the insight from its importance.
Sandy sensed a desperation she had not sighted before. Susan was really desperate to hide something, something about Mark. She let these thoughts wash through her mind like an unconscious flow, making no attempt to trap and catch them, hoping that without formed intent Susan could see no more of her own thoughts and plans.
She forced herself to give Susan her full attention and felt affection for this girl flooding back. Despite the deception there was real goodness here, a simple and decent person who needed all the help she could get. Spontaneously she came over to her and hugged her. “I am so glad you seem to be a bit better today.”
Susan hugged her back, feeding on her warmth, opening her mind to Sandy unconsciously.
In a split second, within that warmth Sandy saw the outline of a dark and terrible secret which she knew with certainty was the real reason for all this. She tried to let it wash through her mind as if unnoticed.
Susan had a future plan which ended almost as soon as her children were born. She would give her children to her parents to care for, safe in the knowledge that they would have each other and be well cared for. And then, once they were safely home in England, Susan would end her life and go to join her crocodile spirit partner. There was a joy in this idea inside Susan that she was incapable of hiding. It chilled Sandy to the bone, though she must not let it be seen.
That night she and Alan talked it through. Alan was finished his surveillance operation and now had a couple days in the office to clean up paperwork before starting on a significant new case next week. However this work was not urgent and he thought it could be deferred for at least a couple weeks. He also knew his time would be in demand next week as the trial approached, going through evidence, attending lawyer meetings, polishing the statements that he and others would put before the court to ensure a conviction. He thought it was a complete waste of time, certain that Susan would make a guilty plea.
But the crown prosecutor had pointed out that plenty of people had changed their plea, even five minutes before they stood in the court and that was a right available to all. So they must assume it would be a full jury trial, prepare accordingly, expect to have all their evidence contested. If it did not end that way well, that was a bonus.
So Alan knew he would have some time, but not a lot, to help Sandy pursue the identity question. Sandy also wanted Alan not fully drawn into this path, she knew that this was what Susan intended; using up enough their time in getting the true identity of Mark, succeeding at the eleventh hour just before they stood up in court, closing off that issue but leaving no time to pursue anything else.
They decided they would both put maximum effort into this next week, but at the same time Alan would try to find a couple days to pursue leads relating to Mark’s life since he had come to the NT. They suspected this was what they were being steered away from.
He would try and focus on the part of Mark and Susan’s trip between Barkly Homestead and Timber Creek, particularly after the day flying in the helicopter with Vic. That seemed to be the part where something had arisen in their relationship or where Susan had gained new knowledge that had led to the murder.
He knew it was a wishful guess, but he must try and find a door to open. He knew he could not revisit the whole of Mark and Susan’s two week trip looking for a new clue Therefore he must start in the closest part, the last 3 or 4 days. From his initial meeting with Vic he knew the date of their helicopter flight in the Gulf; there were no shadows that Vic had seen in the sky then and he was pretty sharp.
Vic had said they were heading on for Seven Emus and Borroloola the next day, and then the day after they had come across to VRD. Buck had given him that date along with the details that the previous night they had stayed in Heartbreak Hotel and en route made brief stop overs in Daly Waters and Top Springs.
So he would try to get to all those places, just in case there was something important at one of them. If that trawled nothing then, after the trial and before sentencing, which he knew would be deferred; he would try and close out the other loose ends. Particularly he would try for Katherine connections, after all the Mark Butler identity seemed to be centred there.
Next week he and Sandy would put maximum effort into working out who Vincent Mark Bassingham was, or whatever the hell his name was.
So Alan used his two days to get all his other affairs in order and start making discreet inquiries about what contacts Mark might have had in the Gulf or VRD. First he rang Buck to update him, seeking any insights he had about people worth talking to out his way.
Buck had a several suggestions but no strong leads and his ideas of who else might know more about Mark were spread all over the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region. Mark had done a lot of work over in north Western Australia, some on the Argyle Diamond Mine as well as some on stations. He had also worked on some dude lodge up around the Mitchell Plateau. And he had also worked on aboriginal communities out towards the Tanami, Hooker Creek was one. And yes he was good mates with one Michael Riley, publican at Top Springs Hotel, a mad Irishman if ever there was one and a bit fey. Michael Riley’s guesses could be worth listening to, that’s what Buck’s sixth sense said.
In the end Alan and Buck concluded that the rest of Mark’s contacts were too scattered and these places had not been on Mark and Susan’s trip, but that Mr Riley from Top Springs was worth talking to.
When Alan mentioned the name to Sandy she said, “That is funny, I am sure I saw that name in the log of visitors that Susan had. We each write our name in a book each time we visit and there have not been many visitors, so the name sort of stuck out when I looked at it as someone I did not know.”
Alan had already talked to the publicans at Daly Waters and at Heartbreak Hotel, he doubted he would get more there, though now his focus was different so who knew. But he had never worked on the trip from Redbank Mine to Heartbreak in the Gulf, with likely stopovers at Borroloola and Seven Emus. So he would follow up these; a visit in person would be best.
If he could crack a whip he reckoned he could cover the ground in three days. He tried to think how he could slot it in. Trouble was the pre-trial conference was next Wednesday, he had a lot of work to do getting ready for that and on running down the identity angle before then. The trial proper started the following Tuesday, meaning he had to be back in town for the Monday in time for final barrister meetings and all the last minute pre-trial work. That left a four day window, but then he ruled out the Thursday knowing that he would have follow up work to do after the first pre-trial meeting. So that left Friday and the weekend.
He hated giving up his weekends with Sandy. He and she had both been busy lately leaving little time for play, and he really wanted to play some more – with her!
Then it came to him, why should she not come with him, they were both working on this case together. Plus, so often their shared insights were much better than what just one or the other would see.
He picked up the phone and rang through. “Fancy a trip to the VRD and Gulf next weekend, leave Friday early and back Sunday, probably late. I am trying to backtrack and trace the trip Susan and Mark made; there must be a clue somewhere. I have yet to clear it with my boss but think I can swing it.
“He is starting to feel the political heat from Susan, he called her “Saint Susan” this morning and said he was scared they would canonise her next week before they burnt her at the stake for murder the week after, “a sort of Joan of Arc trick” was how he described it. So he is getting desperate for something better than the explanation we have now to the “Why did a nice girl suddenly go crazy?” question”.
Sandy said, “Shut up and stop talking. I know you want a weekend away with me, and a real dirty weekend in the bush beckons, what could be better. Count me in.”
She clicked the phone off with a lascivious smile on her face. Her colleague, across the bench, looked at her with surprise and she flushed bright red.
Sandy set to work following up the suggestions that Susan had given her yesterday about trying to locate the real Mark. She could have kicked herself for having ignored the NT as a birth place and the English and Italian connections were definitely worth following.
In half an hour she rang Alan back, her hands were shaking. “I can’t believe I missed it. He was born in Darwin, his birthday is November 3rd so he is a Scorpio, and he would have been 34 years old this November gone if he was alive.
“I have a birth certificate for a Vincent Marco Bassingham. His parents are listed as migrants, English migrants, though the mother’s nationality is listed as Italian. They are mother, Rosalie Adriana Moretti, father Vincent Bassingham, no middle name.
“So it suggests we have our man, though I suspect they did not live here in Darwin long. Now we have to try and work out where they lived after that.
“I need to visit Susan to see if she can give me anything Mark told her about the mother. I am almost sure he told Susan that she committed suicide. There was also a suggestion that the police wanted to lay charges against her husband for beating her up, and there may have been other violent incidents where he was charged. So there may be some police records in this name.
“Alan, how about you try and pursue any police records and I will try and find out where his mother died. It should not be too hard if I can get an approximate date of death, even if we don’t know where. All death certificates are pretty reliable and ones from that era are computerised across Australia now.
“So once I can pin the date down to a year or two it should only take half an hour.
“Bye and love, and don’t forget about our weekend away. I can’t wait to get you down and dirty in the real bush. I want to find out whether there is a real bushie lurking in there or just an Akubra wearing city slicker.” Sandy felt herself flush red again as she clicked off the phone and looked up, her work mate was looking curious again.
By the Friday afternoon Sandy had all the pieces together; she had found a real Vincent Marco Bassingham who had vanished from remand school when thirteen only to turn up a couple times over the next five years in slightly suspicious circumstances by being linked to deaths of other unsavoury people he had worked with but with no real evidence of his involvement, just a couple notes on files of a suspicion. Then he had faded from view fifteen years ago.
She had also tracked down the family, she had a death certificate for Mark’s mother, Rosalie, in Melbourne when he was seven, there was a charge of assault for the father from ten years ago in the same city which was dropped when the victim refused to testify. They had even located Rosalie’s own parents in Naples, Italy, both still alive though elderly. They had confirmed that she had a dead brother Marco, who had died in a tragic accident about a year before their Mark was born. They had also located another brother, Antonio who lived in Brisbane. He had agreed to provide a DNA sample, with results to come through next Monday in time for the pre-trial conference. With this they would know for definite if they had their man, though it was 99 per cent certain in Sandy’s mind already.
She felt almost pumped as she walked out the office door on the Friday, at least until she thought of Susan. She was scheduled to meet Susan on Monday, usually it was on a Wednesday but it was early next week with the legal proceedings scheduled.
When she thought of Susan sitting alone in her cell, lost, defeated, resigned to a life in jail, probably already planning her suicide in just a couple months, it all seemed suddenly so pointless. Yes Sandy knew who the real Mark was.
He was Vincent Marco Bassingham, but so what.
It was what Susan had wanted, to waste a month of their time and divert attention.
But it was not what she, Sandy, wanted. She must keep fighting to save this silly girl, even if she did not want to be saved.
Sandy was assuaged by a terrible feeling of guilt. She saw herself listening to the radio in two or three months’ time, in that first month post natal. She was hearing an announcement that Susan was dead and there were no suspicious circumstances, in other words suicide.
That was a post mortem she could never bring herself to do, never would she cut up this beautiful girl’s body.
Instead she would sit alone as someone else did it. And she would know an irreconcilable guilt; that if she in her cleverness had not spotted the clues by the waterhole then the case would have died right there and then. If this case died then a good person would still be alive and only a bad person would have died.
She took a deep breath. She could not go there. She understood now, suddenly and very clearly, Susan’s dilemma; bad choices could never be undone, and in the trying madness lay.
Well she would have to work harder to try and make sure there was another choice that was not bad, unlike all the ones she could see now.
Susan sat in a conference room with a prison officer by her side. Sitting opposite her was a barrister and solicitor for the prosecution. Sitting at one end of the table was Alan, as principle witness for the prosecution, though he was only there to clarify any evidence that was unclear and not to otherwise speak, or so it had been explained to her.
Actually she wished she could have a few minutes to talk to him alone. She had not seen him at close quarters since they spent a day sitting next to each other on the aeroplane that returned her to Australia. Not that she had anything specific to say, but she felt affection for him and knew he was trying his best for her despite her best endeavours to lead him and Sandy in the wrong direction. That was just a necessity, it was not personal, and she would have liked to exchange a few friendly words, friends that she could talk to were so few. But instead she turned her attention to the business at hand.
Everyone had tried to get her to retain counsel to represent her in the trial and she kept declining all their offers. In the end the judge had made a ruling that, while he would not appoint a counsel against her wishes, he would appoint a legal representative to act on the courts behalf and seek to protect her interests where feasible.
Susan did not care, she was just glad she had got to this place without further delay. It was nearly over and she wanted it to be over. Today was really about confirming a few basic facts to save an argument over them in court. “To narrow the scope of what has to be determined during the trial,” was how the prosecution barrister had put it.
She nodded when someone laboriously explained it all again for the umpteenth time.
“Yes I get that,” she said. “I don’t need you to keep repeating it and I am not clear why you are bothering when I have told you that, once I am able to enter a plea, I will stand up and state that I wish to plead guilty. At that stage it should all be over. So I struggle to see what this whole drawn out process is about.”
She saw the barrister from the other side, the man who would stand up to bury her on behalf of the state in six days’ time, roll his eyes in a put on of weary exasperation. “Nevertheless Miss McDonald, we are obliged to go through this process, to outline the evidence we will lead, just so there are no surprises, no suggestions that we have relied on information not provided to the defence in establishing your guilt.”
Susan rolled her eyes in return and replied, unconsciously mimicking his weary exasperation. “But you do not need to prove anything, in my plea I will admit to the truth of the key facts which you state. These are that I killed Mark Bennet, or rather I should now say, Vincent Marco Bassingham, by striking him on the head with a piece of wood, and then, as he lay on the ground, either dead or unconscious, I don’t know which, that I dragged his body to the edge of the billabong where it was taken and consumed by three large crocodiles which tore the body apart between them.”
Susan could see Alan’s eyebrows raised in surprise; her description of the multiple crocodiles and what they had done as he lay on the ground was a new admission. She had stated this quite deliberately made so as to forestall any discussion that might ensue about how the separated body parts arose. However no one else seemed to notice.
The barrister replied, “Yes, Miss McDonald, we know all that. Like us you have made your points before, but I do need to go through the rest of the evidence we will lead.
“We will establish you met Mr Bassingham in Cairns where you went diving with him. We will establish you met him again after arriving in Alice Springs, that you travelled with him to Yulara and then on, over the next week and a half, to Timber Creek through a range of Northern Territory locations including the Barkly Roadhouse and Heartbreak Hotel. Do you agree to those facts?
“Yes,” said Susan, “As you are aware I have already provided that in an amended statement to the police.”
“Then we will establish that you continued to travel on with him to the billabong on the Mary River where his body was found.”
Susan sat up and looked intently. This was something new she had not thought about. She asked, “How will you establish that? I have admitted to being with him at the Mary River on the morning of that Saturday in August when I killed him. I have made no admissions about how I got from Timber Creek to the billabong, so how do you propose to establish that?”
The barrister looked caught out so she continued, “I do not propose to admit that fact or otherwise as nothing turns on it. It is only relevant that I was at the location where he was killed, at the time he was killed, in order to establish that I could have killed him, and I have already admitted to that.
“So no, I will make no admissions of how I got from Timber Creek to the billabong, because it is not relevant. As far as I can see you have no evidence of how I got there. So I am sorry but I will not agree to that as evidence. You can contest it in court if you choose.”
She glanced to the end of the table where Alan sat. She saw him trying to maintain a poker face but with the edge of a smile creeping into his eyes. He was enjoying this. She had to admit she was too. It was a long time since she had used her brain in an intellectually challenging way. Perhaps the day in court would be more fun than she had thought. Unfortunately the barrister on the other side seemed to lack a sense of humour and kept grinding away and she made herself paly the game. Yes she agreed to all the facts relating to the murder that she had already admitted to. Duh!
Now they moved on to what had happened after the murder.
The barrister droned on. “We will establish that you set out to systematically hide the evidence of the murder. That you scraped blood stains away from the place where his body first lay and from where you dragged him to the water.”
Susan replied. “I don’t consider that any of this is relevant to whether or not I murdered him, so I do not admit it however you can seek to prove it if you wish.”
The barrister continued “We will establish that you burnt all the items which belong to the victim to conceal his identity.”
Again Susan replied. “I don’t consider that it relevant to whether or not I murdered him, so I do not admit it however you can seek to prove it if you wish.”
The barrister continued. “We will establish that you removed and destroyed all the victim’s identity papers and other items which belonged to him, yourself or other persons unknown, and which may have provided a link between him, yourself and the murder site.”
As the barrister mentioned ‘persons unknown’ the four passports, which she had tried never to think of since that day, came bursting into her head, along with Marks diary.
Instinctively, before she had time to think, she shook her head. “No, that is not true.” The barristers barely seemed to notice, but she saw Alan look at her sharply. She knew he had picked this slip up though he said nothing.
She clarified. “I don’t consider that it is relevant as to whether or not I murdered him, so I do not admit it. However, you can seek to prove it if you wish.”
After another half hour it was all done. It was really a waste of time but so be it. She would fight those items that she was not admitting, line by line on the day, a few they could prove, most they could not. It would help her get through what she knew would be a gruelling day, her trial date, as her parents and friends watched on.
It was OK to play at it here, it was just pretend blood sport, but in there it would be for real. She felt pleased she had come here today rather than refusing to attend. It had toughened her up for the real thing when there would be a crowd baying for her blood and her parents and friends were watching it all in horror.
But she also knew that she had made a mistake, an admission which might provide a worm hole for that policeman, Alan, to burrow through. She thought he would be hard pushed to find anything on the basis of that little admission, but she was not completely sure.
She had as good as said there was still stuff she had not destroyed, the inference was that it was still out there to be found. Of course the finding this material would be much harder but it was not impossible. She was glad that nobody thought to use sniffer dogs when they first searched the site. Even after a month or two they could have found the passports where she had buried them. Now, with all the wet season’s rain, she knew that chance had passed.
Still she felt a grudging admiration for Alan; he was nothing if not sharp. She was no longer so sure that all her secrets would stay hidden. If they ever found the metal box with those things of Mark’s she had buried it would all be over.
David and Anne both flew into Darwin on the Sunday before the trial, though David had arrived on the lunch time flight and Anne did not get in until later in the afternoon. Anne had also talked to Susan parents and knew they had come two days earlier, though Tim had stayed on at University knowing there was little he could do for his sister.
Anne felt like a giddy school girl as the plane touched down, she could not believe her excitement at the prospect of seeing this man again. She felt almost disloyal to Susan for allowing David to dominate her mind, but alongside that she knew Susan would be well pleased. She and Susan had exchanged two letters in the meantime and their friendship was again as strong as ever.
Susan had specifically mentioned David in the last letter and wished her well when she met him on this trip. At the side of the writing she had placed little cryptic symbols and drawings of families and babies, as if to hint she should go for it. Anne herself had more or less decided to throw caution to the wind and let whatever would happen, happen.
She just hoped that David would not find it too painful watching what unfolded with Susan. Anne had very low expectations that anything good would come out of the trial. She understood sentencing would be delayed for a couple weeks to allow submissions to be made specifically on the punishment, the length of the custodial sentence. She had decided to put all her effort into this space, as she knew that nothing would change Susan’s mind on her guilty plea. But there was some hope that she could convince Susan to explain her fear, once the guilty conviction was made and this, along with many glowing character references, could be used to get a large reduction in sentence.
Anne waited; suppressed impatience mingled with nervousness, as everyone filed down the aisle of the plane and queued their way through customs. At last she was outside.
There was David, blue short sleeved shirt with muscular arms and tousled blond hair, gorgeous as ever. He was a bit slow spotting her as she was behind a bigger group.
She ran around them and flung herself into his arms. He let out a whoop of delight, picked her up and swung her around then planted a big kiss on her lips; it was more than a friend’s kiss.
They talked frenetically on the way to the hotel; he had booked them adjoining rooms. She went in and freshened up and then they went down for a drink and dinner. Finally with dinner, she felt obliged to turn the conversation to the serious business that they were here for. They spent the next hour discussing all the ways they could approach the court case to try and improve what happened, whatever the outcome might be.
Anne was very tempted to tell him about the text from Susan all those months ago, but something held her back. Now with the wine she was beginning to feel sleepy, and realised that, with the frantic rush to pack and leave and the two short days on the flight, her time was all out of sync. It had been lovely in business class but she had not slept as well as on her last trip; this time a mix of anticipation and nervous anxiety that everything hung in the balance for Susan from here was in play.
She felt a huge yawn come over her. David signed the chit for the bill and escorted her upstairs telling her she needed to get to bed and have a good night’s sleep.
Anne felt vaguely disappointed that the night had ended so soon but almost as soon as she lay down she fell into a deep sleep. She woke at four in the morning feeling cold, wishing there was another warm body alongside her.
It popped into her mind, there is a warm body just next door, what am I waiting for?
There was a connecting door between their rooms. She tried it, it was unlocked.
She made out David’s shadowy outline in the bed. He was sleeping soundly. Part of her felt disappointed but another part was pleased to give him a surprise when he woke up. She cuddled in next to him, lay her head on his chest and fell into a dreamless sleep.
In the early morning light she woke and saw David lying there, not moving but looking at her intently. “You are so beautiful,” he said, and gently stroked her hair as she pushed her face into him.
They did not make love then, but there was something nicer in their casual friendship and intimacy. As they got up to face the day she went into her room and carried her things into his.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said as she saw him watching her closely. “I just decided last night, when I woke by myself, that I wanted much more to be with you and was tired of stopping myself on account of anyone or anything else.
“So I figure we can both share this room though, if you really want to, we can keep the other room as well, just for appearances.”
David replied, “I am glad that’s how you feel, I have felt unsure how to be with you, wanting something much more than friends, yet being constrained by what has gone before and also by what Susan and I had, even though by the time I met you in Darwin last year it was really over. So I, like you, don’t feel inclined to waste time wishing for something when the alternative is to enjoy it now.”
Anne walked over and kissed him on the lips lightly before taking off her dressing gown, her back to him. She walked naked into the bathroom, giving her bottom a saucy wiggle as she closed the door part way, still leaving enough open so he could watch her as she showered.
He looked at her. She caught his eye. She could sense his desire as she turned on the shower.
“Why don’t you come and join me, then we can wash each others’ backs” she called out.
He came in alongside her, his erection throbbing.
She looked at it, bent down and kissed it, then took it into her mouth.
She looked up at him and said, “Another part of me that needs to feel it even more.”
He nodded, he had not spoken. He put his hands behind her thighs and lifted her up.
She felt it go all the way inside, it felt wonderful.
She said “Let’s stop messing around and go and fuck properly. I want you to fuck me as hard and long as you can. Then, when you are finished, I want you to do it all again. I am so horny to feel you moving deep inside me. Whatever else happens I want this part right now.”
The sex was better than they could have imagined and even on that first time they both came together. Soon they were doing it again and then they slept for another hour and did it again. About nine o’clock they decided they must have some breakfast and face the day.
Both felt good about what had happened and Anne told David what Susan had said.
David replied, “I think I am the luckiest man alive having had the two most gorgeous women in England. But after second course I don’t want to go back to the first.”
Anne replied. “I don’t mind her coming before me. But she better not come after me or I will cut that thing off.” She said it with such ferocity that he believed she would.
They visited Susan after lunch and told her about themselves.
Susan seemed genuinely pleased. She said, “It is funny, but I knew, David, right from the first day you met Anne that she was my main danger with you, not a crocodile. Right back then I felt a little jealous of your instinctive reaction to Anne. It was like she and you had a deeper level of attraction than with us. I see now that is how it was meant to be. So, truth be told, I am really glad for you both, and not jealous, well not more than a tiny bit.”
She turned to Anne and giggled. “Not the little brother for you Anne, imagine that.”
Anne giggled back and soon the three of them were laughing then hugging together.
It felt good to them all that life had moved on, at least for that part.
Now Anne turned to Susan, totally serious and said, “Whatever we can we do to help, we are here at your disposal. Can I find a lawyer to represent you in court? I know you said you don’t want a lawyer, you can speak for yourself, and that is your right. But you having someone in your corner, watching that the other side acts fairly from a legal viewpoint; that could be useful.”
Susan laughed and said, “Actually I sort of have one; the judge has taken it into his own hands to appoint someone in that role. He sat in at the pre-trial conference last week. I could see his mind was sharp. I kinda liked him, he did not try to barge in when I was speaking. So, as long as he does not try and take over and change what I have to say, you can retain him on my behalf. His name is James Williamson. Just make it clear that I do not intend to change what I have already said. I am merely asking the court to make its judgement on the facts. I am not asking for any deals or any other special consideration.”
She turned to Anne and said, “Did you know I am going to have twins, a boy and a girl? My parents will adopt them once they are born and take them back to England to live with them and have a good life. They can give them a much better life than I could ever have. So I am glad it will soon be over.
“There is just one thing I would like to ask you both, whether you stay together or not. I would like to name them Anne and David, with Marco as the middle name for the boy and Rosalie as the girl’s middle name, Mark’s mother’s name. It would make me happy if you would agree to that. And I would like you to be their godparents, I daresay my parents will have them baptised in the local Presbyterian Church in Reading, so perhaps you could both go along and make your promises on my behalf, seeing I won’t be able to come.
Then, after, I would like you to be like and aunt and uncle to them. If anything happens to my parents I would like you to take responsibility for their upbringing. You don’t have to adopt them but you must make sure they can stay together in a good happy family, being well provided for. Can you agree to all that? It will help set my mind at rest for the future.”
They agreed. Susan could see it was heart wrenching for them both. She was forcing them to confront the future that lay before not only her but would affect them as well.
Susan turned to David, saying, “David, you have been unbelievably good, kind and forgiving to me through all this. I am sorry for all the hurt I have caused you and for not being more honest with you at the outset; it would have spared you this. I also want to thank your parents again for their kindness, I wrote to them in January but could you still pass on my thanks and how sorry I am that they also have had to endure this.”
David had tears glistening in his eyes as he replied, “I have never regretted a minute I spent with you and you have nothing to feel bad about in anything you have done towards me. And, of course, I would not have met Anne but for you.”
Then Susan turned to them both and said. “Thank you for visiting, you should now go and do what you have to do. I can’t wait for it all to be over and to get out of this place forever. I am really glad it won’t go on much longer now.”
She said it with a bright and happy smile, like in a month or two she would walk out again into the bright sunshine and be free.
Inside Anne something quailed. Those were almost the same words one of her friends used last year the day before she took her own life.
She walled off that thought, surely not that, there must be another way out. Now she felt really trapped. Should she break it open and tell all. But as she walked away she looked back at Susan’s desperate pleading eyes. It was a look into her soul that only she saw. Anne knew she was still bound to Susan and there could be no good way tell Susan’s secret, not without a further betrayal of her friend.
It was Friday morning and Sandy felt really excited. A bush trip, just for the two of them! They were heading down to Timber Creek via Katherine today. Buck was putting them up at VRD tonight then tomorrow they would head east, stopping at Top Springs for morning tea, then Daly Waters and Heartbreak Hotel en route before Borroloola became their next night time destination, a long seven hundred kilometre drive. The following morning they would go further east to Seven Emus and meet the people there before the long, thousand plus kilometre, drive home to Darwin that night.
She knew it would be a lot of long and boring hours of driving and yet she could not wait to be gone, both to get a taste of the vast expanses of this land and to be with Alan, uninterrupted, for this time.
Normally they slept at her flat and used Alan’s place as a store, even though his place was bigger and more comfortable. Alan said he liked all her girly things and all her smells, her scent in the bed particularly, it was a real turn on, and she liked him being turned on.
As a child no one ever told her that sex could be so much fun. So she had been a slow starter, but with him it was just so, so, delicious; she felt herself blush inside at the thought. Her mind drifted around that space, We have three days away together – so plenty of time for in-bed play.
Last night they had slept in Alan’s flat. It was big and comfortable but a bit impersonal for her taste. Soon they must get rid of it – only keep the one place until they were married; it would help save money. But they had come here because he kept his bush gear here, his swag and other camping gear that he wanted to bring.
Now it was six thirty in the morning and she was fixing a quick breakfast while he shaved in the shower. He came out in his towel and swept her into a huge hug. Then his towel fell away. She saw his aroused body and before she knew it they were back in bed, even better than her randy thoughts over toast.
But now they really must be away, so they packed quickly and headed out. They took turns driving, both were Officers of the Crown, and legally authorised to do the trip. They made the six hundred kilometre trip to Timber Creek in time for a late lunch. They questioned everyone they could find who knew Mark, particularly anyone who had seen him and Susan together, but the pickings were slim.
Tanya, the main witness was gone, but Alan had met her briefly in Darwin before she left to return home and had her statement. It was good to see this place in person. He had sent an officer to investigate here and, even though he had seen photos, it was different seen with his own eyes.
He picked up and read Tanya’s statement again and looked at the photos. He worked out where Marks vehicle had been parked when Susan came out to it. He looked back to the pub from there. It was in clear view from the kitchen window, where Tanya said she was working, so that part added up, there was no reason not to believe it was as she described.
The way the vehicle had been parked, facing Katherine, meant the passenger door would have been facing her window. Tanya described how Mark got a pillow from the back of the car and propped in under Susan’s head before he walked around to his side and drove away, heading towards Katherine. So that was it, the last time anyone other than Susan had seen Mark alive.
Alan read back over the full statement again. Susan had come out a bit after eight o’clock in the morning, yawning and looking very sleepy. She took out her phone, as if to check for messages, before she climbed into the car, then lay down on the seat and apparently fell asleep, Tanya saw her lie down and disappear from view. The car window was open so she could see clearly. While she did not watch Susan every minute she had not seen the door open or her sit up.
The next thing that happened was when Mark came out. Tanya was pretty sure of the time when Susan had come out; the morning news on the radio had just come on which meant eight o’clock. Mark’s time of coming out she was less sure about. She had finished serving breakfasts and was doing the washing up so it must have been around nine o’clock.
It all fitted. It seemed so idyllically normal, exactly how he imagined he would be with Sandy if she had fallen asleep. So what happened to change it?
The description of Susan checking her phone jangled in his brain, something he had never noticed when he had read the statement before. Not that it was unusual, everyone checked messages these days, and the reception out here was limited.
But still it seemed a bit odd to be checking messages when half asleep first thing in the morning, unless of course one was expecting a message, but why? Perhaps she was seeking a confirmation of flight details home or something similarly mundane. He shrugged, he would park that question for now though when Tanya came to Darwin next week to give evidence he must ask her more, dig for any little thing.
Speaking of which he must ring his boss in Darwin and give a quick update. He pulled out his phone, damn, just a flickering half bar of signal, not enough reception to ring from here. He walked along the road for fifty yards. Now the signal was better. He had two bars and the phone rang through.
They drove on to Victoria River Downs Station, arriving in the late afternoon. There were only a couple people still working here who had met Mark and Susan on that night, apart for Buck and Julie, his wife, both of whose stories they already knew. Again slim pickings, though one person remembered that Mark and Susan had both gone to bed early pleading tiredness and how Mark had given Susan a very lascivious look as she was yawning, just before leaving, and she had gone bright red. But they slept in separate rooms, because only dormitory bunks were free that night. That was it really.
Sandy and Alan also retired early after one of those friendly dinners in the kitchen with all the other station workers, presided over by Buck and Julie, plain station food but satisfying. An almost full crew was on hand as the mustering season was about to start. They got their own room, with a full sized double bed, and made good use of it.
Alan and Buck were now fast friends, and Sandy could feel herself really getting to like Julie, even though she and Alan had only met her today for the first time.
They were away early next day, it was on to Top Springs first stop. They hoped that from here things would start to get more interesting.
The barman, Mike, was sweeping and mopping as they arrived. He finished up and wiped the sweat off his forehead with a dirty rag, it was already getting hot. He waved them inside to the bar, cool and inviting in the dim light.
Alan said, “I am the policeman who talked to you on the phone a couple days ago, Sergeant Alan Richards, and this is my partner Sandy.” They all shook hands.
Mike replied, “Yeah I remember, about my old mate, recently deceased, Mr Mark B.”
So they got to talking. It was a rambling tale, interspersed with side anecdotes of which there were many. Eventually it got to the point.
“Known Mark mebbe ten years; proper good bloke, but wild, with a mean and dangerous streak.”
“What do you mean dangerous?” asked Alan.
“Well, they tell me I am a bit fey, must be de Irish in me, came out as a young fella from de green land, and back dere tis always talk of spirits and divils, faeries and the like, ye know what I mean. So sometimes I sees what ordnary folks doesn’t.
“Ever since I fust met Mark I could see a sort of divil sitting on his shoulder, not a proper divil, more like a bad spirit which filled an empty place inside him. Used to call it crocodile spirit, cos he always carried dat crocodile totem, sometimes touchin it, like. But I could see it there, sort of in the shadow right behind him. Some blackfellas from round dis way, dey could see it too. So, even before I see him do anything, I knew he was real dangerous.
“Then there was the odd story to be told, ye know, bar talk, nuthin nobody had seen direct like, but how somebody knew somebody he had hurt bad, on account of a man had tried to bully him and stuff like dat”
“He would pass through here a lot, more often than not with some pretty girl alongside. It used to be a joke, never the same one twice. Once or twice someone would ask why all different girls. He would say, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go.’ You sorta got used to it after a while.
“He was a popular guy, always buy a drink for a mate, no job too hard for him and he worked like a Trojan. And he was good to the local blacks, would fix up houses, give dem meat, lend dem money, only if he thought it legit though, he was no soft touch.
“So we all sort of liked him and stuck by him. He was one of us, though nobody ever knew more about him than his first name. He introduced hisself as Mark, sometimes Mark B. I niver knew his proper name, though once I heard tell from a VRD ringer it was Mark Butler, said he sees it on a bit of paper.
“Anyhows, one night Mark was drinking here, beers and rum chasers. We all had a bit, three other blokes in the bar, along with Mark and me. One fella was a fair tosser, big burly bloke, up from the south for a year or two, good bit bigger than Mark or the rest of us. He was always tellin how it was all done much better down there. Sometimes we would say if he loved it so much he should piss off back there.
“Well, after we had been drinking steadily for an hour or two, all good company like, this bloke turned to Mark and said, ‘What no girl tonight? Why do you keep changing them girls anyway? What do you do, root them, shoot them and chuck them in a hole?’ Then he laughed at his own joke, a sort of nasty laugh.
“There was a split second of dead quiet. I was watching Mark’s eyes and after it was said he had the most evil look I have ever seen, twas dead scary it was, like a cobra about to strike.
“So he picked up this guy’s beer, he always drunk from a glass like a true city slicker. Mark flings the beer in his face, and tips the rum over his head. Then he says, ‘Now shut yer fuckin mouth and don’t ever talk like that again. If you do I will kill you.’
“The guy fires up, ‘What you do that for? Can’t you take a joke?
“Mark points a finger at him and says. ‘Shut the fuck up. And if you don’t like it why don’t you just follow me outside?’
“Then Mark walks out and closes the door.
“This guy is bridling up, full of piss and bad manners, reckons he doesn’t need to cop shit like that, he was just makin a joke. He thinks it will be easy enough to sort Mark out. He’s got the size and fancies himself as a bit of a pub room fighter.
“We all tells him to calm down, not to fuck with Mark, but just be glad he didn’t get his teeth broken for the trouble. But he keeps firing himself up, muttering that he won’t cop that shit, he will show him.
“So, after a minute, he goes charging outside, yelling, “I am comin to git you, motherfucker.”
“We sort of ignored him, hoping Mark was gone and he would fall over in the dark and sober up for a minute. We heard a couple grunts but nothing much.
“After a while, maybe ten minutes, one of the other blokes, Fred, says, ‘Think I better check outside, jus make sure all is fine.’ He goes out and a minute later he calls out ‘Jasus Fuckin Christ, Boys I need some help. Bring some light.’
“We goes out and finds the big fucker lying in the dirt, it looks like he had been hit by an express train, face is smashed pretty much to pulp, and he looks like shit, big ragged breaths like he could croak anytime. Of Mark there is no sign.
“So we call the flying doctor, air lift him out and the paramedic tells me it was touch and go. The face looked the worst, but he had several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a busted liver. Don’t know what Mark did but it was like he hit him with a sledgehammer a few times.
“Anyway the bloke gets better, goes back to Sydney with a slightly patched up face but not too much worse for wear. The rest of us decide that he got what was comin his way and say nuthin. And the guy is obviously not goin to complain lest Mark come back and finish the job.
“Well, like I say, Mark is a dangerous man; we all sort of knew it before but after that the word got around our parts and you can be sure no one since tried to pick a fight with him on a dark night.”
Now that Mike had finished his tale he leaned back on the bar, pulled out a can of coke for them each and cracked his knuckles. “I guess you gets what I mean about dangerous, so.”
Alan nodded. Now Sandy spoke. Do you remember the day he came through with the girl, the one you visited in jail.
Mike turned to her with a grin, “Well, you are the sharp one, aren’t you. Now how did you be knowin dat?
Sandy grinned back, “Even a city slicker like me can read the name of Michael Riley in the prison visitor book.”
Mike continued, “Yeah, sure, I remember her well enough, she was somehow different, she really liked him, I could tell that from the start, not that it was so unusual, plenty really liked him, though for her maybe it was a bit deeper, serious like. But what was different was that he really liked her too, it was writ all over him.
“So we talked away for a good while and they had a feed, ye know, Mark and me tellin bush stories, all fine and dandy. Then, as they gets up to go, I had this real powerful vision of her being in great danger. That crocodile spirit, I sees it now, coming round to the front of him, like it was protecting him. I sensed that it wanted to attack her, even kill her. It was not him, Mark, but the bad spirit. He could not have harmed her; she was like the light in his life, but it had the power.
“I knew then there was danger for her and I tried to warn her. Not that I could say it clearly. With that warning Mark got sort of protective of her and the spirit pulled back to behind him. Then I saw that while the danger was for her, there was something protecting her and it would turn the danger back on him.
“In that minute I knew he was not long for this world. I knew then that, in the next few days, a choice would come for him and her. One of them would have to go; the evil spirit would take its own. But now Mark had proper understood that this bad thing was coming. I knew he would choose for her to live and him to die.
“There is one more thing I can tell you. Since that silly fucker said that thing about the girls and Mark, it got me thinking. Even though he was mouthing off it told me something.
“I think how Mark acted was saying it was at least part true. That bad spirit acted to protect its own that night by almost beating the life out of that man. Marks hands did it, no doubt, but what I saw in his eyes was not my friend Mark, it was like this pure evil beast that would keep its secret.
“It did not come to me straight out, but over months and years, the little pieces joining together in my head since that time when it happened, maybe two, three years ago. And then, on that day with Susan, it was like a war was happening inside him, a war between that beast and his better part. In the end I knew his better part would win, but only through letting the beast take him instead of her.
“So I went and tried to talk to her in jail, to tell her I knew what the good part of him wanted for her and it was not to end her life in jail to protect his name. But her love for him was too strong. She would not listen. In the end I knew I could help her no more. Now you must try.
“She wants to be with him, and she thinks the only way she can is to surrender her soul to the evil, to let the crocodile spirit take her to join him. The only thing keeping her in this place is the babies she is yet to have. Once they be born she is in great danger from herself.”
For the last five minutes, since he had told of Susan, it was like the man had spoken to them from a trance, looking from somewhere deep inside himself, seeing a truth that the world could not see, something in the place of shadows dancing.
Sandy felt goose bumps run up her arms and neck. It fitted too well with what she had glimpsed inside Susan to treat this story he told as an old man’s mad ravings.
Suddenly Mike returned to his normal banter, the shadow was gone. He looked at the clock, went to the bar and pulled out three beers. “One for the road; one for each of ye, tis on the house. And one for me to give me the strength to finish me cleaning.”
They thanked the man and left. As they went out Sandy gave Mike a spontaneous hug, a sign of affection that felt like it came from both her and from Susan for his attempt to help. The old man winked at Alan and said, “Watch out, this one is like that Susan girl, she is smart and her mind can see shadows too, maybe ye both can. So take care.”
Alan and Sandy exchanged a puzzled look as they walked out.
Late in the day they came to Borroloola with nothing useful found out in Daly Waters or Heartbreak Hotel. They were both struggling to come to terms with what they had heard at Top Springs. To any normal person it would sound like the man, Mike, was mad, and yet.
They had tried to talk about it, the idea that a part of Mark wanted to kill Susan and that, instead, he had deliberately chosen to sacrifice himself for her. It did not quite fit with the facts, but there was a truth somehow hidden within this story. It could not be dismissed but yet it could not be understood. Still they knew there was something vital locked within the puzzle he had given them, if they could only see it.
Now they were tired of talking and thinking. They wanted to hold close to each other’s bodies in the night and push the shadows they had glimpsed away.
Next morning they woke to a bright clear sunny day. The muggy heat and humidity was gone. Instead a light, cool breeze was blowing from the south east, “the start of the dry season,” Alan said.
They knew Borroloola was an intended destination for a visit by Mark and Susan and they may have spent a few hours here. They did not know if anyone would know or recognise either of them from a photo after all these months. So they each took a part of the town to work their way round, showing the photos and seeking recognition.
Alan said he would go first to the police station; the local copper might have some clues, if not through recognising one of them, by suggesting where to ask others.
Sandy said she would start with the hotel, petrol station and local shop. She walked into the hotel bar. It looked like it had only just opened. It was dark and felt cool. She let her eyes adjust and walked over to the counter where a solid middle aged man looked up.
She explained her mission and passed over the photo of Susan.
He held it to a light, looked at it for a bare half second and nodded. “Yes I remember her quite clearly, a pretty girl with an English accent, like you say sometime around last August. The reason I remember was her nice manners mixed with something, a sort of anxiety, like she needed to do something unpleasant and did not want to.
“She ordered a lemon lime and bitters and went and sat in that corner just next to the door you came in through, and she kept glancing towards it as if to check whether someone else was coming. When she was first at the bar she asked me what time it was. When I told her, just about twelve noon, she said that meant it was around three o’clock in the morning in England.
“Then she asked if she could charge up her phone, said the battery was getting pretty low and she needed to send a text, that she could not ring her friend in England at that time of night so she would text.
“So I pointed to the power point just next to that seat and she plugged her phone in and sat there to have her drink. I did not take a big lot of notice but I saw her pull out a tiny notebook from her purse and look carefully at it while she was sending the text.
I thought maybe flight details home or something like that. It took her a few minutes; it was like she was trying to work out what to say as she did it. She was clearly nervous, the way she kept looking up. Then, when it was done, she finished her drink, unplugged the phone and walked to the outside. Actually a bloke came in and she went out with him. When he came she did not look nervous anymore, more like relieved.”
Susan showed him Mark’s photo. “Is that him?”
The barman replied. “Could be, not sure, I barely looked at him. Only she obviously knew him and was pleased to see him. But she had already put her phone away, soon as she was finished texting, and the moment he came in she left.
The strangest thing is that I am sure I have seen her picture since, like on TV or a paper or something but I am dammed if I can remember when, it just seems too familiar.”
Sandy sat at the bar for a few minutes and wrote out the details. She read them back to the man. He confirmed their accuracy, she asked him for his name which she wrote down, then thanked him and left. She knew she had something significant so she rang Alan to find out where he was.
He too had found a man with information, someone who knew Mark. Alan gave her directions to find him. It took five minutes to walk to the corrugated iron building where a middle-aged, non-descript man was showing Alan a photo of two beautiful blue stones, one set in a pendant and one set in a ring.
Sandy heard the man say, “Those are what he collected. Said they were for his sweetheart, the nearest thing he could get to an engagement ring for someone who lived on the other side of the world.
“I have had dealings with him from time to time over the last five or six years, ordering things in, selling off gemstones for him and the like. I suppose I am a bit of a wheeler dealer. I have contacts all over the place, and that is a bit the way he struck me too.
“He was usually pretty guarded, never said much about his business, but always had plenty of cash and early on once he gave me his license details for ID; Mark Butler was his name though most people just called him Mark or Mark B. He seemed to know quite a few of the people round here, particularly the aboriginals, they would shout his name when they saw him in the street and he seemed often to have meat and fish to give away to them.
“I had not seen him for a few months but he had rung a couple weeks before and asked if he could have a delivery made to my place which he would collect on his way through.
“It was in a small box and I would not have known what it was except that I had to sign that it was received in good order. So I opened the box and checked its contents and that was what I saw. I took a picture just in case it was stolen, for insurance purposes.
“The thing I best remember was that he was different on that day, normally he was serious and deadpan. That day he was excited when he collected it, he had a lovesick puppy look. He opened it to check in front of me and then he told me what it was for, the way I already said. He also gave me an extra fifty for my troubles.”
Alan asked if he could get a copy of the photo. So they brought it outside and he copied it on his digital camera. Then they were on their way. They felt they had got what was most useful to know in this town. It seemed that Mark’s main purpose in coming here was to collect this gift. It sounded like it was intended as a present for Susan; they must check now whether anyone saw her wearing it. It was obviously valuable from the photo.
But the thing that seemed most significant was that Susan had sent a text to a friend in England when it was the middle of the night there; her demeanour suggested she was anxious when she did it and it was done when Mark was not with her, and then she had put her phone out of sight before he met her again, with her nervousness gone.
It may have been nothing but both felt the key was here. Now Alan kicked himself for never following up before whether Susan had a phone in Australia, if so what the number was and where it was now. His first job once he got back in Darwin would be to trace it.
They drove out to Seven Emus for an early lunch. The people were very hospitable. They knew Mark quite well and remembered him with Susan. They told of a morning tea of Chinese dumplings and spiced pork, they told of Mark and Susan’s affection for one another, but could tell them nothing else that was useful.
So then it was a long afternoon of driving first west then north before at last they arrived in Darwin in the early hours of the next morning, both feeling completely whacked. Alan knew he had one burning priority, he must find the phone that Susan had used.
Susan was awake early in the morning. She should be calm but could feel anxiety swirling around inside. This was a critical day and she needed to get through it without any major mistakes. She had felt anxious almost continuously since that pre-trial meeting blunder. She had been mostly worried about them tracing her phone calls before.
Now on top of that was a whole new line of inquiry. Could they find the box she had buried with the four missing girls passports and Marks multiple fake IDs? Why had she left them together? The passports on their own did not link to Mark, but to be found alongside all his own documents, well that was game set and match for association. She could read through Sandy’s mind Alan was closing in on her.
Why had she willed him to do this on the aeroplane? An average lazy copper would have been gloating that he had nailed her and would have looked no further.
But this was a man on a mission and she had a premonition he would succeed. What would she do then? Perhaps she would find a way to kill herself and her unborn children so that they would all be gone and never have to live with this. But no, she could not countenance that, these children did not deserve to die. Well, once she was gone the whole story would fade away, and by the time her children were old enough to know it would all be long buried under yesterday’s news.
Then she realised she was being silly, nothing had happened, no startling revelations. After today it would pretty much be too late; Conviction, Guilty, Move On.
So now she must focus on getting her mind into the right state for her murder trial. She must be a credible witness to her own guilt, not too abject, let them all think she was a conniving bitch who was playing games with the truth. So she would plead guilty as planned.
But she would now contest the evidence about her attempt at concealment, about what had happened before and after and any speculation as to motive. She would gloat a bit at her little wins which would come if they overplayed their hand. Most of her challenges would probably not succeed but the performance would give entertainment to the assembled cast and audience and give the press new dead end leads to follow. She knew her performance would not endear her in the public mind. They wanted to think of her as an evil witch; well let them; it would be her role for today.
The trial went pretty much as planned. She was glad that she had her own barrister in the end. He stuck strictly to her instructions though she could tell he did not like it. But it was her show, she was the star and she was playing her cast character how she wanted.
As the day unfolded she realised that today was little different to any other theatrical production. She had a flair for this acting stuff: She could choose to be Saint Susan today, Slut Susan tomorrow.
The only difference was that the stakes now were higher; they were all playing for her life. But what the hell she had already conceded that, so there was nothing more to lose.
It was simple really, a game of chess. When the chess game was lost you knocked your king over. As he lay dead on the ground everyone else knew it too, the game was really over.
So the day ground its slow way forward and she ground out her best acting, worth an Oscar, she thought.
When the prosecution finished its tortuous and contested trail of evidence, she took the stand, swearing to tell the truth, she blocked the word ‘whole’ out of her mind, she would tell no lies.
Her evidence took barely a minute and her guilty plea was entered. She could see everyone squirming, saying this is not enough, there must be more, there must be another something, the why.
She looked the devil in the eye and laughed; her trademark grin to the audience. She heard gasps from the back stalls at her obvious lack of remorse. She noticed a reporter furiously scribbling a line to crucify her.
From a far off place she heard the judge asking her, most earnestly, to provide some better explanation, something that would help him to understand and reach a verdict. A tale that balanced justice with a story that made sense of the situation for the whole community who watched on, not least her family, friends and her many other supporters.
She looked him in the eye, smiled brightly again and said, “Your honour I have told you that I killed him, when and where I killed him and how I killed him. What more is there that you need to know before you reach your verdict?”
She could have sworn he muttered a curse under his breath and she allowed herself a further tiny smile of victory. He called a short recess and asked to speak to her with just her legal representative present.
The judge explained to her that he saw no choice but to find her guilty by her own admission but he found the whole thing very distasteful, unsatisfactory and disturbing, that she would willingly submit herself to spending many years in jail without offering any resistance. He implored her to give him some explanation of why or what she was hiding or protecting. He said he would be delaying sentencing for two weeks and would require her to undergo psychiatric assessment as he was very concerned about her mental state. He asked her to give it one last consideration before he walked back into the court and made a ruling.
Susan could feel something like a great weight pulling at her to give something, at least to admit her fear or that, in the end, she knew it had been a mistake. But every step forward from where she was now opened the Pandora’s Box, if fear then of what, if a mistake then why. She took a breath, hardened her resolve again, and answered.
“Your honour, I am not being deliberately contrary, I would dearly like to help you, the court and all my friends to understand why I did this. But I just am not able to say. I refuse to say. I am informed that is my right under law. Therefore you will have to rule only on the facts which are before you. I, like you, wish it was otherwise. But it cannot be so.”
So she walked back to her place and the judge walked back to his bench and he ruled that she, Susan Emily McDonald, was guilty of the murder of Vincent Marco Bassingham as charged. He made no findings as to premeditation or otherwise. He announced sentencing would occur two weeks from tomorrow when he would consider any submissions that the parties wished to make. In the meantime he ordered that she go for a psychiatric assessment.
Susan thought she should savour her success, but it now left such a bitter taste in her mouth and such an empty place in her soul; betrayal on betrayal. She did not care about the sentencing. It held no fears; it could not undo the verdict. So, only one last real step remained, well perhaps two when she counted her babies, before she would be free.
Anne felt appalled as she watched the trial unfold.
This beautiful girl, her friend, playing the acting performance of her life, as, with deliberate purpose, she condemned herself to death. She saw it so clearly now, this was not death in some metaphorical sense. This was the real thing. The babies would be born, then Susan’s parents would adopt them and take them back to England, she and David would both fly there to attend the baptism.
While they were all gathered there, a fitting place for the funeral after the body was returned, the phone call would come saying that Susan, lovely beautiful Susan, was dead. Anne could try and protect her, ask for extra watches and removal of anything dangerous, but it would be futile, Susan was way too clever and would find a way.
So, as Anne walked away from court, after the sentence was pronounced, she knew she had a choice to make, to let her friend die, or betray her promise. Suddenly there was no choice to make anymore; the answer was clear and simple.
But she would let it wait until a minute before midnight, only when it was almost finished. She would provide the evidence to Susan’s barrister right at the time he stood to sum up on sentencing day, the last possible moment before the judge pronounced sentence. And she would build a safety catch, just in case anything happened to her. She would tell David but she would hold him to the same promise which bound her. She would transcribe the two text messages; they would only take one sheet of paper. She would make a copy for David to keep and a copy for herself and she would lock her phone in the hotel safe, where it could be later produced when required to verify the transcript.
The prosecution lawyers would hate evidence produced at this very late stage; they would talk of ambush and use all sorts of high sounding legal names to deplore what she had done. But the evidence would be accepted, the evidence would show that Susan was in real fear for her life just before the murder, and therefore it would be deemed, that even if she was guilty her actions were justified, really self-defence, but there was time for the lawyers could argue the finer legal points of that later.
Once back at their hotel room she sat and wrote it out, then woke David who was napping in the bed and read it out to him, after she had extracted his promise. He was a bit fuzzy from sleep, but then the light went on in his brain.
He said, “Suddenly it all makes sense.” Now he was bursting for action, “We must trace these people, these named girls, follow their last movements, show Mark could have been responsible, I can get ten people onto it in the morning.”
Anne shook her head. “No, my impulsive one!
“I have promised her I will not reveal this. I only choose to do so because I know she will commit suicide after the babies are born. I will only do it if there is really no other choice. That means, as her barrister stands up to speak, he will be passed the note and asked to read it immediately. He will not like it but he will do it. And he will be obliged, in the interests of justice, to demand that it be admitted into evidence.
“It will mean, almost certainly, that the judge will suspend his sentencing decision. It is also highly likely that Susan will be released on bail. Even doing it this way is a very high risk. I will make sure that a 24 hour watch is placed on her cell if she stays in jail. I will stay with her all day and every day until she gives birth. I will make sure she holds and loves her babies and knows she cannot abandon them. It gives us a fighting chance. But the element of surprise is everything. That means it can only happen then. Because, if the texts are revealed in advance, she may not wait for her babies to born before she ends it.
“And I do not want to betray her trust. I will do so only as an absolute last resort. I know that Alan is following similar lines, Sandy was asking me about her phone when I saw her yesterday but I just played dumb. So they may discover this too and I would rather it comes from them, though once again later is better.
“So don’t get any crazy ideas about becoming a super sleuth. That will be the job of the police. Our job will simply be to give them this clue to point them in the right direction.”
Then she shook her head, “I hope one day Susan will thank me, but l doubt it, however I am sure it is what I must do. But even with this I am still very afraid for her. It is the way she talks now in the past tense about her life, in her head she has already decided it is over, it is the way she smiles brightly as she looks towards an impossible future, it is the way she acted in court today as if she was playing a chess game for her own life. She acts as if there will be no tomorrow. It is because, for her, she has already decided there will not be one.”
Alan had only seen the second half of Susan’s performance but was equally appalled. He had just two weeks now to crack this one. He had two leads remaining. One was the phone, one was that admission, made in the pre-trial meeting, that she had not destroyed everything. She had not said it quite like that but he was certain that was what she meant. And it was obviously important from the way she sought to smooth over those unintended words, as if they had no meaning.
So he must trace her phone, the calls and the particularly that text she sent from Borroloola. Could she have found something out by text which prompted her change in behaviour? But what, a text was only a short string of characters, a few sentences at most. It could give a date, an ETA, a place or name. But to try and find information from other parts of the world one needed the internet. She could have used the internet at Borroloola, the corner store had it. But instead she had just sent a text; perhaps it was a happy birthday message to family or friends.
What about the other lead, the something not destroyed angle. That meant something kept which meant something hidden, but where. If she had hidden something back in England she would have no concern that he would find it. But he had seen her tell tales of alarm when she realised she had made a mistake. So, if it was a mistake of real concern, it must be in Australia. So the where must be here in the NT, it was the only place she had been before she caught the plane, and her time after she was at the billabong until the plane left was pretty tight, there were some free hours, but hours was all, particularly as based on the report from the witness about someone driving around there in the early evening. That made it likely that she had not departed until after dark. Therefore, as best he could judge, she had just driven from the site to where she parked and abandoned the car, and she had done so at night when her view of the surrounding countryside was very limited. So it must be either at the site, somewhere on the way, or at this end there was be a hiding place holding something important. Rechecking the murder site again, even more carefully, had to be the place to start. Last time the search concentrated on any physical evidence associated with murder, but it had not focused on nearby hidey holes where something could be stashed.
It was possible that, when she had driven there with Mark, she had seen another location on the way that would serve as a hiding place. She was clever enough to have seen a place and returned on the run; perhaps while she was driving there she had seen a landmark and come back on her return trip. But seeking that was futile, too many options. He must begin with the site.
He knew that, now the trial was over and the guilty plea was entered, his official work was done. It was not for him to make a case for leniency. Tomorrow his bosses would be expecting him back at work to dump a new case on him; he would be buried by next week. So how to find the time this investigation required.
He decided that he would have to make time. He guessed that the media would throw plenty of mud back on to the police after this verdict in tomorrow’s papers. Using that for cover he would claim a new lead based on her testimony; she had indicated that she had hidden some critical evidence at the site and they needed to do a new search.
Tomorrow he would scout the area and formulate a search plan. The day after he would get a new party of searchers, he reckoned about eight blokes would do it and they did not have to be highly skilled. In fact it was good if most did not know the place, it may work out best with fresh eyes. They would go over the site again with a fine toothed comb and look for any hidey holes, probably something big enough to hide a box or bag of documents. There was certainly a missing will, and while she may have burnt most of Mark’s papers her reaction said that she had kept back something. It was needle in the haystack stuff but he would have to try.
So, early in the morning, he drove out to the Mary River and first walked along the billabong. The edge gave a good reference point and there were some tree hollows and a couple piles of rocks and crevices along it which made possibilities. He walked the campsite looking again for disturbed earth areas though it was much harder after the wet season’s rain. He swept the edges going out twenty or thirty metres; there were a few other possibilities, places to be worked over but nothing really suspicious or promising.
He looked around the surrounding area, going out to a few hundred metres for any landscape features. There was one small hill, perhaps 500 metres away, that was distinctly visible; that was well worth looking at. He walked across to it. It was bigger than he first thought. Lots of rocks and boulders lay on its sides but no obvious cracks or crevices. He walked to the back and stood on a low flat rock on the edge, and surveyed the ground in both directions. This hill was the sort of feature that someone might pick, but there was no obvious hiding place.
Should he send a couple people to probe and dig around it tomorrow, look for any loose rocks or soft soil. If he had ten blokes and a D9 dozer for a week he would pull the hill apart and perhaps they would find something. But, on balance, it was less likely than a closer place. He needed to concentrate his limited resources for the one day he had on more likely places.
He was back in the office by about lunch time and told his boss of his plans. He could see him look sceptical but he let it pass, the papers had given the police the expected bullocking. As he started to walk out his boss told him he was on a special operation all next week in Eastern Arnhem Land. It ran from Monday to Sunday, with long hours, so his boss suggested that maybe he should find time for a break before then.
Next day they got to the site early and worked everywhere but the hill over thoroughly and found nothing. He walked back over to the hill for one last look and tried to lift up some of the more promising rocks, in case there was something underneath. But all the ones he tried were well embedded in the dirt and did not lift easily. There were hundreds more like them and he did not have time to try them all.
Now he wished he had done the hill as well properly but it was too late. By three the crew were all pretty shagged and it was a Friday. So he ordered knockoff and told them he would shout them all a beer at the Bark Hutt Inn, for them to head off and buy a round and tell the publican he would pay when he came in five minutes after them.
The work crew headed off leaving Alan alone by the water. He knew he had tried and failed with this roll of the dice. He walked right to the edge, to the place where they had found the man’s footprint beside a little bush. He squatted there alongside that place where the earth had been carefully dug out to make a plaster cast and now only a small hole remained.
The water was incredibly still and all seemed so placid. It was hard to believe that, only months ago, a man had been torn apart by crocodiles, just metres from here. He knew he should move back from the edge as the danger was no less acute now than then. But he wanted to imagine himself in this man’s shoes on that fateful day, knowing more about him now that he did when he had first come to this place.
He stood then squatted down right alongside where the man’s footprint had been found. He had a sense of now being in the shoes of this man, Mark, squatting and contemplating his future, knowing he had a choice to make, what was it that the Top Springs bartender had said – to choose between himself and the girl.
Maybe she, Susan, believed she was the intended victim of the crocodiles because she knew something awful about Mark, while he, unknown to her, had decided that that the victim had to be him.
So perhaps he was here, squatting and contemplating the end of his life before he joined the crocodiles. If Susan did not know, but fearing for her life, struck an unexpected blow to his head, then that could be how his injury happened. If she then discovered a message from him telling her otherwise, then that would constitute the mistake she talked about.
It was at least a theory which fitted a couple pieces together. He was not convinced but it might help make sense of these events.
Alan’s heel slid sideways into the hole as he went to stand up and he found himself overbalancing into the small bush. His hand went sideways to steady himself, landing on the ground covered by the bush. It lodged on a hard misshaped object among the leaves lying there. His fingers closed around it as he steadied himself. He retrieved his hand still holding the object.
It was a palm sized piece of wood, carved into a crocodile shape, with faded charcoal and ochre markings. He realised this must be the crocodile totem carving that the bartender had described. It seemed a confirmation of his theory, not proof but one more step along the path to knowing and understanding.
He looked closely at this carved object. At first glance it seemed small and insignificant but as you looked more closely you saw that it was a representation of an old and massive crocodile, a being of real power. He felt a sense of its spirit reaching out, connecting to the other crocodiles of this place. He looked out across the water. Far away he saw the head and eyes of a real crocodile contemplating him, unmoving. It was not the big one, but still seemed to be sending a message to his mind; this totem is for you to take to help you discover its owner.
He placed it in his pocket. He should submit if as evidence but it seemed too significant for an exhibit bag. Perhaps it would help him gain understanding going forward from here, a connection between his mind and that of Mark, a link like that between Sandy and Susan. He would log it but hold it for now, it would hold no forensic clues after months lying in the weather and perhaps it would help to align his mind to the real Mark who to date he had only glimpsed as a shadowed outline, and somehow bring him towards a point of truth.
As he drove back to Darwin he realised he was now down to his last option; tracking Susan’s phone. He had the rest of today, tomorrow and Sunday before he was sent off, so he would see what he could do. He decided to start with the obvious thing of asking Susan’s family and friends if she had a mobile as he needed to trace the calls she might have made in Australia. Her father promptly told him, “Yes she did,” and read out the number.
Alan called David a minute later and he confirmed the same number. It was an English number but it had international roaming so it was possible that she had used it. It took an hour or two of chasing but finally he got through to the British company that supplied the service. After getting authority from Scotland Yard, giving identification and sending verification of his credentials he got access to the call records.
There were plenty of calls before and after but nothing during the period of the Australian trip. There was also a gap for a bit over a week after Susan got back to England so he asked the operator about this. “Oh, that is because she got a new handset. She told us the previous one had been lost in Australia.”
This was really interesting; it seemed like more than coincidence. He rang her father back and asked if he knew anything about a new handset after Australia.
Susan’s father replied, “That sounds right, when she got back she said her luggage had got lost on the bus and her phone was with it. So she bought another phone but got the old number reissued. That way all her friends still had her number.
Then Alan asked, “Do you know anything about her having a different phone or SIM card while she was in Australia, a local one?”
Her father thought and said. “Not that I can think of. In fact while she was away she barely rang. The only time I can recall a phone call was from her cousins in Sydney, where she stayed for a few days. But that day they rang on their land line because they all had a bit of a chat to our family, if I remember right. Of course you could ring them and check if they had a local number for Susan or I will if you like.”
Alan said, “Could you do that please and when you find out leave a message. I am just on my way home now but I will pick it up and check it out in the morning. And please don’t tell Susan about this or ask her.”
On the Saturday Susan’s father rang back. “They think she had an Australian number that she got in Cairns but none of them have been able to find it. I have asked them to find their own phone bills and go through them from the time Susan was there and see if they can find anything. It does not sound like I will be able to get it for you inside a day or two as they were all heading off for a weekend of camping when I called and are all gone now.”
Alan could feel his frustration rise but he knew her father was trying to be helpful and did not really understand what was at stake. So he put his angst aside.
The weekend passed in a blur, he thought he would have time to follow up further on Susan’s Australian phone but in the end did not.
Then the weekend was gone and he was off away. The operation was in a remote part of the Top End, out watching a part of deserted coastline a couple hours’ drive from the town of Gove, where a tip off of a drug landing was received. They were flown in for the week, not back out until the following Sunday. It was a continuation of the drug surveillance operation he was involved in from before. Alan could feel time slipping through his fingers but there was nothing he could do.
On Thursday he had a flash of inspiration, he was almost sure where to find the phone number. He remembered the Mark Butler phone bill, the one that had linked him to Vic. There were a handful of calls on that he had never followed up once he got on to Vic. He seemed to remember there were three of four calls in the few days before Susan had come to Alice Springs. He had wondered at the time about the cluster of calls, but had not paid it much mind, not thinking at that stage that this phone had even belonged to their victim. But it had, perhaps it was not his only one, but Alan had a really strong feeling that those calls would have been to and from Susan, making arrangements for the trip.
He could feel his impatience to get back to Darwin to follow it up. He also realised that nobody had looked in the Katherine mailbox where this phone bill was found since before Christmas, three months ago. He knew because he still had the key on his desk.
Well that was another job for Monday, to get someone to Katherine to go through any mail, perhaps some contacts of Mark’s would emerge. He thought of getting a constable to go now. In the end he decided there was too much at stake and he would go himself.
He used the radio at their base to get clearance from his boss to go to Katherine for the first two days of next week. There was a delay while the request was relayed then it was duly given. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was not much, but two days should be enough to get to the bottom of this phone story. And who knew what else he might also find in this town where Mark seemed to spend time.
Susan smelt a rat, she knew the minute she saw Anne’s face two days after the trial, when she came to visit, that something had changed. Anne was no longer in her corner. For a minute she felt overcome by panic, what could she do. If Anne released the texts it would all be to no avail. Anne did not seem to pick up that Susan was on to her, so Susan tried to let nothing show from her side, though her mind was churning.
Once Anne was gone she made herself think rationally. What would Anne do with this information? Now she saw her error. It was in asking Anne and David to be godparents. She remembered her final words as they left, “I just can’t wait for it all to be over and to get out of this place forever. I am glad it won’t be much longer now.” She had caught a flicker on Anne’s face as she said this, now she turned these words over in her mind again. It was like when she had said them on that day they had been pre-formed in her mind.
They were what she was thinking but they were words that someone else had used, that she heard and replayed, as they fitted her own life too. Now she remembered. These were word that Anne had told her almost a year ago. They were the words Anne’s friend, Beverly, had said on the day before she committed suicide. Anne had been pretty broken up about that, and by the fact that, if only she had listened better she could have acted, and if she had perhaps she could have stopped it.
Now she had taken those words from her subconscious memory and played them back to Anne with exactly the same meaning. And, if there was any doubt before, her bravura acting performance at the trial, the day before yesterday, was the sort of thing that would only be done by someone who had a no-future end game. So with her desire to leave with a blaze of glory, a self-indulgent piece of theatre, she had pushed Anne into action. That court acting was yet another mistake, she really was getting careless.
But what would Anne do? When would she act? She was a careful and reasoned person. She would not act impulsively like Susan did. She would make a plan and determine the best time for the revelation. Anne would realise that the danger would only become real once the babies were born and Susan’s responsibility for them ended. So she did not need to rush. The deadline would be to act before the judge pronounced sentence. But she would delay it to as late as possible before then. If she was playing this endgame for the other side, she would pass a note to her barrister just before he stood to sum up. Then, as he read the content of the texts, he would realise that the whole basis of this case had shifted and he must bring this into evidence before the judge decided.
Yes that was the most likely time. Anne would not want to open the Pandora’s Box if there was another option. So she would delay and hope that she would not be the one to betray her friend. She would hope that Alan could dig something up to make her admission unnecessary.
Now Susan realised her own plan needed to cover this eventuality too. Sandy had visited this morning before Anne, and from her ongoing glimpses into Sandy’s mind she saw that Alan was planning to re-search the billabong site today and tomorrow, looking for whatever was hidden. She saw that Alan had told Sandy of the hill but decided that, with just one day for looking, he would ignore it. He had walked around it and it did not seem promising. Susan knew he would be away next week and could do nothing further until the two days just before the trial. She could not see into Sandy’s mind about the trip they had made last weekend down to the Gulf, she knew they had gone but the details were not available to her. Sandy had got much better at hiding her thoughts now she realised how well Susan could see them. So she could not see here, but she had a sense that the texts would have been part of what they were looking for, though she knew nothing specific had been found, that would have been too big in Sandy’s mind to be hidden.
At best Alan would have one or two days to pursue these phone records before the sentencing date. Anything found would get admitted very late, probably on the day; so his timing and Anne’s would be almost the same, should a revelation come. Her feeling was very strong that something would happen but it was only a guess. So she must wait and see, not act precipitately herself; even with Anne she was not fully sure what she would do.
She must think of a way to forestall this. She could not bring her sentencing date forward; she must shift the other time. There was a six week gap after sentencing until her babies were due. What she needed was for her babies to come early, no later than sentence day, or perhaps if she went into labour on that day that would work. Her babies would be premature and later was better for them.
So in her mind she made a plan. If she could induce her labour to start on the date of sentencing, no later than just before the judge stood up to give his sentencing then that would throw a massive distraction into this circus. She suspected it would result in sentencing being delayed until after her babies were born. They would rush her off to hospital to deliver the babies, maybe a Caesar, with an anaesthetic. So, after, while she was in recovery she would act; potassium into her drip line would be best, perhaps she could also use some anaesthetic that would be accessible in this place. She had seen the things available in the hospital and knew the security was weak. She could easily get her hands onto something lethal; that was the benefit of her medical background that she knew what all these things were and how they worked. She would only need a minute to do it. She could feign sleepiness to get her chance before they took her back from recovery. She was better than ninety per cent sure it would work, that seemed like the best odds she could hope for. And once she was gone the trial or sentencing would be over, no guilty party would remain, case closed. Sure they might try to dig into Mark, but there was no useful evidence. Vic was gone so that closed off the diary. Alan might pursue what happened to the missing girls but Mark had more or less told her that he had covered his tracks too well for anything substantial to be found without other evidence, that is the passports or the diary and neither of them would come to light – she was almost certain that with them gone that search would also come to nought. So that was her plan.
It was not ideal but it was the best option she could think of. It was now Friday; on Monday she would be going to the hospital for her routine pregnancy check-up. It would give her a chance to check out what the opportunities were and hopefully put something in place.
She thought about what to use to induce her labour on sentencing day. The best drug was Oxytocin. She needed a loaded syringe of this to be on hand for use on that day. It was routinely used in the obstetric ward she would be visiting on Monday and she was confident she could find some on a trolley; no one really watched her closely these days, they had decided she was not a risk.
So, mostly, the prison guard with her read a book or watched TV and barely looked her way. With her medical knowledge she would often chat to the nurses and doctors doing their medical rounds. So she was sure a chance would come to get what she needed.
On sentencing day in court she would watch like a hawk and, unless something gave an early alert, either Alan coming into the court or some signal of impending action from Anne, she would act just before the judge started to sum up; that would create maximum impact and drama. She would have the loaded syringe close at hand. Only a couple of seconds would be required to inject it and drop the syringe behind her, unseen.
She re-ran it through in her mind to make sure she had the script and timing right in her head for what she knew would be her last and best performance. Unless Anne acted right now, which she was almost sure would not happen, she should win. Once she went in to labour other things would be forgotten and then, when the babies were safe out, she could end it all. A hospital was an ideal place, so many alternatives and she knew the range of things to use. She would be on a drip and so running an extra drug into the drip line would be easy peasy. It would barely take a minute before it was too late.
The next Monday, once she arrived at the hospital, she checked with the doctor how her babies were going. The doctor reassured her, saying they were doing just fine.
She asked what would happen if all the stress of the trial sent her into early labour, would it still be OK. The doctor assured her the babies were already big enough to be delivered by Caesarean, and by that date the odds were better than 99 percent that they both would be fine. Susan decided she could live with that chance.
She found a trolley left parked nearby with two ampoules of oxytocin on it. She secreted these plus an empty syringe and needle on her person. That was more than enough to bring her into labour. Normally it went in an IV drip but an injection into the muscle of her leg would work just fine.
When the time came all she needed to do was to plunge the needle into her leg and inject, it would take barely a second and her labour would begin. It might take an hour or two but she could fake an hour or two until the real thing kicked in. They would take her to hospital, cut her open and take her babies out to safety. Then, when this was done, she could either load up her IV drip with some potassium or disconnect her alarms and dial up the anaesthetic to a sufficient dose. In a few minutes it would be over.
She felt pleased it would be that easy and painless, she was tired of all this other stuff and did not want the ending to be hard.
When she returned from the hospital she put away the crocodile stone and returned to her crocodile spirit dreaming, loving being in the presence of Mark. She felt really impatient for the end day to come.
On the morning of the sentencing hearing, bright and early, she would load the syringe and needle and strap them to the inside of her thigh where she could get to them quickly when they were required. It was good to be in control of some things. They had thought they had sprung the trap. Instead she would open it and set the rat free.
It was now only six days until the sentencing hearing would be held and Sandy could feel time sliding through her fingers like a greasy rope. It seemed an eternity since Alan had gone away and yet it was no time as well, the speed with which the days were passing.
She had this nagging sense that she must try and find something more to help. It had been with her and building for days, an anxiety which infected her waking being and her dreams. She tried not to let Susan into her unconscious mind, she had secrets kept from her that she did not want to share, particularly where Alan was concerned.
So she maintained an almost continuous vigil of her mind, to stop it going anywhere near the things she did not want Susan to know. And she did her best to suppress that part of her unconscious from looking into her hidden knowledge, to keep it from getting into dreams and memories which rose to the surface when she was not in full control. It seemed to be working; she had no sense that Susan had breached these defences.
And yet this ever growing anxiety was there, making her perpetually on edge, as if waiting for catastrophe.
Then a package arrived in the mail. She thought she knew what was in it before she opened it. It should contain early family photos of Mark and his family that his uncle had sent. She had talked to Antonio and he had agreed to help in any way he could. He knew it could not help his nephew or sister but he wanted to help anyway. Sandy thought these pictures could give insight into the people that sat behind that story, Mark and his extended family, so she had asked that he send them.
The package was a mid brown envelope about two centimetres thick. She opened it and began to flick through, pictures of a small boy and girl, both dark haired and distant, with an Italian looking Papa and Mama, also with a baby in arms. The first few were early family photos. They must be of Mark’s grandparents and their long ago small children in Italy. She put them aside and turned to the next group, a batch held with a rubber band. The first picture was big solid man, a picture of strength, but with a hard look about his face, although he was handsome.
She wondered who he was, perhaps Mark’s father, she saw a trace of family resemblance to the few adult pictures she had seen of Mark, but little resemblance to the man in later life from the criminal charge sheets.
As she put this to one side and looked again she almost dropped the batch of photos. What was a photo of Susan doing mixed up with these, she was sure none had been sent to this man by officials. He could have cut one out of a paper, but this was a real photo on old photographic paper. She looked more closely and it dawned on her, this was not Susan but Mark’s mother, a young Rosalie Moretti. Confirming her suspicion on the back was the name Rosalie and a smudged year date, it looked like it was 1960 something, perhaps six or nine. The girl looked like a teenager.
When she looked more closely some differences were obvious, both in the setting of the photo and some features of her face. But it was the look; a half turned face, in partial profile, cascading dark wavy hair falling over shoulders part covered by a light dress, the face had the look.
It was an expression more than actual facial features that screamed out ‘Susan’ into Sandy’s unconscious brain. It was striking how similar both faces seemed when they each had that faraway smiling look, like a look of pleasure at a thing of beauty seen on a distant horizon.
She flicked through the rest of the photos, still some similarity but no others jumped out at her the way this one had. Sandy wondered whether a mannerism or look of Susan triggered a barely remembered memory in Mark of his beloved mother from his earliest childhood, a look beaten out of her long before she died, but which he held fast in a recess of his mind.
She sensed there was something important in these photos that may trigger a response in Susan. Perhaps by seeing herself in another person from another generation, and so seeing Mark with different eyes, it may change her perspective on what happened. Could it help remove her guilt and regret from being captured and enraptured by this man.
Sandy went back over the first batch of photos with more care this time, scrutinising each one in detail and checking for any writing on the back. She selected two more of particular moment, one of girl, Rosalie, holding a baby, with overflowing joy and adoration on her face. On the back was written, ‘Rosalie and Marco, 1961’. The second one, maybe a decade later, a older teenage Rosalie and her two brothers, one who looked older, the other younger, she recognised them as Antonio and Marco, a picture of happy normality. The resemblance of Marco to pictures of young Mark B was striking, no wonder his mother named him for her lost brother who had died as a late teenager shortly before she married. The final two photos Sandy selected were a photo of Rosalie with her child, a little Mark around two or three years old. Such intense joy and love was on the two faces as they each gazed to the other that it gave Sandy a huge pang of ‘If Only’. If only their life after had been different, one where they grew up as a happy family unit. Then what followed until now would have never been. She also pulled out a couple later photos of Rosalie and Mark, one with the big hard faced man there too and his name, Vincent, on the back. In these any essence of joy was gone, as if beaten out of her, replaced by an apprehensive and timid look, and also a sense of being spaced out and depressed, maybe drinking or taking pills to escape. The final photo Sandy selected was one of a boy Mark, alongside his Uncle Antonio, proudly holding up a fish he had caught. He looked to be around ten, it was after his mother died, yet he seemed happy in the moment. Sandy thought Susan may treasure this, to have something good to hold of the man, a once happy child with his Uncle on that day.
She felt profound sadness as she put the rest of the photos back in the package, just retaining the small number she had selected. She was consumed by that same sense of ‘If Only’, now much sharper, If only Rosalie’s younger brother had not died, if only she had married a good and kind man, if only Mark had instead gone to live with his Uncle after his mother died, then maybe Mark would have grown up as normal happy boy and whatever monstrosity he had perpetrated that seemed to be now destroying Susan’s life would never have come to pass.
She knew Alan was trying his best on the phone angle, and perhaps he would pull something off when he got back from Arnhem Land in two days’ time. But she felt she must try something of her own. She wondered if showing Susan these photos might have the effect of cracking a hole in her protective shell without pushing her further over the edge.
To Sandy these photos told the story of the descent of Mark’s mother from a happy child, sister and young mother into depressive madness, a cycle of horror and abuse. Perhaps through Susan seeing them she could get insight into what was happening to herself and seek to avoid it. She felt there was little to lose from trying.
Sandy decided to pay Susan a last visit. It was not official; her work on the identity of Mark was done. But everyone at the jail knew her; she did not think Susan would refuse to see her. She felt she had to make one last try to reach Susan in a way that could allow her to free herself from this haunted past, to see how it had come to pass with clearer eyes.
So here she was at the entrance to the jail at regular visiting hours, hoping to be admitted. She had decided to come unannounced, she did not think Susan would object, though she had seemed withdrawn, with her mind in another place, on her recent visits.
Soon enough she was sitting in Susan’s cell, looking spaced out, lost somewhere inside her head. The look on her face was eerily familiar with that of the battered wife of the final photos of Rosalie, lost in another world, desperately seeking escape. Sandy had a sense of needing to pull her back into the world of hope, to break her inward looking cycle.
She told Susan she had some photos she would like to show her of Mark and his family that had just been sent by his Uncle. She asked whether she would like to see them. At this mention of Mark and his family Susan seemed to slowly come out of a trance, she sat up straight and her eyes recaptured their intensity. For half an hour they went over the photos. Susan did not seem to notice any similarity between herself and Rosalie, but was enraptured by the photos of Mark and Rosalie’s brother Marco. She touched their faces, she held the photo of the Mark holding the fish up to the light and smiled back at him with happiness in her eyes. It felt joyful, but otherworldly, as if she was communing with a person who no longer existed.
Sandy felt a pang of doubt as to whether coming here today was the right thing. Even though it had brought Susan out of an almost catatonic state, the glint of madness in her eyes seemed even stronger. When it came time to go Susan asked if she could keep this one photo, the boy who was the earlier version of the man she once knew. She said it with such tender longing that Sandy felt powerless to say no.
As she left Susan thanked her with heartfelt thanks for showing her the photos and brightening up her day.
Susan sat staring at the photo of boy Mark for an unknown, uncounted time. The mid-afternoon light softened and faded into a twilight world. Still she sat and stared. Only when the light was fully left and she could no longer see, did she rise, turn on the electric light and shake herself, as if awaking from a trance. The crocodile stone was still in her hand, alongside it was the picture, and both gave her comfort.
Seeing Mark as an innocent boy had given her such a yearning for a different life, a life with him where none of the bad had happened. Maybe each would have gone about their own lives, passed the other in a street unknowing, perhaps to have met as adults, each with children of their own. She wondered if the spark of attraction would have sprung forth and burnt brightly if they had met thus. She thought it might, but even if they had not met they would have gone about lives better and fuller than this desolate wasteland they both now inhabited.
Part of her want to fling everything aside, walk outside into bright sunlight, begin a new life where each day belonged to her and her alone, do as she chose; laugh, sing songs, dance in the rain, let bright sunlight sparkle in her hair and soft clean air wash her skin, to leave behind this this world on the inside of a mad empty cage.
And, at the same time, in another part of her being, she yearned for the man whose picture she held, to touch his face, feel the roughened skin, stubble and the fuzz on his neck, to sink her face into the hard muscle of chest, feel his steel sinewed arms wrap around her.
She could not have both but she wanted them both. Part of her mind was trying to speak above the noise, saying she could and must choose, she had the power to take control and make a choice.
She had seen the pictures of Rosalie as she surrendered to brutality and abandoned future hope. She had tried to flee and failed. In the end took the only way of escape she could see. Susan recognised the waste of that choice, the waste to Rosalie, the waste to Mark. She saw she was treading the same steps, walking the same path.
It was like two birds sat perched alongside each other in her head. Each was calling out in a language all its own. One was like the bright winged parrots of a tropical jungle, showing glimpsed colour flashes as it called to her with raucous squawks. It spoke of flying free amongst trees. The other was dark, like the ravens and blackbirds of her childhood. It moved through shadows and dark spaces, roosting in a shadowed cavern. It spoke in a soft, musical voice of other world things, unknown and unseen but yearned for. When she looked up the voices became muted but remained, unceasing. Both were clamouring for the ownership of her soul, saying she must choose them.
She wished that Vic was still here, he was a loyal friend to Mark, he would know what to do. She wished Vic could wrap his own arms around her, still the endless noise of dull screaming that filled her mind.
But he was not here and only she could choose, all the great weight of this decision and its consequences rested on her and her alone. She put the photo out of sight, she longed to look some more. But it was only the palimpsest of a presence, the faintly captured image of a thing long gone, a person whose soul had gone far past this place of innocence, overwritten time and again with violence and its consequences, so only faint traces of the original remained.
Perhaps she would allow herself to gaze upon this picture again when her soul was less troubled, when she could just see it for its goodness, not see all that had overtaken it since that long ago time.
She would hold the picture and stone side by side tonight; use their power to drive away crocodile dreams. Instead she would hope, in the few days left to her before the final curtain fell, that she could once again see the world with clear eyes.
For three days Susan vacillated between a desire for bright freedom and a desire for dark oblivion. She held the stone and the photo both next to her skin; she refused to surrender to the call of the crocodile ringing loudly in her ears. She snatched only brief times of sleep, fearful that if she slept too deep or too long that she would lose control of her ability to choose. And yet choose she could not, these dual presences sat side by side, calling in her mind, neither would yield to the claim of the other.
Her parents, Anne and David came to visit, she pushed the weight of choice aside and talked to them as if every day was a new tomorrow and her future was an open place. She sought to be herself of old, to laugh and tell jokes, to savour each moment as a thing of value.
She could see that Anne was full of distrust for this false brightness, her distress sat more heavily and openly than Susan’s did. Her parents marked their discomfort better, though in their minds she sensed distrust for her furtive and frantic shards of brightness, it was the Susan of old, but not quite.
She found it hard to eat or concentrate with this weight of choice, she felt her clothes loosening despite her swelling belly. Her face staring back from the mirror grew more gaunt and haunted as each day passed. All the while these two beings fought for control of her soul.
On the final night she reached for the picture, to look one last time, knowing she must choose, she hoped this picture of boy Mark would guide her. She was sure it was there, alongside the stone in her pocket. She touched nothing, she reached inside and felt all the places and spaces on her person where she could have left it, still nothing. She searched her cell, moving and putting everything aside, systematic as she checked, sure she could locate it, but nothing was found.
She remembered having it out, alongside the crocodile stone, in the visitor’s room today when her parents came, perhaps it slipped from her grasp when it was time to return. She banged her cell door over and over, until the warder came grumpily. She asked if she could check the visitor’s room, believing she had dropped her photo there.
They went together. As she opened the door she knew in a glance it was gone. The bins were emptied of the chocolate wrappers and tissues of the visit, the floors were fresh mopped, the benches fresh wiped, the disinfectant odour lingered. The warder told her that the cleaners had driven away minutes before taking their bags of rubbish with them.
At first she felt a surge of disappointment, but it was replaced by relief. It was over, choice gone, the bright bird of hope flown away with a last raucous shriek. The noise in her head was stilled at last.
It was an omen; again the hand of destiny had again spoken. She returned to her cell, her mind calm. An option had vanished, her choice was gone. She ate dinner with renewed vigour, her mind clear in its empty space. She climbed into bed, stone set aside, knowing that on the morrow the torture would be ended.
It was late afternoon Sunday before Alan was home from the bush. Sandy wanted some of his time after a week away so he postponed his visit to the office, deciding he would call first thing in the morning en route to Katherine.
Last week he had radioed the Katherine police station which had organised an office for him to use there for his next two days enquiries.
He was in Katherine before ten o’clock. First he went through the phone bill log of calls from Mark’s phone that he had brought with him. He tried to ring the number from the suspect call cluster but was advised it was disconnected so he got to work with tracing it. Late that afternoon he finally got advice that this number belonged to a SIM card, with $30 of credit, purchased in Cairns by a Susan McDonald.
Now to get the log of the calls she made on it. There were only about ten, most were when she was in Sydney, a couple came from Cairns and Melbourne and just two texts were in the Northern Territory, one sent from Borroloola and the other received at Timber Creek, both from the same UK number. So now he had the times of the texts but not their content. Still he knew he was on to something when he saw the time of the second text, 9.05 am on the date when Mark and Susan were last seen leaving Timber Creek.
He remembered that day in Timber Creek, two weeks ago, standing outside the pub just where their car was parked. His own phone was in a dead zone, and he had to walk along the road for fifty yards before he got reception. So when Susan checked her phone at 8 am she would have got nothing. Then she was asleep at 9.05 when the message was received. But it would have been there on her phone when she woke up.
Imagine if it was something bad about Mark, some record sent from overseas, something terrible, maybe even something to do with a missing girl, the way that Mike from Top Springs had hinted. And imagine if Mark had found out about it and had known he had to stop Susan from talking. Perhaps she was still asleep when the text came in, he had heard the ping, picked up the phone to look and, suddenly, he knew.
There were plenty of possibilities but his police intuition told him that this was the real thing, all the rest was window dressing. It fitted too well with what happened later on. If she knew and he knew that she knew, then unless she agreed to keep his secret and he knew he could trust her, she was in great peril. And if he needed her to disappear, what better than a crocodile, it fitted the crocodile symbols which surrounded him.
Perhaps in that moment she somehow turned the tables and he had taken her place. Then, knowing that the secret must be hidden, she had decided she must cover all evidence of them coming to this place. She had done such a good job it had almost worked. If not first for Charlie finding the head and then, if not for him and Sandy and their little game of one upmanship, it would have been missed.
But fate had intervened and, despite all the odds, the head, and with it the murder and the cover up had been found. Of course she had never tried to hide her movements until that fateful day; she was not naturally like that. But in that moment she had seen it as her only choice. But she was caught and now convicted. It must be she had decided not to reveal it for the sake of her unborn children; that was what she had told Buck.
So if Mark had killed one or more other girls, as Mike had suggested, then that was a secret he could imagine someone wanting to take to the grave if they still loved the other person, and Susan clearly did. So it all hung together, was plausible and, most important, it made sense of the facts. But it was not evidence yet, just an educated guess.
Well enough speculation. Now that UK number had to be traced, and he also needed the content of the texts. The lady told him that that the UK number was part of UK Vodafone and he would have to contact them to get details of the owner. In terms of getting text details she told him she would put in a request but it could take several days.
After some time sweet talking and cajoling her she admitted that it may be possible inside of 48 hours and the absolute best case was a bit over 24 hours, perhaps late tomorrow afternoon. She assured him she would put it to the top of the pile and mark it highest priority and she would also follow it up tomorrow morning when she was back on duty.
Alan thanked her; he knew he had got the best result possible. Late in the night he got an identity on the owner of the English phone. It was Anne, Susan’s best friend. Alan did not feel surprised. He knew she worked as a legal secretary in London, just the sort of person one would ask to trace other missing persons.
About four o’clock the next afternoon his phone rang. It was the operator he had spoken to the previous day. She said, “I have the texts, I will email you the transcripts though I can also read them out if you like.”
He said “Thanks, but no,” not wanting any chance of this information being broadcast in the office where perhaps others would hear. He also felt he needed to see a hard copy in front of his eyes, daring not to let his imagination run away, lest he mishear or misunderstand.
So he said, “Could you email them through straight away please.” Within a minute a new email pinged on his phone. His hands were shaking as he opened it. It was a one line document with two files attached, each a text transcript. Now he read.
Message sent at 11.57 am, Australian Central Standard Time.
The date was Susan’s day in Borroloola. It read.
Can you check out two names below?
Saw notice saying missing in a place I stayed.
? Whether persons home now and OK.
Text back soonest.
Will check next town, where phone works.
Having a great time in Oz.
Love and see you soon
Fiona Rodgers Age 25, Aberdeen Scotland
Amanda Sullivan, Age 24, Newark New Jersey USA
The reply was sent the next day but not transmitted until three days later, received at 9.05 am, Australian Central Standard Time. It read
This FREAKS me out, what I found:
Both girls came to Australia but are missing.
USA one came 2 years ago, last seen Daintree, Qld. 3 months later.
UK one came about 1 yr ago, last seen Adelaide, SA, 6 months later.
Both listed as missing, but not under current investigation
Investigation summary –
– Girls may have wanted to disappear
– Both withdrew most of their cash before they left
– Both announced they were going on a trip – never seen since
– Did not say where were going or with who
– No current links between cases
– Last contacts followed up, no useful information
– Both girls seen meeting unknown man a couple days before last seen.
– One friend thought this man’s name was Mark – no such person located
– Parents are convinced of abduction or worse
– Re Fiona Rodgers, that was her real name but everyone called her Kate – dead sister’s name she used from when a little girl – bit weird
This all makes me scared – Be Careful!!! Take extra care if you meet a Mark.
This was the smoking gun, this was dynamite. It all made sense, an almost exact fit to yesterday’s speculation. This must be Mark, her Mark.
Alan must now confirm that the two girls were still missing. That would be a job for tonight, when offices on the other side of the world were open. Then he must get back to Darwin in the morning before the sentencing hearing was finished. He must give this evidence to both barristers and the judge.
He rang Susan’s barrister, a man who he knew socially. They had an off the record chat where Alan advised him that by tomorrow he would be in possession of new evidence that would dramatically change the complexion of the whole case, but it might be mid-morning before he had it all, as he needed to get some information from the USA tonight.
The barrister advised that Alan would need to be there by 2 pm sharp as he would begin his summing up around then and needed anything he could give him at that time. He could stall a bit but once he was finished it would be too late, the judge would make his decision and it would be very difficult to reopen the case after that.
He also advised Alan that he did not want him to come early as before that all the different parties’ depositions would be made. So he wanted that all out of the way before he produced this. “In fact,” he said, “when you arrive the best thing would be to approach the bench directly on your own behalf, but send me an advance copy just in case anything happens to delay you.”
Alan printed the text. He put it inside in an envelope and wrote on the outside, “Only to be opened if I do not arrive in time.” Then he put this into an overnight express bag, marked with the barristers address and dispatched it.
They were all gathered in the court. The only person Susan could not see was Alan, but then perhaps he did not want his nose rubbed in the disappointment of failure, and he may still come yet, but she had a plan for that. Still Sandy was there. The judge ordered the court into session and said he was here to rule on the sentence to be given to Susan McDonald after finding her guilty of the murder of Vincent Marco Bassingham.
David and Anne had organised innumerable petitions of support, character references and statements from prison officials as to Susan’s behaviour and conduct as a model prisoner. Susan had agreed to them making submissions on her behalf. They said her life was there for all to see, the model school girl and University student, successful laboratory technician; a person who had made a misstep and admitted it and was now willing to pay for what she had done. But they and her barrister would now argue that compassion from the law was required, to allow her to have a life with the children which would soon be born.
Even the prosecution had indicated a willingness to be reasonable as they saw it. Rather than seeking that she spend the rest of her life in jail, never to be released, as would be a reasonable expectation for such a cold and callous murder, they had indicated that they would be happy with a sentence of a minimum of twenty five years, and a non-parole period of around twenty years, and the betting seemed to be that this was about right, even though the judge was noted for no nonsense sentencing.
Still, even the judge seemed to feel some sympathy for her, but in reality his hands were tied too, sentencing rules for crimes like this were pretty clear, with a not guilty plea it would be 30 years plus and with a guilty plea, remorse and good behaviour, release was possible in around twenty years. So people were saying that Susan would only be around 45 and still have life in front of her when released.
But Susan found herself unable to care.
Tonight her babies would be delivered. Then it would end. So whether a sentence was given of ten years, twenty or thirty, or it was deferred, it would matter little. They would have carried her away in a box and this awfulness would be over. She had longed for this day to come, the day when she could stop fighting the world and deceiving her friends and let it end. She had even worked out how to do it with minimal discomfort. She did not even feel really frightened at the prospect. It could not be that hard after everything else she had been through since she had met Mark. It was just one last test of character, one which she knew she could pass.
So she found herself only half listening as the various parties opened sentencing submissions. The prosecution was reasonably short and to the point, saying that in a case like this they would have normally sought life in jail, but in view of the guilty party’s early guilty plea, her apparent remorse and otherwise good character they would be prepared to agree to a sentence of 25-30 years. However despite sympathy for the plaintiff in some quarters of the community they could not go agree to anything below this, as a strong deterrent message was also required. Hence they demanded an absolute minimum non parole period of twenty years.
Then it came the turn for her side. Her legal representative called witness after witness. The judge was limiting the time for people to ensure he finished today, he said he normally would have limited this component to a couple hours but in view of the level of support for Susan, he was prepared to allow continuation until a maximum time of 2 pm, after which both parties would have a short time to sum up before he made his ruling. The case was to be concluded by 3 pm, the end of normal court sitting time.
The morning flowed away, a lunch recess was called. She could see it all drifting away from her side. After lunch it was only Anne and her parents still to be called. She knew this part would be really hard for her to watch, it had been hard enough to watch when David had come to the stand but it must just be borne and she would do her best to close her mind and emotions.
It was funny, normally without the crocodile stone in court she found herself very distant, like someone watching proceedings from on high. But, despite her disinterest of the first part of the day, somehow this final part of the trial had captured her attention. This was her life they were talking about, and slowly as they talked it started to flash before her eyes like a fast running movie camera, and with it she had this huge sense of loss. Was this all the life she would get to live? It seemed such a waste.
After lunch was much worse than she had imagined; Anne had to stop herself from crying on several occasions, her Mum was the same, and her father, even though without a tear shed, had been even more excruciating as she watched him put everything he had in to fight for his daughter. She even saw prosecution team members dab their eyes a couple times as they watched and listened, though their senior counsel sat stony faced.
Then it was closing submissions time for both sides. The argument of the prosecution only took five minutes, merely a quick reiteration of their previous points.
Her counsel was just standing up to speak. She saw an orderly pass him a sheet of paper, signalling he needed to give this urgent attention. He looked annoyed at the interruption. He was looking around as if waiting for something and then picked up the piece of paper as if to start reading it. She looked at Anne; her face was white with tension. She knew in an instant. The paper was a transcript of the texts but her barrister did not know their contents. He looked like he was about to start reading it but was still distracted as if waiting for something else to happen.
Susan felt for the syringe strapped to the inside of her upper leg. It was there, she fumbled as she pulled it clear and then pulled off the needle cap. She was hidden from sight where she sat on her own. Her prison warder sat behind her. She only needed another two or three seconds to plunge it into her thigh and inject it. She gave a quick glance down yes it was all in place and ready.
Once that was done she would let out a big scream to draw all the attention to herself and clutch her belly, saying her contractions had come. She looked up and took a deep breath to steel herself for the last roll of the dice.
As she looked up, the back court door was opened and two people walked in, one she recognised as Sergeant Alan Richards. Why had he suddenly arrived so late? Of course he had come for the same purpose as Susan, so nothing was changed there.
She turned her eyes to the other man. It was an almost skeleton of a man, so thin and emaciated, and he hobbled with a severe limp. His hair was long, ragged, unwashed, and his beard was long and straggly. His clothes were clean but hung on him like bags. There was something fierce and uncompromising in his face and eyes.
At first Susan could not comprehend what it meant.
Then recognition came. The eyes turned towards hers and looked at her with knowledge and penetrating intensity, and she knew. This walking skeleton was Vic, returned from the dead, yet so obviously alive. She put her hand to her mouth and let out a muffled gasp. The syringe fell from her hand to the floor. Susan spoke his name, loudly and clearly so all could hear her, “Vic, is it you?”.
Vic raised his hand in acknowledgment and gave her a trademark grin. She wanted to run to him and hold him but she was restrained by a handcuff which attached her left hand to the rail.
Alan glanced at her and nodded but then immediately turned his attention to the bench.
“Your honour, I am sorry to interrupt. I am not normally in the habit of barging into a court in session. But something really significant has happened in this case. “I have only obtained information today which I consider has a vital bearing on this case and any sentence you impose. I ask that you order a short recess to allow me to inform your honour of it on a one to one basis.”
She saw the prosecution barrister start to rise to object, her side seemed less surprised but then perhaps they had known something. Alan walked over and spoke briefly to the prosecution counsel. This barrister nodded then said, “Your Honour I would agree to a short recess as I accept this is relevant and of great importance.”
The judge then looked at the defence barrister and he nodded his assent. So the judge ordered a fifteen minute adjournment and he, Alan and the two senior counsels walked out. Everyone else stood there dumbfounded.
Vic had a vague sense of being still alive and hurting, really hurting. His mind seemed to be unable to focus, but he had a vague awareness of being wet and cold and that one of his legs felt like it was on fire. He seemed to drift in and out of awareness over and over again. He had a woolly memory of his helicopter refusing to respond to the controls, then of a smashing and tearing impact as it hit the cliffs.
Based on this his mind said he should be dead, people did not survive crashes like that. But his leg hurt like hell, and the rest of his body and head hurt in lots of places too – now his mind formed a muddled thought. I hope this is not hell, with all this endless pain; this would be a seriously bad place to end up if I have died. And he was so thirsty, he badly needed a drink and soon. Apart from the pain in his leg he thought his thirst was the thing forcing him to wake up.
At last his mind seemed to get enough clarity to open his eyes and try and look around. He realised that was lying tipped back and to the side and his body was held against something that was behind him. He tried to look up but his vision was blocked by a huge wall of rock and something on his head. He looked down towards where the pain in his leg was coming from. His leg seemed bent back under whatever he was lying on at a funny angle; that did not look good and no wonder it hurt.
As his mind began to clear he tried to feel his hands. He brought one up to his face, and with it felt for the other which was squashed under him at his side. With his good hand he pulled the other hand free and it seemed to work too. Now he looked at them both. Yes they were both there and neither looked too bad, a few cuts on the knuckles of one, his left hand, but the other hand looked just fine. This left hand, on the side underneath him, transmitted pain to his shoulder when he moved it but the other, the right one, seemed to move properly and did not even hurt to move.
With this right hand he started to explore his surroundings. First he tried to feel his face and work out what was blocking part of his view. He realised it was his helmet which was still on his head. As he felt around towards the helmet’s left side he realised that his head was resting up against an uneven rock and there was a series of cracks and fissures running through this side of his helmet, like a broken egg still held together with sticky tape. He felt under his chin, sure enough the strap that held the helmet on his head was still closed. It took a few goes but finally he managed to click it free.
Now he needed to try and take the helmet off his head so that he could see properly. First he tried with just his right hand. That brought pounding pain into his head as the helmet twisted sideways while staying in place. Nothing for it but to bring his left hand into action too. This hand seemed to be able to move OK but Christ his shoulder hurt as he tried to grip the other side of the helmet at the same time. It felt like something had pulverised the muscles of that shoulder. He touched rock below this shoulder. He was lying pushed into the rock and had probably landed hard that way, bruising lots of muscles. But he could move it so he did not think anything was broken.
He took a deep breath, this was going to hurt, whatever he did. He might as well get on with it. He gritted his teeth and with two hands together managed to pull the helmet free of his head. Both his head and left shoulder felt like they were on fire and waves of fog flowed through his brain along with the surges of pain. He lay still for a minute, willing the pain to stop. As it receded the thirst and pain in his leg came flooding back. He knew he had to keep going.
So now he explored his head with his fingers. There was a bit of sticky stuff that felt like dried blood on the side of his head next to the rock and some parts that really hurt to touch. But nothing felt like it was broken there either, so perhaps the broken helmet had saved a busted skull and instant death.
Now he used his hands to feel what was behind and under him. It was flat and smooth and slippery. As his brain slowly processed this touch information it came to him that he was still strapped into the helicopter seat. He and the seat were lying on a rocky shelf at the base of a huge rock cliff.
The realisation dawned on him that the helicopter seat, with him strapped into it, had torn free from the rest of the helicopter and fallen down the side of the cliff until it hit this rocky base. He made himself lift his head and look around. Now he could begin to get his bearings. As his eyes travelled upwards they followed the line of a huge rising cliff, going almost directly up for what looked like hundreds of feet. The only things that could get up there would be birds and ants. It was beyond all ordinary animals to climb this rock face, well beyond a rock wallaby or even a cat. He tried to look over his shoulder and behind him. His view was blocked by something that must be the seat.
He could hear a roaring and gurgling noise from behind him, it must be the river, bare metres away. His body was wet and cold, his clothes were drenched. He wondered if he had been in the river. But that seemed unlikely if he was still strapped in and the seat had landed here. More likely rain had made him wet.
As he had this thought a huge flash of light, followed by an almost instantaneous crash bang, told him he was in the middle of a great thunderstorm. As the flash died away he realised that it was approaching dark, only a small amount of light remained in the sky. He must have lain here since mid-morning, probably eight hours ago. No wonder he was thirsty, despite the rain, after lying in this valley for most of a hot wet season’s day.
Suddenly rain came cascading down onto his face, huge cold splashes. He turned his face towards it and drank in the large drops, not enough to quench his thirst but the moisture cleared his mouth and helped him to think more clearly.
First he must unstrap himself from the seat; then he must try to extricate and attend to his leg. After both these things he would get a proper drink and try and work out what to do. He felt for the belt release in his waist and pressed the release mechanism. It popped free and his body slumped sideways coming to rest hard against the rock, sending spasms of pain through both his leg and his shoulder.
He felt towards his foot, trying to determine the source of the excruciating pain. He realised it was twisted at a strange angle and trapped under part of the seat. He discovered that by turning his body further to the side and facing down the pain in his leg was eased. In this position he could get both his hands underneath him. He pushed himself upwards and, as his weight came fully off the seat, a spasm of pain shot through his leg, like boiling water tipped on it. His body dropped back towards the hard rock but that set off another even worse pain in his leg. This time he cautiously lifted himself, inch by inch. It eased the pain up to a certain place and then it started to increase again. He watched what happened. Initially his lower leg straightened which reduced the pain. But then it started to twist the other way bringing the pain surging back.
What he needed was a way to lift the seat base clear of his leg so that he could get his leg out from underneath and put it straight. The bones in his lower leg must have broken to let it twist like it had. So he got himself into a half kneeling position on his opposite hand and knee. With the other hand he gradually levered the seat out of the way. At last its weight took over and it fell sideways, away from his leg. As it moved it was accompanied by another pain spasm, but now his leg was clear.
He moved his body to bring it into line with his foot. Using a half kneeling gait he slowly dragged his body away from the edge of the cliff and towards the water. This was visible as a phosphorescent glow in the near dark, as it thundered its way down the gorge. At the edge he used his good arm to scoop up handfuls of water into his mouth. He was tempted to shove his face into the water to quench his thirst but knew it was best to drink slowly. After a few minutes of sucking handfuls of water his thirst eased.
He lifted up his head to gaze out across the wild white water. It was an endless thundering cascade that stretched to the other side of the gorge where another similarly sheer cliff rose, maybe 200 metres away. His place by the water was sheltered by a protruding rock, a couple of body lengths in front of him. It was three times his height and about two metres wide. It jutted out into the cascading water, and gave a relatively calm edge for him to access.
A movement at the periphery of his vision caused him to look to his side, down river. Barely a metre away two eyes sat in the water watching him. He realised it was an enormous crocodile. With one swish of his tail it could have lunged forward and grabbed him, finishing off the work of the crash.
But it did not move, it just stared, motionless in the water. It seemed to be watching him with purpose but not with malicious intent. He almost felt it was guarding him; perhaps it was not hungry now and would look to feed later. As imperceptibly as he was able he eased back from the water. His leg protested but that was secondary to survival. The silent watcher remained unchanged.
Now that he had drunk and relieved some of the pain in his leg he could barely move. Every muscle and bone in his body felt bruised. Each crawled step took great effort. It was barely five metres from the edge of the water to the cliff face and the back of the rock ledge was little more that a metre above the flow.
He realised if the crocodile decided to come after him there was nowhere he could go. Slowly he dragged his body back as close to the cliff edge as he could go. It was raining still and now he was shivering with cold. He pulled up the remains of the seat and propped it against the rock wall forming a roof and barrier of sorts from the river. This gave some shelter from the torrential sky. He curled his body under it as best he could, and tried to takes his mind away from where he was.
He slept fitfully. Every time he moved spasms of pain shot through his leg, his shoulder throbbed continuously and the hard rock dug into tender parts of his body. But he needed rest and this was his best option for now. He woke in the early predawn light.
The sky was still a heavy grey but the rain had stopped. In the night the river had risen and half of his rock shelf was now gone. He realised he could not stay here. If the water rose two more feet all his dry land would be gone.
He eyed off his options as the light slowly brightened. The cliff on the other side of the river seemed slightly less forbidding. But there was no way he could cross over two hundred metres of thundering water, even if his leg was not broken and, with only one leg to kick with, it was totally hopeless. If his dry land was taken by the river it would claim him anyway and, if it did, he would let it wash him where it willed, until rocks smashed him apart.
But for now he was still alive. When he contemplated his survival it felt miraculous; to have landed in a way where his seat and helmet protected him from death and to have found shelter on a tiny rock ledge just beyond the water seemed remarkable despite everything else about his circumstances looking totally grim.
It reminded him of the story Mark had told him of the bullet wound to his arm, how he had to patch himself up and make the best of it for many days without medical attention apart from a bandage and a few antibiotic tablets. He felt a kinship to Mark in this place; he did not understand why. As he thought about it more he remembered the crocodile from last night. He felt as if it had been sent by Mark to guard and protect him, perhaps help him to find a way out of this mess.
He looked around the water’s edge, wondering where the crocodile had gone while he slept. At first he saw nothing. Then he made out a shadowy outline in the stiller water. It was still there, sheltered by the jutting rock. As he watched, first a few scales along the back and tail broke the surface and then more of the head and body emerged. This animal was truly monstrous, he had nothing to work from to measure its size, but when he thought about the length of his helicopter from tail rotor to nose, it did not seem to be much different. That was well over twenty feet in length, way bigger than anything he had seen before.
Funnily enough the crocodile’s head was now facing the other way from last night, facing down river. Vic was tempted to try and head up river. It seemed the most logical way to go, in the direction of civilisation. There was a rock ledge five metres upstream which ran about five metres above him where the sheltering rock joined the cliff. He looked at it wondering if he could scale it. It would bring him higher above the water which seemed extremely desirable with a rising river. But as he surveyed it, he could see no way up its smooth edge. He may have managed to climb it with two legs and two properly working arms but with one good arm and leg he could not.
He looked at the crocodile again. Was it his imagination or did it seem to be waving its head and tail in a way which pointed down river. It must be my crazy imagination, he thought, but there did seem to be something of Mark in it which was trying to direct him; sending a whispered message from Mark’s crocodile brother saying, “Come this way, come this way.”
He tossed up what to do. In the end he decided to defer his decision while he checked the helicopter seat carefully in case it held something useful. Then he needed to examine his broken leg properly and see if he could find something to splint it with. His glance in the half light had shown a massive area of purple bruising six inches above the ankle and he could feel the bone ends move and his foot flop around when he moved his leg, along with stabs of shooting pain. So it was clearly broken, but at least the foot still seemed to have feeling and the skin was not broken, so those were good signs.
He decided he would watch the level of the river for a few minutes, see whether it was still rising, while he also looked for a way to support this broken leg. It would be very difficult to travel far the way it was, and the continual movement of the bone ends must be doing further damage, not to mention the pain.
First he carefully examined the seat. Apart from a few jagged bits of metal which had come with it when it was torn from its mountings, that was all it was, a single vinyl covered pilots seat along with a piece of the floor, perhaps two feet square that ended in the bubble doorway on his side. There was also a small bit of metal attached above the seat’s left side where the seat belt mounting to his seat had torn away from the rest of the helicopter body and his belt was still attached. He looked more carefully at the piece of floor. He realised that this is what had landed on the side of his leg and trapped it, breaking the bone, somewhere in his fall down the cliff to the ground. He felt lucky he had remained strapped to the seat as he fell. It seemed to have protected him from being smashed apart on the rocks. He was also lucky that his leg had been struck by the rounded edge of the floor piece, where the door met the floor, not by some of the other jagged pieces of metal. Hence the skin on his lower leg was bruised but not torn open. His shoe also seemed to have protected his foot from serious damage. He was wearing just shorts and a tee shirt. He remembered he had put his other clothes in a small overnight bag which went into the space behind the seats when he left Wyndham yesterday. That was gone. He felt his front pockets, wondering if his wallet was there with that infernal memory card, cash and ID. No sign of it; must have fallen out too. Not that it was useful now. Still he had his boots on and they were a good solid pair, he would need them to try and walk to help if he could escape the river.
He resumed his search. In the back pocket of the seat he found his plastic covered flight map of this part of the NT and with it was one other thing. The map was handy but the other thing was of immense value. It was a pocket knife of sorts, one of those multi tool ones. He vaguely remembered having it a couple years ago when he bought this helicopter. But he could not remember having seen it in more than a year. Here it was, this discovery was very timely now.
He looked around the rock shelf where he was to see if anything else useful was in sight. There was no vegetation but there were a few small bits of timber and one reasonable sized stick that he could see; maybe four or five feet long and one to two inches think, a bit knobbly but fairly straight. He wondered if he could use that as a splint for his leg. If there was some wiry grass or bark handy he could use that to wrap around his leg and tie it to the timber to make a splint.
He wondered what else he could use. He knew he needed to support and protect his leg to give it a chance to heal if he was to find his way out of here. He wondered about cutting up his map, maybe the plastic would be strong enough to use to tie the splint together.
Then it came to him. He had all he needed right here, the seat itself. He could use part of the foam lining to provide padding and he could cut the seatbelt and vinyl cover into strips to tie it all in place. He worked away for an hour dismembering the seat with his little pocket knife. Now he had a pile of foam rubber pieces, about twenty pieces of seatbelt strapping and vinyl strips in various sizes up to few feet in length and a few bits of cording and wire from the seat’s internal contents. His tool even had pliers with a cutting edge that he could cut wire with.
He set to work binding his leg. First he padded his leg with pieces of foam tied into place with some of the thinner strips of vinyl. Then he broke the piece of stick into two lengths, each about two feet long, one of which was placed on each side of his leg, running from knee to ankle. He took the stronger and longer seatbelt and vinyl pieces and with them he tied the whole contraption together in several places. Finally he wrapped the cord and wire around as well for good measure. It was not perfect but it kept his foot and leg straight and felt like it would not fall apart when he moved.
As he worked he watched the water level. Now barely a foot of clearance remained from his work space to the water’s edge and it was still rising steadily. That storm further up the catchment last night must have been a serious one, he thought. He suspected there was lots more water to come through yet.
Well, there was nothing for it but to follow the crocodile’s lead and head down river. He looked out and then down the river. It was funny, even though the water was continuing to rise, he felt as if the flow had slowed. Last night’s foaming and thundering white-water river seemed to have eased into something else, still fast and dangerous but less wild, the tumbling whitecaps were gone. It was now almost a metre higher than when he had gone to sleep and the volume flowing was huge, but the broken surface had smoothed to a tea coloured swirling, running tide.
He looked up the river – the cloud above had broken into threads and patches, one of which obscured a weak sun. Sitting below it, between the cliffs, was a thin crescent moon, palely seen in the morning light. Something in his brain clicked, new moon, running tide – that was it. At least part of the rising water and slowing flow was due to the in-running tide pushing back against the storm flow.
He remembered yesterday morning that at this same time, as he flew across the coast from Wyndham, it was high tide in the big estuaries then and still running in. It was one of those king tides which came up twenty feet. Around mid-morning the tide was full. Today high tide would be an hour later. It was acting like a huge dam, holding the new water pouring into the river back and forcing it to rise. The tide was slowing the flow to something more manageable than last night’s thundering rapid. That would have smashed him to bits; maybe he could swim or float in this. He chucked a piece of stick out beyond the protruding rock. It moved downstream at a fast running place, tricky but manageable, he thought.
Slowly his mind absorbed the implications of this. He could not stay here, that was apparent; the tide had another hour or two of rise yet and this water would flood his rock shelf completely within the hour. But it was now possible that he could float downstream in this river, at least until he came to a place where there was a break in the cliffs which would give him a place to drag himself out.
So, rather than fleeing the rising water, he needed to use it to help his escape. If only he had a boat or raft, something that would give him buoyancy as he went down river. He looked around. There were not enough pieces of dead wood to make a raft. Could he tie some small bits together? It would help a bit but there was not really enough to add much flotation. His eyes fell again on the seat. The solution came to him with a flash of clarity.
The seat was full of foam rubber, full of tiny bubbles of air. He thought of trying to use the whole seat. It would probably float but the metal parts would weight it down, and it would be cumbersome to hold on to it and to swim with it. No, what he would do was cut out pieces to use. He had cut some out to pad his leg, but the vast majority remained in two big lumps, one at the bottom and one at the back. He would cut these out in the largest pieces he could manage. Then he would tie them together with more strips of vinyl. The strips would give him something to hang onto. If he managed it right he could largely float as he was carried along by the flow of the water.
Somehow he had left that huge crocodile out of his consideration. Sharing the water with it gave him a pang of fear. But it had had plenty of opportunity to harm him already and had done nothing. And it was not like he had any choice. If the water kept rising he would be forced into it soon enough. Then he and the crocodile would be in it together. Better to do it with control, perhaps he could break off a piece of metal from the seat and use this to push it away if it came too close.
He looked at the size of this enormous animal and realised this idea was ludicrous; it could swallow him in entirety in a single mouthful. Still he felt better with the idea of some protection, even if only token, and a piece of metal might come in useful somewhere else in his trip. Come to think of it, he should pull the seat apart and look for anything else useful in it before he left. It was the only potentially useful object he could see in his surroundings.
So Vic set to work. First he cut out two large pieces of foam which he tied together. It was nice and light so the buoyancy would be good. Then he stripped what remained of the vinyl which he cut into long strips for future ties. It was hard work with the little knife, and his bad shoulder pained.
At the back of the seat was an elastic mesh holder, with gaps of about a centimetre between the threads. Perhaps, if he could make up a frame, this could be used as a fish net. He packed all these pieces into his broken helmet which served as a useful basket and then stripped all other pieces of cord, wire and any metal fittings he could remove.
Now there was little more than the metal frame remaining. He cut it free of the seat remnants. He looked closely at it. It was light aluminium so it should be brittle if he could find a way to break it. A fissure ran into the cliff face just behind him so he jammed one end into that. Then he found a rock to bash into the middle where the metal curved around. After several blows he had cracked it through. Now he worked on the other end and broke it through too.
That gave him two curved pieces of aluminium, each about four feet long. As gently as he could he bent each one into a reasonably straight shape, though one had a hook like bit at the end. The pieces did not break or buckle so that was good, they looked strong and could be used as poles to push off rocks and otherwise guide his passage.
Now, only the broken shell of seat remnants remained. He poked around at it seeing if there was anything else useful left. He picked it up to look underneath. As he did he saw a small object fall from a crack between the upright portion of the seat and the base, which were still held together with fragments of fabric.
He looked at it in amazement. It was a transparent plastic cigarette lighter, not something he would ever use as a non- smoker himself. But someone else must have; perhaps the previous owner of the machine was a smoker. It must have sat there for at least a couple years, fallen out of a pocket into that gap, unnoticed.
Remarkably he could see it was still about half full of what looked like lighter fluid. It seemed too good to be true; if he could think of a single extra thing he would need to survive beyond his knife this was it. He felt almost scared to touch it, but he flicked it open. Sure enough a spark and flame came. Quickly he shut it off knowing its precious contents must be preserved.
Vic looked at the sky and the sun, part seen through cloud. His mind clock and belly said mid-morning; the tide was getting close to full, perhaps an hour or two to go until the peak. Now the water was starting to bubble around his feet and he knew that, ready or not, he must take to it. But he had one last thing he needed to do. He still had his plastic flight map of the area. He must survey it and determine where he might find a way to get out of this river valley. Even though it was at a large scale the detail was surprisingly good.
So he located the Fitzmaurice River and followed his route of yesterday, up the course of the river until that tight bend there and the fatal cliff. He remembered a big creek off to the other side just back. If he was on that side it would be an obvious way out. But despite his float there was no way he could get to the other side of this huge torrent.
His best bet was to stay close to this edge, where rocks and ledges slowed the flow a bit. So he followed the valley down on the map with his eyes. He had a vague memory of a steep and jagged gully cutting down a couple miles back. Not much more than a crack in the cliff really, but something to aim for. Sure enough that looked like it and the map showed it running back into the hills for a way, so it looked like a creek ran down it in the rain. Now he had a destination to aim for.
The water almost completely covered the rock shelf now. He clipped his helmet to a strap around the foam float, he pushed the metal poles into the straps where they would not fall out and pushed the lighter into the smallest pocket of his shorts and zipped it closed. He half stumbled, half crawled to where the rock shelf fell away into the deeper water. He deliberately avoided looking at the crocodile lest his nerve failed.
Suddenly the current picked him up and he was floating down the river about five metres out from the edge. He decided to go out a bit further, it gave him a better view forward along the cliff and he was also less likely to be bashed into rocks on the edge. He looked around, the crocodile was nowhere in sight.
He tried to estimate the distance he was covering and his speed by taking reference points along the cliff, estimating their distance away and counting how long it took to reach them. It was far from accurate but his estimate was that he was doing something around 10 kilometres per hour. He barely kicked or paddled, deciding to save his energy and watch as the cliff faces swept past him.
He estimated that at this rate it would take between twenty and thirty minutes to reach the place he wanted to try and climb out from. It was only a guess but it was good to have something to occupy his mind as he felt very vulnerable floating down this large river knowing that at least one crocodile was somewhere nearby. He just hoped that the place he was heading for would have somewhere to climb out of the water; where he was travelling now the cliffs rose sheer from the water for more than a hundred feet.
After what seemed like about fifteen minutes he noticed a thin crack visible high on the cliff line, a few hundred yards in front of him. He wondered if this was it, but there was nothing further down the cliff and as he reached and passed under this place he realised that this crack must be a creek which ended in a waterfall. He watched a thin line of water fall a hundred feet into the river below. He moved a bit further out into the river as he passed below it, both to avoid its spray and to widen his angle of view. Another green line in the cliff was coming up in a few hundred yards. This one seemed to track all the way to the bottom. He began to paddle and kick his way back towards the edge. It was slow work as he could only use his good leg. Each time the broken leg got jerked around by the current pain shot through his body.
Now he could see it clearly. There was no obvious rock shelf but a ribbon of green ran all the way to the water’s edge and a couple of the trees at the bottom appeared to have their trunks partly covered by water. So if he could get into those it would give him something to hang onto and stop his passage.
Now the gap to the trees was closing and he could see better. One tree looked like it had two trunks about a foot apart. He would try to aim for the point where the water ran between them and jam himself tightly into the gap while he grabbed on to one side. He looped his arm through the strap between the bundles and tried to maintain his line. As he closed the gap, the trees seemed to be rushing towards him very fast.
He was there, his body slammed into part of the trunk with a huge weight of water behind him. His broken leg bashed into the trunk lower down and he almost screamed aloud with the pain. He wondered if his body would be torn through the gap with the still rising water but it jammed firm. The weight of the water was too strong to get out of this place, he could not push free. He must hang on and hope that the water either slowed further on the incoming tide, or fell low enough later in the day for him to get out of this tree and up the bank. It would be easier said than done. From here he could see no way out up the creek; the crack in the cliffs just vanished into gloom behind a wall of trees and creepers though he could hear the noise of running water coming down the hillside from behind. He forced himself to relax and stay calm, to savour the pleasure of having made it thus far.
Now he felt very tired and his body craved rest. He realised it was mostly hunger; it was over a day since he had eaten anything and in this cold water he was burning energy fast. He felt a light headed dreamy feeling steal over him. He thought of bars of chocolate, bowls of steaming stew and slices of bread and butter as his stomach growled. He decided to let the fantasy take him to block out the reality and pass the time.
The sun sat in a mid-morning position. He thought of yesterday’s breakfast, a large plate of fried eggs and bacon, on thick toast slices, washed down with steaming coffee. Then he thought of his mother’s cooking, her light and fluffy cakes, served with cream or ice cream. He deliberately followed the food trail in his mind; great slabs of steak, hot buttered potatoes, bowls of pasta and rice.
He may have dozed in this dreamy state. He realised that his body was being lifted up the tree, now the gap was widening between the two trunks, he had risen at least a foot, maybe more, and in about another foot the gap would let him pass through. Now he must turn his attention to what to do next, the force of the water had definitely eased.
He measured the distance to the edge, where other trees grew and where the flow was slack. There was a batch of trees about five metres downstream and a similar distance across from where he was. If he could get to them they may allow him to get to the bank or to the rock face edge, or whatever lay out of view beyond the trees. He thought about how best to do it. When his body was high enough to pass between the trunks he would use his good leg to push off from this tree trunk as far as he could go toward the next destination. Then kicking with his good leg he could put out an aluminium pole and try to hook a tree before the current carried him past.
It did not quite work out that way, the flow was still strong and he was not yet high enough to pass through. But it had eased enough to let him slide around the side of the trunk, away from the centre. He pushed his way out and around, inch by inch, his injured shoulder hurting as he used this arm to help force himself back against the current. But at last he got free and then got his float free.
Now he rested for a minute holding tightly to one trunk; that exertion had taken a big part of his reserve of strength. When he felt the tiredness ease he bunched himself up with his good leg against the trunk, took a deep breath, pushed and struck out. The current was much stronger than it looked and he was rapidly being swept along the bank and back towards the main river. He only had two more metres to cross but was fast coming to the edge of the treed place, just a bare rock cliff again.
With all his effort he paddled and kicked for the edge, missing the last tree but managing to grab hold of the protruding rock of the cliff where the fissure ended. He realised that the creek running out of the gap in the cliff had a strong flow and was pushing him back into the main channel.
He had stopped right where the creek met the main river. There was a slight back eddy where he was, so it was easy to hold on. Now he had a good grip of the edge he set about pulling himself back along the rock ledge following the creek up into the fissure. He had to do this by inches now, to bring himself around the rock edge into the side channel and then along its side. The hand holds at water level looked few and far between and he was terrified that if he lost his grip he would be swept back into the river. He needed to stop and think before he did something stupid.
He looked above. There was a broken slope rising up above him for about five metres which he thought he could climb, using hand holds and the occasional foothold. Up there it looked like there was a ledge running back along the side of the fissure that he could follow.
Climbing with only one leg and with one shoulder which hurt to move and lacked strength, was extraordinarily hard, particularly carrying his gear. But he was determined not to surrender it to the river; he carried his future survival in that small bundle. His bruised shoulder screamed loud in protest. He realised he was soft from days sitting on a seat in a helicopter. At last he pulled himself clear of the water. He rested for a minute. Slowly he began to climb up the rock face, little by little, it looked about a sixty degree face, not sheer but mostly a dead lift with his arms. It seemed to take forever but at last he came to a clear flat ledge, about a foot wide. He lifted his bottom onto this and turned to sit, facing out to the river, arms feeling like jelly and his whole body trembling with fatigue.
As he did he looked below at the raging river. He saw that the tide had started to fall away. While the river level had not fallen appreciably the rate of flow had increased again, a white broken surface returning. The sun was now at its highest and it said his river trip so far had taken two or three hours. He realised that if he had not got out here and now he would have been taken again and smashed by this water, it was now again too strong to swim against.
As he watched a shape emerged from the water, next to the edge just below him, tail waving steadily to hold it against the current. It surfaced, almost its full length, raised its head as if to nod to him, and opened and closed its nearest eye. He could have sworn it winked. He felt a sense of Mark speaking to him, “I have got you here; now you must do your part; Susan needs your help, you must return.”
Vic could not help himself, he knew it was ridiculous but could feel himself grinning. He raised his hand and waved back. He called out, at the top of his voice, “Message received, over and out.”
With that the crocodile rolled its body over and slid sideways into the water, disappearing with the flow. Vic knew from here it was all up to him. And he did not give a damn whether others called it ‘superstitious claptrap’. He knew his mate had returned and given him something he must do. It was the least he could do for his brother of the crocodile spirit.
Forever after Vic remembered this strange being as the River God Baru, ancient crocodile creature of the dreamtime or perhaps of Egyptian myth, a being who held power over this river and all things within it.
Vic looked at his walking stick. He had carved thirty notches into it. That meant 30 days had passed since the Crash Day. He had come perhaps five kilometres from that place, as the crow flies, but it felt like he had walked 100 miles and climbed Mount Everest.
He could feel the long hair on his face, now past itchy. He looked at his one set of clothes – tee shirt and shorts ; they were falling apart, with several holes in the shirt and threadbare shorts, almost worn through in several places. He noticed his skinny arms and legs and wondered where the muscle had gone.
That was the trouble with mostly eating things he could catch with his hands; lizards, frogs, an occasional bird and bush rat; plus he ate insects in any shape and size he could find except ants. He had tried a wide range of plants, seeds and fruits, tested slowly and carefully after early stomach cramps, but only a handful passed the real food test.
He should feel depressed; it had been extraordinarily hard and his journey was barely begun. But he had made it to the top and he still had both legs and feet, and the second one was only a bit crooked. He still could not take weight on it, but at least it had mostly stopped hurting, except when he banged it.
He looked out across the barren stony landscape in front of him. As best he could tell from his map it was something around 300 kilometres in a fairly straight line to either of the two main roads he could head for, either the Stuart Highway, somewhere around the Edith River Crossing 50 kilometres north of Katherine on the road to Darwin, or the Katherine-Timber Creek road, somewhere around the Flora River crossing a similar distance west of Katherine. The way he would have to go, up and down hills, following creeks and ridge lines, it was probably 400 kilometres.
So if he could manage five kilometres a day that meant 80 days of walking and if he could up it to 10 kilometres per day then perhaps a bit over a month, as long as there were no major setbacks. He figured it was now about the end of January. So assuming sixty more days he may see civilisation about the end of March. Of course he could get lucky and strike someone out here, but his chances during this wet season were low; it was a big one with a lot of flooding and water to run away yet.
He refused to countenance the fact that he may not make it, his survival thus far felt miraculous so this did not bear thinking about. Still, it seemed like a bloody long way to walk.
What he wouldn’t give now for a cold beer, big steak and a plate of chips, was hard to imagine. That would be his motivation to keep driving on. That, plus surprised looks on the many faces which had given him up for dead, along with a big hug from his Mum and sister, that would be reward enough.
But his first destination was to get to Darwin and talk some sense into that silly girl of Mark’s, stop her sacrificing herself to honour Mark’s imaginary memory. The real story must come out, whatever it was, that surely was the purpose of Marks message to him. A day after he got off the river he had realised he still had his wallet in a back pocket of his shorts, he thought he had lost it. There was not much in it, just a license ID, credit card and about $100. But the memory chip Susan gave him was still there, and even if he had yet to read it, soon enough he would and then the real story, the one he knew Mark wanted told, would be out there for all to know. He was past hiding secrets.
He looked at his meagre possessions, a makeshift backpack made out of strips of vinyl and bark, padded with foam to make it soft to carry; a spear, with a harpoon like head, cut and ground out of a piece of aluminium frame from the helicopter; a knife made of similar material, with a wooden handle; his stone cooking bowl; his fire kit – some smouldering embers wrapped in damp bark; a timber water scoop; a fishnet on a pole; an instant paperbark humpy, really just sheets of paperbark to sleep under to keep the rain off him, with a couple sticks to support it,; and a few other odds and ends, penknife, cigarette lighter, bits of metal, twine and wire.
He wrapped his paperbark shirt over his shoulders to minimise the sunburn and insects, he put on his bark and vinyl hat, he adjusted his makeshift pack, so it sat in balance on his good shoulder and took the weight off his gammy leg, he put his walking stick to the ground next to his bad leg, and stepped out.
He had picked a ridge line on the horizon to head to, due east for now, though he would adjust between north east and south east depending on the lie of the land. He had decided to break his journey into manageable bits, like this one to that next ridge line. After each bit he would stop, rest and see what he could find to eat. Of course he would also stop whenever he came to something promising like a little swamp with frogs; several frogs on a stick made a tasty barbeque. But he could not just hang around in this empty place and catch food, he had a destination to reach, and sooner was better, that steak and chips beckoned loud!
As he walked he relived the events of the last month. It had begun when he made it to that little ledge and said goodbye to the river with that strange crocodile in which Mark seemed to reside; ‘River God Baru’ he had named it then, based on a half memory of an Egyptian story of that name with big crocodiles in it. In his mind it almost seemed to have a human face, Mark’s face, it certainly conveyed a presence beyond a mindless predator. At other times he called it just Baru, the word Mark used for his East Arnhem crocodile totem, symbolised by the carved miniature version he often carried. Now in his mind this being was a fused version of the two identities, one a totem and one a real crocodile, which he mostly called River God Baru.
Sometimes he wondered whether all that early part of the escape down the river was a hallucination, invented in his imagination in that time of pain and no food.
He only half remembered how he crawled along that ledge, the weather steadily worsening as the early morning sunshine was covered over by ever thickening clouds and gusts of wind, blowing in from the north. They got ever stronger as the afternoon progressed. He had edged his way away from the river, above the gully, with its own thundering creek, weak with hunger. As the rain started to set in he knew he must find shelter, along with the hunger he was getting really chilled with the cold wet wind.
So he scoured the hillside for openings. Finally he found a reasonable sized crack in the rock, dry with a sandy floor and sheltered from wind. He dragged himself into it and curled up, too exhausted to move, although hunger was eating into his belly.
As best he could remember, he had mostly laid inside there for the next three days. The wind and rain surrounded him and water poured down the hillside. He came out just occasionally to drink water, pee and look at rain streaming down and wind lashing the trees.
Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, it started to blow itself out. By this time he was almost delirious with hunger, the pains came and went but a constant belly ache remained. He knew he must eat soon to allow his body to repair. In the late afternoon the cloud broke into high streamers, with occasional light showers and patches of sunshine.
He had started to survey his locale for food. It was not promising around the cave, but beyond it the ledge opened out onto a rocky slope, extending up into a barren hillside. So he found a stick for support and half crawled, half walked as he slowly worked his way around, looking for something edible, anything would do. He thought the best chance would be a reptile sunning itself. Finally he spotted a fat bluetongue sitting on a rock in the afternoon sun, ten yards away.
With all the patience he could muster he slowly crawled towards it until it was in reach of his stick. A well-directed blow gave him his first meal. He was tempted to rip into it and eat it raw. But the grass and leaves on the rocks were drying and he thought he could light a fire. So he had gathered a few dry twigs and leaves from his cave, and from these he slowly built his fire, adding drier bits from nearby. After ten minutes it was burning steadily and large enough to dry out and burn bigger sticks which were scattered around the hillside.
When he had a good bed of coals he had dropped his lizard on and let it cook. The taste of that meat, with the juice and fat dribbling down his chin, was one of the most exquisite things he could ever remember. He finished it way too soon, but that was good with his stomach so shrunken.
Since then he had shepherded his fire, bringing it to his cave that night and keeping it continuously burning now for thirty days. He had worked out a way to wrap embers in many sheets of damp paperbark and carry this in his helmet. In that way he could keep it alive for many hours, ready to spring back into life when he stopped and blew on it. He had his lighter but that was only a reserve, it would be gone in no time if he used it to make a fresh fire each day.
The day after he caught the lizard he had set to work creating things he could use to aid his survival. He had used the mesh from the seat, with some wire and a pole to make a hand net. With that he had caught tadpoles and frogs in the streams, and sometimes little fish. He had found a flattish hollowed out piece of stone, and worked on it to grind it out further; until it held about a cup of liquid. If he slowly heated it in the fire he could make an acceptable tadpole soup. Various insects made tasty additions, grubs, termites, caterpillars, even the odd cockroach; he only drew the line at ants. He would have loved salt to flavour the soup, but it gave a nourishing feeling as he swallowed it. To this soup base he added various plant foods, like the starchy roots of water lilies, as he gradually determined what was edible and safe to eat. So his survival kit included a fire ember bundle, a fishing net and a cooking stone.
He laughed thinking what his mother would say, “You become proper bushman, Vic, what happened to that takeaway hamburger?” But hell, while barbequed frogs on a stick did not quite equal a good chicken satay, beggars could not be choosers.
For two days after the weather broke he had concentrated on feeding himself and rebuilding his strength. He had made a better splint for his leg, now starting to set at a slightly crooked angle. It was beyond him to fix properly, but he set it as straight as he could in the splint, using pressure on the bent side to pull it back. He would tighten the binding until it hurt a bit, then do something to block the hurt out and after an hour or two the pain would ease back. So over the last month, while he had not got it fully straight, it had improved with the bone ends pushed together and the pain was now mostly just a dull ache. He had also made a good walking stick with a shoulder support, padded with some seat foam, so that he could walk effectively just lightly tipping the foot on the ground as he swung along.
He used his knife to cut strips of tree bark and pandanus leaves and twisted these together into heavy and light twine that he could use to tie things together. He made some simple spears out of lengths of wood some with fire hardened tips, others using jagged metal pieces from the floor of the helicopter wreck. When his leg and balance got better he tried to spear larger fish or small animals he got close to. A couple of times he succeeded, though nothing was big enough for a feast.
So he made better weapons. He broke one of his metal poles into shorter lengths and used one piece to fashion a strong knife, better for cutting and digging. With the second piece he fashioned a harpoon like spear head with a tip that would not slip back out of a big fish or other animal. He tied light but strong twine to the back of the timber shaft and carried it with the end tied to his pack. His logic was if he hit something big that would stop it getting away, the creature could not run or swim fast or far dragging his pack. So far he had caught nothing other than a couple of good sized fish but he would keep trying for a big wallaby or kangaroo.
The idea of a whole wallaby roasting in the fire grew large in his imagination, though as yet he had only glimpsed these in the distance. He also made a couple of shorter throwing sticks, slightly curved, that he could use to try and bring down a low flying bird.
Now he wished he had paid more attention when his grandfather tried to teach him desert bush craft. He could surely use those skills now. They were foreign to a town camp boy, but he was learning, self taught.
He had kept an eye out for a hollow branch which he could block at one end to carry water, and finally found a piece burnt in an old bushfire. Now he used that to hold water. He had also searched for soft clay that he could use to make an eating or cooking pot, and remove the need to carry his heavy stone, but that had not materialised so far.
On the third day, when he had made all the urgent things he needed and started to rebuild his strength, he had set out to explore his surroundings. His cave was on a shoulder of the hill with the creek to one side. It still flowed steadily but had fallen to a level where he could cross it in knee deep water.
The hill shoulder went for a few hundred yards on a moderate slope before it came up against a huge cliff, hundreds of feet high. At one end it curved around making an impenetrable barrier up against the river, where the gully cliff merged with the river cliff. At the other end he could see the hill shoulder with the cliff behind it narrowing in towards the gully where the creek flowed out of higher hills. It followed this path as it curved out of sight. This direction, away from the river, was where he would look for a path to the top.
It sounded easy, and he tried to trace it on his map. But his map gave him no detail at this scale; it simply showed a broken place running in the rock and going back for several kilometres before it vanished somewhere towards the top of the mountains. He knew he must get to the top of these mountains before he could head out cross country.
By his figuring he had to climb up several hundred feet to reach the flat land at the top. He had used a process of trial and error to work out a way. The hillside valleys were treacherous places, with many areas of loose sliding rock and never ending sheer cliffs, where an apparent path suddenly ceased, vanished into thin air and a chasm of hundreds of feet lay before him.
He had planned to set off and soon carry his gear to the top then head overland, but it was much more difficult than that. With his level of incapacity he could not explore safely and carry his gear at the same time. So he had evolved an approach where he would explore alternate days and shift his base camp on the other days. The exploration was to find a safe path higher and further away from the river, as well as a place with food, water and shelter to allow him to stop and rest.
The day after he found a new campsite he would first shift his gear and then spend the rest of the day fixing and improving his equipment and building up his stores of food. He experimented with cooking and drying the animals he caught. At the start the frogs were plentiful, then he caught a couple of fish which were big enough to smoke. One night, at dusk, he managed to bring down a fruit bat with a throwing stick.
He had also worked out how to make a cake with a starchy plant root that grew in the soft dirt in gullies. He would pound this up into a paste, shape it into palm sized flat cakes and cook them on a hot stone. Their flavour was close to disgusting but they did not upset his stomach and, after he had eaten a couple, he would feel better, as if some real food had part satisfied the hunger which always sat beside him.
He had figured he needed a reserve of food, and tried to achieve this while he could, sensing the going was likely to get much harder in some places. What he had really hoped for was a wallaby, because then he could dry a large amount of meat in one sitting, as well as fully satisfy his current craving for meat. He experimented with making snares, which he set on likely looking trails along rock edges, fashioned out of wire and bark twine. He had succeeded in catching a couple bush rats in them, but the bigger game eluded him.
The search for an escape from the maze of cliff valleys had been so much harder than he expected. His first creek soon broke into several branches each climbing along its own valley gorge. He would follow the winding passage along a rocky creek bed, slowly clambering up and down over boulders only to find it ended in a fifty foot waterfall with no way to get to the top. He also tried the hillsides to see if they gave ways to come around the sides of steeper cliffs, but again he mostly struck dead ends.
In the end the most promising valley system had seemed to be a large secondary creek which ran off the main creek about a kilometre up from the main river. It climbed steadily following a relatively open valley, with steep but not sheer hills flanking it.
Twenty notches had been cut into his stick by the time he got to a place which he reckoned was about five kilometres along it. At this point it turned suddenly hard right. As he came around this bend he saw towering cliff all around and no way up. Looking at it he had begun to think it was impossible to get to the top, a maze with no exits.
At that point he had contemplated a return to the river, to try and fashion a raft which would allow him to float down to the mouth and from there he could use the tide to bring him up the Victoria River until he came to somewhere like Bulloo River where he could get help. He decided to give it another week to try for the top before he retreated and sought an escape that way.
He backtracked along this valley for about a kilometre to where he remembered a significant branch to the right. At that time the country to the right had seemed steeper and it had seemed counter intuitive to go up there. But he must try.
By then, despite limited food, his body was getting much stronger; he was using his broken leg, not to take real weight, but to give him an extra hold and counterbalance as he climbed. He remembered movies where mountaineers used pegs driven into rock crevices, for hand holds and thought that was worth a try. There were a couple places where, early on, he had to retreat from ten foot cliffs which, if he was fully able, he could have scaled, but which were beyond him in his then state.
So he had reasoned that wooden pegs could be driven into rock cracks to surmount these, and twine used to lift his pack up after him. He found a place by the creek where several large saplings grew. He bent and broke these into lengths which he put in the fire and burnt theme through in their middles into increasingly smaller lengths. When it was done he had twelve solid wooden sticks, each one to two feet in length, with a fire hardened point at one end.
That, plus about ten metres of bark twine which could hold his weight, became his climbing equipment. As he worked along this new valley he had begun looking at it with different eyes, searching for parts where the sides might be scalable with his new climbing gear.
About a kilometre along this new creek he came to a waterfall of about twenty feet, where the rock ledge blocked him. But at the sides were cracks in the rock which he thought he could scale. It took several hours and many goes, but his techniques improved with practise and in the end he mastered a crab style, sideways climb where his strong arm and leg pulled him to the next level while his weaker side gave an anchor. By nightfall that day, using three pegs left in key locations, he made it to the top of this waterfall.
He rested there and the next morning he replenished his stores. To his great delight he had caught two fish of eating size in his dip net. He set off again in the late morning and by about lunch time he came to another similarly sized cliff. This time, his climbing technique was much better and it only took an hour to scale before he pushed on again.
From there on the creek bed was covered in large boulders higher than his height and his progress had been incredibly slow. The valley sides had become much too steep to climb. Slowly he had advanced, only making a few hundred feet a day. For three days he followed this narrow valley. It twisted and turned like a corkscrew but he climbed steadily.
By the end of that time he had felt he must be nearing the top of the mountain. In the late afternoon he had rounded another twist in the valley, conscious of a noise ahead. As he got a clear view, in front of him had been a beautiful waterfall, flowing over cliffs into a lovely circular pool of water. Above this waterfall it had looked like the hillside ended, at least from his view from below he could see no more hills rising behind. But all the cliffs in front of him and to the sides were sheer. There was nowhere that a mountain goat or rock wallaby could scale, let alone a half crippled man.
He had felt a burning disappointment to be trapped there despite the majestic waterfall. The beauty of the scene took his breath away, but he had wanted to scream in frustration at being so near and yet so far.
He had made himself rest for two hours. He had swum in the waterfall pool, luxuriating in its crystal clarity and speared a fat catfish, the best meat he had found thus far. With this food in his belly he knew he must not give up.
It took another five days to get to the top and the application of a different logic. He backed up to the first useful looking side valley, but this time rather than trying to think as a person he tried to think as a rock wallaby.
He sat and watched these elusive creatures. He looked for places where they had left their dung, he looked for places where they rested. But he particularly looked for their trails. If there was a place where they could get up and down the side of these hills then he would do so too, even if he had to crawl.
After a couple of blind tries which left him exhausted and still at the bottom of the valley he cracked it. It was a really unobtrusive place; it just looked like a fissure and crack in the rock. But as he watched and learned he realised that rock wallabies were following this path from the high sides of the hill down to water.
So he worked his way up, just himself this time, his gear left on the valley floor. In the end it was surprisingly easy, a couple of times he had to worm around narrow gaps sliding over smooth rocks on his belly, but he suddenly found himself on a gently rising rock scree slope that continued for a few hundred yards to a low ridge. At the top he came out into an open valley, a sort of grassy woodland, with rich deep soil and a creek meandering along it before it plunged over the cliff edge. Behind it were only the low ridges of upland hills.
That was two days ago. He had felt so elated; he had made it to the top and at the top was food aplenty. It had taken the rest of the day to bring his things to the top, but it was easy labour knowing the way ahead was open. That night he had caught a large fish in the creek and a duck, both of which he roasted and fed on until he could eat no more, then he had dried the leftover meat.
He had rested more yesterday and replenished his larder, making a good batch of his flat cakes. He had even found a native bee nest in a low branch and broke out a piece of hive. The sugary bush honey gave him a wonderful energy lift and he had used some as flavouring to hide the bitter taste of his cakes.
He had thought of setting a snare on this narrow path to catch one of the wallabies, it was the perfect place and he was sure it would have succeeded. But within a minute of thinking this he had decided he would not do that; like the ‘River God Baru’ crocodile the wallabies had helped his escape and in return he would do them no harm. Instead he ascribed them their own special, dreamtime ancestor totem, in thanks.
Now, on this new day, his thirtieth day he was leaving nowhere and on the way to somewhere. He walked on with purpose, despite pain in his shoulders and an already aching leg. At last he crested his first ridge and thought, a kilometre down, only 399 to go.
Dawn of day 31 was cold and cloudy, though the rain had stopped. A big thunderstorm had swept over Vic in the night, and despite his paperbark shelter, which had kept most of the cold rain off his skin, wetness still found ways through. For the last two hours before he arose, in the predawn light, he shivered almost uncontrollably. In that first pale dawn he dug deep in the covered coal bed of the fire and found some still glowing embers. He would not cook now, but wanted to feel some warmth creep into his skin and bones before he set out on another day of walking.
Then he decided it was not worth the effort. Although it would be comforting to sit by a burning fire and soak it up, he would warm just as fast by walking and, with everything so wet, it would take half an hour to get the fire burning well enough to offer much comfort. Now it was light enough to see he could make his next half kilometre in that half hour.
A couple of times in the night, when he was most cold, he had thought of getting up to start walking and warm up that way. But with thick cloud the night was very dark and walking with only one good leg was fraught with peril when he could not see. He could not afford another broken leg, or even to badly re-injure the damaged one, that would make walking out of here impossible.
He reckoned he had made six kilometres yesterday. It was only an educated guess, but it fit with the geography he could read from his map. Six kilometres did not sound like much; hell if he was fit with two good legs he could have done that in an hour. But he could not step on one leg, only lightly touch it to the ground. And that meant that every second step he had to swing his body forward on the walking stick, it taking the place of his bad leg. It was not too bad to go a hundred steps like that, even two or three hundred. But after five hundred his shoulder, which was still tender from the crash, was burning like fire from supporting his body with each alternate step. Five hundred steps was the limit before his body needed to be rested.
If he pushed it further he started to make mistakes, once he had missed a hole and his stick had gone into it, upending him. Another time, when he flinched from the pain in his shoulder, he had not made the step properly and landed badly. In the attempt to correct he had tried to take full weight on his bad leg. Christ it had hurt, but worse it had seemed to give a little, like he was starting to tear at the weak joining of the bones. So he knew he must be careful. But he could not sit and wait here for another month until his leg was strong enough to take full weight.
Anyway enough daydreaming huddled around the non-existent fire. He quickly packed embers for a fire around midday when there would be enough dryness for the wood lying around to catch fire and burn properly. He loaded his pack and other items and walked on. Slowly he made his steps and as he went the steps added into tens, hundreds and thousands.
Each day merged into the next, the routine so similar.
Walk two hundred steps, rest until he counted to fifty, walk another two hundred, rest, walk, rest, walk rest, until a thousand steps were passed. Then sit down on a flat rock or log for ten or fifteen minutes, chew a honey cake or piece of dried fish and let the muscles get their energy back to do it all again. At four thousand steps he would stop for lunch, reckoning that as four kilometres, a big break.
He would light a fire, heat his cooking stone and make a soup with whatever was to hand, part drunk, part eaten. Then look for midday food opportunities, a reptile in the sun, a fish in the shallows, perhaps a low flying bird with a stick, or some bush apples or plums. Then walk two more kilometres in the afternoon, before searching out a stopping place, stopping while the sun was still high enough, He would find a place near a creek or waterhole, where frogs and other water creatures promised easy food. Snares were set for a bush rat or other likely meal. Then time was spent digging for yams and roots, lily bulbs or whatever was to hand, fresh cakes for dinner and cold cakes for breakfast. Any excess meat got dried and smoked over the fire.
He always ate yesterday’s food first unless it was fully dried; it was safer than keeping food for longer and seeing it go mouldy and he did not want to get food poisoning. Sometimes when his evening preparations were done he would allow himself an hour to lie and sleep in the falling sun. It helped give his exhausted body strength to hunt and prepare a proper evening meal and at that time there were less mosquitoes to disturb his sleep than in the night.
He did not know what was worse, the chronic tiredness or the chronic hunger. Both were always present even when he felt his belly was full or he had just slept for the night. He knew he really needed better nutrition for both his strength and stamina. He craved fat and sugar and fresh fruit and vegetables. But his mind was in a positive place as he was slowly making forward progress and each day his bad leg grew a bit stronger and his body continued to heal its injuries.
In the late afternoon he would get a good fire going, waiting for the evening meal. Then that hour just on dusk was his hunting hour. He would watch where birds landed, so he could sneak up as they roosted. He would watch for fish movements in the shallows, a chance to use his spear. Sometimes he would stake out a track to a waterhole and wait patiently for an animal to come to drink; twice in his first two weeks he had got a wallaby that way, and spent the next morning smoking and drying all the surplus meat.
He now had several pounds of dried meat and about twenty yam cakes as a food reserve. He decided he would try and walk further each day, increase to eight kilometres or eight thousand steps. His progress on the map seemed to line up with these distances pretty well, maybe a bit less, though it was hard to judge with the ups and downs and detours. The extra two thousand steps was really hard for the next week, then it got easier so he went to nine thousand and then ten.
He found his need for food increased as he walked further, and he had started to use his reserve. He could also feel the muscles on his body start to fall away further and he realised he was losing strength. He decided he would look for a good place to stop for a couple of rest days, to build up his reserves, and then try to maintain a steady eight to ten thousand steps per day from there.
He realised now that ten thousand steps was falling short of ten kilometres on his map, perhaps eight kilometres was closer, but if he could do eight or nine thousand that was still around seven kilometres.
He found a good cave in a low rocky hill near a big waterhole and decided that this was his rest place. Each day now he let himself sleep until the mid-morning, those early cool morning hours gave the best rest. Then he hunted, fished and dug roots for the rest of the day. During his days in the cave, he caught two fat magpie geese, two good sized catfish, speared in the clear water, and one wallaby. Plus he had as many yam cakes as he could carry. His stick now had over fifty notches. He wanted to be out of here before he got to one hundred.
His leg could now bear the weight for a half shuffling step, though he still used his stick to ensure he did not stumble and do himself damage. Day followed day, sixty days passed then he was at seventy. That meant he had been walking for forty days now, making it early March by his calculations. Mostly he did between eight and ten thousand steps, though there were places were the country grew very rough and he only made five of six thousand, and also places where the hills and gullies forced him to detour from his intended path or even backtrack. He realised he was going as well as possible but also that he was burning out his body and slowly destroying it. He needed more starch and fatty foods, dried meat was good but the chewing now took effort and his vegetable diet was limited and also hard to chew.
He was now in the very top of the Fitzmaurice catchment and his map showed a place called Wombungi Outstation somewhere near here. He decided he would try and find that, perhaps there would be someone there, perhaps some food. On his seventy second day, his mind was wandering as he walked, ever returning to steak and chips, alternating with pictures of his mother.
And then there was an image of Susan, always Susan was in his mind or nearby now as he walked. She was the purpose, the thing that most strongly drove him on. He had a sharp etched memory of her face that day he last saw her, bold and challenging and yet with a quiet hopeless desperation. Mostly hidden, but there to read for those who looked right in. He knew she really needed him.
So he kept walking, one step and then a second with part support from his stick, repeated a thousand times before he needed to lie down and rest and often fall asleep. It was all he could manage now. Then he would wake up and make himself repeat it, perhaps two or three times in a day. He realised his body was starting to fail him but he just had to force himself to keep going.
Suddenly he found his way stopped. He looked down at what was in his path. It was a four barb cattle fence. In the last week he had seen an occasional scrub bull in the distance, or a track, but he and they had kept away from each other. Now a sign of real cattle. And with real cattle maybe food and people.
He followed the fence now. It was easier than walking blindly through the bush. And it had a graded track along the edge so the walking was easier. Just on dusk he reached a corner with another fence, so he followed this. In the last light he saw some station buildings in the distance. He hoped it was Wombungi, it must be Wombungi.
He did not know this place or its people. He had a memory that it had been a cattle station but had been sold to the aborigines, though he some vague idea that it had an outside manager and ran cattle, but it was only second hand hearsay.
Still whether it was a cattle station or an aboriginal camp he hoped there would be people who would know of and help him. He wished he could hear a generator or see some lights but there was nothing.
He came to the front door and banged but it was closed. He tried the door; it was locked. He walked around outside but there was no easy way in. He wondered if there was a car or some other vehicle he could drive, or maybe something else useful. Maybe even a store of food.
He checked the outbuildings, not much on offer there; he found a tin which would serve as a billy can and a half packet of biscuits on the shelf of a shed. He ate the packet of biscuits and, exhausted, lay down on the shed floor to sleep. He woke to thunder and lightning in the early morning, then the sound of rain on the tin roof, but rolled over and slept on, pleased to be dry and out of the rain.
In the morning light he better explored his surroundings. It was clear that the station was used, at least in the dry season. But it appeared to have been abandoned over the wet. There were no cattle in the close in yards though he had seen some fresh tracks in the big paddock he had walked around. The house was locked up tight. He knew that he could break in if he made an effort and would probably find some food. But unless there was a phone, which was uncertain, it was of limited use. The one thing he found which was useful was a big map hanging on the wall of the shed. It showed the paddocks and roads.
There was a road to Dorisvale Station, which looked like it was thirty of forty kilometres, and there was a road to Innesvale Station which looked like it was seventy or eighty kilometres.
Dorsivale Station was closer but he did not know the people there. He was far from sure it would have people there in the wet season, and if not it was a long way to walk to Pine Creek or the Darwin road.
Innesvale he knew, another now aboriginal owned station, but with a manager. He had not done work there but had met the manager and his family in Katherine at the Show. He was almost sure there would at least be someone there over the wet, and it was not too far from the Katherine Timber Creek road should he be wrong.
So he decided to walk to Innesvale. He decided he stop finding food, now he would just eat the remaining food that he carried and walk as far and fast and he could each day.
He abandoned his pack and other possessions except for the walking stick and billycan, which he filled with his food. He found an old piece of canvas which he wrapped around his shoulders to replace the paperbark. If he was fit he knew he could have walked it in two days, he hoped he could do it in three days.
It was an hour after dawn on the fourth day when he stumbled up to the station house to find a caretaker eating his breakfast.
The man did not know him but took one look at him and pulled out an extra chair. “Reckon you could do with a feed he said, you look a bit hollowed out.”
The kettle was hot, a cup of tea was poured and loaded with sugar and in few minutes there was a plate of toast and eggs in front of him. As he took in the food he could feel the sugar give him strength and his mind begin to clear. The caretaker did not seem to know about him and the helicopter crash, he realised that some people lived in their own world and left the outside world behind.
But the caretaker had a car and could drive him to Katherine. And there was a phone so he could ring ahead. He tried the number for the police and for while went around in circles trying to talk to someone who could help. When asked who he was he said he was Mr Campbell but that did not mean anything at the other end of the phone. Then he recalled the name he needed, Sergeant Alan Richards. It took three calls to track him down. He happened to be working that day in Katherine and at first he sounded impatient when he got put on the line.
Vic suspected he had no idea who a Mr Campbell was.
But Sergeant Richards put on his polite voice and said, “Yes, Mr Campbell how can I help you?”
Vic tried to find his own polished voice and said, “I understand you are the detective who led the investigation into Susan McDonald, the lady charged with Mark Bennet’s murder. I have some important evidence in relation to this. I thought you should know about it. I hope it is important enough to change what happens in her trial.
Silence came from the other end of the line. Then, “What did you say your name was?”
“Vic Campbell, you and your partner, Sandy, met me at the Paraway Hotel last December.”
Now he could hear the penny drop. “Vic, the helicopter pilot. But you are supposed to be dead, they told me your helicopter crashed out west, somewhere near the mouth of the Victoria River, they found wreckage floating in the water. Where are you, and what is going on?”
Vic replied. “Well, best I can tell I am not dead, bit skinny and hungry looking. I had a long walk to get here, took me upwards of 75 days, or at least I have 76 notches on my walking stick without one for today.
I have just arrived at Innesvale station which, as I am told is a couple hours’ drive west of Katherine. The caretaker has offered to drive me to Katherine. Thought maybe we could meet and I could fill you in.
Sergeant Richards then said. “I imagine you have not heard any news for a bit. I can fill you in as we drive. But you need to know that Susan has been found guilty of Mark’s murder at a trial two weeks ago. She will be sentenced today.
“I have been frantically working my butt off, right here in Katherine, looking for information that might change the outcome of that. Within two hours I hope to have all that I need. Then I was going to hop in the car and drive non-stop to Darwin to ask the judge to take it into consideration before he makes his sentencing decision this afternoon, soon after two o’clock. That is why I sounded a bit rushed.
“If you could get to Katherine no later than ten thirty this morning then you could come with me to Darwin and we can talk on the way. What I have now will certainly help her but anything you add will make it better. I know she doesn’t want my help but I am determined to give it anyway, and you are the one person who I think she will listen to.”
So they were on their way. Vic decided to skip the shower in the interests of time but found a clean pair of shorts and tee shirt even if a couple sizes too large. He also put clean socks on his feet and returned them to his battered boots. With that they left.
It was a crazy rushed drive to Darwin, even though they stuck more or less to the speed limits. As they drove they talked. They both felt in a great hurry but with three hours of driving there was no rush to tell all.
As they started driving Alan gave Vic a muesli bar to eat, saying he looked like a starved Ethiopian and he could not afford the time to stop for a meal, so he would have to make do with that. Vic chewed it slowly, savouring every delicious morsel. It was not much food but he could feel more of his strength returning and his mind sharpening with each bite.
As he ate Vic filled Alan in on his miraculous escape. He even told him about the crocodile and how it seemed to be giving him a message from Mark about helping Susan and at the same time protecting him. Alan looked at Vic quizzically a couple times as he talked about the crocodile. But Vic stuck to his guns.
So Alan told him his own story about the huge crocodile out at the Mary River and how it appeared to be grieving as they took away the parts of Mark’s body. He said, “Sandy and I both saw it and we have told it to Charlie, the aboriginal fisherman who found the head. He gets it. But we have not told anyone else because we did not want to be called crazy.
“So don’t worry, I believe you. I don’t know what it is about this Mark, your friend, but it is clear he and crocodiles have some deep affinity.”
Vick laughed back, “Did you know he has a crocodile skin totem from east Arnhem Land, says the blackfellas out there kinda adopted him when he first went there to work. And now he carries a little carved crocodile as his totem crocodile spirit wherever he goes, Baru he calls it.
Alan dug in his pocket and pulled out the carved crocodile he had found at the billabong. “It doesn’t look like this I suppose. I found this on the bank of the Mary River about a week ago and somehow I feel like it is guiding me forward too. “
Vic nodded and laughed. “I suppose neither of us should admit it to the rest of the world or they will all call us nuts. To me it somehow seems like Mark is out there pushing and pulling the levers, the clever bastard. It feels like he and his crocodile friends are helping us. I suppose I should say that in a past tense, but somehow, since I met that crocodile out on the Fitzmaurice River, deep down I think of Mark as still alive.
“I know the truth will be bad for what people say about Mark. But I am sure he wants the truth out; he does not want to have Susan carry the can for what he did. That was the message he gave me out on the river and he entrusted me to deliver it. So I made myself keep on walking, step after step, even when my body wanted to lie down and give up.
“When we used to work in the bush together most mornings Mark would go off early and write into a diary. Once or twice he read stuff out aloud to me, like once he described me and my helicopter as a metal bird which the real birds laughed at for its clumsiness. It was really very funny, he had a gift to tell a good story.
“Anyway I asked if I could read it. He said no, it told all the bad stuff about him as well as the good and that he did not want me to know the bad stuff. I knew he was a mercenary in Africa, that is how he took the bullet in the arm, and he killed people there, but there was obviously more bad stuff as well that he did not want me to know about.
“But he said that, when he died, I would have his diary and I could read it all and know both the good and bad, like a brother should, and if I wanted I could tell the world his secrets.
“It was like he had a kind of death wish. He knew he would not live to be an old man, he said he was like a cat with nine lives but one day all his lives would run out and he thought it would be soon. He was not afraid, just determined to live life until it was over and then that would be that. He was completely fearless you know. Something must have happened to take away all the fear and put a hard dangerous thing in its place. All of us, his friends, sensed the dangerous bit though we pretended not to notice.
“But there was a good side too, kind and generous to his friends, good to bush people. He really got on with my mother, she told him she had adopted him even though he did not ask to be adopted, and he said he was pleased to have her as a mother as it really made me his brother. She said, having a brother was not so important, what he needed was a mother to take the place of the one he never had, most of all to give him some love inside, and that would be her job. I think she thought if only he was given enough love to replace what he had missed when he was little the bad part would go away. But it never did.
“So I think Mark looked to the girls to fill that space. There were lots of girls over the years but most of them never stuck. If they tried to hold on too tight he pushed them away. Once or twice I thought he really liked one, but a lot were just good time girls out for their own pleasure too and soon went on their way.
“He did not seem to mind a lot, “Easy come, easy go,” he used to say. It was like he was never prepared to invest much in them emotionally. So when they left it proved they were not worthwhile. Some were gorgeous and he could really charm them, but none seemed to go anywhere.
“Deep down I think he was looking for someone special, sort of like the mother he never had. The girl he needed had to be strong enough to stand up to him but not too pushy. Any girl who liked him and wanted to stay there could not hang on too tight. He really hated people who tried to bully him, either physically or with emotion.
“Then Susan came along and from the first minute it was different. He told me he saw her first on the beach at Cairns, before she saw him and right from then she somehow captured him, like by magic. So he went on a dive with her and made friends and the next thing they were lovers.
“By the time he left Cairns he had pretty much made up his mind she was the one. But then there was all this bad stuff he had done and he did not want her to see it. It was like he was trying to charm her, be open with her, yet something inside him kept closing her out.
“She was as captivated by him as he was by her. She was determined to find out who he was. I don’t know what the bad stuff was, but she must have found out something, something really bad, she as good as told me that. And that is when it went all wrong. Before that he had made a will which I witnessed, giving all he owned to her, not that she knew. And he made me an executor to the will, and made me promise, that no matter what, that I would look after her.
“But then when I found out what she had done, that day you told me at the Paraway Hotel, I was real mad at her. I went and saw her in prison and made her tell me what she had done. At first she tried to pretend, but I slapped her, told her I needed to know if she had killed my best friend and brother.
“She said ‘Yes, she had made a mistake and wished now she had not.’ She would not tell me why. But I knew, deep down, she had discovered something terrible about him.
“Then I asked her for the diary. I said Mark had promised it to me.
“So she gave it to me. Not the full sized thing. But she had made a copy, photographed it onto a tiny memory chip that fits in a phone. It was hidden in her shoe in prison. She said that it was given to me to respect Mark’s promise to me.
“She told me it was mine to read but to be careful with what I did about it, that it had bad stuff inside it about Mark, and that she did not want to poison his memory through this, particularly so the child she would have did not know this about his father.
“I think I knew about Mark’s bad stuff, deep inside me, before she said it, but then it was in my face. It made me responsible too. I knew then, that as I read the diary I would share her secret and so too I must share the decision about Mark’s future, to decide along with her what the world should know.
“So I still have the chip. It is almost the only thing that I have from the crash. It was wrapped in sticky tape and I put it in my wallet, which is still in my pocket. The chip may be wrecked from the water for all I know. But, even if it is, the original diary will be somewhere and the story will be in it.
“When Susan gave it to me, just before Christmas, I did not want to read it straight away. I did not want to know the bad things Mark had done. I knew they must be very bad for Susan to hide them away, like she did. All I can think of is that, perhaps, he did something bad to some of those girls I met.
“So I never tried to read his diary before I crashed. But when I got out of the water, and I knew Mark was helping me survive, I also knew that this tale had to be told and Susan would never tell it, it would mean destroying his memory and she will not do that.
“Susan thinks her silence will protect him but she is wrong. It will only harm her without helping him and that is an even greater wrong. Even if she locks this secret away inside herself so she can never tell, someone will still find it out one day.
“So I knew that when I got back I must tell what I know. And if I cannot read the diary on the chip I will make her tell me where the original diary is kept. I know that is what Mark wanted. Even she cannot be allowed to stop him from having his story told.”
Alan nodded as Vic talked. It made sense and fitted with what he had found out. He saw too that this truth had sat before Mark’s friend’s eyes over years past but loyalty had made him blind. It was left to this slip of an English girl to summon the courage to search and find. But now her own courage was destroying her. If she stayed locked up or worse, her blood would be on Vic’s head too, as it would be on his and Sandy’s for their own role in her destruction.
Alan told Vic his own discoveries; first about Mark’s real name and childhood; then about the suspicion of Mark’s role in a couple deaths as a teenager, but with no evidence they had never gone anywhere.
Next, that Mark had just vanished when he was eighteen, except for a single record when he was twenty, leaving on a plane going to London. They had not been able to find him overseas and assumed he must have taken another identity.
Then he came to the final piece of the puzzle, the text message from Susan to Anne asking her to investigate two names, and Anne’s reply. He told of the contents and how that message had been picked up in Timber Creek at 9.05 am on the last day anyone had seen Susan and Mark together, just at the time when Mark was seen driving out of town, with her asleep in the passenger seat. He told Vic how he had just found out this morning that the two girls were still missing. The American girl had taken a while to trace and the final phone call from the USA had not come in until ten am this morning.
Now it was Vic who was nodding. “Yes she must have found out later that day when she woke up, and Mark must have found out what she knew. So it fits with what she told me, that she was frightened when she killed him, believing he would kill her.”
Alan continued, “Yes she must have thought it would be the same for her as the others.
Alan then told Vic that, on the basis of the evidence of the text messages, he intended to go to the judge and ask him to delay sentencing until he could make an investigation about what happened to these other girls. He would point out that this gave grounds for self-defence or a greatly reduced sentence, regardless of what Susan herself admitted to.
So now, even though he had nothing directly against Mark, he had good grounds for a further investigation. And most importantly he had a story which made sense.
The reason he was in Katherine was that he had been allowed a couple days to work on chasing up the leads to the Mark Butler identity which seemed to be centred in Katherine. He had convinced his boss that this was required once he had the Vincent Bassingham stuff. It was just luck that he had still been there this morning getting the final bit of information before returning to Darwin to go to the court.
He had deliberately avoided telling his superiors what he had found out in the last day, because he knew they would want to do it all officially using the lawyers, media management and being super careful. But he knew there was not time and the publicity would be dangerous.
He told Vic he was very fearful that Susan had become suicidal and that once the judgement was given she would find some way to end it all for herself. So he thought his best chance was to break it all open in court; ask the judge to delay sentencing, even release her on bail, while his own investigation proceeded.
Vic said he would provide support by his evidence of the diary, he would tell the judge that and he would make his copy available to Alan or whoever was given the job of doing the investigation. It would support Alan’s story and give a further and better explanation of who Mark was and what he had done.
They were both confident this would be enough to change the court decision. But for Alan the real worry was Susan. He was terrified of what she might do when the truth she had been so desperate to hide came out.
Vic turned to Alan and said, “You worry about convincing the judge, let me worry about Susan. That is my real purpose in walking all this way here, to help her see the real truth. There is a truth that she has become blinded to, that Mark wants her to see. It is that she will betray him and his legacy if she seeks to harm herself or deprive her children of their mother, as Mark was deprived of his mother. I grew up with a mother, Mark did not.
By the time my mother found him and adopted him, it was too late to rescue him from himself. Susan sees danger if her children know their father and the evil he did. Much greater is the danger to her children if they never know their mother’s love for them, never know the joy of being held in her arms and comforted.
“This is what I must make her see; that of all the people here she is the best, the one who most deserves to live, the one who still has the most she needs to give.
I was lost in an empty place but I escaped, with the help of my brother Mark. Now she too must escape from her own soul’s empty place. I will lead her out, as Mark led me. It will be enough to bring her to the place where she holds her own children. Once she holds them, as my mother held me, she will know a better love than what she had for Mark, and that love will hold her fast.
So do not fear from here. In the moment of truth she will hate us both, she will fight to keep her secret. But there is a power in this truth that even all her will cannot stop. And, as the crocodile spirit protected me, his brother, from the river, so too will the power of this crocodile brother’s spirit protect her in her moment of danger”.
They arrived at the Supreme Court building in Mitchell Street, Darwin. The time was 2.05 pm.
They walked into court as a barrister was standing up to start speaking. Alan obviously knew him and they gave each other a subtle nod. Vic remembered the communication between himself and Alan about the timing of their arrival.
The court was jam packed; there were so many people that it was hard to separate familiar faces amongst the sea. However Vic’s eyes were not for the court at large, he was looking for Susan, searching towards the front of the field of faces, looking to the central place where she should be, awaiting the courts judgement. He kept moving his eyes from face to face until he found her. Despite his words of surety to Alan a bare minute before, he now felt uncertain at how his mission would be received.
Not that he would be turned aside; his purpose was both to meet a promise to Mark and to help Susan, whether help was wanted or not. But it mattered to him what she thought. Suddenly his eyes found her and in a split second their eyes were locked on each other.
He realised in the first instant that she had not recognised him, hardly surprising when he thought what he must look like. But as their eyes locked he felt her recognition like an electric shock. She called out his name, loudly and with joy across the silent court room, and then smiled towards him, an overwhelming and radiant smile. He could tell she wanted to come running towards him, to fling her arms around him, and he wanted that too, so much.
He felt his heart skip a beat; she was more beautiful in person than the image in his mind. He smiled back; basking in her warm smile then he waved his arm back toward her in acknowledgement, needing to do something to signal his affection direct to her. Her face lit up even more, she looked so delighted to see him, unable to believe it was true.
It was hard to think straight at a time like this. Must not let myself get distracted, have a job to do and must not let her influence me.
He realised Alan was speaking to him. “Would you just wait here for a second while I approach the judge and seek his permission to talk to him directly, one on one.”
Vic stayed where he was and watched as Alan walked forward and made his request. Initially the judge looked unsure and then he looked to the two barristers for reaction. Vic saw Alan walk over to the barrister for the prosecution and say something quietly to him, this person obviously already knew Alan, and after a few seconds of speaking he saw the barrister nod his head in agreement and, with his fellow barrister and Alan they followed the judge from the court.
Vic turned his attention back to Susan; she was sitting with her hand over her mouth looking stunned, her eyes boring into him, intense and pleading. He gave her another quick and intense smile, trying to convey comfort and certainty. Then he found himself unable to meet her gaze, knowing he must do something that she was fighting the whole world to prevent, telling the truth about Mark.
He saw Sandy, who he recognised from the meeting in Katherine, sitting next to Buck and his wife. Buck was trying to greet him with a delighted wave and he whispered to Sandy who was now waving too.
He walked over and they made a narrow space between them. They were both speaking at once, trying to ask the same questions, what happened to you, where have you been?
Both he and Alan had decided to tell no one en route of his return, they would let the news spread from here, they did not want a media pack waiting for them and interfering with what they had come to do.
Vic could feel a rising murmur of gossip spread behind him, people trying to work out who he was, mostly clueless both as to his identity and to why he had come. He saw a tight knit group of people extending to the side and behind Buck all looking at him intently, seeking an introduction or explanation. It was all too much, everyone clamouring for him and he suddenly felt faint and dizzy, needing to grasp at the side of the rail as he sat down. He realised it was a long time since he had eaten and his reserves were running low.
Buck looked at him with concern. Vic had still not found any words. Buck reached into his pocket and found a chocolate bar, saying, “I think you need this. You were always built like a greyhound, now you look like a greyhound starved for three months. Vic took it with thanks. He tore of the wrapper and took a big bite, letting sugary sweetness fill his mouth, and lift his brain into action.
“Thank you my friend,” he said to Buck, “You have no idea how much I needed that. Not quite the steak, chips and beer I have dreamed of over the last 75 days as I walked across that Godforsaken Empty Place from where I decided to park my chopper, but it still tastes so good. Now what were you saying. Oh yes, where have I come from? Well as best I can now remember it is a gorge about ten miles upstream from the mouth of the Fitzmaurice River.
“I was lucky to run into your bloke in Katherine,” he said, turning to Sandy, “and he offered me a lift to this establishment to join in the free entertainment, otherwise known as the hanging of our good friend Susan.
“But Alan and I, we think we have a thing or two to say which may upset all the well laid plans to bury her in a cell for a couple of decades.”
He suddenly realised that everyone else had stopped talking and whispering and his voice was resonating across this part of the court. Now Vic looked embarrassed, “Just a private conversation between me and my good friend Buck here. I will stop talking and keep eating now if it is OK.”
Buck’s wife, Julie, broke into delighted giggles. “Oh Vic, it is just so good to see you alive and well, if a bit thin, more like a scarecrow really. And still with the ability to make a joke about the worst of things.”
It was like a circuit breaker; Vic felt like he was home and slumped back in the seat, surrounded by his friends.
Around him the conversation rose from a murmur to an almost roar, everyone clamouring to spread their part of the story they were only just starting to understand.
Suddenly the judge’s gavel rapped on the bench. Everyone subsided into stunned silence. The judge’s assistant spoke in a loud voice, looking a bit surprised at the effect of his banging. “His honour has requested Mr Vickram Campbell join him in his chambers.”
Vic stood up and walked across, following the man from the court. A couple times he wobbled a bit, feeling light headed and not quite used to walking on his leg without a stick to support him.
He found himself seated in the centre of a group of four men, Alan he knew, the other three he realised were the judge and two barristers, all minus wigs. They all looked up at him expectantly and brief introductions were made.
The judge asked Vic to briefly tell him about his meeting with Susan and the object he had been given. He reached into his pocket, removed his wallet and found the small chip wrapped in plastic and gave it to the judge. He explained, “When I saw her in jail I asked Susan for Mark’s diary which he had promised when he was alive, to let me read it. I think it will explain the real reason for what happened between her and Mark which led to his murder.
“Susan told me a copy of Mark’s diary was on this memory card. I did not get to read it before I crashed and it has been in and out of the water many times since so I don’t know if it will work. But I believe that the truth about Mark and why she was frightened of him is here.
The judge passed this to Alan. “I assume you can get this transcribed and provided back to me with some analysis of what it means in the next few days, that is if it is not damaged. And even without it there is a clear inference from the texts as to why she was afraid.
“So, on this basis, I am prepared to make a ruling to suspend my sentencing until your investigation has been given a chance to gather sufficient information.
“I am also inclined to make a ruling that this lady, this remarkable lady I would say, should be released on bail forthwith.
“It is clear, whatever is found from here on, that she had a real fear of this man. I consider that there are good grounds for a retrial with this new evidence, even dismissal of the charge, though her past guilty plea makes it more problematic.
“Because of the way this evidence involves other parties, where there is grave concern about their fate, I will also impose a ruling that all the evidence I have heard here is to be held in total confidence to the parties present here until the investigation has had the chance to occur. Do I have the agreement of all of you to what I propose?”
They all nodded.
“With your permission I should like to speak briefly to Susan’s friend Anne before I announce my ruling, just to confirm from her own mouth about the text in question. Then, after I announce my ruling, I will talk to Susan McDonald and ask for her cooperation if she is willing to give it. Not that it will change my ruling if she does not; she has been through more than enough.
So Anne was called in. The judge briefly confirmed in the presence of the others that she had received and sent the texts which were referred to. Anne nodded her head and then smiled her grateful thanks to Alan.
She said, “Your honour, I promised her I would keep her secret until such time as she was able to tell it. I still do not know what it means but I have been so conflicted, keeping this hidden, knowing how it would go for her if it was not revealed. Yet I was bound by my promise to her. Today I decided that, regardless of my promise, I must reveal it. But it would have been a betrayal to her so I am glad that this did not come from me.”
The judge nodded and gave her a fatherly look. “I would feel lucky to have a friend as good as you. We both know your duty to the court, but friends are friends and promises are promises.”
Anne walked out and Vic followed her back into the court room with the others trailing behind.
When all were seated the judge started his ruling. “Ladies and gentlemen, as you may gather very significant evidence has just been brought before the court. It raises serious questions about whether the original guilty plea made by Ms Susan McDonald should, in the interests of justice, be allowed to stand.
“I have therefore suspended my judgement as to passing sentence until this new material is investigated. As this material appears highly favourable to Ms McDonald’s ultimate exoneration from these charges I have also ruled that she should be released on bail of ten thousand dollars, to apply forthwith.
“In addition, while I do not require it, I seek her cooperation to assist us with the investigations we need to pursue to resolve this matter.
“Until this investigation is complete I am not prepared to disclose any further information as to the nature of the new evidence. In addition I make a suppression order, effective immediately on all parties who hold the information, to which I refer, that has just been laid before the court. None of it is to be disclosed without the specific approval of this court. Its premature release has potential to harm this inquiry.
“I permit the release of my ruling today, but all other evidence I have heard today about Mr Vincent Marco Bassingham is hereby suppressed until I rule otherwise.”
With that he rapped his gavel and stated the court was dismissed and then he walked out of court and returned to his chambers.
For a minute there was total stunned silence as people tried to grasp the meaning of what they had heard. Slowly the people started talking amongst themselves, though still nobody had moved.
A minute later the judge’s associate came back out and asked that Susan accompany Sergeant Alan Richards and Vikram Campbell to the judge’s chambers. Susan was accompanied by a prison guard. The judge waved to him and to Susan’s handcuffs.
“You can take them off now, I have ordered her release, and I am assured that bail will be posted before she leaves the court.”
The handcuffs were removed and then the judge indicated to the prison officer to leave, suggesting he may wait in the court building proper if he needed further instruction.
The judge looked at Susan in a kindly way. “I think you have had a pretty rough few months. You can stop fighting us all now.
“We know enough now to know that while you have told us the truth about what you did, it is far from a full and satisfactory explanation of what happened. We do not know the full answer to why, but we know some more things thanks to Sergeant Richards here.
“For instance the key evidence which was brought before me and led to this ruling was the transcript of the text sent by you to your friend Anne and her reply to you, which makes it clear that there were deep suspicions held by you about the role of the man you knew as Mark Bennet in the disappearance of two other backpackers.
“So I have ordered an investigation into these matters by the NT police, to which Sergeant Richards will give his urgent attention. As you have heard I have suppressed all information relating to this out of my respect for the potential victims and their families.
“In addition, Mr Vikram Campell has informed me he holds a copy of his friend Mark’s diary which was given to him by you. I have instructed that this be provided to the NT police to assist in their investigation and Mr Campbell has already done so, though we are unsure whether it has sustained water damage during the last three months.
“Now Ms McDonald, many people have tried to compel you to do things over the last few months. All we can say is your strength of will has been extraordinary. Now we have this new knowledge we at least begin to understand the reasons why.
“Instead I ask you earnestly to assist us with this investigation, as you hold most of the real understanding about these events. I could order you to do so but I see no point, you are clearly not one to be intimidated by any punishment I have at my disposal.
“So, instead, I simply ask you, for the sake of the many people who fought for your freedom and for the sake of these missing girls, whatever their story may be, to assist us all.
Susan could think of no words to say. She had fought so long and so hard and it had all been futile, now the truth was out anyway. Nothing she could do could put the genie back in the bottle now. Even her thoughts of suicide seemed empty now that Vic had been returned to her, she could not, she would not waste that gift of life restored by what she saw now was a selfish act. Mostly she just felt exhausted and stunned.
She just looked up and nodded. Then she covered her face in her hands and her shoulders started to shake. She sat there, at first crying quietly then sobbing as if her heart would break.
After a minute Vic walked over to her and put his thin arms around her shoulders, brought her to her feet and led her outside. He realised that the main job for which he had returned was not to find her justice, not even to protect her from herself, but to hold and comfort this woman and bring her beyond this place of desolation.
He grieved for Mark; she grieved for Mark and for so much more, the loss of joy and innocence, the destruction of a belief in human goodness. Together they would share and let go of their empty places and find new meaning beyond it.
As they reached the corridor outside she reached out and hugged herself so tightly to him.
“I am so glad you came back. I am so tired of being alone. When you were gone too I felt I had lost every friend in the world. Now you are back I don’t want to ever let you go. I just want you to stay with me and hold me like this forever.”
Vic pulled her head into his bony shoulder and stroked it and kissed away her tears. “We are together and we will each make the other strong again,” he said.
Suddenly Susan started laughing. “We are such an odd couple aren’t we? The fat pregnant prisoner with the huge belly who waddles when she walks and the crippled wild man fresh from the jungle, who looks like he hasn’t washed or eaten a proper meal in three months, and who is mostly skin, hair and bones.”
Vic laughed back, “Well you have me described to a T, but you were a bit kind to yourself, you forgot your tear stained face with mascara all down your cheeks and the fact that, now that I have hugged you, you are starting to look and smell like me, with smears of bush dirt added to your pretty dress.”
Susan screwed up her face in a mock grimace. “Vic hug me again, I want more of your smell and feel on me, it is more real and better than anything else I can think of.”
So he pulled her too him again and they wrapped their arms around each other and held close for a long time. This time somehow it was more than a hug, it was a promise.
Susan thought of the syringe lying on the court room floor. She was glad it was there and she was here. She saw suddenly and clearly that a great madness had possessed her mind.
At last they separated and walked into the court room together. A handful of people had left but most were still sitting there, still looking stunned.
As she and Vic started to walk in the door together, holding hands, all eyes turned to them. A spontaneous cheer erupted and people started clapping for her, perhaps for Vic too, but it seemed mostly for her.
It came to her, I thought most of these people were my enemies, wanting to see me locked away, in previous days they would have been calling for my blood. But most of these people are actually on my side.
It was a big room with more than a hundred people packed in. Most of them were clapping and cheering for her, celebrating her freedom.
She looked around. There were Anne, David, her family, her cousins from Sydney, Buck and other station people, Sandy, Charlie and Rosie. But there were lots of others she did not know, people who had no reaon to care what happened to her. Yet, here they all were, come out to support her. She stopped in the middle of the empty courtrosom floor and smiled and waved, tears running down her face.
She said, “Thank you everybody, thank you with all my heart.”
Then she turned to Vic and said, loudly and clearly, so all could hear. “And most of all thank you to this man. For those of you who do not know him, his name is Vikram. He is the pilot of the helicopter which crashed on the Fitzmaurice River just before New Year’s Day.
“He has walked without stopping for the last 75 days with a broken leg to get here today. He tells me that, now he has made it, all he wants to do is go to the pub for a cold beer with a big plate of steak and chips. So, if you will excuse me, that is where we are headed.”
With that she gave him another hug and then walked across to her family and friends to say her thanks to them as the clapping and cheering continued.
It was far from over but she had hope again.
Graham Wilson lives in Sydney Australia. He has completed and published nine separate books, and also a range of combined novel box sets.
They comprise two series,
1. The Old Balmain House Series – three novels
2 The Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series – five novels
along with a family memoir, Children of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope
The Old Balmain House Series starts with the novel, Little Lost Girl, which was previously titled, The Old Balmain House. Its setting is an old weatherboard cottage, in Sydney, where the author lived for seven years. Here a photo was discovered of a small girl who lived and died about 100 years ago. The book imagines the story of her life and family, based in the real Balmain, an early inner Sydney suburb, with its locations and historical events providing part of the story background. The second novel in this series, Lizzie’s Tale, builds on the Balmain house setting, It is the story of a working class teenage girl who lives in this same house in the 1950s and 1960s, It tells of how, when pregnant, she is determined not to surrender her baby for adoption and of her struggle to survive in this unforgiving society. The third novel in this series, Devil’s Choice, follows the next generation of the family in Lizzie’s Tale. Lizzie’s daughter is faced with the awful choice of whether to seek the help of one of her mother’s rapists’ in trying to save the life of her own daughter who is inflicted with an incurable disease.
The Crocodile Spirit Dreaming Series is based in Outback Australia. It starts with the first novel, An English Visitor which tells the story of an English backpacker, Susan, who visits the Northern Territory and becomes captivated and in great danger from a man who loves crocodiles. The second book in the series, Crocodile Man, (previously The Diary), follows the consequences of the first book based around the discovery of this man’s remains. This third book, ‘Girl in a Cage’, is about Susan’s struggle to retain her sanity in jail while her family and friends desperately try to find out what really happened on that fateful day before it is too late. In Lost Girls Susan vanishes and it tells the story of the search for her and four other lost girls whose passports were found in the possession of the man she killed. The final book in the series, Sunlit Shadow Dance is the story of a girl who appears in a remote aboriginal community in North Queensland, without any memory except for a name. It tells how she rebuilds her life from an empty shell and how, as fragments of the past return, with them come dark shadows that threaten to overwhelm her.
The book, Children of Arnhem’s Kaleidoscope, is the story of the author’s life in the Northern Territory: his childhood in an aboriginal community in remote Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory, of the people, danger and beauty of this place, and of its transformation over the last half century with the coming of aboriginal rights and the discovery or uranium. It also tells of his surviving an attack by a large crocodile and of his work over two decades in the outback of the NT.
Books are published as ebooks by Shakespir, Amazon, Kobo, Ibooks and other publishers. Some books are also available in print.
Graham is planning a memoir about his family’s connections with Ireland called Memories Only Remain and also is compiling information for a book about the early NT cattle industry, its people and its stories.
Graham writes for the creative pleasure it brings him. He is particularly gratified each time an unknown person chooses to download and read something he has written and particularly write a review – good or bad, as this gives him an insight into what readers enjoy and helps him make ongoing improvements to his writing.
In his other life Graham is a veterinarian who works in wildlife conservation and for rural landholders. He lived a large part of his life in the Northern Territory and his books reflect this experience.
More information about Graham and his books and writing is available from the following sites:
Graham Wilson – Australian Author on Facebook
Graham Wilson Author Profile on Shakespir and Amazon
Graham Wilson’s Publishing Web Page
If you want to contact Graham directly please use the email:
Empty Place By Graham Wilson She sits in a jail cell. They say she killed her lover and fed his body to the crocodiles. She will tell no one what happened on that fateful last day they were seen together. She knows an awful secret but is determined to hide it forever. It is written in this man's diary but she has hidden that too. And there is a buried box which no one must find. The search, gets closer. She must stop them! Less English backpacker, Susan, is on trial for murder in Australia . The tabloids say she killed her lover, fed his body to crocodiles then hid the evidence. She refuses to say what happened. She is trapped within a jail cell and inside her mind in a place of guilt,horror and emptiness. Her only companion is a dark creature, a spirit of an ancient crocodile, which inhabits her dreams. Only one person knows and can help her. But he and his helicopter have vanished in the place that locals call The Empty Place. Only a few fragments of metal found washed out to sea indicate where he went. Everyone is convinced he has perished. Is there any way out for Susan. She is determined to plead guilty to protect her child from the deeds of the father. She refuses to reveal what occurred. She awaits conviction and sentencing, expecting to spend her life in jail. But the detective who discovered Susan's identity continues to seek the truth. He knows there must be another story to explain why. He must discover the past of this man she murdered to unlock the secret. The rest of officialdom just wants to lock this girl up and throw away the key. As time ticks away towards the trial, Susan's sanity is falling apart - guilt for what she has done, lonely depression at the prospect of years in prison without her child. She lost hope when the helicopter vanishes and lives inside herself in her own empty place. Yet she must still keep alive the fathers good legacy for the sake of the child. In her mind she sees an escape, she will return to her lover and his crocodile spirit - end it all and be free of this misery. Her friends and the detective suspect her suicide plans. They are desperate to help but powerless to protect her from herself. They must keep seeking truth. It is a race against time. Can the truth be uncovered before the trial ends. Susan is increasingly desperate too. She wants her escape, she must keep the truth hidden, the investigation is closing in. She must divert them. She has a plan, her own death will be the diversion and will bury the secret forever.