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The Friday afternoon buzz at the Black Opal died to a whisper and I looked up from the conversation I was having with a woman I'd met only minutes before.

A huge man filled the doorway. He wore dusty boots, dirty jeans and nothing on his torso but a sweat-soaked leather vest. A matt-black, open-face motorcycle helmet dangled from his hand as he scanned the room for a familiar face.

The whole thing was a cliche; something out of the Louis L'Amour westerns I'd devoured after discovering them in my grand-dad's bookcase as a teenager. For outlaw, dusty from the trail, twin six-shooters hanging from his hips, read leather-clad bikie spitting bugs from his teeth. And while the Black Opal didn't have batwing doors for his grand entrance, I'm sure it was only because they would have messed with the aircon. Lightning Ridge is, after all, modern Australia's take on the Wild West.

The bar's patrons looked away and continued their conversations in muted voices. Like everyone else in the pub, I knew trouble when I saw it, especially when the man's eyes stopped at our table in recognition. The only problem was, I'd never seen him before.

The stranger turned stiffly and walked out, as if he'd seen all he needed to.

'A friend of yours?' I asked the woman opposite me.

'Of course not!'

'Well he recognised one of us.'

'So what makes you think it's me?'

I just smiled.

'I'm serious. I don't know people like that.'

'And I don't either.' Or I don't anymore, I thought. 'Besides, he's not from around here and to the best of my knowledge nobody like that's looking for me. But you're from the big smoke. And that bloke was stiff from a long ride; you could see it in his stance, probably on a Harley if I know the type. And he's not alone either. I heard at least two of them arrive shortly before he came in.'

I watched the woman's self-assurance evaporate.

'He wouldn't!' She said to herself.

'Who wouldn't what?'

'It's nothing. You're imagining things. That brute's got nothing to do with me.' She picked up her purse. 'Thanks for your time Mister Harris. I'd best find somewhere to stay until I can find that bloody real estate agent.'

'Try the Wallangulla. It's next to the bowling club up the street,' I volunteered to her back as I half-rose from my seat, taken by surprise at her sudden departure.

I watched, along with most of the men in the bar, as the woman made her way to the door. The biker's arrival in Lightning Ridge had certainly unsettled her and, if his looks were anything to go by, for good reason.

Reluctantly I gulped the last of my drink and stood, motioning for Joe the barman to open the back door so I could slip out quietly. He obliged with a key from his pocket, making a mockery of the sign above the door that said Emergency Exit. But then the safety of his stock has always been more important to Joe than the safety of his customers.

The heat was like a sweaty fist to the stomach and my eyes watered as I squinted against the glare from the dried mud that passed for a back yard. I pulled my sunnies from where they were hanging on the neck of my t-shirt and slid them on. Shit but it was hot. I'd far rather have stayed in the pub. I stepped softly through the even hotter blast from the air-conditioner's compressor as I edged along the back wall and looked around the corner. I wasn't looking for trouble but I'd find it quickly enough if the big man who'd come into the pub saw me watching him. He'd recognised the woman and he'd seen her with me. That would be enough to trigger a reaction.

As I'd suspected there were two dusty Harleys on the road, one straddled by the bikie from the bar and the other by a mate who was every bit as big but wore a grubby wife-beater under his leather vest and a beard halfway down his chest. I needn't have worried about them seeing me. Their attention was focused on a new-looking white BMW sedan as it headed up the road. Their leather vests bore the red and yellow insignia of the Warlocks, a motorcycle club I 'd never heard of. The two sat quietly astride their bikes, motors burbling softly, until the BMW turned in at the Wallangulla Motel. Then they eased away from the curb and followed.

'Bugger!' I said softly. I'd spent the past two years avoiding situations like this and would have loved to turn away; to pretend I didn't know what was happening; that I hadn't seen the two bikies follow the woman up the road; that I didn't know she was about to be threatened, or more likely roughed up a bit. Whoever wanted a message delivered wouldn't have commissioned somebody to ride all the way to Lightning Ridge to deliver it unless it involved a beating or worse.

I experienced the familiar rush as adrenalin surged; the narrowing of vision as the world closes in on a single point of focus and you know it's fight or flight time. I hated myself for the feeling; knew it could only lead to trouble. But the addiction was still there, maybe even stronger for having been held in abeyance for two years or more. I'll try. I really will, I promised myself, knowing it would be a waste of time.

I lifted my helmet off the Triumph's mirror and slipped it on, not bothering to do up the strap as I viciously kicked the '69 Bonneville into life. The bike was old and looked buggered, and that suited me fine. It meant nobody was going to steal it. Dust clotted the multiple oil leaks and the black tank was scratched from where I'd dropped it in the dirt while fooling around last year. But under the disguise it had been completely reconditioned and it started first kick, the uniquely British throb of a big twin between my legs a familiar satisfaction. The bike was a part of me, rebuilt maybe, battered definitely, but not beaten. A bit like it's owner.

I felt more alive than I'd felt in months as I followed the two Harleys up the road. I sensed the bike felt good too as I tweaked the throttle. It was wrong. I knew I shouldn't feel pleasure. But the thought of action was like an aphrodisiac to me.

The Seventh Vial


I was half pissed when I talked Reef into taking me to Palm Island.

Now Reef's in hospital and I'm locked in a cell in a place that even the locals believe has been forsaken by everyone, God included.

We were fifty kilometres north, on the beach at Mulligan Bay, near the southern end of Hinchinbrook Island, when I heard the news that led me to break the biggest story I'd ever covered. We'd had a couple of beers while cooking a two-kilo mangrove jack over the coals, just about the best eating fish you'll find this side of a barramundi – and we'd eaten a couple of those over the week we'd spent on the idyllic waters around Hinchinbrook. It was just Reef and me after another mate of his pulled out at the last minute, Reef showing off the area where he'd been born and the two of us catching fish and chucking most of them back because we didn't have a freezer and frozen fish taste crap anyway; and solving the world's problems over a few beers each evening, like we used to do when I was a uni student ten years ago, only now the problems were more complex and the solutions a whole lot less clear.

The batteries in our lantern were almost dead so we'd cooked early, while there was still plenty of light, and I'd moved on to our last bottle of red while we ate. To tell the truth, after a week in the sun and beers or wine every evening I was feeling used up as well. Too much relaxation can do that to a man and it was time to get back to work and to Lisa, the woman I'd been dating in a weird, sexless kind of way for the past year and who, I had realised during the endless nights on the island, was threatening to crack the carapace I had painstakingly constructed around myself over seven long years. A week of absence, mobile switched off, had made me realise I wasn't being fair to Lisa. It was decision time … if I hadn't already left it too late.

Reef and I had become totally at ease in each other's company and Reef was lying belly-up on his swag smoking some weed and looking very relaxed with his size twelves pointing at the sky and his big round head resting comfortably on his pack. I had nicked his camera and was trying to sneak a shot without him noticing. I wanted his feet huge in the foreground and his face wreathed in smoke, and was down on my knees in the sand waiting for him to take another drag when I heard the announcement on the 5:30 news.

'The Queensland Government today placed Palm Island under quarantine following an outbreak of what is believed to be bird flu. All travel to and from the island has been suspended,' said the announcer.

'Hey Reef, listen up.' I almost dropped the Nikon in the sand as I reached to turn up the volume.

'This is what the Queensland Premier Jason Callahan had to say at a press conference half an hour ago,' the announcer continued.

'There have been five confirmed cases of the H5N1 strain of bird flu diagnosed on Palm Island. On the advice of Queensland Health we have placed the island under quarantine as a precautionary measure.' Callahan's voice was as dry and emotionless as ever. He was obviously reading from a script. I closed my eyes and tried to visualise him saying the words. If only I'd brought my old portable TV and the generator so I could actually see the interview, I would have known if the bastard was hiding something. Just listening to him on the radio, it wasn't so easy.

Shadow by my Side


Carmen called my name and suddenly they were all looking my way. I stood, took a deep breath, tuned out the view and tried to pretend this was just another boardroom, another presentation.

‘I remember …’ I began, booming it out, making sure I had their attention, making sure nobody could miss the message. I might have failed once, I was telling them, but just watch me now.

‘I remember my tenth birthday. There were flowers in front of the house, impatiens blooming everywhere. And balloons. There were balloons over the door and balloons at the front gate to tell everyone this was where the party was – as if they didn’t know. Just walk to the end of the road and if you hit the swamp you’ve gone too far.

‘I remember the dress my mother made for me, flowered like the impatiens, purples and pinks, and I had bows in my hair, and there was a cake that my mother and I made together, in the kitchen when that was still a good place to be; a blue and pink cake, iced in white. There was a drawing of me on the top, that I’d done myself, in icing. And it was my birthday, not Kate’s, not Garry’s. It was my last birthday party, although I didn’t know it then of course, and I remember every moment of it. It was just for me.

‘I remember Mr Wills, from down the far end of the street, carrying a heavy basket up the path, dorky Cynthia Wills clinging to his hand.

I didn’t want Cynthia there but Mum had insisted. “It’s a small town, Faith, you have to ask all the children,” she’d said.

‘But I wouldn’t have asked Cynthia. If I’d had my way there wouldn’t have been others there. It would have been just my best friend Amelia and me.

‘Mr Wills handed me the basket, and there was a mewling sound from inside and I thought it was a kitten. But it wasn’t – it was my every wish, my nightly prayer. It was a puppy, a real live dog of my very very own.

‘“Of course you can keep it, love,” my mother answered my look. “As long as you feed it and care for it you can keep it forever.”

‘I’m sure that’s what she said. But of course she never explained that forever isn’t forever at all.

‘I actually hugged Cynthia, I was so happy, and Mr Wills too, and that’s about the happiest moment I remember in my whole life.

‘“She’s not much,” Mr Wills apologised. “Old Fred Sawyer’s wolfhound got in with Bess, my best bitch, after I’d had her covered by Barry Sutherland’s new dog and this was the result. A perfect litter of greyhounds but for this one ugly duckling”.

‘“She’s not ugly,” I said. Indignant, I lifted the trembling bundle of long-legged fur from the basket. She was the colour of tree-dappled bitumen under a full moon, grey flecked with silver. “Shadow’s absolutely perfect,” I said, choosing her name then and there.

‘I knew she was a girl of course. I didn’t have to look to know. I’d always known I would get a dog one day in a distant dreamland, and that it would be a girl-dog, and that I would love her the minute I set eyes on her. But I’d never thought that the dreamland could be here and now, and that my dog would be delicate brown-eyed perfection.

‘I remember the rest of my party, or some of it anyway, but mostly I remember carrying Shadow around in my arms, and her widdling on my special party dress and me not being mad at all, and her going to sleep in my lap, her nose under my arm. And I remember the feel of her little pink tongue, and the fact Mum wouldn’t let her sleep in my room, and Shadow crying in the laundry until I took my blankets and curled up on the broken linoleum next to her.’

There was a tremor in my voice when I spoke of Shadow and I felt myself choking up, I don’t know why. So I paused, to get my emotions under control.

‘So you see I do remember,’ I concluded. ‘And there were good times, and those are the times that I choose to remember.’

My knees were shaking as I sat down. I felt emotional, on the verge of tears. It wasn’t like doing a design presentation at all.

As if from a distance I heard everyone clapping and cheering. They did it for the others too, after they had read their piece. Keith read last and he was the best of course. He read a chapter from his coming book; powerful, violent stuff about sex and suicide that I didn’t understand really, but I guess it’s not the sort of writing that’s easily understood. I want to read his book when it comes out but I don’t know that I’ll enjoy it much, if that’s a sample. It was like he was reading it to me. Me personally, and the others didn’t matter.

He wasn’t of course. I hardly knew the guy and why would he single me out anyway? But sometimes he looked right at me and it was scary; especially during the bit at the end about vultures picking mercilessly at the raveled sleeve of the mind. Weird. And I swear he had memorised it or something because he didn’t look at his computer once while he read that part. It just came out, spoken right at me, as if he’d written it for me. Me alone.

We had a few drinks afterwards and everyone was so excited after reading their pieces that we all got a bit sideways. I asked Keith about what he’d written, and what it meant, and he said forget it. He said he was bad for me and I should stay away from him, and that just because he understood what he was doing didn’t make him any better than the vultures.

Talk about a put-down! It wasn’t as if I was hitting on him or anything, or not really anyway. And suddenly he’s hiding behind these hard words, running away.



I met a woman on the plane. She was attractive and pleasant and we hit it off so well on the trip from Sydney to Brisbane that I was only mildly surprised when she agreed to have a drink with me.

A casual acquaintance, a casual invitation. Bad luck if you like, but it was an invitation that was to cost my brother his life. . . .

* * *

It was with a sense of dread I woke in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Regent Hotel. The bed was comfortable enough and the air conditioner had kept the soggy heat at bay but I had slept badly all the same, nightmares from long-ago and one too many glasses of red the night before leaving me feeling jet-lagged and uncomfortable.

I knew that I should not have come to Australia now, when I was bone-weary with the weight of my own problems. But refusal had not been an option. “Please, I need you … “ Elaine had said. Self-confident, ice-maiden Elaine, who never asked anyone for anything, reduced to begging help from the brother-in-law she despised.

My twin brother’s wife had every reason to hate me, I reflected as I let the warm shower wash the tension out of my neck and shoulders. I, the look-alike brother who, drunk one night, had led her to the brink before admitting who I was. I still didn’t know what black thing had driven me; what deep-hidden hatred of my ever-successful brother had allowed me to torment his fiancé, as she had been then. It wasn’t jealousy. God knows, before that evening I hadn’t fancied the ice maiden at all and it was only when I felt her hot lips on mine, her warm breasts taught and wanting under my hands, that I had felt arousal. Already the joke had been played, the damage done, but for a shameful ten minutes more I pretended to be my brother, stopping only on the brink of consummation when what little self respect left in me called a halt.

I could hear my laugh now as I told her that it was I, not Christopher, she was making love to. The bitter laugh of the loser, victory acid in my soul. Where was the satisfaction in her half-naked shame? Why take revenge against a brother who had done me no wrong?

To Elaine’s credit there were no bitter recriminations as she coldly accepted my apology the next day. There was no forgiveness either.

How much she told Christopher I don’t know, but it was enough. Already drifting apart, the rift between us became ever greater and I lost him to her, the brother I loved and hated so much; the brother whose generosity of nature had extended from his lofty position so graciously to those of us in his shadow. There was no sudden weaning away. I was best man at the wedding, as a good twin should be, a faithful shadow dressed in the lesser finery I had worn since birth.

Thinking about it as I pulled on a polo shirt and shorts, I knew Elaine had done me a favour, pulling Christopher away to where his shadow no longer fell in my direction. The death of our parents had helped too, their adoration of my brother finally stilled beneath six feet of cold Highveld earth. It was not until after they had gone that I realised how effectively they had built the pedestal on which Christopher reigned – and how such phrases as “of course Andrew also does well at school,” or “Andrew plays cricket too, you know,” had chipped away at youth’s fragile self-image until, thinking back, it was a miracle that I achieved even the mediocre results I did.

Now Elaine had called to me when Chris was in trouble, called to the black sheep with an appeal I could not ignore. “Christopher won’t talk to me about it Andrew, but he’s undergoing some sort of crisis and its tearing him apart. He’ll talk to you, I know. You were always so close to him. Please come quickly. There’s something horrible going on and I don’t know what it is.” . . .

* * *

Rastus and Fatso came for me the next morning. Perhaps the hostel manager had recognised me and tipped them off – or perhaps it was a result of legwork; the elimination of possibilities. Either way, the outcome was the same.

The manager must have given them a master key because the first thing I knew of their presence was the oily smell of a gun being pushed into my nostrils.

In fright I tried to rise, to lash out, but it was hopeless. A knee went into my back, my face was forced into the pillow and my hands were roughly pulled behind my back. It was with a sick hopelessness I felt bands of steel close around my wrists and heard the metallic snick of the handcuffs.

They didn’t stop there of course. The knee remained in my back and the hand forcing my head into the pillow kept its steady pressure until, body heaving and bucking in a desperate attempt to get air, the world began to slip away.

Wellness at Work


Imagine a world where you’re never wrong and you never make a mistake. Not Ever!

You’re skilled, clever and cunning, you have the ear of those in power and you wield power over lesser beings whose careers and wellbeing lie in your hands.

You’re strategic, you form alliances, influence recruitment, have the ear of management, boards and powerbrokers. You’ve networked the hell out of them and manipulated them to the point where you can influence them or get them to exert influence on your behalf.

You’ve befriended your colleagues and gained their trust – so much so that they owe you favours and have confided information that allows you to manipulate others; to drag down those above you.

In your Utopia you have it all under control, you’ve eliminated the threats and dangers and if something does go wrong, heaven forbid, it’s clearly the fault of others. And you know stuff that lets you throw them under the bus if needs be.

Perhaps you’re at the top already and have others to give out warnings or sack staff – and everyone likes you because you’re not the Bad Guy!

Guess what? You are the Bad Guy. You’re a Toxic Frilly!

The Pawn


With army discipline drilled into me, as it had been for the past year, I followed. He led me to a small, featureless office where he motioned me to a seat opposite him.

‘Why are you asking questions about a man named Smit?’ No preliminaries, no introductions, just the bald question.

‘He approached me in a helicopter …’ I began, and went on to relate exactly what had happened in South West Africa; Smit’s few words which had reopened old wounds and how I had hoped that by finding out who Smit was was I might be able to find out what he knew about Sally’s abduction.

The man sat listening in complete silence, no flicker of expression on his face until I had finished.

‘Smit knew nothing.’ He said it almost with satisfaction. ‘There is nothing he could have told you. Your daughter died, probably pushed from the aircraft as it flew over the mountains. She was not on board when the Lesotho police shot the terrorists. You really must accept that and get over this ridiculous idea that we are not telling you the truth.’

‘But …’ I began, only to be silenced by an angry gesture.

‘Leave it alone, I tell you. It will do you no good probing into old sores. Meanwhile there is another matter which must be attended to.’ I had no difficulty recognising the document he extracted from his briefcase and opened on the table in front of me. It was the one Gert had given me to sign what seemed like a lifetime ago. ‘Please read the paragraphs marked in red. Read them carefully and don’t speak until you have finished.’ His speech was clipped and formal, and there was an air of authority about him that belied his size.

He had marked every paragraph which related to the fact that, as a mercenary, I officially didn’t exist; I had no rights of recourse should my contract be revoked; I was specifically forbidden to take my case to the press should I be unhappy with my lot in the armed forces, and so it went on. It took me ten minutes to read but every paragraph boiled down to the same thing. I had no rights, I didn’t officially exist. And if I did not abide by these conditions various unspecified penalties would be incurred.

The little man sat, completely unmoving, waiting for me to finish. Forestalling my next question, he proceeded to lay down the law.

‘I doubt very much whether that contract has any value in law, Mr Van Niekerk.’ He tore the document in half and, with a pocket lighter, ceremoniously burnt it, letting the pieces fall into an ashtray and on to the table. ‘And anyway, as of this moment you are no longer in the employ of the South African Government in any capacity whatsoever.’

He looked up, his eyes steel-grey and ice cold. ‘I wish to stress this point. Valid in law or not, that contract is binding on you for life. There is only one way it can be terminated and that is by your demise. Do I make myself absolutely clear?’ The question required no answer. The fact that the threat was made by a man almost half my size made it no less frightening. I could break the contract any time I liked – provided I was prepared to die for it.

‘We look after our people well, however. It is through no fault of your own that you are no longer fit to do the work you signed up for. Therefore you will receive your full pay until the end of the period when your services would normally have terminated. In return you will abide by the contract you signed and cease making enquiries about other members of 32 Battalion. Oh, and by the way, if I were you I would abandon any idea of renewing your career in journalism.’

‘But what about...’

‘Smit?’ he completed for me. ‘I almost forgot.’ He pulled a sheet of paper out of his briefcase, identical to the one he had burnt only moments before, and with a casual gesture put his lighter to the corner. I watched in horror as the flames consumed the identity of the man I needed so desperately to find.

‘If Mr Smit ever existed outside your imagination he exists no more. It would be in your own interests to forget all about him.’ He turned on his heel and left.

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