Aussie cold case murder mystery, steamy romance.
Sergeant Edwards was a lanky, stoop-necked man of fifty-eight. Ben stood at his shoulder while Barry Fitzgerald walked around the small wrought iron fence that enclosed the Goran family graves. “Can you see it?” Barry asked, pointing to the ground. The three graves were in a line. He was indicating that there may have been a fourth, unmarked grave, as was a local legend. It was commonly believed the ground had sunk in that spot in the past ten years.
Ben stepped over the fence. “It looks like a depression in the ground right here,” he suggested, getting on his knees and feeling the shape of the earth beneath the long grass. “It’s like when you pull out a stump. You can fill the hole, but the ground is never compacted enough, and over time it forms a depression.”
Ben and Barry took a shovel each and carefully lifted the grass from what appeared to be the grave site. The earth was damp and soft, but they had no idea of what depth they might find human remains, so the task of removing layers of soil was slow and meticulous. Barry went back to town mid-morning and brought drinks and food, and he brought two men from the local council.
Still nothing was uncovered by lunchtime, and the hole was beyond waist deep. Sergeant Edwards had a thoughtful expression marring his narrow face. “I don’t know if we’re going to find anything, men, but I have to agree the layers of soil are uneven, and it does look like the ground has been disturbed before. I’d say if there was ever a body there it’s been moved.”
“What now, then?” Ben asked. “We should go a little bit deeper, shouldn’t we? At least another few feet.”
“Barry, you had better go and get some sleep. I’ll leave you with it for the afternoon, Ben. I’ve got Senior Detective Grier arriving at two, and we’ll see if she can get anything more out of Bobby Ray. You keep the fellows going, and take that down another few feet. Call in if you find anything.”
Ben was left with the two council workers, and they scraped away at the increasingly dense earth and took the hole down to bedrock that afternoon. It was a long, frustrating day, and Ben had a sore back and blistered hands. He called into the station and found Sergeant Edwards chatting with Detective Grier, a sharp featured woman of fifty with a spool of black and grey hair pinned to the top of her head with blue spikes. He reported that the site had been empty and asked if Bobby had offered any further information.
Susan Grier smiled and shrugged. “He confessed to dreaming about a girl. He can’t identify her or the other men involved in attacking her. The young woman, Alyssa Lloyd, claims to be responsible for the roughing up she got last night. Bobby Ray has been released.”
Ben nodded and left his superiors to deal with it. He returned home, where there was a note pinned on his front door:
Mum’s here now and we’ll be staying at the motel
Thanks so much for your help last night
The bed had been made, and the kitchen had been cleaned. Ben had a beer, then a shower, then another beer, and he was about to put some dinner on when Kate rang and invited him to dine with her, her mother, and Bobby at the motel restaurant. Half an hour later he was seated across from a strikingly attractive woman with hair of deep burgundy and Kate’s eyes and smile, introduced as Gwen.
Bobby sat quietly throughout the meal, and Ben avoided talking about his situation as much as possible. The women spoke freely, though, and Ben learned that Gwen was a psychiatric nurse, and that she was involved in Bobby’s treatment and care when he was institutionalized in his early twenties. She was particularly interested in his dreams.
“They’re not necessarily accurate reflections of actual events. They’re more likely to be representative of emotions experienced during incidents that have been subdued.”
“So, it doesn’t mean he actually hurt the girl,” Kate confirmed as she squeezed Bobby’s hand.
“I don’t like it when girls are being hurt, Katie. I didn’t mean to hurt Alyssa, Officer McEwen. I like Alyssa. She’s my friend.”
Ben checked with Kate before responding. “I don’t think she’s badly hurt, Bobby. You frightened her more than anything. What were you thinking?”
“I don’t remember what happened. Alyssa was crying, and I was laying on her, and I ran away. I thought I was having a dream.”
“Well, we’ll have a talk to Doctor Matheson about that, won’t we, Bobby?” Gwen had the soothing, conciliatory tone of a mother. “And what’s happening over this side of the table, hey, Bobby? Do you think Katie likes Ben?”
“I think she does, Gwen. And I think Ben likes Katie too. He took Katie for a date, and when she came home her hair was mussed up.”
“Bobby! Sorry, Ben. They’re so embarrassing.”
“Huh!” Gwen exclaimed. “We can see the pair of you stealing glances. Now, Ben, don’t take any notice of Katie’s ‘I’m so cool’ bullshit. She’s a big romantic underneath.”
“I can see where Kate gets her tact from, Gwen,” Ben’s laugh was tentative, but it was well received.
“Well, tact is overrated, and sometimes it’s best to just say what you think,” Gwen argued. “Bobby taught me that.”
Ben had been stealing glances, and he had caught Kate’s glance a number of times during the meal. Gwen claimed the bill and took Bobby home, announcing that Kate and Ben looked like they needed some time alone. After an awkward moment of silence, Ben managed to say something.
“Well, I spent all day digging what we thought may have been Melanie Rose’s grave site, but we didn’t find anything.”
Kate looked up from the table cloth she was fiddling with. “He couldn’t hurt a girl,” she stated simply and categorically.
Ben nodded. He thought of her concern the previous night. She had obviously been worried Bobby may have been involved in the abduction and murder of Melanie Rose. That concern must have passed, though, and right then she had a light in her eyes that Ben recognized as determination.
“There’s no way Bobby would have possessed the maturity to abduct someone when he was, what, twenty years old. He was a big, goofy kid when Mum brought him home back then. There’s no way he could have murdered anyone.”
“Who’s Doctor Matheson?” Ben asked. He wasn’t about to argue, and what she said made sense. He was still only a child.
“That’s Bobby’s old doctor and one of my mum’s flings from a few years ago.” Kate suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry about Mum.”
“Why? I liked her. Straight to the point and no mincing words!”
Kate had taken to fiddling with the tablecloth again. She went on, offering only a brief upward glance as she spoke. “Thanks for putting me up last night. You’re a good friend.”
The softness and sincerity in her tone touched Ben deeply, but he had to swallow the platonic connotation. He nodded a reply and couldn’t help yawning. After a long day, and having only a few hours’ sleep the night before, he was quite tired. He stood and waited for Kate to walk ahead.
“You’re staying here at the motel?” he asked, wondering whether she would have to walk back to Bobby’s house.
“No, we’re all staying at Bobby’s place. I’ll be okay with Mum there.”
“Can I walk you?”
“Oh, I have my car, lazy, huh?”
Ben ushered Kate from the restaurant. He held the door open and touched her back as she slipped past. Her skin was warm and clingy through the thin fabric of her blouse, and there was nothing platonic in the tingly rush that surged through his chest. She gave a final, fleeting glance as she got into her car, holding his gaze for longer that time.
Ben strolled home and stripped off. He folded back his bed clothes, and he slipped in and drew from his pillow the scent of that long, brown hair.
Was that hurt he had seen in Kate’s parting look, or perhaps anger? He wondered about that and about whether he should have called her again after the chinless guy had answered her phone.
Maybe I did over-react a little, he mused, but sleep came quickly.
Ben woke late the next morning. It was a day off work, and he lay staring at the ceiling, wondering what a local person would want with nails at Goran Hut in 1984. At least the paper bag was from Johnson’s Hardware in 1984, which meant it could have ended up at the hut within a few years of that, perhaps even late 1986. And what would be the use of nails at that time? The only timber was the walls, which were bolted, and the doors and the floor. Obviously nails would be to either make or repair something. Perhaps they were to repair one of the doors, or maybe the floor. But why would anyone wish to repair anything at Goran Hut?
He cooked up a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and tomato. He ate, then took a shovel, a crowbar and a thick pair of leather gloves from his garage. He rolled through town and down to Goran Hut Road. A light speckle of rain showered his windscreen, and by the time he arrived at the hut it had become a downpour. He gathered his tools and hurried inside as the sky opened up and a clap of thunder shook the ground.
As Ben suspected, the doors were constructed with bolts, and the only nails were those in the floor. He broke a rusted nail off the clump in the bag and got on his hands and knees. There were several types used in different areas of the floor. He matched the one from the bag with an area in the corner of the main living room along the wall separating the bedroom. He got up to get the crowbar and caught sight of a figure standing by the hole he had dug the previous day.
Thick sheets of rain were slashing the tin roof. The sky was black, the daylight reduced to a dull grey. Through the gloom he recognized the frail, emaciated form of Tom Lloyd with his head bowed and a whisky bottle clutched in his hand.
Ben walked out onto the veranda and called to his friend. There was no response from the older man, and Ben yelled to him again, but the thrashing of the rain on the tin roof of the hut was deafening. Tom’s vehicle was abandoned in the trees with the door open and rain teeming in. The old man stood motionless, and Ben decided it best not to disturb him.
He returned to the hut with his crowbar. The floor was constructed of broad hardwood planks, six inches wide and eight feet long. There were three rows of nails, one at each end and one in the middle. The plank closest to the wall had the small steel chain and loop bolted to it. Ben chose the third plank from the wall and wedged the crowbar and levered. It creaked and gave way. He lifted it clear and got on his knees to have a look beneath.
His heart instantly clenched, an icy chill surging through his being. The rain water was flowing through a furrow in the ground, and partially exposed was a human skeleton. There was a hand, a skull, a ribcage, part of the right leg and a complete right arm. The skeleton was intact except for the hand, which was lying separate and appeared to have been washed about twelve inches along the furrow in the ground.
Ben turned at the feel of another presence in the room and met the dead eyes of Tom Lloyd. “She’s here, Tom,” he uttered thickly. “They must have moved her.”
Tom approached and dropped to his knees. He took a breath, and his head moved up and down in slow acknowledgment, then it shook as his eyes welled with tears. Ben touched his shoulder and felt the older man’s body convulse. He began to sob and collapsed onto the floor, and Ben moved back and stood by the door. He gave the old sergeant a few minutes, and when Tom stood, he approached again.
“I need to call this in, Tom. Will you stay here?”
Tom nodded. “It was the retard?”
“We don’t know. It looks like he may have been involved.”
Tom took a swig from the bottle he still held. He took another deep breath, which seemed to fill his frame. He shook his head slowly and deliberately. “I’ll wait here,” he said, and he wedged the whisky bottle under his arm and took a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and started building a cigarette.
“We don’t know for sure what involvement Bobby Ray has had here, Tom. He must have remembered the girl was here somewhere, but there were others involved.”
Tom glanced up as he licked his cigarette and rolled it. “I’m not going to do anything stupid.” There was no emotion in his voice. “Let’s just get her out of here.”
Ben didn’t have a radio in his car and wasn’t carrying a phone. God what an idiot. Of all days to forget my phone. He drove back to town and sat for a moment outside the station house thinking of the implications for Bobby Ray. No doubt he would be brought in for further questioning, but Ben doubted he was capable of murder. He thought again of Nigel Khel and wondered if he had any involvement. He had been a friend of Bobby’s back then, and he was following him to Goran Hut the other night. Perhaps he was concerned about the girl’s remains being discovered. Perhaps Nigel Khel was the one who moved her, and in that case, why would he?
Ben fronted his sergeant and explained the situation. Sergeant Edwards immediately called Detective Grier. “Thanks, Ben. Send Barry in, would you?”
“Should I stick around?” Ben asked.
“No, we’ve got it. We’ll see you next shift.”
Ben was pleased to be freed. It would be a painstaking process to retrieve the remains, and there would be no identity established for at least 24 hours. He was more concerned with what effect the situation would have on Kate, and he decided to drop in and let her know what was happening. He hurried to his car and rolled down the hill. The rain had set to a steady downpour, and he got soaked as he ran to the veranda. He pasted his hair back and knocked then waited wringing his hands.
“Hello again,” Kate offered amicably. She had come to the door with a big, pink dressing gown wrapped around her body, hugging herself against the cold wind howling through the open doorway.
“May I come in for a moment?” Ben returned formally. “I have some news about the missing girl.”
Kate moved back, and he stepped inside the house and closed the door. He was dripping and remained near the door so he wouldn’t wet the rug on the floor. Kate kept a good distance. She waited with folded arms and a questioning look on her face.
“We found her remains up where I found Bobby walking the other night. It looks like someone killed her there at Goran Hut and buried her beneath the floor. They’re up there now. They’ll probably want to question Bobby again.”
“He did see her killed, then?” Kate’s voice trailed off weakly.
“It looks like he may have. It’s hard to say what would have happened, but he must have been there at least.”
“Well, what’s going to happen now? Bobby’s not here. Mum took him to Sydney to see his doctor.”
“I don’t know what they’ll do exactly, Kate. I’ll try to keep you informed as best I can. They’ll be all day up there going over the site and probably won’t even have identified the remains until tomorrow. Anyway, don’t worry. I’m sure everything will be fine for Bobby. I can’t imagine him, you know… he seems too placid for anything violent.”
“Well, he didn’t hurt that girl, but he’s not that placid when he gets stirred up.” Kate seemed to be explaining something she had already conceived. She moved a little closer and sat on the arm of the lounge chair. “I love him like a brother, but he does get violent sometimes. He put three men in hospital once.”
“Yeah, I know. That was the assault charge back in ninety-eight, wasn’t it? But it was self-defense.”
“They were friends of mine. Well, one of them was, only one time he got a bit rough with me in front of Bobby. And Bobby hit him, so his two friends tried to do something, and all three of them ended up in an ambulance. He’s gentle until provoked.”
“So, now you’re saying you think he may have done it?”
“No. I’m saying he hates any violence toward women. Even when it’s on TV he freaks out.” Kate stood. “Do you want some coffee, you’re all wet?”
Ben followed and sat at the dining table. Kate put the kettle on and fished a towel from the laundry. She seemed deep in thought, and Ben waited for her to speak again.
She finished making the coffee and sat down opposite. There were suddenly tears in her eyes. “So, what did he actually do to that other girl, Alyssa? Did he try to hurt her?”
“Hey, no, he didn’t hurt her,” Ben offered warmly. “I’d seen Alyssa here with him a few times, and it sounds like she instigated things, and they got a bit out of hand. I think he frightened her, but when I found him he was the one who was shaken up.”
“And she’s all right? I want to go and see her.”
“Sure! I’ll go with you if you like.”
Kate sniffled and smiled lightly. “So, what are you doing today, anyway? Are you working?”
“No, I’m off today. Thought I might sort through my spare room. I think there’s a box of old CD’s in there somewhere.”
“Oh. I was going to call you. It’s a good day to watch movies, don’t you think?” Kate was fiddling with a teaspoon and blushing slightly.
“It is! It’s perfect with the rain and all.”
Ben’s heart was thumping. He sat looking at Kate as she toyed with the teaspoon, with her head bowed and her hair still ruffled from bed. He could see her supple neck and could easily close his eyes and remember the delicate texture of her skin, how it felt and how it tasted. He could smell her soft, intoxicating scent, and he thought of the way she had moaned into his mouth when he kissed her.
“Bobby said something odd last night,” she declared suddenly. “He had a nightmare and came downstairs pretty upset about it. He said he hates how soft her arms are. I asked him whose arms, and he said something about her not being very strong and that he wished she was strong like he is now.”
“He wished she was strong enough to fight,” Ben suggested.
“That’s what he said. Then he went into his shell, and when I woke him up to go back to bed, he couldn’t remember the dream at all.”
“Perhaps his doctor will be able to sort it out. What your mum said about not taking him too literally made sense. Like his dreams are just metaphoric. I can relate to that.”
Kate shivered and hugged herself in her dressing gown. “Anyway, I’m glad Mum’s taken over. Bobby’s always been more open with her.”
“Hey, that’s a good movie right there!” Ben was craning his neck to see the television screen. The movie about to begin was Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and Robin Williams.
“I know. I was waiting for it to start. Do you want to stay and watch it?”
“I would, but I’m all wet. I really should go home and get changed.”
“Well, we could watch it at your place. It’s too creepy here, anyway.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Ben’s heart rate surged again.
“Well, I have to put something on. Would you bring your car right up to the steps so I don’t get wet? As close as you can, please? I’ll only be a minute.”
The rain was still bucketing down, and Ben got soaked again on the short run to where he had parked on the street. He drove into the driveway and as close to the house as he could. Kate jumped into the passenger seat squealing and giggling, and clutching a plastic grocery bag that appeared to have clothing in it. “Stop at the shop, we’ll get some munchies.”
By the time they arrived at Ben’s house, the movie was fifteen minutes in. Ben quickly changed into dry clothes and settled on the end of the lounge. Kate had her legs tucked up under a frumpy floral skirt at the other end. He was taking up one cushion, and she was taking up two. And there was a cushion between her feet and his thigh that remained the forbidden zone throughout the movie.
Ben did place his hand on the cushion sometimes, and Kate’s woolly, pink socks poked from beneath her skirt after a while, and her toes crossed the line, but the thought of reaching over and touching her was not something Ben felt sure he would be welcome to do.
With the rain having set in and a brisk southerly whistling beneath the doors, it was quite cold, and Ben brought out a blanket Kate cuddled up in. Following Good Will Hunting was a choice between John Wayne on one channel and a Doris Day musical on another. They agreed on the western, but Kate soon dozed off.
The next few hours for Ben were spent at a depth of peace he had not felt in some years. He loved the sound of the rain on the roof and the way it consumed the day, emptying the streets and hunting everyone indoors. His small, antiquated living room would usually serve as a fine sanctuary for his solitude, but he welcomed the presence of another being. It had been so long since he had felt at home, and right then he had a sense of warm contentedness. Of course, the presence of a beautiful woman dozing on his lounge on a rainy afternoon was not entirely real. He understood she didn’t truly belong there, but for the moment he was basking in the fantasy.
John Wayne had finished saving the day, and Ben flicked over to a Star Trek rerun. Kate’s pink sock had edged its way across the forbidden zone, and it was lightly resting against his thigh. He noticed her eyes had opened, and mid-way through the second Star Trek rerun she spoke.
“Can I stay over again tonight?”
Tom Lloyd sat in a small vinyl covered kitchen chair across the desk from his good friend and former subordinate Barry Fitzgerald. They were in the outer office of the police station house, and through a plate glass window was a meeting between Detective Grier and Sergeant Edwards. Tom could hear some of what was being discussed and understood they were planning to bring Bobby Ray in for another interview.
Barry was fiddling with a pencil, doodling on his cardboard desk protector. He expelled a breath and spoke. “It must have been someone local. There was nothing going on up at the hut the next day. There was no grave.”
“They buried her there later,” Tom uttered. “The retard was there, though. He was involved.”
“Maybe, but who the hell else? It had to be someone local for them to keep her and bury her, what, days later? And then come back and move her!”
The mental picture of sweet young Melanie being raped in the pretty, white dress she had worn to the Tulip Festival dance had haunted Tom ever since her disappearance. His gut was in a knot, and the hate was a sharp pain in the twisted centre.
Barry stabbed at the shape he had been scribbling. “They must have been worried about Bobby talking. That’s why they dug her up and moved her. They knew he would talk eventually.”
“He needs to talk some more,” Tom spat. “Get the fucking retard in here and belt it out of him. Find out who else, Barry!”
“Okay, Tom, settle down. From what I’ve seen of him he’s being co-operative enough about it.”
The meeting in Tom’s old office was finishing up. Detective Grier had gathered her shoulder bag, and she came out and walked past Tom without acknowledging him. Sergeant Edwards stood in the doorway for a moment then approached. He pulled up the vinyl kitchen chair from in front of Ben McEwen’s desk and sat next to Tom. He leaned back with his hands folding behind his head. His eyes settled upon Tom’s. “You okay?”
“I’m fine. What’s next?”
“Are you sober?”
“Yes, I’m sober! Don’t fuckin’ worry about me. Just get that retard in here!”
“We’ll get to him when we’re ready, Tom. And if you want to be involved in this you had better stay sober. If I smell it on you, you’ll be out the door immediately, understood?” Tom nodded his compliance and sat back as the sergeant went on to explain that the remains were being analysed, and they expected to have a positive identity by the morning. Tom took his tobacco pouch from his pocket and began building a cigarette. It had been hours since his last drink, and his hands were shaking, but it was the thought of sweet, young Melanie that was gripping his soul. And the vision of her crying for help in that hut that night while he was relaxing on the veranda of the station house was trembling through his being and twisting the knot in his gut.
Ben woke at first light and lay for an hour staring at his lounge room ceiling. His thoughts were dreamy and disjointed, spanning events in his childhood growing up with numerous foster brothers and sisters who had been taken in for short periods by his parents, to thoughts of having a family of his own in the future. His elder sister had a family. He had two nieces and three nephews back home, and he was looking forward to seeing how they had grown since his last visit.
His attention settled on the television, and he flicked it on and watched the morning news with the volume on its lowest setting. He made coffee and a bowl of cereal and moved to the computer. He was playing euchre when the bedroom door opened and Kate wandered out yawning and cuddling herself against the sharpness of the mountain chill. “God, Tex, it’s only seven o’clock.”
“Well, go back to sleep. You don’t have to get up yet.”
“What are you doing, though? Do you have to go to work?”
“No, I’m off today and tomorrow. I need to drive into Sydney, though.”
“Me too. I need some clothes. I might drive down today, before Bobby gets back. Mum said they’d be back tonight.” Kate had stepped close. She was inspecting what Ben was doing. “What did you have? I’m hungry.”
“Just cornflakes. There’s plenty there.”
She wandered into the kitchen and returned with a bowl of cornflakes and a cup of coffee. “So, what do you have to do in Sydney?”
“I’ve got to meet my sister at the airport for lunch. I’ve got to tell her I’ve decided not to go home.”
“Really? You’ve decided to stay?”
“Yeah, told my boss the other day, so there’s no turning back now. I’m not looking forward to telling sis, though.”
“Are you close?” Kate asked, peering over her coffee cup.
“Yeah. The hardest thing about not going home is leaving sis. It’s going to feel permanent now.”
Kate opened one of Ben’s Alpha magazines and sat quietly eating her cornflakes. Ben absently played euchre and enjoyed her presence at his dining table. He particularly liked the way her hair was in rats tails and that she still had on her pyjamas. They were blue with yellow flowers and little birds on them. The feeling of contentedness he had experienced the previous afternoon when she was dozing on his couch had returned and filled his house with warmth.
“Is that smoke?” Kate asked suddenly, looking up at the window beyond Ben’s shoulder. “It looks like it’s coming from inside that house.”
The house was the one directly behind. Ben pulled boots on and jumped his back fence. He banged on the door. “Olga! Are you there?” There was no answer, and the door was locked, so he shouldered it open and stormed into the kitchen to find a pot of oil boiling over, and the stove, bench and part of the wall were on fire. He wet a tea towel and was attacking the flames when Kate appeared with his fire extinguisher. They quickly had the blaze under control.
“Good thinking, ninety-nine!”
“Well, you know, fire, fire extinguisher… Duh!”
“God, hang on a minute.” Ben saw Olga’s legs through the living room doorway. She was sprawled on the floor. He rushed to her and checked her breathing and pulse. He scanned the room for a phone but couldn’t see one. “Stay with her, Kate. I’ll get an ambulance.”
“Is she alive?”
“She’s breathing. She’s unconscious, but her pulse is okay.”
Ben leapt back over his fence and had an ambulance on the way immediately. He pulled his coat off the back of the door and returned to where Kate was shivering in her pyjamas. “Look at her wrists,” Kate said as he wrapped the coat around her shoulders. Both of the old woman’s wrists were scarred with wounds that appeared to have been made from something bound around them. “Would that be from handcuffs or something?”
“Maybe. Or possibly wire or rope. Whatever it was must have cut her badly. She must have either struggled hard or been tied up for a long time. Her name sounds Russian or something, Petrov. It could have happened back there.”
“God, it’s horrible to think what it could have been,” Kate uttered as she smoothed the old woman’s hair from her face. “Was she one of those war prisoners or something, do you think?”
A siren shattered the morning silence, and within a few minutes the old woman was being loaded onto a stretcher. Ben helped the paramedics carry her to the ambulance and returned to where Kate was standing in a hallway with her mouth open and her face set in awe, staring. He approached to look over her shoulder into a small room that was filled with white roses and candles, and in the corner was a dressing table with a porcelain statue of Saint Maria. “My God what is this place?” Kate uttered. There was a rocking chair with several large, eerily life-like porcelain dolls seated upon it, and there were more dolls on the bed. It was a single, brass bed made up with an intricately woven white lace quilt. Mounted on the wall above the bed was a metre-high carved wooden crucifix.
“We shouldn’t be in here,” Ben said, tugging at Kate’s sleeve. And as they left the room, another door opened, and there stood a skeleton of a man, pale and emaciated with a hideously scarred head and lifeless grey eyes fixed toward the floor.
The fire truck had arrived, and Ben left the two volunteer bush fire brigade guys to check things out and lock up. “That was so amazing,” Kate declared as he helped her back over his fence.
It was a paling fence as high as her shoulder. “Did you climb over this before?”
“Yes. I can climb a fence!” she declared, pushing him playfully when he landed beside her. “I’ve never seen so many roses, though. That was so beautiful.”
“Looked like a shrine to me.” Ben wondered what was in the old woman’s past and decided he should look into that. “You know that was Bobby’s father, don’t you?”
“The old man? Oh, my God, was it really?”
“Yeah, so I found out the other day. They’re brother and sister, so the woman’s Bobby’s aunt, I guess.”
“But he used to be huge. I saw photos. He was a giant,” Kate declared. “How could he be so thin?”
“Apparently he used to be an intelligent man too—a school headmaster. They must have been pretty severe head injuries,” Ben suggested.
“Yes, I heard about that, but it’s weird seeing him in real life. I wonder if Bobby wants to see him.”
The morning warmed up quickly, and they took Ben’s car and left the top down. As they rolled into the Sydney suburbs, the conversation turned to Kate’s dreams of travel.
“Well, Europe of course! You know, real history! I want to go to St. Petersburg and see the Winter Palace and walk the halls of the Tsars of Russia. And I want to go to Buckingham Palace and meet our Queen, well, maybe not meet her, but wouldn’t it be great to see her in real life?”
“I’ve always wanted to see a medieval castle,” Ben confessed. “Or Russia’s not a bad idea, but how about Siberia? I was looking at the train that goes from Vladivostok all the way across to Moscow. Built on human bones they say that journey is. Now, that would be fascinating! Or what about Africa, the Sahara?”
“Umm, I don’t think so. But you could drop me off in Morocco and pick me up when you’ve finished with all the explorer stuff.”
“But what about the desert stars? How magnificent would it be lying back on a Sahara sand dune gazing up at them, digging your fingers into the Earth and spinning through space? What about the great American deserts, The Grand Canyon? Imagine the stars at night sitting on the edge of that.”
“Five stars is all I need,” Kate shot back dismissively. “When we get to America you can drop me in New York, thanks. I’ll take in a few Broadway shows and go shopping then hop a flight across to California. You’ll find me sunbathing on Malibu when you’re done with the scorpions and rattle snakes.”
“Well, what about Alaska?” Ben tried playfully. “Those deep alpine forests, and maybe a trek into the wilderness, somewhere completely untouched by human beings.”
“Ooh, Alaska? Mmm, how about I wait for you in Paris?”
“Paris? That’s nowhere near Alaska. You’re cheating now.”
“No, I’m not! I’ll wait for you in Paris, and while you’re recovering in hospital after being mauled by an Alaskan grizzly bear, I’ll have time to slip over to Rome and Athens, have a look at some more history. But guided tours of course!”
“Of course!” Ben conceded with a laugh. “And what about movies? What kind do you like?”
“The kind with Matt Damon in,” Kate returned flatly. “Hey, I almost became an actress once. I joined this theatre group and had some lessons and that, but as soon as the curtain was drawn I froze.”
“I tried competition dancing once, but I froze too,” Ben confessed in reply. “I was fine until the music started and there were all those people watching.”
“I know. I think you’ve got to switch off to all that somehow,” Kate went on. “But what else do you like doing? What are you doing in Hicksville for chrissake?”
“I don’t know. It’s quiet like home but handy to the city. It’s not so bad, except I can’t figure out what I’m doing long term. Which sucks because I’m a pedantic planner. I have to know what I’m doing for the next fifty years or I’m just not happy. Pretty good at scaring women off with that, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh?” Kate’s eyes sparkled. “How many women have you scared off? I know what you mean about mapping everything out. I do that too.”
“No, not as bad as I do! I’ve got a house picked out, and I know how many kids we’re having by the second date. It’s pathetic, but I can’t help myself.”
“Really! So, where’s the house you picked out for us?”
“Don’t know. We only had one date, didn’t we?”
“Ah huh. And just as well by the sound of it.”
Ben laughed. “See what I mean?”
Kate was slower to respond. She seemed to measure what she said next. “Most women would like a guy to be thinking about home and family, but maybe the second date is a bit full on.”
“Well, I didn’t literally mean the second date. I just meant I get into that frame of mind pretty quickly, and more than one woman has run away screaming.”
Kate laughed that time. “Well, back to my original question. How many?”
“How many what? How many women have I scared off? I dunno, half a dozen? I’ve got to learn to relax.”
“I scare guys off too, you know?”
“What, you? How?”
“Easy. Just being myself. Just knowing what I want, or don’t want.”
“You are kind of pushy,” Ben suggested with a chuckle.
Kate smiled. “A lot of guys can’t handle it when a girl has a mind of her own. I’ve scared off a half dozen easy! Probably more like a dozen!”
Ben didn’t quite know how to respond to that, and the ensuing silence allowed him to drift back to the events that morning. “It’s really strange about that old woman. I wonder what happened to her. She never speaks. It’s like she doesn’t trust anyone.”
“Bobby’s great grandparents on his dad’s side were Russian. It’s one of the things Mum found out. They apparently escaped before the revolution. Their name sounded something like that lady’s name too. That’s what made me think of St. Petersburg and the Tsars.”
“So, that’s Bobby’s aunt. Interesting!” Ben suggested. “I’ve never taken much notice of her before. Goran Vale’s full of eccentric old weirdos.”
“The flowers and the statue were really beautiful. It must have been a prayer room for her. Like her own little church.”
“The figure was Saint Maria Goretti,” Ben explained. “She was twelve years old when she was taken from her steps by the boy next door, Alexander, who stabbed her to death because she refused to relinquish her purity.”
Kate had turned with a questioning look on her slightly animated face.
“Mum was a Sunday school teacher,” Ben added with a smile.
“Actually, now that I think about it, Bobby has mentioned an Aunt Olga. He talked about her helping roll up newspapers at his grandma’s shop. I think that Russian name might’ve been the grandmother’s maiden name.”
“But Olga is his father’s sister. In which case her name would be Ray, unless she was married, of course.”
“I suppose. Or she could have been illegitimate and given the mother’s family name. I think I remember something about illegitimate children. I think there was a brother too.”
“Would have been quite a scandal back then,” Ben suggested. “Probably a different father if they weren’t given the family name.”
“Yeah, could’ve been,” Kate agreed with a yawn, and the conversation faded to an easy silence as they rolled through the inner-city and crossed the Harbour Bridge. The expressway was abandoned for cluttered side streets lined with snug little, hundred-year-old terrace houses, towering apartment buildings and bumper to bumper parked cars. “I’m right there,” Kate said, indicating her driveway. “Drive in. You can park in my spot.”
“This looks nice, Kate. You must be close to the ocean.”
“I’m close to the ocean and the harbour, but I can’t see either.”
Ben locked up his car, and they took the elevator to the second floor. He was led into a small, brightly furnished living room that opened to a tiny balcony overgrown with plants. Kate went to work with her watering can.
“I think it’s nice, anyway. Even without the view it must be exciting being this close to the water and the city.”
“If I sold up I might be able to afford something waterfront down the south coast. I’ve been thinking of Wollongong, maybe trying to find work down there. It’s not too far to be able to keep an eye on Bobby, to help him with his finances and that.”
“He’s lucky to have you, Kate. You’re a good sister.”
“Well, he was abandoned by his family. I never met his mother, but Mum did, and she said she shut the door in her face when she went there once with Bobby.”
“So, you and your mum adopted him?”
“He grew on us. He really is a sweet guy.” Kate’s voice trailed a little. “I can’t imagine him doing anything—”
“Well, don’t imagine it, then! Keep your faith in him, Kate. The way I see it, it’s more than likely there were other men involved, and I’m betting they forced him somehow.”
“Forced him?” There was hope in Kate’s tone.
“Yeah, just think about what you said. What is he now, in terms of emotional maturity, what, late teens? And how old was he back in eighty-six? Probably the equivalent of a twelve-year-old would be my guess. And he was apparently quite skinny. I’m guessing whoever else was involved in abducting that girl either physically forced him or manipulated him somehow. And what did they make him do? Hold her down or something? Is that why he’s so screwed up? He hates how soft her arms were. What, did they make him hold her arms while they hurt her?”
Kate didn’t respond, and Ben waited for a moment before continuing.
“Anyway, I’m sure it will all be sorted out soon enough.”
“He wasn’t any different back then. I remember when Mum first brought him home. He was the same as he is now. It’s like he doesn’t get any older. He’s just a big kid, but he was sexually active. He had a sexual relationship with that girlfriend not long after he came to live with us.”
“Well, he would have been physically mature, and add some hormones and you’ve got sex. But there’s no way he would be intellectually capable of planning an abduction and murder, even now!”
Kate quietly finished watering her plants then offered a smile. “Do you want a coffee before you go?”
“No, I think I’d better get moving. I’ll pick you up around four, I guess. Maybe five at the latest.”
“Okay. I hope all goes well with your sister.”
Ben almost tried to kiss Kate goodbye. It was just an urge, and he halted himself and waved awkwardly instead.
He found his way to the expressway and slipped into the traffic headed back across the bridge, then cruised on through the city toward the airport on the south side. He found his sister waiting at a small café they had visited together once before. It had been nearly six months, and they hugged for a long time.
“So, how are the rug rats?” Ben started, and for the next ten minutes he listened to his sister talk. She hardly stopped for a breath when she got going, and Ben barely got a word in.
“And how are you, Ben? What’s news?”
“They offered me a transfer. Old Charlie Gillard must have finally retired.”
“He did, but you’re not coming home, right?”
“No, I’m not, sis. How did you know that?”
“No one ever comes back,” she said with a shrug. “I know we always go on about it when you call, but we’ve known for years you’d never be coming home. And it’s okay. I think Mum and Dad are going to sell up and move into town.”
“They’ve been talking about it. But what about you? No lady friend to introduce yet?”
“Not yet. I’m working on it, though.”
“Not too hard, I hope.”
“What? Give me a break!”
“Well, that mister serious face isn’t getting any better, is it? Actually I think it might be getting worse as you get older. No one’s going to come meet your big sister if the look of you is anything to go by.”
“God, am I really that bad?” Ben tried to check his reflection in a stainless steel milk jug.
“No, I’m just teasing. But you know what you’re like. And everyone’s waiting for you to bring a girl home so we know you’re okay, you know, since Sylvia.”
Ben took a breath. It felt so good to see his sister. He had missed her more than he realized. “I’m okay, sis. You should tell Mum not to worry.”
The waiter served their orders, and the conversation lightened and covered news of what everyone from home was up to. Ben saw his sister to her next flight at three and was back at Kate’s apartment by four.
Kate seemed pensive on the drive out of the city. She was sitting quietly staring at the road ahead. “Are you okay?” Ben asked after half an hour or so.
“I’m okay. I just ran into an old girlfriend, and I don’t really want to talk about it.”
Over the next hour Kate was a little brighter, but whatever had upset her seemed to be lingering. They were approaching the roadhouse at the Goran Vale turnoff. “Hungry?” Ben asked, hopefully. He was starving.
“Yes, but I can wait.”
“How about we stop and pick up a burger or something?”
“No thanks. I’d rather wait until we get back.”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
“I’d really rather not stop here, Ben.”
The turn off flew by, and the air thinned and cooled as they skirted the bluff. The evening mist was rising as they rolled on past the rusted ‘Goran Vale is a Tidy Town’ sign. They pulled into the driveway of Bobby’s house to find the living room light on and the door open. There was a figure sitting in the shadows on the front step.
“Hi, Mum. What are you doing out here?”
Gwen was smoking a cigarette. She butted it out on the step and stood, taking her daughter in her arms.
“What is it?” Kate asked thickly.
“They’ve taken Bobby into custody. He’s been charged with murder.”
“Murder? Oh, my God! What’s happened? What did they say?”
“They didn’t say anything.” Gwen sniffled. “They were waiting when we got back, and they just took him away. And they wouldn’t let me see him. They had him in an interrogation room or something. They sent me away.”
“Ben?” Kate’s eyes had reddened and welled with tears.
Ben charged into the station house with Kate and her mother. Barry Fitzgerald stood and met them at the front counter. Sergeant Edwards, Detective Grier and Tom Lloyd were in a meeting in the sergeant’s office, along with two men Ben didn’t recognize.
“What’s happening, Barry?” Ben asked, calming himself deliberately. “What have they charged him with?”
“It’s not just the girl Melanie,” Barry started to explain, but just then the unmistakable percussion of a gunshot pierced the air, and it was followed by another shot a few seconds later.
The meeting in the sergeant’s office erupted, and everyone scurried about clutching at their guns. The windows were checked, and the front door was secured. Ben took Kate and her mother into the sergeant’s office. Someone called out from the cell below. “Get an ambulance!” Ben left the women and rushed down to see what had happened. Kate was behind him. She screamed. Bobby was lying prone on the floor of the cell. There was blood oozing from his head.
Barry had secured the small barred window. It was too dark to see anything outside. Detective Grier had her bloodied hands pressed to Bobby’s chest. He had been shot twice. Gwen shouldered her way in close, cradling his head and pressing the corner of her blouse against the wound above his ear. “God, no! Bobby!”
It was only a few minutes until the ambulance arrived, and Bobby was taken away. Gwen was permitted to ride in the ambulance. The three detectives left in escort. The area around the building had been secured, with no sign having been found of the shooter. Kate was anxious to go to the hospital. Ben had agreed to drive her.
Barry pulled them both aside. “The body wasn’t Melanie Rose. It was a girl from the south coast in eighty-four, and in her file was a description of a young guy who matched Bobby. That’s why they arrested him.”
Ben kept to himself on the forty minute drive to Camden hospital. Kate sat huddled to the passenger door offering nothing of her own thoughts. She left him to join her mother in the waiting area as soon as they arrived, and Ben went in search of food. He had a meal at a pub and returned to the hospital an hour later to find Bobby was still in surgery. Apparently one bullet had grazed his temple, and the other had lodged high in his chest, beneath his left shoulder. He would be fine.
“Typical hick town attitude! String him up, why don’t they?” Kate’s demeanor had changed from shock to anger.
Gwen looked to Ben apologetically. He spoke hesitantly. “I wouldn’t brand the whole town for what one maniac did.”
Kate shot him a look that had him as a part of the town. “They’re not putting him back in that cell if they’re going to let someone shoot at him through the window.”
“Of course not!” Ben felt his cheeks redden. “The back of the station is sealed, and no one could have gotten at the window. It’s hard to imagine how they did it, but we’ll get whoever’s responsible, and they’ll go for attempted murder.”
“It was probably your real killer.” Gwen’s voice was calm and confident. “It may be someone worried about what Bobby knows.”
Kate sat next to her mother. “They said the remains were not even the same girl, Mum. They said it was some other girl.”
“Bobby was identified, though. That’s why he was arrested,” Ben added.
“Meaning?” Gwen held her daughter’s hands in solidarity.
Ben saw years of hardship in Gwen’s eyes, along with intelligent defiance. “Meaning there’s a missing person’s file attached to the girl whose remains were identified, and in that there must be a reference to a witness having described a person fitting Bobby’s description at that time. There may be other evidence to link him to her. I don’t know. I’ll find out.”
“Whatever evidence there is, it’s wrong!” Gwen turned to Kate. “Bobby didn’t kill anyone, sweetheart.”
The two women began talking between themselves. Ben backed away and took a seat at a discreet distance. Kate went to get coffee after a while, and she brought him one and offered a little warmth in a forced smile. It was another hour before the doctor came out and took Kate and Gwen to see Bobby. Ben learned from the nurse at the administration counter that Bobby’s condition was stable. He decided to go outside and wait, and he was joined by one of the detectives lighting up a cigarette.
“Sanderson,” the man offered with a grunt. “Some night, hey?”
Ben shook his hand. “Ben McEwen, constable.”
“I guess. More an acquaintance.”
Detective Trevor Sanderson, from the south coast police precinct, was a short, broad-bodied man of thirty-seven. He sucked his cigarette down like it was much needed air. “It’s good to get a break in this one. I’m guessing all four of our girls are up there somewhere. Probably under the floor like that one.”
“All four? What, serial killings?”
“Three from Austinmer Beach in eighty-four and five, and one from Woonona in eighty-six. He matches descriptions given in two of the Austinmer cases, and there was a Dodge utility in the one from Woonona. Apparently he drove one, same colour.”
The other detective approached, and Sanderson sucked down another half inch of his cigarette and nodded a goodbye. A little while later, Kate and Gwen emerged from the front entrance of the hospital, noticeably happier. Ben decided to keep what he had just learned to himself. Tomorrow will be soon enough to get into that, he thought.
The forty minute drive back to Goran Vale passed in an awkward silence for Ben. Kate had taken the back seat and spent the entire time staring out the window, and Gwen seemed lost to her own thoughts.
Goran Vale was asleep when they arrived. They rolled through town and stopped at Bobby’s house so Gwen could pick up her things. “You don’t mind if Mum stays with us, do you?” Kate had leaned forward and spoken from Ben’s shoulder. Her voice was soft and entreating.
That night Ben lay awake listening to the wind howling beneath the doors then to the beating of the rain on his tin roof. He eventually dozed off, and during the night he felt Kate slip under his blanket and spoon in front, cuddling herself with his arm. He could taste her hair on the pillow, and he breathed the scent of her neck. He woke in the morning afraid to move for fear of disturbing her. His hand was on her warm belly, and he lay for an hour listening to her breathe. He pretended to be sleeping when he felt her stir and slip from beneath the blanket.
Nigel Khel worked massage oil into his thigh, gently until the pain began to dissipate then more vigorously in an attempt to free the muscle from its usual morning cramp. It was a ritual he had performed every morning of the fifteen years since being discharged from hospital after the car accident that killed his brothers. At least, an accident is what it had been deemed, when Nigel knew full well he had veered headlong into the truck on purpose. He had intended to kill his brothers and to take his own life. His survival had been an act of God, he acknowledged, and as such, he had dedicated his life in service of the Lord. He had resurrected the Lord’s children and cared for them. He would protect them with his life and would sacrifice the lives of those who endangered their Earthly sanctuary. Nigel had become their guardian angel. The pain in his leg was merely the Lord’s way of reminding him of his duty.
He hobbled over to the basement door and peered down into the dimly lit room. There were five round, porthole type windows along the top of one wall allowing some daylight to enter, but they were half buried beneath ground level and hadn’t been cleaned in the thirty-five years since Nigel’s mother had passed away. “Well, I haven’t got time right now, but I’ll clean them when I get back,” Nigel said, and he pulled the basement door closed and secured the bolt-latch and padlock.
He heard voices outside, and he edged along the wall to look out the window. It was Sergeant Edwards and a woman Nigel didn’t recognize. He remained motionless against the wall as they knocked, waited a moment, then knocked again. They spoke between themselves, muttering something Nigel couldn’t understand, and after peering in the window they left. Nigel waited until they were out of sight and hurried across the road and into the forest.
He had worn a narrow walking track through the scrub between Fortress Lane and Glenview House, and from the back of Glenview there was an old road that Mr Ray had graded through the sandstone, which led to the fire trail above Goran Hut. There was a heavy dew making the rocks slippery, though, and it took him an hour to climb over the ridge and emerge at his vantage point above the hut.
He slipped off his back pack and leveled his scope. There were even more cops than the previous day. There was a police tent, and people clothed in blue overalls were crawling all over the place. Nigel wondered what they were doing there in the hut. He wondered what could possibly be of interest to the police inside there.
He adjusted his scope to focus on the Goran family plot and Melanie Rose’s grave site. It had been left as a hole in the ground and abandoned. The absence of respect sickened him. Who the hell do they think they are?
Nigel set his rifle scope on one of the figures and touched the trigger gently, chuckling to himself at the power he held in his hands. He moved his scope around and sought another figure, then he released the trigger and placed the rifle down as he rested back against a rock. Better to wait and see what they’re doing, he thought, and he took a pouch of marijuana from his shoulder bag and rolled a smoke. He had food and drink, and was set for the day’s vigil.
Ben approached Tom Lloyd’s flat and knocked, but all was silent inside. He saw a curtain move up at the main house. A moment later, Alyssa appeared at the back door.
“How are you, Alyssa?”
“I’m okay. Granddad’s at the station.”
“I figured he might be,” Ben replied. He had hoped to catch Tom for a quiet word.
Alyssa sat on the step. “How’s Bobby?”
“He’s going to be all right. He’s in a bit of trouble, though.”
“Granddad said they think he murdered a lot of young girls, not just the one from here.”
“That’s what they’re saying.” Ben sat down beside her. He placed his arm around her shoulder and gave her a hug. “Are you okay?”
She sniffled and nodded. “I just hate this place.”
Ben held her quietly for a moment. He thought he understood what she meant. She dabbed at her tears with a handkerchief that appeared to have been in recent use. “I’m never going to have anything here, and I’m never going to get out of here either,” she announced, sniffling again then meeting Ben’s eyes.
“You don’t have to stay here,” he said thickly.
“And what about Granddad? Who’s going to take care of him?”
“It’s not for you to—”
“And what about the kids? If I wasn’t here they’d end up roaming the streets at night. Mum and Dad are too busy.”
“But it’s not your responsibility,” Ben argued softly. It was neither Alyssa’s responsibility nor his business to be interfering. He allowed her to sob for a few minutes, his respect for her growing. “What you need is a car,” he eventually declared. “That way when your folks get home you can get done up and get the hell out of here for a few hours. And I know just the car for you too!”
“A car? But I can’t drive. I’ve only got my learner’s.”
“Well, we can fix that.”
“And I haven’t got any money to buy a car. Actually I’ve got some but not much.”
“Yeah, well, this is a very cheap car as it turns out. Have you got your learner’s plates? I’ll go and get it.”
“Sure! Got anything else to do?”
“Well, I’m supposed to be sick but as long as Mister Barlow doesn’t see me.”
Ben had already decided he wanted to get rid of his car. He didn’t want anything for it and had been wondering how to go about offering it to Alyssa. He was pleased to have an opportunity to do so.
He returned to find her waiting excitedly, and after fixing on her ‘L’ plates, they spent a few hours driving around town and between the river and the bluff.
After dropping Alyssa home, Ben had lunch at the pub and played pool with some of the local men. Tom Lloyd sat up at his usual bar stool mid-afternoon, and Ben joined him for a beer.
“They dug up four girls, Ben. They’re doing his house next.”
“That would be the young girls from the south coast?”
“Haven’t identified the other three yet. They’re pretty confident.”
“And what have they got on Bobby, exactly? I was talking with one of the detectives last night. He said they had him identified twice, and they had his car at the scene of another.”
“That’s right. His truck matched, and the descriptions are spot on. He used to go surfing there every weekend too. There’s not much doubt about it.”
“So, what are they going to get from the house after all these years? What could they be hoping to find?”
Tom drained the last of his beer and showed it to the barman. “They only need a single strand of hair.”
“And the young local girl?” Ben asked.
Tom took out his tobacco pouch. His jaw was set grimly. “That moron will have to tell us what happened to her. The loss of memory’s wearing a bit thin, isn’t it?”
“I’ve still got my doubts,” Gus Lloyd offered from the stool beside his brother.
Barry Fitzgerald spoke up from the stool alongside Gus. “I used to go surfing with him sometimes. He was interested in the girls all right. I think I even remember one of them.”
“One of the missing girls?” Tom asked, cocking his head around his brother.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one of them before. Big eyes!”
The bar tender joined in, declaring he had always suspected there was another side to young Fetch.
“His granddad had an evil streak,” an old farmer called from along the bar. “There’s obviously something in the bloodline.”
Ben thought of Kate’s analogy of the town stringing Bobby up. He left the pub and stood for a moment watching the activity in front of Bobby’s house. There were two police cars in the front yard, and officers from forensics were crawling all over the house. All the neighbours were outside, gathered in small groups and talking amongst themselves.
Ben strolled up the hill and was surprised to find Kate’s car parked in his driveway. The front door was open. He found her sitting on the back step patting Rex. She smiled back over her shoulder, but she had obviously been crying. “Hi,” she offered then turned back to the dog.
“Where’s your mum?”
“She’s still at the hospital. I think she’s going back to her place for the night.”
“And how’s Bobby?”
Kate took a moment to respond. She lifted Rex’s paws from her lap and brushed at the hair he’d left on her jeans. “I think he’s got fleas. You should get him a collar.”
“I give him flea baths.”
“A collar would work better. I think it gets into their bloodstream that way. It’s better than a bath.”
Ben sat on the step and gave Rex a pat. “Okay, I’ll try it.”
Kate stood immediately. “I might go and have my shower.”
Ben took Rex for a walk up to Johnson’s hardware store and bought him a flea collar. It was something he had been meaning to do. When he got back to the house, Kate had finished her shower but had closed the bedroom door, and she didn’t appear for another hour or so. He was cooking lamb chops with potato and peas. She checked the potatoes and set about mashing them.
“What’s happening at Bobby’s house?” she asked shortly.
“They’re searching it for evidence to prove the charges against him.”
Kate didn’t speak again, and Ben waited a moment before continuing.
“They found more remains. It looks like there were at least four young girls.”
Kate’s only visible reaction was to sniffle and wipe her nose on her wrist. Her eyes never lifted as she sorted plates from the cupboard and dished out the vegetables.
Ben served the meat, and they took a plate each into the dining room. “Thanks,” Kate offered as they ate. “I haven’t eaten all day.”
Ben nodded and held her gaze for a moment. Her eyes were reddened, and they soon averted. He wasn’t sure what to say. “I like your mum.”
“Oh?” Kate’s eyes lifted again, and she smiled.
“No, I mean she’s a nice person.”
“She is! She’s too kind for her own good.”
“Doesn’t look too bad for a mature woman either,” Ben added, hoping for another smile.
It flashed, and Kate looked over at Ben’s plate. “Are you going to eat that?” There was a shriveled chop that Ben had pushed aside. She took it with her fork before he answered. “Mum’s always been pretty hot, Never had any trouble getting a new man. Just can’t seem to keep ‘em.”
“She mustn’t have found the right one yet.”
“The right one? Is there such a thing as the one?”
“I don’t know about there being only one, but I think you can find the right or wrong type of person. And I don’t think the right type of person is easy to find.”
“We’re all pretty complicated,” Kate suggested, almost evasively. “Do you want some wine? I noticed we’ve got a cask.”
Ben chuckled. “We have, have we? And should I get it for us?”
“Well, you’ve finished, and my fingers are all greasy.”
There was a cask of cheap white wine in the fridge. Ben poured two glasses and took them back to the table. It was a few minutes before Kate’s eyes seemed to focus, and she looked up from the wine glass. “Mum had Bobby’s house cleaned out before he moved in. She had some charity take all the furniture and old clothes. It was completely empty when we got there.”
“Well, they won’t be there long. They’ve probably finished already.”
Kate took another moment before looking up again. “How old were they?”
“Around sixteen to eighteen, I think. Just innocent young girls… It’s, um…”
“It’s horrible! It makes my skin crawl to think of Bobby having to—” Her voice trailed off, and Ben waited for her to settle. Her eyes welled with tears. “How were they killed? Were they raped?”
“I don’t know, Kate. They’ll piece together as much as they can.”
“I don’t think I want to know, anyway.” She sniffled and dabbed at her eyes with a square of paper-towel then collected the two plates. After a moment Ben followed her into the kitchen, and they washed and dried the dishes in silence.
He went to his shower after they had finished cleaning up, and when he returned, Kate was talking with some children at the front door. She was smiling broadly as she waved him over. “First prize is a set of pots and pans. I think you need to buy some tickets, Officer McEwen.”
The children were a brother and sister belonging to one of the local families. The boy had a biscuit tin for the money, and the girl had a book of raffle tickets and a pen.
“I definitely need pots and pans!” Ben declared as he approached the door. He nodded a hello to the children’s mother, who was waiting at his front gate. “Wait ‘till I get some money. How much are they?”
He returned with ten dollars and sat down on the step to write his name on the five ticket stubs. The little boy sat beside him, and when he had finished, the little girl gave him a thank you hug and kiss.
“They like you,” Kate suggested after they had moved along to the next house.
“I always buy their tickets but never seem to win.”
“Is that why you got a hug?”
Ben grinned. “Don’t know, but that’s why I buy the tickets.”
“You big softy!”
“Actually, I think those two miss their dad. He left town a few years ago.”
“Oh.” Kate sat on the couch and picked up the television guide. “So, what’s on TV tonight?”
“Don’t know. We could get a movie from across the road.”
“I don’t feel like getting dressed,” Kate complained, tucking her feet up under her dressing gown on the couch.
Ben had on track pants and a t-shirt. “I’ll go. What do you feel like watching?”
“Comedy! Get something with Steve Martin, and some chips too, and chocolate!”
Ben’s heart was thumping and his stomach tingling with warmth as he saw to Kate’s wishes. He brought her chocolate and chips and an old Steve Martin movie. She was playful and light-hearted throughout the movie, but once again that bloody cushion was between her feet and his thigh. He sat the whole time wondering whether to reach across and maybe rub her foot or something.
After the movie, she brought coffee and sat on the floor with her head at his knee. She looked up at him with a thoughtful frown and seemed to struggle to get out what she wanted to say. “You really liked those two children.”
“And what about kids of your own? You want lots?”
“Me? I dunno. Six would be good, or just one or two.” Ben’s heart was pounding. He wanted to touch her hair.
“I bet you’d make a good dad,” Kate went on. Her eyes had lowered, and she didn’t look up as she spoke that time.
Ben felt the softness of her hair with his fingers. He touched her lightly, smoothing a wisp of silk from her shoulder. He didn’t know how to respond verbally. He leaned forward a little, attempting to get her to lift her eyes. They were teary, and she turned her head away.
“What is it?” Ben asked softly.
“Nothing. I just… I think I might go to bed.”
Her eyes flashed past Ben’s as she stood and turned away. She took her coffee and left him, closing the bedroom door.
Ben tidied up and found sleep quickly once settled on the couch. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, Kate slipped in front of him and spooned back, taking his arm and cuddling up to it. She said nothing, and he felt it would be best to just hold her.
Bobby felt keys being forced into his hand. He knew those keys because of the tiny spanner on the key ring. He was in the basement with the round portholes, and he remembered his truck was parked outside. Nigel was pushing him up the stairs while the dark men were crouching. He could see between their fat, sweaty shoulders. The light girl was lying on the mattress in the corner. She was looking at him. She wanted him to come back, but the dark men were laughing.
He ran to his truck, but the trees were angry, and he looked back in through the porthole. He was on his knees rubbing at the grimy glass, but the light girl turned away, and the dark men moved around her. He could see the light girl crying, and he could feel the fat onion man undoing his belt. He could feel her soft arms, and he was suddenly driving through the lashing trees.
Bobby’s heart clenched, and he screamed for Katie.
“It’s okay. It’s only a dream.” The voice was soothing. “It’s okay… It’s all right now.”
“I want Katie.” Bobby swallowed hard. His throat was dry, and his chest was hurting. “I want Katie, nurse Fletcher. I want to go home.”
More coming soon…