The road to this tiny town leads in from a popular beach destination, a mecca for hipsters and new agers. The car lurches and slides for more than an hour along hilly back roads whose sides fall away in vertiginous drops. Flood warning signs and water measurement poles decorate the verges, so I can tell the depth of the flood water a split second before my old Toyota jeep plunges and skids into flowing creek water.
To International visitors, this region is paradise: rainforest, nature, sun, beaches. To Australians, this is deep country, rural, left-over hippiedom from almost forgotten decades, blending uneasily with the clear hard stare of generational farmers on their nut tree plantations.
The pub is old, the knotted wood of its verandah boards gleaming with the patina of age. Much like myself, perhaps. Inside, the gloom is a welcome respite from the dazzling, relentless sunshine of the New South Wales hinterland. As welcome as the cold glass of beer in my hand.
The woman running the bar fits into the scene like she has been there for a long time; too long maybe. Her tall body moves and flows around the taps and the shelves like they have matured together. She looks like a local with her tanned, freckled skin. Even if you work indoors, it is hard to escape this climate. The wild dark curling hair; the curious, shuttered gaze. Although she fits in like a local, she seems to generate a different energy. Her hazel eyes are bright; through the soft tones and quiet consonants of rural Australian speech, I can hear an echo of long ago education, a city private school, university.
I already know all sorts float into these places, all looking for something, or running from something. I am one myself.
‘You must hear a lot of secrets, job like yours,’ I venture. She shoots me a look, those intelligent eyes wary, measuring.
‘People walk around all the time with their heads clogged up with stuff,’ she says. ‘Thoughts spinning and churning. And yeah, maybe I hear secrets. Doesn’t mean I spill any of them though.’
She gives me an elusive smile, and turns away to pour a beer, smile and chat in a practised way, to a bloke so seamed and wrinkled with life and weather that he looks like part of the wooden bar has itself become conscious. Can’t really call it animated.
The bar begins to fill. Farmers, so crusted with soil on their overalls and boots that you’d think they could start another farm. Yoga girls who only drink the pure mineral water the barkeep gets down from the shelf for them. Pool players, musicians, alternative lifestylers.
The behaviour is respectful, toned down. She keeps a good bar, this publican.
The part-timers come in, take over the running of the bar. She gestures with her head towards the seats out on the verandah. She comes out with me, sits down. Lights up a roll-your-own. ‘Trying to give up,’ she says, with the first trace of diffidence or apology I’ve seen in her all afternoon. The heat of the afternoon hits me like a wall.
‘That your name over the door?’ I ask her. Jamie MacNeal. Closer up, I can see she is older than I’d first thought, maybe early forties. Smart, alert, and a trace of chronic exhaustion that I guess is permanent.
She nods, takes a drag, still summing me up. Taking her own sweet time to decide whether to talk to me, how much to say.
‘Copper.’ Her voice is pitched low, blending with the murmur and rhythm of the pub around us. That tells me something about her life, her choices. People that can spot a cop, and a semi-retired one at that, from one hundred paces, usually have particular life histories. This area, and the smoking rollies, I’d guess it is growing or smoking weed. No big deal. Not for what I want to know. Plus she runs a business. No flake, she probably keeps unlawful personal habits for her days off.
‘Secrets,’ she says. ‘Plenty of secrets in a small town like this one. Plenty of grief, disaster, stupidity too. What brings you?’
‘Holiday?’ I say, but she just gives a tiny lady-like snort, redolent with scorn.
‘My car broke down?’ I venture, and this time she laughs. ‘Better, and more likely. But I’ll know in approximately 2.5 seconds whether there is actually a car broken down here at the garage!’
I laugh too. She stubs her smoke and gets up and walks back into the bar, pours me another beer and opens a bottle of lager for herself. Long legs bring her back out to the verandah in a few strides. She stares out at the chicken-wire fenced community vegetable garden, bursting green and fruitful in this fecund climate. Funny, plants and forests are lush and green, but the subtropical climate here seems to shrink and desiccate people until they are more wrinkled and brown than the local macadamia nuts.
She lets the silence stretch on. I can feel her curiosity, her openness to hearing my story, but her gaze is on the wide sunlit yard, her body language relaxed.
‘Cold case,’ I say. She turns and drills that intelligent hazel gaze right into me. Her whole body freezes. ‘The rains washed up a body buried by the river. Young woman,’ I say into the silence.
‘How long?’ she whispers. Her face has gone white under the brown.
‘Forensics think maybe fifteen years. Could be as long as twenty years.’
‘This climate,’ she says. ‘In this climate, things rot fast, decay rapidly. Twenty years sounds like a long time. To be in the ground. Floods here all the time. Why wasn’t the..the body..washed up before?’
‘I’m just a cop,’ I say. ‘Not a hydrologist.’ That sounds harder and more sarcastic than I intend, so I quickly add, ‘How long have you been licensee? How long have you worked here, lived in the area?’
Her face closes abruptly. ‘Too many questions, copper,’ she says softly.
We both look at the long shadows of the trees pointing over the lawns and away from the town.
‘You haven’t asked where on the river,’ I say.
‘Where on the river?’ Dully. Face unreadable now.
‘We think the corpse was in an underwater cave near the Bunyip Springs, whatever was keeping her stuck in there finally gave way and she bubbled to the top. She was wrapped in waterproof canvas.’
‘I have to get on,’ she says, and lumbers up from the table, her eyes blind, her former grace of movement lost in shock.
I wait, watching through the doorway as she serves, talks, wipes, jokes. Like she has done it a thousand, a million times before. When she comes back, her colour is better, but the faint air of exhaustion has become a cloud. I am ready. I slide the photo to her as she sits. She flicks a glance. Grips the edge of the table, leans forward like she has been hit in the stomach.
‘What’s your name?’ Husky. Full of pain.
‘Angelo Skarkos. Do you know her? Recognise the bag? The ring?’
Jamie reaches out a finger. Touches the photo as lightly as a thought. Her firm, wide lips part, tremble. ‘I can’t say I don’t know her. It would be like she didn’t exist anymore if I said that. So yes. I know her. It’s my sister. I haven’t seen her for twenty-one years.’
Jamie looks into the distance of years and kilometres as she tells me the story. Hitchhiking, she and her older sister. Meet people along the way. Her sister very unworldly. Trusting. Happy. Near here, they meet a gang of loggers, hard men. They buy the girls drinks, then take them into the deep bush for a supposed party, but just take them to a loggers camp and try to rape them. The girls manage to escape, are chased through the dark bush, in the night, two terrified city girls.
‘They drive after us in their utes, the ones with roo spotlights up the top. The sort that have bumper stickers that say ‘Fertilise the bush. Kill a greenie.’ I’ve never been so scared in my life, before or since. One of the guys leaps from the ute and grabs me. My sister – she was always faster, more sporty – sees them and comes back. She has a huge branch and smacks it into the logger. ‘Run!’ she screams at me. ‘Run! Call the cops! Go now!’ and so…I run.’
Jamie gulps her drink. ‘I never saw her again.’
‘Did you report this?’
‘Of course I did. The local cops just treated me like we were little sluts, when actually, we had no idea, none, of how bad the world could be. They put her down as a missing person. The loggers had gone, no one knew where. That’s all.’
‘That’s a terrible story.’
Jamie just nods. Slowly, like her body, her resolve, her willpower, is melting, she folds onto the table. Head resting on folded arms. But when she looks up, her eyes are dry. Dry and dark with a pain as old as time.
The next time I see Jamie, she is laughing. I stop just outside the door to the bar, taking in the full impact: bright eyes flashing humour. Wide, brave mouth stretched in a huge grin. Shoulders shaking. And the laugh: the laugh is loud, infectious, full of charm, calling me in to laugh with her. I am dazzled.
When she sees me, the humour dims like a cloud passing the sun, but she keeps those bright eyes on me, a half-grin animating her expression. What I’d give to be able to cause and share laughter like that, with her…Where did that come from? I blink, and walk into the cool welcome dimness of the bar.
‘Copper,’ she says in greeting. Neutral, but I hear the wariness. Long brown arms leaning on the bar, looking full at me. Hazel eyes taking me in, everything I haven’t said yet, everything I might say, all the risks and implications. Her stare is steady, her face and manner relaxed.
‘Jamie.’ It comes out a croak. I clear my throat and aim for some depth of tone. I see the laugh flash across her eyes, but she is a professional in customer service. Used to listening without making people feel shame or shyness. She radiates calm, but also braveness, extraordinary focus and courage. It is those qualities which set off my inner alarms. A formidable foe. Discreet and in control.
I walk closer to the bar and meet her stare. ‘More bad news I’m afraid. Missing person. Logger. Aged 46. Bit of a rough nut. Missing from somewhere around here about a year ago.’
Is that just a tiny flicker in those clear hazel eyes? I pull out my phone. ‘Seen him, do you reckon?’
She gives me another calm stare, and flicks the phone with a fingernail.
‘We get all sorts in here. Yeah, maybe I’ve seen him. Could be. A year ago?’
She bends her head closer as we both look at the picture. I can smell the pleasant fresh herby scent of her skin and hair, the faint aroma of alcohol and yeasty beer clinging in a cloud about her. I have a completely unprofessional urge to put my arms around her, to say, ‘You don’t have to be strong anymore.’ I don’t understand why I keep thinking of her as silent, brave and strong as a Mallee Gum, but I do.
Jamie bustles off to deal with a mild altercation at the pool tables.
‘Great chick, that one,’ says a squat, bleach-blonde barkeep, her broad Aussie accent and open face a clear contrast to Jamie’s tall elegance and educated speech. I wonder again why Jamie has stayed all these years. Perhaps, she wonders herself.
The woman pours me a perfect beer, barely looking at the tap. ‘Yeah, the things Jamie’s done for this joint. Bands most months, good fundraisers you know. Got us grants, too, for sporting days, even that community vegetable garden out there in the yard. She keeps all the guys in line, puts up with no trouble here. We all love her, she’s a great chick.’
‘Husband, kids?’ I ask the barkeep. I can see Jamie’s eyes on us, it won’t be long before she is back and shutting down this conversation.
‘Nah, just boyfriends.’ She cocks a cheeky brow at me. ‘Interested, Hon? By herself just at the mo. Terrible shame, lovely woman like her.’
Later that evening, as the yellow sun mellows into deep warm shadows, and the sweet scents of sub-tropical flowers float over the pub verandah, I call at the pub one last time.
Jamie wanders out to me, and sits down. She looks relaxed, at peace in the beauty of the evening. We sit there for a while, not talking, sharing a companionable silence.
‘What’s next?’ I finally ask.
Jamie looks at me, and I see a flash of fear spoil her serenity. She turns her face away and stares out over the pub yard, the burgeoning vegetables growing lush, green and tall within their chicken wire fence.
‘I ask myself what a…’ I swallow. Just say it. ‘…What a beautiful, interesting, cultured woman like yourself is doing spending twenty years in a place like this.’
She doesn’t laugh, or scoff. Or even look at me. But I hear the soft sudden intake of breath.
I soften my voice. Reach out a hand and touch her chin, gently turning her face towards me.
‘You were waiting for your sister, weren’t you?’ I say. ‘She’s been found. You can lay your ghosts to rest now. You can forgive yourself that you survived, and live the rest of your life.’
Silence. Then, ‘Get your hand off me.’ Voice quiet, but no nonsense. No softening, no gratitude. No pleading. I take my hand away, drop it down to my side and join her in staring out over the darkening yard.
‘You are a dangerous man, Angelo.’ My name in her mouth sounds like honey, feels intimate and challenging. But she is already saying it as I am reaching for her. ‘Goodbye…In another life perhaps…’
That goodbye takes almost more than I have left. Angelo Skarkos saw in three quick meetings what nobody else has understood in twenty years. In spite of his dark, intelligent eyes and human heart, I had to get rid of him. Before he saw all of it.
For twenty years I waited here for them to come through town once more. Waited, and planned. Finally, one year ago, my sister’s killers were standing behind my bar.
The last thing I need is for Angelo to upset the community by digging up all their vegetables.
I won’t have to wait much longer now. Not in this climate.