- Published: 4 May 2021
- ISBN: 9781761042621
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
The Girl Remains
The sound of a twig snapping from somewhere behind made the girls freeze.
‘Did you hear that?’ Cecilia tugged on the back of Gypsy’s shirt again. ‘Someone’s out here – with us.’
‘Stop being such a baby,’ Scarlett groaned from the front. ‘It’ll just be a fox, or a wallaby.’
‘Probably only a possum,’ Gypsy agreed, brushing away the trembling hand that was resting on her left shoulder. She hoped her friend couldn’t feel her own steadily increasing pulse.
In silence the trio continued along the sandy track, weaving their way through the native shrubbery, inhaling the familiar, comforting scent of tea-tree. For most of their journey they relied on the dim light from the night sky to guide them, but at times, like now, it was pitch black, the dense canopy of moonah trees enveloping them in darkness.
‘Ow.’ Gypsy let out a little yelp as she tripped over an exposed root.
‘Shh,’ Scarlett hissed. ‘We’re almost there.’
Sure enough, the girls came to the sharp bend in the trail, which led down to Blairgowrie’s notorious Koonya Ocean Beach. It was a magnificent stretch of coastline, punctuated by towering sandstone rocks and crashing waves – majestic, but also deadly. Every summer
they would hear tales of how the icy waters that rolled in from
Bass Strait had taken the life of yet another naïve tourist who had underestimated the strong tides and killer rips.
But that night, the girls weren’t worried about the dangerous coast. Instead, they were staying on higher ground, looking for the forked tree that would lead them to the clearing.
‘Here it is,’ Scarlett whispered, running her hand over the papery bark. ‘And we’d better hurry, it must be getting close to midnight.’
Pressing her lips together, Gypsy followed her friend, stepping off the track and making her way through the ever-deepening
shrubbery. She did her best to ignore the increasing rustle of branches all around, and the short, anxious breaths of Cecilia from behind.
‘We found it,’ Scarlett gasped, as the banksia bushes opened up, allowing the blood moon to bathe the girls in a dull, red light.
At the centre of the clearing, the ring of rocks they’d previously placed lay undisturbed; the inverted pentagrams still hanging from the surrounding trees.
‘Reckon our carvings have lasted?’ Gypsy motioned for her two friends to join her at the nearest moonah tree, where she traced
her fingertips along the rough trunk until she found what she was looking for: the sharp etching of horned ears.
In quiet synchronicity the girls walked from tree to tree, completing a full lap of the clearing before gathering in the centre.
‘We’ve arrived.’ Scarlett grinned. ‘Welcome back to The Devil’s Landing.’
A nervous rasp escaped from Cecilia’s mouth. Gypsy shuffled from foot to foot.
‘Should we get started?’ She felt herself anxiously eye the bag of supplies, that Cecilia had reluctantly carried and now sat at their feet.
From her jeans pocket, Scarlett pulled out a small knife – the one she’d stolen from her dad’s fishing kit. She waved the blade. ‘Who will do the honours?’
Cecilia turned away.
Gypsy stared at the moon. This was her duty.
She took the knife and crouched down, then pressed the blade firmly into the sandy ground as she moved around the rocks.
Scarlett was first to step into the circle. ‘The ritual has started,’ she whispered dramatically.
Gypsy joined her. Cecilia hugged her arms to her chest; frozen.
‘Will you hurry up?’ Scarlett snapped.
‘I’m scared. I think we should leave.’
‘Give it a go. It’ll be fun,’ Gypsy urged, reaching a hand. Beside her she could sense Scarlett’s anger building.
‘Something’s in the bushes.’ Cecilia’s lips were trembling.
‘I don’t think we’re alone.’
‘Why can’t you stop making shit up?’ Scarlett snarled.
Gypsy stepped out of the circle and reached for the bag. ‘Maybe we should have a drink first?’ She pulled out a can of beer. ‘Oh.’
‘It’s all Dad had.’ Scarlett’s eyes flickered between her friends, daring either of them to complain.
The yeasty liquid hissed as Gypsy flicked the aluminium lid open. She took a small, tentative sip.
‘Give it here.’ Scarlett marched over and gulped a mouthful. ‘You get used to it.’
‘Try some, Cecilia.’ Gypsy waved her friend closer. From the corner of her eye she saw Scarlett fumbling with a plastic sleeve. White pills. What was she doing?
‘It’ll help us relax.’ Scarlett winked at Gypsy, dropping the pills into the can and swirling it, before passing it on to Cecilia. Oblivious.
Holding her breath, Gypsy watched Cecilia drink, chugging at the can awkwardly as though in a rush to get it over with.
‘Don’t finish it all.’ She heard the stammer in her voice. High-pitched. Nervous.
‘Yeah, give it back.’ Scarlett took another swig, leaving Gypsy to finish the dregs.
She tossed the empty can to the side. ‘Wanna get the fire going?’
‘Yeah. But where’s the kindling?’ Scarlett was rummaging through the bag.
Gypsy’s mouth turned dry. ‘I think I left it behind.’
‘You left it?’
‘I just forgot.’
Her friend glowered. ‘Then you’ll need to find some. Quickly.’
In a panic, Gypsy delved back through the shrubbery, foraging for any sticks or dry grass that might help to start a fire. But the further she ventured from the clearing, the harder it was to see, and the black shapes around her became distorted; terrifying.
Using the pocketknife, she hacked at nearby branches, her actions becoming increasingly frenzied, her mind playing tricks on her. Was Cecilia right? Was that a dark figure hiding in the bushes? Was that another? Was she surrounded?
She must have been gone for at least a few minutes when her name was shouted several times. Then came the rustle in the bushes, the heavy breathing, her wild, swinging arm.
But what happened next would forever remain a blur.
In the coming days, Gypsy would tell police she’d heard a scream – a high-pitched wail that had risen through the night, so piercing that flocks of birds had jolted from their slumber and taken flight. She’d say she had no idea where her friends had got to; that she’d searched desperately for hours. Only giving up when she’d become disoriented and lost.
Of course, she wouldn’t tell them about the devils that were carved on the trees, the magic white pills, or the rituals the girls had been carrying out.
And she certainly wouldn’t mention how she’d fled along the dirt track, hiding in the backyard of her friend’s family home until first light, at which time she’d shakily turned on the garden tap, able to see just enough to make sure all the blood was washed from her hands.
The wind came in sharp, sudden flurries, painfully whipping sand in her face and forcing her to pause. Cindy sniffed loudly as she huddled lower, squeezing her eyes shut and pressing her chin to her chest. This hadn’t been at all what she’d imagined when she’d accepted a last-minute assignment down on the Mornington Peninsula.
‘Some kids reckon they’ve found bones on a beach. It’ll just be a dead animal, or a prank, but get a few photos to keep the bosses happy,’ her editor had barked.
Cindy had quickly agreed to the job, grateful for the extra money and picturing a quiet afternoon wandering the rugged coastline,
perhaps even sneaking a cheeky seaside lunch of fish and chips.
Instead she’d been left standing in the elements for hours, stranded in the midst of an endless white sandstorm that gave her the distinct impression of being in a desert rather than on a beach.
‘Oi!’ She looked up to find a plain-clothes officer wildly gesturing. ‘We need you to move back. We’re closing this area off.’
Wrapping her coat around her camera, Cindy shuffled to her right, moving only slightly away from the ever-growing crime scene. As tedious as this assignment was, she was still the only media
present – and she wasn’t giving up her prime position too easily.
Besides, she thought as she reset her equipment, zooming in to the centre of the action, it was obvious from the increasing police presence that this was far from a hoax, and the one clear shot she’d got of a bone had certainly looked human to her – small though, she remembered, as she watched several officers now spread out, searching the area for further remains.
The sound of a helicopter whirring came from overhead and Cindy stopped taking photographs, instead craning her neck
and squinting into the overcast conditions to try to make out any signage on the aircraft. She desperately hoped it was a police vehicle and not a media chopper getting aerial footage.
Damn. She observed a bright red marking, which surely belonged to one of the major commercial television networks.
Being a freelance photographer for the Australian Associated Press meant that her job was to provide content that other media agencies didn’t have. It was highly competitive, and so far she’d only been entrusted with a few shifts. She needed to prove her worth to her bosses – especially given the way her last photography job had ended . . .
Cindy shuddered, shaking her head as she tried to rid her mind of her first foolish foray into professional photography, the man she’d so stupidly trusted and the incredibly naïve way she’d put her marriage at risk. It doesn’t matter now. I’ve moved on. We all have.
Squinting into her viewfinder, she flicked through her work. At least the ghastly conditions were making for dramatic photos, she realised, pausing on one particular image where a lone officer was crouched down next to billowing police tape: her brow furrowed as she stared out to the ocean beyond.
‘Any good ones of me?’
Cindy jumped, surprised to find a young policeman standing close, his expression set in a teasing smile.
‘I didn’t see you there.’
‘Constable Tobias Haigh.’ The man held out his left hand. ‘Are you with the local press?’
‘Yes.’ She paused, realising this wasn’t entirely true. ‘Well the AAP, actually.’
The officer nodded, but his blank expression gave away his ignorance.
‘Pretty grisly.’ Cindy gestured to the crime scene. ‘Any word on what we’re looking at?’
Tobias shrugged. ‘Seems obvious to me. Animal bones washed up during last night’s storm. Nothing to it.’
‘A storm . . .?’ Cindy scrunched her face. Blairgowrie was a good hour and a half drive from her home, but still, any wild weather here would at least have shown remnants across Melbourne.
The policeman looked incredulous. ‘You didn’t notice? We had power outages and trees down, the whole works.’
Cindy frowned. All her memories of the previous evening involved vomit – her son suffering some sort of gastro incident that had resulted in her having to clean his bedding, his clothes, the bathroom floor . . . ‘But would the ocean really come this far up the beach?’
‘High tide can be pretty rough.’
‘That’s true.’ She nodded doubtfully, mentally measuring the considerable distance from the rolling waves, which still angrily crashed at the shore, to the swarm of detectives near the rocky cliff face. She couldn’t imagine the water rising to such levels. It was more likely the kids who’d found the bones had played with them, unintentionally moving them before realising what they were.
‘Anyway,’ Tobias rummaged inside his rain jacket, ‘I’m heading back to the station now. But take my contact details, in case you ever need anything.’
Cindy pocketed the blue-and-white business card. To her right, she noticed a pair of teenagers making their way down an arduous cliffside path, escorted by two uniformed officers. The children who’d found the bones. She swivelled her camera and focused on the sheepish young faces, discreetly photographing them as they trudged between the tall dunes.
‘You’ve had a bit of an adventure this morning!’ She tried her friendliest smile and stepped forward as she caught the nervous gaze of one of the boys, who looked thirteen, maybe fourteen years old.
‘Ignore her. Keep walking,’ a surly officer prompted from behind.
Cindy retreated, letting the group pass.
As she peered back into her viewfinder and scrolled to one of the better images taken earlier that morning, a gentle shiver ran through her body.
Her new friend Tobias was wrong, she decided, zooming in on the gloved hand holding up a thin white bone. The teenage boys had stumbled across something sinister. She was sure of it.
The clock on the far wall appeared to be frozen, and Detective Leading Senior Constable Emmett Corban returned to picking at his cuticles, waiting for the inevitable rush of air as the door behind him burst open.
There was no need for his boss to keep him waiting – he knew that. And yet it was with tedious familiarity that he found himself sitting in the oversized office, perched uncomfortably on the edge of the crisp white couch and staring glumly at the looming desk before him.
‘Detective.’ The booming voice sounded well before Superintendent Bryce Frederick breezed into the room. ‘I trust I didn’t keep you too long.’
Emmett squeezed his fists.
‘Good work on the Tribeca case, Vallance tells me you were very helpful . . . Although I imagine the million-dollar reward we put up aided somewhat.’ Bryce smirked, sitting at his desk with such vigour that the water in Emmett’s glass sloshed over its rim. ‘And
I understand you’ve been inducted into Briggs’s team, is that right?’
‘Yes.’ Emmett sat up straighter. He was looking forward to his next investigation – the reopening of the Jimmy Lucas disappearance.
Jimmy was a British backpacker who’d gone missing after a night out in Melbourne almost nine years ago. He was last seen walking out of a hostel on King Street on a Saturday evening, never to be heard from again. It was one of those mysteries that had
baffled authorities from the get-go, and Emmett had already stayed back late many nights, reviewing the original case file and getting his head around the new information that had been called in.
‘I’ve actually arranged a video conference with Mr Lucas’s parents from their home in Lindfield later this week.’
‘A small town outside of London, where Mr Lucas grew up.’
‘Right.’ Bryce looked far from impressed. ‘Only, I’m taking you off the team.’
‘It seems this new witness may be a quack. His story’s not adding up. And I already have some of my best detectives on the case. Briggs can’t possibly need another body.’
‘But I . . .’ Emmett heard his voice whine.
‘Don’t get all defensive.’ Bryce drew his chair in closer to the desk. ‘I want to keep you free for something else. Bones have been found out on the Mornington Peninsula. Forensics are there at the moment. The public line we’re giving is that it’s too early to say whether the remains are human or animal . . .’
‘But we suspect they’re human.’
‘Not only human, they appear to be a child’s bones.’
‘A child?’ Emmett paused before a deep chill ran through him. ‘The Blairgowrie girl?’ he whispered.
‘Impossible to say until the testing is done. But that was my initial thought as well.’
Emmett’s heels bounced on the floor as his mind danced over the few details he knew offhand. It was a long time ago – probably over twenty years, a little before he’d joined the police academy. Three teenage girls had been on a beach holiday together when they’d decided to venture out one evening. Only two returned.
‘There were rumours, weren’t there?’ His fingers tapped the edge of the couch. ‘A local man . . . arrested?’
‘And then released before a trial ever got underway.’ Bryce nodded. ‘All charges dropped.’
‘Because of an alibi?’
‘Rock solid – supposedly.’
‘No other suspects?’
‘Not really. Of course, there was speculation. Some said the girls had arranged to meet with boys that night, others said they’d had a fight themselves. But in the end, there was nothing. The leads went cold.’
‘So, if this is her . . .’
‘Don’t jump to conclusions.’ Bryce raised a hand. ‘Whatever this is, we need to keep it firmly under wraps until we know more. Whether it’s the Blairgowrie girl or not, a child’s bones turning up on a beach is going to send the public into a frenzy. We need to be on the front foot for this one, before the hysteria starts.’
Emmett took the liberty of scribbling a few thoughts on a notepad that was lying nearby, internally grimacing at the quiet buzzing of his phone in his jacket pocket yet again. If that was Nicholas’s school calling back, it meant they hadn’t been able to get onto his wife, Cindy.
‘I’ll start looking over the details of the case.’
‘Good. And expect a call from forensics. I’ve told them you’re across it until further notice.’
The forest had a particular scent to it, a dewy moistness off the Columbia River mixed with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, red cedar, hemlock, and maple.
There are many expensive houses here in Brecken Hill, an enclave on the edge of Aylesford, in the Hudson Valley.