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I awoke one morning to the knowledge that I was twenty-three years old, and, if I was going to make anything of my life, it was time to make some serious decisions. Things had been clear-cut and uncomplicated until my second year of university. I had entered university raw from the backblocks. The city had been large and frightening, and the university life strange, with its sophisticated denizens mouthing what was almost a foreign language, so I had done little else the first year but study. During the second year, I had begun to drift into various societies, more for company, however, than for any real interest. Those who became interested in me, found a willing member. I left university under something of a cloud after a series of demonstrations, and protest marches, mainly political in character, and violent in practice.
Naturally enough, my parents were not at all pleased, and it was some time before they accepted it. For a little time, I had tried the hippie life, and wandered the country a bit, drifting into and out of communes. At other times, I worked at various jobs, some interesting; others dull. I saved my money, but couldn't settle down, and so I had arrived at my father's beach cottage to take a vacation, and to consider what could be salvaged from my life.
I had been putting off any serious thinking, and was standing near the water, gazing out to sea, trying to find some starting point, when a series of screams slashed the air. A little girl came hurtling along the hard sand, her head turned back, and her gasping breath cutting each scream short, only to give birth to a louder one. She ran as though a ghoul pursued her, veering closer tothe water until her feet touched one of the tiny waves, and she plunged headlong into the sand. She seemed to be scrabbling in mid-air, however, and, hardly had she touched the sand, when she was coming again in a half-run, half-crawl. I had instantly thought of the deadly, box jellyfish that plague the northern waters, and was desperately casting in my mind for a source of vinegar, when I realised that she was in clothes, and her shoes and socks had not been wet before the fall. I was running towards her, when a woman seemed to materialise out of nowhere, and the child sped into her arms, and collapsed into an incoherent babble of sobs, and speech. It became obvious that she was not hurt, but very badly frightened. Yet there was nothing on the beach where she had started to scream except the prone figure of Howard.
Leaving the group that had rapidly formed around the child, I hurried down the beach towards him. His stillness had assumed a sinister aspect. No one could sleep through such a noise. Not even Howard. Uninterested as he appeared in the rest of humanity, he could not ignore such screams without something being wrong.
Something was. He was dead.
He had been dealt a terrible blow across the side of his head, completely bursting the skull, and smashing the right side of his face. Flies were gathered around the shattered head, and the right eye hung from its socket. I stood shocked and sick until I found myself joined by the group of people. There were gasps and sick noises, and women and children were hastily shooed back.
Out of the mass of low voiced babble around the body, I heard the term "hippies". It came more and more frequently. There was a lot of milling about. Then, a little man I had not seen before began to urge the crowd to stand away from the body, so as not to destroy any marks. I looked at the ploughed up sand, backed off through the people, and suggested to Jack Dillon, one of the retired residents of the place, that he should ring the police.
The little man must have heard me, for, suddenly, he was beside me. "That's right. You get the police. I'll stay here and see that nothing's touched."
"Who's he?" I asked as Dillon and I walked away.
"Dunno." Jack's answer was little more than a grunt. After a while he continued. "Seen him round the park last couple of days; has a van in the corner where old Cloughie used to be." He plodded along for a few yards in silence, then gestured back with his head. "What d'you make of that? Been here twenty bloody years, and nothing like that ever happened before. Funny coot, Howard. But who'd want to bash him like that?"
"Beats me," I told him, "but whoever it was, sure had it in for him."
"Yair. What kind of bloke would sneak up, and hit a man like that? You think the hippies did it?"
"Well, one might have. I can't see it being a group."
"Why? They might have had it in for him over something. He wasn't a very friendly coot."
"Surely a group would have hidden the body. It could have been carried up to the creek, and dumped in the mangroves. Nobody would ever find it."
"Yair. But what if they were doped, and didn't know what they were doing? They have it down there, you know. And not only marijuana. Some of them's been caught with heroin. Only last year. They'd do anything with that bloody stuff in them. I don't know. In my day we didn't have time to go mucking around living on the beaches; had to work for a bloody living, we did, and thought ourselves lucky to get a job. No silly bloody government paid us to loaf about."
"We don't know it was them," I pointed out.
"Who the hell else could have done it? Me? You? Old Bluey up the park there?" He waved his hands about, and grew more excited.
"Does it have to be someone from here?"
He stopped abruptly. "Well, no," he admitted, but I could see that he was more than half convinced that the police would have to go no farther than the settlement a couple of miles down the beach to find their murderer.
We walked in silence after that until he suddenly asked, "You see any strangers around this morning?"
"No," I told him, but added that I thought Howard could have been killed the previous evening. The wound had obviously been made some time ago.
"You see anyone around yesterday?"
"Can't say I did." I answered.
"That doesn't prove anything. He was lying there on the beach when I went for a walk last night, and that was just on dark."
"He was alive then?"
"Of course he was."
"You have a good look, did you? If it was a bit dark he could already have been dead."
"No. He was moving about, all right."
"Only car I saw the whole bloody day was Bluey's. It was as quiet as a brothel on a Sunday."
I was saved from having to answer the implications of that by our arrival at his front door. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the bunch of kids who lived down along the beach. The police, I'd heard, had raided them pretty often since they had been caught with heroin, and they were going to cop it now, whether they had anything to do with the killing or not.
I didn't go inside with Jack, but sat on his front steps instead. I tried to remember if I'd seen Howard on the beach as I was launching the boat to go fishing, but I don't think I even looked down that way. It had been just on dawn, not very light, and I had been intent on getting the boat into the water. I had used the lights of the rover to take the boat down, and so would not have seen much outside the actual beams.
Jack came back out, and it seemed natural to go with him back down to the beach. As we reached the sand, a motorbike came up along the water's edge from the direction of the camp, paused near the group of people near the body, then came on. It slivered about in the loose sand, scrabbled up onto the gravel at the end of the esplanade, reached the bitumen, rapidly gathered speed, and was gone. The sound of its engine rose and fell through a rhythmic series of gear changes, then, it too, dwindled away. Jack and I had stopped to watch. He turned to me, "That could be the murderer."
"Well, he didn't look particularly doped," I replied, but I wondered if someone was getting out.
The little man, Ernie King, was more positive in his thinking. He had written the number of the bike in the sand, and most of the people standing around seemed to think the matter was now solved. It was easy to see that opinion had crystallised against the young people there also. I must admit I watched a little cynically as the rising tide crept closer to the numbers, and a newcomer tread on them as he tried to get a better view.
I looked at the people standing around. They had broken up into little groups, and were talking together in low voices. Only a few belonged to the beach, most were southern tourists who generally spent a few days, or a week or so, in the park, or came out for the day from the motels and better caravan parks of the nearby sugar towns. Some were already beginning to drift away. Those who had women and children would soon leave the beach.
Suddenly, that sort of sixth sense that warns crowds of the imminent arrival of the police, made itself felt, and the drift away suddenly quickened. By the time the police car stopped at the road's end, there were very few at the actual scene of the crime, but a number of small knots of people standing well back, as though ready to disappear into the trees should the police show signs of wanting to question them.