There is always a time during the day when all your bits and pieces are in harmony - your heart rate is stable, blood pressure the lowest it is going to be, parasympathetic nervous system in lock-step with your central nervous system. It's the opposite of the fabled "Zone".
Eastern mystics have for centuries postulated that in this "state", the Mind is at its most powerful, and the human potential at its highest.
The "Zone" is at the opposite end of the scale - smack in the middle of "characteristic tension", that point where arousal and stress are balanced by perception and physical potential, generated by adrenalin coursing through the veins and creating all the endorphins and chemical reactions we need to physically produce beyond our normal capacity.
This is the Human Condition. One of opposites, different States, different abilities and awareness.
What is the point?
If you can train your Mind to find your maximum rest "state", while gearing up your body to work in the "zone", you can, literally, do anything.
What today we see as "X" sports were once the sacred domain of the military, and Olympic athletes.
It has taken a generational revolution backed by slick marketing to develop the urge for people to take their Lives to the very edge, time after time, in the execution of seemingly impossible feats of daring-do.
A biker throwing a tripple back summersault off a two hundred foot ramp? Chicken feed.
An ordinary Mum (no such thing!) throwing herself of a bridge, just to plunge down a thousand feet with a rubber hose tied around her ankles? Happens every minute of every day somewhere in the world.
We now even have "war zone tourism", where for a large fee and signing away all your rights, you can have an armoured escort through some of the world's worst combat zones.
Why do we need to find such danger, just to prove we are alive? Has our very existence become so boring and predictable that unless we are living on the edge in our spare time, we have no sense of purpose?
What is it that we have lost?
I'd be interested in listening to your ideas on this subject, feel free to add a comment!
Friday, March 9, 2012
I dived into the sparkling blue water, my hands streaming bubbles like the contrails of two jets in perfect formation ripping through the atmosphere.
Anything to get the picture out of my mind.
A picture of ruthless, premeditated hate. A cry for help so brutal it simply staggered the imagination.
A beast ripping into a carcass for food I could understand, but cogent man or women slicing up a young child over one hundred times with a butcher’s knife defied belief.
Tuck. Turn. Swim. Clear the mind.
Arms pumping, chest breasting through the water, head turning, mouth grabbing at the air, eyes squinting against the late afternoon glare.
In my minds’ eye, I could see myself thrashing across the surface of the pool.
But deep down I knew this one would not go away, and if I didn’t get my act together and start working the details, it would consume me.
Take me down to where I feared the most.
Inside my own head, where all my screwed up past lurked, just waiting for the slightest opportunity to burst out and suck me into a vortex of self-loathing and dread.
Tuck. Turn. Harder, up the tempo, thrash a little, style going out the window in favor of pain, picture! Get out!
But it wouldn’t, and after another twenty torturous laps, I slumped against the tiled wall, gasping for breath, lactic acid attacking my muscles, the first sign of cramps shooting up and down my legs.
I had get going. Have to start somewhere, or this one would surely haunt me for eternity.
Getting dressed, I mentally reviewed the grim details of the murder.
Fourteen-year-old aboriginal girl, found in a waste bin on the upper beachside boulevard of Cooktown, the last real bastion of civilization in far North Queensland.
Body had been there five, maybe six days according to the Hospital pathologist working for the Coroner’s Office out of Cairns, considered the gateway to the tropical paradise at the top end of the Great Barrier Reef.
Killed viciously somewhere else, transported in a plastic garbage bag, then dumped and left for dead.
But of course the poor girl had been well and truly dead for days, before her inglorious trip from where ever she had been so brutally slain.
The kill site had been discovered by accident, a tried Tour Bus driver skidding off the road and into a runoff, only to find the burnt out wreck of a school bus blocking his way.
Called it in more to get himself off the hook with the local Police than any act of civil charity, but forensics being as good as they are today, when the locals had catalogued everything recoverable from the bus they found an astonishing match of DNA and bloody tissue when the body of the girl turned up just days later.
What had helped, of course, is that major road accidents and murder in the far north are a rare event, so everything was fresh in the mind that counted, in this case the local Homicide Detective working out of the back of his rusted Toyota 4WD.
One random accidental event, linking somewhat cosmically with another event, probably not so random, if the evidence was anything to go by.
The current hypothesis was that the killer – or killers – at least five different people involved, to some unknown extent, had used the bus as their mobile home for some time, then after cutting the girl up in it, had moved the body from places unknown to the dumpster and then set fire to the bus to destroy the evidence.
Little did the killers know.
These days ultrasonics, UV light, alternative light, infrared, atomic sniffers, DNA and a myriad of other high-tech wonders made finding clues relatively easy, and the local Police Force, small that it was, had at least fifty samples of DNA, fibers, dirt, material and food waste that revealed a litany of activity that was building a picture of what had happened on the bus.
Or at least, what had happened up until the time of the butchering.
It was my job to figure out the what, why, how, and if possible, the who.
Not the who in terms of name and address, but the who in terms of personality, motivation, and behavior. I guess that would probably get us all back to the “why”.
But how could anyone adequately describe in rational terms the literal carving up of a black teenage girl, in a small backwater town in the middle of nowhere?
Why would anyone sane do such a thing?
What could possibly motivate someone to chop up a young girl time and time again, until the sliced and diced pieces resembled the refuse at a slaughter yard?
I could only think of one reason that made any real sense.
A reason that terrified me, reminded me of my own dirty past, my deepest fears just hanging beneath the surface of a forced and barely managed calm.
Someone was delivering a message, a very strong message, in a language that only the receiver would understand.
Who was the intended receiver?
What was so important that the senders would risk a major task force involvement in a very isolated, but now very public, crime?
A crime so bitter and violent, news of it had literally raced around the country!
And what exactly was the message, so bluntly delivered for all the world to see?
The township of Cooktown is remote, to say the least. A little over 1,600 people stuck right up on the far northeast coast of Australia, at the base of Cape York. What passes for the last signs or organized humanity for another thousand kilometers, Cooktown perches at the edge of a newly sealed bitumen road that had already seen better days just a week after it was finished. The red and brown clay worked tirelessly to reclaim the old fisherman’s track, and the only real difference between the original road and the new one was that the potholes were now black and slippery, instead of burnt red and slippery!
“Ugh!” I grunted, as the Landrover bounced and heaved across the rutted surface. My driver, a clean young lad in the pressed kaki uniform of the Territorian Police Force, seemed not to notice the bone jarring gut wrenching passage we were embarked on.
“Sorry, Sir, I’ll slow down a bit” he said, smartly pulling the manual shift into a lower gear, engine revving like a tractor. We bounced again, shook, rattled, then settled into an uncomfortable rolling, lurching gait, as if we had lost one wheel.
“How long have you been on secondment?” I asked, hoping that my talking might slow him down some more.
“Seven months. I swapped with one of the local blokes from Cairns. He’s up in the Gulf, doing his time with Norforce.”
“Norforce?” I asked, my mind suddenly going into overdrive. Certain that the background briefing papers I had been given back in Brisbane had not mentioned it, even in the copious reference material printed in fly-spec bold at the back.
I was in the Intelligence Business, and Intelligence Specialist, to be exact, data and information was my stock-in-trade, and just hours into the investigation I was already hearing something I wasn’t ready to discuss!
He looked at me, curiosity ringing his dark brown eyes. Lighter than most aboriginals of Northern Territory origin, he had fast reflexes, his insane driving proved that, and the three stripes of a sergeant worn casually on his right sleeve indicated that he was probably smarter than the average bloke his age. I also knew that he had graduated close to the top of his class as a homicide detective, and already had an impressive arrest and convict record to his credit in two States.
“How come you don’t know about Norforce?” he asked, suspicion suddenly tingeing his husky voice. I shook my head, wondering what to say next. I decided on the truth, at least my current version of it, watched him carefully out of the corner of my eye as I spoke, looking for the telltale signs and body language that would tell me more about him than anything he could ever say verbally.
“I only work on short-term contracts now. I get called in every so often, to deal with a specific issue, situation, what have you, then I go back and do my own thing”. He looked at me, his face a study in micromovement. Centered so strongly as he was in the culture and ambiance of his beat, the two thousand square kilometers of rainforest, desert and jungle over which he reigned supreme, it was obvious that he was having difficulty with the fact that an ex-Military Officer, now working as an official Police external Intelligence Consultant, with granted rank equivalent to that of a full Commander, could be so ignorant. Or at least appear to be.
“What’s your own thing?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with the silent challenge. We hit another pothole, rose towards the roof, then slammed back down onto the road with a thud that pushed my aching backbone down into my sweaty socks.
“I’m raising a handful of kids on a small property just outside Brisbane. Do a little Government consulting, work with you guys on occasion, that sort of thing.” His smile spread across his handsome face like a tear in a ripe tomato, and he shook his head, curly black hair shaking in the forced breeze.
“Okay, well, Sir, Norforce must have been after your time. It’s made up of a lot of us local blokes, all over the Gulf and the Cape, with semi-permanent leadership from the Regular Army. We train six months on, six months off, hold down our regular jobs, go back when we’re needed.” I digested that for a moment, letting his words sink in.
An indigenous force, trained and living on and off the land they might ultimately have to defend. A land so vast and dangerous that an “expert” was anyone who managed to survive past their tenth birthday. Raised a lot of questions. I tried one, more as a means to let my mind continue processing what he had just said a little longer than anything else.
“White man’s training?” I asked. He smiled again, this time swerving to avoid a huge culvert cut into the road by the last big wet.
“Yes and no. Weapons, tactics, communications, three-C-eye, yes, but our stuff is what they are really looking for. Living off the land, local intelligence, keeping track of what’s going on all over the place, that kinda thing. We kinda blend it all together for them, use the best of both worlds.” I was impressed. The military that I had left several years before was incapable of such a dramatic shift in attitude, and I wondered who had had the balls to get this Norforce concept up and running.
“How many of you are there?” He gave me another curious look, as if to say “mind your own business”, then his face split with a huge smile again, and he laughed, a deep resonate peel of laughter that had a lot of character in it.
“Are you really a Commander?” he asked, suddenly easing the big vehicle into a hidden culvert behind a massive bottle tree. Several anthills towered over us as we stopped, and not for the first time I marveled at the sheer scale of the Australian Bush.
“Yes. At least while I’m on the job. Why?” I asked, slipping out of the Landrover. He met me in front of the dirty bulbar, water bags still swinging from the abrupt stop.
“Because I’ve never met a so called intelligence expert who knows so little about the area and the people he is supposed to work with.” And with that stinging endorsement of my so-called detailed professional briefing, he strode purposefully off down the gully, towards a burnt out wreck that I suddenly realized was the Crime Scene.
It wasn’t until a long time later that I remembered that he hadn’t answered my question about Norforce.
Alison French marched angrily around the room, her silky blond hair flying out behind her like a veil. She suddenly stopped, hands on narrow hips, and turned back to the thick set man hidden by the shadow of the bookcase.
“No. Not on. I’ve worked too bloody hard to let them stuff this up now.” A huge sigh escaped from her lips, shaded pale against her sunburnt face. Her lithe body seemed to suddenly deflate, and she threw herself down into a wicker chair, one leg flapping over the arm, one petite hand suddenly scrubbing her forehead, as if to force the pain away from between her sparkling blue eyes.
“I can’t do it. It’s taken me well over five years just to get the permissions and permits, not to mention the bloody money. You can’t do this to me!”
The room took on a silence that hung in the air, as her vocal fury vented itself harmlessly against the antique furniture that littered the library.
“Just one extra person. A photojournalist paid for by her Publisher, with a small profit for you to spend on the expedition. Where’s the harm in that?” the man asked, his voice pitched so low Alison had to lean forward to hear him. She sighed again, her shoulders slumping in defeat.
“Look, Harry, I’ve already got five muscle-bound so called assistants, and a local aboriginal guide. How the hell can I manage another outsider, and still get in and out in the ten days we’ve been allowed?” The old man smiled, his white teeth splitting the gloom in the dusty room.
“Alison, you can do it. You’ve trained for this all your professional life.”
The silence hung in the room again, underlined by the slightly musty smell of old, well worn, paper books.
“Look, we have such a very small window of opportunity. In ten days I have to get us over 10 clicks into the site, on foot, through some of the worst jungle on the planet, do the work, then get back out again. I just haven’t got the time or the bloody energy to carry another freeloader!” Harry laughed at her outburst, tamping the end of his pipe with one yellow-stained finger.
“Okay, okay, let’s not get to carried away. It could do us a great deal of good to get a photographic record of the site, making our case for going back, getting more time on station, that type of thing. You know how important physically surveying this site is to us”.
“Yes. But on the subject of the photojournalist, I just don’t need it. We’ve already got a digital camera arranged, and we’ve set up a facility with the CSIRO to upload the data every night direct to their satellite.” It was Harry’s turn to sigh, as he buried his head in the process of getting his pipe alight. Clouds of aromatic blue smoke streamed up from his mouth, and he sucked furiously to get an even burn.
“You do need it. You’ve already said that it’s going to be tight, getting in and out, another pair of trained hands can only help you. Besides,” he added, puffing huge clouds of smoke up towards the rafters, “think of it as a paying customer willing to do a lot of the grunt work. For free.” He stoked his pipe, tamping it again with his finger. “This is the only reported “Maker” site anywhere in the world that is accessible. All the others are either at the bottom of the deepest parts of the ocean, or buried literally under mountains.”
“I know. That’s why I want to keep the party small. It’s taken five years just to get approval to walk into the damn place. And from what our guide tells me of the terrain and the jungle canopy there, we might only get as little as one day at the Marker itself.”
“All the more reason to take the photojournalist. A detailed, creative record can only help us to get back into the site with more time. Now, come on, stop sulking and let’s get on with the planning,” Harry said, looking at his granddaughter from under bushy eyebrows. He was torn between massive pride at her accomplishments, and paternal fear for her future. Alison sighed again, dropping her shoulders in a classic “I give in” pose, and sat down at the long bench hewn out of redwood that cut the room in half.
“Okay, you win, Harry. Here’s the latest satpix from the French. You can clearly see the south-east face of the Marker – look here”, she said, pushing the large colored image towards him. He pulled out a bent pair of reading glasses, perched them on his nose, and held the print just inches from his face.
“Amazing. Simply amazing. After two thousand years it hardly has a mark on it.”
“That’s the whole point,” Alison interjected, handing Harry a very large magnifying glass. “Here, use this”. Harry put the print back on the table, took the magnifier, then peered at the dull gray object shaped like one side of a pyramid that could only be man-made, given its perfectly straight sides, poking up from the jungle roof.
“We know that there were at least seven Markers, we’ve got positive radioactive traces from them using the French satellite. We can’t get to any of the other six, at least with the technology we have at present. But this one can be reached, and if it is what we believe it to be, then it’s going to change the way we think about a lot of things”.
“How sure are you of its age?” he asked.
“Give or take two hundred years either way, reasonably sure. The French used a form of atomic dating based on the wavelength distortion transmitted back from a laser shot, something they have perfected. Objective tests on known objects have been very accurate. The only reason for the four hundred year pad is that we haven’t got any real data on what the Marker is made of.”
“Can’t the laser tell you the composition?”
“No. All we can tell is that the surface is hard, closed cell structure, similar to some forms of stainless steel, but significantly different to earn its own categorization. At least until we can physically sample it.”
“Okay,” said Harry, tamping his pipe, had buried in a cloud of smoke, “what do we know of the site?” Alison flipped a second print under the magnifier in Harry’s large hairy hand.
“Very interesting country. Sparsely populated, few tracks, few signs of habitation. The chopper will drop us of here,” she said, pointing to a smudged “X” mark on the print, “about ten clicks from the Marker. Dense jungle, and not one liked by the local aboriginals.” Harry suddenly looked up, pulling his pipe from his mouth, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“Why not?” he asked, staring at his granddaughter, suddenly afraid for her. He hated the thought of her going off into the wilds alone, without him, but confined as he was now, the library was almost the full extent of his available world. Alison intuitively understood the thoughts going through Harry’s mind, and reached across the table hand took one of his meaty hands in hers.
“Harry, stop it. I’m a big girl now, and don’t forget I’ve got those muscle-bound yo-yos you hired coming with, so I have to be safe!” They both laughed, easing the tension. Harry patted her hand, a deep sigh easing out from between his drawn lips. Yes, he had hired very large gentlemen with well-researched backgrounds, all of who, strange enough, had some military time as well as solid fieldwork credentials to their credit. He loved his granddaughter, was perhaps a little overprotective, but couldn’t let himself see her as just another highly talented, almost analy retentive Ph.D. in Anthropology, about to go on possibly the most important journey of her life.
“I know, I know, but I can’t help worrying. Now answer me, girl, why don’t the locals like the area?” Alison started at him for a full ten seconds, trying to decide how much to tell him, not wanting him to worry about her or the expedition.
“Well, it seems that the locals believe that the area is haunted by bad spirits – ancestors who did great wrongs in the past, and died in shame. They are supposed to be locked into this area seeking retribution for their past sins. The guide tells me that there are numerous signs and drawings posted around the general area, and that the locals avoid it as a matter of habit. Have done for years.”
“How many what?” Alison asked, puzzled.
“How many years have the locals been avoiding the area,” Harry asked, his interest suddenly piqued, his antenna on full alert. Alison looked at him with a frown creasing her eyebrows. She appeared to think, then shook her head, her silky hair weaving from side to side.
“Don’t know exactly, Jimmy didn’t say. Although I get the distinct impression that we’re only talking recent times for some of the issues, and a thousand years or so for some of the others. It was Harry’s turn to look perplexed.
“What do you mean?” he asked, reaching for his tobacco pouch. He picked at some strands of golden brown leaf, tamping it down into his still warm bowl.
“Well, sometimes he talks about seriously bad karma almost as if it’s happening now. And then he talks about spirit legends that go way back in time, one thousand, two thousand years or so.” Harry studied the leaking bowl of his pipe, tapping the edge of his teeth with the stem.
“Hmmm. I wonder what the recent problems have been. Have we made any contact with any of the local Aboriginals?” he asked.
“No, not yet, other than to get their permission to go into the area, and that was done through the Cape Tribal Council as a formal application from the University.”
“I see. This guide of yours, Jimmy, is he a local?”
“Yes and no. He’s from the area, but not the Tribe that claim that specific area as their ancestor’s home. We simply couldn’t get anyone through the Council that actually comes from there, Jimmy was the only available guide familiar with the region.”
“Strange. Oh well, I suppose we run with what we’ve got. When are you off?” Harry asked, a sense of foreboding lurking somewhere at the back of his mind.
“Wednesday. Flying up to Cairns, charter aircraft to Cooktown for supplies, then two choppers to Musgrave for fuel, then into the site we have been given for our Base Camp. Our ten days start from the time we cross the boundary of the Edward River. The Marker is at 143o East, 14o South, and is almost exactly in the middle of the area between the Edward and Holroyd tributaries. At this time of the year they are little more than dried creek beds. At least I hope so,” Alison added, suddenly thinking about the problems unexpected flash flooding might create for her ground party. Harry nodded, resigned to having to let his granddaughter set off, possibly into harm’s way, on her terms. He smiled inwardly, pride overcoming his need to hold her back.
“Okay, girl, go get it. And have fun!”
The bus was a mess, both inside and out. From the graphic color photos that had accompanied my briefing documents, it was clear that the bloody remains of the girl had been literally splattered all over the surface, and in the days between the body being removed to the garbage dumpster, and the discovery of the bus, every creature and animal within one hundred clicks seemed to have been involved in eating, shitting, pissing, and otherwise fouling the murder site. I wondered how the sergeant had managed to lift all the forensic evidence from the bastardized mess that was left. The stench was still unbelievable, and I quickly found myself gagging and having to step back outside to catch my breath.
“Not as bad as when we found it,” the young man offered, standing up against a small white gum, arms folded across his broad chest. “The first ting we had to do was scare the snakes and spiders away.” A laconic smile filtered across his face, obviously remembering something that tickled his fancy. I sat down in the shade of the tree, pulled out my PDM, clicked on the notes I had started to make, shook my head in disgust.
“Okay, enough of this bullshit, start from the beginning. What exactly do you know so far?” My tone snapped at him like a crock chasing hooked meat, and he suddenly stiffened, realizing that the informal posture he had adopted was perhaps just a little bit arrogant.
“Sorry, Sir, just thinking about the cops who got here first.” His face creased into a big smile this time, and I did my best to imagine the horrors a bloody burnt out wreck filled with all manner of slithering, snapping, and biting creatures might create in an imaginative mind.
“The bus was found by the Tour Driver, took the turn back there a bit fast, lost the back wheels, skidded to a stop just over there.” He pointed to a broken red gum, snapped off a third of the way down its fat trunk, a huge scar cutting it across its bottom where the tour bus had sliced into it. He walked back up towards the road we had left, pointed back towards me with one long finger, hands as graphic as any white board as he told his story. “Passengers got out, milled around a bit, you can still see where they scuffed up the vegetation. Driver’s first move was to get them back up towards the road, while he and one of the bigger men checked the bus, then drove it back out. Apparently they saw our bus as they were turning, was going to ignore it until the bloke with the driver jumped out and ran over to it. Left the driver with no choice, they had a bit of a sticky beak, saw the carnage, then decided not to tell any of the other passengers.”
I walked over to the scarred tree, pretended I was a bus, walked backwards back out towards the road, then suddenly saw the murder site revealed from behind the dense foliage canopy that hung down like a curtain at that point.
“When did they report it to you?” I asked, walking back to our Landcruiser.
“The driver radioed it in when they were back on the road, passed it off as a minor incident, said he fell of the shoulder of the road due to erosion. Their bus had a few dints and scratches, but nothing major, when the boys in Town checked it. It wasn’t until the highway patrol got out here and read the signs that the true story unfolded.”
“Which was?” I swigged greedily at the water bottle, wiping my lips with the back of my hand. Amazing how humidity and temperature could bring out the basic survival instinct in you!
“Bus was doing over 100 klicks, hit the corner too fast, lost traction, skidded for about 30 meters, ran off the road, hit the screed, skidded some more, bashed to a stop against the tree.”
“Minor cuts and bruises, most of them thought it was a bit of an adventure. All their stories roughly match, no one felt the driver was being overly stupid, so we let it go at that, and concentrated on the site itself, given the circumstances.”
“Who did the forensic work?” I gulped more water, surprised at how parched I was after relatively so little effort.
“The roadies called me, I called the Pathologist in Cairns, standard operating procedure, he’s trained in both forensic and postmortem work. He flew up again and I brought him out here, and we did the workup together.”
“The girl had already been found?”
“Yes. Three days before. He’d only just left to go back to Cairns.”
“What created the link between the bus the girl?”
“At first, nothing. I had investigated the girl with him earlier, he hadn’t even given me his draft report. The local highway patrol were the ones who suspected it was just more than a burnt out abandoned bus.”
“What got their interest?”
“The plates. Late last year we went online with the National Registration Database, and when they saw the out of State plates they made a routine enquiry, found they had been stolen, and thought to have been used on another vehicle used in at least three robberies down south. Plus on of the roadies found this.” He held up a small sealed plastic evidence bag, a piece of dirty red cloth inside. I held the bag up to the light, looked at the contents, shrugged my shoulders, and handed it back to him.
“From the girl?”
“Yes. Very distinctive, as it turns out. Hand dyed using a Tribal concoction that is very hard to duplicate. We’d already posted details on all the bulletin boards, put the whole local enforcement net on alert, once we’d worked over the body we found. Fibers matching this were embedded in her skin, and traces of it were also found in the dumpster.”
“So suddenly you have a body, and a murder site, that match each other. What did you do next?” He looked at me, seeking any challenge to his professionalism, decided that my sharpness was probably due to tiredness or the heat, and relaxed back into his casual crouch against the tree.
“We attempted to trace the bus, build a chronology of the events leading up to the roadies finding it here, try to get some sort of picture to work from. We have lots of latent prints, DNA, fibers, refuse, and of course the blood samples to work with. We’ve sent all the available data to the Feds, and they have posted it on Interpol and NCIS bulletin boards. So far, no matches.”
“Local interviews throw anything up?” He gave me another hard look, eyebrows furrowing, mouth tightening.
“How much do you know about the local Aboriginal scene up here?” he asked, his voice suddenly so quiet I could hardly hear him. I frowned back, on this sensitive subject I had been well briefed, and well warned of the possible local tensions I might run into. Make that just had.
“A little.” I hedged my bets, not wanting to appear the smart arse he probably already had me pegged for. He looked at me with a less than encouraging stare, shrugged his shoulders as if having reached some conclusion, then squatted down on his haunches, and started drawing in the dirt.
“Here’s the river, this is the Town,” he said, boxes and lines crisscrossing each other, “this is the road we’re on, if you go back 30 klicks there’s a turnoff that will take you all the way back down South.” He marked his masterpiece with three thin lines, cutting it into almost equal portions. “In this region, we have four main Tribes, here we have six, and up here, “ he said, his stick tapping the section I vaguely recognized as where we would be, “we have another five.”
“Does that give us specific problems?” I asked, thinking back to my briefing. “Language, customs, that sort of thing?” He laughed, standing up and clapping his hands together to get rid of the red dust.
“If only it was that simple. No, the biggest issue is that they don’t talk to one another, and they won’t talk to us at all.” I mulled over his words, wondering how a lack of cooperation from the locals might hinder us discovering what was behind this brutal slaying.
“Don’t worry, it’s taken a bit of effort, but we’ve managed to get some idea of the chronology. Here, look at this.” He walked back to me, reached into the glove box, and pulled out a well-worn leather notebook folder, with the badge of the Northern Territory Police Force stenciled on it in flaky gold foil. One red stained finger traced down a list of times, against which ran a series of illegible scrawls.
“Two weeks ago, a local down near the creek saw the bus drive past, and then stop for about half a day. She said that there were five men and two women in it, they cooked a meal, filled their water cans, then took off, leaving their fire still burning. A real no-no in this region, and definitely making them as white folk from out of Town, and not particularly smart ones at that.” I marveled at his ability to decipher the scrawl, and his finger moved to the next group of scribbles. “One day later, they’re seen in the same bus parked here by a group of kids out hunting. The kids remember the men, all dressed in camos, they say, and apparently heavily armed. Unshaven, crew cuts, big, tough, and talking in a foreign language. One of the kids believed it was German.”
“German. The kids stalked the site for over half a day, took great pleasure in getting close, not getting detected.”
“Wow. How old were the kids?”
“Seven through twelve. We can talk to them later, if you want. They’re in school today, and tomorrow, won’t be back with their parents until the weekend.”
“Did they get any souvenirs?” He smiled, reached across me again, into a large brown hide pouch, pulled out a handful of evidence bags, handed them to me.
“The first one’s the wrapping from a ration pack, standard NATO issue, serial details put it as being three years old, Interpol are tracing it for us.” He pointed to another bag, in which several brass cases lay, all jumbled together. “They’re NATO 9mm, fired from a MAC-10. The boys saw four of them.” He pointed to the third bag holding scrunched up cellophane with silver trimming. “They are the wrappers from Hugerns Havana cigars, five in all, smoked by two of the men.” I thought for a moment, put the bags down in my lap, turned my head and looked this most enigmatic policeman right in the eyes.
“Just hold that thought. What we have here are a group of heavily armed men with NATO supplied weapons and supplies, but poor field craft?” He looked straight back at me, stare for stare, not blinking.
“Yes, interesting, isn’t it. Almost as if they had nothing to fear, and were on their way somewhere, didn’t care particularily about the xcountry they were passing through. There’s one other important thing.” I looked into the bags again, running all that he had told me through my mind, looking for the inconsistancies.
“No booze.” He looked at me with a startled look on his face, then killed it with a huge smile.
“Right. No booze. And one other thing.” He stared at me again, the unspoken challenge glinting in his mud colored eyes. I smiled back, shaking my head, almost laughing myself.
“You want to know why a group of mercenaries, clearly on their way to somewhere of importance to them, suddenly abandoned their travel plans, killed a little girl, then burnt their transport to the ground?” I asked, watching him for any telltale reaction.
“Close. Did you notice anything different about the bus?” he asked, tipping his broad brimmed hat back with one meaty hand and scratching the back of his head.
“Well,” I answered slowly, letting my eyes drift back to the burnt out hulk, “there’re no external antennas.” This earned me an even bigger smile.
“Correct. The boys said that when they saw the bus, we reckon that would have been one or possibly two days before the girl was murdered, it had two HF antennas, like the one I’ve got,” he said, pointing to the huge black whip aerial bolted to the front bumper bar of the landcruiser, “and a Trimble Sat/Nav disk on the roof. The boys also believe that they had a Satellite Phone setup, with a folded antenna sitting on the ground. Motorola logo, hard to miss.”
“A lot of comm gear for a bunch of poaches.” I mulled over the conversation for a second, looked at the skeleton of the burnt out bus, then asked him the obvious question.
“Who picked them up, and in what?” He looked at me this time with a puzzled look, something I hadn’t seen from him previously.
“Good question. It definitely was not another vehicle, we have casts from all the tracks. This bus in,” he said pointing to the wreck, “nothing else out. But you might like to look over here.” He set off, back up the rugged track we had come down, until we were just a little north of our entry point. On both sides of the road, small saplings and bushes had been chopped down, creating a clearing about fifteen meters wide, with the sealed road running through the middle of it, like a giant piece of licorice running through the middle of a dirty great brown circle.
“Chopper. Big one, 10 to 12 seater.” I scratched my head, the signs were clear even to me.
“Yes. The cut marks are only days old, and you can see where the downwash from the rotors blew the screed back from the road’s edge. Questions are, what type, from where, owned by whom, where did it come from, and perhaps even more importantly, where did it go to?” I thought back to my own military days, when big birds like this one where the exclusive domain of either the Military, or the Oil Companies. Nowadays, anyone with a few million dollars to spare could own one, and probably did.
“No air traffic control up here, but you should have satellite tracking,” I said, certain of my facts for once. He grinned, literally from ear to ear, and I knew I had been had by an expert.
“Sure, six times a day, for twenty minutes at a time.” He laughed, making the sign of a whirlybird with his finger. “So easy to evade, we didn’t even bother to check”. It was my time to smile, and I mimicked his whirling finger.
“Not quite true. You might get past the Airways Sat/Trac, but don’t forget that there’s a high-resolution Sat/Pix taken automatically every four minutes covering the whole Cape. You can only access it on demand, and then only if you know who to call.”
“And you do?” He asked. I smiled again, comfortable for the first time since leaving the relative peace and tranquility of home what already seemed like days, but was only a matter of hours ago.
“Yes. I work for the same company”.
“Great! Let’s go,” he said, sliding into the drivers seat. “You might not be quite the waste of time I though you’d be.”
As we charged off back towards the miserable strip of rutted bitumen that passed for the road out here, I wondered if he was making a joke, or putting me on notice. What he obviously didn’t know is that we had 24/7 satellite coverage of the Cape, all the way up from Townsville and as far out to Thursday Island, a thousand klicks to the North. Simple issue, simple solution. Australia now had a massive illegal immigration problem, with thousands of “Boat People” trying to land on vacant shores from Broome in the far west of Australia all the way round to the east coast. Literally thousands of kilometers that were very hard to patrol and protect. But if you had real-time pictures of all this coastline, then you could at least marshal your meager resources to meet the boats while they were still in international waters, and turn them away.
Providing you could spot them in time, rain, hail, or shine.
So Australian Intelligence Agencies had combined their resources for once, and the Government had, albeit somewhat reluctantly, supported the launch of three geostationary satellites with all the latest observation bells and whistles. Passive and active Infrared, Side and Forward-looking Infrared Radar, high resolution digital color cameras, and a wonderful low-light system that could literally see through a cyclone and read the logo of the face of a badly swung golf club from 24,500 miles high!
I was privately betting that our mysterious helicopter and its cargo of professional killers would show up if we asked the right person, the right questions. I dialed my Sat phone, got connected immediately, and went through the usual bullshit of proving it was me. Once I got through that stage, Colin Wilson came on the line. At twenty-eight years young, he was straight out of his Ph.D. studies in microwave-optics, full of piss and wind, but a good mind nevertheless.
“Colin, gudday, it’s Harry. Want you to go to S-P-44, run a rapid scan, look for any movement over a five day period, starting ….” I looked over at my unsmiling detective sergeant, who was making a great show of not listening while obviously trying his level best to overhear everything.
“Last Tuesday”, he offered, swinging the heavy vehicle around a massive tree that literally grew in the middle of the road.
“… last Tuesday. I need start and finish tracks, and look 300 klicks north and south of this position.” I pressed the little GPS button on the side of the phone, waited until it turned red, then continued my discussion with Colin. “If you find anything of interest, extend the trace as far as you can, will you?”
“What’s your priority?” he asked, knowing full well that I had been sent up here by the top office because of other, most secret matters.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I said for the benefit of the sergeant, “love to have the stuff tonight if you can manage it. Cheers”. The vehicle rocked and rolled again, throwing me against the side door with a thump that bruised my elbow.
“Sorry, road’s a bit rough” the sergeant said, his face alive with an evil grin. By now I had twigged to his game, and pride alone kept me from yelling out in pain.
That’s me, stoic to the bloody end!
So as we bumped and rattled along, heading back to Cooktown, I took a very deep breath, and started in on the bit of the puzzle I had been avoiding for as long as I could.
“Okay, sergeant, tell me all about the girl”. He turned his head to look directly at me, just as we hit a monstrous hole in the road, thumping our collective heads on the roof. He wrestled with the steering wheel, forced the landcruiser back onto four wheels. Was very short, and sharp. Obviously the murder had affected him like everyone else. Perhaps more, given his heritage.
“Female, thirteen to fourteen years old, from the Ninjarra Tribe, in reasonable health, usual pathology – stained lungs, liver starting to protest, that sort of thing. She had been brutally sexually assaulted, both mortem and post mortem, officially cause of death a sever blow to the larynx, causing death by asphyxiation. Then, for good measure, they cut her up. Literally, over one hundred slices, hacks, stabs, and wounds. All post mortem. The pathologist thinks that the carving session took time, probably as much as a couple of hours or so. Gives you pause to think, doesn’t it?” he asked softly, pulling the vehicle over to the side of the road. He pushed back into the corner of his seat, folded big arms across a very tight chest. “You see blacks dead every now and then up here. Usually self induced, road accidents, fishing accidents, boozed, stoned, but only very rarely do you see murder. Murder tends to be the white man’s game.” His stare was hard, as if challenging me to contradict him.
“Now, tell me, mister Intelligence Officer, exactly why are you pretending to be investigating the murder of a black girl?” I held his stare, thinking furiously.
“Intelligence? I’m a freelance consultant on attachment to the Australian Federal Police, specializing in difficult homicides. Nothing more, nothing less.” He looked at me, his eyes hooded by his furrowed eyebrows.
“That so?” He glared at me, shrugged his shoulders as if making some kind of decision, moved his butt back into the seat proper, spun the back wheels getting back onto the rutted bitumen. “Tell you what. I’ll trust you the moment you trust me. Fair?” he asked, a wicked smile cutting his face.
And now I had a real problem, so I pretended to be looking at my notes on my PDM while I furiously thought up a good answer!
I grew up alone. I live alone. Yet I am involved to the hilt in a wonderful family that has a passion for Life that is unequalled by any around us.
Let me explain.
By 16 years of age, I had lived in 32 homes, and gone to 16 different schools, in 6 different countries.
In the military I was one of 120 in my class, but I was alone.
When I was posted to an active role, I was amongst hundreds of professionals, some of the most skilled people on the planet, yet I was, again, alone.
When I was moved to a floating city, with over 5,000 people on it, I had one hundred and ten brothers-in-arms, sworn to have my back, but I was alone.
A decade later, having moved through the world again, this time in the world of academia and learning, in spite of trying my hardest, in every job, work place, university, or hospital, I was alone.
Another decade past, more schools, more jobs, more people, yet I was alone in every dimension you care to measure.
Three decades later, and as I sit here and write this, I wonder about an old proverb I read some time ago.
“Though I have travelled the world, and given all that I have, to everyone I meet, at every corner, and in every shadow, I am as a stick in the pond, floating alone at the whim of the tide and the wind. I have adopted many, yet no one has even adopted me. Perhaps that is the real question.”
Perhaps it is.