Read The Labyrinth of Drowning Online

Authors: Alex Palmer

Tags: #Fiction, #Thriller

The Labyrinth of Drowning

For Maggie Shapley

Author’s Note

All events, places and individuals depicted in this novel are wholly fictional. Any resemblance to any actual event, place or individual, whether existing or historical, is purely coincidental and unintentional.

Nobody knows himself
Los Caprichos
, Number 6.


f I had wings, I could fly away
. Grace Riordan improvised the lyric and the music in her head, infinitely sad. More often there’s no way out, she thought. The Thai woman, the one with no name, had only gone so far. From the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in the southwest of the city to the dry soil and sandstone rocks of northern Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Under trees that gave off the sharp, antiseptic smell of eucalyptus, she lay with the back of her head broken open against the ground. The floodlights set up by the police cast a monochrome glare over the woman and the surrounding bushland.

Grace was used to death; it was part of the work she did in law enforcement. But sometimes you met with something that brought you to a stop; where the reality was too powerful for you to brush it aside. The woman’s dress, flimsy and girlish, was partly torn away, the fabric thickened with blood. The torn pieces clung to her, held in place by the belt left around her waist, seeming strangely obscene. Not only the back of her head but also her legs and arms, which were small, almost delicate, had been smashed. Her face and torso were covered with the marks of the beating she must have thought would never stop, not while she was living. Someone had broken this woman down piece by piece until she might not have been human and then left her here for someone to find. Seeing her was like walking into a glass wall.

The woman’s eyes were still open. Grace met the blank gaze. She stood up, her hand bunched as a fist at her mouth for a few seconds. She had to take photographs, it was standard operating procedure.

‘Where are her shoes?’ she asked.

‘Who knows? But she must have run quite a distance. Her feet are in bad shape.’

The man who answered her, the local command’s senior detective sergeant, was stocky with a black, pencil-thin beard. Mark Borghini. She hadn’t heard of him before.

‘Who found her?’

‘A married couple who live about a kilometre away in North Turramurra, out with their kids for a night-time walk. They heard something crashing through the bush. The wife thought it was a dog. Then they found her.’ He looked down at the body. ‘They probably disturbed the killer. I think she was beaten and assaulted somewhere else and tried to make a run for it.’

The pathologist arrived, Kenneth McMichael, his technicians following him like acolytes.

‘My God,’ he said, kneeling and studying the dead woman’s head. ‘Who did this?’ His huge frame dwarfed the small corpse.

‘Any idea of the weapon?’ Borghini asked.

‘Something very hard and heavy. That’s what it usually takes to smash the back of the head.’ McMichael was renowned for his withering sarcasm.

‘Thanks, mate. I could have worked that out for myself.’ Borghini stepped away from the woman’s broken body, turning his back.

McMichael was frowning. ‘Someone’s given her a real beating. Not enough to kill but savage. You two have got your work cut out for you here. I often think you get to deal with the nicest people.’

Fist to skin. The sound, the shock. Dead-sounding when it connected. Crack, smack, instantaneous, so harsh. It was their strength—you should be able to stop them but you couldn’t. The thought: I’m going to die. Grace had not died. Her assailant had raped her.

‘Has she been sexually assaulted?’ she asked.

Something in her voice made both Borghini and McMichael turn to look at her.

‘You’ll have to wait for the autopsy to know the extent,’ McMichael said. ‘But there is one thing.’ He had a swab in his hand, which he brushed around and inside the woman’s mouth. ‘She was made to kneel before she died. I think this will be semen.’

‘Fucking arsehole,’ Borghini muttered.

My face was like that once, Grace thought. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The man who had beaten and raped her then carved a slow and careful cut into her neck. It was still there as a scar, a thin thread from her chin to her breastbone, a cut as much in her mind as in her body. Remember me, he’d said. Because I love you.

Past the pathologist’s shoulder, Grace could still see the woman’s face. Her dead eyes had taken hold of her.
We wouldn’t let you go home and I told you we would protect you. And here you are

Grace had met the woman a few days earlier, sent to interview her by her boss, Clive Smith. He’d watched her closely as he gave her the brief, a strange edge to his voice.

‘You’ve read the alert,’ he said. ‘A Thai woman, with very little English, twenty-eight, physically very small. Possibly brought to and held in Australia against her will. In other words, she fits the profile for Jirawan Sanders. I want you to interview her. Most of all, I want you to gauge her reaction to her present situation. Try to get a take on what kind of person she is. Is she susceptible to pressure? Can she be bought? When you’ve done that, I’ll make a judgement where we take this.’

‘If there’s an alert, why don’t we have a photograph of her?’ Grace asked.

‘You’ll have to take it from me that there’s none available.’

‘My information on this detainee is that she’s refused to identify herself except to say she’s Thai and she wants to go home. Assuming that she is Jirawan Sanders, I’d like to know why you’ve given me a direct order not to mention that name under any circumstances.’ Grace was careful to keep her voice even. She didn’t want Clive to know he was getting to her.

Clive smiled a little arrogantly. He was always smooth. He’d been given the job as director of operations at Orion while she was away on maternity leave, making him directly her superior—an unpleasant surprise waiting for her when she came back to her position as a field operative with the ultra-secretive intelligence-gathering organisation where she’d worked for the last five years.

Orion was run directly by the federal government and answered to no one but the attorney-general and the cabinet. Grace could quote its brief in her sleep: the investigation and extirpation of externally generated threats that could endanger the Commonwealth’s fabric and the lives of its citizens. Turned into action, this commonly meant that Orion undertook covert operations to counter the possibility of either terrorist activity or international criminal networks damaging the nation. It had draconian powers of surveillance, detention and arrest, which were often discussed in the media by worried commentators. Grace had taken a job here because she had thought she could make a difference, that she could do this work without damaging innocent bystanders. She had standards; she was here to save lives, not to coerce people or wrongly convict them. She wasn’t so certain about Clive’s motives.

‘That name has to stay classified under all circumstances,’ he was saying. ‘As to the operation, it’s my policy only to give operatives as much information as they need to do their work.’

‘I believe I need to know more,’ she replied, looking him in the eye. ‘This alert is listed as a code one. That means there’s an automatic stop on this detainee’s deportation for as long as we’re interested in her. That’s going to lead to questions and I have to be able to field them. Besides that, there wasn’t any information given about why we’re interested in this Jirawan Sanders in the first place, or why it’s so urgent we find her. Given she’s Thai, presumably Sanders is her married name. Where’s her husband? What’s his involvement in this? If my interview with this detainee is going to be useful, don’t I at least need some basic biographical information?’

Clive smiled at her again. He was somewhere in his mid-fifties, with well-preserved features and an unshakeable sense of calm.
This calm was genuine ice and it repulsed her. Emotion was only useful when it was being manipulated, something he did with finesse. Even the way he told everyone to call him by his first name seemed a pretence at openness. She shouldn’t let her feelings affect her judgement so much. He came with the territory; by necessity it was a cold-blooded profession. But her dislike was too deep. Whether he had another life, any kind of lover, a partner perhaps, even children, she didn’t know and didn’t want to know.

‘You know how to think,’ he said, patronisingly, as if she had passed a test.

‘That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?’ she replied, manufacturing a professional smile of her own.

‘Then you don’t need to keep talking to me. There’s nothing you’ve raised in this meeting that you shouldn’t be able to handle. Go and see her. Then come back and tell me how she reacts. I think this discussion has gone on long enough.’

Clive wasn’t someone you argued with for too long. She’d left his office quickly and made her way to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, where the woman was being held as an illegal immigrant. She’d been picked up in the city on George Street outside the concourse to Wynyard railway station at midnight four days ago, with no identification and only the clothes she’d been wearing. She’d refused to cooperate with the police, and they’d sent her to Villawood, not knowing what else to do.

Four people had been present for the interview: the Thai woman; Grace; the interpreter; and a Department of Immigration official, Jon Kidd. He was the officer in charge of the woman’s case, and senior enough to have the necessary security clearance to deal with Orion. A short man, he was expensively and meticulously dressed, his leather shoes brushed to an almost mirror finish.

The Thai woman was tiny. Eye to eye, the first quality Grace saw in her was fear. It sat on her delicate frame as if it would break her. After that first terrified glance, she refused to look at Grace or the interpreter again, her eyes sliding sickly to the door, begging for a way out. Too often, like the reflex action of someone trapped, she looked at Kidd and then away, as if she was even more frightened of him. He didn’t meet her eye but instead stared at Grace.

‘Tell her not to be so afraid,’ Grace said. ‘We can give her protection if she needs it.’

The reply was brief tears, almost laughter.

‘There’s no such thing,’ the interpreter translated awkwardly, clearly embarrassed. ‘You can’t help me.’

‘I thought we were here for a meaningful interview,’ Kidd said sarcastically. ‘Why are you telling her things like that?’

‘This woman is terrified.’

‘I can see that. Ask your questions and go. Clearly you’re frightening her.’

‘I would have said she’s just as much frightened of you.’

‘She has no reason to be. We want to deport her, which is what she wants as well. You’re just getting in the way,’ Kidd said. ‘Finish and let her go.’

‘I want a name.’

‘Nothing,’ the interpreter said. ‘She has no name.’

‘That’s not true. We all have a name.’

‘Not her. She’s wiped it out.’

‘Then I’ll find a way to give it back to her.’

Grace was shocked at herself. She was a professional; she didn’t say things like that. But by then the woman was weeping continuously and the words weren’t translated.

‘For God’s sake, finish it,’ Kidd said. ‘Let her go back to Thailand. That’s all you can do for her.’

Impossible, Grace thought. The machinery has started; it’ll grind us all down.

‘That’s the one thing I can’t do now,’ she said, maintaining composure. ‘You must know that. Ask her one more time to talk to me.’

‘She can’t,’ the interpreter said.

‘This is going to be all your fault,’ Kidd said ferociously in Grace’s ear after they’d left the room.

‘What are you talking about?’ she demanded.

He looked at her with eyes bright with anger and accusation. ‘Whatever happens next…it’ll be your fault. Goodbye.’

Grace had carried the woman’s fear back to Clive. Fear and secrecy were poisons she couldn’t cure alone.

‘Terrified,’ she’d said. ‘Absolutely terrified. She’s acting like she expects to be murdered at any moment. And there’s something else—Kidd, the immigration officer. I think we should check him out. Given the way he acted today and some of the things he said to me, I’d question his motives. Apart from that, this woman acted as if she felt in danger from him.’

Clive stared at her for some moments. ‘That had better not be a wild accusation,’ he said.

‘I don’t make those calls lightly.’

‘Then get her out of there,’ he replied. ‘Now.’

But someone else had got there first. The information came through from Kidd himself: in the hour after Grace and the interpreter had left Villawood, the Thai woman had escaped while on her way to a medical appointment. Her whereabouts were unknown. Listening, Grace had to wonder if he was involved in any way. No one could get out of Villawood without help. But she had no grounds for putting the question directly to him, or not yet. Then, some thirty-six hours later, at 1:45 am, she got the phone call she’d been dreading.

I saw her before and after death, and now here on this cold, hard bed
. It was several days later. Behind the glass partition at the morgue, Grace was watching the autopsy.

‘Subject has a very neat Caesarean scar,’ McMichael announced. ‘Very well done. She’s had at least one child at some stage. All right, let’s get started.’

Under the pathologist’s knife the most intrinsic of intrusions took place. It was the dead woman’s final nakedness. With scalp removed and skull opened, the body peeled back breastbone to pelvic bone, the Thai woman ceased to be human and became a series of parts. Jon Kidd was standing next to Grace; he drew in his breath sharply, swore, then walked out.

‘Get after him. We need him,’ Borghini said to his offsider, who left the viewing area immediately. He turned to Grace. ‘I thought he was her case manager. Didn’t he ask to be here?’

‘He’s not used to seeing the dead,’ Grace replied. ‘They get killed somewhere else.’

She caught her breath; her façade had almost cracked as well. Every morning before going to work, she coiled up her long dark hair to sit at the back of her head, then put on her make-up, pale foundation that turned her face into the china mask of a heroine from an ancient Japanese drama. Her work clothes made up the rest of her armour. It wasn’t an impenetrable disguise but it was usually enough to get her through. But she hadn’t known this woman had had a child.

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