Wild Dog River

Chapter Seventeen – The Betrayal of Grayling


That night as I lay in my cell, the Tong war dragon roamed the shadows and I felt its stinking breath on my cheek, alternating hot and cold, making me shiver and sweat in the sweltering night as if I was wracked with fever. I saw its slavering teeth and fathomless eyes, and in my dreams I ran away, pursued by that terrible beast, roaming far-off seas, wild coasts and mighty rivers with no end.  

At times I became the dragon, and I saw through its eyes, smelled through its nostrils, and hungered with its needs. I saw two bloody bodies splayed on the deck of a boat, and tried to connect it all. Nothing quite made sense, but somehow, I had become the fall-guy for a conspiracy, and I did not know why.

Near dawn I fell to earth, more afraid of the coming day than the apparitions of the night. I faced incarceration on the whim of a judge and jury, and the unfathomable lies of a policeman. The course of the rest of my life hung in the balance.

Back in court, I looked for Nolan in the gallery, but he was not there today, only a few old friends and Mum and Dave looking downcast as the prosecution case forged on – a ballistics expert to corroborate the fact that bullets from the handgun that had been found beside me on the deck had killed Owen and Tom – then another who examined the angles of the shots and where the players stood during his reconstruction of events. I sat miserably as the scientific facts of the case piled against me. The remaining crew of the police boat appeared in turn, all backing up the sequence of events as outlined by their sergeant the day before.

Hewitt, my barrister, did his best to pick holes in their stories. Had they really searched the Naika? Why had they been lurking close enough to hear gunshots? Why no firearms residue tests? Since each statement spelled out essentially the same narrative, Hewitt’s cross examination started to come across as repetitive, and I could almost feel the waning interest of the jury.

The prosecution produced the pilot and harbourmaster from Cairns – brown and wrinkled old bastards in smart uniforms – both of whom corroborated the timing of the Water Police operations. A young woman from the volunteer coast guard testified that the radio report logged from the Naika on that fateful morning was an unclear transmission, and while she had once met Tom Baines she could not positively state that he had been speaking. There was no protocol for recording general radio transmissions and no such recording existed in this case.

It was unusual, my lawyer had explained, for the prosecution to put up a character witness, but in this case the cornerstone of my defence was my clean record and good character. This, in fact, was pretty much all we had, and the crown had been put on notice that we would be using several witnesses to testify to the unlikelihood that I had turned into a drug-crazed killer.

They, therefore, felt justified in dragging in an old sports master from Cairns State High School who always had a set against me – thought I was smug, which I guess I was, sometimes. He avoided my eyes as he told the court that I was an unruly boy, and he made a lot of an incident after a game of Rugby League at which I’d got into a fight with a front-rower from Mossman who’d been niggling me all through the game.

At the end of this long day, I was so tired I fell asleep in the cop car on the way back to Stewart’s Creek. My head lolled and I felt so weak they had to help me out of the car.

The trial continued into a third day. The Defence case, as I said, was sparse. Our first witness was a young bloke called Ned Clarke, the harbourmaster from Cooktown, who had logged a white Steber boat arriving on the afternoon of September ninth, and noted that it was already absent very early on the morning of the tenth. The fact that had caught his attention was the lack of registration numbers or a name on the hull.

The prosecutor made light of these observations, questioned the identity and make of the boat, given the low light. He knew that proving the existence of this third boat was my only hope of exoneration and he used bullying tactics to make the man look like a fool.

‘How many boats pass in and out of the Endeavour River each day?’ asked the prosecutor.

‘At this time of year, maybe fifty, most of them small vessels.’

‘And are you able to positively identify the make and model of each of these?’

‘Not all, but certainly the most popular brands.’

‘A Bertram 38, for example, without the flybridge, has a similar profile to a Steber, does it not, also made of fibreglass?’

‘That’s true.’

‘So, the boat you saw might have been a Bertram, or maybe a Mariner?’ He did not give space for a reply but ploughed on. ‘Unlike your peers from Cairns you are only twenty-eight years old, and I believe that you have been on the job for just eight months. Eight months, does that make you an expert, Mr Clarke?’

We followed up with a forensic specialist from Brisbane, who had cost a fortune to bring to town. He picked holes in the police methods, the inconsistency of the location of my prints on the handgun: there was one set of near perfect impressions, he opined, without the multiple smears expected from someone handling a weapon for long enough to shoot two people.

Some worthy and believable allies took the stand to provide character references for me. One was Lieutenant Scott Hadley, who had travelled up from Mackay.

‘Pete’s a good man,’ he said. ‘Reliable. A born soldier, really.’

The prosecutor cross-examined him casually for a while, seeming to help establish my old CO’s credentials. Then, just when the jury was becoming disinterested, he asked: ‘Did the accused kill anyone during his service?’

My barrister objected, on his feet in an instant, but the crown was ready for that.

‘I am establishing that the accused is capable of murder. Most people are not, and military training is designed to overcome that resistance.’


The lieutenant shrugged, ‘I can’t say for sure that Pete – the accused – killed anyone, and we didn’t see as much action as Bravo or Delta companies, but we were a front-line unit. Pete was a rifleman.’

‘His job was to kill?’ suggested the prosecutor.

A nervous laugh. ‘I wouldn’t put it that way.’

‘Well, he wouldn’t have had any trouble doing so, would he?’

The lieutenant shrugged, and he locked eyes with me for a moment. ‘I really can’t answer that.’

The final character witness was Brian Grayling, editor of the Cairns Post. An old mate of my late father’s, he was well known and respected in the community. He was also partially funding my defence. My lawyer and I were confident that his word would count.

Hewitt introduced Brian as a pillar of the community, and indeed he looked like one, with a pair of glasses hanging from a chain around his neck and the perfectly-fitted blue business shirt and tie.

‘Mr Grayling, you have been editor of the Cairns Post for many years. Thousands of people rely on the information your newspaper provides.’

‘That’s correct.’

 ‘Honesty and accuracy are your stock in trade?’

‘Absolutely, yes.’

‘The accused worked for you for a little over twelve months. Was he a satisfactory employee?’

‘The accused had the makings of a good journalist,’ Brian said, ‘and he enjoyed assignments that interested him. There were some aspects of the job, however, that he found tedious.’

I felt uncomfortable. Why was Brian saying that? It was true, of course, and it was ironic that court reporting was one of the assignments that I’d disliked the most. 

He paused and looked at me seriously. ‘Some of his work was not satisfactory, and he did have a problem with drugs.’

I froze, and I looked helplessly at my barrister. That was bullshit.

‘I wish I could say that I am surprised by these charges,’ continued Brian, ‘but I am not.’

‘You mongrel!’ shouted my mother from the gallery, and I turned to look at her, shaking my head. Dave was standing beside her, his big hands balled into fists at his side, his eyes wild and mouth open with shock.

Taken aback for a moment, my barrister recovered and stared. ‘Sir, you are on the stand to testify as to the good character of the accused. If you are not able to do that, please tell me.’

Grayling responded smoothly. ‘I no longer feel that I can honestly attest to the good character of the accused, because I no longer believe that to be the case.’

My barrister reacted swiftly. ‘Your honour, I would like to request that Mr Grayling be declared an unfavourable witness under Section 38 of the Evidence Act.’


‘Mr Grayling. The solicitor for the accused, Mr Martin Beck, approached you to give evidence relating to your opinion of the accused, correct?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Your assessment of him has changed utterly since that interview with Mr Beck. Why?’

Grayling had dealt with powerful people for many years.  He was not cowed by Ken Hewitt and his probing. His face, voice and body language were all smooth. Too smooth. I could almost smell that damned aftershave he wore every day.

‘I think that Mr Beck misunderstood our initial interviews. There were many small incidents that I have only now had time to connect – late arrivals in the morning, the smell of alcohol on his breath, and the presence of what are commonly termed ‘track marks’ on his arms.’

This was a filthy lie, but there was an audible gasp from the jury.  They swallowed every word, and to these simple people being a drug addict was near enough to being a murderer.

‘Did anyone else notice or comment upon these marks?’ asked my barrister.

‘I have no idea,’ Brian said. ‘As I said, I only recently realised what they were.’

‘Are you assisting in paying for the accused man’s defence?’

‘Yes, I was approached by family members to help, and I am doing so. The accused was an employee of mine, and technically this terrible drama was enacted while he was on duty. I believe that I am obliged to help financially, whatever my opinion of his guilt.’

My barrister declined to ask any further questions, and when the judge called a short recess, and the two men of my counsel formed a huddle around me, he looked very worried. ‘Once a witness starts telling lies there’s no telling how far they might go. There was nothing to be gained by pursuing him.’

‘Let me take the stand in my own defence,’ I pleaded.

Hewitt and Beck looked at each other. Earlier I had been advised that I should not take the stand. That the prosecutor would rip me and my story to bloody shreds.

‘I don’t think there’s much to lose by doing so,’ said Hewitt. ‘And it’s possible that you might connect with the jury.’

My lawyer agreed. ‘If you feel up to it, let’s give it a go.’

©2023 Greg Barron

Read previous chapters here.

Continued next Saturday.

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