Gary Harper shivered as the wind sliced through his wet clothes. The roar of the water gushing through the open sluice gates was deafening. Raising his hands to block out the noise, he found he couldn’t move. Rope was wrapped tightly around his torso and wrists, binding him to the steel fence high about the weir. River? Sluice gates? Rope?
The reality of his situation dawned. He yelled, shouted, his voice washed away by the sound of the torrent. Trapped, a river of cold burnt his skin. Memories flooded his mind like the river submerged the landscape. Sounds, the smell of smoke and heat, overwhelmed his senses. He pushed and pulled against the fibres, his strength increased by blind panic.
Beneath him, the river pounded against the weir. Pressure was building on the timber and concrete structure, and it groaned under the strain. Water rushed over his body, battering his flesh and grinding bone against steel bars. Gulping howls shook his body. Colours swirled before his eyes, and the world fell away.
A dazzling light in his eyes, and he blinked. Moonlight on the river?
Consciousness returned. Warmth enclosed him. There was something tight around his head and his arms, making movement impossible. The nightmare swamped him and he screamed.
“You’re safe.” A hand gently touched his cheek, the voice kind.
He was surrounded by a world of blurred shapes. The sound of voices pulled him back to the surface. Whispers, intimate, the volume kept low. His instinctive reaction was to open his eyes, but he waited, listening.
“Do you think he knows?” It was Kallie, the woman he’d once loved.
Gary didn’t move; eyes closed tight, ears wide open.
“What, about us?” A male voice, known. Marty Aherne, his colleague from work.
“There never was any us,” Kallie replied, her voice sharp.
“Really?” His sarcastic tone was familiar, the cackling laughter a brittle fragment of memory out of reach.
Gary could hear her breathing; smell the perfume rising from her skin. Her warmth, softness so close he could almost touch her.
She took a deep breath, “I—” The conversation was ended by a knock on the door.
“Visiting hours are over.” A voice, female, carried authority.
Footsteps left the room, fading into the distance.
Harper needed something to anchor him in reality, a way of making sense of jumbled memories. His last clear recollection was of leaving work, or was it the weir?
He remembered shivering as he walked outside, the cold wind a shock after the warm air conditioning. Distracted, he had headed to his car, chewing over the information he’d received. He didn’t want to believe Marty Aherne was corrupt, but the facts were solid. When Marty returned, there would be a confrontation; he couldn’t work with someone he didn’t trust.
The car park lights were out again. He fumbled at the driver’s side door, irrationally afraid. A familiar voice called his name and he had turned. He heard a whoosh, felt the blow, then darkness.
As consciousness returned, he could hear the river using a fallen tree as a weapon, grinding it against the iron railings. The wall of flood debris grew higher and higher, and the already unstable weir structure was put under more stress, the bars groaning under the onslaught.
The rope bindings were frayed and spiky, digging painfully into his flesh. Pulling on the old rope, he felt it begin to give, tearing at his skin. He could move one wrist pulling it from the fibrous handcuffs. Cold-stiffened fingers worked to remove the rest of the loops. Moving his legs made chilled muscles cramp, and he screamed, teeth biting down onto his bottom lip until he could taste blood. He hauled himself to his feet, locking his fingers onto the railings, panting, fighting the dizziness. Losing consciousness would send him into the turbulence below.
Downstream, the moon rose, a dazzling sphere. He’d never seen the river this high, or from this angle.
As the last coils of rope fell away, a single strand remained, caught on a shirt button. Beneath his bare feet, the weir shook as more debris piled up. He pulled himself free and began to run from the danger, his gait stiff and awkward as a last surge of energy carried him to higher ground.
He turned in the moonlight to see the water slow to a trickle. The weir’s structure creaking under the pressure. Beneath him, the ground trembled as a huge log was pushed against the blockage, then over the top. The dribble of water became a torrent carving a path through the obstruction and carrying everything downstream.
Bent over he struggled for air, the breath rasping in his throat. If he’d still been tied to the fence, his body would have been buried under the wreckage to be food for yabbies.
Timber splintered as the ruins were forced against riverbank trees. They were quickly claimed, turned into jagged matchsticks.
In his head, crackling sounds, as water became fire. The noise ripped away thin skin covering recent memories. He could hear the flames feel the heat. Throwing off his soaked jacket, he tried to run. Around him, clouds of smoke. As he stumbled forward, he put his hands over his ears, trying to block out the sound, not knowing it came from within. In his confusion, images, and the sound of laughter churned together in turbulent waters.
Ahead he could see a telephone box, the light representing safety. His heart pounded perspiration drawing lines down the mud on his face. He kept going, panting, praying in a monotone that the phone worked. Clumsy fingers grabbed the receiver. A voice answered. Sobs of relief shook his body. Croaking words emerged in a jumble as he gave his location. A spent force, he slid to the floor.
Warmth, softness, and beeping sounds were out of place. Startled, his brown eyes sprang open. Gentle light, not from the moon, filled his eyes. Acrid chemical smells filled his nostrils, the smell of smoke, fire! Awareness released floods of terror, bursting from the depths. In the distance, an alarm rang, bringing the sound of racing feet. He was wheezing, body drenched in sweat, a needle, and the fear eased.
“You’re safe, Gary,” said the voice, gentle, reassuring. “You’re in hospital. There is no fire. No river. No danger.”
Kallie watched Gary’s eyes close. Six months ago, she’d moved out of the house they shared, and into a small flat. Their marriage was over. She’d fallen in love with someone else.
The tiny flat had one advantage – it overlooked the river in the valley below. Every morning she watched as the waters slowly rose. On the majestic Murray, floodwaters took months to arrive. She watched the path along the river go under, then the grass and finally the park near the weir. It had been her favourite spot. Council engineers had inspected the old structure and predicted it would be unable to cope with what was predicted to be the biggest flood in forty years.
Despite the cold night, she sat on the little balcony, watching the moon rise over the flooded landscape. Eventually, she went inside to the warmth, curling up with a book. Marty was away. In fact, he’d been distant lately— angry, a stranger. She wondered if it had anything to do with the pending Coronial Inquiry into Jerry Palmer’s death, Gary would be giving evidence. Marty’s anger when she asked questions confirmed her doubts about their long-term relationship.
A long drawn-out groan of tortured timbers tore through the silence. And a crash as the power of the river broke through. Kallie jumped to her feet and raced out onto the balcony to see the mass of debris pushed down the river. The sound of gushing water gradually died away.
Screaming sirens and flashing lights as emergency services vehicles drove towards the locked weir gates.
The first vehicle was an ambulance, then police cars, one after the other.
Moments later, there was a knock on her front door.
No danger. The words echoed, unlocking the missing fragments of the picture. Gary knew where he’d seen the rope before. Knew who’d tied him to the weir and why.
Alone in the hospital room, he reached up with one bandaged hand, his fingers touching the lump on his head. His body ached, and tender new skin seeped blood beneath a layer of bandages. The fog was gone from his mind.
Two years ago he’d questioned Jerry Palmer about a crop of marijuana growing on a secluded block of his father’s land. The access gate was tied shut with a rope that carried a distinctive blue thread; the same rope had tied him to the weir.
Jerry was a good kid, but wild. An only son, he’d been spoiled rotten by doting parents. Harper, and colleague Marty Aherne had set up The Whitworth Boys’ Club with the aim of building relationships with troubled kids and keeping them out of jail. He’d watched Aherne and Palmer grow closer, but he was disturbed when rumours began circulating they were in business together. He’d confronted Aherne only to be dismissed as someone listening to gossip. For the first time he’d doubted his friend.
To put his mind at peace, he’d gone out to Palmer’s farm. Alone.
Jerry had seen Harper’s car approach. The boy had run for a Holden ute near the shed and taken off in a cloud of rubber and squealing tyres. Harper, his vehicle’s red and blue lights flashing, had gone in pursuit.
On a sharp corner, notorious for accidents, Jerry lost control. Tyres screamed as they found no traction on the gravel road. The vehicle slammed into a tree. There was a momentary silence as dust and smoke rose in clouds. Then the first crackle of fire as the vehicle exploded into a ball of orange and yellow. In the crash the young man had been thrown clear.
Harper didn’t remember the pain as he fought to get the boy away from the flames. He didn’t remember the second explosion. He didn’t remember much of that night; until now.
He’d survived, three months spent in a city hospital. There were deep scars on his body, and deeper scars on his mind.
Charlie Palmer was grief-stricken at the loss of his wayward son. He’d screamed curses, made threats, his words echoing from the deep well of grief consuming him.
Harper could hear someone breathing. He began to panic and opened his eyes, turning towards the woman sitting in the chair.
“Can we talk, Gary?” Kallie asked. “Please.” She sat awkwardly, her eyes flickering around the room.
“Talk about?” he asked.
“You made it clear there is no us.”
“Maybe I was wrong.”
Heat flushed his body. “You slept with Aherne.”
“I was frightened, lonely. He was there.”
“So was I!” he shouted.
“No, you weren’t,” she said softly. “In the months after you got out of hospital, you weren’t there. Every time I thought I was getting through, you’d build another wall to keep me out.” Her eyes were glistening with tears, and she brushed them away.
He’d shut himself away after the fire, lost in his own struggles. He had refused to discuss what had happened or accept professional help.
Tied to the weir, shivering, terrified, he’d had to confront his demons. He discovered he couldn’t do it alone, that he no longer wanted to.
He’d had to face death to value living. Something Aherne hadn’t planned on.
Kallie’s eyes met his. Gently she took one bandaged hand in hers.
“I watched them last night, fighting to save your life. I thought I’d lost you…again.”
Leaning over she kissed him on the cheek.
He let his eyes close, his mind suddenly filled by the sound of screams, the smell of smoke and charred flesh.
Beyond the flames, he saw Aherne walking away, laughing. He’d left both of them to die. Harper had survived the burns, then Aherne had taken the only thing left in Harper’s life that mattered: Kallie.
Lines of cold tears trickled down his face, soaking the pillow.
His eyes sprang open, wide, shocked. There’d been someone else there.
The voice in the car park was Aherne’s. A cautious man who’d tied him to the weir with Palmer’s rope. He knew about the weir. Knew it would fail. Knew it would look like suicide if any trace of Harper’s body was found. The rope would be easily dismissed. If questions were asked, Palmer would be the logical suspect.
More tears emerged, running down scared cheeks.
A stronger draft this time as the door opened. The smell of earth and sweat filled the air.
Harper slowly opened his eyes. He tensed, fearful, knowing he was unable to defend himself. There was no one in the nurse’s station. He was alone.
Blue eyes watched him, seeming to read his mind. They were buried in a mass of deep wrinkles. White bristles covered the chin. Beneath the torn shirt, strong muscles bulged.
“I’m not gunna hurt you. You’re not responsible for my son’s death,” said Charlie Palmer, eyes glistening. “I was wrong. I come to tell you that.” The words emerged slowly. “You tried to save him,” the rough voice began to crack. “He was a wild kid, but he was my only son.”
Keen eyes studied the bruises on Harper’s face. They ran over his body noting the bandages, the wrinkled, distorted skin on his arms.
“I didn’t know about Aherne, him working with Jerry, selling drugs. Bad stuff, a bad man.”
“Why now?” asked Harper.
“I heard about the weir. Someone trying to kill you and something made sense.”
“Jerry muttered something, day before he died, only just understood now.”
Palmer was a big man, a tension in his body as he walked around the room. He moved towards the hospital window overlooking the carpark where Kallie stood. His eyes stalking her every move.
A taxi pulled up and Harper saw Kallie visibly relax when Aherne emerged. She wrapped her arms around him kissing him deeply.
Harper watched, the only sound a soft sigh. She’d waited for Aherne in the car, watched the flames, and done nothing.
Aherne put their suitcases in the boot of Kallie’s car and they drove out of the carpark. They’d get away with murder.
Harper’s memories weren’t evidence.
Silence, a growing intensity in Charlie’s stare, clenched fists hung at the end of long brown arms.
“No!” Harper yelled, shivering. “We’ll get them some other way. No!”
“In my family, we look after our own. This is my way,” Charlie said quietly.
There was a whoosh, a blast of heat, followed by the sound of an explosion.
“You’d never have got them, there’s no evidence,” said Charlie, opening the door. “It’s over now.”
I've been writing since childhood. I love short stories, and longer works. My preference is crime with a twist in the tail. My first collection of short stories - 'The Whitworth Mysteries' was published in 2021.