Story and maybe also photograph by Warrigal Mirriyuula
It was Constable Hourigan who raised the alarm. After his shift he’d gone down to The Riverside hoping to catch up with Bess. It was a punt but he’d enjoyed their few brief encounters and he was hoping for more of the same.
Narelle, the young Barkindji receptionist at the Riverside, told him she hadn’t seen Bess since she drove off in the Landcruiser at about seven o’clock last night. Which was odd because Bess had sent Hourigan a text at about the same time saying that she was going out to the old Hansen place for a recce and would contact the station in the morning.
Bob had checked with the Duty Sergeant several times during the day but there had been no contact with Bess at all.
Bob asked Narelle if he could take a quick look at Bess’ room and sure enough the bed had not been slept in, her pack was lying open on the floor with more of the same practical clothing she’d been wearing, all the towels and toiletries were untouched and there was the full compliment of tea, coffee and biscuits.
Narelle mentioned that Bess liked her tea and biscuits and had called for additional stock, as well as a proper tea pot and leaf tea.
They were there, the pot was cold and empty with a pad of stewed leaves sitting in the bottom, an empty cup with with a few drops left sitting nearby on the table, its saucer covered in biscuit crumbs.
At Bob’s prompting Narelle rang the lady that made up the rooms to ask what time she had done Bess’ room. She said that she’d tidied and made up the room about three o’clock. Bess had been in the room, drinking a cup of tea, they’d chatted for a while as she vacuumed and wiped. “She was a lovely lady.” the woman had said, and they’d left the room together. She said that the last thing Bess had said to her was that she was going to walk over to The River Gum Lodge to see someone there.
“Who would Bess know at The River Gum?” Bob wondered.
The River Gum Lodge was an aged care facility run by The Masons and a committee of locals. It had been under threat of closure about ten years ago until the Masons stepped in and ensured its long term survival. It was a small place. Only a dozen or so places and Bob thought he’d go there next.
The young policeman began to feel uncomfortable, as though he were intruding. There was something about the absence of Bess from the room while he poked through her few things that made him decidedly uncomfortable. It dawned on him that this was one of those moments in a young copper’s life when the next thing he did might determine the direction and outcome of his time in Bourke. There in that room at The Riverside young Bob Hourigan grew up a little, and, in that moment, slipped unconsciously into his career.
Gone was the boyish pride in the uniform, the camaraderie and childish sense of service; to be replaced by a harder edged, more thoughtful, more adult and interrogative mental frame.
Narelle, standing quietly by, noticed the change as a firming of his face, a focussing of his eyes. It wasn’t something that she would, or could, verbalise, but she was strangely impressed and she would find herself looking out for Bob around town in the weeks and months ahead.
Bob had raced round to The River Gum but it was dinner time and the residents were all in the dining room. He hadn’t stayed to try and find out who Bess had spoken to there. He was becoming increasingly anxious and, as is often the case with agitated young men, he sublimated his agitation with action.
Later Bob Hourigan would be unable to say what it was that caused him to become so concerned for Bess so quickly. All evidence pointed to her being quite able to handle herself in tricky situations. She had a reputation for going alone, she had advanced firearms training and was a brown belt in some unpronounceable martial art. Her CV had any amount of situations in which she had confounded expectations, overcome adversity, to triumph against the odds. She’d been “missing” for less than 24 hours and yet Bob Hourigan knew there was something wrong.
Call it intuition, call it guesswork, call it inspired analysis of the few facts available, but when Bob rang the Super on his mobile his tone, urgent with just an edge of alarm, was enough to convince the Boss that they really should get out to Hansen’s “toot sweet”.
It wasn’t the evidence that had convinced the Superintendent, it wasn’t really the tone in young Bob’s voice. It was because this was Bess and both men knew that Bess was special, precious in a way, and she was “missing”. Of course neither would ever admit to this as being the primary driver in their breakneck rush to get out to the old Hansen place.
Having picked up the Boss and one of the station Landy’s, Bob drove through town and out to the crossing over the Darling at North Bourke. He put the hammer down and pushed the Landcruiser to top speed along the Hungerford Road.
Neither man spoke. Indeed Bob was now quite nervous and he fidgeted his grip on the wheel as he drove, chewing on his bottom lip. The occasional look at the Boss showed that he was worried too. His face was slightly flushed, he was sweating even though the AC was operating flat out, and he kept snapping his head from position to position and rubbing his face, first with one hand and then the other as if trying to wipe away the fear rising in his mind. It was obvious that he resented this time that it would take to get out to the old place.
In half an hour they reached the overgrown dirt turn off leading to the abandoned farm and Bob only slowed enough to get the Landy off the bitumen without too much oversteer in the dust and gravel of the turnoff. When the Landy straightened under Bob’s hand over hand on the wheel, he dropped a gear and floored the accelerator again; his driver training paying off and his control over the speeding four wheel drive leaving a lasting impression on the Boss, who was hanging on, one hand white knuckling the grip on the window column while his other tried to hang on to the the webbing of the seat belt. It was ballsy driving by any standard.
As they pushed up the track at speed, bouncing and jouncing, following the flattened Gidgee and saltbush, they came upon the place where Bess had moved the rocks. Bob hit the anchors and they slid to a rough stop. Both men got out to take a look. What had happened here?
They both noted the boulders now situated at the base of the berm on one side of the track. The salt bush and other plants had been mashed from berm to berm for a distance of about 20 metres on the track. The red earth had been torn up and turned over by the removal of the rocks. The tracks left as Bess had manoeuvred the Landcruiser where still quite fresh. Bob and the Boss both silently acknowledged Bess’ practical abilities as they wondered about the rocks, but there was no more to see here and so they both got back in the Landcruiser and pushed on, though now they were more careful, their progress slower.
It was getting on for eight o’clock and the last orange ochre light of the day was dimming along the horizon as they followed Bess’ tracks toward the house. Above them, the Milky Way was blazing in all its glory; so beautiful, distant and indifferent.
Ahead in the blue-white light of the spots they could make out the low rise leading up to the house, which appeared first as a black silhouette on the horizon, then suddenly illuminated; the swinging beams of the spots flashing back off the broken glass in the collapsing window frames. Bob gently eased the truck up the last of the rise toward the house.
Bess’ Landcruiser was parked at an angle to the dilapidated building, about ten metres from a couple of precariously leaning old tank stands, the tanks having fallen off and rusted where they fell.
Bob slowed to a crawl and stopped well away from the house, not wanting to disturb the scene too much before they knew what they were dealing with.
The Boss was out of the truck immediately and calling out, flashing his torch about, “Bess, you here? Its Phil and Bob from the station.” There was no response. “You there Bess?” then louder, with his hands cupped to his mouth, a bellowing “Beeessss”. Still nothing.
The two men stood together, each looking out into the darkness, listening. There was the soft susurration of the breeze and insect song, nothing more.
“OK, Bob, you check the truck and I’ll have a look about the outside. We’ll go in together when we’ve “cleared” the outer area.”
“Right” Bob nodded, pulled some gloves from the side pocket of the door and, pulling the gloves on, trotted over to the Landcruiser, approaching the open driver’s door from the rear quarter. Bob had changed into his civvies to visit Bess at The Riverside so he wasn’t armed but he could see the Boss moving cautiously in a half crouch around the side of the house. He looked a little silly until Bob noticed he had a two handed grip on his police issue Glock.
“Jesus!” young Bob exclaimed silently, his hands beginning to shake thinking the Boss might be right. This could be that serious. Bob had been thinking “injured” but he could be wrong. He got himself under control, pushed down the fear, took a few good deep breaths. He really had no idea what to expect.
The cabin of the Landcruiser was empty except for a couple of crushed plastic water bottles and some empty biscuit wrappers. The keys were gone. Bob cantilevered himself over the gear change and opened the glove compartment; nothing, except the usual police fleet papers and vehicle ID. She’d taken the torch he surmised.
Bess’ hat sat upside down on the passenger seat, her sunglasses folded inside. Seeing these two very ordinary but personal items just sitting there like that filled Bob with a kind of dread he had never before experienced.
“She’s not here”, Bob sang out anxiously as he backed over the transmission bulge and, bum first, out the driver’s door. He opened the rear door. Again, nothing, except a fat old manila file full of dog eared pages, photos, print outs. He didn’t touch the file just in case. He went around to the back and swung wide the doors. There appeared to be nothing missing from the usual compliment of equipment and tools such vehicles routinely carried and Bob noted the red dust on the floor and pushed into the outer webbing of the spansets Bess had used to move the rocks. She’d apparently just dumped the lot, shackles, chain and the spansets, after she’d finished. Bob pondered the rocks for the first time. “Why were they there, who put them there?”
The Boss appeared around the other side of the house emerging out of the almost complete gloom now descended on the spot. He’d holstered the Glock, and, looking about into the deepening gloom, came over to Bob.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else about. Not a sign of Bess.” he said quietly then looked about nervously and sang out Bess’ name a few more times. There was still no response.
“OK, lets get inside, but first get a couple of the QI’s out and set up so we can see what we’re doing.” The Boss was in charge now and operating straight out of the manual.
Bob grabbed two of the lamps and stands out of the back of their truck and promptly set them up so that they brightly illuminated the entire frontage of the house, the bright lights penetrating into the house through the broken timbers and window frames
Now that the area was well lit they could see that Bess had exited the truck and immediately moved straight to the broken boarded front verandah and apparently gone inside. Her boot prints clearly marked her path. Apart from the prints left by the men they were the only fresh tracks visible. It appeared that no-one else had been walking over the area at least since the last significant rain about a month ago. In Bourke all good rain was significant, and memorable. Both men made sure not to disturb the dusty track.
They made their way to the verandah and, avoiding Bess’ dusty foot falls, entered through the front door.
There was a short hall with a room off to either side. Continuing to avoid disturbing the footprints they shone their torches into the rooms, nothing. The footprints didn’t enter either of the rooms so it was a perfunctory look, and they exited the hall into what had been the living room.
Under the ubiquitous dust there was a rotting overstuffed couch and two matching armchairs which had been colonised by various small creatures, the stuffing bursting out around well formed entries into the interior of the cushions and stuffed frame, there was an old style bakelite radio on the mantel; Bob absently wondering whether it still worked. There was all you’d expect and nothing out of place. Except for Bess’ phone and the truck keys sitting on the top table of a nest of three tables beside one of the armchairs. Bess’ footprints moving that way and indicating that she had sat in the chair before moving off to the kitchen further to the rear of the house.
Bob and Phil both looked at the phone and keys for quite a while before saying anything.
“She wouldn’t leave her phone, would she?” Bob was looking at the Super hoping he might offer some explanation for the presence of the phone and the absence of Bess.
“No she wouldn’t.” was all the Boss replied; his face showing very real concern.
The two men moved into the kitchen. It was darker here, the light from the QI’s not penetrating this far into the building, the beams from their torches taking visual “quotes” of the room as they swung them about trying to light on something, anything that might provide a clue as to the whereabouts of Bess.
Once again the room was as expected. Everything covered in dust, there was an old cast iron stove sitting in its nook. There was even a small pile of kindling and firebox sized wood, but no-one had lit this fire in decades. There was an old style ice box but it had been used to store bits and pieces of broken tools, old knives and various broken bits of bric-a-brac. There was a an ancient Frigidaire, the door hanging open, that explained the icebox. There was a 30’s vintage dresser with leaded glass filled with a motley collection of mismatched plates and other crockery and glasses. The heavy concrete sink had collapsed to the floor bending its attached lead piping, the one big tap barely managing to hang on the wall above it.
In the centre of the room, looking like it probably had after the last police investigation had left decades ago, was an old aluminium and formica table and its matching vinyl covered chairs, though the vinyl had shredded and blown away in the relentless summer heat of years of abandonment. Most of the stuffing had been robbed away by animals intent on making a nice comfy nest for themselves elsewhere. One of the chairs was lying on its side.
The men moved on again into the laundry under the skillion roofed lean to out the back. There was an old copper with ash still in the hearth under the brick containment, and a mangle over a double tub; in one of which was a collection of desiccated, rotted clothing. There state showing that they had been soaking, probably prior to mangling, but they’d been abandoned too, the water evaporating away and the clothes now just an undifferentiated mass of rotten cotton. There was the remains of a shirt collar sticking out of the mass with no tag in the back of the neck.
Satisfied that there was nothing to see in the laundry lean to they moved back into the kitchen for a better look.
“Bob, go out the back way and get one of the big LED battery lanterns, we need to get some more light in here so we can see what’s happened.” The Super was a proper copper and though he was feeling at a loss as to what had happened and was growing fearful of what they might find, he was going to run this thing straight down the line.
As Bob scooted out the back to get the lamp the Super looked around the kitchen taking his time to look for any disturbance of the dust that might indicate recent activity. There was Bess foot falls walking into the kitchen from the living room. It looked like she’d stepped into the room and then stopped a pace or two into the space, shuffled a little at that spot and then gone and stood near the table. Perplexingly it appeared as though she hadn’t moved from that spot. There was an indication that she had stood there for at least a few minutes. There was a lot of shuffling and a few short steps this way and that, but nothing to indicate that Bess had ever left the area adjacent to the table. If the evidence was to be believed she should still be there, standing by the table. But she wasn’t.
Bob came back through the rear of the house carrying the heavy battery lamp and its stand. He got it set up and looked at the Boss for direction.
“She’s not here Bob,” the Boss said to the young copper, “and take a look at this.” Pointing his torch to the footprints on the floor around the table.
Constable Bob Hourigan looked at the foot prints illuminated in the circle of blue white light shone by the Boss’ xenon torch. His face lost all tone.
“That can’t be right.” he said looking at the Boss.
“No it can’t, this is all beginning to feel very wrong.” The Boss lifted the torch and shone it on an ashtray on the table, more a pointer now that space was fully lit by the LED lantern. “Now have a look at this.”
Bob saw the ashtray and the two “roll your owns” that had been left to burn down on its lip.
Making sure not to disturb any of the footprint evidence, which was what it had become in Bob’s mind, he moved in closer to the table so that he could bend over and smell the ashtray; there being no dust on the ashtray meant that it had to have been used recently and seeing as Bess had apparently been the only visitor to the place, must have been used by her.
Bob took a deep sniff and jerked his head back.
“Its dope!” He couldn’t have been more surprised if Timothy Leary had suddenly materialised and offered him acid.
“Does Bess smoke?” Bob asked, incredulous.
“Not that I know of and she certainly isn’t the type to arrange mysterious meetings just so she could toke on a little weed.
The Boss indicated the two burnt down joints. “She either smoked them both herself or she had company.”
“But there’s no sign of anyone else.”
“No, but there are two joints. Which scenario seems more plausible to you?”
Bob took a while to develop an answer to that question. “Neither.” he finally said flatly.
By nine o’clock the following morning the Super had arranged a full forensic response to the abandoned farm. It was a full court press sanctioned and paid for out of headquarters in Surrey Hills.
The Super had already taken two calls from the Commissioner making sure that he had all the resources he needed, manpower, logistics, did he need a chopper. “I’ve got the dog squad on its way and I’ve got a number for a tracker in Brewarrina if it comes to that.” The commissioner taking a personal role confirming the power of Bess biography.
“She’s the best of us Phil. Don’t you lose her.” The Commissioner’s voice revealing how much he personally cared about the outcome. “I know you think there’s something screwy about the evidence you’ve found Phil, but that’s always been the case with Bess. Just do a thorough job, leave nothing out, and let’s hope that the evidence leads us back to her.”
“Yes Sir.” Superintendent Phil Kaloutis, feeling completely at a loss as to what to do next, closed the call and rubbed his stubbly chin. He was tired, running on nervous energy, he needed sleep but he wasn’t going to leave the scene until he had something, anything concrete.
The forensic team had taken over the house and the immediate surrounds, moving about in their white paper coveralls, poking through everything, selecting this object, that sample, for later analysis. The photographer pointing his big Nikon at anything and everything, the flash capacitors squealing before each loud “pop” of blinding light.
Phil began to poke his home number into his phone. He needed to hear his wife’s voice, her practical and pragmatic voice, he needed her calm; but he put the phone away as he realised he’d lost track of the time, she’d be at school by now. Phil’s wife was a teacher at the local high school.
He sighed and looked about the busy scene. The forensic collection phase was always difficult for investigators. Each new sample, each piece of evidence, leading to speculation and theorising; but Phil knew that nothing concrete would emerge until the totality of collected evidence had been categorised and analysed. That picture wouldn’t emerge for days, possibly weeks, as the results came in according to their own analytical timetables.
“She’s the best of us Phil. Don’t you lose her.”
Bob had fallen asleep in the back seat of the Landcruiser he and the Boss had arrived in but was woken when the dog squad pulled up next to him, the dogs barking in the back of the ute keen to get out and get at it as their handlers got their harnesses together and sorted out their kit.
They’d need something to go on and Bess’ hat seemed like the best bet. Bob got out of the truck and went over to Bess’ Landcruiser. Her hat was still sitting on the seat as a forensic officer brushed the dash area for prints.
“Have you finished with the hat? The dogs need a scent.”
The woman extracted herself from the truck holding the fat black powder brush rather daintily in one hand and the bag of black fingerprint powder similarly in the other.
“Yes, I’ll just bag it and sign it over to you. When you let the dogs at it just open the bag. Try not to let the dogs touch the hat. They might contaminate any evidence on it; though I suppose that the hat wasn’t any part of what went on inside, but you never know.”
“Yeah, no, of course.” Bob waited while the SOCO bagged and tagged the hat and sunglasses, handing him the lock sealed bag with Bess’ hat inside.
He took the hat over to the senior dog handler and reiterated the SOCO’s warning about contamination. The handler gave him a rather old fashioned look, “We’ve done this before son.” His face softening as he noted the look of loss and confusion on the young copper he added, “We all know Bess. We’ll do all we can”. He opened the bag and let the three dogs get a good nose full of the hat.
“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean…., Sorry.” Bob was feeling completely lost. He was tired, he was confused, and he was fearful. He didn’t think the dogs would find anything as they fanned out into the rough scrub round the old house, there noses down, tugging their handlers as they applied their keen sense of smell to the task of finding the scent of the person to whom the smell on the hat belonged.
Bob was convinced that whatever happened had happened inside the house. The Boss and he had gone over every square inch of the place during the long small hours of the night, taking photographs with their phones in case anything might happen before the crew arrived. They were both convinced, screwy or not, that Bess had entered the house and disappeared from inside shortly thereafter. The evidence said so.