I’VE DONE a nice job of wrapping Mr Browning in cling-film, but it’s not workmanship I intend to show off. I do a three-sixty-degree turn, scanning the forest that surrounds the paddock. The only witness I can see is a red-bellied black snake which slides out of sight over the far edge of the dam beside me. I get the feeling the snake sensed things coming, but it clearly wasn’t a talker.
When I stab the blade of my shovel into the earth to bury Mr Browning, the toots of an old-style police whistle send my heart clattering like a boxer’s speed bag.
I dig my phone from my jeans pocket, vowing to get rid of my son’s ringtone gift before it kills me, and spit out the smoldering tail of a pretty good joint of cannabis. It’s my boss on the line.
“What’s up?” I try to sound sharp.
“Where are you?” says Jack Darling.
I know he’s angling at workplace health and safety issues, but he reminds me I’m missing my kids. And Claire.
“I needed peace and quiet to work on the yarn. I’m nearly finished.”
“Listen to me, Gar, you …”
“Jack? … Jack?”
Reception is as patchy as a granny quilt at the southern end of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. My signal is lost. Jack is in China. I guess he wants me back in the city office of The Citizen to co-ordinate the exposé we are writing about a network of thieves we’ve code-named Ebola. My laptop and boxes of research are in my four-wheel-drive at camp on top of the hill. But I have to finish the job with Mr Browning first. He doesn’t need a big hole. He’s a handgun I had the brainwave of naming after its maker when my father left it to me, along with a note. After seeing that slithering red-belly, my old man’s words are blazing upon my retinas like neon lights: ‘Dear Gar - I still sometimes wonder if a bullet in the head might be in order, but whose head would I choose? Why stop at one? Only kidding. I’d rather shove a snake in your bed. Metaphorically speaking. So you’ll know what I’m dealing with.’
I try to switch off my father’s brilliance and place Mr Browning in a cake tin which I drop in the hole and backfill, topping it with a divot of grass that could double as a toupee for a bald man with a sense of humour, or mental health issues. I resist the urge to try it on and trudge uphill towards my camp.
After crossing a gravel road, I walk the shadow of an overhead wire attached to a timber pole behind me. The wire stretches uphill to the centre of my camp, where it’s tied to a giant pine tree. I’m impressed the flying fox I built for Hugo is still intact. We laughed ourselves to tears the last time we rode it, until he threw me a question that stirs inside me now like a restless sleeper.
“Remember when Mum flew down hanging by one hand like a monkey?”
“Yeah. She was strong,” I said, smiling, thinking I had the quizmaster covered.
“Then why did she die?”
Responses had collided inside my skull like crazed atoms: an unlucky roll of the dice; predisposed genetics; the chemotherapy was too late.
“She’s still in here,” I said eventually, placing my palm upon his skinny, trembling chest, trying to absorb his agony.
“I hate life,” he said, pushing me away. He grabbed the handlebar of the fox and leapt from the tree before I could catch him.
I take a breather leaning on the handle of my shovel next to a handful of steel pegs banged into a pentagon shape around a patch of grass. The pegs are linked by blue-and-white-checked police tape, marking the spot where a man fell dead a few weeks ago. I was in London at the time. His passing put me in a relieved state of mind, given he was a psychopath who was on the payroll of Ebola. But right now I’m as relaxed as a drunk without a drink because the homicide squad wants to have another poke around on site, with me in tow. They’re due in the morning. The deceased took a rifle bullet in the head from long range, not a shot from the unlicensed, nine-millimetre semi-automatic I’d just buried. But I’m due in court next week on charges of threats to kill the psycho’s employer, so burying Mr Browning is a no-brainer as far as my defence strategy is concerned.
On the clearing atop the hill, I suck hard to extract oxygen from the thin air and climb a handful of steps to a timber deck I’ve built around the old pine’s trunk. A black-painted ring on the deck marks the spot where I get the best of the mostly rotten phone reception. Right now it’s as rotten as it gets.
I pocket my phone and stroke the pine’s bark, which is dark as chocolate and rutted like croc skin. The tree’s like me, the offspring of seed transported from Great Britain with settlers who felled the native forest and the local people who’d been caretakers here for over fifty thousand years. The new landscapers grew grass to feed sheep, but their children retreated to towns and cities a few decades ago, leaving the place to tree huggers and star gazers.
The pine’s limbs cradle a timber-clad room inside which I’ve installed a couple of single beds. The sheets need changing. A window faces east to the mountains via an opening I’ve chain-sawed through the branches. They need a trim. I tug on a rope and drag down to the deck a folding ladder that connects to a trapdoor in the cabin floor. But I’m called by hunger and thirst, and cross to the opposite side of the deck into a ground-level cabin clad with corrugated iron. Through an open window of my kitchen-cum-sitting room, I hear an engine revving in the forest, followed by a faint squeal that sounds like a child in pain. It’s probably pig hunters cornering a terrified animal, but it makes me feel for Mr Browning like an amputated limb. I strap my hunting knife to my belt and decide to drive to town and phone Jack after I’ve eaten here. Our unfinished call gnaws at me. I need to call Hugo and Alice too, to check that they’re still safe. I decide to fry a steak in a pan on the gas cooker. When it’s sizzling, I open a bottle of red and quaff a glass.
In twilight, I light a fire inside a ring of rocks beside the deck and settle into a camp chair, eating and drinking by a crackling orange blaze. Above me, a slit-eyed moon floats beside the Milky Way. Faces form in the flames of my bush telly … white lights interrupt the show, criss-crossing my body from inside the forest.
“Hughie?” I call, squinting, hoping it’s my neighbour from the next hilltop south. The torch bearers approach under the cover of smoke windswept from my fire. They don’t run, so nor do I. Three dark figures close me inside a triangle.
Black stocking masks over their heads are holed at the eyes and mouths. One points a shotgun at me. Single barrel, lever action. The smallest probes my camp with a flashlight. The third figure, more gorilla-shaped than man, tugs a chain and drags someone into the firelight.
It’s a lean woman with a big ball of dark hair, dressed in a white tee-shirt and body-hugging black pants. Her face is scratched and filthy and her arms are buckled behind her back. A band of silver tape is wrapped around her head, covering her ears and mouth. Mucous bubbles under her nostrils. I recognise Sandy Wallace.
The last time I clapped eyes on her she’d knocked on my front door at home in the city, smiling like she meant it, wearing most of a black cocktail dress, droplets running down her angular cheeks from a dash through the rain. Now, the droplets are tears, or look like them. Her eyes lock on mine, their whites glistening, almost popping from their sockets. The shotgun spits a fireball into the sky. The percussion hurts my ears and draws my full attention. The gorilla-man sticks a finger inside the tape near Sandy’s mouth and rips it down. I wait for the theatrics.
“Gar,” Sandy blurts, gulping in air, “they want … want your stuff on Baker. Just give them … tell them what you have. Then we’ll be okay. All okay.”
If she’s acting, it’s A-grade. I eye a run-line into the forest.
“What stuff?” I say.
“Do you think we are here for a pantomime, Mr Hart?” The smallest figure has a female voice with an Afrikaans twang. She turns her light on Sandy, whose handler takes his cue and pushes Sandy to her knees. She yelps as he straddles her and squeezes his knees into her ribs. He grabs a fistful of her frizzy hair, jerks her head back, and puts the point of his knife to her windpipe. A hideous squeal rips from inside the forest.
A black pig staggers out into the mongrel light of the fire and flashlights. It is as tall as a man’s thighs with pale tusks curling either side of its snotty snout. Gone mad from a poison bait, I guess. It stumbles forward, like a drunk looking for a fight. The man trapping Sandy roars a strange warrior cry, dropping her chain as he points his knife at the pig. Click-clack. Bam! The shotgun strike sends the pig shrieking and dragging its shredded hind towards the trees. Another click-clack. Bam!
If the second blast was meant for the pig, the shooter was a shithouse shot. Not even close. I hear the tinkling of chain and turn towards the sound. Sandy is running towards the trees. Click-clack!
Ms Afrikaans seems to yawn. Moving like a shadow, she gives the shooter a thumbs-down …
The blast hits Sandy’s back, somewhere around the neck. She glides, briefly airborne, arms swinging, her body tumbling to earth near the edge of the forest. I’m frozen. Sandy murmurs.
The shooter steps coolly towards her, levering another cartridge into the chamber as he goes. Arriving at her side, he pulls a flashlight from a pouch on his belt and examines his work. It doesn’t take long. He slots the light back in its pouch and gives Ms Afrikaans a thumbs-up as he strolls back to us. I choke on some lumps that rise in my gullet. I feel like I’ve dropped LSD. Fuck the consequences: I pick my line into the forest, trying to hide the thoughts from my face. Whack! Yellow and blue flashes blur my vision. The shotgun carrier lifts the barrel, ready to crack me again.
“We have your family, Mr Hart. We will trade,” says the woman.
I picture Alice and Hugo. Does she know where I’ve put them into hiding? Does she really have them? I hear my old psychologist: ‘You’ve just got fear of fear, Gar. Think your way out.’
“What ... what do you want ... about Baker?”
“All you have,” she says.
I have no idea of the current whereabouts of John K. Baker. But I know what they want from me: my knowledge. He owns real estate, cash, gold bullion, shares, boats, businesses. Football teams, for god’s sake. Baker holds the keys to an international network of stolen wealth which The Citizen has discovered - but not yet exposed.
“I have a laptop. In my treehouse. Everything’s in there.” I point to the ladder to the treetop cabin.
“Kojo,” the woman says to gorilla-man. “Get it.”
“It’s in the ceiling,” I say. “A hidden panel.”
“Follow him,” she orders Kojo.
Climbing the ladder gives me seconds to think. Inside the cabin, the trapdoor is leaning on its hinges against a wall. It’s dark. I ignore the flashlight on the bedside table.
“I need a torch,” I tell Kojo, who is standing on the ladder below me.
“Light,” Kojo yells down. Only his head and shoulders are inside the room. When he reaches for the torch, I snatch the pick handle I keep under the bed - the one I thought I’d never need because my world would never get this crazy - and smash it on his stockinged skull with a double-handed grip. His head falls forward, his nose cracking on the rim of the hatch, but he catches the rim’s perimeter with his hands. His head starts rising. I smash his skull, again and again. It’s like hitting a rock that won’t break. I work on his hands. He crashes to the deck. I’m shaking, slow to move. The nose of the shotgun rises through the hatch hole, then the pale fingers of an unbroken hand fold over the rim. I slam the trapdoor down. A severed fingertip twitches on the floor. I hear shrieking. I bolt the trapdoor.
I fling the cabin window open, climb through the frame, and haul myself on to the corrugated iron roof by grasping a branch. Vroom! Shotgun pellets wallop the cabin’s walls.
The woman yells: “Don’t be a fool, Gar. You’ll kill your children this way.”
My phone is in my pocket. I’m close to the black-painted ring on the deck. I speed dial Ireland. Four rings.
“Hi, Dad,” says Alice.
“You okay?” I hiss.
“Yeah – why?”
“Get Hugo. Get Nanna. Go to a police station. Now!”
“Killers at Moon Hill. A woman’s dead.”
Flashlight beams strafe the space around me. My signal is lost.
I use the moonlight to walk a thin line of floorboards joined end-to-end through the tree. It takes me to the platform of the flying fox. The handlebar is hooked to a branch by the wire’s tie-point to the tree. I release the bar and launch. Light beams cross my path. I brace for flak. A shotgun thunders. Nothing hits me. I’m riding fast, a few body lengths above the ground … the wire whistles and whips. It snaps. I fall. A wet summer has made the open pasture thick, but there are sharp, man-sized boulders in the mix. I hit the grass feet first, let my body roll, find myself standing. No pain; nothing broken, nothing big enough to notice. A dog barks. I run. I see my feet thumping grass, arms flashing. I hear my breathing. My body is working by itself, letting my mind think ahead. I need to get to Mr Browning.
I cross a white-gravel road and roll under a barbed-wire fence. I sprint through a paddock of knee-high grass. Pop! A flare casts me in violet light. Near the lip of the dam, I fall low and slither over gravel and grass to where I think I buried the pistol.
On the hill above me, two white eyes, side by side, are moving. The car rolls down the road. A third white eye pops on. A dark figure stands on the back tray of the ute, probing the paddock with a spotlight. A dog bounces on the tray, barking, furious.
The flare drifts into the treetops and its light dies. I dig for Mr Browning with my hands. My fingernails scrape the metal box. I flip it open and rip Mr Browning from the wrap, slam the loaded magazine into the hand grip and release the safety. The spotlight sweeps the paddock. I wade into the dam, staying low, backing into tall reeds at the far edge. The spotlight catches my face. I shuffle left, then right, slowed by the muddy bottom, holding Mr Browning out of the water. The spotlight sticks to me.
A figure appears at the edge of the dam, side-lit by the spot beam from the ute, aiming a crossbow at me with one hand. His other, cloth-wrapped, restrains the snarling white dog on a rope. The animal leaps at me, swinging its arse in mid-air before thumping back to earth, desperate to break its tie. The dog’s body is as thick as a tree stump, with bandy legs for speed and power.
“Get out of the water,” calls the woman from the back of the ute, holding me in the spotlight, “or we let the dog go.”
The dog doesn’t wait. It breaks the man’s weakened grip. The manic hunk of meat and teeth and electricity goes airborne, belly-flops, sinks, surfaces, churns towards me. I stand tall, grip Mr Browning with both hands and fire. The bullet smashes the dog’s mouth. It keeps coming. I fire into the top of its head. It floats into me. I knee it away. Three bullets left by my count.
The woman is calling from the ute in a new language I don’t understand. Instructions for the crossbow phantom, I guess. I aim at him, part-blinded by the spotlight. I think about his head and then focus on his chest because it’s bigger. I squeeze: a burst of gold and white. The arrow and the bullet cross each other inside the flash. Searing cold flares inside my thigh, like I’ve been shot with ice.
My bullet should have hit him square in the breastplate. I can’t see more than his outline. He staggers, drops on one knee. I fire again into his chest. He falls on his side, not backwards as I expect. I hope Mr Browning is powerful enough. The spotlight stays on me. I move from its glare. It doesn’t follow me. A shadow jumps from the back of the ute.
I limp fast from the dam and push into trees beside the paddock, falling on my side behind a trunk. The ripped nerves in my thigh scream. I finger the arrow shaft: the tip is protruding from the back of my leg, the feather fletching in front.
“We will never stop coming for you, Gar,” she calls, spraying light from her hand-held torch, scanning the edges of the paddock. “Come out now and save your children. Or be a coward.”
I check my phone; the dam water has killed it. I lift my jumper at the neckline and bite it to help me do the job in silence. Using the heel of my hand, I punch the feather-end of the shaft into my leg and pull the arrowhead from behind. It slides through, burning like yanked rope as I wrench the whole shaft out. I rub my fingers over the wounds and hold the fingers up to a shard of moonlight. There’s not enough blood to suggest an artery is split. I take off my jacket and jumper and tie the jumper against my wounds using the sleeves, then limp into the forest, following the groove of a kangaroo track, careful not to tread on fallen branches and break the silence. I glance behind me, looking for pursuing light...