Story and photograph by Warrigal Mirriyuula
Bess cautiously nosed the Landcruiser up the over gown track. It was past dusk and the last feeble glow on the western horizon heralded a dark moonless night. It was still hot but Bess had left the AC off and had all the windows down. Her senses were all on alert for any sight, sound, smell or change in the air. She wasn’t quite sure what she was reaching out for and the deepening evening seemed all too perfectly normal.
The lights and spots on the bullbar illuminated the surrounding scrub. Saltbush was well established across the twin ruts of the old track to the house, a few spindly Gidgee saplings were also trying their luck among the grass tussocks. Apparently no one had come up this way for a least a few years. The track was almost obscured and was now more recognisable as a narrow depression snaking its way across the flood plain. The growth was very thick in places so Bess was gently pushing the Landy slowly along the track when suddenly the underside of the bullbar banged and rang as the truck rode up onto something lurking in the rough scrub that had been disappearing under the front of the Landcruiser.
When she got down out of the truck Bess discovered that there were three fairly large rocks effectively blocking the track. She’d run up onto the first. Bess soon decided that the arrangement wasn’t random. They had obviously been placed this way to bar further progress towards the house. Their size and layout would make it impossible for any vehicle, even a powerful four wheeler, to ride up over the rocks; a Unimog might have done it, but nothing smaller, and the way erosion and flooding had deepened the line of the track meant it would have been impossible to back out and try to get up out of the track and go around the rocks. All in all, Bess had to admit it was a well thought out barrier; effective for most contingencies.
Besides, what was there that might have pushed the rocks to their current positions? Too big to be moved by wind or rain, Bess finally decided that they must have been specifically brought in and placed here on purpose. They had obviously been in place for some time having settled well into the trackway and showing the usual thickening of plant life around their bases. The rocks were local stone but there were no outcrops nearby.
Bess got out the xenon torch from the glovebox and checked the underplate for damage. It was banged in but still serviceable. Nothing else seemed damaged, the tie rods were still straight, hoses and lines OK, nothing had been holed or bent.
It was the work of an hour or so to rig a few spansets round each of the rocks in turn, and using the power of the truck in low range/low gear, to drag them out of the way. The Landcruiser complained and spun its wheels in the mashed plants, the dust and gravel at the base of the track, but it got the job done. It was all the confirmation Bess needed.
Why would someone go to the trouble of trucking in these three stones; and there were just the three, there were no others lurking off the track; to block access to an abandoned house? Abandoned, by all local reports, since the early sixties.
Having cleared the track and thrown the rigging into the back of the truck Bess didn’t move off straight away. She just sat half in the truck, one foot in the drivers well the other on the running plate and looking out into the dark distance. In her mind she wandered through the evidence for a moment.
The last owner of this block, name of Eric Hansen, had lived on the property for as long as any old local could remember. He had died in the house and not been discovered for some time. Bess had gone through the Police reports and Coroners investigation from the time with a fine tooth comb. She’d intended to speak to any person named in any of the paperwork that was still alive only to discover that there was only one left; a young constable from the Bourke station who had been assigned to the Coroners Investigator, pro tem.
He was now an old man, retired from the force after a burnished if not brilliant career that had seen him reach the rank of Sergeant and receive a citation for rescuing a teenager from a flood swollen Darling. He did have something to say about the death that hadn’t been in the reports. It was similar information, but the old boy viewed it from an entirely different perspective.
He’d told Bess, when she caught up with him at The River Gum Lodge around 3:30 that afternoon, that he’d been a fresh young constable, still quite wet behind the ears, and was a bit hesitant to really involve himself in the matter for fear of cocking something up. The old hands seemed on top of the task and just went about it in a methodical and professional way. He gladly helped when asked but not having anything pertinent to actually add or do at the scene, he had taken the time to take a good look around the place including the few outbuildings.
“Y’know, when I look back on it now, after all these years, it seems to me that there was much about that death that wasn’t normal.” the retired policeman looked into Bess’ eyes, “They said he died in summer, yet he was dressed for winter. He was wearing moleskins and a tweed jacket over a jumper. Not exactly Bourke in summer is it?” He paused to collect his thoughts and a look of concentration came over his old face. “There were no labels in the clothing, yet it was all good stuff, y’know, quality stuff. And no flies. The body wasn’t blown at all, not a mark on it as far as I can recall. How does that happen?”
Bess shrugged; the old boy pursed his lips then pushed on.
“At first we thought, the local cops that is, thought that he must have died as a result of a heart attack or something similar, ya know, sudden like; he was pretty old; although his body was slumped at the kitchen table as if he had just fallen asleep.”
Bess had nodded in encouragement. She’d read similar details in the report she had ferreted out of central records when a body had disappeared from a locked cooler at the morgue. Bess saw that the old man had discerned the outward expression of her inward recollections. He looked at her hoping she might be able to reveal some of the mystery but she just nodded, indicating for him to go on.
“His head was resting on his crossed arms. People said that he must have been in his nineties and had always lived in the house alone. but no-one really knew him. He was considered a loner, a bit of a throwback to the early days of the river settlement at Bourke. A birth certificate turned up, 1870, you’d have seen that in the file, and would have made him 92 when he died; that is if he was the Eric Hansen on the certificate. We could never fully confirm that he was.”
A flock of yellow green budgies had circled and descended onto a pond in the garden of the retirement village. It was already occupied by several pairs of Corellas. There was a flurry of colour and sound as they all began squabbling, whistling, flapping and screeching, the late sun sparkling in the water droplets thrown up by the dispute over occupancy. The old boy watched the birds, smiling at their antics.
“Hansen used to grow hemp until the late 20’s when it was outlawed.” he was still watching the birds, but then turned back to Bess with a puzzled and slightly worried look on his face, “Apparently both industrial hemp and the whacky baccy kind.”
“I only found that out about fifteen years after his death. Kids were turning up stoned in town and so of course in the end we rounded them up and they all told the same tale about recognising the plants growing wild by the side of the Hungerford Road just beyond the turn off to the old Hansen place. It was the first time the cops in Bourke had to confront the new hippy order. Not that these kids were hippies. They were just local teenagers getting stoned on free weed. The Bush Fire Brigade got sent out and put the lot to the flame. There were some red eyes back at the shed that night, I reckon. I don’t know whether anyone else made the connection to Hansen though.”
He pursed his lips again and lowered and tilted his head a little, looking kinda sideways at Bess.
“I can understand the hemp. He had rope making machinery he’d knocked up in one of the sheds and apparently he sold locals bailing twine, string and some rope to the steamers on the river, when there were steamers on the river, but what did he do with the exotic stuff that early on in the piece?”
“I don’t know.” was all Bess could reply. Though she had some small idea of what he might have done with a bit of his crop. She remembered the coronial photos from the 1962 case. In the full shot of the body she had noticed, a little out of focus out on the edge of the image, an ashtray on the table. It was clean except for a few small tubules of unbroken ash and the burnt remains of a roll your own cigarette that must have been laid on the lip of the ash tray and left to burn down to nothing. A possible half smoked joint. She could never know for sure. The ashtray and its contents had simply never risen to the level of evidence and so had never been analysed. It was another possible, odd confluence lurking in the disparate evidence.
“Look, there’s one thing I noticed but I never said anything at the time because it seemed so odd and I didn’t want to look foolish, and in the end they never looked in the outbuildings anyway. It just didn’t seem necessary at the time, they all said there was no suspicious circumstances; but in the shed with the rope making machinery there was a lot of dust all over the floor, all over everything actually. Blown in through the doors I s’pose, and a lot of it was just pulverised hemp dust.
When I first went in there were footprints in the dust all over the floor and around the machinery. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought, y’know, that’s natural, footprints in the dust, but then I notice that there was one set of prints that walked away from the machine over to a spot near a bench he had set up with various tools, but they didn’t walk back. There was no return or ongoing track. It was like he must have walked over there and then just disappeared, or floated away. I was a bit knocked back by that so I had a proper look at the footprints, but this one set of tracks, like I said it just appeared out of the confusion of other prints and made a straight line for the bench, and never came back”
“You didn’t get a photograph did you?” Hope springs eternal.
“No. Like I said, the real investigation never got into the shed” The retired copper shook his head. “Those prints though, well they…; look, all the other prints showed normal movement about the space. What you’d expect, steps over other steps, tracks crossing, places where he must have spun on a foot. Y’know, normal moving about, but not this one.” He shook his head again.
“In all honesty, after all these years, I couldn’t really say I’ve kept it straight in my head but that is how I remember it.”
Bess had stayed on with the retired copper, just talking, reminiscing, until the sun had begun to descend toward the distant horizon. They’d talked about his career; he’d only served in two stations, Bourke and later Wellington, and had retired back to Bourke because his wife’s Mum was a local and was getting on at the time. His wife was gone now and his only son was a solicitor in Nyngan; small time, but he visited regularly, and his wife always brought a batch of freshly baked honey oat cakes. Too many just for him, the honey oat cakes made him popular with the other residents in the common room.
The old boy said he’d led a charmed life really, but that business right back at the beginning had always puzzled him and he asked Bess, as she stood to leave, that if she did find anything, he’d be really grateful if she could let him know.
Bess promised she would and left him, still sitting in his chair looking out over the penumbral garden as the evening air began to cool, just a little.
As Bess had walked back to the Riverside she recalled the meeting some weeks ago when she had managed to track down the security guard on duty the night the body in the library was discovered. It turned out that he’d also been the one that went to investigate the reported “disturbance” on L6 some time later, though Bess had to deploy a very special smile to winkle the truth of events that night out of him. Bess had pressed the guard on the description of the man that he knocked into and as she had half suspected, he described a tall thin man “dressed like a farmer at The Royal Easter.”
Pushing deeper Bess had finally gotten him to remember the fleeting smell of burning; “Like burning compost really, but y’know, really faint. Ah, look, it might’a just been the pong of the books. It wasn’t anything really.”
She had the fingerprints and DNA of the dead academic but unfortunately the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Bourke corpse back in ’62 meant that no-one had bothered to fingerprint the body, there having been no suspicious circumstances. DNA analysis was still more than twenty five years in the future.
The Pathologist’s report from 1962 had been interesting. That document suggested that Hansen had died in summer and the body had rapidly desiccated in the closed house. Strangely, as the retired Sergeant at The River Gum Lodge had mentioned, there was no indication of insect attack. The state and age of the body had made determining cause of death very difficult. Eventually it had been impossible, so the Coroner, probably on the Pathologist’s advice, had simply put “Senescence” down as the cause of death. “Old age” might have sounded a bit weak from a state coroner. And after all, the man was very old, he was dead, and his cells had stopped dividing and growing. Senescence it was.
Except that he’d turned up again 44 years later researching perfectly incomprehensible physics, written an impossible note only half deciphered; Bess still had no clue why “it wouldn’t have been any good”; and then popped his clogs. But the most impossible thing was the disappearance from the morgue. How does a dead body remove itself from a locked cabinet leaving no trace on the CCTV, let alone on the stainless steel of the tray? No-one had any idea specifically when the body had upped and left. It had been there for one check and gone at the next, one month later.
Bess got fully into the truck ands started it up. Pushing a little slower now, she made her way up the track hoping there were no other traps.
When Bess finally came up the low rise to the house it seemed to be just as she had expected. Captured in the headlights and spots, the old weatherboard place showed all the signs of neglect such old buildings assume after years of abandonment. The stumps had settled into the dirt and the frame had warped and skewed in the heat; the weatherboard, sun dried and shrunk, in some places had simply fallen off its nails. All the remaining window glass was broken and some of the window frames had fallen out as the timber surrounding them had dried and shrunk.
There were two big corrugated steel tanks lying bent and rusting where they had fallen from their stands. Those stands now so many short thick piles standing at odd angles to one another, only held up by the few heavy planks that made up the platform from which the tanks had fallen.
There didn’t seem to be any one about, but then what was she expecting? If she was right about the date on the library note nothing would happen until after midnight at the very earliest, after midnight being February 15. That’s if anything happened at all. Bess looked at her watch. The display showed it was getting on for 10.
She pulled up just short of the collapsed tanks, killed the engine and pulled the keys, got the torch out and stepped down out of the Landcruiser. “In for a penny..” Bess said under her breath and walked directly over to the house, up onto the verandah and went inside.