Principal Corcoran was correct about the police.
When they did finally turn up, it was a team of only four officers. They insisted on interviewing everyone present and checking the school grounds thoroughly before they expanded their search to the bush outside the school. The leader officer, a stout, no-nonsense woman in her late forties, explained the rationale to Principal Corcoran as if she were speaking to a child.
“It’s still possible that the boys are hiding somewhere on school grounds. We find that what can happen is, they hear you looking for them and worry they’ll get into trouble, so they don’t come out. So we’re going to check again. They might come out for a police officer who only wants to help, instead of for a teacher, who could punish them.”
For the sake of the Parkers, who were looking more terrified then ever – he thought the police presence might have made the reality of the situation sink in for them –he resisted the urge to argue. If the boys were frightened of getting in trouble with their teachers, why would they feel better about a police officer coming to get them? He bit his tongue. At least the school search wouldn’t take too long. The grounds weren’t large, and they only had a few buildings. He felt it best to just let the police get on with their jobs. He had more pressing issues to worry about. In the last half hour, Tobias Kingsley had turned up.
The huge man had stormed through the school gates, red-faced and fuming. He had made his way to Corcoran’s office, rushing right past the school secretary, ignoring his attempts to have Tobias sign in. Corcoran’s door had burst open, slamming into the wall opposite, and Tobias had barged in, demanding to know where his son was. When Corcoran had honestly replied that they still did not know, Tobias had threatened to break his nose. Corcoran explained where they thought the boys had gone, based on the discovery of the bucket hat, and Tobias had rushed out without saying a word. Mr. Summers, at Corcoran’s urging, had followed him, to make sure he didn’t do anything reckless. Summers had returned five minutes later, saying Tobias had headed off into the bush despite his protests. So now not only did Corcoran have the missing boys and the lack of police support to worry about, but he also had an angry – and probably, he thought, frightened, beneath all the bluster – Tobias Kingsley storming around the bush behind the school.
The one saving grace of this whole debacle was Ms. Jennings’ composure and good sense. While the police conducted their fruitless search of the school grounds, she moved to the school office and began coordinating with the office staff to organise a search party of concerned parents and residents of the nearby towns. Within the hour, over a dozen people had turned up to help, mostly parents, and some concerned locals. Ms. Jennings handed organisation of the search party over to the officer in charge, and retreated into the office to keep making phone calls. The officer in charge, one Sergeant Lombard, split them up into groups of no less than four, ensured every group had a phone or radio, and began sending them into the bush. They were to stay close together, and wherever possible, stay within line of sight or earshot of another group. Corcoran himself joined a group with the Parkers, feeling some sense of duty to them.
One by one, the search party groups set off into the bush.
It was mid-afternoon, and the sun began to droop in the sky.
Things were much slower in the Wanderer today. Carter had thought that after last night’s display of violence, the people of Fisherman’s Creek would be eager to come back and poke and nettle and investigate him more, but apparently his status as an intriguing novelty had been incredibly fleeting. There were only three or four tables for lunch this Wednesday afternoon. Not that he minded – his head had begun to pound, and the slower pace of work suited him just fine.
The sound of a ringing phone echoed through the Wanderer, a generic ringtone that would have come pre-packaged with the phone it was coming from, and Henry dug his phone from his pocket and answered it. From his position in the kitchen, peering out through the service window, Carter couldn’t hear the conversation, but he saw Henry’s features quickly drop into concern. He hung up the phone, looked over at Carter, and gestured for him to come out of the kitchen. Carter turned off the gas, hung up his apron, and met Henry and Gwen in the centre of the Wanderer. Henry climbed up on a chair and addressed the fifteen or so patrons, cupping his hands around his mouth to amplify his voice.
“I just got a call from the principal of St. Paul’s Primary School. Apparently, two little kids have gone missing, and they’re looking for people to be a part of the search party. So I’m sorry, but the Wanderer is closing early today. I hope you’ll all come and help us look for these kids. Sorry again, everyone.”
Henry stepped down, and looked at Carter and Gwen.
“I can’t make you come with me-“
Gwen stopped him.
“Of course I’m coming.”
Carter nodded his agreement. Henry smiled.
“In that case, Gwen, go grab the torches from the cleaning cupboard. Hopefully we’ll find these kids before we need them, but just in case. Carter, go make sure everything is turned off in the kitchen.”
They were out the door in less than ten minutes, and piled into Henry’s car, a relatively new station wagon in a dull silver colour that stood out against the generally older cars of most Fisherman’s Creek residents. They sped off through the bush. Carter looked out the window, trying to remember the street names as they whizzed by. He never felt very comfortable inside a car, preferring to walk or, if he had to get further, ride in the back of a truck or ute. Something about being enclosed like this made him edgy. He focused on the street signs and breathing deeply.
Gwen was in the passenger seat, talking to Henry.
“Do you know who the kids are?”
Henry shook his head.
“It’s two boys, from what I could gather, but I don’t know who.”
Gwen checked the torches, clicking them on and off.
“St. Paul’s… where is that again?”
There was a van in front of them, moving quite slowly, and Henry swore, switched on his indicator, and sped into the oncoming lane to get around it. In the backseat, Carter gripped the door handle tightly, and shut his eyes. He tried not to think about how sick he felt.
“Halfway between Fisherman’s and Bakersfield. It backs onto the bush. That’s where they think the kids have gone, wandering in the bush out there.”
Gwen glanced at Carter, whose eyes were still tightly closed. She lowered her voice.
“How far away are they from the creek?”
Carter opened his eyes briefly, just long enough to see Henry give Gwen a long, meaningful look. His intrigue was overwhelmed by his discomfort, and he shut his eyes again.
“They’d have to walk pretty far to get to the creek. For kids, it’d take them a whole day, I reckon. Maybe a bit less. Could happen, but I don’t think so.”
Gwen sounded unsure.
“They could have been taken away…”
Henry spoke evenly.
“I don’t think they would have been. Most likely they’ve just wandered off and gotten turned around in the bush and now they’re sitting on a log somewhere bawling their eyes out. Couple hours walking around, shouting their names. We should find them.”
In the backseat, Carter’s mind was ticking over. Don’t swim in the creek. Gwen had said that some people in Fisherman’s Creek thought the creek was somehow holy or miraculous, but she sounded nervous. More than that, she sounded scared. Henry had said that Fisherman’s Creek wanted to know all his secrets. It seemed more and more to him that Fisherman’s Creek had its own secrets. This business with the creek, and the harvest. He was acutely away of Lauren’s note in his pocket. He had planned to discuss it with Henry and Gwen after work today, but now he wasn’t so sure.
They pulled up in the car park of a small school. Looking out the window, Carter could see a big metal sign reading ‘St Paul’s Primary School’. Beneath the name, a motto. ‘Respect, responsibility, and reverence’. Behind the school grounds, he could see nothing but trees. Doubt sprouted in his mind.
How are we going to find two little kids in all of that?
Gwen and Henry had already exited the car, and Henry was standing expectantly with his key in his hand, watching Carter through the window. Carter got out of the car, thankful the ride was over. There were many cars in the car park, and a small but steady stream of people were heading through the school gates and to the bottom of the stairs which led up to the school office, where they congregated in a large group. At the top of the stairs, a stout, serious-looking police sergeant was addressing the crowd, handing out A4 sheets of paper with what looked like maps on them, and directing groups to go into the bush behind the school.
They joined the large group, and listened to the sergeant as she gave instructions.
“We’re pretty much doing an emu bob here, people. We’re going to have you spread out along the tree line here, then move forward in as straight a line as you can manage. Hopefully that way we’ll cover a lot of ground fairly thoroughly. Move slowly, keep your eyes open, and do call out. The kid’s names are Gavin and Joseph.”
She handed Gwen a map of the school and the surrounding area. She pointed to a point along the tree line.
“I’ll get you to start here. You folks got a phone with you?”
Henry and Gwen held up their phones. The sergeant looked at Carter.
He shook his head, and she tutted.
“Make sure you stick with one of these two, then. Last thing I need is someone else getting hurt or lost in the bush and not being able to call for help. Or finding the boys and not being able to find their way back.”