Hangman's Gap


Chapter One

Detective Sergeant Blake Harknell eyed the dusty white four-wheel drive that was slewed to a standstill beside a smouldering old eucalyptus stump, and rued the day he had left Melbourne.

The bittersweet tang of freshly ground coffee, the honk and shove of traffic outside his favourite café’s window – even the sour stench of overflowing gutters and drains after a heavy downpour.

Anything but the smoky tang from the charred stumps that littered the ground at his feet, and the crawling sensation that close by, amongst the burned-out tendrils of ghost gum bark droppings, an Eastern brown snake was waiting to pounce.

Sidling between the rear end of a Queensland Police-issued vehicle and a mobile water tanker emblazoned with a Rural Fire Service logo, he stepped over a motley collection of breathing apparatus before raising his ID card in silence to an enquiring junior constable.

‘Victoria Police?’

‘I was told to report here.’

He received a cursory nod in response, and then he was past the first cordon of plastic crime scene tape that had been stretched between two door mirrors.

The undergrowth crackled under his shoes while he crunched over the remains of tree trunks felled by last year’s lightning storms, now scorched and splintered to smithereens by the fire that had torn through here sixteen hours earlier.

The pungent stench of smoke clung to the air, scratching the back of his throat and stinging his eyes.

Not too far away, he could see ghostly figures wearing bulky orange high-visibility coveralls, the bright material dulled by dirt and grime, the volunteers’ skin smudged by tiny particles of charcoal that had lifted skywards when the flames took hold.

They had finished dampening down now, extinguishing the embers and obliterating any chance the undergrowth had of sparking another blaze.

Hence the water tanker.

He hadn’t experienced the Queensland heat before, but knew that the traditional torrential rains in these summer months were becoming rarer, and that the winters often meant the dams were dry.

He had seen the photographs from further out west of here as well – the dehydrated skin hanging off dead cattle that had wandered for kilometres in search of fresh water, the deserted homesteads that families could no longer afford to keep, or had no wish to keep. And he had read the reports of suicide after suicide as farmers grew more and more desperate.

High above him, away from the remnant smoke that twisted its way around the gnarled tree trunks, a lone bellbird chimed, its constant pip reminiscent of a submarine’s sonar array.

He could hear voices now, low murmurs that carried on a light breeze that spoke volumes, a deference to the utter destruction around him, no matter that it was man-made, and necessary.

Especially given the weather predictions for the coming weeks.

Movement at the base of one of the enormous gum trees caught his attention, and a young constable with sweat patches spreading under his uniform shirt raised an eyebrow in greeting, the rest of his face obscured by a paper mask that he had evidently donned to try to offset the poor air quality.

The man walked over to him, his manner brisk.

‘Can I help you, sir?’

Blake cleared his throat. ‘I got a phone call telling me to report to Detective Inspector Cameron Bragg. Is he around?’

‘Yeah. He got here thirty minutes ago.’ The constable looked him up and down. ‘Do you want some coveralls?’

‘Please. I usually carry some in my car, but…’ He broke off as two Rural Fire Service volunteers rambled towards him, their shoulders slumped.

Blake watched them walk past, their faces etched with exhaustion and a practised stoicism. ‘When did they find the body?’

‘A couple of hours ago, when they were dampening down after the controlled burn. It’s another three hundred metres through there from the fire trail.’

‘They look shattered.’

The man jerked his chin towards the retreating figures. ‘Those two were meant to clock off yesterday afternoon, but the wind turned and they were scared the fire would get out of control, so it was all hands on deck. Bragg is through there by the way, beyond the cordoned-off area.’

‘Okay.’ Blake looked around. ‘Where do I find those coveralls?’

In response, the constable led the way to a white polyester tent that had been erected a metre or so in front of a length of plastic crime scene tape tied between two ghost gums. He gestured to the opening then turned away, leaving Blake to push back the flap and discover a table laden with sealed packets of protective coveralls amongst other equipment the forensic specialists had unloaded from the van that Blake had parked behind moments earlier.

Blake bit back a yawn, the effects of the drive from Melbourne two days ago and the rush to check into his accommodation – a pub five kilometres away in Hangman’s Gap – starting to take their toll.

Everything had happened so quickly.

He wasn’t ready, never had been if he was truthful, and yet here he was, some 1,800 kilometres from home, in unfamiliar territory with a familiar dread lodged in the pit of his stomach.

Already, the questions were forming in his head.

There was a crinkling sound, and then the tent flap was shoved backwards by a woman in her mid-twenties. She was a couple of centimetres shorter than him with blonde hair tied back in a stumpy ponytail.

‘You’re DS Harknell, right? Are you ready? DI Bragg is looking for you.’

Blake tugged the protective booties over his shoes and then straightened. ‘I am. Sorry, you are?’

‘Senior Constable Angela Forbes. I’d shake your hand, but…’ She held up gloved fingers, then dropped her elbow and let the tent flap fall back into place.

Blake followed, trudging beside her towards the crime scene tape. ‘Do you report directly to Bragg?’

The smile disappeared. ‘No.’

She lifted the tape, ducked underneath and then held it aloft while he did the same. Then she led the way along a demarcated path that zigzagged between the gum trees.

Here, the birds had fallen silent.

Even the persistent bellbird had disappeared.

The crime scene wasn’t devoid of sound though, and as they drew closer Blake could hear it – the steady drone of flies.

The air was full of them, great clouds clustering above the SOCOs and forensic technicians, the insects’ fat, glossy bodies landing on his protective suit and colliding with the exposed parts of his face before he batted them away, grimacing.

They grew louder the closer he got, and then the wind turned and he could smell it.


A chill clutched at Blake’s spine as his eyes found the numbered markers that dotted their approach.

What had the forensics team found?

Would it help them?

His gaze travelled to a group of four figures huddled together wearing identical protective suits while they peered at a tablet computer.

‘Over here,’ Forbes said, interrupting his thoughts, and then pointed at the earth. ‘Watch yourself, the demarcation narrows as we get closer, so it’s single file only.’

‘Was the victim caught in the fire?’

‘It wasn’t the fire that killed him,’ she said. ‘That much even I can tell you.’

Blake swallowed, took a last inhalation of relatively fresh air, and hurried to catch up with her.

She stopped a reverent distance from where the forensic team worked, and from here Blake could only glimpse the tattered remains of a pair of shoes wrapped around charred feet that pointed skywards from behind a jagged knee-high granite boulder.

The ground was littered with large stones around here, adding to the difficulty of a terrain already made treacherous by the thick tangled tree roots that had miraculously escaped the flames.

‘I was meant to be meeting Sergeant Mortlock this morning before I got a phone call from your HQ in Caboolture telling me to report out here to Bragg instead. Is Mortlock joining us?’ Blake asked while they watched one of the figures straighten and turn away with a sealed evidence bag.

Forbes kept her gaze straight ahead, her jaw set for a moment, then: ‘I doubt it very much.’

‘But I thought he was the officer in charge around here.’

There was a shout then, and the taller of the protective suit-clad figures beckoned to them.

‘Come on.’ Forbes led the way over, then briefly introduced him. ‘This is Jonathan Coker, our lead forensic expert.’

‘Have you had a chance to speak to headquarters yet?’ Coker said to her, nodding a brief greeting to Blake. ‘It’s just that…’

‘There won’t be anyone more senior than Bragg here for at least another hour.’ She shrugged. ‘Sorry.’

Coker sighed. ‘All right, well we’ll probably be ready to move him by then with any luck. Sigford’s already left, and he said he’ll be in touch about the post mortem.’

Blake watched while one of the forensic team used a fine brush to sweep at the dirt a few metres away. The woman’s movements were meticulous, methodical, despite the rising humidity. He turned his attention back to Coker. ‘What do you know so far?’

The forensic expert’s brow creased, his eyes full of confusion as he adjusted the nitrile gloves against his fingers. ‘When did you get up here?’

‘Yesterday,’ Blake said. ‘I was just saying to Forbes, I haven’t even had a chance to introduce myself to Sergeant Mortlock in person yet.’

The forensic expert sighed, placed a hand on his shoulder and turned him to walk around a large boulder.

A fresh swarm of flies lifted into the air as one of the technicians stepped aside, and Blake saw then.

Saw the burnt flesh torn away by the flames.

Saw the raw blistering wounds so deep that charred bones showed through, a skeletal hand clawing at the smoke-filled air.

Saw the twisted, melted metalwork of a belt buckle and––

Coker cleared his throat. ‘DS Harknell, meet Senior Sergeant Ivan Mortlock.’


Chapter Two

A pair of crows cackled above Blake’s head as his gaze took in the obliterated features of a man who was once flesh and blood.

The fire had done its job – the skeletal form was now curled in on itself, forming an uncanny resemblance to a foetus in a womb, the baked earth around it a blurred background in a macabre mimicry of an ultrasound image.

A respectful silence accompanied him while he stepped carefully around Mortlock’s charred remains, noting the blackened skull with its screaming open jaw, the pelvis and hips twisted towards the granite rock, the ribcage hollowed through and through by the unforgiving furnace that had ripped across the terrain.

Despite Blake’s attempts to stifle his breathing, despite the protective mask he wore, his nostrils were still assaulted by the stench of charred flesh.

‘How can you be sure it’s him?’

Coker jerked his thumb over his shoulder. ‘His car was found parked out near the back of Mike Prengist’s property, about a kilometre through there. It’s off a spur from an older fire trail that hasn’t been used for a while. The keys were still in the ignition. No sign of a struggle, either.’

‘What about a mobile phone?’

‘What’s left of it is there, on the left of his chest. He must have had it in his shirt pocket. There’s very little signal out here, so he couldn’t have used it anyway.’

Blake took in the lumpen mass of melted plastic, the outer casing of the phone unrecognisable. ‘What are the chances of retrieving the SIM card from that?’

The forensic expert snorted. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’

‘What happened? Was he trapped before he could reach the firebreak, or…?’

‘He wasn’t out here for the hazard reduction burn,’ said Coker. He crouched beside Mortlock’s charred footwear. ‘See? The soles are burned away but there’s no metal left here. He wasn’t wearing steel-capped boots. These look like ordinary work shoes to me, although keep that off the record until we’ve got him back to ours for a proper examination. Besides, this burn was publicised four weeks ago and the RFS lot did a drive-through here before they started to make sure there were no vehicles around.’

‘You said you were meant to be meeting Mortlock. When did you last speak with him?’ said Forbes, her green eyes peering at him over her mask.

‘Yesterday, when I checked in to the pub.’ Blake scratched at the plastic hoodie that rubbed against his cheek. ‘He called me at about eleven o’clock, I reckon. Just to firm up some last-minute details before we met today.’

‘Did he seem anxious about anything?’

He frowned. ‘I didn’t get that impression, no. Why? Do you think this was a suicide?’

‘No, I don’t.’ She turned to Coker. ‘Show him what Sigford found.’

The forensic technician shuffled sideways on his haunches until he reached Mortlock’s skull, then gently turned it away so the hideous grimace faced the rock, before running his forefinger along the base of it. ‘There’s an indentation here, just behind where his ear would be. Michael Sigford, our pathologist, won’t confirm anything until the PM but said off the record it’s a blunt force trauma wound.’

‘He fell and hit his head?’

Coker blinked. ‘Not exactly, detective. Not the way he was found lying here, he didn’t. His body would have taken a different trajectory.’

Blake felt a bead of sweat trickle through his hair, accompanied by a swift shiver that spread across his shoulders. ‘So, you’re saying––’

‘He was murdered,’ said Forbes, her voice thick with emotion. ‘Some bastard murdered him, and then after the RFS crew cleared the area his killer used the fire to try and hide the fact.’

‘Jesus.’ He took a step back and used the back of a gloved hand to wipe his forehead. ‘You’re sure?’

‘As sure as we can be, until Mike Sigford’s post mortem and any evidence we manage to find here confirms it, yes.’ Coker straightened and nodded towards the fringes of the cordon. ‘Hence why your lot have sent Detective Inspector Bragg from Caboolture HQ to watch over us. Met him yet?’

‘He was talking to Brisbane HQ when I saw him, trying to get more resources sent up here,’ said Forbes. ‘I figured I’d introduce them after this.’

‘Best get on with it then. Send him over here when you’re done.’ Coker batted away a fresh onslaught of flies from his face. ‘I want him to be here when we move the body.’

‘Will do.’

Forbes led the way back towards the outer cordon, her head bowed while she stepped carefully over twisted tree roots and coiled hoses that snaked across the demarcated path.

A strained silence accompanied them, broken only by a pair of RFS volunteers who nodded at them as they passed, one of them pausing briefly to murmur something to Forbes and then hurrying to catch up with his colleague.

‘What was that about?’ Blake said.

‘Just passing on his condolences,’ came the reply.

She kept walking.

Blake’s tongue rasped against the roof of his mouth, the morning sun lifting the shadows amongst the smoky haze between the eucalypts and hoop pines beyond the outer cordon. It was another five degrees warmer since he’d arrived and the protective suit was clinging to him, suffocating his skin, shrouding him within its sticky sweaty grasp.

Ducking under the twisting crime scene tape, he staggered after Forbes into the white tent and tore away the mask, gulping in fresh air before peeling the hood from his head, running his hand over damp hair.


She stood beside a plastic crate laden with half-litre bottles of water, then tossed one to him.

He caught it one-handed, twisted the seal and swallowed half before catching his breath. ‘Thanks.’

‘No worries.’ She peeled her protective suit away from a simple black T-shirt and jeans, then sipped delicately at her water, eyeing him while she did so. ‘You do realise you might’ve been the last person to speak to Mortlock, don’t you?’

‘Wasn’t he on duty yesterday?’

‘He had a rostered day off. Wasn’t due in until three this arvo – he pulled the late shift this week.’

‘When did you last speak with him?’

A faint flush settled on her cheeks, and she turned away. ‘Monday night. Just after nine.’

‘So, how did he seem to you?’

‘Normal, I suppose.’ She stripped off the protective suit and shoved it into a biohazard bin beside the tent flap before turning back to him. ‘Distracted, maybe, but not worried.’

‘Has he had any threats recently?’

‘Not that I’m aware of, no. But then, you never––’ She broke off as voices grew louder outside the tent, then drained the last of her water.  ‘That’s Bragg. I’d better introduce you before Coker gets hold of him.’

Or you can buy from other retailers

eBooks & Print