by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 29

The god who looks after the innocent had decreed perfect weather for a swim. Wind free, slightly overcast, hot enough to entice people into the sea instead of wallowing in a tepid pool.

At a quarter to ten Mort and Arch arrived with flippers, masks, snorkels and beach towels, and claimed a spot amongst the other guests, swapping smiles and casual greetings. After rubbing each other somewhat ostentatiously with sun lotion, surreptitiously watched by males envious of Arch, and females envious of Mort, they relaxed for a while, propped up on their elbows, gazing out to sea, pleased that no other guests seemed intent on underwater sightseeing.

What they hadn't counted on was the lifeguard sitting on his perch at the edge of the water in the centre of the beach. Too late to worry. With a bit of luck he'd get bored watching their snorkels and wouldn't notice when Mort swam a little further out. When it looked as if everyone had lost interest in them they casually wandered to the water's edge, sat and put on flippers and masks, slithered into the water, popped the snorkels into their mouths and swam lazily away.

At first they swam together towards and around the closest rocks on the right, then Arch stayed close to shore while Mort swam in ever increasing circles. When he was about two minutes swim from the point, Arch dragged his thigh across a sharp branch of coral. Instantly, the water turned red and he almost panicked. The cut seemed huge. Controlling himself, he managed to swim to shore where he called for help — the panic in his voice was real. It was a deep and jagged tear in his flesh.

Within seconds the entire beach came running, including the lifeguard with an emergency first aid kit. By the time he had dried, disinfected and dragged the gash together with tape, Mort had disappeared, unnoticed by a crowd hypnotised by the blood, raw flesh and the unpleasant yellow colour Arch had turned before vomiting and fainting.

It wasn't until he was being carried up the steps on a stretcher that anyone thought to ask about his wife. Someone said she had returned to the beach before Arch cut himself, others said they thought she was still swimming among the rocks. An elderly gentleman had seen her mount the steps up to the hotel. No one panicked until the beach guard returned and said she wasn't at the hotel. He scanned the sea with his binoculars and declared her missing.

'No one go in the water! Do not use the paddleboats! Despite the hooks there could be a shark or a crocodile. She may have been stung and is seeking shelter on the rocks. Mrs. Lintel is a good swimmer, so if nothing's happened to her she will be fine. I'm calling the search and rescue helicopter, they'll be here in half an hour, everyone stay calm and use the hotel pool for the rest of the day.'

Mort was nervous. It had been too easy. He'd rounded the point unnoticed and with the help of flippers powered towards the shore. It was probably only half past ten — quarter to eleven. He could see no one on the shore. What if? He took deep breaths to calm irrational fears. His feet touched bottom. He waded up to a small patch of sand and had just removed snorkel, flippers and mask when Hercules and Zadig came scrambling down the rocks. They smiled grimly, but no one spoke.

A minute later, Mort was wearing motorbike leathers and following Zadig up to the concealed motorbike. They mounted and rode quietly away.

Hercules tore the swimsuit to shreds, emptied the contents of the flask containing Calumnia's blood that Arch had removed from the freezer, onto the pieces, ensured they were absorbed, then tossed them and the snorkelling gear back into the water where they drifted slowly towards some rocks further out. He then wandered casually back up to the hotel and was nearly there when Hale passed him in the van. It wasn't until he was entering the lounge that he heard the approach of a helicopter. He looked at his watch and smiled. By now they'd be merely one of dozens of bikes and cars pounding up and down the highway.

Two helmeted and leather clad young men on a powerful bike, saddlebags bulging with gear, rode north for half an hour to a reddish brown sign marking the tourist route to the waterfalls. They turned left onto a winding sealed road that rose rapidly through heavily forested slopes. Two cars passed them going down. At an overgrown entranceway, Zadig turned in and stopped out of sight of the road. At that moment a vehicle drove up the road.

Mort was shaking when he dismounted and had to hold himself against a tree to avoid sagging to his knees. Zadig was instantly at his side, supporting him.

'Mort, sweetheart, are you okay?'

'Fine, thanks. Just a bit dizzy.'

Zadig checked a nearby log for ants and snakes. 'Come and sit down.'

'I'm fine, really. Don't know what the matter is. Delayed shock I guess. All that tension, planning, pretending to be Calumnia, dancing, swimming, terrified it'd all blow up in our faces. And then suddenly I'm here. With you. It's almost an anticlimax.' He turned his face to Zadig. 'Kiss me!'

They hugged for long minutes until Mort's shoulders relaxed. He took a deep breath and shook his head. 'I was so worried you'd crash the bike, have an accident, run into trouble. Every minute I was thinking about you, terrified something would go wrong and we'd be separated and I'd never see you again. If I'd thought about that when we were planning, I'd never have done it. Losing you would be a price too big to pay. I'd sooner die.'

'Yeah, it isn't until we've made a choice that we realise exactly what's at stake. Humans can plan, but they seldom want to work out the consequences. I felt the same. Worried all the time that you'd be found out, thrown in prison, drown when swimming to me…' He sighed deeply and shook his head. 'Let's never do anything like this again... separating and doing dangerous things.'

'Too right. From now on, if we're doing something risky we stay together. What happens now?'

'I told the ranger we were going to spend the day at the waterfalls, so we'll head up there so we know what we're talking about if anyone asks, then we're going to the Falls National Park to camp for a couple of days. Can't go back to where I've spent the last two nights because one ranger thinks I'm me, and the other thinks I'm you.'

'You really are amazing. Okay, let's go.'

'First, bare your lovely head while I play Delilah to your Samson.'

Ten minutes later Mort's hair bore a striking resemblance to Zadig's centimetre-long fuzz.

'You look different.'


'Tough. Mean. No... not mean, hard. No. Not hard. Able to look after yourself.'

'And with long hair I didn't?'

'It sort of softened your face; gave you a slightly insecure look. Made me want to take care of you even though I knew you were an independent cuss.'

'So you no longer want to take care of me?'

'I do, but I now realise I don't need to.'

'And what do you prefer?'

'This by a long chalk! Now I know I don't have to worry about you. I will still worry, but not because I think you'll be taken advantage of or get out of your depth. I feel more equal now. I realise you can also take care of me if I need it.'

'It's interesting how much difference a bit of hair makes. It feels better too. I'm glad it's off, always something flapping round my head. I don't know why I kept it so long. I think I unconsciously promised myself I wouldn't cut it until my life was sorted. Well now it is and I'm a new man. I'm glad you still like me because I still reckon you're the perfectest man on the planet.'

Zadig took Mort's head in his hands and kissed his brow, nose, eyes and lips. 'Beautiful words sealed with a loving kiss, but we'd better get going.'

As they powered quietly up the hill towards their future, glossy black tresses were cast on the winds, taking with them a troublesome past.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, the helicopter crew had seen nothing floating; body, shark, or crocodile, but they did report clothing in shallow water not far up the coast. A police sergeant and a constable pulled Calumnia's torn togs and snorkelling gear out of the water, bagged and labelled them and placed them in the boot of their vehicle.

Hercules had walked round to the parking area to meet Hale, and together they entered the lounge to be met by an almost hysterical Malcolm. He clung to Hale as if for support.

'Hale! It's a disaster! Do you know where Calumnia is?'

'No, why?'

'She disappeared while swimming. And Arch cut himself on coral and is nearly dead from loss of blood. We've sent for an ambulance. Should we inform someone?'

'Calm, Malcolm, calm. None of this can possibly be your fault. You run an impeccable establishment, so leave it all to the cops. Just remain calm, do as they ask with no questions. Be helpful; don't protest your innocence; that makes cops suspicious. It will sort itself out.'

'Yes. Yes. You are right. But …'

'But keep calm. Where's Arch?'

'I'll take you.'

The sick bay was in a separate building behind the office, a large airy room smelling of disinfectant. The resident nurse was taking Arch's temperature. A policeman was standing watching. Blood had seeped through the bandage around Arch's thigh. His eyes were open and he grasped Hale's hand nervously.

'Where's... where's…'


Arch nodded.

'She's disappeared. No one has any idea where she is.' Hale gave a slow wink.

'That's terrible. What can have happened?'

'The police are on to it, so don't worry. I'm sure she'll be found.'

Hercules stepped forward and took the other hand, 'You're a fuckwit, Lintel, gashing yourself. Do you want me to let Mort know?'

'Yes, please Hercules. His number's on my speed dial.'

The policeman stepped forward. 'Who is Mort?'

'Arch's son, he's on a camping trip with his friend.'


'Last I heard they were in the Platypus National Park.'

'That's about three hundred kilometres south.'

'Yeah, something like that. But they're moving around a bit apparently. He's an independent kid, doesn't take kindly to being told what to do.'

'How old is he?'


'The cop checked his records. 'Mr. Lintel's only thirty-three.'

'Yeah, a teenage fuck, apparently.'

'So the missing woman's his step mother, only a few years older than him, how did they get on?'

Hercules laughed. 'I think he was in love with her.' He looked at the policeman's face. 'No, not like that. He's gay and Calumnia was brilliant. Made him feel totally at home. He'll be gutted, poor bugger.'

The cop pulled a wry smile. 'Not very politically correct, Mr. Buff.'

Hercules grinned and winked.

At that moment the ambulance arrived.

Within two minutes Arch had an oxygen mask on his face, had been given an injection, was carried into the ambulance, papers had been signed and they were on their way.

'Will you be needing us? I'd like to be at the hospital when Arch comes out of surgery.'


'Me and Hale, we're his best mates. Hale gave a performance here last night.'

The policeman checked his notes. 'You haven't been interviewed. Give me your details then call in to the police station to make a statement before going to the hospital.'

'What about Arch's things?'

'We need to check his room in case there are leads to what might have happened. He will be contacted when he can retrieve his effects.'

'What about his car? Can I take it?'

'While you're cleaning out your room and checking out of the hotel I'll have a constable take a look, then I imagine you can take it.'

Half an hour later they met the policeman at Arch's car. He handed Hercules the keys and Arch's mobile phone. Mr. Lintel asked you to call his son. Do it now, but we'll keep the phone.'

Mort answered on the third ring.

'Mort? Hercules. Bad news. Arch has cut his leg and is in hospital, and Calumnia's missing. There's a helic…'

'What do you mean missing?' Even from two metres away, the cop could hear the anxiety.

Hercules explained.

Mort was terribly upset. Wanted to come and help with the search. Was told he had to be calm and remain where he was, not to worry, he couldn't do anything except upset Arch, so finish his holiday and they'd all meet up back at Oasis. Mort played his part well.

The constable took the handset and introduced himself, explained that everything that needed to be done was being done, so Mort should remain where he was — where was that exactly? 'And tonight you'll stay at Falls National Park camping ground? Right, stay there; a police officer will arrive sometime this afternoon to interview you in case you have any information that might help the police with their enquiries. So hang around the camping area.'

The interview at the police station in town was straightforward; they signed statements and were free to go, but were not to leave the country without police permission until the case was closed.

Mort's interview was similar.

Arch was released from hospital the following day with twenty-five stitches in his thigh, a packet of antibiotics, a pack of sterile dressings and several bandages, on condition Hale would stay with him and follow the doctor's instructions.

Over the next five weeks, everyone was interviewed several times by polite policemen who freely admitted that so far they had seen and heard nothing that made them suspicious of foul play. Arch had been in full view all the time. None of the mobile phones had any messages that could be called suspicious. Calumnia had sounded pleased with herself and was clearly under no threat when she sent the messages to her friends, and mother, all of whom agreed her plan was to cement her marriage with the man she loved.

Calumnia's friends' helpfulness was triggered more from self-preservation than concern for her fate. They carefully avoided saying anything that might invite further interviews and investigation into the lucrative but illegal prostitution business of which Calumnia had been an invaluable asset. Her mother too was worried. She had foolishly bragged to her friends about how her daughter was going to fleece her wimpish husband, and didn't want the cops to get hold of that information. Nor did she want them to know her daughter had been blackmailing Hercules. She was dead, and from a gossipy woman's point of view the untimely death of a daughter in love makes a far better story than the death of a bitch who was screwing her husband for all she could get — and failed.

A check at both National Parks proved that Mort had been staying at both during the tragic episode, so could not have had any part in his step mother's accident.

Cleaning staff swore they had seen both Hale and Hercules in and around their cabin while the tragedy was unfolding on the beach.

To Hale's astonished relief, no one bothered to find out who or what had driven along the coastal track to the town — he still had not thought of a valid reason for driving there at that time.

The bathing costume did not look like either a shark or a crocodile had torn it, however, the traces of blood were analysed and DNA matched to Calumnia, who had had her DNA taken when she reported being raped by a teacher at the age of sixteen, and chose a compensation package from the school rather than the ignominy of a court case.

Death by misadventure — possibly a shark or crocodile attack, was written on the bottom of the file.

Arch's leg healed perfectly and he and Hale have become the most sought-after architectural duo in the state.

Hercules remains Hercules.

Douglass Verdi bought himself a small unit in the city, and Mort and Zadig remain in connubial bliss in the cottage, living exactly the life that suits them.

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