WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON
I was a young bloke in 1973 but I was learning fast about life. I’d buried my old man, been to war, and had just settled into a job I enjoyed, with weekends to roam and fish and enjoy the wilds of North Queensland when my world blew up in my face – all because I’d been curious enough to buy a little trinket that now appeared to be linked with the killing of three men, counting the body that had washed with the tide down the Wild Dog River before my arrival there.
Something happened, however, after that third day of the trial. There are times when, for your own protection, you need to switch it all off. All the fear. All the terrible twisted anger. You’ve got to turn off that internal howl and catch your breath, because they want you to destroy yourself and you can’t give them the satisfaction.
That night I slept the untroubled slumber of a child, long and dreamless, blocking out the sounds of other men muttering and sometimes crying, and the mewling flying foxes owning the sky down near the creek. It was a cooler night than the previous two, and that helped also.
I woke relaxed and calm, to the sounds of clanging iron as the Medsec wing opened up. I was unlucky enough to draw Jackson and Slowacki for an escort, but my sense of calm lingered on, so I felt no alarm or fright. Even when, on the way to the mess hall, they did their best to provoke me, I did not react.
‘From what I hear your little circus will be all over today,’ said Jackson. ‘Looking forward to inducting you into the big boys’ wing this arvo.’
Slowacki sniggered at his mate, but I didn’t give Jackson the satisfaction of a reply, just silently hated his stupid face. I ate in silence, then showered and dressed in my suit without fuss. At the gate the cops cuffed me and drove me away. It was all becoming routine, and mine was only a short trial. Some complicated capital trials, I knew from my work as a journo, run for weeks or even months.
Hewitt, Beck and I had five minutes in an interview room before the trial, and they coached me on what to do when I took the stand. I could tell that they were nervous about it, and I tried not to let this fact rattle my new sense of calm.
Hewitt had his sleeves rolled up, and he placed one hand on each of my shoulders, his rounded heavy shoulders something of a comfort to me. The barrister, I understood, was not just doing his job. He liked and believed in me, and even Martin Beck’s early off-hand manner had become something more supportive and sincere. We were becoming a team.
‘Be yourself,’ said Hewitt. ‘Answer questions without further comment. Don’t speculate, be honest and transparent. When the cross examination comes, don’t show any antagonism or hostility to the prosecutor. Think carefully before you answer. Ask them to repeat the question if you need more time to think. Got it?’
I resolved to do my best. I wore my sense of calm like a cloak.
Back in the now familiar court room, my barrister called me to the stand, and the bailiff placed the bible in my hands and I swore to tell the truth. The cops led me to the witness box, where I had a new perspective on the courtroom – a better view of Mum and Dave, and my old mates who flanked them. Again there was no sign of Nolan.
My barrister said, ‘You are Peter Andrew Livermore, of Doyle Street, Cairns, correct?’
‘I am, yes.’
‘You have lived in that area since your teens, did you not?’
‘And where did you live before that?’
‘Townsville. We moved to Cairns when I was about fourteen.’
‘Thank you. Can you please tell the court a bit about your family.’
My father was a businessman, and my mother she is … over there. She was a housewife. I went to primary school in Townsville and High School in Cairns.’
‘After finishing school, you were conscripted into the Royal Australian Regiment and you served your country in Vietnam for around twelve months. Since then you have been working for the Cairns Post as a cadet journalist. Correct?’
‘Now, the court has heard your statement about the murders on board the Naika, but I want to take you back further. Can you tell us the reason for your visit to the waterway known as the Wild Dog River?’
‘I was asked by Mr Grayling to write an article about a fishing camp there. It had been in the news because of the discovery of a body offshore from the river mouth a few months earlier.’
‘What did you learn about the camp?’
I shrugged, ‘It was made up of itinerant types, white and black, with makeshift housing and lots of boats. Quite a few were veterans, with a grudge against the government.’
‘You were approached by a young Aboriginal boy to purchase something?’
‘Yes. It was bronze disk – a medallion – with a dragon on one side and Chinese lettering on the other.’
‘Where is that medallion now?’
‘I don’t know. Last I saw it was wrapped up in my luggage on board the Naika.’
‘The police have testified that no such object was amongst your possessions when they seized them. Does this surprise you?’
‘Not really. Owen and I were approached by three men in a Cooktown park the night before the murders. They wanted the relic – demanded that I go out to the boat and get it.’
Over the next twenty minutes Ken Hewitt took me over the events of the morning of September the tenth – ground already covered in my statement, but in more detail, and I could see the faces of the jury. They were listening.’
‘Did you take drugs on the morning of the tenth?’ he asked.
‘No. Not until I was forced to.’
‘Were you drinking?’
‘No. Tom kept a dry boat.’
‘Did you kill two men on board the Naika that day?’
‘No. Owen and Tom were my mates by then. I had no reason to kill them, and I did not. The events of the day happened exactly as I have described.’
When the prosecutor stood up, he came close to the box and towered over me, as if asserting his dominance right from the start.
‘This supposed bronze relic,’ he said at last. ‘Do you have any evidence that it ever existed?’
‘I took photographs with my camera.’
‘The police say that there was no exposed film in the camera when they found it.’
‘That’s not true,’ I said.
‘We have only your word for that,’ said the prosecutor. ‘While four officers of the law all state the opposite. Interesting.’ He looked down at his notes for a moment, then, ‘You say that you and Tom Baines saw an SOS signal, and when you went to investigate someone from the other boat jumped on board and started slaughtering people. Why did they not slaughter you? They had already killed two people. Why not one more.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘The court has established that you were previously a soldier, serving in a war zone.’
‘Yes, that’s true.’
‘Trained to kill.’
‘I was trained to defend my country sir.’
‘But you did kill, or would have if you needed to, correct?’
‘I don’t know.’
The prosecutor reflected for a moment, then walked to the evidence table and lifted the handgun in its plastic envelope. ‘Have you fired a weapon of this type?’
‘Yes, as part of our training we were familiarised with North Vietnamese firearms, so we could use them if we had to.’
‘You are admitting that you could operate and accurately shoot a type of handgun that murdered two men, and you might conceivably have secretly owned such a firearm?’
‘I wouldn’t say accurately,’ I responded. ‘I was a rifleman. Handguns take a lot of practice … and bringing a weapon back from Southeast Asia would not have been easy – our belongings were screened and checked.’ The army brass weren’t stupid, and the Australian government didn’t want an arsenal of untraceable Asian firearms heading back to the farms and suburbs of home.
The prosecutor snarled, ‘The crown alleges that under the influence of drugs or alcohol you went on a killing rampage and slaughtered your shipmates.’
I looked him in the eye. ‘I did not do that.’
‘So you say. It’s up to the jury to decide who is telling the truth, and who is lying.’ He peered at me again. ‘Mr Livermore, do you have a problem with drugs and alcohol?’
I considered the question seriously. I liked to drink and could blow-out when I wanted to. ‘Not drugs, but I do enjoy a beer or two – not what I’d call at a problem level.’
The prosecutor smirked. ‘Are you sure about that?’
‘You were once placed on a charge for returning to duty drunk after a seventy-two-hour period of recreation leave, correct?’
‘So was half my platoon. We were performing a difficult role under trying conditions. We played hard when we had the chance.’
‘Mr Livermore. We have heard from at least one witness – your former employer – that you had a problem with drugs. Is that true?’
‘So one of the most respected men in North Queensland, Mr Brian Grayling, is a liar?
‘He is mistaken.’
‘Please tell the court, apart from the occasion on the boat on which you told the court you were forcibly injected, have you ever taken drugs?’
I stared back. ‘Yes.’
‘That’s very interesting, in the light of your previous statement. Which drug?’
‘Heroin, but it was only once, in Vung Tau.’
The prosecutor’s voice became that bullying, harrying voice that I remembered from primary school playgrounds. ‘Is that the kind of thing Australians expect from our soldiers? Returning to duty drunk, injecting yourself with heroin while other brave men fought the enemy? Is that normal behaviour for a soldier, or are these the actions of a conscript who had gone off the rails?’
‘I don’t know,’ was the best I could manage.
‘Well, my own father fought at El Alamein and Tobruk and I’m damned sure that it’s not the way he behaved – he was too busy defending our way of life.’ He paused, removed a handkerchief theatrically and blew his nose, as if he were overcome with emotion. After putting the handkerchief away, he went on. ‘Do people who take drugs tell lies, Mr Livermore?’
‘I suppose everyone does sometimes.’
‘But it’s well known that people who take drugs tell lies more often than people who don’t. Isn’t that right?’
I shrugged, ‘I’m not sure.’
‘Are you a liar?’
‘Drugs cause hallucinations, don’t they?’
‘I think so, sometimes.’
‘Then, as a self-admitted drug taker, your story about a white boat sending a fake SOS then a man jumping across with a gun might be a hallucination. Isn’t that right?’
The prosecutor paused, as if to gather steam. I hated him so much right then. ‘Oh come on,’ he thundered, ‘you are telling stories of Chinese dragons and fake mayday calls, and a white boat that no one else but you ever saw. Those are the hallucinations induced by a drug-crazed brain. You are a liar and a drug taker, and I believe that you picked up that pistol and …’
My barrister was on his feet objecting, but the prosecutor continued, scarcely drawing breath and growing red in the face.
‘… you shot Tom Baines and Owen Rainey and watched them bleed to death on the deck while you sat in a drug-soaked haze and concocted the lies that you would use to cover your dreadful crime.’
The judge pulled the bastard up, but the outburst had changed the mood in that room. The jury no longer looked human – they were more like hunting dogs wanting blood. Everyone knew it, including the prosecutor, who ended his cross-examination and sat down, and I saw his assistant shake his hand as if on a job well done.
The judge asked both sides to sum up their cases.
I was in a daze as they walked me back to the dock and the prosecutor began his final address. Calmly now, he told the jury that the facts of my drug use were now beyond dispute, and that the police case was damning. I was the only person known to be on the scene and therefore the only possible killer. The prosecution had thrown up so much mud that some of it was sticking.
In his closing address, Ken Hewitt was still fighting. He covered all the most telling points against me, particularly the altered character reference by Brian Grayling. He was careful not to directly insinuate that Brian Grayling had a nefarious reason for changing his testimony, but he left questions hanging in the air like wattle flowers.
‘No one in this court,’ my barrister went on, ‘has managed to answer the real question. Motive. Why would the accused have killed two men with whom he was on friendly terms? Even if he was on drugs. There are fifty thousand heroin addicts in Australia, and very few of them start shooting their friends for no reason. In fact, I can find no instances of that happening.’
The jury went off to deliberate, and I shared a despairing glance with Mum and Dave as the court cleared and I was taken to a holding cell to wait.
©2023 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday.
Read earlier chapters here.
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