Ripples on the surface gave away the position of a large Murray cod, hiding in the murky brown river. It twisted and turned, diving into deeper, darker water, but Mark had patience. He played the line; let the creature tire itself before drawing it in. Slowly. Steadily. Closer. He watched the fin break the surface, saw the speckled skin. Almost close enough to – damn. The line snapped taut around a snag and the Murray cod broke away. Another hook gone. His shoulders drooped. He’d come back tomorrow.
Throughout childhood, Mark studied how the fish reacted. With each lost hook, he learned something new. He noted it always escaped upstream. Circles, swirling on the water showed currents flowing around a submerged branch. The place the fish sheltered. Three more hooks, each loss bringing him closer. Mark sank a weighted rope into the water upstream, feeling the current wrap it around the obstacle. Pulling as hard as he could, he felt the branch budge. A little. Enough.
Mark watched as the fish headed for cover, only to realise it had moved. Its momentary hesitation was sufficient. Prepared, Mark caught it with a net, bringing it to the surface, before setting it free.
Lessons he’d learned as a child, the adult now applied in a different setting. Today was the first day of a week’s leave. Tomorrow he was going fishing for catfish and yellow belly perch. He yawned, running one strong hand over his chin and feeling the bristles. Shaving could wait. It had been a hard slog for months, long hours, and he was tired. After finding him asleep at his desk, his boss, Superintendent Roger Wilkins ordered him to take a break.
When his mobile rang Mark checked the number, his nerves suddenly on edge. Why would Doug ring now?
“Fish biting yet?”
“You sound very healthy for someone rumoured to be yabby bait.”
His colleague, Doug Bentley, was also a fisherman. Bentley chuckled but his tone was grim “It’s pissed off a few people.”
Silence between them, an unspoken conversation. Both policeman and fishers of crooked cops they were both hunting for a stonefish. The poisonous spines on its dorsal fin awaited the unwary. Ex-Sergeant Harry Smythe was not operating alone. Bentley sought Smythe; Mark was after his colleague.
Doug wouldn’t ring for a casual chat. He was deep undercover, had been for six months. Mark knew he had to ask. “Where are you?”
“Old Wilkarra Road, the shearer’s hut,” a long pause. “Can we meet?”
“At the hut? It will take me at least an hour, longer if it rains.”
“Come alone,” barked Doug. “I don’t trust your friends,” and hung up.
A knock on the front door and the sound of a familiar voice, disturbed Mark’s packing.
“Mark, you home?”
“You’re early mate,” said Mark, opening the door.
Nick Innes, colleague and friend followed Mark inside, eye balling the rifle on the table, “Going fishing?”
“For Stonefish,” replied Mark, ignoring Nick’s raised eyebrow.
“And I thought a break in the bush would be dull.”
“I thought after all the city excitement, you wanted dull?”
“So where are we going fishing?” asked Nick.
“I’ve got a spot on the Darling River, about 60ks North East of here. You do know where North East is or do you city boys need a street sign?”
“That way,” said Nick pointing accurately.
Mark sized up Nick. He was dressed for the trip in his usual uniform of jeans, t-shirt, and jacket. The only thing that changed was the fabric, denim or leather depending on the season. Shorter than Mark, he had a strong, sculpted face, sharp angles, and crinkle lines around his eyes when he laughed, yet he blended easily into any setting, quickly at home.
He stood watching Mark packing the old Landcruiser, not attempting to help. Mark didn’t welcome distractions, and Nick knew it. They’d met fifteen years ago, on a training course at the Police Academy. For ten years, they’d worked for the same unit. There were strong similarities between the two men forged through shared experiences, strengthened by respect.
Mark collected the last of the essential equipment, slipping the holster and Glock pistol over his shoulders. The rifle in its case was strapped into the back of the vehicle. He could feel Nick’s eyes on him, and waited for the question about why he was carrying his service weapon when he was supposedly off duty. It didn’t come.
Nick sat in the passenger seat, winding down his window and inhaling deeply. “Will it rain?”
“Not until later,” Mark kept his eyes front. “Local roads are bad news in the wet. Like oiled glass. Or you sink to your axles in mud.”
“Mate, give me bitumen any day.”
“Not much of that around here.”
While the road was sealed, Mark drove as fast as he dared. On the horizon, the storm clouds continued to build, along with his growing sense of urgency. He slowed, turning East onto a narrow graded dirt road. Mark was a skilled bush driver who’d learned to drive on the back roads. Behind the wheel as soon as his feet could reach the pedals.
Ahead a wide wire gate. Shut.
“It’s always the passenger’s job. And close the gate.” Mark threw him a sardonic look.
Nick struggled with the gate before it swung open. “Why not leave it open?” he complained.
“Unspoken bush rule. Always leave the gate the way you found it.”
“Are they all like that?”
“That’s an easy one,” Mark regarded Nick with amusement, “expensive, a factory job. There’s half a dozen more all put together with what was in the shed. I suppose you want a remote control as well?”
The corrugated road surface was smothered in a fine red dust that rose in a plume behind them. Close to the edges of the road, clumps of stunted Mallee gums clung to life.
Mark fell silent, his focus directed ahead. Without warning, he slammed his foot on the brake. A large red kangaroo stood regally by the roadside. As Mark put his foot on the clutch, his Satellite phone slid off the shelf onto the floor; he felt it shatter beneath his heel.
The kangaroo hesitated, before it turned and loped effortlessly back the way it had come.
Mark swore and pulled over.
“Aren’t you glad I was a day early?” asked Nick, helping Mark pick up the pieces. “My phone’s in my pocket.”
“Good,” muttered Mark. The remnants of his annoyance lingered, tightening his usually smiling mouth into a narrow line. A city phone would be useless out here.
Nick swore, “I’ve never seen a roo that big.” A pause. “You’re in a hurry for a man going fishing.”
“While the road is good I want to make up time,” said Mark. He was at home in these conditions. Nick hung on, a fish out of water.
“Is your intuition biting?”
“Since we left, and getting worse,” Mark turned briefly towards Nick. “Same feeling I had before your car exploded.”
Two years ago, Nick had been undercover, Mark his handler. The two men had met in a familiar location to discuss the ongoing operation. Mark listened, asking the occasional question. After the meeting, Nick turned to walk back to his car. Mark felt his heart begin to race and yelled at him to, “Hit the deck!” As he did so, the vehicle became a fireball.
On the horizon the clouds billowed, “Last gate,” said Mark, braking.
The gate was open, and Mark paused, before driving through. “That gate is always locked, big chain and padlock.” He opened the driver’s door and jumped down. He examined the chain, before resuming his seat. “They’ve used bolt cutters. Recent too, the wind hasn’t had time to take the edge off the tyre tracks.”
Mark laid his pistol on the seat, within easy reach. In spite of the blazing late afternoon heat, he shivered. It was more than his intuition biting; someone with boots had just walked across his grave. Not for the first time, he saw Doug Bentley’s face in his mind.
Doug Bentley had been following a lead on Ex Senior Sergeant Harry Smythe. Gossip about Smythe had circulated, long before he’d been thrown out of the job. He still had colleagues who aided, protected and benefited from his activities. Mark and Doug were working different ends of the same case. Yes, Bentley was in danger.
“Doug is expecting only me,” Mark said quietly. “Take the rifle, the cover is sparse, so you’ve got a clear sight to the hut. Give me ten minutes. Keep your arse out of sight.”
He stopped, leaving the engine running. Nick jumped down, and opening the gun case took out the Remington .303, holding it in one hand. He put a spare magazine in his pocket, and headed for the surrounding saltbush.
The distant hut looked like a black lump against the sky. In less than half hour, the sun would set. Mark drove the remaining distance, and turned off the engine. There was silence, no sign of movement, or another vehicle. Opening the door of the Landcruiser, he got out.
Pistol in hand, Mark moved carefully through the spiny lignum scrub and blue grey saltbush. On the right hand side of the door, a broken fishhook was jammed in the rough-hewn timber. With the tip of his finger, Mark touched the jagged end, the metal as splintered as the memories flooding his mind. An icy chill froze his belly. Their target had taken the bait. The broken fishhook, lodged in the wall, was Bentley’s coded confirmation.
Mark dropped his hand to his side. His nostrils twitched. The acrid, metallic smell drifting through the gaps in the timber was familiar. Other, unmistakable smells entwined. Clenching his teeth, he opened the door knowing what he would find.
In the corner, was a body, the shirt was soaked in blood. A second bullet had blown the head apart scattering bone and flesh onto the walls. Mark felt his stomach lurch at the raw odours of urine, and faeces. Quickly he searched the still warm body, trying not to get blood on his hands. On the inside of the left wrist, a familiar tattoo, confirmation the remains were Bentley’s. Mark’s stomach gave another lurch. Putting one hand over his mouth, he stumbled outside, vomiting into the scrub.
Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he conducted a swift search around the hut’s perimeter. There were tyre tracks, and to his experienced eye, similar to those at the gate. His ears tuned in to his surroundings, for any sound that indicated he had unwelcome company. The growing gloom and thick scrub offered good cover for a sniper. The only sound he heard, the rumble of thunder from the approaching storm.
Mark returned to the hut, and giving a whistle, waited. Nick was no bushman. Mark could hear his noisy approach.
“Shit,” said Nick appearing in the doorway.
“Your intuition was right. The driver of those tracks you were following?”
“Possible,” Mark’s distracted response.
“There’s no sign of another vehicle. Who is the body, Bentley?”
Mark spun around and faced Nick, the pistol aimed at his chest “How did you know this meeting was with Bentley?”
“You said his name.”
Mark shook his head. “No. I didn’t,” he paused, certain.
Nick was silent for a moment. “If not you….”
“You saw Wilkins?” the pistol unmoving.
“Yes, I went into the station, I thought you were at work.”
Mark was motionless. His mind racing, weighing up the nuances of his conversation with Nick, listening to his gut instinct, asking himself if Nick was a Murray Cod, or a more dangerous fish?
A sudden crack of thunder made Nick flinch. His face paled. “I overheard Wilkins ask about Bentley, about you. Your Stonefish?” he asked looking at Mark.
“Yeah, looks that way.”
“It’s Doug. I recognise the tattoo on his left wrist,” Mark was apparently unaffected by the noisome smell and growing darkness. In one hand, he held the Glock.
For a moment Nick closed his eyes. “A set up?”
In the growing darkness, a flash of lightning briefly flooded the space with white light.
“And you fucked up!” Mark pushed the pistol hard into Nick’s chest. “Why didn’t you call me first?” Mark flung the question at Nick not giving him time to think.
“Things were moving fast…” said Nick cautiously. “You didn’t come back to Whitworth because they offered you a promotion. You never gave a fuck about climbing the ladder. So, there had to be something else. Then when Doug disappeared, it made sense. You were setting a trap.”
Mark continued to watch Nick, his inner tension growing. Nick had put the pieces together, six months late. In a long discussion with their boss, Mark had laid out his plan. No one was surprised when he asked for a transfer back to Whitworth. He remembered some odd looks from colleagues when he said he’d had a gut full of the city, pollution and endless traffic.
Superintendent Roger Wilkins was Mark’s senior officer, though not his boss. Doug Bentley was dead. That put Mark Findlay next on the list. Nick may regret arriving a day early. A question filled his mind.
“Why were you early? We’d agreed on Friday.”
Nick shrugged. “Boss thought back-up….”
Mark’s face was blank. Nick waited.
“So we’re still on the same side?” Mark asked the pistol held in one steady hand, his stare intense.
“Yeah,” said Nick.
A fishing net, interwoven with memories, baited with shared dangers, linked the two men together in an almost visible mesh of connections. Mark dropped the weapon to his side. For a moment, he thought he might shoot, but thankfully, the moment passed.
A crack of thunder shook the building. The storm’s leading edges as jagged as the broken fish hook wedged in the outside wall. Lightning flashed, then another roll of thunder. Heavy drops of rain pounding on the roof meant Mark had to yell to be heard.
“We can’t go back the same way; it’s a dry weather road. Let’s go! Now!”
The air was electric with thunder and lightning, rain filling the hollows in the ground. They ran across the exposed ground, towards the Landcruiser. Mark slipped, briefly, before regaining his balance. The bullet flew past him hitting a tree. He had the door open, and the engine running as Nick got in the other side.
“Shit,” he said, “that was close.”
The safest route out, was via the shallow river crossing ahead. It had another advantage – no gates, meant no delays.
Another shot hit the bonnet, but Mark was half way across the clearing, and into the relative shelter of the saltbush before the gunman could line up another shot. The thick, dense scrub and the pouring rain provided some protection.
Nick held the rifle with one hand and any available handhold with the other. The thick cloud blocked out the remnants of the sunset. Headlights on high beam marked the vehicle’s erratic passage on the slippery road.
“Smythe?” shouted Nick, “alone?”
Mark shook his head. “No way. Ambush. He’ll use the crossing. I would. The darkness is to our advantage,” said Mark fighting to control the vehicle. Under normal circumstances, driving at their present speed was suicide. Reducing speed would result in murder.
“Hang on,” Mark yelled, putting his foot down, pushing over the shallow crossing. A slight pause as a wheel caught a rock, and the world stood still. The vehicle slowed, the wheels spun, before the tyre regained its grip and they erupted out of the river onto the other side. Out of the darkness, came a rifle shot, then another. Mark was right about the ambush. They’d been set up. Doug Bentley the bait. The Stonefish had been waiting.
The vehicle began to fishtail, and Mark battled with the wheel until he regained control. A shot hit the Landcruiser, then another.
Nick kept up an erratic rate of fire, sweat slippery hands struggling to hold onto the rifle. Mark kept his foot on the throttle, his attention solely on the road, relying on his skill and experience. All his concentration directed towards keeping them both alive. A bullet hit the rear windscreen, shattering it and covering them both in glass fragments. With one hand, Mark gripped the wheel; with the other, he brushed glass from the dash.
The muddy surface changed to gravel, then bitumen, and Mark increased speed, grateful for Nick’s silence.
“You’ve been quiet, you okay mate?”
There was no response.
“Nick?” Mark took one hand off the wheel to tap his companion on the shoulder. Nick slumped forwards against the seatbelt. Mark slammed on the brakes, stopping in the middle of the road. A momentary pause, before he switched on the four way hazards. He’d be seen in plenty of time by the big road trains that used the highway.
The last shot had found its target. The bullet had gone right through Nick. His shirt was saturated. Mark’s searching fingers found a faint throat pulse. Here, they were at least half an hour from Whitworth and the sort of medical backup Nick needed. The headlights from the Landcruiser spilled out in a feeble pool of yellow light, overwhelmed by the vast blackness of the plains night. In the distance the storm sent jagged flashes to earth, thunder shook the ground and the rain poured.
“Nick, I’m sorry mate,” Mark said gently holding his hands. He could feel Nick’s breath on his face.
“Why Mark?” The words a whispered question. A sigh. Silence.
Mark was alone in the immensity of the empty night. Wind buffeted the stationery vehicle, and rain beat down on the roof, hard bullets of water. Drops of moisture forced their way through the partly open window and through the shattered rear glass in gale blown gusts. He had no answer to Nick’s question. His face rain wet, sweat mingled with tears.
Reaching for his phone he realised it was broken. With trembling hands, he reached under Nick’s jacket. He found the phone in an inner pocket, warm from Nick’s body and sticky with his blood. Mark felt sick. Twice tonight, he’d searched a dead man. Someone he’d known well, and been close to. Someone he’d…he pushed the thought aside.
His hope for a signal was rewarded. Trembling fingers dialled the emergency number on Nick’s phone.
“Nick, where are you?” the voice urgent, demanding. “Is Mark…?”
“It’s Mark,” he stopped, a catch in his voice. “Nick is dead.”
“What happened?” challenging.
“Just listen, sir.” His statement was brief, terse, to the point before he disconnected. He held the phone in one hand, before tucking it in his own jacket. Protocol demanded that he preserve the crime scene, and wait until back up arrived. Out here, that would be three hours at least.
By then, the Stonefish would have found new protective camouflage.
Gently he lay Nick down on the seat, strapped him in, covering him with a blanket.
A miracle or fate enabled Mark Findlay to drive back to Whitworth, at speed, on wet roads, at night and standing just this side of sanity.
The house he sought was on the outskirts of Whitworth. He knew the address.
“One more thing to do, Nick,” Mark said, closing the Landcruiser door.
“Shit,” said Roger Wilkins, opening the door in response to Mark’s pounding.
Surprise, rage – fear? Wilkins emotions were mirrored in his own eyes.
Mark was cold, shivering, soaked. Rainwater ran through his hair, down the back of his neck. His shirt was spattered with blood.
“He’s dead.” His words matched the tone of voice, quiet, cold. “Shot.”
“You?” Wilkins asked as their eyes locked.
The single word question tainted the atmosphere.
Rain fell gently on the roof, the distant sounds of thunder a substitute for conversation. Neither man moved. It was almost as though an invisible line linked them. Mark knew he’d worked hard baiting the hook; acknowledging his skill in knowing the right moment to pull it tight, hooking his fish. It felt dirty. And it hurt.
“Sit,” said Mark, and turning away briefly, locked the front door. In one hand a gun.
Wilkins turned his head slightly and Mark could see the damp fragments of hair at the nape of his neck showing it was still wet from the storm. Wilkins was as skilled a bush driver as Mark, and arrived in Whitworth first.
“You didn’t answer my question,” remarked Wilkins.
Mark could feel the struggle of the fish on the end of the line as it swam around, trying to find a way of dislodging the hook. This time there were no fallen branches, no convenient rock, and no deep water.
“No,” answered Mark. “It wasn’t me.”
“Is Smythe still at the river crossing?” Wilkins asked, question carefully calculated “Or was it you that killed Doug Bentley?”
Mark shook his head. “Doug was a friend.”
“So was Nick. You wired his car to explode. We found your fingerprints on the detonator. You can walk away now, blend in…” Wilkins voice was quiet. “The outcome is not predetermined…you changed your mind once before.”
In the distance, they could hear the sound of sirens. “A deal?” asked Wilkins. His voice remained calm.
Mark retained his grip on the Glock. “No deal.”
The sirens were nearer.
Nick’s voice echoed in his head, the question he’d asked with his last breath. Why Mark? Why had Mark tried to kill him, only to change his mind seconds before. Mark was still working with Smythe. And Nick knew it. He’d come to Whitworth to arrest his friend.
Now, Nick waited in the truck.
In his chest, the deep heart rending ache of grief made breathing painful.
The sirens grew louder.
Mark gradually let the pistol sink to his side. Distracted. Defeated. Tears and rainwater trickling down his checks.
Wilkins stood; between trembling fingers, handcuffs.
A single rifle shot.
Harry Smythe was a marksman.
The window shattered.
Wilkins dived for cover.
The shot hit Mark in the centre of the chest, the force of the bullet pushed him off balance.
He was briefly suspended in space before crashing into the wall behind him.
As the light within faded, he knew he’d been played with the same skill as he’d played the fish, so long ago. There was nowhere left to hide. Now, too late, he understood how the fish felt.