Tag Archives: cold case

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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Remains of a Local Girl: Part 5

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery, steamy romance.

 

Chapter 28

 

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

K.

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?”

“Mum!”

“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.”

“Mum! God!”

“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.

 

Chapter 29

 

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?”

 

Chapter 30

 

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.

 

Chapter 31

 

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.”

“Serious?”

“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.

 

Chapter 32

 

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.”

“Family friend?”

“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.

 

Chapter 33

 

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.

 

Chapter 34

 

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.”

“What, now?”

“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.”

“I guess.”

“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.

 

Chapter 35

 

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.”

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Remains of a Local Girl: Part 4

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.

 

Chapter 15

 

Bobby lay staring at the ceiling. The figure in the doorway beckoned. She had no face. She was a white, shimmering light full of sadness. He wanted to go with her. His fear had subsided, his heart aching with the pain she was feeling. He lifted his head. It was so heavy. He moved his leg and lifted his back. He sat for a moment looking at the floor. She moved closer. She wanted him to hurry, but he was so tired. He could barely lift his shoulders, and when he did she moved back to the door.

He remembered leaving the light on, but behind her was only darkness. He tried to stand but fell to his knees. She was leaving, and he crawled after her. He reached the door frame and lifted his body against it. She was at the bottom of the stairs waiting for him. He took a step. It was easier that time. He willed himself to follow, and he was moving freely, the weight of his body fading. He reached the front door and saw her at the road, and suddenly he was there, but she was gone. He searched into the distance. The forest was black, but he could see the trees. They frightened him. Their arms were long and angry. They were lashing out with spiny, black hands. She was there amongst them. She was crying and calling to him, but the trees hated him. “I can’t—I can’t help you,” Bobby cried out. She was fading, and he was dying inside.

Bobby sat up in bed. “It’s okay, it’s okay. It was just a nightmare.” Kate was there. She stroked his face. “It was just a bad dream. It’s okay.”

“Katie, the forest was alive, and it hated me!”

“It’s okay, sweetie. It wasn’t real.”

Bobby thought of the light girl. She was a secret. He knew she was a secret. “It was just the trees, Katie. They were trying to get me.”

“I know.  I have dreams like that too.” Kate soothed his brow as he lay back down. “They’re just scary monster dreams.”

“I know, Katie. I’m okay. What time is it?”

“It’s only midnight. Go back to sleep.”

“What happened to you?” Bobby asked. “Your hair is all mussed up.”

“Oh, that’s nothing. It was windy in the car.”

“But what happened to your face? It’s all red, Katie.”

“What? I don’t know, nothing. Just go back to sleep.”

 

Chapter 16

 

Kate left Bobby and checked in her mirror. Her hair was a tangled mess, and her chin was reddened with a pending bruise. Her breasts were sore from being mauled, and her neck was blotchy. Her skin was sticky with a new man’s scent. She flopped back on her bed and cuddled herself in the leather jacket she was still wearing. Internally she was still simmering, and in her dream that night she was a hick town bride, happily married and shelling peas.

Kate had no recollection of having dreamed anything when she woke the next morning. She found herself dancing around the house with a broom for a partner. She never got to the painting she had planned to do. She had woken late and spent an hour in the bath. By the time she had tidied up after breakfast it was eleven, and she packed her car and followed the directions to the farm where Bobby worked.

The farmer was a weathered little man with grey overalls and a dusty hat. He was a dwarf beside Bobby, who he had sorting peaches into boxes ready for shipment to market. Beneath the farmer’s hat was a kindly face with a welcoming grin. Kate was invited for tea and spent half an hour chatting with a plump, silver-haired woman who blinked as she spoke. Both the farmer and his wife promised to keep an eye on Bobby.

“He’s a wonderful young fellow,” the woman enthused. “So polite and such lovely manner. He reminds me of Ronny, doesn’t he, Neil? Ronny’s our youngest. He’s down in Sydney with a family of his own nowadays.”

Kate couldn’t believe her luck as she drove out of Goran Vale. She had been worried for months about Bobby’s move and couldn’t have hoped for a better situation to leave him with. She got to thinking of her plans as she skirted the bluff and wound her way down to the expressway. She was to pick up Leanne, and together they were taking a flight up the coast to Surfers Paradise. She had brochures of the hotel that showed the ocean view from the balcony. Everything was booked and organized, including dinner cruises and stage shows.

Kate thought of Ben as she passed the roadhouse. She remembered his kiss and the feel of his hands all over her body. She had promised to return for another visit at the end of her holiday, and he had promised to come into the city often to visit her. He also promised to call in a few days to say hello and report on Bobby, and Kate hoped he would. She suddenly found herself a little conflicted over the prospect of the next few weeks on the loose in Surfers Paradise with her best friend versus the idea of just doing a u-turn.

Well, as long as he does call, she concluded, and she shook off the thought of going back and sitting on his doorstep.

There was traffic through the inner-city suburbs. Kate found her friend waiting, and they hurried to the airport, checked Kate’s car into long-term parking, and arrived at the terminal just as their flight was boarding.

“So, what’s with the gravel rash?” Leanne asked. The plane had taken off and they were on their way.

“Oh, that.” Kate checked her reflection in the window. The graze on her chin was quite pronounced. “I had a run in with the local law enforcement. Hey you’d like him, Lea. He’s a real romantic, all soppy and sappy. I had to tell him to cut it out.”

“Oh, you did? He doesn’t appear to have listened.”

“No, I know. Have you got anything in here? I’ll have to get some cream or something.”

“There’s some antiseptic cream in there somewhere. It’s not too bad, though.”

Kate rifled through Leanne’s handbag. She found a tube of all-purpose ointment. “He was cute, anyway. He took me waltzing.”

“Waltzing? You can’t waltz.”

“Can now. Although I didn’t have to do much, just hang on.”

Leanne eyed her friend curiously. “So, he’s a cop?”

“Yep! A hick town copper.”

“And he can dance, and he’s obviously a passionate kind of guy, judging by the look of your mug. What else?”

“I don’t know, he’s excitable!”

“Excitable? You didn’t, did you? God, Kate! You’ve only been gone a few days.”

“Five days! Thank you very much. And it wasn’t on the first date.”

Leanne edged around in her seat. She was squeezing Kate’s hand. “So?”

“What?” Kate asked, feigning innocence.

“You know, details?”

“Well, we were dancing, waltzing! Which is, um, kind of sexy.”

“Sexy? How, for godssake?”

“Well, you know, you kind of get cuddled, and his thingy’s right there rubbing against you, and his leg’s kind of in between yours. You’ve got to try it, Lea. It’s more fun than it looks.”

“And then? After the dancing, what happened?”

“Oh, he’s got a Mercedes by the way, a convertible, and when we got back to it, he forced himself on me. What can I say?”

“What, you did it right there?”

“No! Jesus, Lea!”

“Well, come on, Kate. Feed me. I’m starving!”

“Hey, get this. Do you know what he said? He said, like, after I said we should get a room, he said he wanted to make love to me.”

“Yeah. Duh!”

“No, he meant he didn’t want to have sex, that he would rather wait and make love.”

“To you? Hahaha,” Leanne giggled.

“Yes, to me! It was really sweet.”

Leanne shook her head incredulously. “And he’s got a Mercedes convertible, and he can waltz?”

“Ah huh.”

“And you’re here, why? Is he married?”

“No.”

“Is he fat and ugly?”

“No. He’s gorgeous.”

“But he’s old, right? How old, fifty?”

“No, he’s not old. He’s about our age, maybe thirty. I didn’t ask.”

“So, why weren’t you raving about him as soon as you got out of the car? What’s the problem?”

“There’s no problem. I’m going to see him again when we get back. It’s just that he’s, I don’t know, he’s from Hicksville! God, I was climbing the walls to get out of there.”

“Oh. A country boy. Now, there’s a real turn off.” Leanne was withholding her giggle.

“Shut up, bitch! What about that guy you were going out with until you found out he liked fishing? And you think I’m picky.”

“Yeah, but it was on his hands, and it stank. And I hate fishy smells!”

There was a light snack of cake and tea served, and by the time the girls had finished eating, the plane was descending into the Gold Coast. They cleared the baggage claim quickly and stepped from the airport terminal into a sultry afternoon and a waiting taxi. Kate was cramped and in need of some exercise by the time they reached their hotel. After checking in and tossing her bags, she went straight down to the gym and had a light workout. She walked back into the hotel room to find Leanne hovering over a bunch of red roses. “I didn’t look,” she said excitedly, handing Kate the card.

“Are they for me?” Kate opened the card. It was a thank you from Ben for a lovely evening. It was signed with a kiss.

“Are they from the country boy?” Leanne asked, peering over Kate’s shoulder. “I’ll see if there’s a vase.”

Kate held the flowers to her nose. Her heart was fluttering a little, but she quickly brushed that off. For the past month she had been waiting in anticipation of her Gold Coast holiday and the opportunity to meet some new and exciting men. The last thing she needed was to be distracted by feelings for someone from a rundown little village in the hills.

 

Chapter 17

 

Ben took the expressway into the heart of Sydney. He had left Goran Vale at nine and missed the early rush hour traffic. He had taken his own car rather than a police vehicle so he would be able to stay and do some sightseeing. There was an attaché to deliver and some paperwork associated with it to complete, and he walked out of Police Headquarters free of any further commitments at two in the afternoon. It was only a short stroll down to Circular Quay, were he was soon wandering around gazing at the ferries lumbering into port and the water taxies zipping around between them. He bought some hot chips and attracted a gathering of seagulls that squabbled and screamed at each other over the rights to each half chip he tossed for them. There was a choir of school children singing, and he stood watching them for a while then meandered around to the Opera House where he sat staring up at the buildings around the foreshore, wondering which one Kate worked in.

Ben felt he had no illusions of what might develop between him and Kate. Sitting there in the dreamy haze of the afternoon, he remembered what she had pointed out so plainly, though. There was no point going back. His life at home had ended the instant Sylvia was killed. There was nothing there he had ever imagined without her. She was the meaning of that life, and without her, there would be no meaning.

Ben’s sister would be flying through Sydney later in the month, and he would be meeting her at the airport for lunch. She was his closest friend. He would wait to see her in person, but a decision had been taken. It was done.

Ben strode back toward the ferry terminal and decided he had time for a quick run across to the north side of the harbour. He had never been to Manly before, and after Kate had raved about it so much, decided he had to go have a look.

The ferry was waiting. He quickly bought his ticket and took an outdoor seat with the other tourists. The bulky old vessel slowly backed out of dock and cruised into the harbour with the deep sea swell regularly crashing into the bow and sending sheets of salty mist into the air. It was a twenty minute jaunt out through the heads and around to Manly cove, where the ocean settled and the ferry lumbered steadily along past the yacht clubs and towering apartment buildings. Stepping from the wharf, Ben walked into a party atmosphere, very different from the almost sleepy nonchalance of the mid-afternoon sightseers at the quay. The street was crowded with tiny boutiques overflowing with racks of clothing and sizzling eateries with tables and chairs spilling out onto the walkway.

Ben stopped by the window of a real estate agent to check the price of apartments, reminding himself again that his thinking was purely hypothetical. He looked at the first advertisement: Absolute waterfront at only 2.8 million. He scanned the other dozen or so apartments displayed and found that to be the cheapest by far. He had about fifty thousand equity in his house and close to twenty in savings. Maybe timeshare, he reasoned, realizing he would never have a hope of outright ownership of anything in that window.

He strolled along to the beach and sat for a while looking out at the horizon. He was eighteen years old the first time he had seen the ocean, and it gave him the same comforting sense of insignificance he felt when gazing out from the veranda at home.

He lost an hour staring at the waves, and by the time he got back to his car, the traffic had crawled out of the gutters and filled the narrow city streets.

 

Chapter 18

 

Kate checked her hair once again. She had decided to take a few inches off and have it curled at her shoulders. She liked it. She left her new dress on the bed and returned to where Leanne was reading on the balcony. She poured a fresh glass of wine and stood gazing out at the ocean for a while.

“So, how tall is he?” Leanne asked suddenly.

“How tall is who?”

“You know who.”

“You mean Tex? I don’t know, about six foot. And I wasn’t thinking about him.”

“No? So, how come you moved the flowers into your room? And right next to your bed. You’ve been thinking about him.”

“Well, it’s so dull in there,” Kate argued, but her friend had a knowing smile.

“Dull, huh? And what colour are his eyes?”

“God, they’re so intense, Lea. They’re kind of green, but you can’t look at them because he just sort of digs right into you with them.”

“Digs, huh? Don’t you like being dug into? I do.”

“Ha! Now who’s the tart?”

Leanne closed her book. “So, why don’t you call him and say thanks for the flowers? I bet he’s waiting.”

“Because I don’t like shelling peas.”

“Peas? What are you going on about?”

“Nothing. But tonight I’m going to meet a nice, non-dickhead, rich, gorgeous hunk of a man, and I’m not settling for anything less.”

“Rich, hey? Are we still on about that?”

“No, we’re not on about it. But it would be nicer than not rich.”

“Not usually, if you asked me. The nice ones usually have to spend their beer budget if they want to buy you flowers. Especially a dozen long stems, from interstate and delivered to your hotel room.”

“Hmm. Sounds like someone’s impressed! You can have them in your room tonight if you like. We can share.”

Leanne smiled confidently. “No, thanks. I’ll have some of my own by the weekend.”

“Really? But you’re not allowed to buy them yourself.”

“No. They’ll be sent with a sweet little card, just like yours were. I’m very confident.”

“Are you going to sleep with him? That’ll work.”

They had spent their first night at a dance-club, and Leanne had met a guy.

“No, I’m not going to sleep with him, I don’t think… actually, I might, but only because we’re on holidays.”

Kate laughed. “Oh, it’s different on holidays is it? Sounds like a double standard to me.”

“Well, he’s leaving on Sunday, and I won’t be able to see him again until we get home. Otherwise I’d make him wait. You know I would.”

“So, how is that any different from me doing it with Ben? I was on holidays and only there for a few days. Isn’t that exactly the same thing?”

“Oh, it’s Ben now, is it? Is Tex making progress?”

“Shut up! He made plenty of progress, but that’s as far as he’s going. I’m not ending up a housewife in suburbia, or Hicksville for chrissakes.”

“A housewife, hey? He has made some progress.”

“Fuck off, Lea. You really piss me off sometimes.”

“Hey, I’m only teasing.”

“Yeah, well, stop it now, okay?”

Kate was suddenly choking up and getting teary. Leanne approached and stroked her hair. “What’s the matter, sweetie?”

“I don’t know, nothing.”

There were times when a wave of emptiness would strike Kate from nowhere. She had felt it as she stood gazing out at the ocean a few minutes earlier, and the conversation temporarily warded it off, but it suddenly swamped her.

She sniffled and felt her strength returning. She smiled at Leanne. “I’m okay. This has been going on for months. Every now and then I just—uggh! It’s awful.”

“Don’t we all,” Leanne consoled. “I think we’re starting to grow out of this crap, don’t you?”

“Well, we’re not growing out of it yet. We’ve booked three weeks, and I’m making the most of it.” After the wave washed over Kate she always felt defiant and more determined than ever. “Come on. I want to try on my new dress.”

Two hours were spent in preparation, and emerging from the elevator that evening, Kate was tingling all over with anticipation. They had booked a table in one of the hotel restaurants, and they ate and chatted, mostly about the man Leanne had met the night before. He would be meeting them in the piano bar after dinner.

“There’s nothing wrong with driving a fork-lift,” Leanne argued at one point. “If it wasn’t for fork-lift drivers the pallets would never be put on the trucks, and the trucks would never get to the shops, and we would all be walking around naked and starving. So, he’s actually saving society, when you think about it.”

“Hmm. Well, I think you’re stretching it a bit there, but you seem pretty happy with him, it’s good.”

The atmosphere of the piano bar was thick, sensual luxury carved in mahogany and trimmed with chrome. The piano music itself filled the air with subtle romance. The lounges were deep soft leather, and the heavily tinted plate-glass set the lights of the esplanade back one dimension and captured a hint of moonlight riding silent waves.

Leanne’s new friend, Simon, was waiting and stood rubbing his palms on his trousers. His smile was broad, and his eyes were set upon Leanne. Kate immediately liked him. His wore faded black jeans, and had on a charcoal sports coat over a white, v-neck t-shirt. He looked outclassed amongst the leather and mahogany, but when he took Leanne into his arms, Kate felt very alone. She accepted his handshake and enthusiastic greeting. She leaned to him and offered her cheek, and when his lips brushed she thought of Ben and wished for an instant he was there.

Simon had an easy laugh. He blushed a lot and clung to Leanne’s hand. He asked Kate about herself, and she found no need to embellish the bland truth of her situation. “I live alone. I haven’t got a boyfriend, and I hate my job. Leanne thinks I’m a tart, but I’m really just a gold digger and a bitch.”

Simon chuckled. “All that, hey? Haha.”

“And then some,” Kate went on, giggling. “But you still love me, don’t you, Lea?”

There was a small dance floor where several couples could be seen swaying together. Kate was eventually left alone, and she watched Leanne’s face, as alive as she had ever seen it, as she cuddled to her new man’s shoulder.

Most of the lounges were occupied, but the bar was quite sparse. Kate had noticed several men obviously unaccompanied. There was one with curly, red hair at an adjacent party who was continually looking over, but she had been avoiding his eyes because she didn’t like the way he spoke over the top of his friends. There was another man regularly looking over from the bar, and although his suit was immaculate and obviously Italian, she didn’t like the way he was checking out every woman that walked by.

At the far end of the bar was a man in a dark suit whom Kate had noticed chatting with the barman whenever he wasn’t busy. His face was chiseled perfection, and his smile flashed. His eyes were dark, and Kate had met them several times but quickly looked away. She had been caught staring, she admitted to herself, and summoning up some courage, she decided to go sit at the bar and see whether he would acknowledge her. She didn’t look at him as she approached, although she could feel his eyes. She took a seat on a stool four places along and asked the barman for champagne. She glanced and smiled. The man was looking at her.

“I saw you working out the other day. Impressive,” he started casually.

“Thanks. It had been weeks, and I really needed it.”

He stood and approached, taking another stool but still leaving one vacant between them. “You know, you inspired my wife. She was the dark-haired lady, kind of tall. I don’t know if you noticed her. After watching you she has really stepped it up.”

“Oh, I think we said hi. Umm, Jas, wasn’t it?” Kate was laughing at herself. Go on, pick the married one. He’s probably the only married guy in the whole place.

“Yes. Jasmine.” The guy checked his watch. “Oh, here she is now.”

Kate forced a smile and said hello. The woman slipped into her husband’s arms, and Kate hoped her eyes didn’t roll too obviously as she turned back to the bar. The guy introduced himself, and Kate collected her drink and bade them goodbye. She slumped back into her lounge, temporarily defeated.

Leanne returned with her fork-lift driver, and the night went on without reaching any great heights for Kate. The red-haired guy approached and introduced himself at one point. He seemed pleasant enough at the time, and Kate danced with him, but she didn’t like the feel of his soft, clingy hands, and she politely declined the drink he offered afterward.

It was eleven when Leanne’s fork-lift guy took her for a walk on the beach, and Kate returned to her room and flopped on her bed. She lay for a while staring at the ceiling, and her gaze settled on the roses on the nightstand. She mulled it over for a while and finally grabbed her purse and found the piece of paper with Ben’s number. She got as far as typing the number in her phone before changing her mind. It was eleven-thirty on a work night, and he would probably be asleep, she reasoned, although she didn’t quite know what she wanted to say to him, anyway. She could see a tiny Leanne sitting on the nightstand saying ‘just call and say thanks for the flowers, he won’t mind if you wake him up’.

Well, he might not mind, but how desperate would I seem if I called him at midnight? I’ll call him tomorrow, she reasoned with herself. I’ll call at lunchtime and just ask how Bobby’s going or something.

The next morning Kate jogged on the beach and spent an hour in the gym. Leanne was just waking when she got back to the room, and after a fruit salad breakfast, they went to sunbathe at the beach. The plan for the evening was a dinner cruise, to which Leanne had invited her new boyfriend. Kate was not interested in hunting for a guy amongst a crowd of drunken louts on a boat, so she was pleased to receive a call from her friend Paul. He was to be arriving that afternoon and would do fine for a dinner date, she decided.

She had been thinking all morning about calling Ben. She mentioned it to Leanne, expecting her to be excited and supportive.

“You can’t,” Leanne said simply. “It’s too late to thank him for the flowers. You had to do that immediately, two days later, you’d have to apologize, and that would sound like you weren’t interested. Now you’ll have to let him assume you loved them and wait for him to mention it, and then you’ll have to gush to make up for it!”

Kate was out of her element, and she trusted Leanne entirely. “So, I should wait for him to call me?”

“It depends how you feel, sweetie, and what you want. If you want him then get on the phone right now, but if you’re not sure and you want to think about it, it wouldn’t hurt to make him wait and see.”

“Well, I’m not sure what I want.” Kate poked at the sand. “I think I’m just feeling lonely because you’ve got a boyfriend all of a sudden.”

“Yes, I have, haven’t I?” Leanne rolled over and glowed. “What did you think? He’s cute, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s cute. So, what happened last night? Did you do it?”

“No! He can wait a bit longer.”

“Yeah, but can you? I saw the look on your face when you were dancing. I don’t think you’d put up much resistance if he started dragging you toward the bedroom.”

“Maybe, but last night was perfect. We just walked and talked. It was getting light when he took me home. And God can he kiss.”

“Ben can kiss too,” Kate blurted out, embarrassing herself a little at how teenage she sounded.

Her friend adopted her knowing smile, and her eyebrows lifted, which usually meant, ‘well, there you have it’.

“You know, if he is really that keen he should find an excuse to call you pretty soon, I mean, flowers are wonderful, but they’re also kind of, you know, low risk. When getting up the courage to make a phone call, you really have to put yourself out there, don’t you? And hey, that’s a guy’s job!”

“Oh?” Kate was confused. “So, what happened to calling him right now if I know I want him?”

“I don’t know, Kate. See, that’s what I’d do, but look at me. I’m better at scaring them off than you are. Maybe playing it cool is the way to go. I really don’t know.”

“Well, I think I’ll just wait and see what happens. I’m going to see him again in a few weeks, anyway, and if he calls before then—”

“If he calls before then you’ll gush over the flowers., right?”

“Oh right. Lots of gushing.”

Kate laid her head back down, and after a few minutes of silence Leanne spoke again. “I had a call from Stephen last night.” She seemed hesitant, and Kate turned to meet her eyes. Leanne took a breath and continued tentatively. “They’re going to have a baby.”

Kate spun around. “Andrea’s pregnant?”

For the past two years she had been steeling herself for the inevitable, but the thought of another woman giving Stephen a child struck deeply and all at once, painfully.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know whether to say anything.”

“It’s okay,” Kate offered, pulling on a defensive pretense. “I’m over him now. You know that.”

Leanne squeezed her hand. “My brother is an arsehole. A little bit of me hates him.”

Kate sniffled. There was a knot in her throat, and she couldn’t quite hold back her tears as her pretense quickly surrendered. “I pushed him away, Lea. You can’t hate him.”

“He should have held on to you.” She offered a tissue from her beach bag. She always seemed to come prepared with ointments or tissues or headache tablets or the like. “But you’re better off without him, anyway. What you need is a real man, not a shallow, prissy little daddy’s boy like my brother.” She was giggling, and Kate giggled too, a little painfully.

Like the sudden bursts of emptiness she had been feeling of late, the pain from that little stab in the heart quickly abated. “I’d been waiting for that to happen, anyway, Lea. And it’s actually wonderful news for Andrea. She’s been going on about having babies since school, hasn’t she?”

Leanne stroked Kate’s hair from her face. “She has, but are you sure you’re okay?”

“And now she’s going to get fat,” Kate went on, sniffling and half giggling at the same time. “And then she’ll have stretch marks.”

“Big ugly ones,” Leanne agreed, and Kate giggled outright, but that only aggravated the ache in her heart, and she started crying.

Her tears flowed, and she leaned into her friend’s arms and remembered all the phone calls, all the ridiculous ideas she had suffered through when Stephen had been innocently detained with his business meetings. She had driven him away with her insecurity, and in hindsight she could see that blatantly. He had loved her, and he had been completely faithful to her and to their plans to marry, and she had sat home at night and agonized over the picture of him laughing and flirting with every woman she had met through his work functions. She had obsessed over his fidelity until he had finally surrendered and given her what she seemed to want.

“You really mustn’t hate him, Lea. Not for me.”

 

Chapter 19

 

Ben handed over a letter formally declining the offer of a transfer back home. His sergeant accepted it and shook his hand. “Good move, son. Glad you’ve decided to stay.”

Ben left the station house with that done, and after changing out of his uniform, called into the pub to celebrate. He found his good friend Phil Green having a quiet beer, and after a second round they decided to play some pool.

Phil’s world consisted of his furniture restoration business, his wife and his four children. Ben had enough carpentry skills to hold a conversation about furniture restoration, and had Phil working on an antique dresser he had picked up at a farm clearing sale. They chatted about it and their conversation touched on Phil’s sister, who was apparently looking forward to seeing Ben at the wedding.

“Sure we talk. She can’t wait to get hold of you, buddy.”

“Yeah, well, it’ll be good to see her again.”

“Jeez, mate, a bit of enthusiasm! I’ll tell her we were talking about her, and you couldn’t stop yawning, will I?”

“No, it’s not that. I’ve actually been thinking about someone else.”

Phil lined up a shot on the pink ball. “You mean that cute little dark-haired piece? What’s her name, Kate?”

“Yeah, Kate. How’d you know?”

“The missus told me. The women were talking about you at the P&C last night.” Phil slapped Ben’s back and jostled him with a playful shove. “So, did ya score? She looks hot.”

“I did okay, but it’s more than that.”

“So, you did score! See, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Got it wet on the first date! Proud of ya, buddy! And it’s serious, is it? She that good?”

Ben took his shot at the pink without responding, but he couldn’t contain his grin. And over another game of pool the two men compared their exploits with the opposite sex in general, with Ben recounting the five women he had dated since he had moved from home and Phil reminiscing about the numerous conquests he had made before he met his wife.

Phil had children to bath before dinner, though, and Ben left him at the front of the pub and strolled down to see how Bobby was getting on. He found the door open and recognized Alyssa’s laugh. She was clinging to Bobby’s arm when he came to the door.

“Hello, Alyssa… Bobby, how are you?”

“I’m good thanks, Officer McEwen. We’re playing cards. Wanna play?”

“No, Ben’s too busy,” Alyssa said with a smile.

“That’s right. I’ve got jobs to do, Bobby. How’s your job going? Do you like it?”

“It’s great, isn’t it, Alyssa? I’ve been driving the tractor, and today I learned how to prune.”

“That’s good. And is everything else going okay? I’m going to call Kate tonight. She’ll probably ask how you are.”

“I’m fine, Officer McEwen. I just miss Katie a little bit, but don’t say that to her because she’s on holidays, and she has to have fun.”

“Okay. I won’t say you’re missing her. And you enjoy that tractor, Bobby. I’ll watch for you when I’m driving by the farm. Alyssa—”

“Bye, Ben.”

Ben heard Alyssa squeal as he turned from the gate and headed back up the hill. He had noticed her plucking at her clothes, and he tried to imagine what they were up to. He decided it was none of his business and felt pleased that Alyssa had found something there in Goran Vale. He had plenty of respect for her dedication to her grandfather and parents and to her young brother and sister, and she was one of the few younger adults in town who held down a job.

He decided to call into the motel restaurant for dinner. He had been thinking of calling Kate all day, after putting it off the previous night, and he thought he would take a quiet hour to think about what he would say. He thought that two days was a long enough interval to report on how Bobby was going, so he at least had an excuse to call, but beyond that he wondered if it had been appropriate to send flowers. He didn’t want to intrude on her holiday, but she had been constantly on his mind, and he was anxious to hear her voice again.

He took a seat in a quiet corner and ordered his meal. He had placed his phone on the table, and after staring at it for a moment, swallowed the knot in his throat, selected her name in his contacts list and hit the green button. The phone rang for a long time, causing his chest to tighten and his throat to dry up. He was about to end the call when it answered.

“Hello. Kate’s phone. Paul Rissman speaking.”

“Err… Paul, it’s Ben McEwen. Is Kate there, please?” Ben’s heart sank.

“Sorry, she’s in the shower. That you, Tex?”

Ben expelled a breath. Who the hell is this clown, calling me that? He had taken it as a sign of affection when Kate had called him Tex, but that only held true if it was a private joke. He hadn’t responded, and Paul continued. His tone was boastful.

“She’s busy getting’ done up for me right now, but I could give her a message. Or I could ask her to give you a call in the morning.”

“Just let her know I called, please?” Ben hung up and sat with the picture of Paul Rissman waiting for Kate to come from the shower churning in his head. He had heard the shower running in the background, and the picture was vivid and unrelenting.

Who was I kidding, anyway? It was all there in the nickname Tex or cowboy. She’s a refined city girl with an exciting life, and I’m a hick town deputy, as she put it.

Ben admonished himself for allowing his overindulgent imagination to once again lift his expectations beyond reality, and his anger quickly turned to embarrassment at having sent flowers. He imagined the chinless guy reading the card and having a laugh to himself.

Why didn’t I take the hint that first morning when he had stayed over? I’m such an idiot sometimes!

Ben returned to the pub after dinner. He met up with Tom Lloyd and his brother Gus, and later in the night he joined a group of local men for a pool competition. The conversation was distracting, which is what he had been looking for. He had filed the idea of Kate Harrington in the to-learn-from section of his mind. He couldn’t be angry with her, as he understood he had no claim to her. He couldn’t even feel disappointed, as he was never appointed in the first place. She had made it perfectly clear she wasn’t interested in anything more than a casual romp, and he concluded that what he needed to learn from her was to listen to plain English.

All had been settled in his mind, but that didn’t prevent him from lying awake half the night haunted by the image of Paul Rissman sitting on a bed as Kate walked from the shower.

He woke late and spent the rest of the morning surfing the few dating sites he had entered a profile. He responded to one email from a Christian woman who seemed nice, and he sent another two emails to women who were nothing like Kate.

Ben owned a navy blue, double breasted suit. He had worn it to several weddings in the past five years, and it had otherwise sat in the back of his wardrobe. He dressed and went to work with a wet rag to remove the lint. At two-thirty he strolled up the hill to the church where a good portion of the town’s population were gathering.

The feelings a wedding inspired in Ben were mixed. He enjoyed the children, the way a weekday afternoon urchin would be presented in pressed trousers and polished shoes or a frilly dress and curled hair tied up in ribbons. He liked the way a wedding always seemed to bring couples together. There were couples Ben had only ever seen arguing or socially avoiding each other, whom he could see holding hands. He guessed a wedding would, at some level, take every married couple back to their own special day. A wedding was also a graphic reminder of Ben’s own loss, though. As he stood at the back of the church, alone, he remembered Sylvia. He remembered how beautiful she looked in the wedding gown her mother had sewn and the pride and nervous expectation he had felt waiting at the altar as she walked down the aisle.

After the ceremony it took quite a while for the Johnson clan to file past the bride and groom and offer their congratulations. Ben shuffled along with the group of distant acquaintances and had to check his invitation to remember the groom’s name. He ended up walking with Phil Green and his family as, after photographs were taken, the procession moved along to the old door factory.

Phil walked in front, between his wife and his sister Rebecca, while Ben tagged along with their seven-year-old daughter swinging off one hand and their five-year-old son swinging off the other. He caught Rebecca glancing back over her shoulder a few times and met her smile. She was wheeling a pram, which housed the newest addition to the family, while the two year old was smiling back over his mother’s shoulder.

The old door factory had been reclaimed by council, and the Country Women’s Association had set it up as a community hall. Only the bridal party had been allocated seats. The remainder of the seating was along trestles that filled half of the hall and left the other half open for dancing. There was a DJ setting up in one corner, and in another corner was a bar being tended by the round-bodied English publican, Arthur Briggs. Ben stopped to chat with him while the families got settled.

“I’ve got the bar, but that damned Bernadette Rayne has diddled me out of the catering,” Arthur was complaining. “She’s taken half my business at the pub and now this!”

Edna Simms had saved Ben a seat. He could actually see a spare place across from Rebecca Green as well, but Edna had gotten up to claim his arm, and she dragged him to where she was seated with her husband, Fred, and Margaret and Henry Worthington, and Edna’s niece Riana.

The seating arrangement left Ben a place between the men and opposite the women. He met Riana’s mild blush as they were introduced. She was wearing a delicate, peach-coloured frock that yielded to the milky-white skin of her neck and shoulders. Her light-blond hair merely cupped and accentuated her sweet, slightly animated face.

Ben really wanted to sit down, but he had more or less committed to sitting with the Greens. He explained that to Edna when she insisted he sit, and he asked Riana if she would save him a dance a little later.

“I’ll have to check my card,” she said with a disarming laugh, and Ben understood that she understood they were being set up. He liked that subtle connection, and he bumped into a vacant chair as he was walking away holding her smile.

Ben’s seat with the Greens was between Phil and his little girl and directly across from Rebecca. He had met Rebecca a few times and had gotten along well. They had even gone to a movie once, but she’d had another commitment when he called to ask her out again, and he had left it at that. She was a year older than Ben, and although a little homely in her drawn facial features, she looked particularly sensual in a dark gown that plunged to reveal the generous swell of her breasts.

Throughout the meal Ben caught Riana’s gaze quite a few times. He was relieved when, after the meal, another man took Rebecca to the dance floor. He immediately excused himself, and as he approached, Riana stood and met him.

“Come on, the oldies are putting me to sleep,” she said, turning Ben away toward the dance floor.

The next hour passed in a whirl of colour and music as Ben danced with groups of kids, a few of the older women, and occasionally got to rub up against Riana. He had tossed his coat and tie, and dripping with sweat, went outside for some fresh air and to cool down. He was sitting on the steps enjoying the evening breeze when Riana approached.

“They let you go, did they?” he asked her. She had been surrounded by children doing some sort of dance with lots of hip wriggling and foot stomping the last time he had seen her.

She took his beer and had a sip. “I snuck away between songs. It’s so hot in there!”

“It’s nice here, though, isn’t it? I’ll see if those windows at the back open when I go back in. Should cool down with some air flow.”

“Do you mind?” Riana asked. She still had his glass of beer. “I’m so thirsty.”

“No. Go ahead. Should I get another?”

“No, I’ll save you some.” She had another sip then used the glass to cool her neck.

Ben watched the dew trickle down her skin.

She smiled. “You know, I think Aunt Edna has a bit of a crush on you.”

“Really? She’s a sexy lady. Too bad I’m not about forty years older.”

“Hmm. I’ll tell her you said that. But I’ll make sure Uncle Fred doesn’t find out. We wouldn’t want a scandal.”

Ben accepted the glass of beer, and their fingers brushed. “It was a nice wedding, they look good together.”

“They do. I hadn’t seen Julie in years. Apparently they’ve only been together a few months.”

“So her dad was saying. I’ve got a feeling she might be pregnant.” Ben had heard a rumor but didn’t know if there was any truth in it.

“Ohmygod, a shotgun wedding! Her dad looks like the type too. Only, he seems pretty happy in there.”

“Well, it might just be a rumor. You know what it’s like in a small town. We’re always looking for some big news.”

“I think they’re cutting the cake,” Riana said, looking in through the door. “Are you coming?”

Ben followed her inside and found his shirt being tugged as she wriggled into the circle of people crowding around the cake. He stayed with her, and through the photographs and speeches he was intensely aware of the heat from her body against his side and of her perfume and the sweet scent of her hair. He couldn’t separate the feelings he had been having all week for one beautiful woman from the attraction he was feeling to another. It was as if it was a continuation of the same dream as the music started up and he was swaying slowly with another pretty head resting against his shoulder.

“How long are you staying in town?” he asked her as they danced.

She peered up at him. “I don’t have any firm plans.”

 

Chapter 20

 

“Look, Paul, just go away and leave me alone!” Kate demanded. “You did nothing but embarrass me last night.”

“What the fuck did I do that was so embarrassing, you stuck up little bitch?”

“You did what you always do, and I’ve had enough. Now get out!” Kate opened the door and stood waiting.

“What do I always do?” Paul’s aggression vanished.

“Just go, Paul.”

He collected his shirt and shoes from beside the couch and trudged from the hotel room. Kate closed the door and locked it. She stormed across the room and flung the balcony doors open to let out the cigarette smoke. She found Leanne grinning in the kitchenette. “What?” she demanded, although her temper was fading, and she almost giggled at her friend.

“Oh, nothing. I’ve just heard all that before. How long do you think it will last this time?”

“Forever! I’ve had enough of him.”

“He wasn’t that bad,” Leanne ventured. “He seemed about normal last night.”

“Well, I’m tired of being groped by a drunken slob. And I couldn’t get rid of him last night, and the place stinks of his smoke. And he just cornered me in the bathroom and tried to kiss me with that breath, and I lost it!”

“He was embarrassing last night, wasn’t he?” Leanne admitted supportively. “I don’t think Simon thought much of him, only he was too polite to say anything.”

“He was a pain on the dinner cruise the other night too, but he was at his best last night. I thought the bouncers were going to kick him out once, and I was hoping they would. I think he was pissed off last night because I keep knocking him back lately.”

“That’ll usually do it,” Leanne suggested with a smile.

Kate giggled, proudly. “Actually, I can’t stand the thought of him lately because I can’t stop thinking about you know who. He turned up last time Paul was over too, and I made Paul sleep on the couch.”

“He hasn’t called?” Leanne asked with interest.

“Not yet.”

“Have you checked your missed calls?”

“Every time I leave my phone somewhere, but I’ve been sleeping with it turned on.”

“Maybe you should call him.”

“No. I’ve been lying in bed for the last two hours thinking about that, and I’m going to wait. He better call before Friday, though.”

“Is that his deadline?”

“Well, if he doesn’t call on Friday he never will, and he’ll make plenty of progress if he does call on that particular day.”

“Oh! That day!”

“Yes, that day! And if he doesn’t call I’m giving up on men completely.”

“Ah huh. And as for this cowboy, what happened to a guy having to be filthy rich?” Leanne asked, sitting up at the breakfast bar with the coffees she had made.

“And how stupid was that? Paul’s rich and he’s a fuckwit,” Kate replied, shrugging nonchalantly. “Watching you guys together this past few days and thinking about Ben, what the hell difference does it make where a guy’s from and what he does for a living? I just want a cuddle.”

“Really?” Leanne asked. Her tone was soft and sincere, and she smoothed Kate’s hair from her cheek.

Kate started to choke up. The wave of emptiness surged as a hot flush that consumed her body. Her tears started again. “I don’t know what’s going on, Lea. It’s just, uggh! I don’t know what I want anymore.”

“It’s okay, sweetie. Don’t worry.”

“I just can’t stop bawling these past few days, and we’re supposed to be on holidays, in paradise for chrissake.”

“We don’t have to stay. Simon’s flying back to Sydney this afternoon, and I’d just as soon go with him. Do you want to go back to Bobby’s place?”

“No. Don’t be silly, Lea. Even if you go home I’m staying right here until my holiday’s finished. Do you really want to go home?”

“Well, no. I’m staying with you, of course. Even if it’s just us there’s plenty to do.”

Kate partied with Leanne over the next few days, and they danced together and avoided men completely. Leanne’s new boyfriend returned on the Wednesday, and Kate spent that afternoon walking on the beach and cleansing her soul of all that had gone before, in preparation for what she hoped would be a new chapter in her life. On Thursday she kept the curtains drawn and spent the day in front of the television with chips and chocolate. She found a channel with some old, romantic movies and lost herself in them. She woke to Valentine’s Day on the Friday morning with still a faint hope flickering. She had continued checking her phone for missed calls all week, but that morning she sat it on the coffee table and virtually watched it. She admonished herself for what she was doing but couldn’t help it. She decided at nine, and again at ten, that it was too early for Ben to call yet. By eleven she had taken to pacing from the balcony to the couch and back again. By one in the afternoon there had been no phone call or even a text, and Kate had begun reasoning that it would be more likely a man would wait until evening to call a woman, especially since it was a usual work day.

Kate sat by her phone with a dreadful ache steadily growing and consuming her heart as the cold afternoon shadows crept over the sand and the esplanade came to life with the colours of other people’s romance. By seven she had resigned herself to the fact that she had agonized all day wishing for something that just wasn’t real, and she snatched the wilting roses and stuffed them in the bin.

 

Chapter 21

 

Ben arrived at the address Riana had given him a few minutes before eight. He straightened his coat and trousers, and taking the bunch of carnations he had bought, he approached her door and knocked. She answered immediately. She was dressed in a pink satin gown. Her hair was ruffled, though, and she appeared to have been crying.

She slipped from her door and closed it behind her. “Ben, something’s happened,” she started. She had stepped away from him and folded her arms. “It’s Brad. He’s… I told you about him. We were together for years until a few months ago.”

“Is he okay?” Ben asked thickly. He didn’t know what to make of the situation.

“He’s here,” Riana uttered softly. “He’s… I’m sorry, Ben,” her voice trailed into a sob, and she looked up pleading for some sort of forgiveness.

Ben nodded. “You’re in love with him?” he asked, knowingly, kindly.

“Yes, I am,” she answered, wringing her hands and smiling through her tears. “I’m so sorry about tonight.”

“That’s okay. I’ll just…um… I’ll just go along anyway and have a dance with some of the single girls.”

Ben was forcing his smile. He turned and walked away before it faded. He placed the flowers on the passenger seat and glanced back to find Riana watching from the rail of her porch. She waved, and he turned away and drove.

It was only a few minutes to the expressway, and Ben felt some relief as the car surged into top gear. He was numb but not hurting. He hadn’t allowed himself to feel that time. He smiled to himself, gloating over his good judgment. Saw that coming, he thought, but the glory quickly melted, and his head shook in empty resignation.

Approaching the turn-off to Goran Vale, he abandoned the reflex decision to go to the Valentine’s Day dance alone. He took the turn and drove his old Mercedes up into the forest. He wanted nothing more than to get out of his suit, grab a beer, and have a game of euchre. He wanted nothing more than his space.

Arriving home, he tossed his coat on the lounge and ripped off his tie. He switched on his computer and took a beer from the fridge and cracked it open. His computer was old and slow, and the start-up process was lengthy. He went out the back and let Rex off his chain for a pat and a rumble. Then he went back inside, and Rex jumped on his favourite lounge chair. Ben slumped on the lounge and kicked off his shoes. He sat for a moment staring at the painting of home, but his thoughts drifted from the memory of that harsh, sunburnt landscape to the object itself and the tantalizing mischief in Kate’s eyes as she had placed it there on the wall.

“Why did she do that, Rex? You don’t walk into someone’s house and go rearranging their stuff.” He looked around the room. It was as if she was still there, and he hated that, but he loved it. His space had been invaded and conquered by fruity, flowery perfume, which he could still smell, even though he knew the aroma had long since faded from the room. But I was nothing more than a distraction, he admitted to himself once again. He’d had that conversation with himself every day, several times a day, in fact, and every night as well. She was here on a stop-over, and what we did, what we had, was the entertainment. It meant nothing to her, Ben chuckled to himself, horribly. “She turned my fucking life upside down on a whim, Rex.”

 

Chapter 22

 

Kate sobbed herself to sleep at around midnight and tossed and turned through the night. She woke early the next morning feeling emotionally drained and exhausted, and in need of some exercise. She was careful not to wake Leanne, who had only been in a few hours. She jogged on the beach and took her remaining frustrations out on the gym equipment. There was no bath in the hotel room, but she soaked in the shower for nearly an hour. She left with Leanne still sleeping and took her credit card for a walk around the clothing shops.

Leanne was having lunch on the balcony when Kate arrived back at the room. She dumped her bags on the couch, thoroughly pleased with herself, and turned to meet her friend’s inquisitive smile.

“I’m guessing he didn’t call,” Leanne started. Her tone was cautiously searching.

Kate shrugged and shook her head. “I spoke to Bobby last night, and he said he saw him a few times last week with some blond chick. Who cares?”

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Leanne said softly. She had approached and taken Kate’s hand.

“Look, it really doesn’t matter,” Kate declared, but her voice quivered, and she fought back the tears.

“Come here,” her friend uttered, and Kate fell into her arms and started crying again.

She couldn’t explain to herself why it was such a big deal. She had been the one to ensure their relationship was established as casual, so she had no right to expect him to not date other women. And she had rejected him when he had gotten all serious, and they had only known each other for a week, so it was ridiculous to expect him to think of her on Valentine’s Day. And she was the one who had left town to go on a man hunt, so it was absurd to be hurt by him not being faithful to her, but that’s exactly what she was feeling as she sobbed on her friend’s shoulder.

Two days later the American insurance broker, Lance Emerson, called Kate and invited her for a private dinner cruise on his company yacht. “Thanks, Lance, but I’m really not interested. It was nice to meet you, though.”

She spent the remainder of her holiday sightseeing and enjoying the view from her balcony. She would own a view like that one day. She was more determined than ever. I’ll do it on my own, she convinced herself. The thought of marriage while being unable to bear children had always worried Kate, anyway. I’ll sell up in Sydney and move where it’s a bit cheaper down the coast, she reasoned, sitting on the balcony and sipping champagne on her final night before flying home, and then I’ll travel the world.

 

Chapter 23

 

Glenview House had been constructed in the late eighteen-nineties as the residence of Archibald Ferrier, the owner of the largest logging company in the Goran Vale district. It was an extravagant, asymmetrical, Queen Anne style mansion built from locally carved sandstone with two full levels, overhanging balconies, and dormers protruding from a steeply gabled roof. The upper level incorporated six bedrooms, the master’s retreat and main guest rooms filling the corner towers, and three smaller rooms suitable for children. The lower level was divided into formal dining and sitting rooms with carved and gilded archways and tasseled drapes shipped from mother England. It had an expansive kitchen with a walk-in pantry and meat safe and an attached dining area for servants, and the master of the house worked from an office with an additional sitting room, which opened onto the sunny northern veranda. At the time of its construction, Glenview was the epitome of wealth and power in the district, but after the deaths of the two Ferrier sons and heirs in the First World War, the family returned to England and granted the house to the government as a medical facility and retreat for returning soldiers. It was operated as such until the middle of the nineteen-thirties then abandoned after a fire gutted the lower level. It remained a nesting area for birds and a shelter for other wildlife until 1972 when George Rose purchased it for a nominal sum and invested in a modest refurbishment for the purpose of providing a home for wayward youth. The project was headed and driven by an enthusiastic young school teacher, James Ray.

Nigel Khel had been nine years old in 1972. At that time he was fascinated with the abandoned mansion, which could be seen through the forest from his bedroom window. He had also been frightened of the ghost stories about the old soldiers, though, and only ever went there with his twin brother, Vincent.

When the builders set up, he and Vincent had gotten jobs helping out. They were in Mister Ray’s class at school, so it naturally followed they would be put to something useful and practical if they wanted to hang around. Vincent, being the more accomplished scholar, had been assigned duties with the builders while Nigel had been relegated to helping an aboriginal man, old Amos, in the garden. Nigel never knew old Amos by any other name, and he wasn’t sure where he came from or if he had any family, but from the age of nine until he was in his early twenties he worked by the old man’s side every day. He helped tend the garden and mend fences and to slaughter lambs and pluck chickens and the like, and over the years old Amos taught him to sculpt and craft with clay.

Memories of those childhood years crowded around Nigel as he sat on the steps of Glenview House looking out into the overgrown garden. He stood and walked into the foyer, upsetting a small lizard that scurried through a crack in the wall. All the windows on the lower level were smashed, and the elements of nature had water-stained the wooden floor and caked it in dust, and the heat and moisture in the air each summer had the paint flaking from the ceiling and walls.

This fascinated Nigel and strangely pleased him. The boys who boarded there had been driven by Vincent, under the guidance of Mister Ray, to keep the house immaculately presentable at all times. There had never been a smudge on a window, and the timber work had always been waxed and polished. It was something of a victory for Nigel to see it nesting with birds again.

He had rarely been inside Glenview House in recent years, but the return of Bobby Ray had sparked his memories of being excluded from playing with the other boys or going on the camping and fishing trips they often went on. Bobby had also been excluded. Mister Ray would never allow Bobby to hang around. He would sometimes visit with his grandmother, but he would have to stay by her side, and he would be led away peering back over his shoulder at the other boys playing on the lawn and in the garden.

Nigel made his way carefully up the stairs to the second level. The bedrooms were sealed from the elements as the windows were mostly intact. Each room had two or three beds, which had been reserved for the older boys, with the attic having been converted into a dormitory for the youngsters.

From the window in the north-western corner of the attic, there was a partially obscured view through the trees to the houses on the edge of town. Nigel leveled his rifle and focused the scope on the Ray house. He could see the open garage and above that, the window he remembered as Bobby’s bedroom. He settled to watch for the woman, but there was no movement in the room. He had watched her standing at the mirror in her underwear one night, but he hadn’t seen her in a few weeks, so he soon gave up and focused on the kitchen window where Alyssa Lloyd was visible.

Nigel had seen Alyssa there at the house almost every night, and he wondered if Bobby had told her anything, or if indeed he had remembered anything of what happened at Goran Hut and in the basement of his house. The prospect of Bobby’s memory returning was something Nigel had agonized over for the first few years, but he finally learned to deal with the thought of a police investigation. He reasoned that the ranting of a lunatic could easily be discredited if necessary, and with the passing of time any evidence at the hut would have deteriorated. And should the police ever try to get into his basement, the Lord would intervene. He had no doubt about that.

Bobby appeared behind Alyssa, and she leaned back against him and looked up and kissed him. “Very nice,” Nigel muttered under his breath, and he worked his growing erection as he focused on Alyssa’s nipples poking at the thin fabric of her t-shirt. Bobby began massaging her shoulders, and Nigel unzipped his trousers and reached inside his underpants. He masturbated to ejaculation while watching Alyssa’s breasts moving beneath her shirt.

He used the bottom of a dusty, tattered, green curtain to clean up. Then he hobbled down the stairs and out into the garden where there was the shell of a small glasshouse that was once used to grow vegetables for the kitchen. Behind the glasshouse was a section of ground bordered with rotting railway sleepers that had been exclusively used to grow Mister Ray’s onions, and hidden in amongst the weeds there, Nigel had his three marijuana plants. He stripped a few leaves and stuffed them into an empty tobacco packet then pocketed it. He pushed his wheelbarrow across an open field and through a small creek, then on past the rusted metal frame of the windmill, slowing as he passed the exact spot where, on a cold winter’s afternoon in 1992, he had violently attacked Mister Ray.

He vividly remembered the way Mister Ray’s skull had split open under the force of the blow. He could still feel the sodden thud through the axe handle. It felt exactly the same as one time old Amos had made him kill a sick calf with the blunt edge of an axe. He had used the back of the axe head on Mister Ray and had positioned his convulsing body in such a way that it would appear he had hit his head on the metal frame of the windmill, and indeed that’s what the police investigation had concluded. The day after he had carried out the Lord’s retribution there had been no report of Mister Ray’s body being discovered, though, and that was when Nigel decided to return with old Amos’s butcher’s knife. It was just on dawn, and Mister Ray’s hair had been tinged with frost. His skin had been grey and rubbery, and his scalp had peeled away from his scull much the same as a lambs skin peeled away from its moist, fatty flesh.

Nigel turned away from the windmill and limped on through the forest and into town. He approached Henry Tebbit, who looked up from a car he was working on in the laneway beside his garage.

“Hello, Nigel. How are you?”

“I’m good. Have you got it?”

“Yeah, it’s sitting over there on the bench. There’s an old aerial you can have too if you want.”

“Is it going to work?” Nigel asked. It had been years since he’d had a working television set.

“It works fine. Just be careful not to bump it around too much on your way home, though. Do you want a lift?”

“No, I don’t want a lift.” Nigel produced the tobacco packet and handed it over. “Is that enough?”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Henry agreed, and Nigel placed the television and aerial in the wheelbarrow, and he nodded his thanks and started off home.

 

Chapter 24

 

Bobby lay watching the light girl in his bedroom doorway. It had been a few nights since her last visit, and the last time he had traveled around the house with her playing and having fun. She seemed sad again, though.

He slipped from his body and floated over to her. They never touched, and he didn’t know if they could. She had moved out onto the landing, and she beckoned for him to follow.

He trailed her down the stairs and out onto the veranda. They had played out there before, but he didn’t like it and wanted to go back inside. She pleaded with him. She couldn’t speak, but he felt what she was feeling and thinking, and she didn’t want to play that night. She wanted to show him something. It was something very important.

Bobby was afraid, but she had asked the trees, and they had promised they would be friendly that night. She moved to the road, and he followed as far as his gate. She waited for him. She said if they went together everything would be okay. He looked beyond into the forest. The trees were dark, but they were round, and their arms were tucked away. He thought they may have been sleeping.

The light girl was floating toward them, and Bobby followed her. Above, the sky was shifting. It was alive with something wanting. He felt it drawing him upward, but he had to stay near the ground. And the wind in the trees was cold and black, and if he went too close it would suck him in and he would never be able to get away. But he stayed in the middle of the road, and the light girl stayed with him. She was close beside him, and she was happy he was going with her, but deep down she was very sad that night.

He wondered if he could see her face. He never tried to look at her when he was close because he knew she was a secret. He wanted to look right then, but he didn’t dare. He looked back at the waking trees. Their arms were moving, and the light girl said they must hurry. They left the road and went along a small track into the forest. The trees were too close, but they were still sleeping there, and only the ones behind were waking up.

The light girl had started to cry, and Bobby felt her pain in his heart. There was a clearing ahead, and there was a small house. He knew that house, but he didn’t know it right then. The door was open, and there were people inside. The light girl was gone, and the trees were all awake and lashing at him. There was laughter in the house, and there was screaming too. It was light inside. He could see through the windows. He could see men standing around cheering, and he knew the light girl was in there. She was lying on the floor with a man on top of her. Bobby could see it like he was standing over her, but he was behind their fat, sweaty shoulders. He knew them. He knew them all, but he didn’t know them right then. The one on top of her was dark and evil, and Bobby could feel her soft, clean skin through his disgusting hands. He could feel the bones in her arms as she struggled. He could see the chain cutting into her skin, and he tried to hold her arms still. He saw her eyes. He saw the horror and fear in her eyes. The onion men were purging her demons, but he wanted to help her. He wanted to stop them, but their shoulders were sweaty and slippery, and they were too fat and too heavy.

He sat bolt upright in bed.

“Katie!” Bobby yelled. “Katie!” he yelled again.

His throat was dry and hoarse, and his chest was heaving. The knowledge he was alone in the house slowly crept over him, and he reached to his bedside cabinet and clutched the silver crucifix. He got out of bed and hurried downstairs. It was black in the house, but outside the sky was dull pink. It was five in the morning, and soon he would have to get ready for work. He turned on the lights and huddled in a lounge chair. The light girl’s eyes were burned into his mind, but it was just a bad dream, he told himself. “It was just a dream because I’m not a sinner,” he said aloud as he stroked the crucifix. “I’m not a sinner anymore, Mummy. I’m not a Satan spawn because I’m strong now, and no one can hurt girls because I’ll smash them. I’ll bust their heads open, won’t I, Katie?” Bobby had lifted a framed photograph of himself and Kate from the wall-unit beside the chair he was sitting in. He sat with the photograph in one hand and the crucifix in the other, and his mind drifted into thoughts of driving the tractor at his new job, then on to ideas he had for fixing the timber mill one day when Kate said he could ask Mister Rose about buying it.

He took his latest scrapbook from beneath the coffee table. He peeled it open, thumbing past the surfers and the television women and parting the big, crinkly paged book at the section with his crane pictures. He smoothed over the glossy magazine cut-outs, marveling at them and wondering which one would be the best to get. He had three favourites, and each one slotted into the picture in his mind, but the next section was cargo ships, and he was distracted by the thought of the crane that lifted the containers at the dock. He didn’t have a picture of one of those and wondered where he could find one. Maybe Katie can help me to find one, he mused, and he turned another page and thumbed a picture of a bikini beach girl. It was his first beach girl, Lisa. Although it wasn’t exactly her, rather a picture of a girl who looked like her. “But we mustn’t let Daddy see you,” Bobby muttered, smoothing over her face, and he thumbed to the next page where he had a picture of a girl who looked just like Maria, and on the opposite page he had pictures of two more beach girls who looked like Louise and Carla. “Because you’re my secret beach girls now, aren’t you?”

Bobby sat studying his scrapbook until the sun came up, then he made his lunch and had some cereal and a glass of juice. He was too frightened to go upstairs, so he used the work clothes from the day before and dressed in the laundry. He remembered the trees as he walked toward the forest, but they were just normal trees, and they didn’t scare him. He walked quickly along the road, and when he came to the turn off to Goran Hut he knew the small house in his dream. He hurried past, peering up into the forest, and he started jogging as a cold shiver attacked him.

Mr Cosgrove was waiting and set Bobby to loading wooden crates of peaches and plums onto a truck bound for market, and Bobby lost himself in the need to butt the boxes neatly against each other in order to fit them all on the truck.

 

Chapter 25

 

Alyssa dawdled along Mill Road on her way to work. She had plenty of time and intended to waste it and not arrive at the shop a minute before ten. She had been daydreaming about what she should wear that evening when she would visit Bobby. There had been some kissing and fondling, and she was determined to advance things that night. She was startled from her thoughts by a brisk hello from Ben McEwen. He approached, and she met his smile. “Hi, Ben. How are you?”

“I’m good. Been keeping out of trouble. How about you?”

Alyssa had been sneaking over the back fence at night and fully expected to be found out. Ben had of course seen her with Bobby, and she wondered whether he had told anyone. “Are you implying something?” she asked, playfully.

“No, I’m not implying anything. It’s good to see you smiling these days.”

“Thanks. I’m feeling pretty happy as a matter of fact.”

“That would be Bobby?” Ben ventured. “He’s a nice guy.”

“He is. Only, I haven’t told anyone yet. I’m not looking forward to Mum.”

“So, it’s serious?” Ben asked, sitting on a brick fence and folding his arms.

Alyssa suddenly felt she had a big brother. “I guess. It’s hard to tell with Bobby because he gets distracted, but I think he likes me.”

“I noticed something,” Ben said thoughtfully. “Last week when I asked him how his job was going he checked with you, like he needed your approval. I noticed him doing that with Kate. Maybe it means something that he’s trusting you now.”

“Yeah, maybe, but I can hear Mum screaming that he’s too old.”

Ben chuckled. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Oh, and that’s funny, is it? I thought you were on my side then for a minute.”

“I am on your side. I’m really happy for you.”

Alyssa liked Ben’s sincerity. It reminded her of feelings she had discarded. “So, what happened with you and Kate? Bobby says she asks about you when she calls.”

Ben’s head lifted. “She does? What does she ask?”

His eyes had flashed and set intensely. Alyssa giggled. “Like that, is it?”

“Like what?” He was suddenly blushing.

“Like, you’ve got it bad for the princess.”

“Is it that obvious?”

“I think she just asks if Bobby has seen you around. I think she might be interested.”

Ben nodded and changed the subject. “Is your granddad home?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll see ya,” he said, and he stood and strolled away toward her house.

“Don’t say anything about me and Bobby, okay?”

Ben smiled back at her and waved, and Alyssa hurried along to work.

The four hour shift passed in a mindless haze that occasionally included a customer distracting her from her thoughts. That afternoon she bathed and spent an hour on her nails while her younger brother and sister did homework and played video games. She prepared the evening meal in time for her parents to arrive home, and after dinner she announced she was meeting girlfriends and would be late home.

Bobby was working out on his gym when Alyssa approached. She stood leaning against the door frame watching the muscles in his arms and shoulders bulge and strain and the ones in his chest and abdomen quiver. She met his eyes and smiled, but he just looked away and continued rattling the machine.

Alyssa plucked at the hem of the little floral dress she had worn especially. She had seen Bobby in his mood before and thought about leaving him with it. She decided to go inside and wait for a while. It usually passed quickly.

She was watching television with her feet tucked up on the lounge when he came inside half an hour later. He went directly upstairs and showered. When he came back down, he approached with a broad grin splitting his face. “You look pretty,” he declared.

They usually played rummy or concentration with a greasy, dog-eared deck of cards with a picture of a cottage on the back. After a few games Alyssa crawled across the playing area in the middle of the lounge room floor and kissed Bobby deeply and passionately. He responded. Apparently Julia Ferguson had taught him how to kiss as an integral part of pleasuring a woman. Alyssa had been lying awake at night wondering exactly what he had been taught. She crawled over him and straddled his waist. His big, firm hand claimed her lower back, and as his mouth opened over her neck, she was crushed to his body. She submitted to his lips and tongue against her neck, but she ground herself against his crotch. He was firm, and with her dress around her waist, she split herself over the bulge in his shorts.

Alyssa’s eyes had been closed with the rapturous thrill coursing through her body. They rolled open as Bobby’s hand closed over her breast for the first time, and she saw a face in the window. It was the face of Nigel Khel. She recognized his sallow features and greasy hair immediately, and she shrieked and tried to push away from Bobby. She wriggled and squirmed. “Bobby there’s someone there,” she squealed, and she pushed at his chest, but he claimed her arms and forced her back onto the floor. He held her wrists above her head in one hand and pinned her with his thighs. His face was ashen, and his eyes were dead. He ripped her dress open, and she screamed and kicked at him.

The room was spinning. Alyssa’s heart was in her throat. She fought and thrashed with all her strength. She could feel a hand groping her face, and she thought she saw tears in Bobby’s eyes before he was suddenly running from the house. She scurried to the corner behind the lounge. Bobby had gone out the front door and left it open. She thought of Nigel Khel and feared he would come in, but moments passed, and nothing happened. She crawled to the phone. She had seen where there were two numbers taped to it in case of emergency. One was Kate’s, and the other was Ben McEwen.

 

Chapter 26

 

Ben roared into the driveway less than a minute after taking the call from Alyssa. He found her at the door clutching her dress in front and with tears streaming down her face. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay. But there’s something wrong with him. His face was different. His eyes were, I don’t know, just wrong!”

“Where is he now?” Ben searched in through the door.

“He ran off. I don’t know where. He ran out the door, and Nigel Khel was here, but he’s gone too.”

“Come on. Let’s get you home for now.”

Ben led Alyssa through the back yard and up to the door of her house. “I’ll go in alone,” she said to him. “I’ll tell Mum and Dad, but I’m fine, really.”

Returning to Bobby’s house, Ben quickly checked around the yard. He walked out to the road hoping to see where Bobby may have gone. He thought he saw something, and he jogged down to the corner. In the sharp moonlight, he made out the form of someone hurrying along, perhaps half a mile away.

Ben ran back to his car and just caught sight of the figure disappearing up Goran Hut Road as he approached. As his headlights swung around, the figure darted into the bush, but Ben had recognized the distinctive limp of Nigel Khel. He stopped by the road where he had vanished and shone his flashlight into the trees, but there was no movement. He stayed for a while searching the shadows. He decided he could pick up Nigel easily enough, and he returned to his car and rolled along toward Goran Hut. He found Bobby wandering by the roadside and pulled up beside him.

Bobby stopped walking and stood with his shoulders stooped and his head hanging. Ben got out of his car and approached cautiously. “Bobby, what’s going on?”

There was no reply, so he stopped a few yards away and waited. Bobby had not moved nor lifted his head. “Are you okay?” Ben asked. “Alyssa’s fine. You didn’t hurt her.”

Still Bobby offered no response, so Ben waited another moment. He needed to control the situation, to get Bobby to a safe place. “Will you come back with me?” he asked, stepping closer and extending a hand. “Come on, we’ll drive back to town, and we’ll call Kate, okay?”

Ben ushered Bobby toward the car, with the bigger man offering no resistance. He sat with his head still bowed, and Ben said nothing more until he had pulled up outside the police station. “It will be best if you stay here tonight, okay?” He tried to attract Bobby’s gaze, but it was blank and downcast. Again the bigger man offered no resistance as Ben led him into the station house and down to the cells. “The girl’s fine, and we’ll sort him out with the sergeant in the morning,” he said to the duty officer, Barry Fitzgerald, and he left Bobby lying on a bunk with his arm over his face.

Ben returned to Alyssa’s house. She appeared at the door wrapped in a heavy flannelette bathrobe. “Is he okay?” she asked, chewing at her lower lip as her eyes watered a little. Her mother was by her side, and her father appeared at her shoulder.

Ben addressed them all. “We’ve got him in a cell for the night, and the sergeant will deal with him tomorrow. We’ll probably need a statement, but there’s nothing to be done tonight.”

“I don’t think he meant any harm,” Alyssa mumbled.

“What time should we come down in the morning?” her father asked flatly.

“We’ll give you a call, Noel. We’ll need to round up Nigel Khel and see what he was up to as well. You say he was peeking in the window?”

“I’m not sure now.” Alyssa pulled her bathrobe more firmly around her body. “It was the window right by the front door, so he may have been just visiting.”

“Alright, we’ll sort it out tomorrow.”

Ben left the Lloyd family and returned to Bobby’s house. He slumped on the lounge and opened his mobile phone. He scrolled to Kate’s number, took a deep breath and pressed the green button. The phone rang three times. His heart thumped.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Kate, it’s Ben McEwen, from Goran Vale.”

There was a moment of thick silence. “Hi.” Kate’s voice was flat.

“How is your holiday? How is the weather?” Ben swallowed.

“Fine.”

He walked over to the front door and toed at the door mat. He shook off awkward apprehension. “Something’s happened, Kate. It’s why I’m calling… Bobby’s in a bit of trouble.”

“What’s happened?” Kate’s voice was suddenly alive. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine for the moment. He assaulted a young girl, and we’ve got him confined to a cell for the night.”

“He what? There must be some mistake. He would never hurt, what girl?”

“Young Alyssa. I found her at his house crying and her wrists are injured. Apparently he held her down and ripped her dress.”

“Ohmygod, is she alright?”

“She’s okay. She fought him off, and he ran into the forest. I brought him back, but he’s not talking. He’ll need to explain himself in the morning, Kate. Is there anyone close by I could call?”

“I’ll be there in two hours. He’s at the police station, you say?”

“Yeah, for now.”

“Thanks. Thank you for calling.”

“I—um—I’ll see you—” The line went dead before Ben had a chance to say anything more.

He pocketed his phone and secured the house. He stood for a moment on the front porch and got to thinking about Bobby, about the fact he had seemingly attacked Alyssa, and about the fact he ended up near Goran Hut with Nigel Khel following along after him. He got back in his car and rolled down the main road to the Goran Hut turn off. The sandstone track was glowing in the crisp moonlight. He turned onto it and drove slowly up into the trees.

Ben studied the depths of the forest as his vehicle noiselessly rolled along. He examined each shadow, half expecting it to come to life in the form of Nigel Khel. He wondered what Nigel’s story was. Perhaps he was just an innocent visitor, but what would either of them be interested in at Goran Hut in the middle of the night?

Ben parked his vehicle next to a rusted information sign that detailed the history of the site and of the Goran family.  He took a flashlight and searched the area around the hut. There was a post and rail fence surrounding it, which extended into a small clearing to form yards for livestock, and nestled at the far end of the yards was a lean-to that would have been used for nursing animals. He had no idea what he was looking for, but he had never stopped at the hut before, so he climbed into the yard and had a look in the lean-to. It contained a row of nesting boxes, probably for chickens, he imagined. They had deteriorated to the point they were crumbling into the dirt.

Ben climbed out of the yard and shone his flashlight further into the clearing and found another small enclosure bordered by a wrought iron fence. He walked up the rocky slope and found a burial ground. There were three headstones: Sabine Goran, wife and mother, had died in 1877 at the age of 42. Wilfred Herman Goran, beloved son, had died in 1861 at the age of 2. Elle Sabine Goran, beloved daughter, had died in 1866 at the age of 12. Ben recalled the legend of Herman Goran, who had apparently burned to death in a bush fire in 1890, though his body was never recovered.

He walked down the slope and shone his light into the back window of the hut. It was a simple two room structure of ironbark posts and bolted slats, and a corrugated iron roof. It was raised on sandstone blocks and had a timber floor. There was a broad veranda around two sides. Ben stepped up onto the veranda and had a look in the door. In the main living area, he found the shell of a combustion stove and a heavy wooden bench that had a deep porcelain tub set within it. There was a layer of caked dust in the bottom of the tub, along with a spoon and a rusted bean tin. In one corner of the room was a blanket, and there was a coat lying on the floor beside it. There was another small tin on the floor beside the bench, and Ben lifted a paper bag from it that had the Johnson Hardware logo celebrating 70 years of service from 1914 to 1984. In the paper bag was a clump of rusted nails. There were beer bottles strewn around the floor, and in the doorway of the other room, Ben found a Sydney newspaper from 1992. There was a wooden box with a burnt candle set up next to another blanket in the corner of that room. There was a leather boot lying in the middle of the floor with two more beer bottles, and protruding from the edge of the blanket was a lacy piece of cloth that Ben extracted and discovered to be a bra. There was a small tobacco tin on the floor behind the box. He picked it up and opened it to find fishing hooks and sinkers. The other leather boot was bundled in the blanket. Near the wall in the larger room was a small stainless steel chain and an oval shaped loop bolted to the floor. The chain was about two inches long and made from odd looking, chunky, square links. Ben fiddled with it thinking it may have been the handle of a trapdoor, but the floor was solid.

He left Goran Hut the way he found it and decided he would return in the morning for a look around in daylight. He drove back to town and stopped in front of the Khel property. There was a dim light coming from the window, and after a few minutes a curtain moved. He left his car by the road and took his flashlight. He approached the house and knocked. There was no sound within, and the light from inside had been extinguished. “You there, Nigel?” he called out briskly. “I just want to speak with you.”

There was no response, and after knocking again Ben stepped back. He waited, listening intently for any activity in the house. He suddenly caught a flash of movement in the small window at his feet. He crouched down and shone his flashlight. There was a face, but it quickly disappeared. He shone his light in through the small window and thought he could see the shadow of a person’s head. “You there, Nigel?” he called out again, but there was no movement from the shadow.

Ben stood and backed away. He would like to have known what Nigel was doing at Bobby’s house and wandering in the forest, but he needed to be officially on duty, so tomorrow would have to suffice, he reasoned, and he returned to his car and drove home.

He had left his house open and the television on. Rex was waiting at the door, beating his tail excitedly, and two of the stray cats were on the doorstep rubbing up against a pot plant and a pair of boots. He had a few scraps from dinner and shared them between the dog and cats, and he chained Rex up for the night and returned to the mess he had made of his living room over the past week.

Since his last female visitor, the evening before Valentine’s Day, Ben had neglected his household chores and allowed the daily clutter to accumulate. He flicked through the television channels and found golf. He had dozed off a few hours later when there was a knock at the door.

“Kate! Hi…” Ben rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“Hi, Ben. I’m sorry, but I saw your light was still on.”

“No, that’s fine. Please, come in. Do you want to go and see Bobby?”

Kate edged past and stood stretching the front of a faded green sweat shirt and wringing her hands in it. “I’ve seen him. The other officer let me stay with him for a while. He told me something, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Would you like a drink? I have some bourbon or—”

“Coffee. I’d like some coffee, please?”

Ben showed Kate to the dining table and went into the kitchen to make the coffee. He didn’t know whether to wait there for the water to boil or go back. He decided to wait, and after a few minutes he took coffee back with him.

Kate nodded her thanks. Her eyes had reddened with tears. “I think he may have hurt that girl.” She looked up and met Ben’s eyes bravely. “He wasn’t making much sense, but he kept on saying ‘they were laying on her’ and ‘we did it to her’. He didn’t say who else, but there were others involved too. He kept going on about their fat shoulders and onion breath.”

Kate broke down sobbing, and Ben went to her. There was nothing he could say, and he just held her and stroked her hair until she began to settle and push away from him. He didn’t have tissues, but he had paper towel in the kitchen, and he brought the roll and tore off a square. She took it, and a strained giggle escaped the anguish in her face as she looked around the room. “What happened here?”

“The maid quit,” Ben lied openly.

“It looks better. More homey and comfortable, if you ask me.”

Ben sat down again and sipped his coffee. He waited a few moments before asking, “So, Bobby’s memory has returned?”

“Um, no, not exactly. He was going on about his dreams about the light girl or something, but I think it was real.”

“Okay, so we’re talking about what Bobby has imagined to be true, not necessarily what happened.”

“He thinks he helped to rape her. He talked about being on top of her and feeling her skin. God, I can’t believe he could do that!”

“Does he have a doctor, Kate? A psychiatrist?”

“No. Not anymore. He hasn’t been for years.”

“We will have to track down someone to see him tomorrow. I don’t know if he will be charged for assaulting young Alyssa or not, but he obviously needs some professional help.”

“I’ll call Mum in the morning. She’ll know what to do.”

“Okay, that’s good. It’s only a few hours. It’s probably best to try and get some sleep.”

Kate nodded and glanced down, then her eyes lifted. “Can I stay here, please? I can’t go to that house now.”

“Here? Yes, of course you can! You can have the bedroom. I’ll crash on the lounge. I’ll get some clean sheets.”

“No, wait! Just get me a blanket. I’ll be fine on the lounge. But I do need a shower.”

“The shower’s right there, Kate. But I’ll take the lounge.”

Ben tried to offer a smile, but she stood plucking at her sweatshirt and staring into some other reality. He searched for clean sheets in the linen cupboard while she went to get her bag from her car. “I’ll do that.” She claimed the sheets he had found. “Are you sure this is all right? I don’t want to put you out.”

“I’ve got to get up in a few hours, and I often sleep on the lounge, anyway. Please, make yourself at home, and I’ll be gone when you wake up, but help yourself in the kitchen, and I’ll check in with you later in the day.”

Kate lifted and gently brushed his cheek with her lips. “Thank you.”

 

Chapter 27

 

Ben lay staring at the ceiling and listening to the sound of water running in the shower. He tried to fight off the thought of Kate. She was in trouble, and he was the only person in town she knew. There was nothing more to it than that, and he needed to realize that, understand it, and remember it. The fact that a woman who stopped his heart with a bat of an eyelash was in his shower and about to sleep in his bed was nothing to be distracted by. He rolled over and pulled his pillow over his head.

How the situation could lead to anything other than a dead end, Ben could not imagine. What if Bobby were convicted of murder? Wouldn’t he serve as a constant reminder of a chapter in Kate’s life she would sooner forget? And what of his job? It was his responsibility to help pursue the facts and evidence with impartiality, which meant he must pursue Bobby’s apparent confession and, in essence, attempt to put him behind bars. Not exactly grounds for a guy to launch a bid for romance, Ben thought as he pulled the pillow tighter around his head to blot out the sound of water running over Kate.

Ben listened intently to every sound Kate made. He heard her pull back the shower curtain. He heard her wet feet padding across the tiled floor. He heard the bathroom door open, and he could smell her essence upon the steamy air that drifted through the small house. He listened for the bedroom door closing, but that sound never came, then he heard the bed springs creak.

Ben lay awake wondering what side of the bed she was sleeping on. He wondered which pillows she was using, and it occurred to him she mustn’t have changed the sheets or pillow cases. He wondered what she was looking at, or if she had closed her eyes already.

The three hours until morning passed in intermittent spells of half-sleep and long minutes spent staring at the ceiling. Ben showered and had breakfast as noiselessly as possible. He needed to go into his bedroom to get clothes for work, and he crept through the door with his heart in his throat.

Kate’s soft, brown hair was strewn across his favourite pillow, and her slender form was stretched diagonally across the bed. She had the blankets tucked up under her chin, but he stole a peep at her face as he collected his clothing. He stopped at the door and turned to look back again. Unrealistic or not, he had to have her.

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Remains of a Local Girl: Part 3

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.

Chapter 10

 

Kate went back inside and opened the windows to clear the cigarette smoke. She bundled up the blanket and pillow Paul had used and straightened the couch. She thought better of it and stripped the covers from the cushions. They felt sweaty, so she tossed them into the tub in the laundry, along with the blanket and pillow case.

Sitting with her tea and honey toast, she found herself gazing up at the kitchen ceiling. It was white yet faded to a greasy yellow with a bare light bulb that hung about two foot on a blackened cord. It reminded her of the house she lived in as a child.

Up until Kate was ten her mother had rented a small fibro house in a government housing project in the outer western suburbs of Sydney. There were two father figures during that time. Kate remembered Angelo fondly. He was the first, a bus driver with a big belly. He might have been Italian or Greek. She was never sure. He grew tomatoes in the back yard every Christmas, and Kate remembered playing amongst the rows of bushes. It was her enchanted forest, and there was a dog kennel Angelo had made into a palace for her dollies.

Bernie was her mother’s next husband. He was an angry man. Kate remembered the silence when he came home from work. She remembered being afraid to speak out loud, and she would go to her mother and whisper that she was thirsty or that she had a project for school, or the like.

Bernie’s hands were huge, and Kate remembered the hair on his knuckles. She remembered often being held by the arm and smacked. Her bottom would hurt, and her arm would hurt, and her mother’s face would be red, but she wouldn’t say anything.

Kate often wondered whether Bernie hit her mother too. She couldn’t recall ever seeing any bruises, but they would fight. Kate would hide in her bedroom and listen to them shouting at each other, and she remembered it was the most wonderful day of her young life when her mother said Bernie would not be coming home anymore.

If Kate had any memories of her early teens they were buried at a depth to which she didn’t venture. She had been an awkward, gangly, knock-kneed thing with braces. By the age of fifteen, though, she had breasts, hips and a smile, and she noticed that boys noticed. It was a time when romance was quite formal. It was for the boy to approach and ask ‘will you go with me?’, and if a girl accepted then an official union of boyfriend/girlfriend was formed, and kissing was mandatory, while anything further could be negotiated.

Kate was sixteen when she was diagnosed with an inoperable reproductive tract abnormality. She would never bear a child. Even if by some chance she fell pregnant she would definitely miscarry. She had been left by the doctors with a picture in mind of her shriveled fallopian tubes and partially sealed uterus, and the thought of being unable to have babies had ended her interest in boys. It wasn’t until she was eighteen that she began to come to terms with her worth as a female and her role with the opposite sex, which she had decided should remain casual and noncommittal for a time.

Kate had chosen economics at university simply because some of her friends had done so. Those three years were an endless dance party. But then she met Stephen, her best friend’s brother. He had grown up with his father in England and returned with his cute accent and curly, blond hair to set up house with his little sister, and, as it turned out, to sweep Kate completely off her feet.

Kate sniffled a tear and opened her phone to check the text she had received that morning from Lance Emerson. He was a tall, sandy-haired American with a brilliant grin. It was the first opportunity she’d had to gloat over the message without fear of Paul looking over her shoulder.

‘Kate. Arriving at the Gold Coast Wed 19 Feb. Company yacht available. Hope you’ll have some time to party. I’ll call you.’

Oh, I’ll have some time to party, but what then, Mister Emerson? What then?

Kate sighed, and she sniffled at the lingering thought of Stephen Gershwin, then shook that off and wondered where Bobby had gone. He had woken twice through the night and come to her room frightened by nightmares he’d had. He was nowhere to be found when she woke at seven.

She tidied up after breakfast and did the washing, and the morning passed easily with the last of the unpacking. Bobby turned up for lunch. He was beaming.

“Guess what, Katie?”

“Hmm, let me see. The sun’s hot?”

“Aw, not that. Guess what I got?”

“Okay. I give up. What have you got?”

“A job!” Bobby declared triumphantly. “I got a job at a farm, and he’s gonna show me how to drive a tractor.”

“What farm? Where is it?”

“It’s an orchard, Katie. And I can walk. It’s only less than twenty minutes if I walk fast. I checked it already!”

“Okay, and who will you be working for? Did they give you forms to fill in?”

“Aw, it’s Mister Cosgrove, Katie, but you don’t have to go and see him. He already told me he would be paying award wages. That means the same pay as other farm workers.”

“Alright. That’s good. Award wages is good, and there should be forms for tax and super. So, when do you start?”

“Tomorrow! At six o’clock tomorrow morning, so I have to go to bed early.”

“Okay, but what about today? I’ve made you a shopping list, and there’s these jobs you need to do here at the house.” Kate pointed to the list of jobs on the fridge. “The first three today and the rest later, okay? I’m going out.”

“But where are you going?”

“None of your business, nosey!”

The Goran Vale Public Library was a three bedroom weatherboard house that had been gutted of its internal walls and fitted with large bay windows in front to allow natural light. It was well stocked with books and magazines and had two computers with internet access.

The Goran Vale Times had published a local weekly newspaper between 1937 and 1992. From the early sixties it had been stored on microfilm. Kate didn’t know the date she was looking for, but an elderly woman sitting in the sun-lounge area reading suggested late 1986. She found the same photograph of Melanie Rose that Ben had given her on the front page of the issue dated Friday, November 28.

The report depicted seventeen-year-old Melanie Rose as the pride of the small mountain community. She had been missing for nearly a week, along with a boy of twenty named Bobby Ray. The report went on to say: ‘A flat bed Dodge utility, registered to Bobby Ray, was found abandoned in a ditch off the Fortress Ridge fire trail, four kilometres south of Goran Vale. Police are conducting a forensic examination of the vehicle.’

The next publication was Friday, December 5. The front page was a photograph of a gaunt young man with Bobby’s eyes, lying in a Camden hospital bed. Kate read the text and learned that Bobby was assumed to have been lost in the forest for over a week. He was in a state of shock and non-communicative. Grave fears were held for the safety of Melanie Rose, and police were anxious to question Bobby as soon as possible. The report ended with a conclusion relating to the abandoned utility: ‘After extensive forensic investigation, police found no conclusive evidence that the Dodge utility found abandoned on the Fortress Ridge fire trail was used in the suspected abduction of Melanie Rose.’

The story held front page through Christmas and into January 1987 where it was replaced with news of the sudden closure of the Rose family’s timber mill and door factory. Kate read on through the front page stories published in eighty seven. There was a mass exodus of families moving down to the city, and property values in Goran Vale plummeted. Each issue told of the pending closure of businesses and the escalating crime rate. In eighty-eight the railway link to the city was abandoned and replaced with a bus service. That year George Rose, the father of the young missing girl, hung himself from the rafters in his timber mill, and floods claimed the irrigated vegetable crop along the river. In eighty-nine the land titles through the valley were rezoned, and subdivision permitted the development of smaller, hobby farms, which attracted investment from the city. There was a minor boom in the local economy that resulted in a new residential building development along Mill Road. There was some speculation that Alex Rose would refurbish the timber mill in nineteen ninety, but that fell through when he decided to invest in city real estate instead. The two banks closed in ninety and ninety-one. By ninety-two the school had been reduced to a single classroom for grades one to three and another for grades four to six. And on a winter’s day in August of that year the school principal, James Ray, was found unconscious at the base of a windmill in what was determined to be a farming accident. The final issue of the Goran Vale Times, published in November 1992, was a celebration of fifty-five years in publication, which Kate read as a testimony to the downfall of a proud little town.

It was getting on five in the afternoon, and she hurried home and bathed. She left Bobby watching television and declaring he would have dinner and an early night in readiness for his first day working at a farm.

Kate had chosen a short summer dress and left her hair loose. She approached Ben’s front door, and a tubby, black and grey dog sat up beating its tail on the doormat. She was giving him a pat and making silly ‘who’s a good boy’ noises when Ben approached the screen door.

“Hi,” he said, smiling down at her.

“Hi.” Kate stood brushing at her dress, and she felt herself blush as she was looked over. The dress she had chosen was of thin stretch cotton and held to her shoulders with tiny strings. Her breasts were unfettered beneath it.

“Come on in,” Ben offered, holding the door open for her.

She had a quick glance into his eyes as she slipped past. They were intense, yet in contrast his smile was easy.

“This is lovely,” she offered as she looked around his living room. His furniture was old and worn and looked comfortable. There was a grandpa lounge with two deep-seated chairs gathered around a television set. The room opened to a dining area with a polished wooden table and chairs. There was a desk with a computer and a telephone. There was a fireplace stocked with sawn and split pieces of timber and sealed with a wrought iron grill. It was clean and obviously out of use for the summer.

Everything was functional, nothing merely decorative. Kate almost commented on the fact a woman’s touch would make things very cozy, but she checked herself.

“You need a painting.” She couldn’t resist saying something.

“I know. I have two, but I haven’t gotten around to hanging them yet.”

“Oh? How long have you lived here?”

“About five years.” Ben’s smile had broadened, and his eyes had softened. He was sitting back against his desk watching, and Kate took that as an invitation to explore further.

She looked in his kitchen. It was spotless. There was nothing on the bench or sink except a microwave, a toaster and a kettle, and they were all sparkling. There was no curtain on the window. “So, where are your paintings?” she asked as she poked her nose into the laundry. It was spotless too.

“In the spare room.” Ben had approached and was standing at Kate’s shoulder when she turned. He was still smiling broadly. “You’re kind of nosey, aren’t you?”

“Uh huh, nosey, pushy and bossy. So let’s have a look!”

“At what?”

“At your paintings. What sort are they?”

Ben shrugged. He waved his arm and ushered Kate ahead and toward a narrow hallway across the living room. “Second door,” he said.

Kate opened the second door and found a small room full of boxes and bits of furniture and sporting things. Ben rummaged amongst the boxes and pulled out the two paintings. One was of a horse, and the other was a desert sunset.

“Perfect!” She took the horse painting and motioned for Ben to bring the other one. “Come on.”

She led the guy back to his living room. He followed. The grin on his face had advanced beyond amusement to what appeared to be wonder with a touch of confusion. There were picture hooks on all the walls, and Kate hung the horse painting on one and placed the other painting in the centre of the biggest wall. “Is that okay?” she asked, tossing her head and feeling cheeky.

Ben was sitting on the arm of the lounge. He wasn’t looking at the paintings. He was looking directly into Kate’s eyes, his intensity having returned. “That’s my first horse, Dints, and that’s home.”

“What, the desert?”

“My mum painted both. The sunset is looking out from our veranda. It’s not quite the desert, just way outback.”

“Oh, so you’re a real hick town deputy, then?”

Ben laughed. “Haha, guess so.”

“Well, what does a thirsty cowgirl have to do to get a drink around here?”

Kate had leaned close, half expecting to be taken hold of.

Ben lowered his head. He took a moment, then his eyes lifted.

“A beer?”

He went to get drinks, and Kate slumped in one of the lounge chairs. “In a glass, please?” she called after him.

She wondered whether she was being too forward again. On quite a few other occasions she had scared off men with her forthright nature. She sometimes tried to act more shy and retreating but could never maintain the facade for long, and she preferred to be liked for who she really was.

She got up to have a closer look at some framed photographs on the mantle above the fireplace. There was an elderly couple that she assumed were Ben’s parents, although she couldn’t see any likeness in their facial features. There was one of a half dozen children who looked nothing alike, gathered around a Christmas tree with what appeared to be a teenaged Ben with very big hair sitting on the floor in the middle. And there was one of a girl in a graduation robe.

“That’s Sylvia, my wife.”

“Oh, you’re married?” Kate gulped.

“Was. She passed away a few years ago, car accident.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s terrible.”

Ben had picked up the photograph. “It happens. It’s a hell of a shock when it happens to someone close, but we had some good times together. I try to remember that and be thankful.”

“My girlfriend’s nephew died a few years ago. He was only a baby. It puts your own problems into perspective.”

“That’s true. Doesn’t leave a lot to complain about, does it?”

“No, but I still manage,” Kate confessed with a smile.

“Yeah, me too. So, what do you do for a living, Kate?”

“Oh, God—that! You do want to hear me complain, don’t you? It’s only the most boring job in the world, ever!”

“Worse than licking stamps? I used to do that when I was at college.”

“I do! I lick stamps. I calculate insurance pay outs, run off checks and lick stamps. It drives me mad.”

“And where’s that?”

“Oh, Sydney. That part’s okay. There’s a nice view from the office windows, not that I have an office. You know, from the office area and from up in the cafeteria. It looks out over the harbour. It’s really pretty.”

“City girl, hey? I hated Sydney when I first moved here, but I like it now. I don’t often get right into the city these days, but I get down to Camden a couple of times a week and over to the coast sometimes on a weekend. Do you live near the water?”

“I wish! It’s only a few blocks, but one day I’m getting an apartment right on the harbour. When I’m rich, that is.”

Ben refilled Kate’s glass. He sat down on the lounge, and she was wondering where she should sit. She sat beside him but not too close.

“I’ve actually gotta decide whether to stay here or take a transfer back home,” he went on, expelling a breath. He seemed a little frustrated. “A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice, but I’m not so sure I wanna go back now. Which is a bit of a drama, being the only son who was supposed to take over from Dad. You know, keep the family farm going and all that.”

“Well, you can’t go back, I mean, you can, but you have to go forward with life, not back. Do you know what I mean?”

Ben smiled. “That’s true, I guess.”

“Of course it is.” Kate sipped her beer and put it down on a small polished wooden table beside the lounge. She wondered about a coaster, but there were other round marks and plenty of scratches.

“Actually, that makes perfect sense,” Ben went on thoughtfully. “Thank you.”

“Glad to help, Tex. But where’s this food you promised me? I’m really hungry.”

“It’s across the road, the video shop. They do a good pizza.”

“Well, let’s go!”

Kate wouldn’t have objected had the man remained in close proximity, but on the way to the shop across the road, he walked at an unusual distance. He was friendly and chatty, but he seemed to deliberately avoid standing near her as they waited for the pizza.

Kate began to feel a little self-conscious and felt more comfortable with her arms folded. He was talking about the town and his job, and she was listening, but she was wondering why he was standing back like that. She decided he was being defensive, and thought it may have something to do with the girl in the photograph. Perhaps he’s still hurting, she reasoned, and she consciously decided it would be best not to push things.

Over dinner the conversation found its way to the missing person’s file Ben had brought home from work. Kate told of her afternoon at the library and was shown through the file, which essentially detailed what the newspaper had glossed over. There were fingerprints found in the Dodge utility that matched those taken from Melanie Rose’s hair brush, but as she had regularly been seen riding around town with Bobby, she could not conclusively be placed in the vehicle the night of the festival dance. Kate had been surprised to learn that Bobby had driven at all. As far as she knew he couldn’t drive and never had.

Ben went to the kitchen for more beer. “I was talking with one of the guys at work today. He knew Bobby well. He said he used to bodysurf. Apparently he drove to the coast nearly every weekend.”

“He’s always surfing, but I wonder why he’s so set against driving. I’ve been at him for years to get a license.”

“Apparently he never worked at the timber mill either.” Ben had returned and sat back at the end of the table.

“What do you mean, he never worked at the mill? Of course he did.”

“They wouldn’t have him. Apparently he used to hang around all the time, but they wouldn’t give him a job. But it’s no surprise his fantasy includes working there. He’s obviously just remembering things the way he wanted them.”

“He’s always going on about working at that mill, though,” Kate reasoned. “It’s the only thing he’s ever told us about when he lived up here. His doctors said there were years of trauma locked up inside his head, but we don’t know what happened. The other day when he told you about that girl getting sick in the river was the first time I’d heard him say anything about her, or about that part of his life. The only thing he ever talks about is working at that stupid timber mill.”

“So, he never talks about his childhood or going to school or anything?”

“Yes, he does, about that, about when he was very young. He raves about his father being the school principal and about Glenview, which was some sort of boys’ home that his father ran. He remembers everything up until he was about seventeen according to his doctors, which is when whatever happened, happened. His doctors think there was an incident about three years before that girl went missing that he’s blocked out. Possibly even a series of incidents or systematic abuse.”

“And they don’t know what happened? They’ve got no idea?”

“Just that it has to do with violence against girls. They think he may have seen that young girl being hurt, but he’s never been able to tell them anything about it. And there’s also something to do with his father disapproving of him having girlfriends, which must have been pretty full-on religious, ‘wrath of God’ type stuff. It was actually quite funny when Bobby met this girl once, and Mum and I had to convince him it was okay to go out with her, that it wasn’t a sin and that God wouldn’t strike him down from Heaven.”

“And did he go out with her?”

“Yeah, for a few months. It was good for him. Matured him a little bit.”

“You should have a talk with old Tom Lloyd if you want to know more about when he was up here. Tom was the police sergeant here for years. He knows everything about everyone.”

Ben’s voice carried a mellow confidence that Kate liked. She met his eyes again. He glanced down then looked up with half a grin and a reddening face. “Will you be staying on here with Bobby for a while?”

“I was planning to fly up to the Gold Coast for a few weeks. I’ve got reservations from Wednesday.”

Ben nodded. “I’d be happy to keep an eye on him for you, let you know how he’s going.”

“A friendly eye or an official one?” Kate knew what he meant, but she wanted to fish.

“A bit of both.” His blush deepened. “I might need your number, though. So I can call you if there’s a problem.”

“Oh? Should I give it to you now or when I’m leaving?”

“I might not see you again before you leave.”

“It’s a very small town.”

Kate had never felt eyes as penetrative before. She felt naked, yet the exposure was inward. She kept her composure.

“So, what do you do in Camden a couple of times a week? The dance-club scene or is there a girlfriend or two?”

“Dancing but no clubs and girls but not girlfriends.”

“Oh! That’s cryptic. Sounds like line dancing with a big cowboy hat and jingly boots. I can see that.”

Ben laughed. “Yeah, close enough.”

“No! Tell me! What do you do? I’m curious.”

“Well, on Tuesday nights I help teach beginners class ballroom dancing, and once a month there’s a social on a Friday night. It’s just old fashioned waltzing, and we try to do a bit of Latin dancing. It’s fun but not what you’d call exciting. What about you? I can see you at a city dance-club every other night.”

“Yes, but I’m getting tired of it. So, you can waltz, can you?”

“Sort of. I’m not very good at it, but I get by.”

“Show me?”

“What? No, there’s no room.”

“Well, take me, then! Tomorrow night! What time?”

“Jesus! What if I don’t want to?”

Ben was smiling, and Kate knew she would have what she wanted.

“If you don’t want to take me dancing, then just say no.”

He was shaking his head, but it appeared to be in amusement and disbelief. Kate liked the humour in his eyes too. He seemed in a constant state of reservation, but his soul was on display, and she felt comfortable with him.

“So, what time?” she pressed, playfully.

He surrendered. “We have to leave at six.”

“Six is too early to eat in this hot weather, so you’ll have to take me to dinner after dancing.”

“Oh, I will, will I?”

“Ah huh, seafood. Do you know a good restaurant?”

 

Chapter 11

 

Bobby lay in bed unable to move. He had woken to the sound of breathing, and in the pitch blackness of his bedroom, he felt a presence. He was lying on his side, facing the wall. The presence was again someone standing in his bedroom doorway, but he couldn’t turn his head to look. The only part of his body he could move was his eyes, and he strained to look back over his shoulder, but he couldn’t see if it was Katie. He tried to move his arm. He thought if he could move it back he might be able to see past his shoulder. He tried to lift it. He could feel the weight of the sheet. It was as if it was pinning him down. He concentrated on his hand, trying to spread his fingers, but he couldn’t.

The breathing was resounding in his head. It was as if he had his hands over his ears. He usually liked that sound but didn’t like it right then. He closed his eyes, and the sound intensified as he felt the room begin to spin. That frightened him, so he opened his eyes again. He called out for Katie, but he knew he was just thinking the words.

The presence in the doorway approached, and he glared back over his shoulder. He could feel it there by the bed. He felt the weight of a hand upon his leg. It was soft. It was delicate. He closed his eyes again and called for Katie, but the sound stayed in his head, and he called for her again and again.

He felt the presence move away. He searched back over his shoulder, but still there was only darkness. He turned. He was suddenly able to move his arms and legs, and he managed to lift his body to a sitting position. He tried to stand, but his legs were numb, so he rolled off the bed and crawled on his hands and knees. He reached the doorway and pulled himself up by the door handle. He felt so heavy he could hardly stand up. He fumbled for the light switch and turned it on. At least he thought he had turned the light on, but he was suddenly awake in bed in total darkness.

“Katie!” he called out, aloud that time. “Katie!”

There was no response, and he got out of bed and hurried to her room. She wasn’t there, so he ran downstairs. The kitchen was in darkness, and he turned the light on. He hurried to the living room and turned that light on too.

Bobby huddled in a chair and stared up at the landing and his bedroom door. He sat wondering what had happened. He’d had bad dreams before but had never felt paralyzed like that, and he didn’t understand it. He took his scrapbook from the shelf beneath the coffee table and hugged it to his chest. “It was only a dream,” he muttered. “I was too heavy, but it was only a dream.”

He woke sometime later to Kate’s voice. “What are you doing down here, Bobby?”

“Katie, I couldn’t move. I was trying to move, but I couldn’t, and I was having a dream!”

“What dream? What was it about?”

Bobby remembered that someone was there in his room, and her hand was soft, so she must have been a girl, but it felt wrong to talk about her. “It was just a scary dream, Katie. I tried to move my arm, but I couldn’t move it.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s get you off to bed, though. You can’t sleep there.”

 

Chapter 12

 

Tom Lloyd sat in his old ex-service four wheel drive at the edge of town. He had watched Bobby Ray walk from his house and had taken the car to follow him. He had driven along Mill Road to where it ended at Fortress Lane then turned down the hill to the main street. He could see Bobby in the distance, stopping for a moment at the corner of Goran Hut Road then continuing toward the river.

Tom lit a cigarette. He was parked was beneath the final street light. It was the place he had last seen young Melanie Rose when she was walking home from the Tulip Festival dance with Bobby Ray. He had been sitting on the station house veranda that night and had watched them walking hand in hand into the darkness.

Tom often parked there under that street light reminiscing about his years on the force. He had joined up in 1955 at the age of twenty and had served his entire career there in Goran Vale. He had first patrolled on horseback while the fledgling community evolved through the post-war industrial boom that saw an end to rafting logs downstream in favour of local milling. They were times when scores of hard-faced loggers would break camp on a Saturday night and fill the pub with sweat and laughter and end up brawling over the local girls. He had been involved in guiding the town’s morality through the sixties and seventies when every year a new hippy commune would spring up in the mountains, and good church going folk would take to growing pot in their back yards and protest the tyranny of government. Tom had been promoted to Sergeant in 1978 and proudly walked the streets every day, talking with the townsfolk and listening to their problems. He had prevented more incidents of crime than he and his staff ever had to deal with. He never ruled the town, but he owned it and took personal responsibility if a husband would abuse a wife or if a car was stolen. Tom knew everything about everyone, and the disappearance of Melanie Rose in ‘86 tore his heart out.

Melanie had been Tom’s favourite niece and such a lovely, innocent young girl, and he had turned to alcohol to cope with his failure to protect her. He began drinking during the investigation into her disappearance. He would sit out on the veranda of the station house staring at the darkness into which she had vanished. He had abandoned his family, finding solace in self-pity, and as the darkness grew cold that following winter, he had surrendered to the hopelessness of his vigil and sat night after night at the bar of the pub. He would drink in silence with George Rose, and when George took his own life the next year, Tom understood.

As the years passed the memory of Melanie’s smile faded, though, and the torment of having failed her abated, yet the crutch Tom had leaned on had become his life. He was twice suspended for drunken, disorderly conduct, in ‘92 and ‘97. He had lost the respect of the community and had lost all respect for himself as well. He was allowed to see out his retirement in the service, but the final three years he had spent behind a desk.

Tom watched until Bobby had disappeared into the Cosgroves’ peach orchard, then drove back up Fortress Lane and took the fire trail up into the side of the mountain that overshadowed Goran Vale. He slowed as he passed the Khel farm. The fire trail was broad and smooth until there, but beyond it was a rocky sandstone track that wound deep into the forest.

Tom had driven the trail a thousand times and knew every twist and pothole. He made good time to Fortress Ridge, which was two miles from Goran Vale and directly above it. From there the trail wound down into a gorge where the depth of the forest was lost to time, and the air was cool and sweet. He crossed a wash in one of the nameless creeks that fed the river below and climbed up to a flat section of the trail where Bobby Ray’s Dodge utility had been found abandoned during the search for Melanie Rose, the day after she went missing.

Tom got out of his vehicle and lit another cigarette. He had seen the Dodge parked in the Ray’s driveway until James Ray had left the station house an hour after the dance and driven down toward Glenview, and James was also driving the vehicle later that night when he reported his son missing. Then he claimed to have abandoned the vehicle there in the ditch on the fire trail while out looking for his son the next morning, which made sense to Tom but never really satisfied him.

It had been several years since Tom had last visited the site, though, and he wandered around turning stones with a stick as if some magical clue would be found beneath one of them. He spent half an hour then returned to his vehicle and climbed out of the gorge, continuing south.

The fire trail reached a broad plateau where the forest thinned to a scattering of dwarfed Blue Mallee and salt bush. Tom drove on to the intersection of another trail that wound down the eastern face of the range and eventually led to the expressway and across to the southern coastal suburbs of Sydney. He took the route west, back toward the main road out of Goran Vale.

From the edge of the plateau, Tom sat looking out over the valley. He opened his flask of whisky and settled to watch the last of the summer morning mist clear from the valley floor. It seemed only a few short years since he had sat there astride his horse and watched the smoke from the logging camps meander from the trees on the western slope. He thought of his wife and wondered how she was. They had been divorced longer than ten years, but he could still feel her massaging his shoulders. She had been the daughter of a logging camp foreman, and within a month of having met, they had married. It was in the inaugural year of the Goran Vale Tulip Festival, the spring of 1965, and that year his new bride, Margaret, had been crowned Tulip Princess.

Tom smoked a few cigarettes and finished his flask of whisky. He thought of his blood alcohol level and considered turning around and driving back to town along the fire trail, but he decided a mile along the main road would be safe enough. From the edge of the plateau the trail was smooth and broad. Just beneath the ridge was Goran Hut, a small timber cottage built around 1850 by the founder of the settlement of Goran Vale and refurbished in the early nineteen-sixties as a tourist attraction. Tom checked for any additions to the graffiti as he drove by. Tourists never took much notice of the signpost, and maintenance of the cottage had been abandoned by the mid-seventies.

It was three miles to the main road, and Tom was soon rolling into Goran Vale. He stopped momentarily as he turned into Fortress Lane. He could see his sister, Eleanor Rose, standing in front of the Ray residence. She had friends all around town, and Tom often saw her walking from one house to another, but he preferred to avoid her. She turned away from staring at the Ray house and started across the road, and Tom drove on up the hill and around the corner. He pulled into his driveway, and his two granddaughters, Alyssa and Joanne, waved him down to the back fence to meet the new lady neighbour.

 

Chapter 13

 

It had been the smallest kiss, nothing more than the feather-like brush of her warmth and perfume. It had been something polite, even mandatory, as he had left her at her door the previous night. It was nothing, Ben told himself again, but he couldn’t dislodge the reoccurring feel of Kate’s lips.

He entered the milk bar on the clock tower corner and adjusted his smile for something more professional as he greeted Joe and Marie Lorenzo. Joe was busy scrubbing the sink, and Marie was stocktaking. They were a middle aged couple with a horde of teenage children. They were relatively new to Goran Vale, having bought the Clock Tower Milk Bar in 2001.

There had been no sign of attempted break-ins since Joe had added security cameras. He showed Ben his handy work, waving his hands and ranting about how good his boys were and how he would catch the young hooligans. “I catch one, I call you, Ben. Okay?”

Ben stopped in at the butcher shop for a few minutes then moved on to the next establishment along that side of the street. The Timber Town Motel was owned and operated by Bernadette Rayne. She was a woman in her mid-forties who had recently moved to town and taken over the business, and was trying to make a go of things.

Next to the motel was Johnson’s Hardware, with old Graham Johnson a third generation proprietor. The shop had the musty aroma of the years rising from the greasy wooden floor and hanging in the narrow aisles. Graham was spreading fresh sawdust but stopped to discuss with Ben the fact that his daughter’s wedding date was fast approaching and that one of her bridesmaids was a single woman looking for a husband of her own. “I’ll have a hand in the seating arrangements,” he declared, slapping Ben firmly on the back on his way out the door.

The library was the next establishment along that side of the street, but it was closed until eleven on a Tuesday morning due to Lillian Potter’s school library commitments.

With no current distraction, Ben’s thoughts shifted back to the previous night. He considered the practicalities of pursuing a relationship with Kate. He would probably have to take a city posting or get out of the force to do it, which was possible, though not an appealing thought. Or perhaps we could meet halfway and live in Camden. I wouldn’t mind the run up and back until I could get a transfer down there, he reasoned, though he cut that line of thinking short. Or how about you try to keep a grip on reality for a change? He had a tendency to get a long way ahead of himself and map things out. How about we try to relax and take it easy for once. Maybe even play it cool, he suggested to himself, like coolness was a possibility.

He crossed the road at his house and called in on Vera Grieves and her daughter Bess. They looked much alike. Both were full figured women sporting the same auburn hair frizzing out of tightly woven plaits. Bess was sweeping, and Vera was cleaning the pizza oven. Their shop had been robbed and vandalized earlier that month, and Ben was shown the back door where there were marks from something being wedged and jimmied the previous night. The two women were side by side filling the storeroom doorway when Ben turned to address them. “Someone will be back a little later to check for fingerprints. If you could avoid touching anywhere in this area.”

Edna Simms and Margaret Worthington were partners in ownership of the gift shop and florist next to the Northside Takeaway. Edna worked on Tuesdays. She had Ben’s cup of tea and slice of fruit cake waiting. She also had a niece who would be along for the Johnson girl’s wedding on the weekend. She had a photograph of a slender blond woman of twenty-three, whom she assured would make some lucky man a fine wife. “Oh, and she just loves to dance,” Edna cooed dreamily, squeezing Ben’s hands and encouraging him with the sparkle and warmth in her eyes.

Ben finished his tea and cake quickly, offered his thanks, and moved on to the abandoned bakery beside the gift shop. The bakery had been established in 1918. It consisted of a broad shop-front set deep beneath an awning, with the plate glass windows replaced with plywood. There was a slatted hardwood door that was chained and padlocked. The building was a weatherboard structure that ran the length of a mossy laneway, and Ben strolled along to the back where there was a landing, once used for loading carts and later, vans. He climbed up onto the landing and entered the building through another slatted wooden door that was also padlocked but had been broken from its rusted hinges.

Inside, the air was damp and thick with the pungent aroma of rotting wood. It had been gutted of most of the stainless steel ovens and worktops. There were still a few shiny surfaces along one wall where Ben imagined the bakery staff rolling dough, and there was a deep stainless steel tub where he imagined they would wash the trays and cooking utensils. There were a few syringes in the sink and a few more beneath it on the floor. In the corner was an old, striped mattress with a stained pillow and a thick checkered blanket. There were a few more syringes on the floor beside the mattress. Ben took a latex glove and plastic bag from his pocket and gathered them all.

Next to the bakery was a pharmacy where he waited at the back door for Gareth Henderson, a middle aged man with a white coat stretched around his belly and a bald head that always looked polished. He took the bag of syringes and disposed of them, and Ben stayed for a few minutes chatting about his security arrangements before moving on to the next business, which was a gents’ and ladies’ hair dresser.

He stopped there in the doorway and nodded as his neighbours passed by. Olga met his eyes with a brief glance, but James Ray never looked up from where his hands were shakily gripping the frame of his walker. He had a cap covering the severe scarring on his head, and he was dribbling a bit with his mouth crooked and kind of fixed open on one side. Olga was carrying a bag from the pharmacy, which was probably the old man’s medication, Ben assumed. He was a thin, frail, anemic looking ghost of a human being. It was hard to picture the heavily set, intelligent man he apparently once was. Although there was a little of Bobby in the broad, square bone structure of his face, Ben decided.

Beside the hairdresser was an antique shop, and at the grocery store on the corner, Ben bumped into Alyssa. She was bright and cheerful. She even seemed friendly, which confused but pleased him. He moved on down the hill toward the railway station and sale yards wondering what had brought about her change of attitude.

The first business upon approaching the industrial area was an engineering workshop that emitted a constant waft of spilled diesel oil, and behind that was a graveyard for farm implements where occasionally there was an auction, but nothing ever seemed to be sold, and the rusted ploughs and tractors were mostly overgrown with grass. There were other businesses lined up along either side of a gravel drive. There was a stock feed and grain merchant, still trading, and a second hand furniture dealership run by a good friend of Ben’s named Phil Green.

Phil was another who wanted to talk about the Johnson girl’s wedding. He was only a few years older than Ben and was married with four children. Ben had met his younger sister Rebecca, a few times and had been looking forward to seeing her again. With a knowing chuckle Phil assured him that she would be attending the wedding unaccompanied.

“You’ve gotta be more forward, though, buddy.” Phil took hold of Ben with an arm around his shoulder, as would a mentor guiding a young protégé. “Don’t take any of that hard-ta-get rubbish. Just take hold and give her a kiss.” He led Ben into his office where there were photographs of his wife and children all over the walls. “The way you molly coddle, Rebecca’s gonna walk all over you. What you have to do is take hold of her, kiss her like you know what ya want, and cop the face slap if that’s what she comes back with.”

“And this is your sister you’re talking about?” Ben questioned, meeting his friends grin.

Phil shrugged and held out his hands in an innocent plea. “If she does slap ya face there’s a good chance she’ll come around afterward. You don’t wanna get bogged down dealing with what a woman’s thinking. Just give her a kiss and see how she really feels, always worked for me, still does with the missus.”

Ben left his best friend after conceding he was indeed a little too easy going and perhaps needed to be more forthright and demanding. He stopped short of promising to sit with Phil at the wedding reception, though, as he was hopeful something might develop with Kate.

Or perhaps I should make something develop, he mused as he strolled along. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I should be less polite, he challenged himself as he tossed his hat into the air and caught it. She’s only here for a few days, and after that I may never see her again. What if I did just take hold of her and give her a kiss? Just plant one on her and see what happens, he chuckled as he rolled his hat down his arm and did a jig while flipping it back onto his head.

Beyond the small industrial village, the gravel lane met a bitumen road that started at the top of the hill beside the takeaway shop and swept around through a residential area of some fifty or so houses. Each house had at least half an acre of land, and most were occupied. Ben sometimes walked around the streets but decided to cut his beat short that day. He strolled down to the sale yards and said hello to the caretaker, Gus Lloyd, younger brother of Tom. Gus mentioned having met Bobby Ray the previous Saturday, and that word at the pub had Toby Miller waiting for another shot at him. Gus seemed happy with the fact that Bobby had introduced young Toby’s nose to the gutter outside the pub while sitting his druggo city mate on his backside as well. “The lad needs to show up at the pub so I can buy ‘im a beer,” the older man chirruped merrily.

“So, this friend of Toby’s, you seen him selling drugs, Gus?”

“Well, I haven’t seen him, but you know the type.”

Ben strolled along past the bus shelter and visited the few businesses still operating along the railway line. There were a truck mechanic, a milk depot and a plumbing and irrigation supplier who serviced the fruit and vegetable growers along the river. He walked up Fortress Lane past the ambulance base and fire station to the main road, then up the hill past two abandoned houses and another two with aged residents who still grew tulips.

Walking across the road to the station house, Ben noticed the emaciated frame of Nigel Khel shuffling along with some urgency. It wasn’t unusual to see Nigel in public, although Ben couldn’t recall seeing him out so late in the morning before. He would only ever venture into town early each Thursday morning to deliver a new batch of clay figurines to the gift shop then to call in at Johnson’s hardware and the grocery store.

Ben watched the man limp around the corner and disappear up Fortress Lane. He followed out of curiosity, and upon reaching the corner, saw Nigel standing at his front gate looking across at the houses.

Nigel was a gaunt, pasty-skinned hermit. His long, greasy, black hair shrouded his face when walking along the street, and Ben had never managed to attract his glassy, hazel eyes from the sidewalk in passing.

Nigel’s head jerked in Ben’s direction, then he shuffled hastily to the door of his shack and vanished from sight. Ben strolled up the hill and past the small wrought iron gate that was half way open and broken from one of its hinges. The yard was overgrown, and in the patchy gravel driveway, the rusted shell of the wrecked car had grass growing up through the floor. The house was a dull-green fibro structure with a flat tin roof. There was another, smaller building that looked like a laundry and toilet. It was leaning a little with a log wedged against it as a stay.

Nigel Khel was, of course, a cousin of Melanie Rose, so Ben assumed the man was interested in Bobby’s return. He knocked on the door and stepped back.

Along the front wall at ground level was a series of small, round windows. There appeared to be movement beyond the first of them. Ben knocked again, but there was still no response from Nigel, so he crouched down to have a look in the window. The glass was grimy, and if there was a room beyond it was in darkness.

“Are you there, Nigel?”

Ben stood and knocked on the door again, and he waited a few minutes but was due to meet with his sergeant for an annual performance evaluation and decided he could catch up with Nigel later.

 

Chapter 14

 

Kate put down her book and lay staring at the ceiling. Her bedroom window was open, and the curtains floated upon a warm breeze, which carried the hum of crickets from the trees in the yard, and in the distance she could hear a lawn mower. It was as if time had slowed and the world was about to stop revolving and grind to a halt. She thought of the city through the plate glass office window, of watching life without sound, only there was no life to be had in Goran Vale, or nothing to do at least, and she wondered for a moment if the local women shelled their own peas.

She sat up and checked around the room. Everything was in place and organized. She checked her nails and thought of redoing them, but they were fine. She flopped back on the bed and closed her eyes, but after a moment her eyes opened again and focused on the bare light bulb in the middle of the ceiling. The hum of the crickets seemed to start up again, as if they were watching what she was doing, and the curtain billowed out on the breeze and softly fell back into place.

Kate clutched a pillow over her head, then she tossed it away and went downstairs to put on some music and find something to do. Painting the laundry was on Bobby’s job list, but she decided to do it herself since the paint was sitting there. She was planning to leave at about lunchtime the next day, so she thought she could fill the afternoon doing one coat and busy herself the next morning doing another. She put on one of Bobby’s shirts over her dress and, suited up with rubber gloves and a scarf, set to work.

The thought of Bobby being alone there came to her while she painted absentmindedly. It was ideal to have an opportunity to cut him loose in such a simple environment. Everything was within walking distance. A drive up once a month to help him sort his bills and finances would be easy enough. She was happy to have met Ben and hoped he would do as he had offered and keep an eye on Bobby. She thought of calling in and meeting the people Bobby was working for in the hope they would also provide some supervision. Just a phone call to let her know if he seemed unhappy was all she needed. It was only a two hour drive, which she could do any night of the week if necessary.

But what of my own pathetic existence? Kate demanded as she attempted to rub an itchy forehead without painting herself. By comparison, Bobby is set, organized, and for what the big oaf needs, he should be quite fulfilled. While I’ve got wimpy Paul, and my boobs are starting to sag. And where will my roses be next week?

Kate despised Valentine’s Day, and it was no accident she would be out of town on holidays. It was the one day of the year when the romantic aspect of her life was clearly defined. At university she had received embroidered love hearts and stuffed toys, and Stephen had lavished her office cubicle with flowers each year they were together, but she had spent the past few Valentine’s Days smiling politely as her girlfriends flaunted their gifts and flowers. And Paul would of course ask her out, but it was also the day of the year his intentions were clearly defined. There could be no public announcement of his interest in her at work. That would not be appropriate in his opinion, and not desired either, Kate reminded herself as she moved her paint tray and step ladder over to the next wall.

The one item of furniture Kate’s mother had withheld from charity after Bobby’s mother had passed away was the washing machine. Bobby would have had to buy one, and the machine sitting there was almost new.

Kate wriggled it away from the wall far enough that she could paint behind it. She needed a wrench to undo the hoses from the taps, and she went out and found one in Bobby’s toolbox in the garage. Once she had the hoses off, she got in behind the machine with a dustpan and broom. She was cleaning the cobwebs and noticed a rectangular section that had been cut out of the wall, with a small round knob attached to it that was obviously a handle. She took hold of the knob and wriggled the panel until it came free.

Kate had to lean right in behind the washing machine to see what was inside the wall. She wasn’t about to blindly stick her hand in there. She edged in and had a look. There was a small compartment that extended underneath the staircase in the adjoining room, but it appeared to be sealed from the broom closet that had been built there. Inside she could see a small, round biscuit tin with a rusted picture of a country cottage, and sitting on top was a silver crucifix. She removed her rubber gloves and reached in to lift it out. The crucifix was heavy. It may have been solid silver. She put it aside and tried to lift the lid of the biscuit tin, but it was sealed firmly and wouldn’t budge.

Kate took it into the kitchen and set about jimmying with a butter knife. She managed to get the blade beneath the lid, but it seemed it had been glued in place. She worked around the edge and gradually prized the lid loose. She peeled it off and found photographs. There were perhaps twenty of them. She recognized the man in many of them to be Bobby’s father. She had seen his picture on microfilm in Goran Vale library for the first time, as Bobby didn’t have any photographs of his parents. Bobby was also in many of the photographs. There were school photos and some that appeared to be him as a small child and as a baby, and some included his father, but others were cut. There were some that appeared to be family snaps but with the image of his mother cut out of them. Parts of her body were visible, but her face had been cut away. There was also a folded piece of paper, brown with age and somewhat greasy in texture. The writing was loopy and extravagantly crafted, and it was neatly aligned, though faded to almost blend into the aged paper. There was no title, but it appeared to be a recipe for some sort of onion pie, and at the bottom in brackets was a note to save the onion skins for Aunt Agatha’s hair colouring.

Kate sorted a range of Bobby’s childhood photos and packed the rest back into the biscuit tin. She placed it back in the wall and resumed painting. She remembered her mother saying she had found only a few photographs of Bobby’s mother in the house and that she would keep them until Bobby asked about them. Kate decided it would be best to consult with her mother about the photos of his father as well.

She finished painting the laundry by five then spent a half hour soaking in the luxurious depth of an old porcelain bath tub. Ben had suggested pants or a non-restrictive skirt and flat soled shoes for dancing. She had wondered what he meant by non-restrictive, but he had blushed as he said it, so she didn’t press for more information. She imagined having to do the splits or something acrobatic like that and hoped she was very wrong. She settled on a knee-length, flowing skirt and sandals with only an inch of heel.

Ben arrived before six, and she called out to Bobby to show him the gym or something for a few minutes. They were still in the garage when she was ready. She found her date dressed in faded Levis jeans that fitted well and a plain, green, v-neck t-shirt that accentuated his broad shoulders. He met her with a light smile and a quick down and up flash of his eyes that made her wish for an abstract instant he was her Valentine’s Day guy.

“Are we ready?” he asked, when Kate was expecting a compliment of some sort.

“Should we take my car?” she replied, remembering the little, old, faded thing he was washing the other day.

“Um, no! Do you have a scarf, though? It’s a nice evening, and I’ve got the top down.”

Kate was led to a glistening silver Mercedes that looked immaculate, although it was obviously an older model. “Huh! Are you on the take or something?”

Ben laughed. “No. This was my dad’s baby, a going away present. It’s a nice comfortable ride, but what about your hair? Should I put the top up?”

Kate had a hair band in her purse. “This will do. Just get me the hell out of here, please?”

Kate felt at home. The car was smooth and silent, and the feel of the soft leather seat was a luxury that turned the ramshackle buildings of Goran Vale and the rocks and trees and grass into a B-grade documentary that would be over soon. She perused Ben’s CD collection, and what she found was not too bad, she thought. It was mostly classic rock with a few compilations of movie themes that looked a bit mushy. She went with David Bowie.

“You like Bowie?” Ben asked. It was the first thing he said since they had begun driving, and it interrupted a silence Kate had been quite comfortable with.

She nodded and smiled her response and got to thinking about how at ease she suddenly felt. It was as if she had known Ben for years. There was an absence of the excitement and anticipation she would normally experience with a new man. Even when she would sense him looking at her, which was often, she felt quite relaxed and confident. It was as if she didn’t care what he thought of her slightly knobby knees or the tiny bump on her nose. She usually shriveled inwardly at the thought of a new man noticing her imperfections, but she hadn’t felt that.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t really see him as boyfriend material, she thought. Well, yes, he is… I mean, he looks good and seems like a really nice guy, but he’s definitely a football dad.

“You’re not too cold?” Ben asked. The air had thinned as they skirted the bluff, and Kate did feel it a little. He reached in the back and produced a worn leather jacket. “It will warm up again when we get down to the expressway.”

Kate slipped into the jacket. It was like being cuddled, the warmth and feeling of security it gave her. She felt herself blush and wondered what that was about. Then she sensed Ben looking at her face, and she did think of the bump on her nose that time.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You seem quiet.”

“I’m okay. I’m just enjoying the drive.”

“You’re not nervous about dancing? We could skip it and just have dinner.”

“Oh, no, I want to dance. I’ve never tried it before, but I usually pick things like that up pretty quickly. I’ve seen it on TV.”

“Well, what you see on TV is high level competition, so it might not be quite that glamorous, but we should have some fun.”

Kate nodded. She didn’t feel like talking. Actually, she didn’t feel like joking around, and that didn’t leave much scope for her usual small talk. She found herself stealing glances at Ben. He had kept his distance all throughout the previous evening, and she wasn’t used to that. Again she noticed his chin. She had never taken much notice of men’s chins until she met Paul. It had become quite important that a man had a strong chin. Ben’s was strong. It was slightly pronounced and had a small dimple. She wondered how it would feel to be kissed by him.

“So, what’s your usual dance partner going to say?” she asked, suddenly wondering about the female competition.

“Well, I just help out and don’t have a regular partner, but I phoned the instructor and told her I’d be bringing a lady, so she will have organized another guy to fill in for me. I asked her if we could do waltz tonight too, and she said okay.”

“So, why don’t you have a regular partner?”

“Why? I don’t know. It’s good being a single guy at a dance.”

“Most single guys at the club just stand around watching.”

“Well, I’m guessing you’d be good to watch,” Ben said, offering the slightest glance and smile.

“Hmm, bad boy! Maybe after you show me your dancing I might feel inclined to show you mine, I might!”

Ben chuckled and blushed a little. “That gives me something to dream about.”

“Or a reason to come into the city sometime,” Kate ventured. “You could use my phone number if you were coming in.”

“I’ll do that,” he replied with a flash of his eyes and a steady grin. “Are you hungry? It’ll be nine o’clock before we get to a restaurant.”

“I am, a little.”

“There’s a roadhouse coming up with the best steak sandwiches. Sound okay?”

When they reached the roadhouse, Kate settled for coffee and a doughnut and found herself staring across the table at Ben as he ate. She noticed his prominent Adam’s apple and the tiny hairs at the back of his neck. She liked the mellow warmth of his voice and the sincerity in his laugh. As she sat staring at him, there was something tingling through her being, heating her face and centering in her belly.

Ben was watching something through the window and paying her no attention. His gaze was set, his jaw firm. Out in the car park a couple were arguing, with the man standing over the woman. Ben excused himself and walked outside. He didn’t approach, but he stood quite deliberately watching, and the man looked over a few times. There were children crying in the back seat of the car, and the woman was sobbing. The man looked over again, and Ben’s head lifted. He said something that Kate couldn’t hear, and the woman spoke. It seemed she was assuring Ben she was okay. The man moved around to the far side of his car, and the woman leaned in to settle the children. Ben walked half way across the driveway and stood there until the couple got in their car and drove off.

He apologized when he came back to the table. “Sorry. It’s hard to be off duty sometimes.”

Kate offered a smile. Then she cuddled herself in the man’s leather jacket and sat watching him finish his meal.

From the roadhouse it was a smooth half hour ride to the edge of the city and a school assembly hall with a broad polished floor and a troop of would-be dancers. Kate was pleased to be accompanied by others struggling to learn the steps. The lesson began with men lined up together and women lined up opposite. There was no touching. It was just a matter of following the steps to learn the pattern of movement. One two three, one two three. It was quite simple really, and Kate was soon walking through the eighteen step routine that zigzagged along the wall.

When it was time to take partners, that silly tingle in her belly returned. Her eye level was in line with that damned dimply chin, and Ben’s hand closed over hers as another big, warm paw pressed against her back. And she forgot the steps immediately.

“Are you ready?” he asked as the music started.

“Ah huh,” was all Kate could offer in reply, and the hand upon her back firmed, and she was drawn close to that powerful frame. She completely surrendered as control of her body was taken from her. And she was rising and falling to the music and being swept along in a dizzy haze that took her breath away.

“Are you okay?” Ben asked softly. He seemed to be there in the cloud with her.

“Ah huh,” Kate uttered again.

“You’re doing very well.”

Kate wasn’t game to look at Ben’s face. She clung to one rippling shoulder and stared at the other one. The force of his body was against her hip, and his powerful thigh was driving between her legs and lifting her. The heat of his groin against hers was something completely unexpected, and it was wonderful.

An hour passed in an instant, and Kate swayed against Ben’s chair while he changed his dance shoes for the boots he had worn earlier. His hand returned to her back as he guided her from the hall to his car. He opened the door for her, and she turned to him and placed her arms around his shoulders. He met her lips softly at first, but his passion was soon crushing her to his body, and she moaned into his mouth. He drew back and touched her cheek, caressing her face, and his hand moved to the back of her neck as he bent to her again.

Kate was on her toes, or perhaps her feet had left the ground. She wasn’t sure. The hand upon her back had slipped beneath her top, and she could feel its coarseness against her skin. The heat from his kiss was swirling in her head, and she clung to his hair as he mauled her neck. She was pinned against the car, his manhood rigid against her belly as he lifted again and kissed her open mouth.

“Is there a motel?” Kate asked, with her words ending as Ben’s lips met hers, only that time he seemed a little restrained.

He smoothed hair from her face and delved into her eyes. He kissed her again, softly. “I’m a little out of practice.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” Kate held the man’s eyes. They wavered but quickly regained their intensity.

He kissed her again, deeply and with more tenderness and control that time. Kate responded, though she suddenly felt unsure, and her confusion was leading her beyond the heat of the moment. She wanted to know what he was thinking. He lifted and took to fiddling with her hair at her shoulder. He seemed to be struggling with something, and she waited.

After a long moment of silence, in which passion almost audibly faded, Ben looked up with a light, disarming smile. “I haven’t made love to a woman since Sylvia.”

Kate understood the significance of that statement immediately. She recoiled inwardly. “Love? Who said anything about making love, cowboy?”

His smile broadened with a hint of resignation. “Yeah, I know. Lame, huh?”

She had begun fiddling with the front of his shirt. The thought of the housewives of Goran Vale flashed to mind. “No, it’s actually quite sweet, but it’s not very realistic.”

He lifted her chin and smoothed hair from her face. He kissed her again, softly yet confidently. “Oh, it’s realistic. It’s just too soon for a word like that.”

He wasn’t reading her at all.

“We should go. It’s getting late, and I have jobs tomorrow before I leave.” Kate got in the car and closed the door. Ben stood for a moment then walked around and got in the other side. “Can we skip the restaurant and stop at that roadhouse again?” she asked.

He nodded and drove off. It was a good fifteen minutes before he spoke. “I’m sorry, Kate. I didn’t mean to spook you.”

“Well, you did spook me, cowboy—going on about love after five minutes.”

Ben smiled. “I know. I can usually go a good ten minutes before bringing that up too. It’s a form of premature ejaculation.”

Kate laughed. “Speaking of—that! You know what we could have been doing right now if you weren’t such a sap, don’t you?”

“I know. Damn it. I think there’s a motel just up ahead, though.”

“Nope. Too late. Moment’s passed, and all I want is a steak sandwich now.”

The moment had passed, but Kate wasn’t sure it couldn’t be reignited. She was relieved that Ben had been prepared to laugh at himself. He seemed a bit of a romantic but possibly not a hopeless one. The idea of anything more than a brief, passionate encounter was not where she wanted to go, but she decided if he tried to kiss her again it would be okay.

She reached into the back seat and took the leather jacket. She cuddled into it, protected from the slight chill the night air carried. On the expressway the only light was from the dash, and she settled back facing Ben and studied his face as he drove. She could still feel his body pressed against hers and could still taste his lips. She could feel the power in his arms as he crushed her, and she touched her belly, stirring a little within as she remembered the feel of his rather prominent erection.

They stopped at the roadhouse for a steak sandwich and coffee, and when they returned to the car, Kate waited for him to open her door. She stood hugging herself in the leather jacket and deliberately bit her lower lip as he looked down at her. He moved close and took hold of her, and she lifted her head and offered her lips.

His first kiss was deep and searching, and Kate mmm’d softly into his mouth. His body was inside the jacket with hers, and as he kissed her again, she felt his erection lift between them. She instinctively reached for it, and as she cupped it he groaned low and thrust against her. His right hand had been in her hair, but it smoothed over her face, and as he continued to kiss her passionately, he groped her breast and sent a warm flood of tingles scampering all through her body, instantly weakening her knees.

Kate melted back into the passenger seat, pulling Ben in as well. He was suspended awkwardly above her, but he continued kissing her and feeling her breasts.

“Over there,” she uttered breathlessly. “Drive over there.”

Ben crawled over the top of her and quickly maneuvered the car into a dark corner behind a parked truck. Before he had turned off the engine, Kate pounced on him. She kissed him wildly and groped his crotch, tearing at the buttons. She freed his erection as her bra was hiked up, his mouth closing over a breast. She clung to his head as his body surged over the console, and suddenly he was sitting in the passenger seat, and she was spread over his lap. He thrust hard up under her with his erection grinding into her crotch. She gripped it, and stretching the fabric of her underwear aside, guided his next thrust into her body. She crushed his head to her chest and ground herself against his powerful surges. One of her breasts was being mauled, and the other was being groped, and the core of her sex was being serviced with deep, penetrating thrusts. Her orgasm built quickly and exploded through her body as Ben surged beneath her and held firm.

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Remains of a Local Girl: Part 2

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.

 

Chapter 5

 

It took less than half an hour to unload the furniture, and Bobby saw the two men from the removal company off and returned to where Kate was unpacking boxes in the kitchen. She smiled up at him, and he felt he knew the answer to his question. “Well, do you like it?”

“Yes, Bobby. It’s even bigger than you said, and once we clean it up it will be a wonderful home.”

That was all Bobby needed to know. All the worry about leaving his job and quitting the bowling team, all the decisions about leaving the city and starting afresh in the country disappeared. Everything would be fine now that Kate had said so.

Bobby got on his knees and gave her a big hug over the box.

“Okay, okay. Ya big oaf! How about helping me unpack this stuff?”

“But I want to show you your room,” Bobby sprouted enthusiastically, getting up and pulling Kate to her feet.

“I thought you were going to let me choose.”

“Yeah, but this is the best room, Katie. Just wait and see.”

The front section of the house was a living area, and the back section was a kitchen with a separate dining room and laundry. There was a staircase from the living room to the upper level where the master bedroom looked out onto the main street.

“That’s my room because I’m the adult now. And this can be your room.” Bobby glowed inside, studying Kate’s face as she looked around. “Look out the window, Katie. You can see all the way down the valley as far as the river!”

Kate opened the wardrobe and looked in. She walked around the room, as if checking where things might go, while Bobby waited anxiously. She looked out the window and opened it before turning to face him.

“Well?” Bobby asked. His heart was racing.

“Can I set it up just how I want it?” Kate asked, looking around the room again.

Bobby nodded urgently.

“And can I come and stay anytime I want to?”

“Anytime!”

“Hmm, okay then, Bobby.”

Kate’s lips curled into a smile that unleashed a thousand butterflies in Bobby’s stomach. He took her into his arms again and gave her a big squeeze. “I love you, Katie,” he said, but the words caught in his throat and formed a lump he couldn’t swallow, and he held on and stroked her soft hair while she swayed against his chest.

Bobby was left to put the beds together while Kate unpacked the kitchen. He had all the parts for his and Kate’s beds in the third bedroom, awaiting her approval of his choice of rooms. He quickly erected them and went down to see what the next job was, and he was presented with a shopping list to be filled while Kate caught up on the few hours’ sleep she had missed that morning.

Bobby stepped out onto the front veranda and sucked in the warm mountain air. His gaze roamed across the valley where there appeared to be more farm houses than he remembered. There was the Walkers’ farm and the Cosgroves’ and the Rose mansion, but there were also three newer houses, and through the trees he could see the grey sandstone walls of Glenview House.

Bobby remembered the nights he had slept in the loft there with the other boys. His daddy had been the boss of Glenview home for boys, and Bobby remembered playing Cocky Laura on the front lawn, and playing hide and seek in the gardens and in the dairy and hayshed. Bobby thought of the school holiday camps in the forest with the other boys, and his chest swelled with pride at the memory of being the son of the camp boss. “They were just usual boys. They were just usual, and I was the special boy,” he muttered.

He gazed up at the town. It had seemed old and small driving through, as if everything had shrunk and weathered in the wind. He didn’t walk directly into town. Instead, he went around the back of the house and found the walking track up to Mill Road. The grass had mostly reclaimed the narrow trail, but Bobby and his father had once laid gravel, which was still there in patches. He could see his father bringing the wheelbarrow up the hill and tipping the piles of stones to be spread. His father had been a great workman. He had worked every day except Sundays and Christmas day at the school and at Glenview. Being a religious man, he wouldn’t work on those days. Instead, he would pack Bobby and his mother off to church to sing and praise the Lord.

Bobby passed the church with barely a glance and strode across the road to the gates of the mill. He stood clutching the rusted iron bars and staring blankly at the hoist of the crane lying like the carcass of a slain dinosaur, caked in a windrow of dust and dry grass and strangled by shrubs and vines.

The gates were unchained and creaked open when he pushed them. He walked up to Mister Rose’s office. ‘Chucky Rules 95’ was painted across the door in big, red letters. The door was ajar, and Bobby looked in to find desks upturned and more symbols and graffiti splashed around the walls. The plate glass windows looking out into the mill were smashed, and as Bobby stepped over to them, he saw that the mill had been gutted.

He slumped against the administration counter. His legs were tingling, and a cold, sickening sensation crawled up his spine. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry, and he stumbled from the mill office, hunched over, and vomited.

The world was spinning as he staggered back to the road and across to the church. He slumped against a tree and slunk to the ground. He sat there with flashes of the past churning in his head: the trucks backing in and the men releasing the chains, bringing the hoist into position and that first jolt of the cabin of the crane as he took the weight of a log. I’ll get a new crane! That’s what I’ll do with the money! I’ll fix Mister Rose’s office and buy new saws, and I’ll get an even better crane than that old one!

Bobby’s inheritance had included almost four hundred thousand dollars, money his mother had inherited herself just before her death. He stood with the strength of a master plan surging through his veins. He would buy the mill—Kate would help him—and he would rebuild it better than it ever was before.

Bobby strode back across to the iron gates and stood building his plan in his mind. He could see it all. He would be the morning shift foreman, just like he was going to be before. Kate would be the manager.

She knows how to be a business manager. She can be the office boss, and I can be foreman! He could see a big new crane, a black one. He had seen it in a magazine. It had an air-conditioned cabin. That’s the one I’ll get.

Bobby strode on into town with his thoughts buzzing around his new vision for the future, but as he approached the milk bar on the clock tower corner, he realized there was a horrible taste in his mouth, and he bought a Coke to wash it away.

There were a dozen cars parked along the main street with people strolling around, browsing the shops. There was a blue cattle dog tied in the back of a utility that was fussing for attention, so Bobby stopped to give it a pat. A heavily set man immediately stepped from the passenger seat.

“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. His puffy face was flushed.

Bobby saw danger in his eyes. “Sorry. I just wanted to give him a pat.”

“You did? Well, who the fuck are you?”

Bobby backed away, but he was shoved forward by a tall, bald-headed man with pale skin and a tattooed neck.

“I didn’t mean anything.” Bobby continued backing away with the two men following, and when he hurried across the road, they stayed with their vehicle, laughing.

Bobby went into an antique store, brushing at his shirt where he had spilled his drink and watching for the two men to drive away. When they had gone he went back out onto the street and saw they stopped in front of the pub. He decided it would be best to keep away from them, so he took a narrow laneway down to the railway station and thought he would walk home that way. He also remembered Kate had told him to find out about the train service to Sydney.

The railway station was at the bottom end of High Street. The ticket office was gone, and the platform was bare. The railway track was still there, but it was rusted and overgrown with weeds. There was a small bus shelter that looked to be in use, so Bobby checked that and found a timetable for buses to Camden. There was one in the morning on weekdays and one returning each night. He always carried a pencil and notebook in case he needed to remember things, and he took it from his pocket and scribbled down the times to show Kate.

Bobby wandered along the gravel road beside the railway line. There were stockyards with a few cattle huddled and a truck backed up to the ramp. He watched two men load the cattle, and after the truck drove away, the man who had stayed behind approached and said hello. He was a short fellow with a weathered hat and slits for eyes. He was friendly enough, and Bobby listened to his talk about the cattle sale every second Saturday and about how things were a bit slow that year due to an exceptionally dry winter.

It was after 1pm when Bobby remembered the note in his pocket. He strolled back up High Street to the general store his grandmother used to own. He looked around the back and found his bike rack was still there. He touched it, remembering the paper run and how he used to sit there against the roller door and roll newspapers every morning.

He walked back around to the front of the shop and was about to go inside when he heard a girl scream. It was a piercing scream with enough urgency in it to lift the hair on the back of Bobby’s neck. He saw the two men from earlier, and there was another man sitting in the gutter. There was a girl trying to lift him, and the two men were standing over her.

Bobby’s heart throbbed in his neck. He covered the distance in a few seconds and hit the chest of the puffy-faced man with the flat of his palm, sending him sprawling on his back onto the tray of the utility. He didn’t see the tall man with the tattoos. He just swung his arm and knocked him face first into the gutter as he reached for the girl.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” the girl said shakily. She looked from the bald man, struggling to his feet, to the other man scrambling from the tray of the utility.

“Were they hurting you?” Bobby went on, trying to see the girl’s face. She looked as if she had been crying.

Bobby felt something thump against the back of his neck, and he shot out a hand and clutched the throat of the bald man. He pulled him close then thrust him backward, sending him sprawling on his back in the gutter again. The bald man cried out in pain, and Bobby turned to the girl. She was tending to the man sitting in the gutter. “Come on, Granddad,” she was saying, and she was trying to help him up.

Bobby slipped his shoulder beneath the old man’s arm and lifted him. He supported him easily and turned to glare at his two adversaries watching from the doorway of the pub. “Where does he live, miss?” he asked the girl.

“I’m Alyssa,” she said, smiling. “It’s this way.”

The old man was conscious but incoherent and unable to walk. Bobby lifted him because it was easier than dragging him along. He was like an empty sack and reeked of alcohol. The girl walked ahead, saying only enough to direct Bobby to the back of a house on Mill Road where there was a flat that belonged to the old man.

“In here.” Alyssa motioned for Bobby to put her grandfather on his bed. “He’ll be fine when he sleeps it off.”

Bobby placed the old man carefully. He recognized the face of Sergeant Lloyd. He remembered him walking around the streets with his chest out watching everybody. He used to be the town boss, but he was bigger then.

Bobby tried again to look at the girl’s face. “Did they hurt you?” he asked, touching her chin and lifting it. Her eyes were reddened, but she smiled.

“No, they didn’t hurt me. They were just being disgusting.”

Bobby smoothed her hair. She was trembling, and he thought she was going to faint or something. “You’re pretty.”

“Shut up,” she said, blushing and looking away.

Bobby didn’t understand. “Sorry,” he said, as he always did when he was confused.

Alyssa’s eyes turned upon him again. “I think Granddad messed your shirt.” She pointed to a wet mark that was obviously urine. “Can I wash it for you?”

“But I can go there.” Bobby pointed in the direction of his house, plucking at his shirt.

Alyssa had stepped close. “It’s the least I can do after you saved me and all.”

Her voice was suddenly tender and sweet, and sounding so much like Kate did sometimes that Bobby was unable to resist.

He pulled out his shirt and unbuttoned it then slipped it from his shoulders. Alyssa’s eyes widened, and Bobby thought of what Kate made him do sometimes. “Do you want to see?” he asked, and he clenched his fists together and flexed his muscles. “Katie likes it when I do that,” he explained.

“Katie? Is she your wife?”

“Nope!”

“Your girlfriend?”

“Nope. She’s my sister.”

Alyssa smiled. “Your sister! I see. Can you show me again?”

Bobby turned, and folding his hands behind his head, he flexed the muscles in his back and shoulders. “You can touch them if you want. Katie does sometimes.”

“Oh, she does?” Alyssa felt Bobby’s shoulder and traced the ridge of muscle down the middle of his back. “So, what’s your name?” she asked sweetly.

“Bobby. I just moved into my house down there.” He again pointed in the direction of his house.

“With your sister?”

“Nope. Katie lives in Sydney, but she’s getting the best room.”

“The best room, hey? And you’ll be there all on your own?”

“Yep! Just me.”

Bobby followed into the bathroom where Alyssa rinsed his shirt. She had managed to keep it mostly dry, so when she handed it back, he slipped it on and left it untucked. He thought he could let it dry then tuck it in before Kate saw him like that.

Alyssa had stepped close again. She straightened his collar. “Do you really think I’m pretty?”

“Like a flower,” Bobby said, but he suddenly remembered the shopping list in his pocket. “I have to go to the shop,” he added, edging back toward the door with the girl clinging a little.

She lifted and kissed his cheek. “Thank you for helping me with Granddad, Bobby.”

“Okay. But I have to go now.”

“Alyssa. My name’s Alyssa.”

“Okay. Bye, Alyssa.”

 

Chapter 6

 

Ben walked out onto the veranda of the station house yawning as he looked up and down the main street and took in the hazy scent of freshly cut summer grass. Two hours of paperwork had welded the discs in his spine together, and he had a stretch as he watched a shaggy, grey dog amble by with an urchin of a child trotting along behind clutching a plastic bucket and a fishing pole. Ben walked out to the edge of the road and waved as the Carters rumbled by in their late-sixties Ford station wagon. There were grubby faced children hanging out the back windows, and the muffler was only a few inches from dragging along the road. He had been meaning to have a closer look at the car, and he made a mental note to check the registration on it. He turned and strolled down past Tebbit’s garage. “Afternoon, Henry. How’s business?”

“Fine. Fine. Good lot of city folk passing through today.”

Ben acknowledged his good fortune with a parting wave and continued on to the front gate of the Ray house. He straightened his tie, slipped his hat under his arm, and approached the front door. It was open, and through the screen he saw a woman on her hands and knees sorting in a box. He cleared his throat. “Afternoon, ma’am.”

“Oh, hello, Officer.” Kate stood, brushing at her frock. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just a routine visit. I was hoping to speak with Bobby Ray. Is he home?”

“Speak with him about what?” Kate’s face had reddened.

Ben noticed her full lips and warm, brown eyes.

“Just some routine questions about an incident some years ago. We’re hoping he may be able to help us with our inquiries.”

“Bobby knows nothing about that.” Kate opened the screen door and stepped close. “We’ve been over this several times. He doesn’t even remember the girl.”

“And you would be?” Ben asked politely.

“Kate Harrington. I’m a close friend of Bobby’s”

Ben rubbed at the band on his hat. Her perfume was fruity yet soft. It seemed to be floating from her long, dark hair as it lifted upon the breeze. He took a photograph of Melanie Rose from his pocket and handed it to her. “Her family have long since given up hope of ever seeing her again. Her mother still prays for news.”

“We don’t know anything about what happened to her.” The guarded tone in Kate’s voice had vanished. “Bobby apparently knew her, and they say he was the last person seen with her, but he doesn’t remember anything.”

“How long have you known Bobby Ray?”

“My mother worked at the hospital where he was a patient. When he was released, Mum offered him a room to rent. That was back in eighty-nine, and he’s been living with us ever since. We’re like family now.”

“And he still has a problem with his memory?”

“Yes, he does. Something happened to him. It’s why he was admitted to hospital in the first place, and his family abandoned him, so he was committed. He had complete amnesia at first, but over the years that’s improved a little. We think his father may have abused him, though. We’re not sure.”

Ben donned his hat. “There’s a chance that being here will stimulate memory recall. I would like an opportunity to introduce myself to Bobby. Maybe then he’d feel comfortable coming to me if he does remember anything about the girl’s disappearance. I’ll stop by again on Monday at ten.”

Ben turned to leave, but Kate touched his arm. “Wait.” Her face had reddened again, only that time there was no aggression in her eyes, and she was lightly smiling. “I didn’t say Bobby wasn’t home. I just asked why you wanted to see him.”

“So, he is here?”

“Yes. He’s around back in the garage. Come through, and I’ll introduce you.”

No, it’s not fruit it’s more like flowers, Ben decided, following in the perfumed trail swirling after perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He found himself watching her hips roll gently as she walked, and he thought she had glanced back before he lifted his eyes from her long, tanned legs. He was chastising himself as she glanced back again and flashed a knowing smile. “Just through here, Officer.”

Ben first saw Bobby Ray from behind. He had on a white singlet with the muscles in his shoulders bulging from beneath it. His neck was thick, and his head was square. He turned at Kate’s call, and his big, jolly face was split in two by a wide grin.

“Bobby, this is Officer—”

“McEwen, Ben McEwen. Pleased to meet you, Bobby,” Ben offered his hand, and it was crushed. “That’s some contraption you’re building there.”

“It’s a home gym. It doesn’t fit in the house, and there’s more air out here, isn’t there, Katie?”

“Yes, there is, Bobby. And all the ladies in those other houses will be able to watch you working out.”

“Aw, I don’t care about that. I don’t care about that, Officer McEwen. She’s just teasing me.”

Ben had read in the file that Bobby was intellectually disadvantaged. He immediately warmed to the man.

“Well, this is amazing. I’ve seen some home gyms in the shop but nothing like this. Do you think I could come around sometime when I’m off duty and you could show me how it works?”

“Yes! Yes, you can come around anytime you like! Can’t he, Katie?”

“Sure he can, Bobby. We’ll look forward to it.”

Ben felt himself blush. He pressed on. “I hear you actually grew up here, Bobby. This was your family home, wasn’t it?”

Bobby nodded. “Mum and Dad had the big room, but that’s mine now, and Katie has the best room. She’s gonna come and stay anytime she wants.”

“I see. Anytime she wants. That’ll be nice.”

Ben met Kate’s blush that time. He pressed on again. “Well, I guess you’d know all the old families here, then, Bobby. You’d know the Carters, the Cosgroves. You’d know old Sergeant Lloyd?”

“I know everyone!” Bobby declared proudly. “I used to deliver the papers for Grandma, and then I worked at the timber mill. But they stole everything from the timber mill! The police should have stopped them!”

“Really? You worked at the mill? Wow! You worked for Mister Rose, then. He used to run the whole town, didn’t he?”

“Yes, Mister Rose was the boss, and I was going to be the morning shift foreman, wasn’t I, Katie? But my daddy was the boss of the school and of Glenview. He was the kids’ boss, and Mister Rose was the adults’ boss. And Sergeant Lloyd was the town boss, but he’s too small now.”

Ben met Kate’s eyes. She was studying him. He could feel her searching his soul. She sat down on the bench press and folded her arms. She looked up again and gave the slightest nod.

Ben was standing by the open roller door. He looked out at the farms dotting the river flat. “So, do you remember which was Mister Rose’s house, Bobby?”

“Aw, everyone knows that, Officer McEwen. That’s easy. It’s the one with the pine trees and the big white wall. Can you see it? It’s right there on the river. I’ve been there, you know?”

“I’m sure you have, Bobby.” Ben stepped to his shoulder and looked out over the flat with him. He measured his next question. “You would know his son Alex?”

“Alex Rose used to tease me.” Bobby turned and stepped away. He picked up a spanner and knelt beside his gym to tighten a nut. “He didn’t like me very much. None of those kids liked me very much, only my friend Nigel. We used to go fishing and camping in the forest, even when my daddy didn’t know.”

“What about Alex’s little sister? She wouldn’t have teased you, would she?” Ben watched Bobby’s eyes. They were set upon the nuts and bolts he was wrenching. He had begun to sweat. “Young Melanie was a friendly girl, wasn’t she?” Ben went on, crouching down and picking up a piece of string to fiddle with.

“She got sick in the river. She went away after that.”

“Where did she go, Bobby? No one knows where she is.”

Bobby sat staring at his hands. He left the spanner and started rubbing his fingers, plucking at the calluses. His eyes were glazed, his jaw set. “Talk, talk, talk. Sometimes there’s too much talking when people should be doing their jobs.”

“That’s true, Bobby. Sometimes there is too much talk.” Ben retreated quickly. “I’ll come back sometime and see how your gym’s going, okay?”

Ben nodded to Kate and strode from the garage. She followed and caught his arm. “What was that about her getting sick in the river?”

“That was earlier. There was a flood, and she nearly drowned saving a young boy. It was a few years before she disappeared.”

“But he remembered her!” Kate’s eyes were wide, her face pale. She was trembling. “That’s the first time he’s ever acknowledged anything about her.”

Ben handed Kate the photograph of Melanie Rose. He smiled. “It’s okay. If he’s got something bottled up inside, it’ll be good for him to deal with it.”

He strode back to the station and jotted down a few notes about his meeting with Bobby Ray then added the page to the file and put it aside. He relaxed back in his chair and lost some time thinking about the woman he had just met. He wondered what her situation was, what her relationship with Bobby was and whether there was any romantic attachment. Or perhaps she’s married? He had gathered she wouldn’t be living there in Goran Vale, although he didn’t catch whether she was living nearby. He ended up staring at the framed photograph beside his computer screen. He picked it up and wiped the glass surface.

Sylvia had been the daughter of his father’s long-serving head stockman. As children she and Ben had whiled away the seasons playing in the red dust that passed for a sand pit beneath the clump of coolabah trees separating the main homestead from the cottages and stockmen’s quarters. They had schooled together by radio and later shared a seat on the bus for the hour-long ride to high school and back each day. Ben remembered her laugh. It had been more of a screech, and he had always teased her about its resemblance to the sound of an excited cockatoo.

At eighteen they had gone to separate universities and for three years were only in contact during the holidays. At twenty one they became engaged, but Sylvia had insisted they wait a year or so because she wanted to travel before settling down to raise a family. She spent the better part of the next two years exploring Europe and visiting with various girlfriends from university while Ben, under strict instructions, had built their family cottage amongst the coolabahs. Their wedding was the event of the outback town calendar in ‘97.

Ben remembered his father’s hollow voice choking out the words over the two-way radio. “Come home, son,” was all he had said, and in that instant Ben knew a life-altering incident had occurred. The commotion had been at the home of Sylvia’s parents. Ben’s mother had rushed to him and held him. She had wept, not spoken. His father had approached with his eyes void and his hands shaking. “It’s Sylvia, son. There’s been an accident.”

The knot in Ben’s chest tightened, and he fought back the tears welling in his eyes as he touched the face of his woman. Again he forced an inward smile, though, and he replaced the photo and tidied his desk for the end of shift. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and his car was badly in need of a wash.

 

Chapter 7

 

When Bobby was faced with an issue he would retreat into silence and could usually be found working out on his gym or thumbing through his scrapbooks. From the open window of the room she had been allocated, Kate could hear the clanking of metal resounding from the garage.

She made up her bed and sorted her face creams and perfumes on the rickety wooden dresser Bobby had set for her. She had a suitcase to unpack, and she positioned trinket boxes and figurines. She had brought a few stuffed teddy bears because she knew Bobby loved them, and she considered the times he would be alone and how he would probably visit her room touching things. There was a rug for the polished wooden floor that she laid by the window and an antique, leather-cushioned chair with a wooden backrest that she placed with a view across the fields to the river. She dragged her treasure chest over to use as a step to hang the curtains. Inside she had stored her dollies and some boxes of teenage dress jewelry that Bobby also liked to discover and investigate. There was a collection of Jimmy Barnes and Madonna tapes, worn thin and hidden but too precious to let go of. There was an assortment of photographs from the same era that she treasured but could never display in public for fear of death by embarrassment.

Standing on the chest, Kate noticed a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was a rusted metal catch she managed to turn, but when she lifted the panel, it only moved a few inches and seemed to jam against something heavy. She was extended as far as she could reach, but she pushed again. Something fell on top of the panel forcing it closed, but a piece of blue cloth was protruding, and she pulled it out. It was a man’s cotton shirt, torn and stained with black marks that could have been oil or grease. She tossed it aside and returned to straightening the curtains, but her phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Hey, lover, how’s it going?”

“Fine, Paul. We’re getting things sorted.” Kate sat on her bed and flopped back.

Paul’s voice was whiney. “I’m missing you already. Len and Eric bailed on me and I’ve got the weekend free.”

“Why don’t you go without them? Or ask your brother. He likes motor racing, doesn’t he?”

“Thought I might give it a miss altogether and maybe go for a drive. Are you up for a visit?”

Kate twirled a thatch of hair and chewed it. “I don’t know. I only just got here.”

“What about tomorrow? I could fly up in the morning. Maybe stay over and drive back Monday.”

“Don’t you have to work Monday? You won’t make it back in time.”

“No, that’s okay. I can cover that. How do I find you?”

Kate sighed. She didn’t feel like seeing Paul, but she knew he would end up calling from right there in Goran Vale the next morning, anyway. She thought about denying him outright, but she had been rejecting him quite frequently of late and decided it best to concede. She was reluctantly giving him directions when Bobby poked his head around the door, grinning. She waved him in and dispensed with her boss.

Bobby flopped on the bed beside her. “I’m bored, Katie.”

Kate rolled over onto her side and squeezed and wiggled his nose. “Do you want some more jobs? I’ve got a whole big list pinned up on the fridge.”

“Aw, I saw that, but it’s Saturday, and those jobs are for work days.”

“Well, how about we walk into town and see if there’s a video shop? We could get you a membership card and see how big the comedy section is.”

“And the Sci-Fi! That’s my new favourites now, Katie.”

Kate fixed her hair and put on sandals. She picked up the old shirt she had thrown on the floor and found another piece of cloth protruding from the pocket. It was a small, lacy, white handkerchief with the letters ‘JAN’ embroidered in pink. There was also a chain on the floor that must have fallen from the shirt pocket. It was a strange looking stainless steel thing with square links and a ring at either end, some sort of dog collar, she assumed, and she placed it and the handkerchief on her dresser and tossed the shirt in a rubbish box in the laundry as she passed.

She found Bobby sitting on the front step waiting, and they strolled into town with him chattering away, telling her who lived where and who owned each shop, although she assumed his information may have been outdated.

There was a sign displaying video hire at a fast-food takeaway at the far end of the main street. Kate dragged Bobby into the antiques shop along the way. She picked out a vase and bought a bunch of carnations from a gift shop, sending Bobby ahead to choose some videos.

While waiting at the counter of the video shop for a buxom, sad faced girl to sign Bobby up for membership, Kate watched Ben McEwen washing an old, faded red car in front of a quaint little cottage across the street. He didn’t look as tall as he did when in uniform, but his back and shoulders were rippling beneath his wet t-shirt, and Kate suddenly felt the weight of her dress against her own skin.

Bobby was standing beside her prodding her with some DVD’s to look at. She agreed they were wonderful and would be thrilling to watch, and found herself peering over her shoulder as they walked back along the main street. She was hoping to wave at least, but Ben never looked up from what he was doing.

From the clock tower, Kate was led up a hill and presented with a timber mill. Bobby had already tried to sell her on the idea of buying and rebuilding it earlier in the afternoon. He was bouncing around pointing at things excitedly.

“We’ll see, Bobby. You know it’s a big decision to start a business like that, and we don’t even know if the owners would want to sell it, do we?”

“But I could ask them. I could ask Mister Rose.”

“Yes, maybe, but come on. I’m hungry and I want some dinner.”

Kate turned and crossed the road, and Bobby was soon striding along beside her. He told her about going to church on Sundays, and he pointed out each of his classrooms when they were walking past the school.

“And that’s my daddy’s office, Katie, but I used to say Mister Ray when I was at school because I was just one of the school kids.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been fair to the other kids if he treated you differently, would it?” Kate always approached the subject of Bobby’s father carefully. Apparently he still lived there in town somewhere but was extremely ill. Bobby’s doctors suspected he had been an abusive parent, but Bobby had that locked away in his child-like mind. “I bet you were proud to have your dad as the headmaster, though.”

“My dad was smarter than any other dad in the whole town, Katie. He was intelligent, but me and Mum were a burden! We were such a burden, and sometimes we were an embarrassment. But Grandma Petrov said me and Mum were special. She said don’t listen to Daddy when he has his moods because he had them ever since he was a little boy with Aunty Olga. That’s what Grandma said.”

“Well, you are special.” Kate slipped beneath Bobby’s massive arm and cuddled herself with it. “Your grandma’s right about that.”

Kate really was starving by the time they got home, and after dinner she mostly slept with her head in Bobby’s lap while he watched his movies. Bobby finally went off to bed, and it was close to midnight when she was watching an old, black and white Dracula movie, and he came downstairs in his blue cotton pyjamas and sat in a chair.

His face was blank. He looked pale, and Kate thought he might be feeling sick.

“Are you okay?”

“I had a bad dream.”

He rubbed his face with both hands and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He didn’t appear to be about to offer any more information.

Kate thought of the missing girl. Her heart quickened.

“What was it about, Bobby?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t move. I was awake, and you were at the door, but I couldn’t move, and I got scared.”

Kate lifted his hand and held it. “What do you mean, you couldn’t move?”

“I was too heavy. I was trying to sit up, but I was too heavy.”

“Did you see me in the doorway, Bobby? What did I look like?”

Bobby sniffled again and rubbed his face. “I couldn’t see you, Katie. I couldn’t turn my head, but I knew you were there, but it was only a dream.” He tucked his legs up on the chair. “I might wait and go to bed when you go to bed, Katie. I’m not tired anymore.”

 

Chapter 8

 

Alyssa lay staring at the ceiling. Sunday was her only free day, and she lay there in bed thinking about what she would wear. Her window was open, and the air was warm. She had sorted through her wardrobe in her mind and decided against jeans, settling on a short, floral-print dress that she had bought the past summer but never worn. It was predominately red, though, and her legs were white. She thought of a yellow, flowing skirt to her knees and maybe a light-pink t-shirt. She could tie her hair back with a pink ribbon too.

She got out of bed and dressed, adding a loose cheesecloth shirt to conceal her flat chest, but leaving it open. She took a book and collected an apple from the kitchen and went down the back to see her grandfather. He was shaving. He smiled back at her.

“Morning, princess.”

“Hi, Granddad. You look better today.”

Tom Lloyd usually looked well in the morning. He had on his pressed woollen trousers, and his white shirt was freshly ironed. His shoes were polished.

“It’s a beautiful day, princess. And look at you. All dressed up for your prince, are you?”

“I don’t have a prince, Granddad. I’m thinking about kissing some frogs, though. You never know.”

“What’s the book you have there?”

“Nothing special.” Alyssa’s book was one she had started on the previous night. “It’s just a silly romance.”

“Nothing silly about romance,” Tom ventured warmly.

Alyssa thought for a moment. There was something she wanted to ask her grandfather, but she wasn’t sure how to word her question. She sat down on the wooden chair beside his dresser. He was shaving there with a bowl of soapy water that smelled of lavender, and she watched him while his soft, grey eyes would roll to meet hers.

“Something on your mind?” he asked, knowingly.

“Granddad, why did Grandma leave you? Was it because of your age difference?”

Tom smiled. “It wasn’t because I’m old, princess. It was because I’m an old fool.”

Alyssa picked up the silver-framed wedding photograph her grandfather kept polished. “She was so much younger than you, though, wasn’t she?”

“Twelve years, sweetheart, but we never noticed.” Tom dabbed his face with a hand towel and busied himself searching for change in his other woollen trousers.

Alyssa replaced the photograph. “So, is it okay for the man to be quite a bit older than the woman?”

Her grandfather smiled. “What’s his name?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just something in the story, in the book.”

“In the book, hey? And the book guy is a big, strapping hero type?”

“You could say that.”

“Well, if he’s good to the book lady I don’t think a few years makes much difference, but I don’t know if your mother would agree.”

Alyssa straightened her grandfather’s collar. “Don’t get drunk today,” she said to him. “Where are you going?”

“Now, love, don’t worry about that. I’m just going down the street to see a few of the lads. We’ll probably have a cup of tea.”

“Granddad!”

Tom chuckled. “No seriously, love, I’ve got an appointment with young Ben this afternoon, and I wouldn’t want to be drunk for that, now would I?”

“Ben? What does he want?”

“Don’t know. Maybe he wants my permission to come a’ courting.”

“Huh! Tell him to drop dead.”

Alyssa followed her grandfather out and saw him off. She went around to the veranda of his flat where there was a lounge chair in the sun. She enjoyed her apple and watched for any movement from the houses below. The adjoining yards were all fenced with wire and some palings and bits of tin. She could see all the way up to Tebbit’s garage to her right and through the yards to the forest to her left. There were a few children playing, and Nicole Peterson from next door hung out her washing while her husband, Gary, read his paper in the sun. The woman in the house below came out and watered some pot plants she had on the step. Alyssa assumed she was Katie, and when she looked over, Alyssa waved, a little too excitedly, she thought.

It was a while before Bobby came outside. Alyssa tugged her skirt down and picked up her book. She didn’t read a word, but she turned the pages. He was tearing up cardboard boxes and stuffing them into an oil drum. He had been in and out of the garage a few times, and she had felt him looking over. After a while he approached the fence.

“What are you doing?” he asked flatly.

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m reading.”

“Oh.” He was toeing the dirt. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I’m going to the river for a swim,” he announced.

Alyssa’s heart fluttered. “Well, it’s a nice day for a swim,” she heard herself say.

Bobby picked up a piece of rusty wire and scrunched it into a ball. “You’re really pretty today. That’s a pretty shirt.”

“Is it? Thanks!” Alyssa was suddenly comfortable. It was easy to communicate at Bobby’s level.

“Is Katie going swimming with you?”

Bobby shook his head. “She’s having a visitor, but I don’t like him. His name’s Paul, and he’s got a funny mouth. That’s a pretty dress too.”

“This?” Alyssa felt her face flush a little that time. “I bet you say all girls are pretty.”

“No, I don’t. Katie’s pretty, and so is her friend Leanne, but some girls are ugly, but I don’t say that to them because it’s rude.”

“I see. Well, thank you for the compliment, Bobby. I’m glad you don’t think I’m ugly.”

Bobby tossed the ball of wire at the oil drum and turned back with his hands folding behind his head. A thoughtful expression that had briefly marred his face vanished, and he grinned openly. “You can come if you want.”

“Come where, swimming?”

“Yep. Have you got a bikini?”

“A bikini!” Alyssa’s face heated again. She stifled her laugh. “Do you have Speedos?” she shot back boldly.

“Yep! They’re blue. Wanna see?”

“No, wait!” Bobby was about to pull down his shorts. “What about we wait until we get to the river?”

Alyssa hurried inside and took her two bikinis from the drawer. She put on the black one and looked in the mirror. She tore it off, horrified, and put on the yellow and white striped one. She pulled on shorts and the cheesecloth shirt, tying it at her waist. She raided the kitchen for some cold chicken and fruit, made up a picnic basket with a towel and blanket, and with her goose bumps tingling, she hurried back outside to find Bobby waiting on his side of the fence with a towel slung over his shoulder.

He took her basket and leaned over the wire netting to lift her. Alyssa ended up sitting in the crook of his arm and sliding down his body. Her face was on fire as she tugged her shirt down and smoothed her hair behind her ears. Bobby claimed her hand and led off around the side of his house and along the road.

The township of Goran Vale ended suddenly. The last few houses on each side of the main road were abandoned. Beyond them the country expanded to a broad, sweeping plain, heavily grassed and dotted with small farm houses. To the east the plain ended abruptly at the base of a forested mountain range. To the west there were gently sloping hills, mostly treed but some cleared of timber, and in the distance the peaks of the Great Dividing Range were a deep blue against the cloudless sky.

Nestled quietly in the forest half a mile out of town was the abandoned Glenview House. All that was visible from the road were the steeple-like peaks of the roof and a flagpole with the tattered remains of the Australian flag greying in the sun. “That’s Glenview where my daddy used to be the boss,” Bobby declared, peering up into the trees.

“Your daddy?” Alyssa remembered when the school principal, Mr Ray, ran Glenview. “Is your daddy Mister Ray?” She also remembered the story of the night her father’s cousin, Melanie Rose, went missing, that the retarded son of Mr Ray was the last person seen with her.

“Yep, my daddy was Mister Ray. He was the school principal and the boss of Glenview. But he’s sick now. Gwen told me when he got sick, and she took me to see him at the hospital, but my mum wasn’t there. And then Gwen took me to see my mum at our house, but she wouldn’t open the door, and then last September she died. But she was buried somewhere else, not here in Goran Vale. Because Gwen said my mummy’s family were very religious, and they had a special place for my mum to be buried. But they didn’t tell us.”

“So, you’re Bobby Ray.” Alyssa also recalled the end of the story where the retarded boy had wandered half dead from the forest. “And who’s Gwen?”

“Gwen’s Katie’s mum. She’s a nurse at my hospital.”

Bobby was grinning stupidly and trying to catch a passing butterfly, and Alyssa swept aside any negative thoughts. She was walking with a hulk of a man who had warm, kindly eyes. He had introduced himself by rescuing her from an embarrassing situation, and she could count four times he had remarked on how pretty she looked. He dressed well and owned his own house. He was single and obviously adored his sister.

Bobby had released her as soon as they stepped out onto the road, but his hand would occasionally brush against hers as they walked. She had settled to listening to his chatter about who lived in each of the farm houses and about his adventures as a child, fishing and camping in the forest with the boys from Glenview, and each time his hand would brush against hers, a thrill would surge through her body. Her heart was thumping, and she could almost feel her blood coursing through her cheeks as she caught his hand and slipped hers within it. His hand closed and crushed her fingers, but after a little while it relaxed.

Alyssa’s face ached with her smile. Bobby was still chattering away, and he seemed to be holding her hand absently, but he was indeed holding it.

The main road held to the eastern edge of the plain, and several gravel roads branched off to service the small farms. About a mile from town there was a sandstone track cut into the forest that led to historic Goran Hut. Alyssa had dared to go up to the hut by day as a youth but never at night. Legend had the ghost of Herman Goran still patrolling the forest with his double edged timber axe, and the thought of that had been enough to keep a young Alyssa within the town limits after dark.

Bobby had given Goran Hut Road a wide berth. He had crossed to the other side of the road and noticeably quickened his pace. His eyes lit up at the next distraction, though. It was a rusted shell of a tractor in the scrub by the side of the road, and he ran to it and climbed onto the small metal seat.

When he had finished working the gear lever and trying to turn the steering wheel, which wouldn’t budge, he leapt down and claimed Alyssa’s hand again, and for the next half an hour, Alyssa was led along with her heart fluttering wildly and her cheeks constantly flushed.

As soon as they reached the river, Bobby stripped off his t-shirt and shorts and dived into the water. Alyssa laid the blanket and shyly removed her shorts and shirt. Her skin was fair, and she had chosen a place in the shade, but she applied sunscreen anyway. Bobby was duck-diving and splashing about. He was calling to her to come in, but she staved him off for a while.

He strode from the water and approached. He was a magnificent human being. His body was chiseled perfection, rippling and taut. He was tanned to a light golden-brown. His hair was blond, and his eyes were clear-green, and right then they were dancing with mischief.

He stooped and collected Alyssa in his arms. She clung to his neck without protest. One of his big hands was clutching her thigh and the other was pressing beneath her breast.

He carried her into the river. “You have to swim first, and then you can sit on the blanket.”

The cold water swallowed her but did nothing to extinguish the heat that was gushing all through her body.

He was gentle. He floated into the middle of the river with Alyssa clinging to his shoulders and with her body lightly caressing his side. He kept an arm around her, holding her close to his chest, and his massive thigh was pressing between hers.

Alyssa wanted to be kissed right then. She stared into his eyes, but he was seemingly oblivious to the state she was in.

“See, I told you it’s not cold,” he said, and there was a maturity in his voice that she hadn’t heard before. There was no animosity, just mellow warmth and a hint of confidence.

“Have you had a girlfriend before?” Alyssa asked softly.

“Daddy always sent my beach girls away coz they were evil, but Doctor Matheson said I don’t have to remember about that. But after the hospital, Julia Ferguson was my girlfriend, and she was a beach girl. And she taught me how to please a woman.”

“Oh, she did, did she? And did she please you too?”

Bobby blushed. He turned away, grinning. “I used to dive off that rock. Wanna see?”

He pushed away from Alyssa and left her giggling to herself. The thought of what Julia Ferguson may have taught him was tantalizing, but the sight of Bobby scaling a rock wall distracted her from that immediate train of thought, and when he flung himself off the rock ledge there was a wave that washed over Alyssa’s head and drowned any thought of sex.

Bobby had returned to the boyish goof he obviously was, and Alyssa found herself sinking, or rising, to his level. She couldn’t decide which. She jumped off the ledge a few times and played and splashed about with him for an hour before they had a picnic lunch. She had decided that one way or another the afternoon would lead to a kiss.

 

Chapter 9

 

Ben swiveled in his chair and assessed the situation. He couldn’t put it off any longer. There were clothes slung over the back of the couch, and the dining table was crowded with newspapers and unopened mail. His desk was cluttered with open books, sets of keys, a camera, tangled up headphones, CD covers, and some pens that worked and some that didn’t. The floor was gritty beneath his bare feet, and the kitchen sink was full of cups, cutlery and pots from the night before.

He sighed. It was mid-afternoon already, and he had committed himself to having the place straightened out and enjoying the Sunday night movie in clean, tidy surrounds. He typed ‘thanks for the game guys’ in the chat box and closed out of Yahoo euchre. He made three loads of washing and put on the first one. He found a big cardboard box for the mail and newspapers and put that aside to be sorted later. He did the dishes and vacuumed the floor. He had spent an hour in a frenzy, and the place looked okay, he thought.

He left the last load of washing and strolled up the gravel lane behind his house. Olga Petrov was in her garden with her floral bandana and wide brimmed straw hat as usual. She never acknowledged Ben, but he always tried his luck. “Hello, Olga. Nice day, isn’t it?”

She stood and looked around. Her eyes were sharp, narrowly set and distrusting. Ben felt them burning into his back as he walked on by, and as he turned onto the road in front of her house, he glanced again and waved. She was a strange woman, perhaps sixty-five or seventy years old, Ben imagined, and he had seen her there in her garden every day of the five years he had lived in Goran Vale. She had an amazing crop of white roses that she continually fussed over.

On the front veranda of her house was an old leather lounge chair, and seated in it was her decrepit brother, staring blankly up into the forest as usual. That was James Ray, the severely brain damaged and disfigured former school principal and, so Ben had come to understand, that was Bobby Ray’s father.

Ben strolled on past the old door factory and along to Mill Road and Tom Lloyd’s flat. The door was open, and he found Tom watching cricket on television.

“Come on in, Ben. Get yourself a glass.”

Tom had an open bottle of beer. Ben took a glass from the sink and sat down beside his old friend on the couch. “How we doin’?” he asked.

“Getting’ slaughtered. It was all over by lunch.”

They chatted about cricket for a while, but the conversation soon turned to the current drug-related crime wave that was at the forefront of police business. There had been several shop break-ins, and homes had been targeted too. Ben often called in to listen to Tom talk. He saw something in the old policeman that was deeper than the alcoholism.

“So, how good is your memory, then, Tom?”

“My memory? Crystal clear. Why?”

“Do you remember Bobby Ray?”

“Of course! Skinny runt of a kid. Used to do deliveries from his grandmother’s store. Always hanging around the mill. He ended up involved in young Melanie Rose disappearing, but I don’t think he had anything to do with it. I think whoever took her hurt him pretty badly. He ended up in a nut house. Has something happened?”

Tom had his eyes set intently upon Ben’s. His gaze was usually distant and non-committal. Ben felt that after five years he had just met Sergeant Lloyd.

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard he’s moved back to town. His mother died a few months ago and left him the house. He’s none the wiser about young Melanie, though. I’ve spoken with him. He seems genuine.”

“Back when it happened, if I’d thought he’d murdered her I’d be getting close to the end of a life sentence about now. I always thought they were picked up by someone down for the festival that year. No leads, though.”

“You said he was a skinny runt of a kid. He’s filled out. He’s been up on assault charges too. Back in ninety-eight he put three guys in hospital, but it went to self-defense.”

“Yeah, well, he had a temper. His grandfather was a cruel bastard. A full on Bible basher. Used to rant scripture while he was thrashin’ the hell out of his kids. Bobby’s dad came through that all right, though. He was a big man, no surprise Bobby would’ve filled out, big and kinda pushy. Kept up the church going and worked his arse off at the school and over at Glenview. He was kind to take in young Isabel. That was Bobby’s mother. She was a pretty girl, half-witted like Bobby but gentle and sweet. Came from religion too, and money!”

“You said Bobby used to hang around the mill. He worked there, didn’t he?”

“Hell, no! George wouldn’t have him. Don’t know how many times he applied for a job, but they wouldn’t have a moron operating the machinery. Wouldn’t be safe. I think George relented and let him do some tidying up round the place right at the end. Not sure. Stretchin’ the memory now. Might’ve been the week or so before Melanie went missing. She and Bobby were gettin’ round together, and I think George took pity on him.”

“You seem convinced he wouldn’t have been involved in harming her, though, Tom? He had a temper and a possible motive, being denied work.”

“No, his temper was just flipping out when the other kids at school teased him, but he took a lot of that too. I couldn’t see him dragging young Melanie off somewhere. And if you saw him when he turned up after a week in the forest you’d swear he’d been tortured or something. No, he got in the way of whatever happened to her.”

“So, what actually happened with Bobby’s father? And what about his grandparents? I’ve heard rumors they were a weird bunch.”

“His grandfather on his father’s side died back in the late sixties from heart attack. Could’ve been poisoned according to talk, though. And yeah, he was a strange one. His grandma was a sweet old girl, though. Passed about ten years ago. And there were a few years after the mill closed down when things got crazy here, and Bobby’s parents were ostracized for what part Bobby may have played in Melanie’s disappearance. His mother stayed indoors, and that drove her the rest of the way around the bend, and his father buried himself in his work at the school and virtually lived over at Glenview.”

“Glenview, that was the boys’ home, wasn’t it?” Ben had only ever seen the dilapidated mansion from a distance. It was long since abandoned when he arrived in town.

“It was kind of a halfway house for boys coming out of reform schools and rich kids gone wrong and the like.” Tom lit the cigarette he had been rolling and sat back nodding as if confirming his memories were accurate. “James Ray and Vincent Khel ran the show. James was the principal. He was a qualified psychologist as well as a school teacher, and the three Khel boys all worked for him. Vincent was working at the mill as well, but he virtually lived at Glenview, and young Jake Khel helped out when he wasn’t terrorizing the neighbourhood, jeez he was a little mongrel, that one. And Nigel was always there too. He used to help out the old gardener.”

“What about Bobby, did he work with his dad at all?”

“No. He was more of a mummy’s boy, or actually a grandma’s boy. If ya go back to where his parents met, James was fresh out of uni and teaching at the school. He met young Isabel through the church, had a fling with her and knocked her up. Then he did the right thing. She was only half-witted, though, just like Bobby, and James tolerated them at best. He couldn’t sign the papers quick enough when they wanted to commit young Bobby to that nut house.”

“So, Bobby’s mother locked herself up in the house and went crazy, but what happened to his father? He looks demented or something.” Ben occasionally had a cigarette when visiting Tom. He had rolled a thin one. He lit it up and sat back listening attentively.

Tom refilled their beer glasses. “Well, like I said, James Ray buried himself in his work at the school and over at Glenview. Two of the Khel boys were burned to death in a car accident here in the main street, and that Nigel Khel was never the same after crawling out of the wreck. So it was just James and old Amos, the gardener, and they had women coming in to do housekeeping and cooking, but Glenview was going down hill fast. They stopped taking in boys that next year, and James kept the place up as a dairy farm with a few fruit trees. He was workin’ on the windmill one day back in ‘92 and apparently fell and busted his head on one of the cross members. Old Amos found him the next day still alive but with half his head eaten away by foxes. There were rumors of young Isabel slippin’ something in his sandwiches, they were only half eaten and left in his lunch box under the windmill. But there was no trace of nuthin in his blood. He spent a while in hospital, brain damage left him a vegetable, and he’s been wastin’ away in that old chair on Olga’s veranda these past ten years.”

Ben had always assumed it was burns that had disfigured the old man. “Foxes ate half his head, huh? Bit gruesome, isn’t it?”

“Peeled his scalp back to the bone, all the way from his eyebrows to the base of his neck. Looked like they started lickin’ at the blood and got carried away, which isn’t unusual, except it’s strange they stopped there. They were bad that year too, pinchin’ shoes from doorsteps and knockin’ over rubbish bins and the like. Some of the men took to huntin’ them down and ended up with over a hundred pelts that winter.”

Alyssa poked her head in the door smiling, but her smile ended quickly.

“Hi, Alyssa,” Ben offered politely. “How are you?”

“Hello, princess. What ya got there?”

“Hi, Granddad. It’s just a picnic basket. Hi, Ben.”

Ben usually avoided Alyssa. He had felt at one time she had a bit of a crush, and he hadn’t known how to deal with it. In avoiding her he felt he may have hurt her feelings, but he didn’t know what to do about that either.

“I have to go,” she said and left abruptly.

Tom chuckled. “She doesn’t like you much, does she?”

Ben sighed as he shrugged and held out his hands. “I better go too. Got some washing to do.”

“I hear your transfer came through,” Tom said.

“Yeah, it did. Haven’t told me folks yet, though.”

“Don’t wanna disappoint them, hey?”

“Don’t know. Maybe,” Ben offered in reply. “Hey Tom, you said Nigel Khel crawled out of a wreck, and his brothers burned to death in it. Is that the wreck in the front yard of their house?”

“Yeah, that’s it. It happened down on the corner of the main road and Fortress Lane. We had what was left of the car at Tebbit’s garage for a while, but Nigel had Henry drag it up the hill when he got out of hospital. A couple of kids who saw what happened said his two brothers were stuck in the passenger side and burned alive screaming, but there was nothing Nigel could do other than sit there watching.”

“Jesus! No wonder the poor bloke’s screwed up. See ya later, Tom.”

Ben thought about calling in to see Bobby. He saw him there in his garage, but he decided against it. He strolled back along Mill Road and down the hill to the pub. There were only a few patrons watching the cricket, and Ben stopped for a beer with the publican, Arthur Briggs.

“You’d remember Bobby Ray wouldn’t you, Arthur? He was a retarded boy, used to live down the street a bit.”

“Young Fetch? Sure I remember him. And I see he’s put on a few pounds.”

“Fetch? What, did he go running after everyone or something?”

“The other kids used to work him over a bit because of how thick he was. You know what kids are like. How did he end up with the name Fetch, Ollie?”

Ollie was a frizzy-grey-haired ex-reporter-come-farmer set up at the end of the bar. He swirled the last of his beer. “He used to run after the other boys when he first started school. That’s how he earned the nickname, but the whole clan were crazy.”

Ollie lit up a smoke and continued after the fashion of a respected local authority on matters of town history. “The grandfather used to starve ‘em for days and whip ‘em with a razor strap. That was the three boys and the girl. The two elder boys joined the army, and there were rumors about the girl and the old man, some sort of incest thingy. And word was that James was involved in it too. He was very young at the time, though, and the girl disappeared. Then James turned out to be a smart young fellow, the only one in the family with any sense. And Bobby was a good kid, but he was thick as a stump, and those other kids used to wind him up somethin’ awful.”

“He was a fighter, though.” Arthur filled another schooner for Ollie. “By God he used to do his block. But he’s different now, the way he handled that pair of scrappers out the front here. If they hadn’t wised up and backed off he would have killed ‘em cold blooded. Same eyes, all crazy and fierce, but he’s got the physical strength to back it up now.”

Ben finished his beer and strolled back out onto the street. He thought for a moment about his washing but decided to walk down and pay Bobby a visit after all. He wouldn’t try to press for information about the missing girl. He would just call in to see how the home gym was going, and it occurred to him he might be fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with the lovely Kate again.

He could see Bobby was still in the garage as he approached the house. There was a silver Range Rover with the number plate ‘RISSMAN’, in addition to the car he had seen the day before. The front door was open, and he heard Kate squeal and laugh. There was a man’s voice too. Ben knocked and stepped back.

Kate approached the door giggling and looking back over her shoulder. She turned, and Ben greeted her with a smile.

“Afternoon, ma’am.”

“Oh… Officer?”

“Ben. Ben will be fine, ma’am. I was out and about and thought I’d call by and say hello to Bobby. Am I intruding?”

“No… God, no! Um… Ben this is, um, a friend of mine, Paul. Paul, Ben’s the local cop.”

A tall, weak-chinned man had appeared behind Kate. His hands were upon her shoulders. Ben nodded.

“May I go around the side? I can see Bobby’s there in the garage.”

Kate squirmed from between her friend and the screen door. She opened it and shuffled Paul back a bit. “Can you check on dinner for me, please? I’ll just be a few minutes.”

“What do I do?” Paul asked.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter. Just… I’ll be there in a minute.” Kate slipped through the door and closed it. She was blushing and avoiding Ben’s eyes.

“Is everything okay? I really didn’t mean to intrude.”

“No, it doesn’t matter. He’s just… I don’t know… It’s fine. And I wanted to ask you a favour.”

Kate had stepped close. Her blush had faded, and her warm, brown eyes were enticing.

Ben wondered in that instant if any man had ever denied her anything.

“I was wondering if I could help with your investigation.”

“Help in what way?” Ben sat back on the porch rail. It gave him a little more room to breathe.

She smiled coyly and shrugged. “I don’t know. In any way I can. I might be able to check the newspapers from when the girl went missing. I saw there’s a library near your house. Maybe they have something there. Or you could let me see the police report.”

Ben met her smile and wondered how she knew where his house was. “Ma’am—”

“Kate! Not ma’am. Kate. You were saying?”

“Kate, I really don’t have the authority to invite civilians into the station to look into missing persons.”

“So, take that one little file home and invite me to dinner. I’ll sneak a look while you’re busy cooking.”

“I can’t cook.”

“Frozen pizza?”

Ben hadn’t stopped smiling. “You’re pushy!”

“Tomorrow night?”

“What about…?” Ben motioned to the door.

“He’s nothing. He’s just my boss. I’m sending him home after dinner.”

“Okay. Around six, and it’ll be fresh pizza, not frozen. And white wine?”

Kate stepped to the door and smiled back over her shoulder. “Or beer.”

She stayed at the door while Ben walked back to the front gate. “What about Bobby?” she called after him.

“Next time. I got what I wanted,” he called back.

“Me too!”

Ben strode back up the main street with his stomach doing flip-flops out of pure glee. That went well, he declared to himself proudly. He couldn’t quite figure out how he had managed to get a dinner date, in three minutes flat, when his expectations had only extended as far as a few words and another sniff of that fruity, flowery perfume. And my God she’s beautiful! The thought bubbled out of his overflowing enthusiasm, but the cloud he had been floating on burst when he walked into his house and realized what he had gotten himself into.

He quickly fed the dog and cats and put two meat pies in the oven. He rummaged under the sink for rubber gloves and disinfectant and attacked the toilet. He scrubbed it and the bathroom. He mopped floors and got out the Spray’n Wipe to clean the television and coffee table and every other dusty surface he could find. He pulled the lounge suite apart and found money and bottle tops. He dusted and vacuumed and put everything back together, then he took to the windows with the windscreen cleaner from his car and some scrunched up newspaper.

By the time Ben had finished cleaning and had his house, he hoped, presentable, he had missed the Sunday night movie so he showered and fell into bed.

He woke the next morning with his first thought a continuation of his last: She wasn’t married. She wasn’t seriously attached. The guy with no chin was some sort of business colleague, there for dinner and being sent home after that.

Ben was showered, dressed, and walking to work, and his mind was still spinning around how she had insisted on a dinner invitation. He walked on past the clock tower and looked down the hill to find the silver Range Rover backing out of Kate’s driveway. Kate was standing on her veranda clutching the hem of a short, pink robe and waving.

His heart turned to stone.

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Remains of a Local Girl: Part 1

beauty-3d

Aussie cold case murder mystery. Steamy romance.

 

Chapter 1

 

“Chocolate!” Kate poked her girlfriend’s foot with a toe. “We need chocolate.”

Leanne glanced from the television. “We don’t need chocolate. We need men.”

“Nope, chocolate!” Kate sat up facing Leanne on the other end of the lounge. “Someone has to go to the shop.”

Leanne huffed and hugged her pillow.

“So, get a man, Lea. Call Tommy.”

Leanne’s eyes rolled. “I mean like that.”

A movie love scene was on the television.

Kate glanced then smiled at her friend. She ran her nails along the sole of Leanne’s foot, making her jump and giggle. Leanne kicked out and Kate straddled her, tickling her ribs. Leanne shrieked and squirmed, laughing out loud and complaining until Kate let up and returned to sitting on her end of the lounge.

“We need chocolate.”

Leanne was still puffing. “Okay, chocolate. Who’s going to the shop?” She reached to the floor for the remaining two DVDs. “What’s next?”

“Mathew McConaughey.” Kate leaned across and took the How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days DVD from Leanne’s grasp, glaring a mock challenge. “But chocolate first, and ice cream. Do you have any ice cream?”

Leanne sat up cross-legged. “What about chocolate coated ice creams, Triple Treats?”

“Okay. Rock-paper-scissors!”

The girls played the game with Kate picking the rock and losing. Leanne laughed. “You’d better put on a bra.”

Kate was in track pants and a tank top. She had stayed over at Leanne’s house and hadn’t dressed from bed as yet. She raked back her hair and retied it with a scrunchie. The shop was just across the road. “Give me your shirt?” she said, getting up. Leanne’s flip-flops were by the door. A car pulled into the driveway, prompting Kate to peer through the blinds. Her face flushed, her chest tingling. “Shit!”

“What?” Leanne cried, rushing to her side.

“What the hell’s he doing here?”

The car belonged to Kate’s ex-fiancé. He approached the front door. She wanted to run and hide but grabbed her pillow, huddled on the edge of the lounge, and pretended to be watching television instead.

“What are you doing here, Stephen? Why aren’t you at work?” Leanne demanded as he walked in.

“Hey, sis, what’s up?” he replied cheerily, his eyes flashing to Kate and his smile ending. “Kate. Hey.”

Kate glanced without turning her head. “Hi, Stephen.”

“I just need my golf clubs,” Stephen told his sister, his face red as he edged past her and went up the hall to his old bedroom. Leanne lived with their mother in the family home. Stephen was married now and lived in the city.

Kate glared at Leanne, who shrugged helplessly, holding her hands out. Kate folded her arms tighter at the sound of the man returning. The movie had restarted. She fixed her eyes upon the screen, her brows lowered.

“Sorry,” Stephen said as he rushed through the room with his golf bag over his shoulder. His gaze had flashed to Kate, his comment seemingly directed at her as well as Leanne.

Leanne closed the door and slumped back against it. Kate glared at her again.

“You two have to get over this, Kate. It’s been two years.”

“I am over it.”

“Oh, yeah, it really looks like it too.”

Kate swallowed at the lump in her throat, sniffling. “It’s not so much him. It’s just that I feel like shit lately. We’re going to be thirty soon, Lea.” Kate wiped at a stray tear. “He’s the last person I wanted to see today. We’re supposed to be hiding, aren’t we?”

Leanne flopped on the lounge, cuddling her pillow. “We could go shopping instead.”

“What?”

“Let’s go on that dinner cruise. Take me as your plus-one.”

The nervous tingles from earlier resurged as defiance, filling Kate’s belly. “Really? You’ll come?”

“Yep. But you’re not allowed to tell anyone I’m not corporate. Let me pretend, okay?”

“Corporate’s crap, Lea. It’s all superficial posturing at these functions. Just have fun but don’t trust any of the men and you’ll be fine.”

Leanne smiled. “Okay! So, let’s go shopping!”

 

Chapter 2

 

“Shit!”

Kate slapped her hand over her mouth to prevent any other sound escaping until the pain subsided. She had trodden on her shoe with the heel digging into the arch of her bare foot.  The man she had spent the night with was still sleeping and she was desperate to sneak away without waking him.

She found her panties on the floor and pulled them on then wriggled into her little black party dress then scooped her shoes. Her hair was matted at the back of her head, but she couldn’t risk the light from the bathroom, so she slipped out the door cringing at the clunk of the latch as she pulled it closed.

She was out of there. Phew. That was lucky.

Kate hurried along to the elevator with that familiar feeling of relief warming her chest and making her feel the euphoria of a successful escape. There was a line-up of cabs waiting, and fifteen minutes later she was again on noise alert as she attempted to sneak into her apartment.

Her big brother, Bobby, was crashed out on the lounge with his neck kinked and his head twisted to one side, jammed against the arm. He couldn’t be left like that, so Kate prodded his shoulder.

“Bobby, what are you doing out here?”

His eyes shot open and his jaw flapped. “Katie, there you are! I was waiting, but I went to sleep.”

The television was still on the movie channel, showing an old black and white movie.

“But I told you I’d be late, and what about work tomorrow?” Kate scolded as she turned the television off and started pushing Bobby toward his bedroom. He was too sleepy, rubbing his huge face and clinging to his pyjama pants, trying to hold them up. “Look, it’s nearly time for you to wake up, anyway,” she went on, scolding a little more.

Kate’s manner with him was authoritarian. Bobby’s intellectual maturity was equivalent to that of a young teen, while he was actually approaching forty years-of-age and was the size of a refrigerator.

“But where were you tonight, Katie? I already went to bed, but then I woke up and you still weren’t home!”

Kate was in no mood to explain. “I was out, okay? Just go to bed.” With that she left Bobby and went to her own room where she pulled off her dress and fell into bed. It was already after five, though, and two hours later the alarm on her mobile was vibrating and jingling away on the bedside cabinet.

It was Friday and, following her RDO yesterday, it was the last workday before a month-long summer vacation. The day was clear and sunny, and the crowded ferry ride to work offered another twenty minutes nap time. The morning passed in a rush, tidying up loose ends that would prepare her workstation for a temporary handover. At about 1pm, Kate ended up sitting with her chin propped on her hand, nonchalantly gazing out at her multimillion dollar lunchtime view of Sydney Harbour. Her thoughts meandered from the steady stream of runabouts and water taxis zipping in and out of the shadows of the Harbour Bridge to the yachts and small fishing boats bobbing on the white-tipped swell around Fort Dennison. She watched a large yacht in full sail cut its way through the crowd and dash toward the ocean. Her gaze lingered on the shimmering horizon for a few moments then swept back to the ant-like community of tourists milling around the Opera House forecourt.

From the ninth floor cafeteria of her work office building on George Street, Kate took to pondering the way the faded old yellow and green ferries docked at Circular Quay seemed to remain motionless while the water swelled beneath them. Perhaps they were moving a little, she surmised, concentrating on the alignment from the top of one ferry to the roof of the passenger terminal, and the hazy numbness in her brain then wandered back out to the horizon while her mind separated and drifted off into the lingering hot flush of embarrassment at the idea of Lance Emerson.

Lance was a guy Kate had thrown herself at on the dinner cruise the previous night, someone she had arranged to meet at the Gold Coast after he had finished his work commitments in Australia.

God, I hope I didn’t come across too desperately, she mused horribly.

After partying her way through university, Kate had spent five years peering over the partition of a tiny office cubicle down on the second floor. She had spent five long years calculating and mailing off insurance payouts and basking in the view from the cafeteria at lunchtime.

She covered her mouth and yawned as she turned from the window, and she looked up to meet the incredibly blue eyes of her supervisor, Paul Rissman. He was standing with a tray of food in his hands, grinning down at her. She felt his gaze had just lifted from her cleavage.

“Hey, Paul. What’s up?”

“Do you mind?” He motioned with his tray.

“No. Please. I’m on my way back, anyway.” Kate stood to leave. She wasn’t really in the mood for Paul.

“I might call around tonight,” he suggested as he placed his tray and took a seat.

Kate forced a smile. “I’m probably going to be a bit busy helping Bobby pack and get organized.”

Paul nodded, and Kate felt the heat from his gaze as she stood straightening her skirt. She didn’t mind the way he and the other men in her department would always watch her. She dressed for it. However, she did sometimes regret the one occasion after a work party when she had responded to Paul’s advances and spent the night with him. It had been in her first week in his department, the week she had broken up with her fiancé. Since then Paul had taken to dropping by her place quite frequently. Without offering any real commitment, he had adopted the role of alternate boyfriend. He would subtly fade into the background when she was seeing someone, but between times he would casually resurface. Her regret over having encouraged him didn’t extend to discouraging him, though. It was all too easy for Kate, and it meant she was never totally alone.

His gaze remained focused on her legs as she fixed her hair. “I might be up the coast myself next weekend. Do you wanna hook up?”

Kate shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

She left Paul and returned to her work station for two excruciatingly slow hours in anticipation of her holiday. Finishing work at three, she cleared her desk and said her goodbyes. It was cool and breezy in the shadow of the buildings, but the sun was baking the paved walkway around the quay. Kate checked the time for her ferry, finding she had just missed one and had forty minutes to wait for the next. She strolled around the foreshore to a small grassy park where she found a spot on a bench-seat facing the water, and sat to enjoy the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun.

She took a book from her bag and opened it, but she often sat there in the park on a sunny morning or afternoon and just watched people. There was the usual variety of walkers: tourists strolling along gazing at the boats in the harbour or up at the towering office buildings and hotels, business people on leisurely meal breaks or rushing from one appointment to another, commuters spilling out of trains and ferries or clambering to refill them, and both morning and afternoon there would be a scattering of joggers and power walkers weaving amongst the slow mass moving around the foreshore.

If only Paul wasn’t such a dickhead, Kate suggested to herself quite seriously. Otherwise, he’s actually perfect. He’s divorced with teenage children. He’s got a great apartment. And he’s loaded!

Kate watched a group of young businessmen stroll past. They were accosted by old Gladys, a homeless woman dressed in a floral head-scarf and a tattered grey poncho carrying a large nylon shopping bag—someone Kate had seen many times over the years she had been working there at the Quay. She appeared to be running her usual routine of begging for money, and Kate watched as she approached another man and extended a shaking, twisted little hand from beneath the poncho.

After being denied repeatedly, she appeared to give up, and shuffled over to a garbage bin and started searching through it. She found something to eat and took it to a bench along the wharf a little. It appeared to be the crust of a sandwich, and from her shopping bag she produced a bottle wrapped in newspaper.

A woman sitting on the other end of the bench got up and stepped into the steady stream of walkers. People were eyeing the old woman and making a wide berth as they passed. Her poncho had hiked up to reveal her lower legs and thick, salmon coloured stockings. There were holes in the stockings, through which there appeared to be several other layers of fabric. From beneath her head-scarf, Kate recognized her gnarled yet kindly face, and wondered if the woman had found her teeth, as she seemed to be chewing quite easily on the crust of bread.

Kate strolled back around to the ferry terminal where she bought two packaged salad sandwiches and a bottle of apple juice. She took the food back to the old woman and sat down beside her.

“Hi, Gladys,” she started, and the old woman smiled, an intelligence shimmering within her eyes that always startled Kate a little. Kate offered the sandwiches and drink, and Gladys clasped her hands as she accepted them. Kate smiled and nodded, acknowledging the old woman’s gratitude.

Or maybe I should just accept that I’ve turned into a gold-digging little bitch who’s destined to be single, Kate mused, giggling within herself as she watched another young businessman stroll by. Maybe I should be thinking about how to consolidate my life alone after Bobby moves out. I could find a cheaper apartment. I could dump this stupid job and find a small accounting firm, maybe down the south coast or somewhere.

Kate often envisaged herself growing old alone. She saw herself as a powerfully self-assured woman who had traveled the world. She would be the eccentric aunt to her friends’ children, the one they would come to with their dreams and wide-eyed fancies. She even saw a little of herself in Gladys—at least in the old woman’s gumption.

After eating one of the sandwiches, Gladys packed the other one and the drink in her bag and waddled along. Kate strolled back around to the terminal, and when her ferry docked, she sat out on the deck and lost her thoughts in the excited faces of a group of school children, returning from an excursion into the city. They were wriggling in their seats, anxious to get to the edge of the ferry and look over the side, but there were two teachers with stern faces and folded arms, one either side of the giggling, squealing little cluster of energy.

Kate dozed in the warmth of the sun. It was a little after four by the time she stepped off onto Manly Wharf on the far side of the harbour. She called into a childcare centre for her daily chat with Leanne.

“Can you do that one?” Leanne asked, pointing to a toddler with a nappy sagging between its chubby legs. “In the blue bag,” she said before Kate had a chance to ask where to find a fresh nappy. Kate grabbed the nappy and put a pair of disposable gloves on.

“What’s his name?” Kate asked, having never seen that particular child before. He was a dark-skinned little fellow with huge, brown eyes and a gummy grin. He claimed a handful of her hair, and she kissed his belly and remained there for a moment while he explored her face with his wet fingers.

She ended up spending an hour there in the baby room, which was not an unusual occurrence, as Leanne always seemed to be flat out when she stopped by. She changed nappies mostly, going through a pile of rubber gloves. What a disgusting waste, two pairs per child, that’s 20 gloves I’ve just contributed to the environment.

“So, I’ll pick you up on Wednesday, and we can take my car to the airport, okay?”

“Okay. Have fun up in the hills. And don’t worry about Bobby. He’ll be fine on his own.”

With still a good two hours before dinnertime, Kate slipped up to her apartment and changed out of her work clothes. It was only a short walk to the beach where she laid her mat, and discarding her skirt and bikini top, she settled back with her book. It was a good book, a somewhat gruesome psychological thriller. She began reading, but her mind soon drifted to a conversation she’d had earlier that day with her mother.

Her mother was forty-nine and having problems with her third marriage. It seemed to Kate she would burn herself out with the intensity of a new romance, and after a few years there would be nothing left. Kate never knew her father, but she could recall a handful of daddies before her mother brought Bobby Ray home.

Her mother was a psychiatric nurse with over twenty years’ service at a facility for the intellectually disadvantaged. Bobby was an in-patient who, upon being discharged, needed some help settling into a normal life.

When her mother had first offered Bobby Ray a home, Kate was eleven and very territorial. Bobby was twenty-three, and he was like an oversized boy, who soon evolved into the big brother Kate had always wanted. He became a long term boarder, taking residence in the refurbished garage, and Kate and Bobby set up house together after her mother moved out with a new man. After Kate finished university and began working, they moved to an apartment closer to her work. What developed was an odd sort of relationship that was difficult to explain to new acquaintances, so they agreed to unofficially adopt one another as brother and sister.

My soon-to-be long distance big brother, Kate soliloquized. She would certainly miss Bobby. She would miss his big, jolly hugs and his slow beaming smile, and she would miss his company watching movies at night. But she knew it was time for them both to start something. Though, just what the hell I’m supposed to start I’m not so sure about, she groaned, and she consciously abandoned that frustrating train of thought.

She sat up to stretch. There weren’t many other sunbathers, and she had chosen a secluded spot, but since she had been lying there, two older men had set up close by. They were both looking over, and she waited a few minutes, arching her back and enjoying the attention, then she rolled over and lay back down to deny them any further entertainment.

Then again he is so comfortable, Kate sighed as her thoughts drifted back to Paul Rissman. He doesn’t challenge me or demand anything… Of course, I could never love the guy, but he always seems to be there when I need him, and if I don’t feel like it, he usually takes the hint and leaves me alone. He’s probably my perfect match in a practical sense, she concluded for the moment, although the argument was far from settled.

She wriggled her bikini top into place and sat up. There were children playing in the small waves rolling ashore, and Kate found herself watching them and wondering what it would be like to be the mother who was playing with them, but that only led her to the irksome and frustrating memory of the end of her relationship with Stephen. She could see herself suffocating him with her insecurities quite plainly in hindsight, and the thought always made her cringe inwardly, sheer idiocy.

Kate dressed and strolled along the cafés and clothing boutiques, finding a new bikini for her holiday. Bobby was cooking dinner when she arrived home.

“How was your last day?” she asked, stepping beside him and reaching up to give his massive shoulder an affectionate squeeze while leaning in to sniff at what he was stirring in a small pot.

“Good. They gave me them.” Bobby smiled and motioned to an open set of tools on the dining table.

“Is that all? For their best worker!”

Bobby’s smile broadened, and Kate kissed his big, whiskery cheek. “I’ll go have my shower.”

Kate got to thinking of her mother again while she showered, about how much they were alike. Since Stephen, Kate hadn’t held a man for more than three months. And like her mother’s relationships, hers always began wild and passionate and burned out quickly.

Perhaps she needed to go to cocktail bars instead of dance-clubs, she mused, but she again pushed the question of men and her future from her mind. Her thoughts settled on Bobby and his move to the house his recently deceased mother had willed to him. It was in a small town not far from the city, and he was planning to work at the timber mill where he was apparently employed as a youth. Kate hoped there would be a position available for him. She also hoped the house was in reasonable condition, as it had been empty for a few years according to the real estate agent.

The removal truck was to arrive to pick up Bobby’s few furnishings at 7am. They would be there by lunch.

Chapter 3

 

Ben McEwen placed aside the memory of his wife’s smile and sat up in his seat. Edna Simms and Margaret Worthington had appeared at the doorway of the Camden bowling club, and after saying goodbye to their friends they approached. They were two ladies in their sixties whom Ben always taxied to town on his social dance nights. They preferred to ride in the back, to be chauffeured, which left him alone with his thoughts for the hour drive back to Goran Vale.

Ben was over the homesickness that had plagued him for a few years after leaving his parents’ sheep station out west. It had been difficult to adjust to life without the security of home and the familiarity of a small outback community. The city had at first seemed a massive jumble of chaotic lives, crammed together and intertwined but somehow cold and detached from each other. However, within a few years he had built friendships and formed his own community again, and although he had taken a semi-rural posting, he had grown to depend on the city to break the monotony of small town life.

At twenty-eight, Ben was settled and happy in a practical, day to day sense, though touching the empty passenger seat he again thought of Sylvia. He remembered her perfume and her knee-length, floral sundresses, and her scarred shins and worn leather work boots. He remembered her constant travel chatter and out-of-pitch singing whenever one of her songs would come on the car radio. His heart lifted, but there was an ache in the base of his throat as he saw her there rocking to her music and drumming the dashboard. He thought of how her hands had been a little too coarse and bony for a woman, and remembering her touch, a twinge of loneliness pulsed within his chest. He fought it off, though, and swallowed the ache away, smiling inwardly, as he always did in honor of her memory.

Camden had faded in the rearview, and the expressway swept onward, cutting between jagged monuments, black against the mantle of stars and the moonless night. Twenty minutes beyond the edge of the city was the turnoff to Goran Vale where the road, narrow and broken, wound up into the reaches of trees and sandstone. Levy’s Bluff offered the final view of the city lights. From there the horizon was a shimmering, white line against the Pacific, and beyond the bluff time retreated as even in summer the mist from the earth rose to shroud the valley below.

The Catholic Church steeple pierced the shroud, as did the defunct concrete grain silos, and winding down from the bluff, the mist thinned to a damp haze that seemed to haunt a small town lost in the eighties.

Ben took the ladies home and waited for Edna to bring his obligatory casserole. He thanked her for it and slowly rolled up the main street to the top end where he lived in his old English-looking cottage roped in ivy.

He fed his dog, Rex, a black and grey mongrel he had bought as a pup when he took the posting in Goran Vale, five years previously. He fed his three cats, all strays that repaid his nightly dinner scrap offerings with undying loyalty and by keeping the mice situation under control. He took the rubbish bag from beneath the kitchen sink and strolled out to the furnace where he stood for a moment watching a commotion down the street. The only business with lights on was the pub, and he watched a drunk being dragged across to the police station house. It was only a short walk, so Ben wandered down to see what was happening.

“Evening, Barry,” he announced, stepping into the foyer.

Constable Barry Fitzgerald was a round-faced, round-bellied man in his early fifties. He had been stationed in Goran Vale for twenty-two years.

“Hey, Ben,” he replied, shuffling from the lock-up stairwell and fixing his shirt. He had obviously been in a scuffle. “Toby fuckin’ Miller again,” he declared, thumbing back over his shoulder.

“Under control, mate?” Ben had stepped in to see what was on his desk. There was a file sitting there he didn’t remember leaving.

“Sarge wants you to look that over. Apparently Bobby Ray’s moving back to town tomorrow.”

Ben opened the file. “Melanie Rose. That’s the young girl who went missing back in the eighties?”

“Yeah, and Bobby Ray’s the retard who was last seen with her.”

Ben tucked the file under his arm. “Are you okay here, then?”

“Yeah, fine!” Barry was sniffing the air. “Is that perfume?”

Ben had danced with a dozen different women in class that night. “Linda always wears perfume for me, Barry. It’s just that she probably doesn’t put it on until after you go to work.”

Barry laughed. “Yeah, well, she’d eat ya ‘live, son. But that young Grieves girl was lookin’ over ya fence again this afternoon. She’d fix ya up.”

Ben strolled home and tossed the missing person’s file on the lounge and had a shower. He collected a beer and opened the file. Sergeant Edwards had a policy of preempting community conflict, so Ben would need to be up on whatever the scenario might be. He browsed through the details of the night of the 1986 Tulip Festival when a young girl went missing, and reports on the boy last seen with her, Bobby Ray. He had been interviewed four times in the seventeen years since the incident, the last of which had been five years previously, in association with an assault allegation in Sydney, June 1998.

Ben yawned as he closed the file and picked up the envelope from Police Headquarters he had left sitting on his lounge that morning. It was notification of a transfer opportunity for the posting he had originally requested when graduating from the academy. He had two weeks to respond to the senior constable position in his old home town, and he again read through the letter, then folded it back into its envelope and turned on the television. He flicked past the golf and the late night news and settled on Frankenstein in black and white.

 

Chapter 4

 

Alyssa Lloyd stood staring at her face in the mirror. It was oval in shape, and her features were plain and non-distinct, apart from her lips, or more specifically her smile, which she liked because it revealed her perfect teeth. Her hair was silk, pure, white silk, but without body, so again she tucked it behind her ears.

“Just wait a minute!” she screamed as her younger sister pounded on the bathroom door.

Alyssa was nineteen, four years out of school, and a prisoner of Goran Vale. She worked six mornings a week at Mr Barlow’s general store, and on weekday evenings she had to care for her younger brother and sister while her parents were at work in the city.

She turned side on to the mirror and tugged her work-shirt down. “Come on, grow girls!” she almost sobbed, arching her back and trying to enhance the slight distortion in the heavily woven cotton fabric.

“But I have to go!” came the voice from beyond the door, pleading that time.

Alyssa brushed past her sister, collected her shoulder bag, and strode out into the eucalyptus tinged silence of a Goran Vale Saturday morning.

She lived on Mill Road, which ran parallel to the main street, one block above it. She walked along the row of Goran Vale’s elite houses, all owned by city workers who had formed an exclusive clique that barbecued on Sunday afternoons, then past the back of the school where she had spent her childhood years from five to fifteen, and where she sometimes took a short cut, but only if she was running late. Next to the school was the Catholic Church, a red-brick building with white bordered windows and doors and a peaked roof shaping to a steeple that pierced a canopy of towering ghost gums. The church was on the corner of Mill Road and High Street. Both roads ended there at the old iron gates of the timber mill where piles of logs and stacks of cut timber gave the impression of a working mill, while the wild growth of fern and myrtle claiming the administration building and clumps of woodruff and bugle flowering purple and white all over the driveway were testimony to years of disuse.

From the top of High Street there was a short, steep hill to the main intersection in town where two closed banks lay dormant with faded For Rent signs in the windows. At the centre of the intersection was a clock tower, the clock about to chime 10am as Alyssa stood waiting for a vehicle to pass, a furniture removal truck. It rattled by, followed by a sleek, deep-blue car with tinted windows, too classy to belong to anyone from Goran Vale, Alyssa decided, and she stood watching where the truck was going as the clock began its ten chimes.

Along the left side of the main street, past the front of the Goran Vale State School, was the police station house, outstanding with its brilliant-white weatherboard facing. Next to the station house was a small electronics dealer selling televisions and computers and the like, and the last business along that side of the main street was Tebbit’s Garage where Henry Tebbit, a lanky, balding man with a narrow, sloping forehead that shaped into a nose, was busy hosing fuel stains from the driveway. Along the right side of the main street, next to the abandoned National Bank, was another vacant building that Alyssa remembered as a café. Beyond that and directly across from the police station was the Goran Vale pub with its mildewed-green tiled facing and thick frosted-glass windows. There was a gravel laneway beside that, which led to a car park that Alyssa recalled frequenting as a child in the back seat of her father’s car when her grandfather needed to be carried from the back door of the pub. The laneway separated the pub from the Town Hall, which was a white sandstone structure with towering pillars and a marble slab beneath an arched vestibule that was the coolest place in Goran Vale when the breeze failed on a hot February afternoon. Beyond the Town Hall were houses, some vacant, some abandoned, and a few with occupants who dabbled in vegetable growing.

The truck had stopped on the left side of the main street, five houses down from Tebbit’s garage. It was backing into the house that was directly below Alyssa’s, old Isabel Ray’s house, which had been vacant over the five or so years since Isabel had moved to the city. Alyssa remembered the old woman as the witch who poisoned her husband, or at least that’s what legend had her believe as a child. Her husband had been the school principal and manager of Glenview home for boys, which was an abandoned dairy farm beyond the edge of town. He was found unconscious and severely brain damaged at the base of the farm windmill after eating his lunch, and legend had him toppling off the ladder when the effect of the poison kicked in.

“Anytime you’re ready,” a caustic voice echoed from the corner diagonally opposite, beyond the clock tower, where Mr Barlow was wringing his hands in his white grocer’s apron and scowling from beneath grey, shaggy brows. It was five past ten, and Alyssa stepped out of her daze to walk across the road to work.

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The Trelor Sect Killings…

childrens-2

He was saving them. He was gathering them unto his spiritual flock, and he would shepherd them there. He was protecting them from the evil materialism and godless destruction of nature that had become the modern world. How long would it be until the end of humanity was brought about in nuclear devastation? This was the way to peace and salvation, Warren Trelor reasoned as he depressed the trigger and discharged a bullet into the back of Star’s head.

The woman’s bloodied hand slipped from the door handle, and her body slumped with her head coming to rest against the door frame at an odd angle. Her eyes were wide but life had abandoned them. Her mouth was open, and there was a strained gurgling sound, then her body convulsed softly in a final nervous spasm.

Trelor met the eyes of his daughter as they lifted from the woman’s face. “She’s in a safer place now, Summer,” he said. “Lock the door now and wait till I come for you.”

Summer didn’t quite close the door. She watched through a tiny crack as the woman’s body was dragged away. There had been sounds of fighting and screaming, and there had been other gun shots. She understood that the adults were being executed. She had been told to stay in the room with the children, and they were all huddled on a bed in the corner with tears dripping from their faces and snot dripping from their noses. They were past crying, though. She had soothed them, and they were all calm in their trust of her.

There had been single gun shots at short intervals. The massacre had been in progress for only ten minutes. There had been two more shots in the time since Summer had closed the door. There was another, and then another that sounded like it came from the back of the house.

She peeked from the curtain to see Joel Dixon lying in the doorway and her father stepping over his body and stalking away toward the kombi van.

Summer knew what was planned. She needed to get to her aunt and make her stop her father from killing the children. She snuck from the door, tip-toeing along the edge of the narrow hallway to avoid stepping in the trail of smeared blood. She looked in the living room where the adults were all lined up against the wall, dead. She saw her Aunt May sitting on the floor in the kitchen. Her head was slumped forward, her arms by her side. Her hand moved, and she made a sound with her head lifting a little then rocking forward again.

“Aunty, you have to wake up!” Summer implored. She was on her knees beside the woman. “You have to wake up and stop him! You have to stop Daddy,” the young girl pleaded, crying and trying to hold her aunt’s head upright.

There was a loud yell from outside. Summer recognised the voice of her friend Bert Dixon. She crawled past the prone man lying in the doorway and snuck with her back pressed against the side of the house until she could see around the corner. It was her father fighting with Bert. She watched the two men thumping and trying to strangle each other, hoping and praying Bert would win, but her dad was strong.

***

It had been only a week since Summer’s eleventh birthday. There had been a party where the women had dressed her up. They were all dead now, those women. They were lined up against the wall in the living room covered in blood with their eyes and mouths open. Summer could smell the blood. It was a thick, syrupy smell like sour milk and lemons.

The men had all bathed and combed their hair for her birthday party. They were nice men. They played guitars and sang. They were all dead now too. They were all lined up against the wall with their eyes and mouths open and blood all over their shirts.

“Summer! Now put that down!” Trelor commanded, but Summer depressed the trigger of the rifle she had picked up off the ground and discharged a bullet into her father.

She had been taught how to use the rifle by her aunt. She had been shooting targets since she was eight.

She fed another bullet into the chamber and worked the bolt forward and down. She pulled back the hammer until it caught. Then she lifted the rifle to her right shoulder and looked through the sight on top of the barrel.

Her father was sitting on the ground holding his stomach. He looked up from his bloodied hand and met his daughter’s eyes. Bert Dixon staggered to his feet and swayed there against the kombi van. He held out his hand to Summer, motioning for her to give him the rifle.

“It’s okay now, Summer.”

His voice was strange. He was struggling to breathe, but it was more than that. It was as if he was in another dimension or something, and Summer didn’t believe him—that it was okay now.

She aimed the rifle at her father’s chest, at the left side, imagining where his heart would be, and she depressed the trigger, discharging another bullet that made his eyes pop open and seem to focus on the far off distance.

The rifle was then taken from her grasp and she was led back into the house and into the room with the children. She was told to stay there, and she did. She waited until she heard someone sneaking along the hallway, and she peeped out to see her aunt edging along the wall toward her room. And a while later there were police lights and people everywhere. And Summer made sure to collect her shoulder bag as she was taken out through the back of the house and placed in the police bus.

In her shoulder bag she had her makeup and jewelry, her small beaded purse with her money, and a bone handled hair brush that she took out to brush her hair….

****

The Children’s Room is a romantic suspense novel featuring two of the children who survived that massacre. The setting 35 years later…

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Going on about love after 5 minutes…

Beauty Skin Deep

Kate was pleased to be accompanied by others struggling to learn the steps. The lesson began with men lined up together and women lined up opposite. There was no touching. It was just a matter of following the steps to learn the pattern of movement. One two three, one two three. It was quite simple really, and Kate was soon walking through the eighteen step routine that zigzagged along the wall.

When it was time to take partners, that silly tingle in her belly returned. Her eye level was in line with that damned dimply chin, and Ben’s hand closed over hers as another big, warm paw pressed against her back. And she forgot the steps immediately.

“Are you ready?” he asked as the music started.

“Uh huh,” was all Kate could offer in reply, and the hand upon her back firmed, and she was drawn close to that powerful frame. She then completely surrendered as control of her body was taken from her. And she was rising and falling to the music and being swept along in a dizzy haze that took her breath away.

“Are you okay?” Ben asked softly. He seemed to be there in the cloud with her.

“Uh huh…” Kate uttered again.

“You’re doing very well.”

Kate wasn’t game to look at Ben’s face. She clung to one rippling shoulder and stared at the other one. The force of his body was against her hip, and his powerful thigh was driving between her legs and lifting her. The heat of his groin against her sex was something completely unexpected, and it was wonderful.

An hour passed in an instant, and Kate swayed against Ben’s chair while he changed his dance shoes for the boots he had worn earlier. His hand returned to her back as he guided her from the hall to his car. He opened the door for her, and she turned to him and placed her arms around his shoulders. He met her lips softly at first, but his passion was soon crushing her to his body, and she moaned into his mouth. He drew back and touched her cheek, caressing her face, and his hand moved to the back of her neck as he bent to her again.

Kate was on her toes, or perhaps her feet had left the ground. She wasn’t sure. The hand upon her back had slipped beneath her top, and she could feel its coarseness against her skin. The heat from his kiss was swirling in her head, and she clung to his hair as he mauled her neck. She was pinned against the car, his manhood rigid against her belly as he again lifted and kissed her open mouth.

“Is there a motel?” Kate asked, with her words ending as Ben’s lips again met hers, only that time he seemed a little restrained.

He smoothed hair from her face and delved into her eyes. He kissed her again, softly. “I’m a little out of practice.”

“Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” Kate held the man’s eyes. They wavered but quickly regained their intensity.

He kissed her again, deeply and with more tenderness and control that time. Kate responded, though she suddenly felt unsure, and her confusion was leading her beyond the heat of the moment. She wanted to know what he was thinking. He lifted and took to fiddling with her hair at her shoulder. He seemed to be struggling with something, and she waited.

After a long moment of silence, in which passion almost audibly faded, Ben looked up with a light, disarming smile. “I haven’t made love to a woman since Sylvia.”

Kate understood the significance of that statement immediately. She recoiled inwardly. “Love? Who said anything about making love, cowboy?”

His smile broadened with a hint of resignation. “Yeah, I know. Lame, huh?”

She had begun fiddling with the front of his shirt. The thought of the housewives of Goran Vale flashed to mind. “No, it’s actually quite sweet, but it’s not very realistic.”

He lifted her chin and smoothed hair from her face. He kissed her again, softly yet confidently. “Oh, it’s realistic. It’s just too soon for a word like that.”

He wasn’t reading her at all.

“We should go. It’s getting late, and I have jobs tomorrow before I leave.” Kate got in the car and closed the door. Ben stood for a moment then walked around and got in the other side. “Can we skip the restaurant and stop at that roadhouse again?” she asked.

He nodded and drove off. It was a good fifteen minutes before he spoke. “I’m sorry, Kate. I didn’t mean to spook you.”

“Well, you did spook me, cowboy—going on about love after five minutes.”

Ben smiled. “I know. I can usually go a good ten minutes before bringing that up too. It’s a form of premature ejaculation.”

Kate laughed. “Speaking of—that! You know what we could have been doing right now if you weren’t such a sap, don’t you?”

“I know. Damn it. I think there’s a motel just up ahead, though.”

“Nope. Too late. Moment’s passed, and all I want is a steak sandwich now……”

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