1ONE YEAR LATER
Someone else was already there.
Aaron Falk felt faintly, if unreasonably, annoyed as he pulled up next to the other car. The turnoff had been as hard to spot as he’d remembered, almost swallowed by the bushland towering over both sides of the road. It was so well concealed, in fact, that Falk had blithely assumed that what was waiting at the other end of the track would be his alone. Not so, he could see now as he touched the brake and suppressed a sigh.
Falk hadn’t been alone there last year, either. Greg Raco had been in the passenger seat then, Falk following his friend’s directions as they neared the end of their eight-hour drive. Raco had ignored the sat nav, especially after they’d crossed the Victorian border into South Australia. His high spirits had been infectious and they’d chewed through the kilometers, taking turns trading news and picking the music. Raco’s newborn son was being christened that weekend, in the same church where Raco and his brothers had been themselves several decades earlier. His wife and two kids had already made the trip and were waiting at the other end, but Raco’s sergeant duties had held him back. He was clearly keen to be reunited with them, so Falk had been surprised when he’d suddenly leaned forward in the passenger seat, peering at the empty road and pointing to a patch of trees. “You see that break ahead? Turn there.”
They had still been a good thirty minutes out of town and Falk could see nothing. The stretch of bushland had looked identical to the rest lining the route. “Where?”
Falk had still missed it, and had had to illegally reverse several meters before he saw the single-lane track. He’d eyed his car’s suspension.
“What’s at the other end?”
“Quick detour.” Raco had grinned. “Trust me. It’s worth it.”
He’d been right. It had been worth the stop, both then and now.
With no Raco beside him this year, Falk had slowed to an almost crawl and still managed to slide past the turnoff. He’d caught it in his rearview mirror and, again reversing farther than ideal even on a clear road, had bumped up the track that looked like it led exactly nowhere. At the end was a small clearing and one other car.
Falk came to a stop and switched off the engine. He sat for a moment, staring ahead to where the heavy bushland parted. The sky was a bright dome, glowing with the vibrant blue of spring. Nestled below was an intricate patchwork of greens that made up the Marralee Valley. Falk had felt last year that the view had been all the more beautiful for being so unexpected. But now, lit up by the late-afternoon sun, it was even better than he’d remembered, if anything.
He climbed out of his car and stretched, the movement stirring the owner of the other vehicle. The man was standing a sensible distance from the lookout’s wooden safety rail. He was also staring out at the view, but his arms were crossed in a way that suggested he was taking in none of it. A child’s sippy cup dangled from one hand and, behind him, a sturdy toddler sat straight-legged on the wooden picnic table, scattering a box of sultanas across the battered surface. At the sound of Falk’s car door slamming, the man unfolded his arms and rubbed a hand over his eyes. He turned and handed the cup to the toddler.
It was the husband.
The recognition came to Falk all at once, followed by a jolt as he realized the little girl now smashing a fistful of dried fruit toward her mouth must be Zoe Gillespie, who up until this moment had remained frozen in his mind at six weeks old.
The man nodded at Falk and as his daughter swallowed her last mouthful, he hoisted her up and carried her to their car. He seemed to sense he’d been recognized, and his body language didn’t invite questions or conversation. Fair enough, really, Falk thought. The bloke would have had plenty of questions thrown his way at the time. The husbands always did.
“You’re here for the christening.” The man spoke suddenly, catching Falk by surprise. He’d stopped between the two cars and looked a little relieved, like he’d worked something out. “Is that right? For the Racos’ son?”
Kim Gillespie had been part of the extended Raco family for close to twenty-five years, Falk knew. Since that long-ago autumn afternoon when she’d first ridden her bike past the Racos’ house, teenage ponytail swinging, until the night last year when she’d disappeared under the bright festival lights. The christening had been immediately canceled after Kim went missing. It had taken the Raco family a full twelve months to reschedule.
Falk took a step toward Kim’s husband and child and held out his hand. “Aaron Falk.”
“Rohan Gillespie. Did we meet?”
Rohan was nearly as tall as Falk, and while he would only be forty-two now, he looked to have aged a fair bit over the past year.
“You here for the christening, too?” Falk asked.
“Yeah. Well, no, the appeal, actually.” Rohan looked tired as he fastened his daughter into her car seat. “But we’ll go to the christening as well.”
“When’s the appeal happening?”
“This evening. Festival grounds.”
“Festival opens tonight?”
“Good time to do it.”
“I hope so.” Rohan clicked the seat buckles and patted his daughter’s leg. He turned back to Falk. “I thought you looked familiar when you pulled up. Greg Raco’s mate? You were on the witness list?”
Rohan tilted his head, trying to remember. “Remind me. Near the entrance?”
“The ferris wheel.”
Rohan nodded as he thought back. “Yeah. That’s right.”
Falk was surprised the man remembered him after a year, but only a little. Falk had been a visitor in town, one of hundreds, but still worth following up. Rohan had probably flagged Falk’s presence to officers himself—There was another bloke there, tall, fortysomething, short hair, gray-blond maybe. Friend of the Racos but on his own, kind of hanging around—dredging up whatever information he could hours after the fact.
“You’re police, too, aren’t you?” Rohan tucked the sippy cup in next to Zoe before shutting the car door. “That how you know Greg?”
“Yeah, but we don’t work together. I’m AFP, financial division. He’s with the state police, back in Victoria.”
Copyright © 2022 by Jane Harper