May 2018. Cowaramup
‘My money’s on a kangaroo.’
Constable Brigit Winger got the words out almost before Marley’s wheels stopped turning. Definitely before he’d buzzed the car window fully down.
‘Kangaroo, hey?’ Marley said, ducking his head to meet her eye. ‘You sure you didn’t sneak a peek already? How much we betting?’
Winger shifted her butt on the bonnet of the blue and white squad car, heel of one boot jabbing at the toe of the other. She’d never been much of one for waiting.
‘Ten bucks. A pint?’ she said.
He scanned ahead for a space to pull his Hilux off the road. There were vehicles parked half on/half off the curb all about him. Nissans and Toyotas, sides scratched from the four-wheel-drive surf tracks that snaked through the bush to the coast everywhere along the south west capes.
Brigit tapped her wrist. ‘One-time bet, Detective. Won’t last forever. Tick bloody tock.’
‘Pressure’s on. Let me park then we’ll see.’
Marley urged the Hilux beneath the drooping branches of the nearest streetscape peppermint tree and dragged his jacket out from the back seat. He locked the car and jogged back to Winger.
‘You’re not on one of those protein shake diets are you?’ she said, checking him top to toe.
‘I’ve been running a bit.’
They shook hands. Brigit’s skin was like ice and she immediately stuffed her hands in the pockets of her coat. He did too. It was only half an hour south from Busselton to here, but you’d think he’d slipped a few latitude lines on the drive. The sun was doing its best to disappear over the Indian Ocean and this time of year, the moment the sun vanished so did the heat. It was cold enough that homes had started using their wood fires at night and the scent of smoke warred with rain-dampened grass and eucalyptus.
‘X marks the spot.’ Brigit nodded at a point over her left shoulder.
A distinctive set of muddy tyre tracks marched down the bitumen road of Limestone Loop, starting before and continuing after the spot where Marley had parked his car. They entered from a gravel driveway four doors back up the street and exited with a hard left into a scrubby section of ratty creekline which marked the end of the built-up civilisation as clearly as any fence.
Marley hitched his pants higher and tried to get his bearings. The limestone outcrop of the national park to the east loomed over the subdivision, craggy and wrinkled.
‘My old man went to school here in the sixties, can you believe it?’ he said. ‘There were less than a hundred kids then. This area here was all bush. All the way up there to the national park. Now they’re pushing four hundred kids in the primary school so they tell me.’
‘Nice houses,’ Brigit said. ‘Must be money around here somewhere.’
They were all new or new-looking, and he’d seen only one vacant block on the way in. Even that had a sold sticker across the lot sign.
She nodded at the house across the street: white weatherboard-look with a shining skillion roof. ‘I could see you in something like that. Pottering around in the dope plants hidden behind the tomatoes—purely for your own personal use, not to sell. You’d be in there, plucking out all the males.’ She made a pinch motion with her fingers and laughed, flicked the imaginary leaf away, snuck her hand back in her pocket.
‘Bit flash for me,’ he said, paying attention because Mel said he never paid attention and he was working on his listening skills.
A mosaic tile had been stuck into the timber post and rail fence with the number forty outlined boldly. Mel liked skillion roof designs and she liked mosaics. This was her sort of place. It had a breeze-way filled with plants with those straight spiky leaves.
He’d have preferred something more rustic. The house number on a wooden board stuck into the fence, maybe. And maybe if it wasn’t all so damn white.
Brigit kicked herself off the squad car and grinned at him. ‘Shall we go check out this bloke’s huge boner before some dog sinks its teeth into it?’
Marley winced. ‘Nice one, Winger.’
They followed the excavator tracks toward number forty-seven. That was the bloke who’d called in about finding the bone.
Forty-seven’s neighbour had limestone block retaining walls and thick horizontal weatherboards painted a deep sea blue. The entire garden was made up of established natives.
He’d lost count of the number of native seedlings he and Mel potted out, watered and fertilised, exhumed again and shoved into bigger pots. By the time they got the damn spindly things into the ground Mel was a month short of nicking off to Brisbane with Matty from marketing, and now Marley had his own For Sale sign out the front.
They turned into forty-seven’s driveway. Voices drifted from the rear.
‘Hear that?’ Brigit said, cocking her head, ‘or do you need to crank your hearing aid up?’
‘Nah, I heard it,’ he said. ‘Had my annual hearing test last week.’
She glanced sideways at him, suddenly unsure. Marley turned his face to hide a half-smile.
At thirty-six, Marley was very much the senior party to Brigit in age and in rank. She didn’t ever miss a chance to rub salt in the age wound either, but the thing with Winger was she’d got used to ribbing the blokes as a way to hold her own. Most of the female coppers were in the same boat.
A winter creek cut a lonely ditch to the north. Behind the creek a shelterbelt treeline ran along a ruined wire fence—wire coiled low or gone, posts still standing—and behind that a vacant field on a northerly slope, a copse of some sort of plantation gum at the top.
A ginger-haired man in his early thirties wearing jeans and a hoodie skip-jogged toward them.
‘Thanks for coming, officers,’ the man greeted them, scanning his eyes up and down Brigit’s blue uniform, checking out her uniformed arse, or if she carried a gun. Either. Both.
Marley stuck out his hand. ‘I’m Detective Marley West, Busselton Police. This is Constable Brigit Winger from the Margaret River station.’
‘Brian Fox. Is it just you two?’
‘I’m sure we’ll be manpower enough,’ Brigit said, deadpan.
Fox swallowed, then gestured toward the back of his house. ‘Well it’s this way …’
Marley hitched up his pants. Maybe it was time to buy a new belt. He’d been running heavy dunes and flats on the beach all summer and he was as lean now as he’d been since his father’s funeral. Mel said once that when she reached for him in the night, all she felt was bone.
‘So what happened?’ Brigit asked as they walked.
‘I told the officer on the phone,’ Brian said.
‘You can tell us again. No problem.’
‘Well, me and the missus and a few of our mates were having a few drinks. The fire ban is lifted, you know? It’s the first time I’ve had a fire this year.’
Marley glanced up at the group clustered in a rough triangle between a blazing firepit, a khaki-green Colorbond garden shed, and the fence.
‘Good day for a fire,’ Brigit agreed, blowing on her fingers and rubbing her hands together.
They’d been spotted by the group who’d all been talking animatedly. Now the words died.
‘And we got talking. I mean, we’ve said it on and off for years now. This bloke here, that’s Dave,’—he motioned toward a tall man with a shaggy shock of brown hair—‘Dave runs his own plumbing business. It’s his mini-excavator there.’
Marley scoped the orange machine on the other side of the fence. It was parked with the lowered bucket on the upslope by a pyramid of dumped earth and clay. Empty driver’s seat.
‘Well, all of us, we were having a few drinks as you do, and then we got talking about the waterhole that used to be here before they filled it in when they built the subdivision.’
‘How old is this subdivision?’ Brigit asked.
‘The first of it started, maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago?’
‘What was it before, do you know? Farmland? Bush?’
‘A bit of both I think.’
Marley digested that. Farmland meant the bones could be a steer or a sheep. Bush shortened the odds on Brigit’s kangaroo.
‘What about this part? The houses look newer?’
‘Yeah. Fifteen, twenty years maybe? They released it in stages you know? The first stage was across that way, east of the national park, and it all spread from there. The Bedgys were first on the Loop.’ He indicated another of the men who wore a Hawthorn Football Club jacket over jeans and had his hand wrapped around a can in a Hawks’ stubby holder. ‘How long you been here, Bedgy?’
‘1997 we moved in,’ the man said. ‘Had the whole place to ourselves for years ’til this lot came and stuffed up my serenity.’
Brian resumed his story. ‘So the guys who worked on the subdivision, you know, the contractors who cleared the bush and did all the fencing and the services and shaped the roads and carted all the rocks up to that flat spot where they filled in the oval. You would have passed it driving in? There’s a set of footy goals there now.’
‘Yep,’ Marley nodded. He’d seen the goals. There’d been a kid standing up on the crossbar and another kid trying to knock him off by kicking a footy at him. Visit to emergency just waiting to happen.
‘Well, those blokes said there used to be a spring-fed waterhole at the back of our block. It had water in it all year round and it was deep enough a bloke could swim. Deep enough you couldn’t touch the bottom. They said in the summer when it was stinking hot, the work crew could come down and jump in after work and they thought it was a great spot. We’ve talked about it heaps haven’t we guys?’ Brian’s eyes dodged to the neighbours at the fence and on the chairs and they nodded and agreed with the sort of cut-off country ‘yep’ that sounded like frogs starting up a song.
‘We were talking about the waterhole again today.’
It didn’t take much to get the picture. You get a group of blokes who have access to a mini-excavator on any given Sunday and add enough beer, and even if they’d been talking about that waterhole for years and done nothing … it only took one day.
Brigit caught his eye from where she stood near Brian. Boys with toys.
‘…and I said to Dave that if we dug down maybe we could find the water source and then if we did, we could get a couple of tanks and pump it in and we’d have free water all year round for the gardens, you know? So Dave said he’d take a bit of a dig around and see if we could pick up that spring again.’
Dave took up the story, teeth flashing around a wide grin. A faint sheen of zinc cream covered his nose and cheeks. ‘I dug up a whole lot of fill first, then hit clay, poked around a bit more and then the girls and the kids came back from a bushwalk and I stopped so I didn’t run over any of the little tackers—’
‘And then next thing the kids were making sandcastles in it,’ someone said.
‘And then one of them started on about finding a dinosaur bone,’ someone else said.
‘And Russ here, he’s a doctor, he said I better call the police because he would bet his left nut that dinosaur bone was a human femur …’ Brian finished, a little out of breath.
‘So where’s the bone now?’ Marley asked. He didn’t doubt the GP, but it wasn’t always easy to know bones from bones.
‘Down there. We left it where it was. We took it off the kids and we didn’t touch it after Russ said about the femur.’
The blokes led him and Brigit toward the fence, one of those hip-high post and rail jobs and this one had no wire at all which probably meant the family didn’t own a dog or have young kids or anything they had to keep in or out.
All the blokes and Brigit climbed over—a few of the women ducked beneath the top post and went through—and then Marley landed on the other side with a jolt and scrambled through grass and reeds long enough to wet his boots and the bottom of his pants until he got to a point in the creek where he could work back up the slope toward the mini-excavator. He had enough time to admire the skills of Dave the driver; it wasn’t the easiest spot to get in to.
The hole was three or so metres deep, a single blunt face that started with yellow-red topsoil then got grey-white with grit before hitting reddish-brown clay as the scoop butchered the earth. The hole shallowed on the downhill side where the soil and rock had been dumped out. That damp earth smell reminded him of the day he and Mel—
‘There. See? We left it on the excavator,’ Brian said, forcing Marley’s focus back to the bone.
On first inspection he agreed with the GP’s assessment.
The bone stood out enough against the mud clinging to the black trackpad, but if he’d had a bright white bit of paper to compare it with, it would dirty up quick. It was like looking at the last dregs in the bottom of a tea cup. Everything was brown, but the tea-leaves would always be browner.
Must have been buried for a while.
‘What do you think?’ Brigit asked him quietly, blonde ponytail bobbing.
‘I think we need to get an anthropologist down here.’ He heard a mechanical buzzing and frowned, and then the sound was hidden by someone starting a lawnmower in another street. ‘I wonder if there were any Aboriginal burial sites down here? Hope not. That complicates things.’
‘Because it could be a sacred site?’
‘Yeah. We don’t know yet if it’s an entire skeleton or just a single bone. It could have washed here before the creek was filled if it’s just a bone, or been dragged here by an animal, then got buried in the subdivision earthworks. There’s a chance if they had to truck in a heap of sand for earthworks it could have been transported here. Hard to say.’
‘If it got filled in with the subdivision works it’s been there for years,’ Brigit said. ‘The developer’s records should be easy enough to track down. That will give us some sort of date.’
Marley backed away from the excavator, spending a bit more time examining the freshly dug rock and sand. There was a lot of clay in those scoops and they’d had enough autumn rainfall to make it clump.
Water already pooled in the bottom of the pit.
He couldn’t see any other bones without shifting the sand. There was some rope caught on the excavator bucket—about half a metre of dirt-stained length—but as he ducked back toward the machine to take a closer look, the noise he’d heard earlier whacked up from nowhere, drowning out the lawnmower’s whine.
‘Ahh, bugger …’
Brigit swore at the same time.
He lifted his face to the sky. The others craned their necks too, shifting their weight to tiptoes and flat again, trying to see through the shelterbelt trees on the north side of the creek.
Darting out from the top of the trees like one of those predatory wasps, a news helicopter cleared the canopy, blades slicing the sky.
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