The real trouble came at midnight.
Martin Askin had arrived in Cairns at five o’clock in the afternoon and checked into room 607, dumping his bags on the floor and marching to the windows to yank down the blinds. He’d stood in the room in the dim light, surveying the crisply made bed and the desk neatly arranged with the room service menu, daring there to be some sign of trouble. A forgotten bar of soap in the immaculate bathroom. An unemptied bin.
His plane had sat inexplicably on the tarmac at LAX for forty-five minutes before take-off, and again for half an hour at Sydney airport, adding more than an hour onto an already seventeen-hour haul in economy. A flight attendant had spilled hot tea in his lap somewhere over the Pacific, and the plane’s toilets had been malfunctioning, filling the back half of the plane with a wretched stench. His taxi driver from Cairns airport had got lost for ten minutes on the drive to the hotel, and at the reception desk the computer had frozen just before his key could be assigned.
If one more thing went wrong, Martin Askin was going to lose it.
Everything in the room seemed fine. He’d shed his clothes, showered, and slipped, groaning, between the cool, starchy sheets.
At 5.31 pm, the door to room 608 had slammed. Knocking, bashing sounds, the unmistakeable near-hysterical laughter of overactive young boys – a bunch of them. Martin had resisted the urge to burst into tears from exhausted rage. He’d pulled the pillow over his head and gone back to sleep.
When he next looked at the clock by the bed, it was 7.07 pm. The swirling, rising music of a movie playing too loudly in the next room reached him, but what had broken him out of his sleep was a knocking against the wall. The boys were jumping on the beds, ramming the headboards into the wall. He looked at the phone beside him and thought of calling reception and complaining, but sleep took him before he could.
At 8.03 pm the door to the room slammed a few times in succession. Heavy footsteps by his door. At 9.11 pm, squealing. One of the boys screaming, ‘Get off! Get off! Get off!’
Martin Askin woke at 11.02 pm to the sound of the door slamming again and machine-gun fire in the movie. He sat up and bashed on the wall above his bed.
‘Would you shut the fuck up!’ he roared, sensing immediately the smallness of his voice in his own room. If he could hear every sound in 608, couldn’t they hear him? ‘Stop slamming the goddamn door!’
No response. The movie next door played on. He thought he recognised Dwayne Johnson’s voice. His eyes ached when they closed.
At midnight, an adult voice, the first he had heard, split through his dreams like a chisel, leaving a pain in his temple. He was out of the bed in a panic before consciousness had fully arrested him. Martin stumbled in the dark towards the door, shunting into the unfamiliar wall by the bathroom. Just as he opened the door to the hall, the woman in room 608 did the same. Martin had the sense, though he couldn’t be sure, that the blonde woman’s voice had been rising and rising and now it was at fever pitch.
She didn’t seem to know whether she wanted to go back into the room or stay out in the hall, holding her head and pacing. A trio of small boys, one of them already blubbering with tears, followed her movements back and forth as other hotel guests emerged from their rooms.
‘How can he be gone? How can he be gone?’ the woman was crying. She was panting, sweat-slick and badly sunburned. ‘Richie? Richie? Oh, Jesus. He’s missing. He’s gone!’
One of them was missing.
I snapped out of my sleep, the sweltering night materialising around me, loud through the open windows of the house. The rain had come and gone, but the reptilian and amphibian creatures that dwelled in the forest around my property kept up their barking, hoping for more to break the heat.
I threw back the sheets, sitting on the edge of the bed as the thought evolved from a panicked impulse into a clear message.
I’d put six geese away that evening. Not seven.
It was something I felt rather than knew. My geese are well-trained. They obey my commands like fat, feathered soldiers, and when I’d opened up their coop at sunset and told them to get in, I’d observed a row enter the little house without feeling the need to do a roll call. There should have been six grey, one white. I went out into the hall and through the kitchen, finding my way by the square cut-outs of moonlit rainforest in each room, until I grabbed my torch and pushed through the back screen door.
My heart was beating hard. The dog, Celine, knew something was up immediately, guessed wrongly that it was her residency on the cane lounge – a terrible misdeed. She slithered guiltily off the cushions as I jogged down the stairs and through the wet grass to the goose coop.
Six heads popped up from under wings.
‘Shit,’ I whispered, pushing on feathered chests as they came crowding at the entrance to be let out. I refastened the door of the coop and swung the torch around the property, the wire fence at the waterline, the gently lapping lake, still as pale glass in the moonlight. I braced for that terrible sight – a scattering of feathers trailing into the woods where the missing bird had been dragged by a fox or wild cat. Celine was whimpering at the edge of the porch, wagging her tail encouragingly so that it thumped the boards as she tried to work out my mission.
My geese are important to me. I had rescued the family of birds from certain death on the banks of Crimson Lake a year earlier, unaware that they would be the ones to rescue me. I’d taken comfort in caring for creatures more helpless than myself after an accusation had destroyed my life and taken away my home, my job and my family.
Now one of them was gone.
I did a lap of the house and caught sight of a pale mound underneath the lounge Celine had been sleeping on. The bird was tucked against the wall at the very back corner of the porch. I flattened on the wooden boards and shone the torch on the bird, and she lifted her head slightly.
‘Peeper,’ I called, reaching. ‘What are you doing, you silly thing?’
She wouldn’t come. I jumped up and slid the couch away, and lifted the large, warm bird from the ground. I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. When I picked up the geese they usually peddled their feet in protest. Peeper’s legs remained limp. I set her down and she stood for only a second before sinking again into a bundle, her head tucked against her chest.
‘Oh no.’ I lifted her once more with shaking hands. ‘No, no, no.’
I drove furiously. A part of my brain was already whispering placations about the bird in the box in the back of the car, trying to prepare for that awful moment when I arrived at the veterinarian’s office seconds too late. Her limp body at the bottom of the plastic carrier, a wing splayed, the neck like a dropped rope. It’s a stupid bird, I thought. They can’t live forever. You gave them the best life you could. Though the words were easy to find, they were impossible to believe.
The headlights lit the dirt roads lined by high golden walls of cane, making fluttery embers of thousands of grasshoppers and moths disturbed by my passage. I glanced at the clock. It was three in the morning. The rundown houses and abandoned barns in the fields near my home were dark and empty.
I knew only one vet in the area. I’d taken the geese there the day I found them, when I was drunk and still ravaged by my time in prison. The veterinarian had made no effort to disguise his hatred when he discovered who I was, but he had already treated my birds. I was headed there when I saw for the first time a new, bright blue sign in the distance: VET.
I scanned the facade quickly for any indication that they gave 24-hour emergency care, but there was none. I grabbed the box from the back of the car anyway, not daring to look inside, and ran to the glass doors.
I pounded and yelled for only a few seconds before lights began flickering on at the back of the building. Hope. The silhouette that jogged towards me through the dark was petite and lean, a woman pulling a thin dressing gown around her. She must have lived above the surgery. I lowered my eyes to the box in my hands, but I knew there was going to be no disguising who I was. Everyone in the country knew me. My trial, and its aftermath, had been a national sensation. I began speaking before she could unlock the door.
‘Please don’t turn me away,’ I said. ‘My bird is sick. She’s really sick and needs help right now. I’ll go. Just please help her. She –’
‘Why would I send you away?’ The woman frowned at me. Her accent was British. Northern. My mind raced. Was she new to the country? Her big, green eyes were searching mine, no sign of recognition in them.
I swallowed, shook my head.
‘No reason. I meant, uh. It’s just the hour. The terribly late hour.’
‘Come in.’ She held the door open and I slid past her. A wall of scent, disinfectant and animal fur, the husky smell of the bags of seed and dry dog food stacked on shelves near the counter.
In the light of the surgery room I got a better look at the doctor. Honey-coloured hair falling from a hastily applied clip. Her small face was crowded with big, sumptuous features. I was prickling with emotions, relief and terror as she opened the box and peered inside.
‘Oh hello, birdy,’ she murmured, almost to herself. Then to me: ‘I’ll be thirty seconds.’ She jogged into a back room. I couldn’t look into the box, did a restless lap of the surgery room instead. The certificate on the wall read Dr Elaine Bass.
Dr Bass came back in a minute dressed in a T-shirt and denim shorts, pulling on white latex gloves.
‘I didn’t catch your name,’ she said.
‘It’s Ted. Collins.’ One truth, one lie.
‘Laney.’ She smiled, reaching slowly into the box. ‘And this is?’
‘Oh.’ I felt heat come into my face. ‘Peeper. She’s a year old.’
‘How long has she been unwell?’
‘I don’t know.’ The dread was returning. I watched as Laney lifted Peeper onto the examination table. ‘She didn’t go into the coop with the others at sunset. I found her under a couch.’
Laney took the big bird’s wing in her hand and pulled it gently away from the feathery body, stretching the beautiful arc, fanning shades of grey, black, cream. She felt around the base of the bird’s neck and smoothed back the feathers on her head.
‘All right, Ted. I’m going to ask you to leave her with me.’
‘Can I please stay?’ I cleared my throat. ‘Just, you know. Until we know something.’
‘Of course.’ Laney gestured to the door through which we’d come. ‘Stay as long as you like.’
I heard her talking to my bird, calling her by her name, through the door to the waiting area. I read every brochure in the room, coming to the conclusion that there were far too many types of parasite in the world. When Laney fell silent, I sat on the couch and surrendered to my crushing worry.
The truth was, without my birds I might not have been able to recover from what had happened. On the side of the highway one fateful day, I’d pulled over to fix a noise in my car, not realising that I’d parked only metres from a young girl waiting for a bus. She’d been abducted and brutally assaulted only minutes after I left her side. I was accused of the crime, charged, put on trial, and then the charges were dropped, the judiciary leaving me to be sentenced by the public when they couldn’t find the evidence to do it themselves.
I’d been an ordinary man. A drug squad cop. A husband. A father. Now I was Australia’s most hated man.
I’d fled to the property in the remote wetlands of Far North Queensland, and taken heart at caring for a group of birds who might have died without my help. They were a symbol of something for me. Of hope. Of worthiness.
When Laney appeared in the doorway an hour later, I realised with embarrassment that I had turned my thoughts to her to escape the tension of not knowing how Peeper was doing. I’d been wondering how long she’d been in the area. Whether she owned this shop or rented it. Why on earth she’d come from wherever it was she’d been born in England to this faraway tangle of rainforest on the edge of nowhere. It was a novelty for me to meet people who didn’t know me from my time in the media spotlight.
She didn’t mess around. ‘I’ll have to wait for some tests to come back, but I’m almost certain she’s got aspergillosis,’ Laney said.
‘That sounds bad.’
‘It can be. But you may have brought her in just in time. Aspergillus is a fungus. Gets in the lungs.’
‘Is it something I’ve done?’
‘I’m sure it isn’t,’ she said. ‘You seem like a pretty attentive owner. It’s the Tropical North. Fungus loves it here, and poultry are susceptible to it. Is this a pet goose or do you have a farm?’
‘No, no, she’s a pet. But I have six others.’
‘Huh.’ She gave me an appreciative look. ‘The bird man of Crimson Lake.’
I managed a smile.
‘Go home and check the others,’ she said. ‘And keep an eye on their behaviour over the coming days. Because Peeper separated herself off from the rest, the others may be fine. Empty all their water, clean out their living quarters, sterilise everything. I’m going to give you some potassium iodine drops and instructions for treating their water.’
She went behind the counter and started looking through bottles and packages there.
‘Is she going to be okay, do you think?’
‘Look.’ Laney sighed, bringing a small bottle to me. ‘Ted, birds can be really flaky. It’s very difficult to predict in the early stages how treatment will go.’
I nodded, locking my eyes on the bottle in my hands, trying to keep my face hard.
‘Give me your number and I’ll let you know how we go. Okay?’ She rubbed my bare forearm, a gesture that surprised me and, it seemed, her. Her hand fluttered at her eyebrow, embarrassed. ‘If she makes it, I’ll have to have her here for a few days at least.’
We finished up, and Laney saw me to the door. I waved, a strange tingling in my chest as I climbed into the car. I put the feeling down to nerves. It was only a matter of time before this woman found out who I was, and most likely that realisation would come swiftly, when an employee asked about the bird, perhaps, and she described me. She had run my credit card and failed to notice the different surname, but that was a lucky break. In a couple of days, if Peeper survived, I’d come back in to pick the bird up and find Dr Bass’s warm smile had soured into the uncomfortable grimace I was used to seeing on the faces of most people I dealt with.