by Maggie Brown
Two strong-willed women are fighting for survival in a primitive wilderness of venomous snakes, stinging insects, and crocodile-infested swamps. Too bad those are the least of their worries.
After being severely wounded in a covert operation, ex-Australian Secret Service officer Vivian Andrews has built a quiet life for herself in a small fishing village in Northern Queensland. Or so she believes, until she discovers a rotting corpse in the mangroves. An angry crocodile drags the body away, but not before Vivian snags the man’s money belt which contains nearly $75,000—and a phone number that Vivian knows all too well.
At the police station to report her discovery, Vivian finds two government agents who are looking for her. A young man has gone missing and they need an experienced guide to help them negotiate the terrain to find him. Vivian knows they aren’t telling her the whole story but is attracted to the idea of returning to action—and to behavioral scientist Claire Walker.
When Claire’s partner is injured, tough, resilient Vivian and smart, intuitive Claire must use every skill they possess to complete their mission despite nearly impenetrable walls of vegetation, trails that lead to deadly traps, the damp simmering heat—and another kind of heat neither of them wishes to acknowledge. Could the woman sleeping next to you be a master thief…or worse?
The day was a scorcher. Vivian Andrews pinched the shirt material off her skin and flapped it to create a breeze. It had little effect. Heat still lapped around her like a blanket. She eventually ignored the trickling beads of perspiration to concentrate on sliding the boat down the ramp. Nearer the water, the salty tang in the air thickened. As she sucked in the smell, the thoughts of nearly forgotten summer holidays crept in. Nostalgia was a luxury, but today she let the memories linger. Why she didn’t know, for she didn’t want to relive the past. There was too much pain there and she had moved on.
Seaward, small sandbars rose like mounds of flesh through the blue-green water and she stopped a moment to admire the sight. She wasn’t religious, but for her, this was as close to heaven as you could get. This afternoon there was no activity on the water except for a trawler that listed in a shallow stretch like a beached whale. She wondered who had been stupid enough to be caught in that part of the bay by the outgoing tide. Whoever it was would have to wait. The vessel was there to stay until the tide came in again.
“Come on, Ned, concentrate,” she called out. When there was no answer, she poked the teenager.
He pulled the headphones off and fiddled with the iPod in his breast pocket. “What’s wrong?”
“Make sure the esky and the rest of the gear are secure and let’s get the show on the road. We want to be fishing while there’s plenty of light left.”
“Right ya are, Viv.”
The motor purred into life at the first pull. She steered the compact three-seater aluminium boat past the pier, wove through the sandbars and cruised around the headland to the mouth of the river beyond. Her favourite fishing spots were the waterways in the delta. Twenty minutes later as they moved inland, she wriggled uncomfortably. The air was even hotter and more humid in this transitional world between land and sea, the estuary channels being well protected from the southeasterly winds by thick marsh vegetation. Her nose wrinkled as she caught a whiff of hydrogen sulphate fumes that hung sullenly like eggs rotting in the sun. The smell was more noticeable where the tall stilted mangroves met the water in a tangle of snaking roots.
Half an hour later Vivian switched off the motor. She stood up, planted her heavy boots on the tin bottom and took off her battered Akubra to fan her face. “Throw the anchor out here. It looks as likely a place as any.”
“Got it.” Ned leaned forward casually to drop the weight over the side, its ripples spreading towards the bank.
Vivian studied the olive-green trees that crowded the edge. She’d never been quite so far up this particular channel. She pulled the tackle box onto the seat, took out the rods and with practiced twists threaded prawns onto the hooks. They hung lifelessly on the barbs. She passed one of the rods over. “Give this a go. And watch what you’re doing. Someone saw a big croc around this part of the creek last week.”
Ned grinned as he balanced his legs for the throw. “Ain’t enough meat on my bones to tempt him.”
“Don’t get too cheeky. Just keep your hands out of the water.”
The line snaked out in an arc and landed in the middle of the channel with barely a splash. After Vivian had completed her cast, they settled down to wait.
Moments later, Ned fidgeted on the seat, sniffing the muggy air like a retriever. “There’s a bad stink comin’ from the bank somewhere. You smell it?”
“Ummm…Yes, I do.”
“Whatcha reckon it is?”
“I have no idea. It doesn’t smell like fish.”
“Could be a dead dugong, maybe?”
“Perhaps. Reel your line in. We’ll pull up the anchor and have a look.”
The engine coughed into life and the boat eased forward to carve a passage through the brine. Ned leaned over the side, his eyes narrowed. “Phew! It’s getting worse.” He pointed a stubby finger. “Look. Something’s under that clump of branches over there.”
Vivian swung the bow towards the bank and killed the motor. “I think we’d better have a look. Chuck out the anchor and hand me the grapple.”
The stench was stronger here, overpowering the mangroves oozing sulphur and muddy odours. Uneasily she wriggled the hook between the roots to prise them apart, on high alert now. The foul smell had nothing to do with sea-life. She knew the fetid odours of fish and prawn heads rotting in the heat. This was different. She ignored her heaving stomach as she worked the debris away with the grappling iron until a pile of filthy garbage was exposed.
“There’s something there. Pass me the flashlight.” The glow picked out a glimpse of pale blue material, jumbled up with something dirty yellow. The colours were barely definable amongst the mud and grey-green leaves. Vivian’s skin prickled. She prayed it was just a load of rubbish, but she doubted it was. Blowflies swarmed over the rags. “I’ve got a shitty feeling about this, Ned,” she muttered. With a flick of her wrists, she caught the top of the cloth protruding above the water line. She gave the rod a sharp jerk. With a slurp, a bulky mass slid free from its tomb and bobbed to the surface.
When Ned yelled, Vivian fought to stay calm. Half submerged, a man’s body floated out, his bloated face turned directly towards the boat. She swallowed the bitter taste that shot into her mouth as she peered at it. The corpse looked like it had been there for at least a week. Part of the left cheek was eaten away by fiddler crabs, which still clung to the tattered skin. Sightless eyes bulged grotesquely from the puffy flesh. Vivian forced herself to study the face. Distinguishing features were too hard to pick at this stage of decomposition, but a moustache hung like a dirty strip of seaweed beneath a beaked nose. She turned quickly to Ned. “Turn away. This poor bugger will give you nightmares.”
Loose strands of hair stuck to the perspiration on his face, which was now two shades paler. His freckles stood out in sharp contrast. “Do you recognize him, Viv?”
“It’s a little hard to tell, but I don’t think it’s anyone from around here. He’s not a local anyhow. No one has a moustache like that.”
“What’ll we do?”
Vivian looked at the youth with sympathy. A fifteen-year-old shouldn’t have to see something like this. Wild-eyed, he was half-perched on the seat like a gazelle ready for flight. “There’s nothing we can do. He’s too far gone to get him in the boat. Besides, we wouldn’t be able to put up with the smell. After I take a couple of photos, we’ll push him back into the roots and go home. I’ll tie something on the branch to mark the spot and notify the police when we get to town.”
She took the small phone out of its waterproof bag and snapped off some shots from every angle she could manage. Then Vivian manoeuvred the body back between two roots in the thick mud with the grapple and an oar. Once it was wedged in tightly, she lassoed a rope over a hanging branch, pulled it tight and tied one of the orange life jackets to its tail. She stood back satisfied. Coupled with the coordinates on the GPS, the body shouldn’t be hard to find again.
She looked around. The personality of the river had become far less welcoming. Shadows striped gloomily across the channel in the late afternoon light, and despite the heat, she shivered. Then an imperceptible flicker of movement in the water caught her eye. She stopped to listen, but heard only the benign sound of water lapping under the boat.
“Come on, let’s go!” Ned’s strident tone brought her back to action.
Vivian stood to start the motor. Time to get the boy out of here—away from this place with its ghosts. “Okay. I’m…”
The next words never left her throat as the river erupted. An enormous creature arched out of the water with an explosion of spray and launched at the bow. With a massive shudder, the boat tipped sharply on its end. Vivian’s muscles contracted involuntarily as she fought to regain her footing on the slippery tin floor. Then another crash resounded as the boat was hit again. She stumbled backward with a cry. Ned leaped from the seat and grabbed her arm with pinching fingers. But he was only a gangly teenager, not strong enough to maintain the hold as the creature rammed the boat again. This time, she had no hope. Her head snapped sideways, her torso twisted in an arc, and she toppled over the side, sprawling face down into the river.
For a moment, all went black—suffocating blackness. Blood pounded in her ears as she frantically kicked upwards to the surface. With a grunt, she burst out of the water, floundered for a moment, then gargled and coughed as she tried to breathe. Once air began to trickle into her lungs, Vivian forced herself to calm down. The boat bobbed erratically, though thankfully hadn’t capsized. She treaded water and strained to see what had hit the boat. When Ned shouted frantically, “Swim, Viv, swim!” panic flared through her.
Not far away was the biggest saltwater crocodile she’d ever seen.
With desperate strokes, she swam for the bank. It took less than twenty seconds for her feet to hit the bottom. Only when she was up to her thighs in the mud-choked water did she dare turn to look. Ned was poised at the front of the boat, screaming incoherently as he jabbed an oar at the scaled back. Ten metres from her now, the crocodile moved forward aggressively. Fear caused a sick lurch in her stomach. She could taste the sourness. She knew she’d never make it up the bank. In the failing light, the dead man floated under the spindly branches that hung in a veil of silvery-grey.
With a do-or-die effort, she lunged forward to grasp his pants and her fingers latched on to the belt around his waist. She pulled hard to propel the cadaver towards the crocodile. The belt came off in her hand as the body shot forward. It was the only thing between her and the giant salty. Her nerves shrieking, she shrank back against the roots. They were so close the creature’s head was clearly defined—the yellow eyes hooded by double lids—the pocked, scaly ridges down the centre to the snout—the heavy jaw lined with teeth. And the eyes were fixed squarely on her. Vivian began to pray.
Then the miracle happened. As quickly as it had materialised, the monster vanished. In a split second, the massive jaws snapped over the bloated chest of the corpse. With a thrashing swirl, both disappeared from sight. She didn’t hesitate, striking out for the boat that Ned had brought in closer. With a cry of relief, she pulled herself over the side, the dead man’s belt still clutched in her hand. Awkwardly she flopped to the floor, cradling her knees to her chest as she fought to breathe.
Ned looked strained and pale, a tear leaked over his lid as he embraced her. “I was afraid you were a goner.”
Vivian could only manage a semblance of a smile. “Me too. I guess he thought we were taking his dinner. Damn he was a big mongrel, wasn’t he? Come on—let’s get the hell out of here before he comes back.”
The first pull of the rope produced an unsettling hiss. She jerked it once, twice, and by the third attempt sweat trickled down her face. Not only from exertion but fear too. She wiped her face clean with rough swipes. It would be dark soon, so she had to hurry. Vivian was careful to compose her next words when Ned began to whimper. He needed to be calmed down—she knew blind panic when she saw it. The lad was terrified. “She must have got wet. Hand me the rag over there and I’ll try to get some of the moisture off.”
She worked quickly, with an ear alert for a telltale sound of something swimming close by. It didn’t come. All she could hear were the croak of frogs, the buzz of insects, the beat of her heart, the breath coming in and out of her lungs. Ned had fallen silent as if his voice might somehow call the creature back.
Satisfied at last, she flung the oilcloth back in the toolbox. “That should do it. I’ll give it another go.”
With this pull, the outboard motor purred into life. The fishing boat surged out into the middle of the channel to begin its journey home as the last rays of the sun petered out over the western mountain range. The water darkened to a deep purple. Vivian switched on the spotlight, though she knew they wouldn’t need it for long. Tonight was a full moon, its glow already visible seaward. It crept steadily over the marshes and soon there would be enough silvery light to navigate home.
Consumed with their own thoughts, and content to watch the mangroves pass by, they wound along the labyrinth of river canals. Half an hour later, speckled lights from the three houses on the bluff appeared in the distance nearer the main branch to the sea.
“Are you going to see the police tonight, Viv?”
Vivian nodded. “I guess I should, though there’s not much point. They’ll never find the poor bloke now. He’ll be in the belly of the croc. Here, take the tiller and I’ll have a look at that belt.”
Vivian picked it up off the floor and turned it over curiously in her hands.
Ned leaned forward as he strained to look. “What is it?”
“Just a leather belt, though it’s got a fancy buckle. There’s quite a big pouch attached to it.”
“Anything in it?”
“I’ll have a look. We’d better not tamper with it too much. I’ll have to give it to the police.”
With the release of the zip, Vivian hissed. The pouch, apart from a slip of paper tucked into the side, bulged with fifty-and one-hundred-dollar notes. She glanced quickly at Ned. From the look on his face, the boy had caught sight of the cash. He turned wide, unblinking eyes to her. “That’s a lot of dough.” His face tightened into a calculating expression. “Will we keep some of it?”
Vivian shook her head. “No way, Ned, we’ll hand it in. It’s not ours to keep nor do I want it. We were lucky to escape with our lives so let’s not ruin it.” Pensive, she stared at the tangle of trees and rocks on the banks and then at the river behind them.
Black clouds rolled in from the east to swallow the moon. The countryside retreated into darkness, closing in on the small boat like a cloak. The gloom was enough to take them out of the physical reality and back into their imaginations.
To Vivian’s relief, Ned seemed in relatively good spirits when she dropped him off home. She gave his mother a wave when she appeared at the door. Mary Graham was a small wiry woman, the reddish gold of her hair already turning a light grey although she was not much past forty. The climate, hard work and worry had taken its toll. Four years ago, she had lost her commercial fisherman-husband at sea, leaving her with three children to rear.
“Hi Viv. Back already?”
“Hello Mary. No fish tonight, unfortunately. We had a run-in with a croc—Ned will tell you the story. I’ve got something to do.” Vivian smiled with genuine warmth. Mary had come to her in desperation earlier in the year, asking if she would give her son a job to get him off the streets after school finished. Vivian agreed to take him some weekends and during the school holidays. Over the months, she had grown fond of the lad. He wasn’t a bad kid, just one of those who had too much sting. Resilient too. She had no doubt he would describe the ordeal with enthusiasm to his mates tomorrow.
She checked her watch—half past seven. Now she would have to disturb the sergeant at home. Joe Hamilton was a good country cop, but with only one constable to share the workload, there had to be a good reason to call on him officially at night. The four hundred and eighty-six permanent residents of Ashton Bay knew the rules—only in an emergency. Desperate to scrub the putrid odour of decay off her body, her first instinct was to go home for a long shower. And her hair was coated with so much mud that the strands were clumped together in thick wads. But a dead body needed to be reported as soon as possible. By the time she went out to her house and returned it would be very late.
Her mind eased when she saw the light on at the police station. The sergeant’s residence stood next door so she was glad she didn’t have to go there. It wouldn’t do to have to face Dee Hamilton in her present state. The police officer’s wife was definitely more of a force to be reckoned with than her more liberal husband. Vivian climbed the six stairs and rapped on the door of the small building. She couldn’t remember seeing the sergeant so well groomed—in this isolated place, the dress code was definitely casual. Whoever was inside must be important.
Hamilton looked at her in surprise. “Viv, just the person I want. I’ve been trying to get you all afternoon. There’s a guide job going and I recommended you if you’re interested. They’re paying well.” His florid face became even redder as he sniffed. “Damn you smell foul. Where have you been?”
“Fishing, Joe. I wouldn’t have come in looking like this, but I found a body in the river. I figured I should report it tonight.”
The policeman became alert. “A body? Who was it?”
She shrugged. “Nobody from around here, or at least I don’t think so. A bit hard to tell. It was a man…I’d say in his thirties or forties. Ned and I found him in the mangroves. He’d been there for quite a few days by the look. Then when I pulled it out with the grappling iron, a croc hit the boat. He was coming back for it.”
“How’d you get so filthy?”
Vivian gave a shudder, with no attempt to keep the tremble out of her voice she continued. “I fell overboard. I don’t mind telling you I got the fright of my life when I thought I was going to be his next feed. Then he grabbed the corpse and disappeared. It was the biggest croc I’ve even seen.”
“I heard there was a big ’un out there.” Hamilton looked at her with sympathy and tossed his head in the direction of his office. “I’ve got a couple of secret service people inside. They’ve spent all afternoon snooping about looking for a missing man. Your corpse could just be him.”
“He was too bloated and damaged to be recognizable. But maybe the photos will be good enough for them to see if it’s the bloke they’re after.” She handed him the belt, stepping back self-consciously after she had done so. “I pulled this off him. That’s the main reason I came here tonight instead of ringing. We can’t do much for the poor guy now, but you’d better take a look inside the leather pouch. It’s loaded with money.”
Hamilton whistled when he unzipped the flap. “Come on in and take a seat. I’ll have a word with them before I bring you in.”
With a dubious glance down at her clothes, Vivian shook her head. “I’m not in any fit state to see visitors. I should go home for a shower. You can have my phone with the pictures.”
A sly smile crossed his face. “You show them. It won’t hurt these two. The bloke’s a bit pushy.”
“All right, but warn them.”
After he disappeared into the office, Vivian sat gingerly on the wooden bench against the wall. She hoped the smell wouldn’t linger, though didn’t hold out much hope. The foyer was small, a counter separating the cramped visitors’ space from the receptionist’s section. That part was filled with a desk, chair, a photocopy machine and an instant camera machine for license photographs. Utilitarian austerity. The walls were decorated with police paraphernalia: photographs of wanted criminals, missing persons’ pictures and a few public notices.
When Hamilton appeared fifteen minutes later, Viv’s clothes had stiffened, dried hard in the air-con. “Come on in,” he said with a jerk of his head.
Vivian was sure she creaked as she walked into the room. A man and a woman turned to study her while she sheepishly shuffled to a seat as far away as possible. The office was a good deal larger than the foyer, but from their audible gasps it was obvious that they’d smelt her. After a cursory glance at the woman who sat shadowed in the corner, Vivian turned her full attention to the man. Automatically, her training clicked in and she did a quick appraisal. Short haircut, fit body and though he wore casual summer clothes, the labels were more upmarket than the local attire. As well, the slight bulge under the shirt signalled his shoulder holster. A member of some enforcement agency, though not a cop.
When the sergeant made the introductions, the man, Ross Hansen, hung back without offering a handshake. Like her companion, the woman, Claire Walker, was dressed casually, though lacked his arrogant air. She gave Vivian a pleasant smile but didn’t extend her hand either. Not that Vivian blamed them, but it irritated her nevertheless.
Hansen eyed her dispassionately, tipped his head and said, “You found a body?”
By the set of his mouth, Vivian knew he found her distasteful. Her voice was hoarse from coughing up the muddy water and she rasped, “Yes?”
“And you were there fishing?”
“Yes I was.”
“And you claim a crocodile ate it?”
“Why didn’t you ring first before you came here?”
“I was just uptown so it was easier to call in. We’re not into formalities in this place,” she said, puzzled by his aggression.
“You didn’t…ah…think it advisable to clean up first?”
A harder edge was in his voice, which made her hackles rise. He reminded her unpleasantly of a senior officer who had plagued her unnecessarily after an incident early in her career. “No. I live out of town.”
“Tell us what happened and where exactly you found him.” He stabbed a finger as he enunciated the words.
Anger swept through Vivian. His tone smacked of interrogation. Arrogant bastard. “I will when you speak to me civilly,” she snapped.
“I asked you a question.”
“It was a fair way up a tributary of the river. He’s been dead for a while when I found him. The croc would have taken him and then stashed him somewhere. They do that if they’ve already eaten, but mostly because they prefer their flesh to be softer. It comes off the bone easier.”
“I don’t want a wildlife lesson.”
She narrowed her eyes and said in a flat voice. “Get over yourself. I’m off home.”
A feminine voice interrupted in a soft tone. “I’ll take it from here, Ross. I’m sorry we put you through that, but we wanted to see how you would react. You see, we need your help and we want someone who can handle stressful situations.”
Vivian turned her head to look at her. “What help, Ms Walker?”
“It’s Claire, Vivian,” the woman said, walking over with an outstretched hand and a friendly smile.
“Whoa…don’t come too close. I’m not in any fit state to shake anyone’s hand.”
Claire ignored the remark and clasped her hand. Then she pulled a chair up to sit close; far away enough not to invade Vivian’s space, but near enough to make the conversation intimate. Vivian had to give her top marks for not flinching—the smell was atrocious. “Sergeant Hamilton recommended you as a guide. We’re looking for something we believe is up in these parts somewhere.” Claire reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a photograph. “Was it this man you saw in the mangroves?”
Vivian peered at the snap of a young man in his early twenties and shook her head. “No. The dead bloke had a moustache and a beaked nose. I’d say he was Middle Eastern or Mediterranean, though it’s just a guess. He was a mess.” She fished the phone out of her pocket and tapped. A picture appeared on the screen. “Here he is.”
Claire visibly relaxed as she studied the image. “No, he’s definitely not the man we’re searching for, but we can’t ignore your find, especially since he was carrying so much money. Sergeant counted nearly seventy-five thousand dollars in the pouch. It could very well have something to do with our case. We want to offer you a position as our guide for two weeks, but the timeline will depend on what we find. A fortnight should be ample. Our employer is prepared to pay three thousand dollars a week for your services. There won’t be any time off once we start. The sergeant recommended you as the best person for the job.”
Vivian leaned back in the chair to study her before she answered. Claire Walker was of average height, with a comely body and an earnest attractive face. Her hair, nearly dead white, was plaited into a long braid halfway down her back. As she spoke, she flicked away a loose strand a couple of times without a thought, which seemed more of a habit than a necessity. Her eyes were an unusually pale blue, like a bleached patch of sky. She wore tailored pants with a V-necked green top, sensible heels and little makeup. Estimated age, late twenties or early thirties. At first glance, she didn’t look particularly strong, but on closer inspection, Vivian could see the subtle muscles rippling across her shoulders and down her arms. There was a hidden strength there, and it would be a mistake to take her lightly. She held herself with confidence and poise, though not overbearingly.
“Who is the young man you’re looking for?” Vivian asked.
“That information is highly confidential, so before I can tell you anything, can I assume you’re interested?”
“No, I’m not. Sorry. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.”
Claire Walker showed no dismay but merely smiled. She had a set of perfectly white teeth in her full-lipped mouth. “We can up the ante if you like. How does another five hundred a week thrown in sound to you?” She accompanied the words with a light touch on Vivian’s arm.
She’s good. Classic technique. For a second Vivian studied the finger then gave just a hint of a smile. “Sorry. Sarge can give you two or three names of blokes who would be more than willing to do the job.” She looked over at Hamilton and said mildly, “Bruiser or Thom might help these folk, Joe. What do you think?”
“I’m sure they would take leave from their jobs for that amount of money.”
Claire gave her a frankly appraising look. “Is there anything that really bothers you about the offer, Vivian? If so, I think we could come to some agreement in the terms of the contract.”
Damn. Can’t the woman take no for an answer? Vivian forced a note of brusque finality as she reeled off her stock answer. “I’m not interested. I’m too busy at the moment.”
“I’m sure we can arrange someone to assist you. What exactly do you do for a living?”
Vivian made a defensive gesture. The woman was an expert as she herded her into a corner. “I have a market garden.”
“Good. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get someone to help you.”
“I prefer to take care of my own business.”
“Come now. We will make sure a competent person is put in charge of it.” She chuckled. “At least you’re not a brain surgeon. Now that would be more difficult.”
Vivian glowered. Walker was unflappable, using a level pleasant tone as she whittled away at her. She had been trained well in the art of persuasion. And underneath the beguiling inflections, Vivian caught a hint of intractability. This woman was going to be as hard to shed as a tick on a dog. At this rate she’d never get home—she desperately needed to chill out with a cold beer and a long shower. The crocodile drama had caught up with her. “Look, I don’t want to be rude but I really am very tired. We can take this conversation up tomorrow, but don’t expect me to change my mind.”
Claire’s face broke into a charming grin. “I’ll be there at eight tomorrow morning on the dot, Vivian.”
Vivian grunted as she rose to take her leave, well aware she had deftly been manoeuvred into giving an interview. When she reached the door, she turned her head quickly to look back at the woman. The congenial smile had gone and in its place was a measured expression.
As Vivian made her way back to her truck, she couldn’t suppress her curiosity. Who the hell was Claire Walker? She was certainly no amateur in the cloak-and-dagger stakes. And who was the mysterious dead man in the mangroves? For two agents, one showing all the signs of an interrogation expert, to be sniffing around made the case very important. But even if Vivian went with them, there was no doubt they wouldn’t be telling her the true reason for whatever it was that they were here for. She dipped her hand in her pocket to satisfy herself that the small piece of paper with the phone number from the belt wallet was still there.
She understood secrets. She’d recognized the number immediately.
* * *
Claire thoughtfully watched Vivian depart before she flashed Hamilton a smile. “Thank you for your help today, Sergeant. We’ll go back to the hotel now and see you in the morning.”
“So he wasn’t the fellow you were looking for?”
“No. However, the fact the dead man turned up close to our investigations suggests he may have some connection. Could we have the belt to examine overnight?”
Hamilton eyed her for a moment before his face firmed. “Sorry, a corpse is a police matter. The belt and contents have to be kept as evidence until my superintendent releases it. You may come tomorrow to study it here since I’ve been instructed to give you any help you require. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll lock this money in the safe and file my report. Show yourselves out…I’ll shut the door when I leave.”
Claire dipped her head in acknowledgment. Her estimation of his capabilities went up a notch. He was a man who knew his duty and intended to do it. Somewhere down the track when they found out exactly what they were dealing with, it would be advisable to seek his aid. She turned to her companion. “Come on. Let’s get back to our rooms.”
Less than half a kilometre from the station, the town’s only hotel was a sturdy brick building, re-enforced to withstand the cyclones that plagued the far north coast in the wet season. Once inside her room, Claire threw the file on the table and gestured to the chair. Senior Agent Ross Hansen was a solid man, with a square burly face and hair cropped short at his temples. A hardnosed agent with many years in the field, he wasn’t particularly likable but a good man to have at her back.
Hansen frowned at her, obviously put out. “Why insist on Ms Crocodile Dundee as our guide. She’s nothing out of the ordinary, in fact, I thought her boorish and ignorant.”
Claire eyed him in surprise. It wasn’t often someone got under his thick skin. “I’m certain there’s much more to Vivian Andrews than meets the eye. My gut feeling tells me she’ll be a good person to have in a tight situation. The way she held herself suggested she wasn’t the average market gardener—she was remarkably in control after a traumatic experience. She’s honest too. Seventy-five thousand dollars was a lot to hand in. Since the body was never going to be found, it would have been easy to pocket the money with nobody any the wiser. And she wasn’t fooled at all by me. I could see in her eyes she knew very well I was trying to coerce her.”
“She agreed to see you tomorrow though.”
Amusement twinkled in Claire’s eyes. “Only because she was tired. There’s no doubt she’ll try her best to fob me off when I go out. I’ll have to give her something to interest her into taking the job.”
“It’s up to you. So, do we go to the site in the mangroves?”
She shook her head. “Not by boat. I’ve booked a plane to survey the area from the air tomorrow afternoon at two. The pilot who brought us here agreed to the charter. Have a look around the town while I’m out at the market garden?”
“I’ll go with you tomorrow.”
“No. I’m going alone.”
Hansen shook his head emphatically. “We have to stick together.”
“If you’re there, Andrews won’t take the job.”
“Rubbish. How do you know?”
Claire tilted her head with a frown. “It’s what I’m trained for, Ross. I am, after all, a behavioural scientist. If I can’t read an average person, how can I possibly find Dane Ahmed and persuade him to go home?”
“Do you think that dead guy could be something to do with our case?”
“Very likely,” said Claire. “Too much of coincidence not to be.”