Wild Dog River

Chapter Thirty-five – The Vanguard

WILD DOG RIVER BY GREG BARRON

I woke in a room with light filtering in through yellow curtains. Eyes open, lying on my back, I tried to understand the circumstances in which I found myself. I touched my face and was surprised at the growth there – the makings of a beard. I tried to remember when I’d shaved. Wasn’t it at the showgrounds in Cairns?

Sitting up – too fast – my head exploded with stars, and pain shot from my old wounds. My fingers wandered to the bullet graze on my shoulder. It was no longer covered by a dressing, and I could feel the rough texture of sutures on my skin. I felt around to my back. The big tooth wound was also stitched, but others were simply hard scabs. I’d had a fever, I remembered, but now it was gone.

Throwing back the sheets and swinging my legs off the bed, I again had an attack of vertigo and had to wait. A table beside my bed caught my attention, on it were some hypodermic needles and packages of tablets, along with a half-filled glass of water. This was not a hospital, however, I was pretty certain.

Coming to my feet, I opened the door and walked out into a kitchen. There was a used coffee cup on the breakfast table, next to a copy of the Cairns Post, dated the twenty-seventh of December. I stared at it. If that was true, I had been asleep for four or five days. I went to the sink, turned on the cold tap, splashed my face and drank several handfuls of water, before continuing to look around the room.

The bin was full of discarded Christmas wrappings, and pinned to a board were a bunch of photos. I recognised Kat’s face from amongst strangers who were, I guessed, her friends and family from Brisbane. I opened a few cupboards, seeing nothing but neatly stacked plates, mugs and glasses.

I stood in the middle of the floor with my hands over my eyes. The feeling of losing not just one, but several days of your life is damn near indescribable. It was as if time had been stolen from me. I went back into the bedroom, and looked through the packets on the table. Penicillin, Flurazepam. Oxycodone.

There were two other bedrooms and I checked both. The beds were made but draped with clothes. Women’s shoes were lined up near the doors. Where were the occupants? Work, maybe. Who had stitched up my wounds? Surely not Kat. She was a nurse, not a doctor. How many people knew that I was here?

I took stock of the facts. A girl I hardly knew, and the other occupant of this flat, both knew about me. Maybe a doctor as well. Had they notified the cops already, and were waiting for them to pick me up? I had to get out. Now.

I found my clothes, washed and folded in the wardrobe of my room. My hat was beside them, and my sandshoes on a lower shelf. I dressed quickly, then went back to the kitchen, filled a glass with tap water and drank it down.

Walking like an old man, I stumbled out the front door onto the street, blinking at the light. I was automatically flinching, imagining that people in the houses were watching me; that the driver of a green Valiant Safari cruising past was on his way to dob me in. Ignoring the dull pain from my wounds, I reached Charlotte Street and turned east towards the waterfront – getting a boat was the only practical way to reach the Wild Dog River from here.

I cut through the park with its statue of James Cook and bad memories. From there I followed the esplanade along the river, until I overlooked the wharf area, taking a moment to study it before rushing in.

From what I remembered of Cooktown’s history, there had been several wharves constructed here since white settlement. The main structure now was a remnant of the old railway wharf. There were also a bunch of smaller jetties – some of them private – and a boat ramp for trailerable vessels to my left.

Boats of all shapes and sizes were tied up alongside the wharves or on swinging moorings out on the river. The long-range prawning and fishing fleets were in port for the Wet Season now, with only amateurs and the local pros putting to sea. This was maintenance time – and many boats were up on the ‘hard’ down towards town, propped up while their bottoms were cleaned and anti fouled or painted. Most were sailing boats, owned by locals, sitting with bare masts pointing skywards.

Intending to get closer to the main wharf for a good look at the boats, I set off down into the main car park. While many of the bays were empty, it held half a dozen cars, a few F-Series Fords and Holden panel vans. Ignoring them, I strode towards the path leading down to the wharf.

Then, strangely, like a hell-fired bolt of lightning, I heard the sound of a door closing behind me, and I turned to see the man I had, in the back of my mind, been looking for. He was just thirty paces away, standing at the back of a pale-blue Leyland van. At first I scarcely had the presence of mind to turn my face away. He was there, right before my eyes, the callous bastard who had gunned down Owen and Tom Baines at the Hope Islands – not to mention leading a party of men hell-bent on beating me up not five hundred yards from where I now stood.

The Killer had grown a beard again, like the first time we’d met. He was carrying a coil of thick rope slung over his shoulder, and a full canvas kitbag. Another man, who I also remembered from the attack in the park, closed the door of the van, and started pushing a barrow full of gear – tinned food and beer in cartons – towards me. A third man wore a Queensland police uniform, with three stripes on his shoulder, and a peak cap on his buzz-cut head. I’d seen him before too: on the witness stand at Townsville Courthouse. I remembered his name – Sergeant Michael Green, who I knew for a fact was a liar.

My hands shook and the bottom fell out of my stomach. My eyes, though, stayed locked on those bastards like weapons of war.

The three men were on a mission, and hardly looked at me as they approached, bantering and laughing. Thankfully, too, I had my hat down low, and they were moving slowly enough that I had time to make a right angle turn towards a shiny new Haines Hunter V17 on its trailer, parked at the edge of the asphalt. I had the smarts not to skulk or hide, just sidled up to the boat as if I owned it, then reached over the side like I was getting something. So far as I could see they didn’t give me a second glance.

I stayed at the boat until they moved on down towards the wharf, then began to follow at a safe distance, watching them climb aboard a boat I had not only seen before, but had been taken into custody on, shoved into a hatch for the journey to Cairns, and ultimately prison. It was a fifty-foot fly-bridge cruiser called the Vanguard, with police markings on the cabin sides and near the bows.

A crewman in uniform appeared, and he, the Killer, and the Killer’s mate began to carry the contents of the barrow on board and stow it inside the main cabin area. I felt charged with adrenalin and confusion, trying to work out what the hell was going on. One more cop appeared, and I watched him expertly coil the lines on both port and starboard side decks. I recognised him, also, from the trial.

The association between the Killer, his mate and the Cairns Water Police didn’t surprise me, but the sheer audacity of what was going on here took my breath away. The big police boat was about to put to sea, and the Killer and his mate were either lending a hand or going with them. Were they taking advantage of the holiday period to head off on an unauthorised trip? Or did this shit go all the way to the top?

An hour passed, maybe more, before the five men on board climbed over the transom, and gathered on the wharf. Together they started walking back up the path, taking the empty barrow with them.

I leaned on the walkway rail, my head in my hands as they went past, like a hungover young bloke might. At the same time though, I was listening to every word they said. I learned that they were heading up for a quick feed at one of the cafes before steaming away at around the top of the tide – an hour or so away.

Butterflies danced in my chest. I decided that despite the overwhelming risk, I had to take the opportunity to get on board. I moved down the walkway, closer now, watching the police boat for at least five minutes. No movement at all. They were relying on local honesty, and the police markings on the vessel. No one had stayed behind to keep watch.

I waited while a beautifully kept wooden cabin cruiser motored slowly past, then began to walk further down. When I turned, however, to check that no one was coming, I saw a slim figure making her way along the esplanade towards the wharf, looking around as she did so, as if searching for someone. It was Kat, wearing a pair of denim shorts, thongs on her feet and a green top.

I realised with a thump in my chest that she was looking for me. Why? What the hell was going on? I was attracted to her, yes, but I had no idea whose side she was on and what part she was trying to play in this.

I ducked my head out of sight for a few seconds, looked again and couldn’t see her. Knowing that I had to move fast, I hurried down the rest of the walkway, then along the wharf to the Vanguard. I climbed over the transom and into the police boat as if I had every right to do so. I had an idea of where to hide – the same hatch they’d shoved me in after my arrest at the Hope Isles – and I moved rapidly aft. On one knee I lifted the lid and found that the hatch was half full of fenders and other gear – shovels, buckets and hand tools – but there was room enough for me. I eased my way inside, and shifted their stuff so it was partially hiding me.

Then I waited. How long would their lunch take? Half an hour? More? I passed the time by checking my wounds again. The tightness and swelling was gone, and I could stay in here for many hours if I had to.

I’d settled down for a long wait, so was surprised when a few minutes later I heard footsteps on the deck above. They were soft and tentative; a light tread. I stiffened up, and tried to draw myself deeper into the darkness.

A moment later the hatch started to rise, and light flooded into my bolthole. Above me, squatting down and staring, was Kat. She didn’t see me at first, but one of my feet was fully exposed, and I saw her eyes follow it along until she spotted my face in the shadows.

‘You’re hiding from me?’ she spat. ‘On a boat?’

I said nothing, just stared up at her.

‘You rat,’ she hissed, ‘I’ve spent the last five days nursing you, and then you run off as soon as you feel well enough? For Christ’s sake, I left Brisbane to get away from a prick like you. I thought you were different.’

‘Please,’ I said finally. ‘Go back, or we’ll both be in danger.’

‘What danger?’ she demanded. ‘Tell me what the hell is going on or I will scream my head off.’

‘If you keep talking, we’ll both get caught …’

‘Caught for what? By who?’

I groaned, ‘This is a police boat, didn’t you see that? They’ll be back at any minute, so you have to go.’

‘So the police are after you?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’

I was surprised enough already, but when Kat opened the lid fully and climbed in, I was speechless. She stood up on tiptoes and closed the hatch. The darkness was instantaneous, but enough light came in around the lid that I could see her outline and features. ‘Now, no one will hear us,’ she said. ‘I want answers. For five days I did everything for you.’ Her eyes were so big they seemed to glow in the dark. ‘And I mean everything.’

I swallowed, understanding what she meant.

‘I kept your existence a secret like you wanted, I gave you a room in our flat. I nicked stuff from the hospital to treat you and swore my flatmate to secrecy too – now she hates me for it.’ She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. ‘Now, I’ve been on night shift for twelve bloody hours and I’m pissed off because you snuck away without a word and I find you skulking around down here. So, I want to know who you are and what you’ve done.’

I’d wanted to trust Kat since the first moment I saw her, but I had questions of my own. I said, ‘First, tell me why you kept me drugged up and unconscious for five days straight?’ I felt a tear or two crawl down my cheeks in the darkness. ‘Are you in on this too?’

‘God save me. In on what? You nearly died, you stupid bastard. Have you ever heard of acute sepsis? I saved your life, and kept it secret because you asked me to.’

I sighed, held my temple in my right hand while still allowing her to grip my left. ‘Do I look like someone you’ve seen on the seven o’clock news in the last few days?’

Kat shook her head. ‘I’ve hardly turned the TV on for a couple of weeks.’

‘What about the newspaper?’ I could see her eyebrows knit together with thought. Trying to recognise me. I helped her out.

‘My name is Pete. Pete Livermore.’

I heard her hiss of breath. ‘You’re kidding me. The escaped prisoner from down in Townsville? Of course – they said you were taken by a croc, and killed. You got away? That explains the wounds. Jesus. You’re a murderer?’

‘I didn’t do it. I swear I didn’t. I was framed up, by the cops – the ones who were here twenty-five minutes ago and are coming back. One of the other men with them is the real killer. Now please go, while there’s still time.’

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘I have to go with them. I have to find out what’s going on and clear my name. Now quick, they’ll be back at any time.’

I’d always admired female courage. I’d had aunties who would stand up to anyone, and some of the local girls from around here would face off with a buffalo if they needed to. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Kat. ‘You need help – and someone has to take those stitches out.’

I covered my eyes with my hands. This was going to end in disaster if I didn’t get her out. ‘Please go. You can’t help.’

‘I’m coming with you,’ she repeated.

‘No!’

I was about to get serious about ejecting her, but at that moment we heard the sounds of footsteps coming off the wharf and onto the deck. I shuddered with recognition at the voice of the killer above me. Some shouts now, then the starter whined and the engine roared. It was all so familiar. I held my breath, shivering with the memories I had of this place.

‘That’s them, isn’t it?’ Kat whispered into my ear, the vibration of the engine filling our bodies.

‘Yeah,’ I whispered back. ‘It’s them, and we’re bloody trapped.’

©2024 Greg Barron
Continued next Saturday.

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Photo credit: Cooktown Port 1989 Iraphne R. Childs digitalcollections.qut