It was a Monday, mid-morning. The parking area had been empty, as it usually was on weekdays outside of school holidays.
The woman who got out of the dusty, well-seasoned Landcruiser looked like she had things to do, and in a hurry. Fine hair tied back, khaki shorts and top, daypack on one arm, camera bag on the other. After locking the car she swung the pack on to her back and strode toward the head of the gorge trail. There was something practised, professional about her. Things to do, for sure.
Someone else had less to do. Looking like a local worker of some sort, with luminous vest and broad Akubra, the man had been lying in the shade with a thermos. As the woman arrived he sat up. After she got out and began moving toward the gorge he stood and made himself known.
Surprised, the woman propped and looked about.
“I’m over here.”
She at last noticed the man.
“Oh, hi. I thought I was alone.”
“Just on a tea break. Which turned into a nap.”
“But…how did you get here?”
“Forestry crew, mates dropped me off. I’m supervising something but nobody knows what. Good a spot as any to hide from the bosses.”
The woman laughed.
“Well, I won’t dob. Enjoy your nap.”
“You’re not going down the gorge are you?”
“Have to. It’s my job. I’m a photographer for Oz Geo. Got to get some snaps of the Pillars in the right light.”
“Listen, luv, I’d forget about it if I was you.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You don’t know what happened down there a week ago?”
“Some bloke was shot and his body was dumped down there. Most likely at night.”
“Oh…No, I didn’t know that. Gruesome…But why would someone hide a body near a famous walking track?”
“It was in a hollow way off the track and covered with big rocks. Ideal, in theory. What they didn’t know is that the gorge has a feral pig problem. Pigs started excavating the next morning and the ranger found the body same day.”
“Who was it? Who got killed?”
“Some bigwig in a bikie gang, they say. But maybe that’s just talk. I wouldn’t go down there.”
“But…if it was just some people getting rid of a corpse…”
“How do you know? The bloke might have been killed down there, and for any number of reasons. The police were here for four days and nobody seems to know anything. Or they’re not saying anything, because of tourism and all that. Nobody knows for sure. I wouldn’t go down there. Go take photos of something else. Or come back with a couple of strong blokes for security. I’m even a bit nervous up here.”
“Oh, I’ll be fine. So long as the pigs don’t attack.”
“That can happen too. If you get between a sow and her litter. But don’t go down there, luv. Maybe they killed the bloke in Sydney and drove him out here. But maybe there’s a maniac loose in gorge country. You can’t be sure.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine. I took photos in Iraq for Reuters. I’m used to maniacs.”
“Well…have you got a phone at least. One that’ll work down in the gorge?”
“Yep. Got the right phone, GPS and all that. I’ll know exactly where I am and I can send alerts, post my position in a second…But I’d better scoot or I’ll lose the light I need. Got to get the sun just so on the Pillars or it’s all wasted effort.”
The woman headed down the track. The gorge was broad at the top, and there was little to see but scrawny gums, casuarina and wattle.
Soon the descent was steeper and the rocky sides of the gorge were visible. Small streams crossed the trail on mossy flats, causing the woman to slow her pace momentarily; but she was one of those natural downhill walkers, easily lengthening her stride to match the steepness.
Once or twice she heard a rustling in the low shrubbery which replaced the forest further down. She paused, but then moved on immediately, assuming the sound was made by a wallaby or some other animal.
Soon she slowed, drew a mobile phone from her top pocket and then stopped to check its GPS for a moment. She looked about and quickly moved on.
Squeals and a rush right in front of her. Several piglets darted across the track.
She halted, picked up a few rocks and branches, and hurled them into the shrubbery from which the piglets had emerged. Sure enough, the mother followed her young across the track, with an angry grunt or two.
The woman strode on till she was clear of the pig family and stopped briefly to check her coordinates again.
The sides of the gorge were now rearing, canyon-like, though there was still plenty of shrubby bush to both sides.
Again the woman stopped, this time to listen. More animal sounds in the bushes? Or just twigs rattling in a stray gust? No. It was more like rocks sliding underfoot. Another animal, pig or wallaby. Though there were also deer in gorge country.
She began to walk more slowly, checked her GPS every minute or so, as if nearing a desired spot.
At last she came to a halt, eyes on the screen of her phone, then moved cautiously off the trail. She advanced about fifty metres into the scrub.
Again that noise of sliding rock. Most likely a deer on the rubbly ground.
Was that a movement in the bushes? Bird?
Soon it was dead quiet. If there were animals in the area they had moved away or were lying still.
Just as she was about to use her phone again there was a definite rustling sound from the bushes further up the side of the gorge.
It could only be an animal, and yet…
She waited, avoiding the slightest movement, holding her mouth open as people do who want to hear without the sound of their own breath.
For a full minute she waited.
She dialled a number on her phone.
A ring tone!
Another phone was ringing, not far distant.
She walked in the direction of the sound. Soon she reached some denser bushes, pushed them apart and bent down.
Just as she was about to pick up the ringing phone, which had been wedged out of sight under a rock, a large man in blue overalls burst through the bushes. He quickly lunged at the phone and got a hold of it first. His hand was gloved.
The woman, speechless, moved back from him.
From the side, a second man in blue overalls stepped toward her.
When they reached the top of the gorge there were two police cars waiting. Leaning on the bonnet of one was a slight, gaunt man in a suit which looked too big. He was breathing in delicate gulps.
The men in blue overalls led the woman over to the older man, who stretched a faint, pained smile.
“Good afternoon, miss. I’m Chief Inspector McGroder…”
“I know who you are. The Quinlivin hunter. By the look of you I’d say Quinlivin is winning.”
“You’re probably right, miss. I’m not in the best of nick. So, would you like to tell me?”
The woman said nothing.
“I’m guessing you’re Annie Gatling.”
Still the woman was silent. The man paused to get a little more air into his lungs.
“Annie, I appreciate your position. If you start talking to me you make an enemy of the Wild Cards. If you don’t, you have to worry about the Angelitos more than me. Bikie wars are like that, aren’t they?”
“This phone you located for us. Good battery life! What sort is it? An expensive Cloudsat like the one you brought with you? I suppose one of the gang dropped it, only realised it was missing the day after they’d dumped the body. We guessed they’d left something behind when two Wild Cards arrived in the parking lot while we were finishing our routine search. As soon as those two realised we were still here they played at sight-seeing then took off. But it was obvious who they were. The breed shows. One actually had his club colours showing under an open jacket!
“So that made our routine search a major clue hunt…but buggered if we could find whatever it was! We might have covered up the object ourselves, kicking around on so much loose rock. But we knew something was down there. It was worth a stake-out.
“All up the Wild Cards did three stupid things, Annie. Or was it four? I’m losing count….
“And these criminal masterminds are your friends?”
The old policeman paused again for breath. Realising he was stretching his limited energies, he resumed more quietly:
“Annie, you can do better. You were once a bright med student till you started cooking dope for the Wild Cards. You’re still young enough to start over. Never mind all that bikie talk about loyalty till death. You’d be amazed how quickly they roll over, these bikies. Just big hairy brats who’ve never had real jobs…
“Annie, I assume you had no part in the killing. You’re just the smart, posh girl they sent to retrieve the phone, which is probably covered in all sorts of interesting prints. Should have some juicy info inside. The rock and the branches that kept it out of our sight have also protected it from dew. There’s been no rain in the week. Forensics will think it’s Christmas. Why not have a go at helping yourself, starting right now?”
The woman spat on the ground.
“That forestry bludger in the big hat…one of yours?”
“No, he just happened to be there. He’s forestry.”
“Well, he was right about one thing.”
“What was that, Annie?”
She spat again.
“The gorge is filthy with pigs.”