Tag Archives: romance

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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Authentic historical settings…

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BOOK REVIEW: I made it as far as about the second page before I was cheering for Rosa. Or falling for her, to be more precise. But her vulnerability makes for difficult reading. It’s so hard to see how she will ever find happiness under the influence of her sister and the weight of societal tradition. I was really worried for her as I read. I wanted to be her hero and save her from the horrible choices she had. I was so into this story – completely captivated…. In a broader sense, I’d say this is an interesting study of how a calculated marital arrangement might take time to get going, but may well develop into something rich and powerful…. The resolution for sweet Rosa worked very well for me. This is a poignant little regency romance with plenty beneath the surface.

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BOOK REVIEW: I like the villain…. No, I don’t mean I’m on his side or anything – just that I like the way this kind of character contributes to the angst of the period and makes for interesting reading. He makes it so difficult for the heroine and hero to get together – for romance to flourish (and I agree with other reviewers that this is a good romance). The villainous uncle is portrayed, I think, quite realistically. He has so much power and brings this to bear against what we are hoping for as we read, and just when it looks like he’s being defeated, he goes and does something to rip the heart out of our triumph. What he does is an excellent bet-you-weren’t-expecting-that moment, which sets off an exciting and wonderfully written journey and pursuit that we have to live through before we can have any kind of happily-ever-after…. Yes, this is a terrific love and adventure story. It’s heart wrenching, touching, enlightening and steamy. And it also has a classic Victorian era villain, whose portrayal is particularly powerful and interesting in my opinion.

Preview Devin’s Dilemma on Amazon

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BOOK REVIEW: The heroine is a handful. Way too intelligent and strong willed for the conventions of her time. The way she fights, deceives and manipulates to get what she wants out of life makes for a bit of a romp, but the fact that this tale is based on a true story is quite sobering. It’s also very romantic and interesting because of that. For word of this lady to be around 300 years later, she must have made quite an impression at the time… I felt well enough immersed in the early 18th century setting, with minimal detail allowing the plot to move along quickly, making for a fast and exciting read. There’s a cute supernatural twist that offers another dimension to the tale. This quite cleverly heightened the intensity of the climax and ending with a parallel timeline. It also brought our protagonists to the intersection of storytelling and true-to-life… Well done!

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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……”

Read all about Ben and Kate: Kindle Countdown 99c sale this week.

 

Meanwhile, in another corner of the universe…

ipadmini_707x1018 (5)

 

BOOK REVIEW: This sci-fi setting is like real. It’s actually quite brilliantly understated. When imagining the universe being depicted here, it’s as if there’s nothing to prove – as if it’s just a matter of fact that this place exists and we all know it. This is a powerful human drama and romance set elsewhere, not on Earth…. The depth in the story itself is also impressive. We can easily imagine the prequel, which would be potentially even more intense and dramatic. I quite enjoyed joining in at the tail end of a story, with lives already blown apart, and seeing everything come together…. An intelligent and nicely constructed read.

Available on Amazon

Ben scores his first date with Kate…

Beauty Skin Deep

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!”

………………….

Read all about Ben and Kate: Kindle Countdown 99c sale this week.

Sale price only available to US & UK customers.

I was shocked by how far this went…

ipadmini_707x1018 (4)

 

BOOK REVIEW: This is an intense, shadowy thriller, paced for a quick read. There’s plenty of angst in the awkward, fledgling, arranged romance between our main characters before the real challenge even begins…. The 1980s setting is authentic and well suited to stories about this kind of crime – it’s kind of what makes it so shadowy. It works well. The descent into the murky depths of perversion as the thriller aspect of the story builds is another highlight. The climax is grim and hard-hitting. The romance finds a way…. This stands alone as a terrific read, but there’s definite potential for a follow-up and study of some of the secondary characters.

Available on Amazon

April 1985

9c

They called them the soccer field bones:

Her head bumped across the corrugations in the floor of the late sixties Valliant station wagon. The corrugations were two inches apart, with the aperture about a quarter of an inch deep. It was enough to make her head bounce over each ridge as she was being pulled from the open tail-gate of the rusty old vehicle, her body still warm from life and, as yet, soft and pliable.

Her long brown hair left streaks of blood on the cold metal surface. Her head clunked over the hinged gap where the tail-gate joined the corrugated floor. It slid more quickly as her body slumped, and her head then landed in the mud with a wet thud.

She was dragged along steadily. She was fairly light—a slight girl. She was only twenty-three, and would always be.

Her white uniform was stained with brown grime from a grubby kitchen floor and watered down blood. She had been left outside in the rain for a while before being dragged up into the back of the Valliant wagon. It was still raining, lightly yet steadily, the drops washing her young white skin. The skirt of her uniform was bunched up her back and above her waist, exposing her thighs and hips. Her underpants were around her waist with the crotch slashed. Two buttons from the front of her uniform were still lying in the grime on that kitchen floor. Her bra was cut in the middle in front. Her uniform covered her right breast, the light, steady rain washing saliva from her left.

Her hair slithered through the mud as she was dragged along by her bare ankles: Her shoes and stockings were back on that grubby kitchen floor, one shoe resting on its side against the stove, the other right-side-up in the doorway to the lounge. Her stockings were on a round cane mat in front of the sink, but one leg was protruding onto the polished wooden floor surface and was, right then, soaking up a trickle from a pool of her blood.

She was dragged through leaves and twigs, and her body slumped into a hole in the ground. The hole was about three feet in depth, the bottom a few inches deep with rain water. She was on her right side with her left leg crossed forward and her left arm slung back. A leather boot pressed against her hip, rolling her onto her back. Her head remained to the right with her mouth and eyes open. Raindrops went into her mouth, and they splashed off her glazed eyeballs. A shovel full of mud, gritty with tiny pebbles, landed on her belly—on her white uniform. The next shovel full of mud and twigs and leaves landed on her upper chest and neck.

Her torso was covered first, then her mouth and eyes. Her long brown hair was still strewn above her head as it was slopped with mud. Her left leg was still bent up slightly as her thighs were buried. Her right arm was wedged beneath her body. Her left arm was above her head, and her left hand was the last part of her young body to be covered, the leather boot pressing down, forcing it into the mud less than two feet from the ground surface.

Over the next half hour the hole was steadily filled, then patted down and covered with wet leaves, an arrangement of eight small rocks and a dead tree branch. The leather boots then trudged off through the mud toward the Valliant wagon. Then the engine roared and the rusty old vehicle rolled away into the night.

It was well into the night, close to dawn of the 17th of April 1985. The air was cool, yet the rain clouds had kept the temperature mild for a southern autumn. As the sun lightened the clouds, the rain eased and left a mist hanging in the air above the grave site. The ground was soaked, and with the clouds dissipating that afternoon a short burst of sunlight made the air steamy.

The day was short, though, and it rained again that night, but on into the winter months the soggy earth covering the young woman’s body gradually compacted and leached of water. The dead tree branch remained in place, although it was essentially out of place. There were no trees nearby, and it had been dragged there purposefully.

There were shrubs and vines. There was a thicket of prickles that kept children well away as they walked from the back of the school, across the creek to the local swimming pool. The dead branch was from a gum tree a hundred yards distant. It took several years to lose its leaves and for those leaves to blow away or disintegrate into the mat of undergrowth that had covered the grave.

In September 1990 an eleven year old boy picked up the stick that was the remains of the gum tree branch and took it with him. He snapped twigs off it to fashion a spear and chased after his little sister, trying to poke her with it before tossing it at a magpie that swooped from the tree line along the creek. In July of 1992 a man stood by the gravesite and urinated into the thicket of prickles. He then walked off, kicking one of the small stones and treading on the ground directly above the pelvis of the young woman buried there. Her flesh had blended into the earth by then, and the fabric of her uniform was rotten and brittle. It had all but dissolved. Her hair was fossilised into the leached clay. Her bones were intact. The remaining three plastic buttons from her uniform were inside her abdominal cavity where the clay had caved in. There was a gold friendship ring on the bone of her right ring finger.

In April 1994, the thicket and the remaining seven small rocks were swept away by the blade of a bulldozer, clearing the area for the development of a sporting field. The following summer the ground was cultivated and fertilized, a healthy coverage of grass nurtured along. It was a local council project that struggled for funding, though, and another two years passed before a three foot high mesh fence was erected about ten yards away from the gravesite. Beyond the fence was a soccer field with children training weekday afternoons and games on weekends.

The gravesite was close to the corner of the field, away from the seating area. A tin amenities building had been constructed where the thicket used to be, which protected the ground above the young woman’s remains to some extent. Occasionally someone would walk around behind the building but not often. In the summer of 2004 a new brick amenities building was constructed, though. It was to upgrade and replace the tin structure, and a machine was brought in one Monday morning to dig a trench to run a water line to the new building.

The water line was to run directly through the grave site. The PVC pipe was to be buried at a depth of two feet. The small machine roared into place. The trenching blade sunk into the earth, digging its way down to the required depth. The young operator flicked his smoke away and guided the machine forward. He dug from the wall of the old amenities building straight toward the corner of the new one. The blade of the machine churned the damp clay, spewing it aside as it crawled directly through the length of the gravesite. It missed bone completely. It unearthed it, though. It exposed a part of Grace McKenna’s skull, her ribs and pelvis, and her right leg……

From the Mystery loves Romance novel Ever Since April

Cool Sci-Fi selection

BM

 

BOOK REVIEW: I like the Braxians. From the opening scenes of this story it’s easy to imagine them. An alien race enslaved by humans. It’s easy to get on board with their plight and cheer for them. The conflict here is the kind that immediately pulls you into the fictional universe depicted. What transpires from there is a pretty good thriller and an excellent romance. We are given plenty to satisfy the appetite in this fast paced, action packed episode, and where we end up feels like it’s just the beginning. Classic sci-fi romance with a good serve of intrigue.

 

RL

 

BOOK REVIEW: Assuming we don’t wipe ourselves out one way or another, what will the world be in 600 years? What will be our social structure? In what way will technology have advanced? Rune Logic is not far-fetched. The subtle descriptions and clever dialogue have us spending time in a world that is very believable. There is a range of well developed, highly identifiable characters around us. We are led on an adventure where pure logic clashes with emotion on a personal level as well as on a scale where millions of non-conforming citizens may need to be subtly done away with. This is a good read.

 

HITS

 

BOOK REVIEW: Meanwhile, in another corner of the universe… This sci-fi setting is like real. It’s actually quite brilliantly understated. When imagining the universe being depicted here, it’s as if there’s nothing to prove – as if it’s just a matter of fact that this place exists and we all know it. This is a powerful human drama and romance set elsewhere, not on Earth…. The depth in the story itself is also impressive. We can easily imagine the prequel, which would be potentially even more intense and dramatic. I quite enjoyed joining in at the tail end of a story, with lives already blown apart, and seeing everything come together…. An intelligent and nicely constructed read.