The Water’s Dead
The chin tattoo confirms the victim is Maori. The whorls of ink from her lower lip to her chin—the moko, is worn only by Maori women. So, her ethnicity is a given. Finding who murdered Huia Coburn, and dumped her body in the volcanic rock pool at the base of Mason’s Rock waterfall has now fallen to DI Nyree Bradshaw. From the unsympathetic parents to the boyfriend on home detention for drugs, it seems no one is telling the truth and everyone has something to hide. Then Nyree discovers six-year-old diabetic, Lily Holmes is missing, last seen in the victim’s care. Now, she must put all personal tragedy, and ongoing work disputes aside to find her. She has already failed her own son. She cannot fail this child. A gripping thriller that will have you guessing to the very last page.
Detective Inspector Nyree Bradshaw had been on the road for forty-five minutes with Detective Sergeant Jack Callaghan at the wheel.
A suspected homicide, the boss had told her—female, young. The call had come in at 8:39 p.m. Now at after 10 p.m. officers had already been assigned for the body, evidence, scene preservation. They’d probably been working the area for the best part of two hours already.
When the first few fat drops hit the windscreen, Nyree looked up into the dead-black sky and pulled a face.
“And look at the bloody weather, will you?” Outside the oily black landscape, cratered and jagged by long past volcanic activity, was awash. “I’ve never seen a place rain like this, y’know? Look at it. Two weeks, and the place is a friggin’ swimming pool.” She made a dismissive noise at the deep green of the rolling hills, now smudged gray by blanketing rain, water cascading down jagged roadsides and splashing over the potholed road. “Keeps this up, I’m moving to Aussie—you just watch me.”
Despite her words, she loved the north. Loved the people, the place, the long summer days when the red flower-drop of the pohutakawa trees spread a scarlet shawl around the edges of the white sand beaches. The colors in sharp contrast to the sparkling white foam of the breakers and the deep blue of the sea. She had moved into her 1920s character cottage twelve years ago after her marriage break-up, and sworn that’s where she’d die.
“You heard Sean Clemmons got parole,” Callaghan said conversationally. Like he didn’t know how she’d feel. Like she’d just brush it off.
At the very sound of Sean Clemmons’s name, the fizz of rage flared in Nyree’s gut. She kept her voice neutral, eyes on the scenery. “I did. How that bastard got out is anyone’s guess.” That’s all she was going to say about it. She’d just let it go, get on with the job. Let her blood pressure drop.
“Apparently, he got out on exemplary behavior.” Callaghan snorted, clearly amused.
Nyree felt a muscle in her neck spasm. “Exemplary behavior, my foot. He stuffed that girl’s mouth so full of paper she nearly choked to death, then he beat her to a bloody pulp. She’s still traumatized.” She clamped her mouth shut and took a long, slow breath. No good getting pissed now. She’d already given her Superintendent, Brett Nolan, a piece of her mind, told him she was ready to quit. And she’d meant it. Until this came up.
“They reckon it was a drug deal gone wrong,” Callaghan said in the same dry tone, eyes still on the road.
“Does that make it better?” she snapped.
“No, but he still got out three days ago. What was the grandmother’s name? The old girl that ID’d him, then faced him down in court?”
“Emere Grady. He told her she’d be next.” She dropped her voice and turned her gaze to the rain-spattered window. “That little shit goes near her, he’ll be back inside before his feet touch the ground.”
“You’d have to catch him first.”
A second surge of acid flared in her stomach. Let it go. What’s done is done.
Corner of her mouth twitching, Nyree forced it from her mind and opened the file. “Let’s concentrate on this case, shall we?”
Perhaps sensing her rising rage, he soberly replied, “Yes, Ma’am,” and drove on.
They wound their way along narrow roads, twisting across rugged hill ranges until the land flattened out. When Callaghan hit the gas again and the car fishtailed on a greasy corner, Nyree stiffened in her seat and stamped her foot where the brake would be.
“Oy, slow down, will you? You’ll get us both bloody killed before we get there.”
Callaghan gave her a sideways glance and the car slowed to the speed limit.
“So, what’ve we got?” he asked.
Nyree relaxed and flicked on the light on her phone, shining it over the file on her lap. “Young female, European.” She flipped the page back and forth. “That’s all they’ve given us. Looks like she was bludgeoned and thrown down the falls.”
“Did they say who found her?”
Nyree flipped the page. “A couple of tourists. They were parked just down from the river. They went up the track towards Mason’s Rock to swim, saw her floating downstream.”
“That’d be a tourist attraction they hadn’t expected. What’d they do with her?”
“Says here they tried to pull her out of the water. Realized she was dead and left her on the bank while they went back to their camper van to call 111.”
“Anyone else around when they found her?”
Nyree checked the notes again. “Apparently not,” she said and looked up to check the road. “Whoa, slow down. This is it.” She pointed up ahead where a road block had been set up at a short, narrow bridge, and an officer in high-viz vest and baton waved them down to a stop. Further on, they could see a sign next to a bridge indicating a parking lot and boat ramp within the cordoned off area.
Callaghan swung the car into an empty space with a brief slide of gravel and killed the engine. Parked immediately in front was a single police unit angled in behind a grey Lexus Nyree recognized as Whangārei Base forensic pathologist Christine Healey’s. Seven other vehicles were lined up either side of the street.
Nyree squared up the file on her knee and tucked it into her briefcase. Up ahead, a second officer in a high-viz, police-issue raincoat approached, sweeping a flashlight across their car.
He ducked next to her, looking in. Nyree took out her ID, lowered the window and held it up.
“DI Nyree Bradshaw, Far North CIB. This is Detective Sergeant Callaghan,” she added, tipping her head in his direction.
The officer nodded across at Callaghan, then addressed her. “Detective Henare’s waiting for you, Ma’am.”
He stepped back while Nyree unclipped her seatbelt, shoved the door open and got out, staggering a little where the loose gravel dipped away from the edge of the road.
He immediately stepped forward to offer an arm which she shook away as she shut her door. Perhaps a little taken aback, the officer stepped away, gesturing to where a tall, Māori man wearing a white plastic coverall and rubber boots was walking toward them, his black hair slicked stylishly back over his head.
“Henare, Ma’am,” he said by way of introduction.
She rounded the car and introduced herself and Callaghan. “What have we got so far?”
“A young woman—early twenties, I’d say, hands tied behind her back with cable ties, bare feet, back of her head pretty smashed in. Probably came down the waterfall.”
“With some help, by the sound of it.”
They followed him back down the street and to the line of crime scene tape that had been stretched across the road. She lifted her collar against the rising breeze, and scanned the scene. On the far right and standing just outside the cordoned-off area and dressed in white paper scrubs, blue hair cover, white rubber boots, was the forensic pathologist, hugging herself against the chill of the night as she spoke with one of the uniforms.
“So, where is she?”
“Up the track there.” He pointed to a dark gap in the bushes into which a narrow dirt trail disappeared. “And that’s the tourists’ van.” He indicated the white camper van in the parking lot opposite.
“And they’re the ones who found her?”
“That’s them. We’ve already taken separate statements.”
“Good, keep them here. I want to talk to them.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Scene’s ready, if you’d like to follow me.”
Nyree and Callaghan pulled on white plastic coveralls and boots, signed in to the scene log, then followed Henare down the track past a sign pointing to Mason’s Rock.
“Mind your footing,” Henare said, shining his flashlight along the muddy path made rugged with rock-tips and tree roots.
Nyree angled her own flashlight a little further along the path and sighed. The trail led off into a black slash in the undergrowth hugged close by dense forest.
“Couldn’t have got a better site for a murder scene.” Annoyance rippled under the sarcasm. She staggered along the uneven ground, rubber boots slipping on the mud-slickened path, one hand out ready to catch herself. With every step, the roar of the waterfall grew louder. “How long ago did you guys get here?”
He kept walking, speaking over his shoulder. “About two hours ago. We froze the area and the SOCO’s got here shortly after. They’ve been waiting for you.”
“That was quick.”
“They’d just left a shooting up in the Waipoua Forest so they headed straight down here.”
Nyree paused to take in the surrounding bush. “It’s black as the inside of a cow along here. How long since it rained?”
“It’s been threatening for the last hour or so. We’ve got a tent ready in case it starts again.”
“Let’s hope we don’t need it.” She started after him again.
“There it is.” Henare shone his flashlight thirty meters or so ahead to where a clutch of officers garbed in white plastic suits had taken up their places. Under the harsh, white lights they’d set up, the scene looked like something out of the X-Files.
Crouching on a mat of watercress edging the pool, Nyree recognized Constable Jodie Clarkson. Slim, auburn curls forming a soft halo around her face, nose and cheeks spattered with freckles, Clarkson had a strong work-ethic and an eye for detail. Keen to make her way up the ladder, she had requested a place on several cases that Nyree had worked. It wasn’t lost on Nyree that she’d stayed in the office long after everyone else had gone, hung on every word from the CIB team. Perhaps recognizing Clarkson as a younger version of herself, Nyree had warmed to her from day one.
On seeing her, Clarkson straightened, gloved hands dangling at her sides as they approached. “Evening, Ma’am. You got here quick,” she called with a smile.
“You can thank my driver for that,” Nyree said as she sloshed her way toward her. “No such thing as taking bloody corners with him. You just about drive in one straight line.” She paused to take in the scene in its entirety. High walls of volcanic rock surrounded the pool into which torrents of water thundered. Directly opposite, the overflow funneled into a bulrush-edged stream leading to the sea. All around, bloated drops of water fell from tall, ghostly pale gum trees and splattered on the sodden ground or plopped into the swollen pool. She shivered. Already she could feel the damp chill of the night air soaking through her clothes and stinging her skin.
“Who caught it?”
“Officer Preston over there.” Clarkson nodded towards a uniformed officer making notes a few feet away.
At the mention of his name, Preston looked up. “Ma’am,” he said with a nod. “The area’s secured.”
To Nyree, he looked about sixteen. Although now at forty-nine, her short hair mostly gray, crow’s feet spreading under her eyes, she’d long since conceded that everyone looked like a kid these days.
“Right, then. Let’s get a proper look at her.” Nyree stepped gingerly down until icy water lapped over the top of her boot, causing her a sharp intake of breath. “Jesus, that’s cold.” She gave herself a second, then inched forward and bent over to view the body.
Under the harsh glare of the floodlights, the girl’s skin resembled blue-tinged alabaster, her long brown hair strewn about her head and stuck to her face like seaweed after a heavy swell. A thin sleeveless top clinging to her body had lifted, revealing an upper torso dappled grey with the telltale signs of death, her water-logged jeans weighing her lower body down.
“You poor little bugger,” Nyree muttered, grief and sorrow tightening in her chest. An image of her own son sprang into her mind, consuming her, almost overwhelming her.
Three years ago, now. An innocent young man’s life snuffed out.
The shame. The guilt.
Her fellow officers told her they understood. How could they?
She clenched her teeth and shook it away. That was done and past. She had this child’s killer to find.
“She’s Māori, then?” she said, her gaze pausing on the blue/black swirls of a moko kauae running from the edge of her lower lip to her chin.
“It would appear so.”
“Well, that’ll make life interesting,” she muttered.
Clarkson spoke, echoing Nyree’s exact thoughts. “Whānau will want the body back pretty damn fast. Last Māori vic’s body got hijacked on the way to the morgue. No one knew where he was until he was six feet under.”
“Yeah, and that’s only the beginning. Any ID? Anything to tell us who she is?”
“None that we’ve found, Ma’am. Just the wee koru. It’s got a date engraved on the back, so that could be something.” Clarkson indicated a small, oval greenstone pendant on a thin leather tie around the girl’s neck. “Joe here reckons she’s been in the water for about two hours. Hands bound behind her back with cable ties. He reckons she was tied up after death.”
Nyree passed a look on him, brow creased. “After she was dead?”
“Well, that’s a new one on me. Is that common practice around these parts?”
“Not that we’ve heard,” replied Clarkson. “She’s got scars, too, Ma’am. Someone’s tortured her over the past few years.”
“That wouldn’t be a first.”
“By a long shot,” Henare sighed.
“What about more recent injuries?”
Clarkson returned her attention to the girl. “Ah, yeah, there’s obvious lacerations and cuts. There’s one deep injury to the skull here.” She pointed, then tipped her head. “She could have got that coming over the falls.”
Nyree lifted her eyes to where a torrent of dirty brown water gushed over the rocks above and into the pool.
“Is the river usually running this heavy?”
Clarkson surveyed the falls. “We’ve had a lot of rain up here lately—like I said, flash floods, heaps of surface water. The river’s broken its banks in a few places further up. A couple of towns have been cut off.”
“Right.” Eager to get moving, Nyree called over the forensic photographer who was standing off to one side. “I want photographs of the body—all angles, then either side of the riverbank up there,” she said, pointing to the crest of the waterfall. “Get some from further upstream, as well. Oy!” She shouted to one of the uniforms. “Get some more lighting in here. We need snaps of the entire area. And do it quick,” she said, casting a dubious look up at the ever-darkening sky. “Before it rains again and we lose everything.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” With a small nod, he stepped away to begin.
Nyree took one more look at the girl, and sighed. “Right. Let’s see what these tourists have got to say for themselves, shall we?”
Hope you enjoyed this preview. Borrow a copy from your nearest library, treat yourself and buy a copy from your local bookshop or gift it to somebody special.