SLACK WATER – Chapter 10: Matty

I follow Piper and she follows a small girl, a tiny shadow of a thing, visible only because of her white bones painted on her body. When the trees part and moonlight lights the path, it seems we chase a skeleton. The little girl doesn’t speak; Piper holds her finger against her lips when she first finds me, a needless caution as I know that the night jungle is alive with marys, now free to roam and hunt without the danger of a chance gust of wind opening a skylight through which a shaft of sunlight could set them ablaze.

But the creatures aren’t interested in us; they’re all are swarming down in the meadow, tearing at the old man on the cross, while Deborah’s people sing a tumbling chorus of religious ecstasy. The only danger I face as we climb up into the hills that crown Woodlark are low hanging branches and unseen, ankle-twisting deadfall.

My breath rasps my throat painfully by the time the child stops us. We have been climbing for an hour, a twisting, tortured route through what seemed to be an impenetrable maze of thickets and copses. It’s been a long, long day and I am filled with worry; for my crew, for my friends and most of all for Blong. But Piper is insistent I follow – she does not explain save to tell me that all will be explained.

Finally we stop at the base of a tall ironwood. The tree is mighty even by the standards of this jungle – its trunk almost a metre across, lifting perhaps twenty metres into the sky, so it can spread its branches above the canopy. The girl looks up and makes a hiccuping cry that I would have mistaken for a forest bird if I hadn’t seen its source. After a moment, something comes tumbling down from above; a rope ladder made of woven vines and short, chopped saplings. She places my hands on a rung and pushes me and I climb. Up and up, the ladder swaying sickeningly as I feel the forest floor diminish beneath me. Above me is a square hole in the night sky and then a trapdoor of lamplight opens and a man, his beard sandy and long, hisses, “Come on, dude, come on.”

He introduces himself as Mad Mark from Madang. “Because you’ve gotta be mad, man, we’re all mad here, this is the Heart of Darkness and the Hatter’s Teaparty and Catch 22 all wrapped into one, I’m mad too, not Mad Max but Mad Mark.” The words spill out of him as he helps me into through the trapdoor, his powerful arms lifting me as if I were no more than a sack of grain. “Don’t be scared, ma’am, don’t be scared, we’re mad but you’re safe, it’s okay, is it true you come from Madau? Are there still people there, are they—” He turns back to the trapdoor, his sentence discarded as he pulls Piper up. “Don’t worry miss, I’ve got you, you just jump up here, every thing’s groovy up here.”

The room is lit by a small fire built on a fireplace of flat riverstones. The walls and floor of the house are long planks of bamboo, split and hammered flat to lie across a woven frame of thin branches. The ceiling is a dense thatch of sago palm. It is exactly like every other traditional Papuan house I’ve seen — except this one is twenty meters up a tree.

While Mad Mark begins lifting the rope ladder, the little girl hanging somewhere along its length, a woman smiles and offers me half a coconut shell filled with sago and tiny slivers of meat. She’s a local, about forty or fifty years old. Her hair rises in a thick afro as solid and dense as a helmet. She wears an old faded blouse dress that has been mended and patched many times. A young man, also a local, sits with her, his smile made unfortunately sinister by his skewed and broken teeth. “Don’t let Mark scare you, he’s just excited to see new people,” says the woman. “You must be exhausted. Eat and rest and we will save our explanations until tomorrow.”

“No, no,” I protest. I lay my rifle down as I sit back against the wall. The house sways slightly as the tree moves in the breeze; its disquieting for a house to be moving, but it only takes a moment for my inner ear to adjust, as the motion is just like a yacht rocking at anchor. I’m ravenous and the food smells delicious, but I need answers more than sustenance. “What… what are you guys doing here? I mean, who are you?”

“My name is Mrs Aloysius,” says the lady. “Mark has already introduced himself. This is my son, Alfred and the little lady is Daisy. Weng is outside, on the porch.”

The little girl comes through the hatch, standing on the bottom rung of the ladder. Mark suddenly makes out that raising the ladder had been a major effort, puffing and panting as the girl, who can’t be more than ten years old, comes up.

“You’re getting too big for me, Daisy,” says Mark. “Too big and fat! The vampires are gonna eat you up.” The girl throws her arms around Mark and whispers something in his ear, starring at me with big, wide eyes the whole time. “Is that true?” Mark asks me. “Was Dieter on the cross? Did they serve him up?”

If the apocalypse taught us one thing, its how to deliver and take bad news. “The old man? Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Oh dude, that’s too bad, man.” Mark sounds like an American, but his voice is slow and drawls as if he has been drinking too much fruit wine. “That guy was beautiful. A real beautiful soul.”

“Did they kill him?” Mrs Aloysius’ voice trembles with suppressed pain, but her tone and manner is matter of fact. “Was he eaten?”

“I don’t think they turned him, if that’s what you’re asking.” They’re relieved by this small piece of good news. All of us agree on one thing at least; its better to be dead and eaten than become one of them.

Still, my head is spinning to be here, in this tiny house in the sky. “I can’t believe it. Have you been here the whole time?”

Mrs Aloysius nods. “Since Turi came.” She looks at Piper curiously. “I know you, don’t I?”

“I was a student at the school, Mrs Aloysius,” says Piper. She sounds surprisingly cowed as she explains to me. Mrs Aloysius was the headmaster of the island primary school when the End came. After a few years, when our world had stabilised, she restarted the school at Kulumadau, the main mining settlement. I’d been wondering at Piper’s strange manner, her careful, polite and precise way of speaking and I almost laugh out loud when I realise that Piper is afraid of Mrs Aloysius. She’s speaking like a kid scared of getting in trouble with a fair, but very strict school teacher.

But, even as this little facet of life from before Woodlark’s fall lightens our mood, I wonder who is Turi?

“Ah, now I know you,” chuckles Mrs Aloysius. “Piper, yes, a very naughty girl!”

As much as I enjoy Piper’s embarrassment, I have more important fish to fry. “Mrs Aloysius, we can’t stay. Our friends are out there somewhere. We have to find them before the cult or the marys do.”

“Why do you call them that, man?” asks Mark. “They’re vampires, yeah? I used to call em zombies but zombies don’t burn up like the Fourth of July when they get a suntan. Names are important, yeah? You gotta be precise, yeah, you can’t be calling ’em one thing and meaning another cause that’s how mistakes happen and then mistakes happen people die, yeah, you see that, yeah, we ain’t in this tree house cause we wanna be monkeys, no sir, no ma’am, wow, two ladies it must be my birthday—”

“Mark!” barks Mrs Aloysius. Perhaps its my imagination but Piper stiffens, her back unconsciously straightening and I can see the child in a classroom, trying to avoid her teacher’s wrath from spreading from her friend to her. “You’re getting excited Mark. Do you need to go sit outside?”

“No, ma’am.” Mark holds his palms out as he sits back, smiling peacefully. “I’ll just go to my quiet place while you guys talk. It’s a beautiful night, yeah.”

“You’re name is Matty, yes?” asks Mrs Aloysius. She continues before I can answer. “I know your friends are out there. But trust me, you can’t do anything for them now. If the whites have them, then believe it or not they are safe. They never offer more than one sacrifice a night. And if they are out in the forest… well, they are in God’s hands.”

“We’ve got torches and guns. We can find them.”

“Don’t be stupid, girl!” Her sudden reprimand reminds me of when I was five years old and decide to block up the cockpit drains on my family yacht with crayons. Mum and Dad were not pleased. “The night belongs to the masalai.

 “Vampires,” murmurs Mark, as he looks innocently out the open doorway that leads out onto a platform.

“We can do nothing until the morning. Eat your food, sleep and we will go then.”

The little girl whispers in Mark’s ear and he raises his hand. “Mrs Aloysius?”

“Yes, Mark.”

“Daisy says that the crazies caught two white men today. One was tall and the other’s skin was like an gator.”

“Your friends?”

“That sounds like Zac and Enzo.” My heart races at this news and I hope Mrs Aloysius is right about the cult only offering one sacrifice a night. “Was there a local man — a black man — and a small boy with them?”

“No,” he says, listening intently while Daisy whispers in his ear, as if he was her translator. Despite our tense silence, I can’t hear anything Daisy says. She seems to be making no noise as all. “The boy ran off one way and your friend followed… they… oh.” He draws back, to look at the girl. “Are you sure?”

She nods intently.

“Well!?” I demand. “What!?”

“Some vampires attacked them, man, but your friend, he hacked their heads off like he was some kinda ninja man, some kinda samurai yeah that’s crazy man, no one can fight a vampire, they’re too fast yeah your friend must be like Zatoichi but no Daisy says he did it—”

“And the child?” breaks in Mrs Aloysius sharply.

“Oh man, that’s a tragedy, he got taken, they carried him up the cave yeah, carried him off like he was a takeout lunch.”

“What?!” I’m on my feet before I know it. “Why didn’t you fucking idiots say so? Drop this ladder, now!”

“Young lady,” snaps Mrs Aloysius. “You will watch your language!”

“Are you fucking kidding me!? This isn’t a schoolroom. You’re all lunatics, and I’ll be damned if I sit around here. What’s is this cave? Where have they taken him?”

“It’s where they all live man, they’re like bats yeah, sleeping in there during the day, all huddled together, but deep, oh yeah too deep for us to get at them and—”

“Then drop this fucking ladder and take me there,” I shout. “Do it now!”

The air is tight with static and the only things moving are our shadows, flicking in the firelight.

“Matty,” says Piper carefully. “Lower your weapon.”

I can’t quite hear her. Sweat stings my eyes and I tighten my grip to bring the butt in firmly into the hollow of my shoulder. Mark gulps compulsively as he stares at the rifle barrel pressed up against his sternum. “Lower that ladder,” I say, my voice seeming to come from a thousand miles away, as I lean in to grind the flash suppressor against him.

I see Mrs Aloysius, out of the corner of my eye, standing slowly. The young man, who has been silent this whole time, crouches as tense as a coiled snake. She places her hand on his shoulder, to bid him to wait, and takes a step towards me. “Listen to your friend, Matty. This is not helping your boy.”

“Who the hell are you to say what will help us? You want me to sit up here playing treehouse while he’s out there with monsters!”

“I know how you feel, Matty. I’ve lost children too.”

“Who?” I’m sick in my stomach and my head burns with a fire that is spreading through my skin. My questions are irrational because nothing makes sense. “Who have you lost?!”

“All of them. I lost the whole school. Everyone but Daisy here. Look at her, Matty. You’re scaring her.”

She’s right. Mark is smiling a crazy terrified smile to try and placate me but the child has just wrapped herself around him, her face buried in his armpit. Mrs Aloysius has moved slowly to one side of me and now Piper stands at the other.

“Matty,” she says as she places her hand on my weapon’s receiver. “Stand down.”

She couldn’t know how much she sounds like my father at that moment. I shake my head in denial even as I step back, my rifle lowering, the weapon suddenly weighing a thousand tons. “Oh shit,” I say. “Oh my god, I’m sorry.”

Piper takes my rifle from my unresisting fingers as the strength goes out of my legs. I slump back, against the wall. Mark pulls himself up, massaging the centre of his chest, while Mrs Aloysius crouches down to look me in the eyes. She takes my hands in hers and squeezes firmly. “I understand. But you’re exhausted. You can do nothing now.”

“I’m sorry.”

She shakes her head, firmly dismissing my apology. Her dark eyes are compassionate but her voice is firm and I feel my resistance melting away as sleep comes like rain. She presses her palm against my brow. “You’re burning up. Rest. And tomorrow, we will find your boy.”

***

I wake before sunrise. The cabin is quiet – the only noises are the sounds of sleep and the gentle squeaks of the great tree swaying in the wind. The fire is nothing but a few glowing embers and I shiver; the breeze at this height sapping heat from my bones. My memories of falling asleep last night – of everything after my episode – are foggy: Alfred singing softly as he filled the stick wound in my side with chewed up herbs. Mrs Aloysius lying a thin sheet over me. Piper holding my hand as I fell away into darkness.

I go out onto the porch, a narrow platform of woven bamboo. It has no guard rails and the sweeping vista of jungle spreading out below is dizzying. I can see both the northern and southern shores of Woodlark, the grey sea glowing red in the east like newly forged steel. Kwaipan harbour, over ten kilometres away, is a thin fold of water cupped in the hills of the bay, and in that fold I see my ship, Excelsior, a tiny speck glowing white in the last light of the setting moon.

“Takes your breath away, eh!?” The voice that from a pile of old sacks almost makes me leap off the platform in surprise. An old Asian man, his face worn smooth by time, grins from within the sacks. He has a scraggly white beard and his grin is a row of fallen gravestones. “Quite a view! What a way to start the day!” He cackles to himself as he parts the deck next to him.

I sit next to him. He’s clearly another madman but there is something grandfatherly about him that I find reassuring. “You’re Weng? I’m Matty.”

“Yes, yes, I hear last night. You got a temper, eh? I think Mark shit himself.” He cackles again, his creaking laugh as harsh as a crow. “I am old man, cannot shit no more. Maybe I get you to do that to me. Scare the shit out! Ha ha ha! You come from Madau? I tell the others, must be people there. But old Weng is too old to run through the jungle. And they are stupid! Won’t leave me behind. An old man! What can I do? If I was braver, I throw myself off this platform so they have to worry. But what can I do? I am afraid of height.”

“What did you do before?”

“Trader! I export sea cucumber to Taiwan. That’s where I am from. Mother yes, father, he was born here but he is Chinese too. Now I am retired, ha ha ha. What a retirement, eh?!”

I think of the Black Harvest‘s logbook, written in Chinese, which lies wrapped in plastic sheeting in the bottom of my locker on Excelsior. It was the only thing I was able to save when the Black Harvest was destroyed that might give a clue to the ship’s origin and how its First Officer somehow became one of the evolved marys. “So you speak Chinese? Read it?”

“Read it? Ha ha ha. Not for long time now. Why, you got a book?” His eyes glint with avarice. “I not read a book in a long time. My favourite was Harry Potter. You read this one? Such good story. Ron Weasley, ha ha ha. What a dickhead.”

“Can’t say I know that story.” People are waking inside the hut. Alfred crouches over the fire, breathing softly and carefully on the coals to coax them back to life. “You’ll have to come with me though.”

“Your ship, eh? You take us all? We leave Woodlark?”

“Yep. All of us are leaving Woodlark.”

“Good.” He nods, satisfied. “I’m sick of this fucking place.”

***

Mark, Alfred and Daisy are climbing down the ladder when I go back inside. Piper has her rifle slung over her shoulder. “They’re doing a clearing patrol. Checking below the trees. Can I go?”

I nod and she drops through the trapdoor after them. Mrs Alouysius hands me the half coconut of food I didn’t eat last night. “It’ll taste no worse today,” she says.

The food is a white paste of sago and forest tubers garnished with stringy grey meat. I raise my eyebrows questioningly and she smirks. “Fruit bat.”

“I’ve had worse,” I admit. After a spoonful though, I add, “But not by much.”

“You get used to it.”

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“Since Turi came? Or since the Lost Tribe?”

“Whatever you think is important.”

“I’ll be brief. Mark will be finished shortly and then we’ll go to the cave.”

There’s an etiquette we’ve developed as survivors. Asking ‘what happened here?’ is usually asking someone ‘tell me about the worst day of your life, when your whole society was ruined and all you loved destroyed.’ If you want to precise facts, you need to talk to the mad, people whose minds float still in the tsunami of horror that washed their worlds away. Mark and Weng; I think they could tell me everything that happened the day the green schooner came to Woodlark. You have to skimp on details unless you want to drown in them. You have to focus on the broad strokes, the facts, the headlines and the bullet points. Its the only way to remain sane.

The green schooner carried a monster. It killed and ate and infected; the patriarch of the first wave of marys that surged over the island. Mrs Aloyisius doesn’t dwell on the details of those first days, weeks and months. She doesn’t need to. We all know what horrors the phrase the island fell entails.

Some of the survivors made it Madau. Many did not. There is twenty kilometers of jungle between Kulumadau and the Dilkawau passage, so thick and overgrown that no one can pass it between dawn and dusk. And in many places the jungle is so thick that the marys can roam all day and night.

After a month, perhaps twenty people remained, sleeping in trees and scavenging for food. These were the ones who could not or would not attempt to reach Madau. The old or young or mad or those who cared for them. Mrs Alouysius thinks the monster, the alpha that she calls Turi, was not interested in them. “I dreamed about him. We all did. Turi the Green Lord. Some of us could not resist his call and went to him. But, after a while, the dreams stopped. As if he wasn’t interested in us any more.”

“But he’s a mary? A vampire or zombie or whatever you call them.”

“Yes – but an intelligent one. The masalai are just sharks. They kill and eat because it is in their nature. But Turi is a devil who thinks himself a prophet. You can’t begin to imagine—”

“I can. I faced one like him.”

“And?”

“And I am here and he is not.”

“You killed him?” She wets her lips, leaning in eagerly. “They… they can be killed?”

“It isn’t easy.” I remember the steel cable snapping as Black Harvest ripped in two, the incredible strain of the sinking stern whipping the cable across the ship’s deck at chest height, scything the monster in two. “But it can be done.”

Something passes between us now, a look that sparks a knowing, an understanding that we have found, in the other, an equal of ability, character and ambition. An ally. If this were ancient days, and we were hairy chieftains facing down an invading army, there would be a feast and pledges and manly speeches of duty and honour and other such dick measuring. But, circumstances what they are and that we’re a pair of women in a tight spot, we settle for a small nod and a few more bites of my fruit bat muck.

“We have a thousand questions for each other, I know,” says Mrs Aloyisius. “But the day is only so long.”

One question burns in my mind, brighter than all the rest. “Deborah… You called them the Lost Tribe. How long have they been here?”

“Two months. They called themselves the Lost Tribe, when they first came. We knew right away he had called them. They hunted us during the day. Any they capture… end up like poor Dieter. They came in two big canoes. One left, about a month ago. I think they took Turi with them.”

“Why do you think that?”

“The dreams stopped.”

“What colour were the canoes’ sails?”

She gives me a curious look, as she recognises that this is an important question. “Red.”

Daisy’s bird call announces their return and the hut shakes as Mark rattles the ladder. “Come on,” says Mrs Alouyius. “Let’s find your boy.”

***

Mark seems almost sane this morning. No crazy free associating adlibs. Just his wild darting glances and his forever shaking hands tell of his inner turmoil. All of us, save for Weng, are down on the forest floor. Mark lays it out. He was a geologist working with the mining company before the Fall. “There’s a series of limestone caves five kilometres away, on the river that drains into Sulugo bay. I did some spelunking back in the old days. Crazy beautiful inside man, stalactites, even helectites man, you wouldn’t believe it. I got back, man, must have been half a mile into the hillside. That’s where they sleep. That’s where they took the boy. ”

“We’re going to have to move quickly,” I say. “We’ve got ten hours to make a lot of things happen. We need to find Blong and Roman, get Weng, get around the cult and back on board Excelsior before sunset.”

“That’s ambitious man. Crazy ambitious.” Mark’s face splits in a wide, delighted grin. “I love it, yeah.”

“I could take Weng,” says Mrs Aloysius. “Maybe with Alfred. We know this island better than anyone. We could meet you down at the wharf this evening.”

“No.” I don’t leave any room for argument. “I’ve split the group once before and it was a disaster. Weng is safe here. You either stay with us, or you stay here. No third option.”

I look from one to another, waiting for someone to object. When no one does, I continue. “One other thing. They have a rifleman. A damn good one too. They almost took my head off yesterday.”

“Yeah, we know,” says Mark. “He got Shorty and Ellis too.”

I see the sadness pass over all of their faces, a brief remembering. Whoever Shorty and Ellis were, their loss was mourned. But this moment passes as quickly as it came. Like all of us, they have to consciously forget the friends they’ve lost unless they want to drown in grief. I move on. “So we have to be careful today. We’re tactical, yeah? Anyone got any problems with that?” Again, silence. I can feel the march of the sun across the sky like it was a monstrous ticking clock but I know that time spent planning now will not be wasted. “Good. Alright, Mark, walk us through the route today.”

***

I’ve always found it weird how my mind can work on two levels. I spent years alone save for my imaginary friend. Someone I knew was fake, but pretended was real to stave of the madness that comes from true solitude. A little sluice way to relieve pressure at the dam.

As we cross the island to Mark’s cave, I find my mind going in two ways. One is completely in the moment. Watching the shift of shadows that could cloak a daring mary. Sending Piper out ahead, on point with Daisy, their keen senses the best watchdog for any threat. Mark and Mrs Aloysius behind me, Alfred bringing up the rear. All of us moving slowly and carefully and pretty damn silently. The only speech Mark and Mrs Aloysius’ whispers, advising me which way we should go. We move down tiny paths, schism in the dense foliage I would never have found without their guidance.

And, while we carefully navigate across this foreign land, my mind goes to a place it has been increasingly reluctant to visit.

The past.

I’ve changed. Two months ago I teetered on the edge of true madness. I engaged a demon in a battle of wills, but, more than that, I threw myself into a maelstorm at least half wishing I would be consumed. And instead I came out the other side with my soul not only intact, but restored. For a decade I had been wandering alone in the wilderness, a shell whose passing would go unnoticed, save for Larry, chalking me up on the OVERDUE column of his tracking sheet. Perhaps even Fat Kev, that asshole, would regret the spares I would no longer bring. If that would be the measure of my life, then I might as well have been dead.

But by sacrificing my yacht — which had been a floating mausoleum to my family and my past — to save Blong, I had passed out of the Land of Death and returned to the light. I had been reborn.

Part of me wonders though: perhaps I was better at being dead.

***

The cave could not look more sinister.

I’m not sure what I expected – some sort of mountain or cliff face, something that speaks of rock and fissures and ancient passages. Something natural. Instead it is just a hole in the jungle floor. We crest a rise and Mark stops me, pointing down into the shallow valley which is choked with ferns and decades worth of deadfall. About fifty metres away is a pool of darkness, as if a pond of oil had gathered. It is a lake of nothing, a hole, where the ground opened up and fell away.

A river runs under this island; a million years of erosion carving a web of limestone caves that thread the living rock, draining the hills and valleys down to the sea. For the most part, this river is unknown to us on the surface, running and rushing beneath the ground we think is hard and immutable. A cave like this is a reminder that things move unseen and that our foundations can be swept away at any time.

We move carefully down the edge of the hole. It drops down about twenty metres. It was once a cavern whose roof collapsed. The bottom is a tumbled ruin of boulders and fallen trees with ferns growing in any space that gathers light, as if they were plugs of epoxy filling holes. The cave is well lit; despite our guides knowledge, it has taken us all morning to get here and the sun is high overhead, shining through a rent formed where the trees can’t grow.

Mark leads me to the edge. I glance around; Piper has instinctively taken a position on higher ground, where she can cover us. She scans the ridgelines slowly and cautiously. I note the brilliant contrast her red hair has against green jungle when the sun catches it. I should have given her my black bandanna to camouflage herself.

Mrs Aloysius and Alfred stand with me as we look into the cave. “Pretty gnarly road down, man,” says Mark, pointing at the natural ramp a fallen tree has made. “See how there’s no moss or growth on top? That’s how they get down man, skiddledee-skiddledoo, yeah?”

“And then?” I ask.

“You see where the river flows into the little kiddie pool? That hole where it comes out? That’s the pipeline, man, that’s the vampire underpass, highway to the danger zone, man.”

“But they don’t sleep, do they? They wait.”

“Hey lady, I just work here,” says Mark, holding his palms out.

“You’re right though,” says Mrs Aloysius as she catches on. “Almost all of them come back to this one cave each night. They could hide in a million places from the sun. What brings them back here? Why do they—”

I see a whirl of red out of the corner of my eye as Piper spins to face a figure that has just come over the ridge. I shove Mrs Aloysius down, falling on her as I bring my rifle to my shoulder, framing the silhouette on the ridge in my square red dot sight. Mrs Aloysius gives an indignant yelp of protest as I land on her. My finger curls the trigger. Mark and Alfred show the reflexes that have kept them alive, diving right and left into the thick fern cover.

“WAIT!” shouts Piper. Is she shouting at me or the target? Either way, I hold fire. The silhouette raises one arm and waves a long thin machete urgently.

I half rise, risking exposing myself above the ferns to get a better look. Mrs Aloysius tries to sit and I shove her down with my non-master hand. “Young lady—” she begins but I shut her up with a vehement shush.

I want to yell at him to keep his hands up, but I’m standing over a cave holding god knows how many marys. I might as well play with matches while sitting on a keg of dynamite. I wave him down, hoping he will at least take a step forward into the lit clearing so I can identify him.

A quick glance at Piper: she’s taken a knee in the ferns, her Marlin up, her face tight against the stock. Her stance and posture are damn good, but her cover is shit. The ferns rise to her waist and her red hair blazes like a flare. As Dad would say, with the eloquence peculiar to Army sergeants, she stands out like tits on a bull. I can’t see Daisy; the kid must be crouched in the ferns nearby.

The man on the right waves back. He wants me to go to him. “Piper,” I hiss. It takes a few tries before I get a slight nod of her head. “Can you ID him?”

She doesn’t break her sight picture on him. “I think it’s Roman.”

“Why the fuck won’t he come down here?”

“I’ll go up.” Alfred lies behind a log on a few metres away, watching the stranger on the ridgeline with no less intensity than either of us. “You cover me, okay?”

I glance down into the cave. Is it my imagination or did something just move down in the entrance? Nothing there in the light, but maybe something where the water spills from a dark hole. I look up; the ridgeline where the man stands is perhaps seventy metres away. He’s a dark shadow against a dark background of trees – I’m impressed that Piper spotted him in the first place.

“Okay. Go carefully, okay?”

He grins at me and then the cheeky bastard actually gives me a wink. Then he’s gone, sliding back off the log like a crocodile disappearing into a swamp. The ferns rustle to shows me where he moves, flat on his belly until he reaches the far side of the hole. Then he’s up, on his feet, moving quickly and silently with a fluid skill that—

A harsh crack of thunder splits the air.

Alfred slips. He slides down the slope he’s just climbed, the ferns snapping and crackling as his body spins and tumbles. I don’t see what happens next as I’ve whirl and fire four times up towards thick stand of trees where I think the shot came from. Then I fling myself flat, down on Mrs Aloysius who is fighting to get up on her feet.

“Let me go!” she shrieks.

“Goddamn it, be quiet. Its a sniper.”

“I know that, you idiot. Look at Alfred.”

He hangs over the pit, his hands wrapped around a branch sticking over the edge. He dangles, his feet windmilling as they try to find purchase. But he is surrounded by empty air, hanging off this one old branch over twenty metres of space above boulders and broken trees. One hand slips free and he lunges up, resetting his grip before his other sweaty hand lets go.

He’s unharmed. I can’t believe his luck. I thought he had been shot.

“Piper!” I yell. No point being quiet now. The sniper knows where we have gone to ground – and any mary below would have woken at the gunshot. I can’t see up the slope, everything uphill is blocked by ferns. “What can you see?”

There’s no answer.

Fuck.

Oh fuck no.

Let’s play a quick game. I’m a sniper about to take my first shot. Who would I take out? The group stuffing around the pit? The unarmed man walking up the slope? Or the other sniper, exposed and fixated on a mysterious figure on the hill?

“PIPER!” I scream as shock sets in. “PIPER!” I leap to my feet, my rifle up, ready to blaze away at the trees where the sniper lies. But, before I can get shot off, a hand loops through my belt and yanks me back to the ground. Mark presses down on me, pushing me into the loam.

“Chill out, okay, only allowed one crazy person around here and we need you yeah? No good to us if both you gun slingers are down. Gonna make a bad day worse yeah?”

“She’s down?” I say. I can still control this, I can still deny what’s happening, Piper’s fine, that sniper missed me, yeah, he only just missed me over a two hundred metre shot, he could have missed Piper, exposed seventy metres away on a hillside. He could have missed her, there’s no way, there’s no way he could have missed her, missing her over seventy metres, her bloody red hair a goddamned target, no way, no way he could have missed. “Did you see it?”

He doesn’t need to say anything. His eyes do it for him.

My world falls open beneath me.

Mark’s saying something and so is Mrs Aloysius, both of them clustering into my vision, the three of us buried in the ferns on the edge of the pit. Alfred has got his legs up around the log; now he hangs beneath it like a pig being carried off on a pole to a feast. His eyes are as big and white as plates and I see why: the branch is wobbling back and forth, more and more any time he moves, the whole branch about to let go and I think yeah, I know how you feel buddy. Except he’s afraid but I want to fall. If I just push myself, I’ll go off the edge and this’ll be done.

That’s when Mrs Aloysius slaps me. Hard enough across the face to rattle my teeth. Salty blood fills my mouth and the shock of its taste is like a shot of adrenalin to my heart. The muffled voices, the distance, the warm sinking feeling fades and is gone like I’ve been shot of out of a cannon. “Pull yourself together!” shouts Mrs Aloysius. “What are we going to do?”

Goddamnit.

She’s right.

I’m the captain.

“Alfred!” I say, just loud enough for him to hear. “Stop moving! You’d been shot already if he wanted it. And moving is just going to make you fall sooner.”

I take Mrs Aloysius’ hand. The clock is ticking. Piper could just be wounded. She could be bleeding out. How do I get to her? She’s on the other side of the hollow; her body fallen among the ferns so I can’t see it. I’d have to run across twenty metres of exposed hillside to reach her.

Shit. I can’t do that. I’m the captain. I need to send someone else to treat her. Daisy was near her. Is the girl still there? I risk a quick glance up to where the silhouetted man stood; the ridge line is now empty. Were you part of the trap? A distraction? Or just another bloody crappy coincidence?

“I’ve got to think for a second,” I say to Mrs Aloysius, squeezing her hand. “Don’t hit me again.”

I close my eyes. Shut down all the guilt bubbling there, yep, I know its there, plenty of time to deal with it later. Imagine myself as the sniper. Up in those trees probably. Taken out one target, my most dangerous. Another target dangling exposed over a pit. Sniper is smart though. Patient. Alfred’s not a target. He’s a big chunk of bait. We try to save him, we expose ourselves.

I’m the second target. That’s obvious. I’ve got the only other firearm and, if they have been watching us as I suspect, they’ll know I’m the Captain. So they’re working on getting me next. Either expecting me to go after the bait, or to Piper. Or maybe not waiting, maybe they’re already manoeuvring for a better shot. Suppose they’ve dropped off the ridge, and are running around in the dead ground to the other side of the hollow? How long until they’re in position? Five minutes? Ten. Gotta move quickly.

I open my eyes. Back to the world. Back to the job. Mark and Mrs Aloysius lie there, waiting. A centipede as long as my thumb crawls over Mark’s cheek but he doesn’t move a muscle. “Daisy. Could she help?”

“I’m not sure,” says Mrs Aloysius. “She’s a very remarkable child. But she is still only a child.”

“Mark. You got first aid training yeah?”

“Sure thing, Rambo-ina, but I don’t got no kit, I’m no good with—”

“Here.” I pull my medkit out of my beltkit, then rip off my bandanna. Its sweaty and dirty as fuck but needs must as the Devil drives. “If she’s got a gunshot wound, you wrap it with this. Stop the bleeding, yeah? First priority.”

“Okay.” He looks across the exposed ground, the only cover the knee high ferns and gulps. “You gonna cover me, yeah? My head may be full of crazy, sure, but its the only one I got.”

“Trust me.” I slide carefully through the ferns, so I’m a couple of meters from the position I last exposed myself from. I nod to him, holding up three fingers. He nods back, he’s terrified, hell, he’s shitting himself but I think he’ll do it.

I hold up two fingers.

Then one.

And then Mrs Aloysius leaps to her feet, just a split second before I do.

She jumps up, just where I stood before, right where the sniper would be expecting me to stand.

I’m already moving, shifting to a standing firing position, when she does. I’m committed to my action – there’s no way I can stop hers.

Instantly a gunshot takes her high in the chest.

She falls back.

I see the flash of his shot and I know where he is. In the buttress of a great fig tree, his head dark, another knurl of wood I would never have noticed otherwise. He’s seen me come up and realises his mistake, shifting to me, my red dot sight falling on him, a clean picture and, his rifle comes onto me, he’s only fifty metres away, closer than I thought possible and he’s just a teenager and I fire.

His head jerks back as something dark paints the tree. A long second before I realise his shot will never come. But then a hard shattering noise does fill the air; the river pool beneath us erupting in a great rising column as Mrs Aloysius lands flat on her back in the water below.

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