Authors: Antonia Marlowe
Jim Lawrence sat in his car, trembling, trying to blot out the images lodged in his brain. Rolf burrowed into his side, whimpering. All Jim wanted to do was to go home.
Twenty minutes after his call an orange and black APV pulled into the clearing and two police officers emerged, one holding an ID scanner. The younger of the two, hand on his weapon, stayed back while the older approached and spoke through the open window of Jim’s car.
‘Mr. Lawrence? James Lawrence? Step out of the car, please. Secure your dog and step out of the car. I’m Sergeant Frank Marino, Penrith Police. You reported bodies, a murder?’
Jim told Rolf to stay, then slowly emerged from his car. He couldn’t control the trembling in his legs and clutched at the door to keep himself from collapsing. He turned to the police officer, his eyes glazed with shock.
‘Mr. Lawrence, you called for police, so tell us what’s happened here. Mr. Lawrence, can you understand me?’
‘Sorry, I can’t get it out of my head. Horrible, horrible,’ he moaned. ‘I can still see them. They were so strange, hanging there with, uh, uh ... the flies, the smell, the noise … maggots … horrible, horrible.’
‘Mr. Lawrence, please look into the scanner so we can check your ID.’ A few seconds later the readout showed a small image with name, address and other details.
‘Lawrence, James Colin. 125 Wallace Rd, Emu Heights. Date of birth, 14 June 1985, age 82. Widower. Fire Officer, retired two years ago, 2065. No criminal record. That right, Jim?’ the sergeant asked in a more casual tone as he took in the neat grey hair, pressed khaki shorts and blue shirt and sturdy walking boots. His sharp eyes picked up burrs on the socks.
Jim gave a series of jerky nods.
‘Mr Lawrence, Jim, this is a very isolated area, no camera surveillance here, a dead spot. We would never have found it without your locator signal. Tell me how
Jim sucked in a deep breath. ‘My brother, Ned, was a forest warden here and he told us about it, must be over fifty years ago now. My late wife and I came here for picnics, used to bring our daughter too. She loved that tree … used to pretend it was a magic tree and would hide stuff in the hollows. Now that’s all spoiled … they ... they’ve spoiled my memories.’ He rubbed at his eyes and sniffed loudly.
‘Jim, can you take us to what you found? Please leave your dog in the car.’
‘But it was Rolf who found them, not me,’ Jim’s voice quavered.
‘The problem here, Jim, is that Rolf can’t talk,’ said Frank Marino, ‘And …’
Jim broke in. ‘Can’t talk, can’t talk. You never heard of Rolf, the talking dog! Ask him his name, go on, ask him,’ he demanded, then laughed wildly.
The younger policeman had joined them and the two looked at each other with raised eyebrows as Jim called out to his dog.
‘Rolf, good fella. Introduce yourself.’
And from the half open window of the car, Rolf obligingly said, ‘Rolf, rolf.’
Forster’s lips twitched involuntarily.
Suppressing a smile, Marino said, ‘That’s fine, Jim, just take it easy now, eh.’
‘Sorry, sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Babbling. Sorry. Saw some pretty bad sights in the fires we got called to, burned bodies and the like but nothing like this, this was deliberate.’ He shuddered.
‘We gotta go over to the side there.’ He pointed to the narrow gap he’d squeezed through earlier. ‘Someone closed the gates for some reason.’
They followed him along the track to a point opposite the fig tree. ‘I don’t think I can look again,’ said Jim, his voice quavering at the thought. He pointed with a shaking hand and said, ‘It’s through there, the other side of the fig tree—you can’t miss it. I can’t face it again.’ His voice started to rise.
‘Calm down, Jim. We won’t make you look at anything, but you have to stay with us for now. Wait till we look then we’ll all go back together. Forster, you’d better take a look-see. I’ll stay here with Jim. Whew, bit of a stink here alright.’ He pulled out a big handkerchief and buried his nose in it. ‘They’ll need masks up here.’
Forster said, ‘OK, sarge.’ He walked over to the tree and started to circle it. Ten seconds later he emerged, stumbling over the thick roots then shot across the track into the scrub and threw up violently.
He staggered, white-faced, back to Jim and the sergeant. ‘God almighty, sarge, never seen nothin’ like that before. And the smell! Sorry, sorry, I lost it. You’d better take a look but be ready for something real bad.’
‘At least you got well away from the scene. Wait here with Jim and I’ll have a look.’
Less than a minute later a very shaken Frank Marino emerged.
‘Jesus wept! I don’t want to deal with this one. Come on, let’s call it in to CID. Stay on the side in case there’s tracks. They’d have to have transport to get the bodies there.’
On the way back Marino and Forster scanned the ground but there were no vehicle tracks, only their own scuffed footprints and the dog’s paw prints. Leaves, twigs and other debris had gravitated to the sides of the track, typical of the passage of a vehicle in hover mode.
‘Now Jim, I want you to wait near your car till the murder squad gets here. Okay? I think Rolf could do with a bit of attention right now. Got water?’ Jim nodded. ‘And stay in the shade, eh.’
Rolf whimpered, his muzzle poking out of the open window. Jim pulled out a couple of folding chairs and his coolapack then let his dog out. Rolf’s brown eyes peered through his fringe of rough shaggy hair and stayed fixed on his master.
‘That poor old bloke will never be the same,’ said Forster. ‘And it’ll take me a bloody long while to get over that. You don’t think he had anything to do with it, do you?’
‘No, no way,’ Marino replied. ‘You’d need a lot of strength to hoist those bodies up like that, so I’d say at least two people. That old boy’d be flat out hoisting anything heavier than a cuppa. I’ll call it in … it’s way out of our league. See if you can get a brief statement from the old fella. Record the bare bones for now.’
Marino called Sydney Police HQ and was told to wait. It was only a few seconds before he was talking to a CID detective, Inspector Kerry Jacobsen.
‘Strangest sight I’ve ever seen,’ he concluded, after giving a succinct description of the scene, ‘and I thought I’d seen it all. Someone really had it in for this pair.’
‘Could you identify them?’
‘No, sir. A bit hard as they’re way up in the air, their feet were about level with my head. I can make a good guess from the Mis Pers list, but no, I reckon they’ll have to come down first to confirm.’
‘I’ll have a word here and get back to you. Five minutes tops.’
Marino sat back, wiped his forehead, then used his big Akubra hat as a fan. It was getting hotter by the second in the car and he imagined he could still smell the bodies. The heat was fierce but an occasional breeze swept through the clearing. He glanced at Forster still talking to Jim, the pair of them perched in the shade of a thick stand of trees, leaves flickering as the odd gust hit. Jim poured water into a bowl for Rolf and the shaggy dog lapped it up thirstily.
After DI Jacobsen returned his call Marino heaved his solid body out of the car and stood stretching for a few seconds before returning to the two men.
‘You’ve got a bit of colour back, Jim. Feeling a little better now?’ he asked.
‘Yes, thank you, sergeant,’ Jim said in a soft voice that still quavered a little. ‘But it’ll be a long time before I can get that out of my head. It didn’t seem to bother you though.’ He dropped his hand to Rolf’s head and stroked it.
‘It bothers me, Jim, it bothers me a lot, but I’ve learned that you have to rely on the discipline of routine to get you through. You’ve got a routine, things to do, things that must be done, so you follow the book and push the horror to the back.’
Forster brought over a bottle of Aquapop for the sergeant and a CaffeeCola for himself. He squatted down beside them. ‘How long do you reckon, sarge, before they get here?’
Marino flicked the KwikKool cap on the bottle and waited three or four seconds for the contents to chill before taking a swig of the icy liquid.
‘They said about fifteen minutes. Sydney are sending their crime scene people to investigate. I’ve told ‘em there’s no way you could be involved, but the boss man, DI Jacobsen, will want a word then you and Rolf can go home. If it was up to me you could go now but, by the book, eh, Jim.’
‘I know about that, sergeant. Forty-five years in the Fire and Rescue Service teaches you discipline, so yes, I know about “the book”. As you say, things have to be done right.’
Marino took off his broad brimmed hat and ran his fingers through his dark curly hair. He glanced at his watch. ‘Nearly one o’clock already. Strewth, I reckon it must be at least 40 degrees by now. Thank God for that bit of breeze or we’d be really cooking.’
‘CID mob’ll be coming in by ‘copter. They can land down the road.’ He pointed back to the intersection where there was a wide cleared area. ‘He said the SOCOs and the ME, you know, the crime scene people and Medical Examiner, will come by road, maybe an hour they reckon. We’ll hear the chopper easy from here, then you can take the ATV down to meet them, Forster. They’ll need transport for their equipment. Nothing more we can do till they get here, so relax while you can.’
They sat silently for a while then Jim said thoughtfully, ‘It’s pretty isolated here. No neighbours, no houses. You have to know it’s here really.’ He paused, for a second or two. ‘There was an old bloke used to live in a ramshackle log cabin about two or three K down there.’ He pointed south-west. ‘But he died a while back I heard. A real hermit, he was.’
‘I didn’t notice any houses once we got off the sealed road.’
‘It’s hard to find. It’s on that first stretch of rough road and way back from it, lots of trees and undergrowth along there. If you knew where to look there was a narrow opening to a dirt track about wide enough for a bike or a small car … all pretty overgrown now, I’d guess. Like this place, you gotta know it’s there. I remember Ned saying he’d seen other people there occasionally, visitors, y’know, but that was years ago. I heard tell it was his niece and her family.’
They fell into a meditative silence as they waited in the shade of the trees, Rolf dozing with his head on Jim’s foot. The heat haze shimmered and the perfume of the flowering wattles was almost strong enough to overcome the putrid stench of the bodies that Jim still smelt in his imagination.
Verity walked through the
office, the large area filled with groups of work stations, each with its computer and wall screens. Banks of greenery split the room into several different areas, vines twining up trellises, variegated foliage lending a cheerful ambience. She greeted a few of the staff as she made her way to the desk she shared with one of the night-shift writers, a desk well away from the windows. She glanced at her wrist unit and realised she was late so took the stairs at a run up five floors for the editorial meeting.
Only five minutes late. They’re probably still on their first coffees.
In the conference room Verity found everyone seated and the finance chief droning on. She slid into a seat near the end of the long oval table but as soon as the Managing Editor spotted her he held up his hand to stop the speech.
He mumbled something under his breath. ‘If you ever looked at your messages you’d have seen this meeting was put forward to one o’clock instead of two. Our beloved Fashion Editor has an oh-so-important event to go to in Melbourne tonight and needs to leave by three,’ he said sarcastically.
Everyone laughed. The Fashion Editor of
, the top women’s magazine since the return of paper, was Milton’s wife, Irlana, who smiled sweetly at him, patted his hand and purred, ‘Ah, Miltie, you are sooo good to me.’
‘Hello and apologies, Milton, everyone. What have I missed?’ Verity asked.
He looked sourly at the finance chief and said, ‘We been listening to the bad news from our finance guru.’
Norman Pugh pushed his glasses up again and sighed. ‘No, Milton, you quite misunderstood. All I’m saying is that some of the minor publications are showing, not merely a drop in profit, but a loss and have to be discontinued. No new advertising coming in and we’ve lost more than half of what we had last year. We really can’t afford to subsidise them any longer.’
He glanced at his watch. ‘Now if there’s nothing more, I have an appointment.’ He gathered up his papers, minicomp and e-pad and left the room.
‘Norman Pugh, now if ever there was a name to suit a man that’s it –Norman Pugh!’ Milton said in mock disgust. ‘Bloody bean counters.’
‘Now what have you got for us, Ms Burne?’
‘Not much at the moment. I’m still trying to get an interview with that American country singer, Misty Maddison.’ She shuddered slightly. ‘Her manager’s contacted me again and apparently Misty read my
diamond story and now insists she must be interviewed by me. Have you heard her Christmas album? It may be selling like mad but how can I interview her and keep a straight face?
‘I’ve also got something else in mind, too. I have to do a follow-up first, a bit more research.’
‘I’m sure you can manage Misty. You’ve had worse, Ms Burne. If you have any more trouble with them, let me know. Mercury Media Group owns her recording company, you know.’ He bared his teeth in a grin. ‘Anything else? No? Take off if you like. Who’s next?’
At that, Verity slid out of the room quietly. There were a few more things she wanted to discuss with Milton Cavendish, but they could wait. Maybe there
security implications as she suspected—Milton would know. Information on terrorist acts in Australia was classified, hard to obtain, she knew that much.
In the meantime she had better finish her latest research on the social climbing Coopers. Though they loved to see their photos and names in print after every upmarket event, they weren’t going to like this one little bit. Their appearance on Adelaide Browne’s show, RAZZ! would be one of the most savage exposés yet.