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Three Mile Cache - Chapter 1

Chapter One
 

 

Carolyn sat on the floor cross-legged, surrounded by papers. She was poring over a map when her brother came back with the coffee.


“Where shall I put yours, sis?”


She answered without looking up, “Oh, on the atlas.”


The cover of the atlas already had round coffee mug stains on it, so he placed it there carefully. He would never have done that to one of his own books. It was a mystery to him how someone as organised as Carolyn in her professional life could live in such constant disarray. Possibly because she spent so much time living in tents.


“Phil, where’s Three Mile Cache?”


He looked at her bent head, unable to see her face through the fall of long blonde hair. “Somewhere near Broken Hill, I think. But you won’t find it on that map.” Philip Wells was a bush pilot in Northern Queensland. He ran a supply service between camps, and also ended up rescuing lost tourists. He’d come to Sydney for a brief holiday. Carolyn usually let him use her flat as she was often away on archaeological digs. However, this time she had arrived back from a North Africa trip unexpectedly. He’d been pleased to see her, and after she’d spent a relaxing day recovering from jetlag, they’d gone out for dinner. He was used to her being quiet on these occasions, but this evening she had been preoccupied more than usual. The question about Three Mile Cache was the first one she’d asked him all evening. He had made all the running in keeping a conversation going. He couldn’t put it down completely to the effects of the long-haul flight from Tunisia—she usually handled it pretty well—and she was in good shape, not being much of a drinker.


“Are you planning another expedition?”


“No, just idle curiosity.”


“Carolyn, your curiosity is never idle.”


“Well, I am planning a little private trip.”


“Why Three Mile C? It’s in the middle of nowhere.”


“You could say that about most of Australia.” She looked up at him then and brushed her hair back from her face. “Someone I know lives there, but I can’t remember the name…”


“Sounds a bit tenuous.”


“Yes, it does, doesn’t it? I think I’ll go tomorrow.”


“Look, Sis. Why don’t you give yourself a break? You’ve been living in a tent in the desert for six months. Don’t you want to relax on the beach?”


“You know the beach scene bores me to death, Phil. Anyway, it’s better to do something than sit around feeling sorry for oneself.”


Sorry about what? Phil wanted to ask. But he stopped himself in time. Carolyn wouldn’t tolerate questions about her personal life. He knew there was someone who mattered a lot to her, called Alex, but she didn’t let them meet. If Alex was giving her a hard time, he’d be glad to sort him out—he couldn’t be a very big bloke judging by the size of the boxer shorts he’d found in Carolyn’s washing machine one day.


“These yours, Sis?” he’d asked, jokingly, waving them in front of her face as she sat at the breakfast table.


“No, they’re Alex’s,” she’d said and then, unaccountably, blushed. She grabbed the shorts from him and disappeared with them into her bedroom. When she came back into the kitchen her face had calmed down.


He’d wondered at the time why she’d been embarrassed. Was she ashamed of Alex in some way? That would possibly explain why they’d never been allowed to meet. He and Carolyn had been close as children, but had started to drift apart as teenagers. It was easier now they were older, but there was still this part of her life she wouldn’t share with him. He had, initially, put it down to her being female, needing to have secrets, but lately he hadn’t been so sure.


She was a very attractive woman. He was two years younger, so she hadn’t been interested in any of his school chums. And he’d only tried once since the end of his school days to hook her up with any of his mates. And then it was only because John insisted. Phil had shown him her photo and he’d become obsessed with her. After introducing them to each other in a bar one night, Phil had gone back up north and didn’t see John again until six weeks later.


“So, how’s Carolyn?” he asked when they met up for a drink.


“Fine,” said John.


“You seeing her again?”


“I don’t think so.”


“Oh?”


“Well, we didn’t exactly hit it off. Not like that, I mean.” He had looked at Phil unhappily. “She treated me like I was her brother and let me know it could never be anything more than that. So, what’s the matter with me?”


There was nothing the matter with John that finding the right woman wouldn’t help. Phil had his own version of heaven and hell, his bittersweet relationship with Elsie Tan, a very beautiful Chinese girl. But that, as they say, was another story.


“What are you thinking about, Phil?” Carolyn was looking at him now, sipping her coffee.


“Elsie.”


“I don’t know why you…” she stopped herself from finishing the sentence.


“Why do I bother?” he finished for her. “Why don’t I find another girlfriend? Because I love her.” He decided to go for it, while he had the chance. “Why did you stop yourself?”


She met his gaze and now he could see it, a sort of pain in her eyes, strain behind her smile. “Because I’m in love too, and sometimes it hurts.”
“With Alex?” he asked, only wanting confirmation.


“Yes, with Alex,” she repeated, woodenly.


“Is Alex at Three Mile C?”


“So I’ve heard.”


“Oh.” As far as he knew she’d only spoken to one person on the phone since her return the day before. Someone who’d left a message. Ruth? Nancy? He couldn’t remember now.


“What’s he doing there?” Suddenly Phil was overcome with curiosity about the mysterious Alex.


But the moment for confidences had passed. Carolyn just shook her head, sadly. She closed down again on the subject of Alex.


“I’ve got to pack. Sorry, Phil, I’ve not been good company this evening. I’m going to leave early.” She got up, kissed his cheek, and went into her bedroom, closing the door firmly behind her.



Meeting Phil’s gaze had been uncomfortable. There was so much she could tell him, should tell him. Maybe then she wouldn’t feel so lonely. It was difficult. She loved Phil; he was a good brother. But she didn’t feel able to confront him with this; she couldn’t predict how he would react. And whatever his reaction, she couldn’t handle it—anger, revulsion, pity, sympathy. She couldn’t envision handling any of that right now. She had to see Alex, feel Alex’s warmth all around her again.


Why had Alex gone to this remote place in the middle of nowhere? Ruth had told her briefly about the shooting, but she only knew what the news reports said. Alex had been shot in the shoulder and in the leg and had several broken ribs as well. It was likely, Ruth had surmised, that she had gone to Three Mile Cache to recuperate away from the glare of the media. The place had a Royal Flying Doctor Service hospital so there was no shortage of medical care.


Carolyn packed a small bag—she didn’t really know how long she would be away. She called the airstrip to let them know she would be there at four-thirty a.m. Jack Henderson reassured her the plane would be fuelled, ready for last minute checks and takeoff when she arrived. She thanked him. It was worth paying the extra fees to have the plane looked after properly while she was out of the country. She thought she would arrange to hire a vehicle when she got to Broken Hill. She wasn’t sure why, she didn’t just want to fly into Three Mile Cache. She wanted to find Alex in her own time, on her own terms. In fact, she wanted to try her hand at playing detective.



Philip woke up in the middle of the night out of a deep sleep. The digital clock by his head said 03:48. Carolyn really was making an early start. He could hear her moving about; it was the sound of the shower that had woken him.


He got up, put on his bathrobe, and walked out into the lighted hallway. She was unlocking the front door, a small case slung over her shoulder. She turned to face him. With her wet hair clinging to her face, dressed in a loose-fitting sweatshirt and tight-fitting jeans, she was a sight that wrenched his heart. She looked so vulnerable. And despite the shower, he could tell she’d not slept well, and had probably been crying.


“Caro.” She started when he spoke. It was what he’d always called her as a boy, too lazy to say Carolyn. He held onto her, as she sobbed into his shoulder. “What is it Caro? Can’t I help? I’ll beat this shit Alex to a pulp if I ever meet him.”


She stopped shuddering and pulled back. “I’m sorry, Phil. It’s been a bad night. I’ve got to go now. Thanks for being here.” She let herself out. “I’ll call you if I need help. Bye.”


He lost sight of her quickly as she disappeared down the steps and round the corner to the garage. He watched her drive away and waved, even though he knew she couldn’t see him, before closing the door. It took him a long time to get back to sleep.



Carolyn felt better when she arrived at the airfield and saw her plane waiting for her. It was an old Delta Airstream, one of the few completed before the company went bust. Phil laughed at her for hanging onto it, but it was solidly made. The reason Delta A went under—they spent too long doing quality work. The plane had proved to be reliable, so she wasn’t going to consign it to the scrapheap yet.


She made her preflight checks before settling herself into the cockpit. She’d brought a thermos of coffee, laced with whisky, and sandwiches. Carolyn was too experienced a pilot and expedition leader to let her own private grief get in the way of paying proper attention to supplies.


The flight went smoothly. It was just after nine when she landed in Broken Hill. While the plane was being refuelled she wandered into the office to find out about a vehicle.


“Three Mile C? It’ll take you about four hours driving on these roads.”


Carolyn sighed. The heat was already intense. Now she was here in the interior, it didn’t make sense to drive all that way, just in the hopes of surprising Alex.


“How far out’s the airstrip from the town?”


“Town? Oh, Three Mile. Well, it’s about six k.”


“Can I arrange for a lift from here?”


“Sure. I’ll try the Sarge. He’s usually driving around looking for something to do.”


That settled, she bought a bottle of water and a sandwich from the vending machine and went back to Molly. A large red-faced bloke in overalls was patting her appreciatively as she came up alongside.


“Nice machine, lady.”


“Yeah, the best.”


“How many did they make?” His curiosity seemed genuine.


“Six, I think, in fifteen years. Molly’s number four.”


“Molly. Yeah, I like that. My name’s Fred Jarvis.” He stuck out a large paw. She took it and let him squeeze her hand.


“Carolyn Wells.”


“Jerry says you’re going on to Three Mile C.”


“Yes. Who’s Jerry?”


“The guy inside.” He gestured towards the office. “So, what’re you going to do in Three Mile? They’re already overrun with pretty doctors and nurses.”


“I’m an archaeologist. I want to look at some rock formations around here.” It was a bit weak, but he swallowed it.


“Great. Well, if you’re ever back through here, I’ll be happy to service you…Molly, I meant.” He shook his head ruefully.


“It’s all right. I know what you meant. Thanks for looking after her.” She climbed into the cockpit and waited for Fred to walk back towards the hangar. He waved and she waved back. After gulping most of the cold water and opening the sandwich pack she did another preflight check and was back up in the air within minutes.


It was a beautifully clear day and the ground below did look interesting to her trained eyes. But thoughts of Alex kept crowding in, remembering the last time they’d been together. Alex always called her “Caro.” That’s what had startled her when Phil had used his old nickname for her earlier. She liked being called Caro by Alex. She liked being kissed by Alex…


Carolyn jolted herself out of her reverie. In a few minutes Three Mile Cache would be in view and she’d have to concentrate on landing. And meeting Police Sergeant Douglas McAlistair.


She didn’t like to think of Alex recuperating in this place, which was, according to Fred Jarvis, “overrun with pretty doctors and nurses.” She knew too much about Alex’s susceptibilities. A few gunshot wounds and broken ribs wouldn’t be much of a deterrent. Rather a pull—the tragic, heroic figure. “Let me show you my scars.” Doctors and nurses would be into all that.


Carolyn could see the lines of the airstrip landing now, with a huddle of low buildings at the end. The two hangars would be, she supposed, for the RFDS and other private planes. She began her descent. It was an easy landing. She brought the plane to a halt near the largest of the hangars. A police ute was waiting there.


After shutting all the systems down, and carefully locking up, she picked up her small bag and walked over to where the policeman was waiting. He was grey-haired, in his mid-fifties she guessed, and a sturdily built six-foot.


“G’day,” he said, smiling at her. “You must be Carolyn Wells. Jerry described you and the plane to a tee.”


“Hi. Thanks for taking the time to meet me.”


They shook hands and he opened the passenger door for her. She placed her bag on the seat and climbed in after it. Carolyn looked about her with interest as they set off along a dusty dirt road. Then she looked across and saw the policeman grinning to himself.


“What’s the joke?” she asked, as lightly as she could.


“Oh, well, I was remembering when Three Mile was pretty much a one pub town and ninety-nine-point-five percent of the occupants were male. Now it seems the place is crawling with females, attractive ones too, and coming from all over.”


“Why the influx of women, then? What’s the attraction? Besides a surplus of men?”


He glanced over at her. “I reckon it’s the hospital. Six nurses, a radiographer, two doctors— only one of those is a man. And, if that wasn’t enough, two women bought out the hotel last year when old Mac retired. Then when Ronnie Hutton died, they found he’d left his property to a niece, a city girl who only used to come up for occasional holidays.”


That was the name she’d been trying to recall—Hutton, Chris. She remembered her now. She’d been interested in painting. Their paths had crossed at uni when Carolyn needed some drawings done for a major project.


“Anyway, I’m not complaining. It makes my life easier with all these women around, less brawling.”


“Isn’t the hospital rather overstaffed, for where it is, I mean?”


“Well, there always has to be one doctor available to go out on calls, in the plane. Sometimes they have to do emergency field ops, so we also have two fully trained sisters, for the same reason. The other nurses work shifts and keep the hospital running on a daily basis. But since Dr Forrest arrived, she’s a specialist in some ‘ology’ or other, there’s been talk of turning it into a training hospital.”


“She must be very experienced, this, uh, Dr Forrest,” said Carolyn, hoping to hear that she was a prematurely aged forty-five year old.


“Yes, for her age. She’s not that long out of medical school. Apparently she was offered a very lucrative research post in America. But she turned it down to work here because she wanted a wider experience—prefers people to test tubes, I guess.”


Old Douglas was certainly quite taken with her, Carolyn thought sourly.


“What brings you here?” he asked. “If you don’t mind me asking.”


“I’m an archaeologist—to add to your list of professional women—and I’ve just come back from a six-month dig in Tunisia. Apart from the fact that I’ve never been to this part of the country before, I’m planning to look up an old university friend. You mentioned her just now, Chris Hutton.”


“Oh, right. Well, her place is just the other end of the main street. If Three Mile C were a town, that’s where it would end. The rest of the land down there is Hutton property for a few zillion acres.”


“Is it a working farm?”


“Not any more. Ronnie made most of his money breeding and training horses but that was somewhere near Adelaide before he moved up here when he retired. Chris just keeps a few ponies for trail riding. Do you want me to take you there?”


“Thanks, but I think I’ll check into the hotel first. I’d like to freshen up and I don’t want to drop in on Chris unawares.”


“No. All right, the hotel it is, then.” He pulled up alongside the tallest building they’d passed so far. He insisted on carrying her bag in for her.


The door to the saloon bar was open, but it was very dark and empty inside. The sergeant went up to the counter and called out, “Hilda! May!”


A large woman with curly grey hair popped her head out of a door at the back. “Be with you in a minute, Sarge.”


The lights went on and she came out, wiping her hands on a tea towel. “Bit early in the day for you, isn’t it, Sarge?”


“I’m not after a drink, Hilda. Just dropping off this young lady. She’s flown in today, all the way from…?” he looked at Carolyn.


“Sydney,” she said, and then wished she hadn’t.


“Well,” he said. “Well, Sydney. Fancy that. I must be off. Save some grub for me, Hilda. I’ll be in later. Nice to meet you,” he said, pleasantly, shaking hands with Carolyn. Then he walked back out into the sunlight.


Carolyn introduced herself, and then said, “I’d like a room for a few days. I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying. But I wouldn’t mind a drink first.”


“Sure thing,” said Hilda, pulling her a cold one and setting it on the counter.


“Would you like one yourself?” asked Carolyn, pulling some notes out of her pocket.


“No thanks, dear. I’m still getting lunch ready. And put your cash away. I’ll just add it to your bill.”


“All right.”


Hilda reached under the counter and brought out a spiral bound notebook.


“Was it my imagination, or did he seem interested when I said I was from Sydney?” Carolyn asked.


“Oh, I suppose he was thinking about his niece, well his goddaughter really, they’re not related. She’s visiting from Sydney, recuperating. There was a nasty shooting. You must have seen it on the news.”


“No, I didn’t,” said Carolyn, suddenly feeling nauseous. “I’ve been out of the country.” She sipped her beer, cautiously. It was cold and soothing. The sick feeling passed.


Hilda put a key down in front of her. “Here you are, dear. Number six. Just fill in the register and go on up when you’re ready, through that door over there. I’d show you up myself, but I’ve got to get back to the casserole before the boys start coming in.” She disappeared back through what had to be, Carolyn realised, the kitchen door.


She filled in her name and address and made her way up to her room. It was a corner room, light and airy, with a small balcony overlooking the street. And she was pleased to find it had its own fully equipped bathroom.


Carolyn suddenly felt very tired. She locked herself in, had a quick shower, and then got into bed. Drowsily she considered her situation. Alex was here. She was here. Was she now going to have to put up a fight? She’d never had to fight for anything. She had always got what she wanted without any trouble. What else was she here for, if not to get what she wanted? And what she wanted was Alex. She disappeared into a deep sleep.

 

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