Water shouldn’t be a problem – not with the creek right there – and if the collection of animal skeletons he and Henry had found the other day was any indication, there was no shortage of animals to hunt and trap out in the bush.
He zipped the backpack and began walking along the road which led to the bushland near the creek. He returned twenty minutes later, empty handed. He stepped back through the doors of the Wanderer, and locked them behind him.
In the dead of the night, a collection of shadowy figures approached the Wanderer, their arms full and their backs bent with the weight.
An orange-yellow flame, smaller than a thumbnail, became visible in the inky darkness. It moved through the air, slowly and carefully. Suddenly, it flowered, growing into a bright, flickering streamer, which was hurled through one of the Wanderer’s large bottom floor windows. The shattering glass was almost musical. More ribbons of flame were ignited and hurled into the Wanderer. Inside the pub, flames spread quickly over the hardwood floors. As suddenly as they had appeared, the shadowy figures disappeared into the warm night. The air filled with the pop and crackle of spreading flames.
A soft glow began to spill from the Wanderer out into the street, lighting the night. Inside, the flames had spread to the walls, and were still climbing. They ate away at the Wanderer’s foundations, blackening them and causing them to shrivel and snap. The glassware behind the bar began to burst in the heat, glasses popping like crystalline fireworks. The flames spread to the kitchen, the heat peeling the paint and warping the Wanderer’s metal benchtops. Inexorably, the fire worked its way towards the pub’s stairs, and began to climb.
The flames crept up the staircase and spread quickly through the Wanderer’s top floor, filled as it was with old papers and cardboard boxes. The Wanderer was mostly made from wood and was very old, and within ten minutes the entire building was aflame, black smoke billowing up and away into the starry night. The main crossroads of Fisherman’s Creek was entirely empty – there was no one present to watch the Wanderer die. Fifteen minutes later, the roof collapsed and the entire first floor disappeared, crushed beneath its weight. Five minutes after that the ground floor was flattened, leaving nothing of the Wanderer but burning debris.
There was no building close enough to the Wanderer for the flames to leap to, so the Wanderer burned alone. As the first hints of blood red began to tint the edges of the horizon, the last of the fires on the Wanderer’s site died down, finally extinguishing with a last wisp of white smoke. It had taken just two hours from ignition to the last of the fire going out.
Lauren and Stacey were the first people to see it, spotting the wreckage when their car pulled up outside of their bakery in the small hours of the morning. Despite Stacey’s protests, Lauren leapt from the car and sprinted over to the wreckage, and began to dig. As more people trickled into the town centre, they joined her, lifting and clearing large piles of burnt wood and twisted metal. As they did, Lauren called Carter’s name, and the refrain was picked up by a few of the other townspeople. They searched all morning, until the sun was high in the sky and the heat beat down on them. There was no sign of life in the wreck of the Wanderer. Finally, Lauren stood up and stepped back, her hands and face coated in soot and streaked with tears. Carter was nowhere to be found – there wasn’t even a body in the detritus. Slowly, the other searchers gave up, until only Lauren was left, standing in front of what had just yesterday been the front door to the Wanderer, head bowed. After a few minutes, Stacey appeared behind her and, taking her hand, led her away to the bakery. Once more, the main streets of Fisherman’s Creek were empty.
The space where the Wanderer had been seemed altogether far too large and empty in the midday sun.
Much earlier that morning – ten minutes before the first flaming bottle of petrol was hurled through the window of the Wanderer – Henry had received a phone call from an unknown number. The voice on the other end had spoken one curt sentence, and hung up before he could respond.
“We’re burning it down.”
He had leaned over and turned on his bedside lamp, and rubbed his eyes. The question on his lips had been “Burning what down?” but even as the phone had clicked and gone silent he had known, in the back of his mind. He was immediately thankful that he had upgraded the Wanderer’s insurance policy that year. Suddenly something clicked into place in his mind and a wave of panic washed over him. Carter. As far as he knew, Carter didn’t have a phone, and he didn’t think there was any way he could get to the Wanderer in time. Even if he did, he doubted the caller – one of Tobias’ goons, at his best guess – would let him inside. He thought quickly, and picked up his phone, rapidly dialling a number. After three rings, it was picked up, and he spoke quickly, leaving no time for the person on the other end to respond.
He finished speaking and hung up. Moisture beaded on his forehead – he had broken out in a nervous sweat, exacerbated by the hot night. He reached for his very nearly empty pack of cigarettes, which had migrated from the bottom drawer to the top of his nightstand, and retrieved the last slim white cylinder from the box, lighting it with a sweaty, shaking hand. He sat in bed and smoked, his heart pounding, hand clenching and unclenching nervously.
Twenty minutes later, his phone buzzed again. He picked it up. The words ‘Unknown Number’ were emblazoned across the screen. He pressed a button, set the voice to speaker.
“It had to be done. I’m sorry, Henry.”
The caller hung up, and there was silence again. He didn’t move, felt like his chest was being constricted by some horrible creature. After a few minutes, his phone’s screen switched off. He leaned over and turned off his bedside lamp, and he was left in darkness. He lay back, and waited for morning.
Gwen’s phone buzzed, once, twice. The second buzz woke her up, and she managed to pick it up and answer it shortly after the third. Henry was on the other end, and he spoke quickly, pausing only to check that she was listening. He related to her the phone call he had received that morning, checked that she was okay, and asked if Carter was with her. She replied stiffly that he wasn’t, and Henry hung up. She sat up, got out of bed, and pulled back her curtain. Over the houses, through the trees, there was a faint, orange glow, and a suggestion of black smoke, visible against the night sky only by the way the stars vanished and reappeared. She considered heading over to the Wanderer, but quickly buried the thought. It was already too late, and whatever happened next was out of her hands. She moved to her kitchen and turned on her kettle. As the water boiled she poured two teaspoons of instant coffee into a blue mug, and when the kettle switched off she poured the boiling water into the mug, almost to the brim. The sour smell of cheap coffee filled her nostrils, and she took her steaming mug to the kitchen table, where she sat and sipped her coffee.
Thirty minutes later, there was a knock at her door. She listened intently, sure she had imagined the noise. She couldn’t hear anything else. After a few minutes, she stood and made her way to the door. She pressed one ear against it. There was no sound on the other side. Slowly, cautiously, she pulled it open. There was no one outside. She leaned out, looked up and down the street. It was empty, save for a ginger cat, which darted across the road, bell jingling. She was about to close the door when something made her look down. There, sitting on her door mat, was a folded piece of paper. She picked it up and opened it. On one side was a list: Rope, first aid kit, clothes, towel, food. She flipped it over. On the other side was a short message.
Sorry I had to leave without saying goodbye.
She carefully folded the note, and stepped back inside, closing the door behind her. When it was closed, and she had turned the lock, she leaned forward, resting her forehead against it. She clutched the note to her chest, and hot tears started running down her face. After a few seconds, she straightened up, wiped her face, and returned to her coffee. She’d need the caffeine. It was going to be a long few days.
Tobias and his men regrouped inside the church. The men sat on the rotting pews, while Tobias himself sat on the edge of the stage. Joseph was next to him, staring into the middle distance. Every man present kept glancing at the large bloodstain on the wall. Tobias spoke to them, softly and casually. His hunting rifle lay across his lap.
“He has nothing left here now. We’ve destroyed his livelihood, his home. You have done well.”
Lee Vickery raised his hand, and spoke carefully. He kept his eyes on Tobias’ gun as he spoke.
“How do we know he’s even still alive?”
“He is still alive. He knew we were coming for him. I guarantee he escaped the fire.”
Lee nodded. His eyes never left the rifle.
“Then where has he gone?”
Tobias stood up, clutching the rifle in one hand. With the other, he gently pushed Joseph, until the boy stood as well.
“I believe he will have escaped into the bush, but it doesn’t matter. He will come to us. Carter is a meddler, and he won’t be able to leave without trying to interfere with the harvest, stop it for good. That is his sin, and it will bring him directly to us. We simply have to wait for him, like the best fishermen.”
Lee nodded again, and drew a large hunting knife from a sheath that hung from his belt.
“Where will we wait for him, then?”
Tobias said nothing, and walked right past him, pulling Joseph by the hand. He only paused when he reached the door, and spoke without turning around.
“I know exactly where he’ll go. Follow me.”