Remains of a Local Girl: Part 6

beauty-3d

 

Aussie cold case murder mystery, steamy romance.

 

Chapter 36

 

Nigel checked the padlock on the basement door then took his lunch pack and hobbled down to Glenview and up the rocky slope toward Goran Hut. The sun had risen, and the air was crisp and carried the shrill and buzz of the waking forest, but on the western slope of the mountains the shadows would be deep and moist until after midday.

Nigel reached his vantage point from the previous day and settled to wait for the arrival of the police. He waited an hour then stole a little closer. The tent was gone, and the veranda of the hut had been sealed with checkered tape. He trained his scope on the road from town. He waited another half hour then crept from the forest and approached the hut.

He hadn’t been so close to the hut since returning to remove Melanie’s body. He remembered that first night. It was the end of his life and the beginning of something dull and abstract. He could hear Melanie sobbing, and he could smell his brother Vincent’s breath at his shoulder. “Come on, you’re next!”

He had woken so many nights with those words resounding in his head, and he could still feel the thrashing his brother had given him when he refused.

Nigel didn’t step onto the veranda. He approached the window at the side of the hut and looked in. The floor had been torn up. It was completely gone, and the ground had been dug up and piled through a hole in the back wall. He wondered what had happened, what the police were looking for. Before the search started that first night, they had taken Melanie back to the house and only returned a week later to bury her. Why would they take the floor boards? Nigel wondered stupidly as he stood peering through the window, but the sound of a vehicle approaching sent him scurrying back to the forest, and he made his way to his lookout and settled to watch two uniformed policemen packing tools into the boot of their car.

Chapter 37

 

Tom Lloyd pushed open the rusted iron gate of the timber mill and walked up to the administration office. The thought of brewed coffee assailed his senses as if he could smell it. How many times had he shared a cup of morning coffee and a homemade lamington with his good friend George Rose when they would set up on the bench seat in front of the office in the morning sun to talk about the business and gossip of Goran Vale?

Tom sat down and leaned back against the wall of the office building. The sun had cleared Fortress Ridge, and right then it was warm enough to sting a little. He built a cigarette and lit it. He had no whisky and wished he had.

He watched the sparrows and starlings flitting about an abandoned garden as he remembered Melanie playing there and tending the flowers. She had virtually lived at the mill with her father. She had been everybody’s favourite. All the workmen adored her, and when she wasn’t at the mill, she would be skipping from house to house being mothered by the women. Tom’s heart ached as he remembered her smile, and his thoughts turned to Melanie’s mother, his sister.

Eleanor Rose lived alone, secluded within the white concrete walls of the once glorious mansion down by the river. After burying her husband, she had lost her remaining two children to the city. Their visits were apparently rare, and Tom, in recent years, had taken to deliberately avoiding her for fear of meeting the lingering question in the depths of her clear, blue eyes. It was a question she had been asking him since the night of young Melanie’s disappearance, one that haunted the air between them no matter what the circumstance of their meeting.

Tom finished his cigarette and walked around the garden and into the mill. It was an empty barn-like structure with thick exposed beams twelve feet from the ground. It was from one of those beams that George Rose had hung himself. It was from the third beam from the southern wall, Tom recalled as he stood beneath it. The wooden step ladder found lying in the sawdust that morning was still there, over against the wall.

Tom took the ladder and carried it out through the back of the mill and up a small gravel mound to a defunct water tower. The ladder scaling the tower was raised high enough to prevent children from climbing it. Using the step ladder, Tom reached the first rung and carefully climbed up to the level of a timber platform, some thirty feet from the ground. There was a rusted, corrugated iron water tank mounted there, but the platform was broad enough to walk around it. He edged his way around to the far side of the platform, from where he could see the back of the police station house.

Tom had often glanced from the cell in the basement of the station house and seen the water tower. He had never thought much of it. The platform was made of narrow timber slats, splintered and grey from years of exposure to the elements. He could see the gleam of metal from between two of the slats, and he used a splinter of timber to dig out a .22 caliber cartridge.

Chapter 38

 

Kate woke late in the morning and kicked off the bedclothes. She was hot and sweaty, with her body soaked in a man’s scent. What had begun as a cuddle on the couch had moved to the bedroom and escalated into a fervent love making session. Barely a word had been spoken, and with their passion exhausted, Kate ended up with her head upon Ben’s chest and his hand stroking her hair. She had woken alone. Ben must have left for work.

In a bedside drawer she found an old, red t-shirt. She put it on and searched within the bedclothes for the underwear she had lost. She made the bed and took a moment to touch a bottle of aftershave on the dresser. She popped off the lid and sniffed it, drawing the scent she remembered from the night they had danced. There was a comb and a glass dish with coins and buttons and the like, just everyday things. She touched them, and a twinge of anguish gripped her heart as she fought back a tear.

Kate had no idea why, but that damp, musty house felt more like home than any place she could recall. She loved the squeaky floor boards and the antiquated brass doorknobs. It was a cave-like little dwelling, the windows were small and there was an absence of natural light. The kitchen was brighter, though, with its bare window.

She poured a bowl of cornflakes and made coffee and stood at the sink to eat, watching three cats playing in a tree in the garden. She took her coffee and sat at Ben’s desk and swiveled the chair back around to face the living room. The paintings she had hung were still in place. She smiled to herself and wondered how it would be on a cold winter’s night cuddled up on that old grandpa couch with the fire crackling.

If only, she sighed. To be his wife. To be held in his arms and to feel this safe. To feel those eyes every day. To belong to him! God, how I want that. She sobbed, fighting the knot that was swelling in her throat. She remembered his touch, the tenderness of his hands as he caressed her neck. She remembered being swept from her feet in a waltz, and she felt the power of his body pressed against hers. She loved the surrender in the moment as he had lifted her from the couch that morning and carried her to his bed. She could feel his lips and his tongue against her skin as he had lifted her pyjama top and tasted her. She remembered laughing with him and chatting on the way into Sydney, how his eyes would sparkle and flash with his smile, and how she had spent the whole two hour drive hoping he would just take hold of her hand. We could be so good together, she told herself, smiling hopefully, ridiculously.

She cut herself off with another sob as she thought of the way the two neighbourhood children had looked at Ben, and how he had come to life in response to their affection. She picked up her phone and called Leanne.

“Hey, Lea. What are you doing tonight?”

“Hello, stranger. I thought you’d gone feral on me.”

“No. I’m on my way home now. Things aren’t going very well up here. I’ll tell you tonight.”

“Okay. I’ll come over after work. Are you okay?”

“Sort of. I have to go, but I’ll see you.”

Kate tidied the kitchen and straightened up the living room, folding and returning the blankets to the linen closet in the hall. She gathered her clothes and toiletries from the bathroom, pulled on jeans and a jumper, and left the key Ben had given her on the dining table.

She drove down the main street hoping not to run into Ben, and she found her mother’s car parked at Bobby’s house. Gwen was sitting at the kitchen table with a pot of tea and a cigarette. Kate took a cup from the cupboard and poured some tea for herself. “How’s Bobby?” she asked.

“His wounds are healing. He’s pretty upset that you haven’t been to see him, though.”

“I know. I’m on my way now. I just couldn’t face him yesterday.”

“He’s the same big baby we’ve always known, Katie. You and I both know he could never have done what they’re saying.”

“I know,” Kate started. She had spent the previous day wandering around Camden and arguing with herself, but that morning she knew in her heart Bobby couldn’t have hurt the young girls. “I’ll be there at the hospital all day today. I’m going to take his comics and his scrapbooks. Are you coming down?”

“I’m meeting the detectives and Bobby’s lawyer at the station house in a few minutes. Do you want to come?”

“I don’t want to run into Ben. Will you come back and tell me what’s happening?”

“I’m coming back to tidy up a bit,” Gwen said as she rinsed her cup in the sink. “You know they searched the place yesterday?”

“I know. What did they find? Did they say anything?”

Gwen kissed Kate’s cheek and squeezed her hand. “I only saw that big, friendly constable this morning, and he didn’t say anything. I’ll be back soon.”

Kate finished her cup of tea and went upstairs. The bed in Bobby’s room had been moved, and the wardrobe was open. His chest of drawers were gutted, and the contents had been dumped on the bed. She went into her bedroom and found things to be mostly in order, although her bed was ruffled, and there were muddy boot prints on her rug.

On the dresser, there was a photo of her getting a piggy back from Bobby. She took it and flopped back on her bed. She was twelve years old in the photo. It was taken by a boy she remembered, Barry Gosling. He was nineteen at the time, the son of her mother’s boss, and Kate’s first true love.

Well, my first true crush, Kate corrected herself, and she closed her eyes and drifted back to that afternoon at the house with all the redbrick archways. It had been a Christmas work party for her mother’s hospital ward. It was not long after Bobby had been discharged, and Kate remembered how everyone was so proud of him for getting a job and settling into a normal lifestyle.

Kate’s memories followed the years she had spent with Bobby. He had been the most consistent and reliable thing in her life. His routine had been to have breakfast in the kitchen then catch the bus to work in the morning. He would work all day and catch the bus straight home in the afternoon. During Kate’s teenage years, he would sit with her for the evening game shows and soap operas. Then he would  go out to the garage where his room was set up and paint model soldiers or paste magazine pictures in his scrapbooks. And after Gwen moved out, Bobby moved into the main house and took over the cooking and housekeeping responsibilities. He was never a father to Kate. He didn’t possess the maturity to offer emotional support. He was always there, though, and Kate had, so many times, nestled in his arms and soothed herself with one of his oafish hugs.

Gwen presented herself at the bedroom doorway after being gone less than half an hour. She took a breath and looked around the room. Her gaze rested on the manhole in the ceiling. She was shaking her head slowly.

“What is it, Mum?” Kate knew her mother.

Gwen approached and sat beside Kate on the bed. She clasped her hands in her lap and took another nervously charged breath. “They’ve decided to formally charge Bobby with four counts of murder.” She shook her head as she looked away, and she took a moment to continue. “They found clothing from the four girls right there in the ceiling. Right there!”

Kate took her mother’s hands. There were tears in her eyes, and Kate began to cry herself, but she fought through. “There has to be an explanation, Mum.”

“I know, sweetheart. I don’t understand. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“This must be why he made up that story. You know how he’s always raving on about how he worked at the timber mill? And it turns out he never worked there at all. He must have made up a whole fantasy to block out what really happened here. It’s like he can’t face the fact that it happened.”

Gwen was nodding in agreement. “Maybe,” she said thickly. “I know they have it all wrong, but they said they found something else up there that’s absolutely conclusive. They wouldn’t say what it was because it was still being analysed. I can’t imagine what it is.”

“God, I hope it’s not something. Oh, I slept in here, Mum. My God, how creepy. I pulled an old shirt out of the manhole too, and I found a handkerchief. It must have belonged to one of those girls. Oh, my God!”

“It just doesn’t—” Gwen broke into a sob. “It just can’t be true. I know Bobby, and he couldn’t have.”

Kate held her mother. There was a knot in her own stomach, and her skin was crawling at the thought of the clothing in the roof.

“Sweetheart, we’ve got to be strong,” Gwen declared, sitting up and taking another breath. “This is all wrong somehow because Bobby didn’t hurt anyone. And he will need us to get him through it.”

Kate reached for a box of tissues on the bedside table. She sniffled into one and offered one to her mother. “So, what’s going to happen now? Are they going to take Bobby to prison?”

“They’re going to charge him today, and he’ll have to go to court to see if he can be released until a trial. I think if they keep him he’ll probably go to another hospital.”

“Like where you work? That would be okay.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Gwen straightened Kate’s hair and offered a smile. “You’re going home?”

“Yeah, I thought I’d get out of here. It’s a horrible little place.”

“And what about Ben? I thought you two were getting on.”

“Mum, don’t go there.”

“Why? I’m just saying I like the way he looks at you. He’s got a good heart, that one.”

“Yes, he has, but you know it’s not as simple as that. So, let’s just drop the subject before we end up arguing again.”

“Okay! None of my business. But what time does he get off work today, do you know?”

“About three. Why?”

“Well, I have a few things to pick up from his house, unless you brought them with you.”

“I’ve got your brush and your tooth brush in my car, but if you see Ben again, could you give him that handkerchief on the dresser, please? And that dog collar. It was up there too.”

Gwen walked to the dresser and picked up the chain and handkerchief. “Okay. I’ll tidy up here and call in to see Ben before I leave. Will you be okay to drive, sweetheart?”

“I’ll be fine, Mum, love you.”

 

Chapter 39

 

Ben returned home for lunch to find his house locked up, and walking into the living room, he saw the blankets were gone from the couch. He noticed the key on the dining table, and his heart sank a little. He knew he had no right, but his disappointment deepened upon checking the bathroom and bedroom to find all trace of Kate had been removed.

He opened his phone and called her. The phone rang out to message bank. “Hi, Kate, it’s Ben. Just wanted to see how you are. Call me back, please?”

With the drama surrounding Bobby Ray, Ben understood Kate would be distracted and likely do whatever was necessary to deal with it. He had no right to expect any of her attention. Although she could have kept the key, he argued with himself as he went about making a couple of ham and relish sandwiches for lunch.

He was watching the midday news, eating when Gwen knocked and called to him from the front door. “Come in, Gwen. It’s open.”

“Hello, Ben. I just called into the station, and they said you were here.”

“I’m just on my lunch break. Can I get you a coffee or a sandwich?” he asked, half getting up.

“No no, I’m fine. I just stopped in to thank you for putting us up and to say goodbye. I’m on my way home.”

“Oh, okay. I hope things work out.”

Gwen took a seat. “Kate said you might be leaving, going home to your family.”

“No, I was thinking about it, but I decided to stay here.”

Gwen was nodding thoughtfully. “Because of my daughter?”

“Err, not exactly. But sort of. Yes.” Ben felt his cheeks heat and redden. The older woman was smiling to herself, and he wondered how many men had fallen before him. “I don’t think she’s seriously interested, though,” he added, fishing for a hint of where he stood.

“Maybe if you’re patient and persistent.” Gwen glanced up, her eyes clear and calculating. “I’ve noticed men don’t usually stick around long enough to get to know my daughter.”

“Patience isn’t really my strong suit,” Ben confessed with a chuckle.

“Well, I think the man who does eventually find the patience and persistence to get to know her will be a very lucky man. But of course I’m biased.”

Ben smiled. “This thing with Bobby has got to be hard on you both,” he ventured.

“We’re very worried about him,” Gwen responded frankly. “You know how much he means to Kate, don’t you?”

“I can see how close they are. It’s a tough situation.”

“Can you help him?” Gwen’s hand closed over Ben’s. Suddenly there were tears in her eyes.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” he answered thickly. “He located the remains. He was identified at three of the scenes. They found the girls’ clothing in his bedroom. And the results just came in on an old scrapbook they found up in that attic with news clippings about each of the four girls, and it’s covered in his gluey fingerprints. It doesn’t look good at the moment, Gwen, but I’m thinking there’s a hell of a lot we don’t know. Do you have any suggestions? You know him better than anyone.”

“Believe in him!”

“What?”

Gwen’s face was set in a tragic plea, and Ben felt a wave of pity, but the older woman’s eyes suddenly flashed and set with determination. She nodded, as if confirming something to herself. She smiled lightly and stood to leave, but she kept hold of Ben’s hand and led him to the door, fishing in her handbag. She gave him an embroidered handkerchief and a length of chain. “Kate found those in the ceiling where the other clothes were found. That handkerchief may have belonged to one of those girls.” She squeezed his hands and looked up to meet his eyes squarely. Her smile returned, but there was still tears welling. “I have no idea how to refute what appears to have happened, but I know Bobby is innocent. And if I was a man, I would want to be the man who proves that to my daughter.”

Ben stood dumbfounded as Gwen turned and walked to her car. She never looked back as she drove away. “Definitely, one hundred per cent, Kate’s mother,” he muttered to himself. I would want to be the man who proves it to her? Damn right I would!

That afternoon Ben sat at a speed trap on the edge of town mulling over the fact that in spite of everything, Bobby was merely a child, and as such, maintained basic innocence. Whatever he had done must have been either a reaction to some form of abuse or the product of a more mature person’s influence. Ultimately, Gwen was right. He was innocent. And it was the abuse or the influence that needed to be proven.

Ben tried calling Kate four times throughout the afternoon, and each time her phone rang through to message bank. That evening he had dinner at the pub and spent a few hours playing pool with Phil. “She probably just needs some space until this thing with the big guy sorts itself out,” Phil advised. “Just play it cool and be there if she needs you. It’ll work out.”

Ben left the pub at about 10pm and strolled home to find Kate sitting on the front step chatting with Graham Johnson from the hardware store. “This little house has always had people in, though,” Graham was saying. “How are you tonight, Ben?”

“Good, Graham. How are you?”

“Well, I’ll be in trouble when I get home. Saw this young lady friend of yours sittin’ here star gazing, and look at the time! We’ve been havin’ a nice chat, though, haven’t we?”

“We have! About all the empty houses and their ghosts,” Kate added with a smile.

“Ghosts hey, Graham? Not the one about old Myrtle shimmering in her kitchen window again?”

“Well, some believe and some don’t,” Graham warned, lifting himself from the step with some difficulty and ambling to the gate. “Good night, miss. Nice to meet ya,” he said. “Drop by the store, and I’ll show you those flower pots. You’ll be impressed.”

“I’m sure I will, good night,” Kate called after him.

Rex responded as if Kate had called him, and he trotted over for a smooch. “His flees are getting better already,” she suggested, smiling up at Ben. “He’s hardly even scratching.”

Ben sat down on the step leaving Rex happily sitting in the middle. “Is that an ‘I told you so’?”

“Could be!”

Rex lapped at Ben’s face, and he gave him a rub and pushed him away. He was tremendously relieved Kate had come back, but he wasn’t sure what to offer her.

“I had another visitor earlier,” she said, producing a plastic box with a fruit cake in it.

“Edna?” Ben asked, knowingly.

“She was really sweet. She told me all about you,” Kate teased.

“She did, huh? God, how embarrassing.”

“No! She was really lovely, and so was that old guy. They think a lot of you around here, don’t they?”

“I guess. Looks like you’re being scoped out too,” Ben warned with a chuckle. “Edna and Graham, they’re not just reporters, that’s the editor and chief.”

Kate laughed, but catching her eyes, Ben saw a deeper emotion simmering beneath the distraction of the moment. “Have you had dinner?” he asked. She actually looked drawn, and he wondered whether she had eaten.

“I stopped for a steak sandwich on the way back. I’d been with Bobby all day and had nothing but coffee.”

“How is he?”

“He’s a hit with the nurses, and with the cops.”

“What about the bullet wounds, healing okay?”

Rex had waddled off to get a drink from the ice-cream container under the tap. Kate rested back on her hands. She didn’t answer his question. Instead, she cut through the air hanging between them. “I was going to go home after visiting Bobby, but I didn’t want to.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Ben responded without hesitation. His heart was suddenly thumping again, and he watched Kate’s averted gaze. In the soft yellow glow from the street lamp, he thought he could see tears welling.

Ben swallowed. He didn’t know if it was the right time to say it but, “I think I’m falling in love with you, Kate.”

She sniffled and turned away, and he waited, wondering if he had said the wrong thing and feeling selfish in light of the situation she was facing with Bobby.

She nodded and spoke shakily. “I feel that too.” She turned to face him, gaining composure with a smile. “I mean, I think I’m falling in love with you too.”

Ben’s heart exploded. He couldn’t take hold of her because it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do just then. “But there’s more important things to deal with for now,” he said evenly. “We’ve got to do what we can for Bobby.”

Kate nodded and sniffled again. “And then we have to talk about something, okay?”

“Of course! Anything!” He stopped short of asking what she meant. “But there’s something I’d like to tell you about. Just to clear the air, I really don’t like you having the wrong impression.”

“Wrong impression, about what?” Kate slipped closer. She got up on her knees and kissed him softly. “You don’t want to drag me back out to the desert do you? I’ll go with you for a visit but that’s it.”

“No, quite the contrary as a matter of fact.” Ben stroked hair from her face and took a breath. “The thing is, I just wanted to say that I’m not really committed to living in Hicksville. I can see a future in the city if things went that way.”

Kate straddled his lap and kissed him again. “If things went what way?”

“I don’t know. If we were together and you didn’t want to come up here.”

“So, you’re saying you’d be prepared to move to the city for me?”

“Absolutely!”

She kissed him again and moaned softly into his mouth. “You’re making me horny now.”

Ben was propped back on his hands, and he allowed her to lead the way. She opened a shirt button and kissed his chest. His penis throbbed against the warmth of her crotch. He was wearing light cotton shorts. She wore a knee-length, flowing skirt, which had hiked up her thighs, and as his erection hardened she ground herself over it.

“Let’s go inside,” she breathed into his ear, and he lifted and carried her sensuously warm body, backing through the door and straight to the bedroom. He dropped her on the bed and landed on top of her. He mauled her neck, and her body undulated and ground against him. He met her lips again and kissed his way down to her belly then lifted her skirt and buried his face into her crotch. She bucked and gripped his head, and he shouldered her thighs apart while she ground herself against his chin. And after her first orgasm he kissed his way back up her body, and with his heart exploding with joy and sheer desire, he made passionate love to her.

 

Chapter 40

 

Kate lay spent in Ben’s arms with his hand tenderly stroking her hair and his chest still heaving from exertion. She lay for an hour after his breathing had steadied and his hand had come to rest upon her arm.

What was the point of expecting rejection? From the start, Stephen Gershwin had insisted on seeing a specialist for a review of Kate’s apparently inoperable condition. And after seeing one, he had pressured her to see another. He never accepted her, but just because one man was too small to accept the woman she was, was no reason to write off the entire gender.

Kate had looked into the possibilities for adoption, and she and Ben would be prime candidates. And if that wasn’t good enough then he wouldn’t be good enough, and after a day spent sitting on the end of Bobby’s bed completely distracted by the prospect, she had decided Ben was a man she would trust, or at least her heart had guided her to his arms.

Her mind was spinning around the possibilities for a future together. Right then she was prepared to move to Goran Vale or anywhere else on Earth Ben McEwen happened to reside. Lying there in his arms, she felt a level of contentment she had never before experienced, and she drifted off to sleep with that feeling warming her soul.

She woke the next morning to watch Ben getting dressed for work. He had showered and shaved, and his aftershave was fresh and intoxicating. “I like a man in uniform,” she said, feeling cheeky.

“At your service, ma’am,” Ben replied, grinning and meeting her eyes in the mirror.

He finished fixing his collar and tucking in his shirt, then he sat down beside her. Kate held his hand, intertwining her fingers. Her belly was aching with glee. “I have to go home tonight. I’ve used up all my holiday time, and my boss said to be at work tomorrow or don’t bother coming back.”

“That’s a bit harsh considering what’s happening with Bobby.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not in the good books at the moment. Which is my own fault, really.”

“Is that with Paul Rissman?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been very nice to him. Don’t you think I’ve been a bit of a bitch with the way I’ve been stringing him along lately?”

“No, I don’t agree, but even if you have been, that’s personal, not professional. It shouldn’t affect your work.”

“No, he’ll be fair at work. He’s just not going to do me any favours, and there’s not really a leave category for a friend in need.”

Ben kissed her, and she responded as best she could, mindful of her breath. “So, I’ve got shifts every day for the next ten straight,” he said, stroking her face and remaining right there where she couldn’t avoid breathing on him. “I could come and see you, call you sometimes.”

“You’d better! And I’ll call you too.” Kate was being kissed again. “What about Friday night, will you come to my place? You could leave early and still get back here to work on time.”

“Friday night? Yeah, sure. I’ll drive in right after work.”

Kate responded to being kissed again, and she melted into Ben’s arms for a cuddle before he broke away and stood to leave. “Say hello to Bobby for me? I’ll see what I can do for him.”

“I don’t know what any of us can do,” Kate replied. She felt a sense of hopelessness for Bobby’s cause and understood Ben was not in a position to do anything about it.

He parted with a final, lingering gaze and left her with a mixture of exhilaration and dread at the two totally disconnected developments in her life. She needed to find some strength and present a positive front for Bobby, though, and while she quickly showered and had her cereal and tea, she put together an argument against her own pessimism.

There was no point worrying about what may never happen, she reminded herself over and over and ultimately convinced herself as she drove down to Camden. She stopped to buy flowers for Bobby’s bedside and pranced into his room smiling.

Bobby’s left arm was in a sling, but he hugged her with his right. “Katie, look what Nurse Parker-May brought me.” There was a bundle of DVD’s sitting on the bed-side table and Bugs Bunny was playing on the television. “But I have to use the ear-plugs if I want to turn it up because it’s a hospital and you have to be quiet,” he explained. “And Nurse Parker-May said I can get up to change for another DVD, but I have to be careful because I’m not allowed to tear my stitches. But what about mister Cosgrove, Katie? Did you tell him not to give away my job? Because I like that job, and I’m going to get better soon. Did you tell him, Katie?”

 

Chapter 41

 

Ben was home for lunch and busy stuffing a rubbish bag in the furnace in the back yard when he heard a meek, unfamiliar voice call out from the back fence. He turned to see Olga Petrov looking over at him. She was smiling. “Excuse me, Officer?”

“Yes, ma’am… Hello! How are you?” Ben approached the fence. She handed him a bunch of white roses. He noticed her shirt sleeves and gardening gloves covered the scars on her wrists. It occurred to him that they always did.

“I wanted to say thank you for helping me,” she said, backing away a little once Ben had accepted the flowers.

“That’s fine, ma’am. I hope there wasn’t too much damage to your kitchen.”

She shook her head, backing away a little further. “Thank you, and please thank your young lady friend,” she said, offering genuine warmth with her eyes but turning away as she spoke.

She retreated into her house, and Ben half-filled the sink and set the flowers in that then rushed off to work before he was late.

That afternoon, he found himself alone at the station with nothing in particular to do, so he took the police Cruiser and drove up to Goran Hut. He walked around the building and found where the floor boards had been stacked. He looked in through the hole in the wall to find the earth had been excavated to a depth of only about three feet. He remembered the skeleton he had discovered was partially exposed, and he imagined all of the graves to have been quite shallow.

Ben strolled up to the Goran family plot and stood before the hole he had dug, mulling over his earlier conclusion that Melanie Rose had once been buried there. At the time, he had assumed it was her remains he found under the hut. He wondered why a killer would choose to bury her there and not under the floor with his other victims. And why would he then choose to come back and remove her remains, if indeed it had been Melanie buried in the plot? Ben had no doubt it was once a grave site. There was no denying the shape of the depression in the ground and the way the layers of soil had been disturbed.

Okay, so Bobby was involved, but there had to be someone calling the shots, he reasoned as he turned and looked back down at the hut. Assuming it was Melanie buried here, and that Bobby helped to bury her, then that other person must have come back and dug her up. Perhaps the difference being that she was the first local girl they had abducted. They had taken their first four victims from down the coast, and this time they attacked a local girl, and that changed things. That was more personal, and it sent Bobby over the edge and drove the other guy underground… So, Bobby’s gone running mad into the forest and ends up in a psych hospital. And the other guy? Well, he must have panicked and thought her body would be discovered here or something. So he comes back and digs her up. And then what? Why not beneath the floorboards with the others? Or is she special? Is she the one you keep as your trophy?

Ben wandered around to the side of the hut and looked in through the window of the smaller room. The floor there had been ripped up and the earth excavated. He ducked under the tape and walked along the veranda to look in the front door. He imagined the horror those young girls had faced, being dragged from a car, probably in the middle of the night. His gut turned as he imagined their final moments trapped in a dingy little hut deep in the forest and so far from home. Each of the four skeletons had been recovered intact, with no evidence of trauma except wounds to their wrists. He imagined they had been dragged into the hut then raped and strangled.

Sitting back in the police Cruiser, Ben decided to drive up the fire trail to the ridge.

So, who does Bobby go fetch for? He reasoned. He doesn’t help just anyone abduct young girls and drag them up here. The person he bows to is someone he has great respect for, possibly even fear. He’s a clown, a fool. He has one master and one only. He is not going to be a reliable accomplice unless he will be completely loyal. The guy in charge is more than formidable. He is someone Bobby idolizes.

At the top of the fire trail, Ben came across Tom Lloyd sitting on the bonnet of his old four wheel drive. He pulled in beside where he was parked on a sandstone outcrop looking down over the valley. “That’s not alcoholic is it, Tom?”

“No, just fruit juice. Would you like some?” He offered his small, silver hip flask.

Ben took a sip out of solidarity with the old sergeant. It was whisky, cheap whisky at that.

“Tom, you said to me a while back that if you thought Bobby Ray had taken young Melanie you would have murdered him back when it happened?”

“And I would have. Still will once he lets on where he’s got her body.”

“I’m thinking he was the junior partner, and someone else was calling the shots.”

“Yeah, like who?” Tom took a swig of whisky and swallowed it smoothly. He had the butt of a rolled cigarette, and he sucked the last of it in.

“I’m thinking of an idol, and I’m wondering who actually was the foreman at the timber mill back when he so desperately wanted to work there.”

“The foreman? That was Vincent Khel on the morning shift and Adam Carter on afternoons. Adam Carter was—”

“Vincent Khel! Nigel’s brother?” Ben interrupted.

“His twin. Although they never looked like twins, with Nigel as skinny as he is, and Vincent was always a big, well fed lad. Same facial features, though, strange that.”

“And how did Vincent get on with Bobby?”

“Not very well. But Vincent was intelligent. He used to get on with Bobby’s dad. He was dux of the school in sixth grade, and James Ray took him under his wing from there on, like father and the son James really wanted. Yeah, James mentored him and nurtured him and fed him up. They even looked alike, being such big men. But no, Vincent had no time for young Bobby. Used to see Bobby hanging around with Nigel a fair bit, but more often than not he was running after the younger boys, trying to fit in with them. Vincent was in charge at the mill and in charge of his brothers as well. Their mother died giving birth to a fourth boy, who was stillborn as it turned out, and after I put their old man in prison, Vincent took over. He was a good young lad.”

“So, he was a leader and someone Bobby idolized,” Ben suggested in conclusion.

“Maybe so, but he absolutely adored young Melanie. They were cousins, you know? He used to let her work the levers in the crane. She’d be up there on his lap, having the time of her life and scaring the shit out of everyone on the ground.” Tom took another swig from his flask and started building a fresh cigarette. “You might be right about there being another man involved, but those Khel boys wouldn’t have touched her.”

“So, he was a grown man with a young maturing girl sitting on his lap in the cabin of a crane. She was what, fifteen, sixteen years old?”

“She was a kid,” Tom spat defensively. “It was nothing like that.”

“And they were cousins,” Ben repeated thoughtfully. He had heard something about some family conflict. “Wasn’t the mother the sister of George Rose, the significantly less successful sister?”

“That’s right. Bethany Rose. She married a loser while her brother worked his arse off and built a business. George looked after them, though. He wouldn’t give them a handout, but he gave them work.”

“So, Vincent Khel was the poor cousin, and young Melanie was the rich cousin, and she was also the girlfriend of the real son of his mentor. Interesting!”

Tom scoffed. “Thin, is what it is.” The sudden intensity in his eyes suggested it was an angle he hadn’t considered, though.

“You said you put the Khel’s old man in prison?” Ben asked as he turned to leave. “What for?”

“Armed robbery. He held up a servo down south. Came back drunk and bragging about it—” Tom paused thoughtfully. His eyes had narrowed and intensified. His face paled noticeably.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“Melanie was eleven or twelve years old, before her accident. She was taking some eggs up to the Khel’s house after school. Her mother had sent her—”

“Yes. And?” Tom had paused in thought again, and Ben took the flask out of his hand and had another sip. “What happened, Tom?”

“Nothing happened to her. She got scared because they were rowdy and carrying on, so she left the eggs on the doorstep without knocking, and when she got back to her father at the mill, she told him what she had heard the Khels talking about. And George called me, and that’s how Randal Khel ended up in prison, where he’s been ever since incidentally. He killed another inmate and went from 7-to-10, to life.”

“Did Vincent Khel know young Melanie left the eggs?”

Tom turned and walked to the ledge. “Sure he knew, but that was five years before Melanie went missing. He couldn’t have hurt her.”

The old man’s shoulders had dropped, and he sat on a rock. Ben left him looking down over the valley and made his way further up the trail to where it branched back toward Fortress Ridge and down toward the coast. He followed the coast trail until he reached another bare vantage point. From there he could see some fifty miles to Bulli Pass and the ridge of timbered sandstone that sheltered the small beaches below. It was from there that the young girls had been stolen.

Ben returned to town via the Fortress Ridge fire trail. He stopped in front of the Khel farm and took the binoculars from the glove compartment. He focused on the front door, which was closed, and scanned along the front of the house checking the windows for any movement. There were three windows in what he imagined to be the living area of the house and another two that would have been bedrooms. Beneath that section of the house was the row of small, round basement windows almost completely concealed by grass. There was no movement at all, and he scanned the landscape beyond the house where there was a small clearing with a clothes line and a chicken coup and, beyond that, a narrow walking trail that wound up into the forest. It was well worn, and Ben wondered where it led. Perhaps to a cave up under the ridge, he surmised, and he imagined the remains of young Melanie hidden up there somewhere.

He had no idea what he intended to do if he did see Nigel, and after checking the house again and watching the curtains in the windows for a while, he decided to move on and get back to his assigned duties.

He spent the rest of the afternoon on the speed trap again, and upon returning to the station house, found Barry Fitzgerald at his desk, and the only other person at work was one of the detectives from the south coast, Trevor Sanderson. He stepped to the door of the spare office the detectives were using. “How’s it all going, Trevor?”

“Yeah, good. We’re wrapping things up.”

Ben produced the handkerchief Gwen had given him. He had been carrying it in his pocket, waiting for an opportunity to give it to Trevor in person. He had developed a friendship with the laid back detective. “Apparently this was in the attic at the Ray house. One of the women there found it.”

Trevor took the handkerchief and examined it. “We don’t have a Jan.”

“I know. It could be unrelated or perhaps one of the girls had borrowed it.” Ben had taken the small chain Gwen had given him from his pocket. He was feeling the odd shaped links, thinking where he’d seen them before.

“Perhaps it was something borrowed,” Trevor mused. “I’ll look into it.”

Ben sat down across the desk. “So, everything’s cut and dried? He has the intellect of a child, but you’re convinced he’s capable of abduction and murder?”

Trevor opened a file and sorted photographs of various articles of clothing. There were dresses, skirts, swimwear and underwear. Some of the garments had been torn, and all were heavily soiled. “Apparently this was the dress young Melanie Rose was wearing the night she disappeared.” He handed Ben that photograph. “We haven’t found her body yet.”

“There’s too many,” Ben declared as he looked across at the photographs. “You’ve got two one-piece swim suits, one bikini top and three bras… Who’s the other girl?”

“We’re not looking for another.”

“Well, one girl’s not going to be wearing underwear and a swim suit at the same time.”

“No, but there’s also a shoulder bag that one of the girls was carrying. We’re assuming she had additional clothing.”

“Okay, but Bobby still doesn’t strike me as being capable of doing this on his own. What do you think, Barry? You knew him back then.”

Barry had approached and stood leaning in the doorway. He was chewing on a cold chicken wing. “He seemed harmless enough, but did you see the pictures in that scrapbook, and the names?”

“Yeah, and his prints were all over it,” Ben conceded. “I’m not suggesting he wasn’t involved.”

“No, I mean his new scrapbook. The one he’s had with him all the time. He’s got pictures of four girls who look very much like these four, and they’ve got the same names. Or at least he’s given them the same names. How fucking creepy is that?”

Trevor opened the window and lit up a cigarette. “That’s from something very deep down. But they were happy pictures—sunshine, smiles, not exactly hateful.”

Ben looked at the chain again. He suddenly remembered the loop bolted to the floor of the hut with the same square-links, and he understood he was holding a set of cuffs in his hand. He put that realization aside for the moment. “Barry, did Vincent Khel ever go surfing with Bobby?”

Barry dropped his chicken bone into the bin next to the desk and sat down. He took a moment, picking his teeth and frowning in apparent thought. “I only went with him a few times. Sometimes his parents used to take him and otherwise, I wouldn’t know, it’s possible, but Vincent didn’t like him. Nigel may have gone with him a few times, though.”

“Nigel? That’s the fellow your sergeant’s been after?” Trevor asked.

“He’s a strange one,” Ben explained. “He’s also a cousin of Melanie Rose, and he was hanging round the Ray house the night we brought Bobby in.”

Barry was looking over the photographs. “They’ve been up there three times, and he’s never home. The sarge thinks he’s hiding out.”

Ben picked up the handkerchief. “Could we have a quick look at the database to see if there’s a Jan missing from somewhere?”

The only linked computer was in the sergeant’s office. The three men filed in, and Barry sat down and opened the search window. “It could be Janet or Janelle, or they could be initials.”

“Try New South Wales females with the initial J between eighty and ninety,” Trevor suggested.

Barry entered the criteria, and five names appeared. The third name was Justine Anne Nolan, missing from a Camden hotel, Friday December 5th 1986. She was nineteen years of age at the time of her disappearance.

“There’s a Jan,” Trevor said with interest, and he opened the handkerchief to inspect it again.

“That local girl was November, wasn’t she?” Ben asked knowingly. “She disappeared November 22nd, and Bobby was in hospital in Camden on December 5. He was under guard in hospital when someone abducted another girl.” Ben held out his hands, challenging the detective. “He’s not your main man!”

“It’s still a long shot that the hanky is hers,” Trevor suggested cautiously.

Ben tried to contain his excitement. “But if it is, then someone else abducted her and put something of hers in that house with the other clothes! Right? So let’s go.”

“Okay, but not so fast.” Trevor printed out the details of Justine Nolan’s disappearance and stood looking at the page and rubbing his jaw. “There’s nothing here that can’t wait until morning, and I want to run this by Grier and your sergeant. At best the big guy had an accomplice, and we’ve still got his scrapbook.”

“I’ve seen Nigel poking around the Ray house quite a few times over the years,” Barry declared. “If you’re looking for someone with access, it’s been empty ever since old Isabel was taken in by her family, and Nigel has had plenty of opportunity. Who knows how long that box of clothes had been there? He could easily have planted it.”

“So, tomorrow morning, then?” Ben checked with Trevor, and he handed him the chain. “Will you ask the sarge if you can take me down to Camden with you?”

“Sure, why not?”

“That was in the attic with the handkerchief, by the way. I think you’ll find it fits neatly through the loop that was bolted to the floor of the hut, and that if you make a slip knot on each end it will match the injuries to the girls’ wrists.”

Ben could feel the lack of sleep the previous night beginning to overpower his thoughts as he walked home. He showered and changed, and felt a little fresher, though he didn’t feel like cooking, so he wandered down to the pub, intending to have a counter meal. He bumped into Phil, and after a beer, Phil called his wife and asked if she would set another place for dinner.

Dinner was half an hour off when they arrived, and while Phil was in the shower and his wife was busy in the kitchen, Ben was left to be entertained in the lounge room by the children. They rumbled him. The five and seven year old were teaching the two year old how to ‘get Uncle Ben’. They were swinging off his neck, pulling at his arms and legs and jumping on his belly. And they were giving him cuddles and reminding him of what was missing in his life.

After dinner, the children were put to bed, and Ben thanked his good friends and was strolling on home when he saw the frizzy-haired ex-reporter, Ollie, leaving the pub and swaggering toward his car. He called over, “Are you all right to drive, Ollie?”

“No, I’m just getting’ my kit.”

Ben approached and held the door while the old man pulled an overnight bag from behind the driver’s seat. “Is Arthur putting you up?”

“He has to if he wants any business from us blokes out of town. It’s either that or teach the missus to drive.”

Ben joined in a chuckle. There was something wrong with the picture of Ollie’s wife behind the wheel of a car. And not that she wouldn’t be capable, but that generation of women just didn’t drive.

“You know, Ollie, you said something the other day that’s been chewing on me. You said Bobby Ray’s old man was involved in incest with his father and sister. What happened there, exactly?”

“No one knows, exactly. Back then, what happened in your family tended to stay in your family, but there were rumors!” Ollie had settled back against his car and folded his arms. He was nodding to himself thoughtfully. “From what I understood at the time, the old man was doing the wrong thing with the girl. She was the oldest of the kids at about twenty, and James was maybe fourteen. It started when the other two boys signed up in the army and went on for about six months before the girl was sent away pregnant. And there was also another boy, a year or so younger than Olga—Clive Petrov. He and Olga were from some other father—could have been incest too, I suppose—then there was the two boys by old man Ray, and then James was the youngest.”

“So, what about James? This molestation of the girl was going on in the next bedroom, was it?”

“No, the old man used to take them for walks in the forest. Apparently it went on up at Goran Hut with the old man and the Petrov brother, and James used to have to watch. He told us that himself once, but the next day he came to school with cuts across his back where his father had whipped him with a razor strap. He never said anything about it after that, and we didn’t know whether to believe him or not at the time. We were never really sure what went on in that family, and we probably made up most of what I remember. Although you could always try asking Olga yourself.”

“So, Olga Petrov is the older sister that was abused?”

“Yeah, she was the one. She was sent away pregnant and came back about ten years later, after the old man died. Then the mother demanded we call her by her maiden name, and Olga, being by a different father, was never a Ray in the first place. And her brother Clive, he hung around for a while working at the mill. We used to keep an eye on him always watching the schoolgirls. He took off somewhere over in Western Australia then came back to help set up one of the hippie communes, the one that killed themselves in 72, just over the river in that big old farm house on the hill. Except Clive was gone before that happened. Anyway, the two women lived there in the old house up behind you, and they took James in after his accident because his wife wanted nothing more to do with him. Then the mother passed on, and Olga’s been tending those white roses ever since. Good luck getting a word out of her, though.”

“So, that was the original Ray family home?” Ben asked, feeling his skin crawl a bit.

“It was built by the Petrovs, actually. They settled here after escaping the Russian revolution back in 1920. The father worked in the logging camps. The mother died early on and the only child was a daughter, Bobby’s grandmother. She kept the house and lived there all her life. I think she actually poisoned her husband, but like I said, she was a sweet old dear, and he was a maniac. And the police at the time didn’t even bother to investigate.”

 

Chapter 42

 

Ben was alone at the station the next morning until Sergeant Edwards arrived at nine. Detectives Grier and Sanderson arrived together a half hour later, and there was a closed door meeting between the three of them. It ended with Trevor leaving the sergeant’s office and motioning for Ben to come along.

The drive down to Camden passed in conversation about the possible implications a positive identification of the embroidered handkerchief would have on the case. They were joined at Camden police station by a Detective Griffin Pollack, a gangly giant with a pronounced Adam’s apple and a severe stoop. From the back seat, he directed Ben to a small Victorian cottage in a leafy, well gardened street not far from the hospital.

Ben waited at the car and saw a tiny, greying old woman buckle at the knees at sight of the handkerchief. Both men caught her from falling to the ground, but she had lost consciousness, and Ben called for an ambulance.

After dropping Detective Pollack back at the station, Ben turned to Trevor. “I’d like to talk to Bobby. I’ve got an idea that may jolt his memory.”

“Oh?”

It was a short drive back to the hospital, and Trevor told Ben to wait while he lit up a cigarette.

“This is the same hospital he was in back in eighty-six,” the detective started casually. “So, the other person involved would have been one of his visitors.. They drop in to see the big guy and come across young Justine Nolan at the pub afterward. Maybe chat her up or wait ‘till she leaves and follow her.” He sucked hard on his cigarette. “You’ve got a theory on who it was?”

“I’ve got a feeling it was Vincent Khel and possibly his two brothers. I think they targeted young Melanie at least and coerced Bobby into helping abduct her. I think if we get Bobby’s mind focused on that timber mill and challenge his fantasy about working there he’ll give us Vincent.”

Trevor was nodding agreeably. He waved for Ben to go on. “Well, I heard Grier is getting a search warrant to go after Nigel Khel’s gun today, so if we can get Bobby to talk, there may be an interesting interview with Nigel to be had.”

Trevor sucked on his cigarette one last time and stepped on the butt. “Let’s go have a chat.”

Ben was relieved that neither Gwen nor Kate were at the hospital. There was an officer stationed outside the room, and Bobby was sitting up watching television. He smiled broadly. “Hello, Officer McEwen. Is Katie with you?”

“No, she’s not, Bobby. How are you feeling?”

His smile ended, and he shrugged. “I’m okay. Nurse Fletcher and nurse Parker-May are my friends now, but I want Katie to take me home soon.”

“Well, Katie’s very worried about you, Bobby. The last time I spoke with her she was very upset about these young girls that you were friends with.” Bobby was eying Trevor, and Ben glanced back at him. “Have you met Detective Sanderson?”

“He showed me pictures, but I don’t know any beach girls.”

“But you used to go to the beach didn’t you, Bobby? You used to go surfing on the weekend.”

Bobby started plucking at his fingers. His head had lowered, and his eyes were fixed downward. He didn’t respond verbally, but he shrugged again.

Ben sat on the end of the bed and continued, warmly. “I’m trying to help you, Bobby. Kate and Gwen asked me to come and see you because they’re very worried about you. But I can’t help if you won’t talk to me.”

Bobby responded without looking up from rubbing at his fingers. “I don’t like talking sometimes.”

“Okay, so I’ll go back and tell Kate that you wouldn’t talk to me. Is that what you want?” Ben offered an ultimatum with his tone. “Should I go and tell Kate that you don’t care if she’s sad?”

“No, don’t! Don’t say that to Katie!”

“But she’s worried about you, Bobby. You’re in a lot of trouble with Detective Sanderson and with Sergeant Edwards, and Katie asked me to come and see you so I can help. But you have to tell me about the timber mill. You have to tell me about when you worked there.”

“About the timber mill?” Bobby’s head lifted, his eyes wide. “I worked at the timber mill. I always worked there because I was the one who worked the crane. I was the best one who could work the crane.”

“But I don’t think that’s true, Bobby. I don’t think you really were the best one who could work the crane.”

“Yes, I was! I could do it better than anyone! I could do it the best!”

“No, Bobby,” Ben was shaking his head slowly. “No, everyone says Vincent was the best one who could work the crane. Everyone says Vincent was the best worker in the whole timber mill.”

“He wasn’t!” Bobby’s eyes welled with tears, and his jaw quivered. “He is not the best worker! He’s dirty and disgusting! He’s a dirty dog animal!” A nurse appeared at the door, and Trevor restrained her. Bobby’s chest lifted and his face set in twisted anguish.

Ben’s gut clenched at the thought of what the child giant may have been through. “Why is he disgusting, Bobby? Vincent loved her, didn’t he?”

Bobby broke into a chesty sob. “He did not! He didn’t love her! He said he had a surprise to give her, but he’s a Satan spawn, and I’m stronger than he is now.”

Ben touched Bobby’s arm, but he turned away and bit into his pillow. The nurse pushed past Trevor and elbowed her way in front of Ben. He moved back to the door and checked with Trevor. “Is that enough to bring Nigel Khel in?”

Trevor nodded and motioned that he would wait outside.

Ben approached the bed again. Bobby was crying, and the nurse was stroking his head. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I think you should get out of here and leave him alone.”

Ben backed away, and as he stepped from the room, he slumped against the wall. His heart was still pounding, and he took a moment to collect himself.

He left the hospital and found Trevor finishing his cigarette. They drove out of Camden and stopped at the roadhouse for a short lunch break before returning to Goran Vale.

“You know, Trevor, there’s still a piece missing.”

“And what piece is that?”

“The piece that links your four girls with the two from here. I’m not so sure the Khel boys had anything to do with your girls. And I’ve a feeling Bobby has a wound deeper than the one we touched back there in the hospital room.”

“Care to elaborate?” Trevor asked.

“Not yet…I’m thinking of the scars on the wrists of an old woman, too old to have had anything to do with the Khel boys. But let’s just see what Nigel has to say.”

Upon returning to the station Ben busied himself at his desk. Detective Grier was preparing the search warrant for the Khel residence. Sanderson and Sergeant Edwards were locked in the sergeant’s office. Barry Fitzgerald arrived to begin his shift at three, and Detective Grier returned shortly after.

The meeting broke up in the sergeant’s office, and Ben and Barry were instructed to accompany the two detectives. Nigel Khel was to be brought in for questioning, so two vehicles were taken. They arrived at the Khel farm to find it apparently deserted. The door was loosely closed and rattled with the force of Barry’s fist. It obviously wasn’t locked.

Grier motioned to enter. Guns were drawn, and Barry pushed the door open. There was no movement inside. Ben squeezed in through the doorway and covered the room. Nigel was not there. The detectives strode in, and another door was kicked open to reveal a bedroom with an unmade single bed and a wooden chest of drawers stuffed with clothing. Through another open door was a small room with a combustion oven and a work bench stacked with bricks of wrapped clay and an array of unpainted figurines.

The main living room had an open fireplace and a wooden table with a single chair. There was an unfinished meal of eggs and beans on a plate and a tea pot that was still warm. There was another door. It had a latch in the closed position and an open padlock. Trevor nodded and raised his gun. Ben slid the latch and pulled the door open. Barry slipped through the open door and cried out, “Fuck me!”

The door led to a basement, which was a single room with dusty shafts of sunlight streaming through small, round portholes. In the middle of the room was a glass casket containing two human skeletons. They were laid out and pinned in place against what appeared to be cushioned, white satin. Both skeletons had a shriveled, leather-like coverage of skin. They were adorned in identical white gowns, and one of them wore a crown. Kneeling either side of the casket and at the base, as if in prayer, were three life-size, clay statues. They were clothed in trousers, shirts and boots.

“That’d be Vincent and Jake,” Barry surmised. He was the first to find his voice.

“And Bobby’s father?” Ben asked. The figure kneeling at the base of the casket strongly resembled Bobby.

Barry bent over to look closely, and he lifted hair from the figures face. “That’s James Ray all right but. Jesus, is that real fucking hair?”

There was a loud crash in the other room, and suddenly Nigel Khel was gasping for breath in the doorway. His eyes were bulging, his face an ashen grey. He had a rifle in his hand, but it clattered to the floor, and he let out a strangled, inhuman gasp as Trevor launched himself and pinned his gaunt, haggard frame against the stairs.

 

Chapter 43

 

Bobby looked over at the light girl lying across the mattress in the corner. Vincent and Jake were standing above her. They were laughing, and the light girl was crying. He saw her through the eyes of the big man. He was kneeling over her. Bobby could feel her cold skin in his fat, dirty hands.

He hugged his knees to his chest. “Don’t hurt her again,” he said aloud, and he opened his eyes to the half-darkness of the hospital room. He closed his eyes again and remembered the smell of the big man. He hated the stench of his hot onion breath. He remembered it as a child, and he remembered it as he tried to pull against his father’s shoulder.

He was seventeen when his father had taken the first beach girl. Her name was Lisa. She was a blond girl with such big eyes. Bobby had been meeting her on Saturday mornings. His father had been there at the beach on a few Saturdays, and one time he had offered to drive Lisa home. He had told Bobby to drive, and he had squashed Lisa in the middle of the seat. He told her not to cry because God loved all of his children.

Bobby remembered Carla and Louise. They were his friends, but his father had pulled them into the truck and insisted their evil thoughts needed to be cleansed as well. And he remembered Maria. He remembered his father pinning her to the slatted wooden floor of that dark, little hut, and he could feel her soft arms as she struggled and cried. He could feel her tender, white skin in his fingers as he tried to hold her arms still and stop the chain from cutting into her wrists, to stop it from tearing her skin as his father squashed and pulled at her body.

Bobby remembered the blood seeping from under the chain, and he remembered how cold her skin was. He stood, and he saw Melanie between their fat shoulders. He saw Vincent and Jake laughing, and he saw the fat onion man lying down on top of her.

“Daddy, don’t purge her,” Bobby cried, and he pulled against his father’s shoulder, but his father was too heavy, and he brushed away with his arm and scowled with his onion breath.

“Daddy, don’t purge her again! She’s my special one, Daddy!”

 

Chapter 44

 

Tom Lloyd stretched his legs out in front of the bench seat and rested his head back against the wall of the mill office. It was a crisp autumn morning, but there was enough intensity in the sun to warm his bones. He had another swig from his hip flask and checked his hand for steadiness. The alcohol eased his nerves, and at a certain point in his journey into inebriation, he reached an almost numb calmness.

He rolled a cigarette and thought of Melanie tending her father’s office garden. He smiled to himself. Her memory had warmed since her remains had been discovered.

It was closure, Tom reasoned.

The previous afternoon, he had passed his sister in the doorway of the station house. Their eyes had locked for the first time in years. The silence between them still ached with the sorrow of what had happened to young Melanie, but in the tears welling in his sister’s eyes, Tom had recognized tremendous relief, and with the slightest nod of her head, he had received absolution.

He had spent the previous evening at the bar of the pub, remembering his good friend George and privately toasting his memory. It had been a festive night with a party atmosphere taking over the main street, and there was talk of a tulip festival that year.

Yes, closure, Tom reiterated coldly, and he took another long pull on his hip flask.

He stood from the bench seat and butted out his cigarette. He strolled down the hill to the clock tower corner and along to the station house. He knew Barry Fitzgerald would be on duty and alone. He found him sitting at his desk eating a cream bun. “Morning, Barry.”

“Tom! How ya going?”

“Fine. I just need to have a chat with old James. You’re shipping him out today, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, later this morning. What do you want with him?”

“I just have to look in his eyes, Barry, after all these years, for Melanie.” Tom opened his coat. “Come on, you should check I’m not armed.”

Barry smiled. “You’re not armed are you, Tom?”

Tom chuckled. “I’d like to be, but no. Five minutes, okay?”

Barry nodded, and Tom turned and opened the basement door. He walked down the narrow staircase with his gut tightening, and as he met the decrepit old man’s eyes, he immediately rolled over to face the wall.

Tom stood for a moment looking at him, remembering him as a fat, middle aged, God fearing school headmaster, and picturing him raping young Melanie in her new, white party dress. He addressed the aluminum shutter that had recently been fitted over the single window in the basement. It was latched with a bolt, but being fitted internally, there was no locking mechanism, something Tom had found out from Carl Evans, the local builder who had installed the shutter. He slid the bolt and opened the shutter, folding it back either side of the window, and he opened the window and looked out at the newly installed barbed wire fencing.

Tom stood for another moment looking at the monster’s mangled head then turned and walked back up the stairs.

“Thanks, Barry. Something I just had to do.”

“Okay, Tom. See you at the pub tonight?”

Tom nodded in agreement and left the station house to walk briskly back up the hill to the old timber mill. He didn’t know how long it would be before Barry checked on the prisoner, so he had to hurry.

He reached the garden bench puffing and struggling to get air into his lungs. He took a moment, had a swig from his flask, then picked up his rifle and walked up the gravel mound to the water tower. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and climbed the ladder to the wooden platform. He edged around the rusted water tank and lay down.

It was a perfectly clear morning, and there was no wind. He trained the crosshairs of his scope on the open window of the station house cell. He took a slow, steadying breath as he marked the point at the back of James Ray’s head. “Closure,” he said to himself with the hair lifting along his spine, and he gently squeezed the trigger. Then he worked the bolt of his rifle and put a bullet into the left side of the old man’s back, just below his shoulder blade.

 

Chapter 45

 

Two days after the murder of James Ray and unequivocal surrender of Tom Lloyd, Ben approached the spare office where Trevor Sanderson was packing his files and stationary into a box. “What will they give old Tom?” he asked.

“Life, I’d imagine. First degree, he’ll probably die in prison.”

“That’s a shame. He was a good cop.”

Trevor nodded in agreement. “Saved us a trial, though,” he said with a chuckle. “Although I’m still wondering about that Nigel Khel. He’s been happy enough to brag about wiping his brothers out and skull-axing Bobby’s old man in the name of the Lord, but I think you were right. He didn’t seem to know anything about our girls. Then, DNA on the clothing only places Bobby and his father, except with young Melanie and Justine Nolan.”

Ben walked Trevor out to his car. “So, what’ll happen to Bobby now?”

“Dunno. His doctors have got some work to do by the sound of it, but the charges have been dropped. They’re not going to prosecute the poor bastard. He was just a kid.” Trevor started his car but hesitated before driving away. He took out his packet of cigarettes. “By the way, Nigel Khel’s rifle checked out. It was all rusted up. Hadn’t been fired in years. Apparently a guy by the name of Toby Miller has been bragging over at the pub about being a pretty good shot with a rifle, though. And they say he was the little boy Melanie Rose pulled out of a creek way back when.” Trevor lit his cigarette and grinned. “Good luck with that.”

Ben spent the next two weeks wondering what would come of his relationship with Kate. He had all but lost touch with her. She was, of course, consumed with grief over what had happened to Bobby, and she and her mother were constantly at his side in the hospital and later, in the psychiatric clinic his doctor had transferred him to. Ben allowed Kate all the space she needed and waited for her to call, when and if she felt like it. She had called four times in the two weeks, and on each occasion there had been awkward silences filled with the realization they actually didn’t know each other that well. It was just too early in their relationship to have to deal with such a dramatic situation, Ben reasoned. And he maintained hope that when he saw Kate again they could regain something of the feelings they had confessed to one another.

He spent his evenings working on his house and cleaning up his junk room, and he gave Alyssa Lloyd a few more lessons in preparation for her driving test. The evening of her test he came home to find her sitting on his doorstep. She was grinning proudly.

“So, where is my car?” she asked, unable to contain a gleeful little giggle.

“You passed? Quick, show me.” She produced a driver’s license, which Ben examined closely. “What a mug,” he teased with a chuckle. “What, did the camera flash scare you or something?”

“Shut up! It’s not that bad.”

“No, I’m only kidding. It’s great. Congratulations! And come on in and we’ll do the paperwork to transfer your car.”

“My car! Yes!” Alyssa pushed Ben on into the house and stood at his shoulder to watch him sign over the registration. He handed her the keys, and she kissed his cheek, blushing excitedly.

“Are you going to the memorial service tomorrow?” Ben asked. There was to be a service for Melanie Rose as she would be laid to rest.

“I’m going with Mum and the kids. Will you be there?”

“Yeah. I didn’t know the girl, but I’ll put in an appearance.”

“I see Bobby’s back,” Alyssa said, drawing a nervous breath.

“He is, is he?” Ben had seen Gwen’s car at the house for the past few days. He wondered whether Bobby had returned home, whether he would be returning to Goran Vale to live. “Are you going to see him again?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. It’s all a bit too real for me, what happened with him and his dad.”

“Yeah, I guess. And you’ll be busy making friends down in the city, I expect.”

“I hope so. I’ve already found a few things to do now that I’ve got a car! My very own car!” She giggled again, excitedly.

“Alright. Get out of here. I’ve got jobs to do.”

Ben waved Alyssa off and went back inside to flop on his couch. He sat looking at his two paintings, wondering whether Kate would be at the service, then he lay down and closed his eyes and remembered the feel of her lying there cuddled up in front. He remembered the scent of her perfume and the touch of her soft hair against his cheek.

 

Chapter 46

 

“Stephen should be home any minute. Are you sure you won’t have another cup of tea?” Andrea asked.

Kate stood and stepped away from the dining table she had chosen for Stephen Gershwin four years earlier. It was all that was left of the furniture she had picked out, and looking around the familiar room once more, she felt little connection. She was over that failed episode in her life, and she felt genuine happiness for her friend Andrea.

Kate had called by to congratulate her on her pregnancy. She wasn’t rushing off to avoid Stephen, although she had no particular interest in seeing him. “No, I’ve got a bit of a drive, and I had better get going,” Kate explained, and she offered a hug that was returned with what she deemed to be tremendous relief. “It’s okay,” she consoled. Andrea was crying. “Come on, we’ll all get together soon and catch up properly.”

It was a good run out of the city, and Kate experienced a feeling of relief as the traffic subsided and the road opened into freeway. Her mother had already canceled her life in Sydney and moved into Bobby’s house. It had all happened so quickly. After twenty-five years at the institution, she had suddenly resigned, taken her long service payout, and leased the old Goran Vale National Bank building with a plan to gut it and set it up as a modern café. And as Kate turned off the freeway and wound up into the forest for the first time in several weeks, she had the distinct sense that she was going home. The antiquated town in the mountains was no longer boring and ugly, and as she rolled on by the ‘Tidy Town’ sign she felt a warm, welcoming sense of familiarity that surged as a nervous little thrill when she passed Ben McEwen’s house with the lights on.

She found her mother in the kitchen cooking dinner. Bobby was apparently working late, something to do with a tractor breakdown. “How did you get on with the lease, Mum?”

“Two years with an option to buy. I could have gotten three or four, but if I can’t make a go of it in two years, I don’t suppose I ever will.”

“And what about the upstairs part, did you have a look?”

Gwen shrugged and nodded as she sat down across the dining table with her cup of tea. “It’s just an office. It was probably the bank manager’s office I suppose. It’s quite big.”

“Are you going to be using it?” Kate asked.

“Might consider sub-letting if I can find a dependable tenant,” her mother replied.

Kate had been wondering about the fact that there were twenty or so businesses in Goran Vale plus numerous farmers in the area, and the closest accountant was an hour away, in Camden. Ever since her mother had announced her decision to move to Goran Vale, she had been lying awake at night churning over the possibilities.

“I bumped into Ben this evening,” her mother said with an exaggerated sigh.

“How is he?” Kate asked, more than happy to play into whatever her mother might be up to in regard to Ben.

“He asked about you. I see you haven’t spoken to him.”

“I’m going to see him tomorrow. It’s just been strange on the phone.”

“Strange, how?” Gwen asked searchingly. “He’s a good man, sweetheart.”

“I know, Mum. God!”

“Well, what’s the problem? Why have you shut him out?”

“I haven’t shut him out. It’s just—”

Her mother’s hand closed over hers. “You’re not being fair to the man, Kate, and you’re not being fair to yourself either.”

“Fair! What the hell has fair got to do with it?” Kate’s blood was suddenly boiling, but she couldn’t contain her tears. “It isn’t fair! Nothing is!”

“So, give this one a chance.” Her mother’s tears had started as well, but she was smiling. “He’s a really nice man, sweetie. I think you’re underestimating him.”

“Well, I’m going to try, but you should have seen him with these two kids who came around selling raffle tickets. They were all over him, and he loved it, Mum.”

“Okay, but that isn’t everything! Why don’t you think for a moment about what you can give a man instead of worrying about what you can’t? You’ve got so much to offer, and any man would be lucky—”

“Stop it, Mum! I hate it when you say that.”

“I don’t care what you hate, miss! I’m going to keep saying it until you listen! There’s more to life than having children, and I know how warm and loving and smart and funny, and how damn well—” Gwen broke into a sob. “How damn well wonderful you are!”

“Mum.”

Kate was crying, and her mother came around the table to hold her.

“And any man would be so lucky to have you, sweetie, and it’s time you realized that.”

Kate sobbed into her mother’s neck and had her hair stroked with the tenderness she had always known. The last time she had been with Ben she had confessed to falling in love with him, and this had all been sorted in her mind. Then as soon as he was out of sight, she had gone to water again. But she had to believe he was more of a man than Stephen. She did believe that. When she was with him she knew it. Looking into his eyes she knew he was the man she needed, and she so wanted to trust that he could love her completely.

“What’s this old thing?” Gwen asked, tugging at the worn and faded leather jacket Kate was wearing.

“It’s his,” Kate confessed, and she giggled and sniffled her tears. “He let me wear it once and I stole it, and now I practically live in it.”

“So, what are you wearing tomorrow? I’ve got a brown suit. That should be all right, shouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I don’t think we have to wear black, just dark and plain, I think. I’ve got slacks and a jacket picked out. Maybe I should give this one back. He’s probably missing it.”

“That’s a good idea. You should go around and see him right after the service. But you’ll have to come and get changed first.”

“And what am I supposed to say? He must think I’m a total bitch by now.”

“Well, you could thank him for helping Bobby. That should be enough if you wear a little perfume and lean close when you’re talking, and perhaps if you managed a slight touch when you hand him the jacket.”

“Mum! You old tart.”

“Yes, but men are such simple creatures, aren’t they? And so predictable. You can undo any number of wrongs with the right outfit, something short and pretty—lots of leg and some cleavage. You won’t need to do much talking.”

“But shouldn’t I do some talking? If he is still interested, shouldn’t I tell him I can’t have babies?”

Gwen kissed Kate’s forehead and smoothed her hair. “I honestly don’t know, sweetie. Yes, he does deserve to know early on, I suppose. I’m sure you’ll know what’s right, but I think if I were you I’d just tell the truth about why you’ve been avoiding him. I don’t think he’ll bat an eyelid, and I bet as soon as you get the words out he’ll take you in his arms and kiss you. He won’t hesitate!”

Kate lay awake most of the night with only one thought rolling over and over in her mind. It was the thought of confessing to Ben that she can’t stop thinking about him, and that she will never bear a child, and being rejected. Riding in the back of the car on the way to the service the next morning, she responded to Bobby and her mother’s conversation where necessary, and she otherwise sat in a daze that was only slightly jolted when the car stopped at Goran Vale cemetery.

Ben was standing on the edge of the small gathering. He was dressed in a navy blue suit that accentuated the width of his shoulders. He was holding a small child while another one tugged at his coat. Kate felt like bawling right there and then, but she contained herself as her mother squeezed her hand.

After the short graveside service, Gwen took Bobby to speak with Melanie Rose’s mother and offer condolences, and Kate slipped her arm within Bobby’s to offer him support. The old woman peered up from behind a black lace veil. Her eyes were watery, and her tiny hands were trembling as they closed over Bobby’s. Kate had listened to the service distractedly, feeling little other than a distant sorrow for the family, but she instantly choked up and began to cry. The old woman was nodding. She was too upset to speak, but she obviously wanted Bobby to know she didn’t hold him responsible for the death of her daughter.

Bobby shuddered slightly as he sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them, Misses Rose.” His voice was a thick, anguished whisper. “I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to stop my daddy.”

Eleanor Rose burst into tears, and people gathered around comforting her. Gwen took Bobby away, and Kate was left dabbing at her tears. She had made eye contact with Ben a few times, and she took a breath to compose herself when he approached.

He nodded at first, and took a moment to speak. “Hi. How are you?”

“I’m fine. It’s all just a bit sad.”

Ben glanced back at the gathering. “Shall we walk?” He motioned toward the car park.

It was only a short walk, about twenty yards. Ben didn’t speak, and Kate couldn’t. Her heart was thumping, and when they reached the car park, his hand touched her back and her knees buckled.

She turned to face him, and he fumbled for her face. “I’ve been thinking about you,” he said softly, stroking her hair as she leaned into him and fiddled with his coat.

“I’ve been thinking about you too,” Kate uttered, and he sought her eyes, then he kissed her softly, and Kate responded with the passion exploding from her heart.

He kissed her lips and her face and her eyes. “Ben… Ben… Wait!” He kissed her deeply once more, and she responded, but some of the gathering were approaching. “Not here, Ben. Let’s go somewhere.”

Kate managed a wave to her mother as they drove by. It was less than a mile to Ben’s house, and once he pulled into the driveway, he took her into his arms again. They kissed and cuddled for a few minutes in silence, then Kate pushed him away.

She straightened her clothes and her hair, and she faced him squarely. “We need to talk,” she started.

He touched her face again and leaned in to kiss her softly once more. “I want you, and I’m not waiting,” he declared.

Kate’s heart burst in rapture, her face flushing. “But you don’t know me.”

Ben stroked her hair from her forehead and kissed her softly again. “So, tell me your secret,” he said easily.

“My secret?” Kate mumbled.

He lifted her chin. His eyes were shimmering with intensity. “Tell me what’s wrong,” he whispered, and he kissed her again, softly yet deeply, with his lips caressing her open mouth and his essence flooding her soul.

“I can’t have babies,” Kate uttered, and she sought his eyes. “It isn’t possible for me to bear children, Ben.”

His eyes softened. They wavered a little without breaking contact. “Absolutely impossible?” he asked, and Kate’s heart sank.

She nodded. He bent to her and kissed her again, softly. He lifted and touched her face once more. “That must be hard for you.” His voice was tender and caring.

He kissed her again, and she responded to his passion. He kissed her mouth and her face. He met her eyes again. “You know, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known couldn’t bear children.”

Kate sniffled, her heart sinking a little again. Was he patronizing her?

“That would be my mum,” he explained, offering a grin.

“Your mum?”

“Yeah. Mum and Dad adopted us, both my sister and I. And we’re about as close as any family I’ve ever met. Maybe even a little closer.”

He kissed Kate again, smoothing hair from her face.

“I mean, I can’t know what it’s like for a woman to not actually be pregnant and give birth, but I know it doesn’t make any difference as a family when the children are adopted, like, if you ever wanted to adopt, that is.”

Kate kissed him that time. She couldn’t contain the glee that was clenching her stomach and causing her to smile and cry at the same time. “You’re seriously adopted?” she uttered, stupidly.

“Yeah, it’s no big deal.”

Kate’s heart was instantly filled with warmth and confidence. She could see her entire life, and it made perfect sense. She lifted so Ben could slip into the passenger seat beneath her. She settled upon his lap and kissed him again as she loosened his tie and started tugging at his shirt, feeling cheeky. “So, where’s your dress uniform, Tex?” she asked teasingly.

And Ben laughed. Kate laughed too. And as he carried her into his quaint, cozy little country house, she rested her head upon his shoulder knowing it would soon be their cozy little country house, and that she was being carried across the threshold by the man who would be her husband.

Of this Kate was absolutely certain……

The end, hope you enjoyed!

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