Peter pulled over by the creek. He parked in a wedge of sunlight between trees and switched off the ignition. He listened to the soughing wind and the static surf of the two-way. The van stank of sweat and puke and Pine-O-Cleen. He hoisted his belt where the handcuffs snagged against the upholstery of the seat. Burrowing in his tunic for an antacid, he looked out across the sodden September paddocks. His mouth was chalky. His guts felt like hell.
On the seat beside him lay the last court summons of the day. Delivering them was work for a junior. It was another slight, a message to pull his head in, and maybe even a way to get him out of town for a while. At least it was time alone, a bit of respite. If he spaced it right he’d be back for the change of shift and home for tea. Ten minutes to himself, no harm in that. Trouble was, there’d been a lot of ten-minute breaks lately and some of those had run to an hour or more. It wasn’t like him. He didn’t used to be this way.
Peter had only been in town a year. Ten months, to be exact. It was a plum posting, something to be excited about. A quiet country town on the coast. Pretty harbour, decent school, miles of white beaches. Compared to the strife-torn desert communities he could have faced, it was a gift. But within weeks of his arrival he began to feel uneasy. It wasn’t the town. It was the blokes on the job. Conversations dried up as he came into the crib room. Glances were exchanged. He sensed that there were arrangements and alliances he wasn’t privy to. He wondered if it was hi reputation as a bit of a straight arrow. Within months he’d gone from being uneasy to feeling unsafe.
He eased the little flat bottle from between the seat springs, uncapped it in his lap and took a quick belt. It was cheap stuff. He didn’t even like brandy. This was, he told himself, just a temporary thing.
A cow bellowed out of sight. Wattlebirds clacked in the trees around him. It was peaceful here and suddenly warm and for a moment he could believe that all this aggravation would pass, that the sleeplessness, the gut-burning anxiety, the creeping sense of paralysis would work themselves out. Maybe he’d put a few more bits of the puzzle together, find an ally. He just needed one honest copper to watch his back. But the flash of brandy-heat faded and he thought of Dale and the kids. They’d been through enough already. The bastards had got to them, made their point about laying off and staying clear. And that’s what he’d do; there was no alternative. He’d keep his head down, bide his time, and in a year or so apply for a transfer.
The radio spluttered. There was a report of climbers lost out in the ranges. He listened to the two-way traffic as the beginnings of a search took shape. On another frequency the SES volunteers were chatting excitedly. One climber lost, another had raised the alarm. Peter dialled back to his own channel and wedged the bottle under the seat. He knew he wouldn’t be home for dinner. He had the van turned around and was out on the highway before his call-sign came over the air.
It took half an hour to get out amongst the ranges and when he turned into the dirt carpark at the foot of the sheer bluff called The Dial, the sun was gone behind low, threatening cloud, and the volunteers were already assembled, still studding their orange overalls in front of the trucks. Peter pulled on his plastic poncho. He stuffed the antacids and the brandy bottle into his tunic and made his way over to join the briefing. Hurley was talking. He and Peter were of the same rank, but Hurley had been here two years and he knew the geography. To that extent, at least, you could trust him.
Peter looked at the map taped to the side of the truck and pulled the hood up over his cap as a misting rain began to fall.
“How’s it looking?” he asked Hurley as the volunteers broke up into task groups.
“Pretty straightforward,” said Hurley, dragging on his own coat. “Couple of hikers. The woman’s over in the truck with the quack. She’s totally hysterical. Far as we can tell, the bloke’s fallen off the first tier. It’s all thickets at the base there. He’s set us a bit of a task.”
“Any chance of a chopper?”
“I’ll go with the western group.”
“That’s the plan, Peter. Let’s hope it’s done by dark. I’m cold already.”
Peter took a walkie-talkie from the truck and wished he had a decent pair of boots. He joined a chirpy bunch of volunteers as they set out down the long belly of the walk trail. The valley was thick with wandoo and marri and beneath the trees the scrub sprouted tiny darting birds and a blur of insects. The bush smelt tart, peppery. Everything looked blue in the late afternoon light.
After fifteen minutes the trail swept up towards the broad base of the bluff. There were no tree, just tight mallee heath and low boulders. The trail was good but the going was much tougher on the steep incline, and as the keen and the fit scrambled ahead of him and the wheezers lagged behind, Peter found space enough to consider the deep and tangled thickets beneath the peak. A bloke would take some finding up there; it was a nasty bit of country and there was plenty of it. He wondered how far you’d fall, whether you’d be swallowed, even cushioned, by all that teatree and banksia or if the tight-packed canopy might resist the impact and send you bouncing down the slope to burst like a bag of trash against the first big rock in your path.
He chewed an antacid. Every upward step tightened his hamstrings. Sweat soaked through his shirt and into his tunic and rain dripped from the peak of his cap and ran down his nose.
At a boulder the size of a beached whale, Peter rested a moment and looked back down to the carpark where two more police vehicles were pulling in. Young fellas, he thought, dragged in early for the evening shift. Beyond the little beige clearing of the carpark, the land stretched away blue in the distance. The surrounding peaks were headless in the mist. It was beautiful up here, and if it hadn’t been for the hiss and squawk of the walkie-talkie, it would have been peaceful too. At the foot of the bluff Peter bunched the searchers up the best he could on the steep, narrow trail. Above them The Dial rose in a series of granite extrusions whose peaks were obscured now by a rainy mist. As Peter stood there waiting for stragglers and to-ing and fro-ing with Hurley on the air, the sky seemed to lower itself even further and the light grew dimmer. He broke the searchers up into pairs and told them to work ten yards apart across the ground immediately below the bluff and to meet back here in one hour. But with them all strung up and down the track in single file it was a case of Chinese whispers and he wasn’t sure how clear he’d made himself. He was anxious about the poor light, the lack of time, the ambulance that still hadn’t arrived.
Peter had a feeling about this bloke who’d fallen. He could picture him cannoning down, bouncing across the thicket below them, so while the volunteers fanned out enthusiastically he picked his way back down the incline a distance and was just about to make a sweep when he was joined by a latecomer in a fancy parka. The girl was eighteen or so and obviously no SES volunteer.
She introduced herself but he didn’t really hear the name because he’d already seen the camera slung from her neck. Just his luck, a journalist, and a cadet at that. She was trying to seem nonchalant but she couldn’t disguise her excitement. He let himself be quizzed briefly, and with his job voice on he explained his hunch about the faller. HE spelt the word trajectory without being asked and before she had much of a chance to get it all down in shorthand he plunged into the spiky thicket and got on with it.
From the outset the going was tough and it just got worse. Soon they were no longer walking but swimming through vegetation. Peter felt staked and whipped at every turn. His cheeks stung, he lost his footing. He tried hurling himself against snarls of foliage that resisted him. He began to worm his way through at an angle like a man in a stadium mob.
When the vegetation stood taller than him he navigated by the looming shadow of the bluff overhead. They’d long lost sight of other searchers and now there was no one within earshot. Peter grew anxious but he didn’t want to unnerve the girl. She was green enough to press on trustingly. He knew he should turn back but he couldn’t make himself. He was goaded on by the girl’s presence. It wasn’t about her being young and pretty. He didn’t even think of her notebook and camera. It was about proving something. To her, to himself. That he was a policeman, someone you should trust. Head down, conscious of her panting behind him, he pressed on.
Eventually the thicket was too dense to move through unless they got down on all-fours and crawled. Peter was overheated. His mouth was scummy and he wished he’d brought water. He looked for something that might bear his weight if he climbed up to gauge their position. But no branch would hold him and he couldn’t find a stone to climb. The girl watched him scramble to get his head above the canopy.
“Give me a leg up,” she said. “See if that gets me high enough.”
Peter got down on one knee and felt the damp litter soak through his trousers as the girl stepped up. She knocked his cap off in her struggle for balance and would up gripping whiplike boughs above her. Her tennis shoes slid off his leg.
They gave each other a sheepish laugh.
“I could get up on your shoulders,” she said.
It was an awkward prospect but he brushed off his trousers and squatted for her. She didn’t weigh much but his back and thighs strained as he hoisted her up. He held her calves as delicately as he could and did his best to turn a slow circle for her. He was conscious of her thighs against his ears. He told her to look for the track behind them, for orange overalls or any tell-tale movement, but she said she saw nothing, only bush. As he lowered her to the ground he lost his balance and they pitched over together. There was a nasty clunk as something spilled out onto the rocks and at first Peter though of the brandy bottle. He was relieved to see that it was only the walkie-talkie. But his relief was only momentary. The radio looked okay but he couldn’t raise Hurley or anyone else on it. There was only static. He sat back with his gut churning, and saw that the girl’s face was cut. It wasn’t much more than a scrape but she’d dabbed at it already and was looking, appalled, at the little smear of blood on her fingertips.
“It’s alright,” he murmured. “Rest a moment and we’ll leg it back to the track. What’d you say your name was again, love?”
“Hayley,” she said. “Are we okay?”
“Well, we haven’t found anybody. But we haven’t lost ourselves, if that’s what you mean. We’ll have to shut down and try at first light.”
“This stuff,” she said, tilting her head at the tangled mass of stems and branches. “It’s kind of claustrophobic.”
Peter considered offering her his hanky to swab the blood but the state of it was enough to give him pause. She wiped the blood off on her corduroys.
“Did you hear that?”
“A bird,” he murmured.
“Don’t think so.”
Peter listened. It was a sobbing sound.
“That’s a human,” she said.
“I doubt it.”
Peter wondered if it was the girl’s insistence that changed things but the noise began to sound human. It was close by and downhill. He tried Hurley again and got nothing back. It was very late in the day. He figured they had less than an hour’s light left.
“We’ll have a look,” he said. “We’ll crawl down.”
“Here,” she said, offering him a plastic water bottle.
She was a pretty kid, probably the daughter of a proud cow-cocky or clergyman. She had thin blonde hair and her eyes were bright with excitement. All her clothes seemed new, especially the parka. Even after all this exertion she smelled of Cool Charm. She had a generous mouth but right now, in such a situation, she didn’t know quite how to arrange it. There was something of the school prefect about her which amused him. She was the sort of girl who was out of his league when he was a boy but who would not be beyond his son. Maybe Pete would bring home girls like Hayley before long.
He drank a little water and thought of the brandy in his tunic. When she took the water bottle back she wiped the neck with the heel of her palm the way she must have learnt in the playground. Her hands were shaking.
“You might get front page,” he said.
She smiled gamely and drank.
On all-fours, pressed into the stony litter by the gnarled arches of scrub, Peter led her down the steep incline, pausing intermittently to listen for that noise. But now he heard nothing.
His pants were ruined and his uniform cap long gone when they came upon the climber upside down against a lichen-furred rock the size of a headstone. His legs were so far awry that Peter knew at once they were broken. He was already dragging the bloke down onto flatter ground before the girl had a chance to register the find. The climber and the girl cried out at more or less the same moment and Peter found himself laughing. As the girl crawled up beside him he pulled off his poncho and covered the bloke who seemed to have lost consciousness. She pulled the camera from its case and quickly took a photo. Peter was stunned by the flash. It altered his mood like a slap across the chops.
“Is he alive?” she said.
“Yes,” he muttered angrily. Shoot first, he thought, and ask questions - you’ll go far, love.
“Now what?” she asked, a little chastened.
Peter left the bloke’s pulse but it was hard to distinguish from his own. He scrambled up the rock to get a view of the mountain and saw the long grey slope completely transformed by mist. Most of The Dial was gone now and the horizon seemed to begin a yard above the scrub. He let out a piercing coo-ee but it was like shouting into bedclothes. He couldn’t even see the carpark now. He slid back down beside Hayley and the injured hiker.
“You want to stay with him or scuttle back out to the track?” he asked. “Even if it’s dark when you find the trail it’ll be easy enough to follow it back down to the others. Just leave something out, your bottle or your camera or something to mark the spot.”
“No,” she said, looking suddenly horrified. “No, no, I couldn’t find it. Look, it’s nearly dark - I couldn’t find it.”
“Think of the story,” he said, trying to sound kinder than he felt.
“No, I can’t.”
He considered things a while, hoping the silence might give her the chance to find some courage and change her mind. But she avoided his gaze and said nothing.
“Well, can you stay here while I go?” he asked. “We can’t carry him. His legs are buggered and without a stretcher we’ll be dragging him under the scrub by his arms. Hayley, we’ve gotta get some other people up here.”
“Oh, please, I can’t.”
She began to cry. He felt a flush of anger.
“Don’t leave me here. Please.”
Peter considered his handkerchief but was delivered once again when she fished out her own. He squatted beside the climber whose name he’d already forgotten and smoothed the twigs and grit from his blonde beard. The fellow’s fingernails were torn and he stank of sweat. Why couldn’t you have stayed home today, sport? he thought. Why couldn’t you have stayed to the track and let me be?
“Hayley,” he asked as soft and warmly as he could. “Can you do something for me? Can you yell?”
“Yes,” said the girl, mopping at her eyes.
“Get up on the rock and give it your best. Big loud voice.”
Peter hunkered beside the bloke while the girl shrieked and squawked and coo-eed into the fog. He felt sick now and needy. He patted the bottle flat inside his tunic. He thought about the chances of taking a slug while the girl was occupied and more or less out of view. He eased the thing out and looked at it a moment. A rush of heat came through his face. The need, the shame, the awful fact of it glinting in the meagre light. God Almighty, what was he thinking? With a journalist an arm’s length away. In a community this small. It was five kinds of suicide he was courting, as if this whole search and rescue wasn’t cock-up enough. Printed or whispered, news of Senior Constable Wentz and his work-hour brandy on the mountain would be a fire nobody could put out.
The girl bellowed on and on, her voice breaking tearfully. He turned the bottle in his hands. He thought of shoving the thing into the hiker’s fancy jacket. But it went too much against the grain. It felt like planting evidence, like falsifying the record. He’d made a mess pf things these past moths but he’d not fallen that far. Even looking at the booze caused his throat to tighten. He flung it uphill so hard he saw stars.
“What was that?” said the girl. “I heard something.”
“A rock,” he murmured. “I chucked a rock.”
“You see anything?”
“Give it a few more minutes.”
Peter knew they were here for the night now but he felt better for ditching the brandy. He listened to the girl’s voice burn and then break and when it was dark he called her down. They sat in silence for a while until he began to shiver.
“Maybe you should out your coat back on,” she murmured.
“Best keep him warm,” said Peter.
“But you’re wet.”
“Can’t get any wetter then.”
In the long quiet that ensued, rain dripped from foliage overhead and small creatures rustled unseen around them. A car horn sounded three times. Hurley was calling the stragglers in. Peter clicked the transmit button on the walkie-talkie. He tried spelling out his name in Morse but made a meal of it. He settled for a group of three clicks every few minutes.
The hurt climber began to mutter.
“I have a banana,” said the girl. “You want half?”
“You have it,” said Peter.
“I can only eat half.”
“It’ll keep you warm,” he said.
“I’m not cold,” she said. “Just… scared.”
“They’ll find us. We might be here for a while but they’ll find us eventually.”
“This is my first week. I’m not good at this.”
“Well,” he said kindly, “you got the story.”
“Hell, I’m in the story now.”
“Yeah, we’re both in it now.”
“What about him? Will he be alright?”
“I don’t know. There’s nothing we can do.”
“I can’t bear it - we’ve found him but we can’t help.”
She noticed the resignation in his voice. She even seemed to bristle a little.
“You sound like you’re used to it,” she said.
“You never get used to it.”
The climber began to murmur and whimper. Peter kept the man’s head as still as he could.
“I hate this,” said the girl.
Peter levered himself upright and his leg burned with pins and needles. He scrambled up the small stone plinth to see what he could make out in the valley below. The fog was complete. He couldn’t see any lights but for a moment but for a moment he thought he heard the faint thrum of an engine, a generator maybe.
He got down. The cold was right in him now. The climber was motionless but breathing. Peter thought of the long, bitter night ahead of him.
“I honestly thought I was taught than this,” said the girl.
“You’re doing fine,” he said.
“You start with these ideas about yourself.”
“You wouldn’t know.”
“Tell you a story,” he said.
“If you like.”
“Couple of months back I got called out to a prang. Farmkid was riding his trailbike behind the school bus. That awful twisty stretch through the karri forest. He’s mucking around for the benefit of the girls at the back window. Fun and games, you know. Then suddenly he’s at his place and just swerves away, pulls out from behind the bus into the path of a car coming the other way. I was pretty close when I got the call. Had twelve kids looking on while we waited for the ambulance. Just kneeling with him. Waiting.”
“I heard about this.”
“I tell you, it was a long time to wait. You’re in uniform. People expect you to do something. But you can only wait. He was conscious, you know. I was talking to him. He knew why we were waiting. There wasn’t a mark on him.”
“That’s enough,” she said. “Don’t tell me anymore.”
“Died in my arms.”
“And then I had to walk up the hill and tell his parents.”
Peter let her blow her nose.
“Got a boy like that myself,” he said. “He’s a good kid.”
“Sorry. I thought I was tougher than this.”
“You’ll be fine,” he said. He felt all warm, like he’d just had a quick slug. He felt good.
The girl blew her nose. Peter caught his breath a little. Such talk made him lightheaded. It was hard to pull back. He had an urge to keep going, to explain himself, to blurt out everything he’d been stewing over all year; he could already taste the relief of it - Christ, he needed to, he was burning up with it - but even as he steeled himself and tried to think where to start, the girl began to cry. She lunged across the climber and grabbed him by the sleeve of his tunic and he saw just how close he’d come to total disaster.
She was too young, too rattled. You couldn’t put your life into the hands of someone like this. Jesus, she was a kid, a cadet they’d sent out for a lost dog story. What the hell had he been thinking? And what, in the end, could he give her that would stack up? Hunches, irregularities, misgivings from a cop who wasn’t a team player, an officer considered flaky and unreliable. They’d boil him alive.
“You believe in God?” she whispered.
“Wish I didn’t.”
“That’s a strange thing to say.”
Peter said nothing. A kind of cold anger sank through him at the thought that he’d almost gushed everything to this child. He wished he hadn’t passed up half the banana, that he hadn’t chucked the brandy when he so badly needed it now.
“I said that’s a strange thing to say,” she said.
“Why don’t you try and sleep?”
“We should keep warm,” said Peter. “Let’s lie either side of him and pull my poncho over all of us.”
“If you like.”
She seemed reluctant to let go of his tunic, even more reluctant to lie beside the injured man. He could hear the talk in the crib room now; Wentz cosied up on the hill with the fresh little chick from the paper.
“Where’s your camera?” he asked before they arranged themselves.
“Here,” she said fishing in her jacket.
“Leave it out,” he said. “I’ve got an idea.”
He couldn’t see her face in the dark but she seemed hesitant about handing over the camera. He sensed her loss of confidence in him and it stung. He tucked the thing as far into his tunic as he could and lay back with the hiker beneath the partial cover of his dripping poncho.
Before ling the girl began to sob quietly. Beneath the poncho the cocktail of their sweat and the odours of perfume and wet wool became more discomforting to Peter than the cold or the damp or the stones beneath his hip. He had neither the words nor the will to console her. In fact he came to dislike her as much as he did the stale-smelling man between them, the idiot who’s caused all this trouble.
No, he decided. He’d say nothing. It was what he was best at now. When you’ve lost your pride there’s nothing left to say.
He lay there to wait it out. At the first break in the fog he’d take the camera up the rock and set the flash off at regular intervals. Eventually he’d guide the volunteers up to where he was. It’d come out alright. They wouldn’t freeze to death. The girl, Hayley, would forget her blubbering fear because she’d get her rescue pice on the front page. She’d have her victim, her ordeal, her stoic hero. It’d be a great story, a triumph, and none of it would be true.