Murder, Mystery, and a Cold Trail.A skeleton, found after a fire in Wirrabara Forest, is identified as a young man reported missing five years before the fire. Detective Sergeant Stella Bruno investigates. The trail is cold. The evidence is circumstantial. Stella wonders if they’ll find a way to solve the case. Detective Constable Brian Rhodes has his own ideas on this one.If you enjoy mystery and intrigue, you’ll love Bones in the Forest, the third book in Peter Mulraney’s Stella Bruno Investigates series of quick reads.
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, places and events, other than those clearly in the public domain, are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 Peter Mulraney
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover image: Bjørn Tore Økland| Unsplash.com
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A note from Peter
Preview: A Deadly Game of Hangman
Also by Peter Mulraney
A few Australian terms:
Bullocky (bullockies) Australian term for bullock driver.
Country Fire Service is the volunteer service that fights bushfires in rural South Australia
TAFE Colleges are public, fee-based colleges of Technical and Further Education that deliver trade based courses.
It had taken Stella and Brian three hours to drive from Adelaide to Wirrabara in the mid-north of the state, where the local constable was waiting for them at the Wirrabara Police Station. After a comfort stop, they followed his patrol car out to the Wirrabara Forest Reserve, several kilometres west of the town, and then along narrow dirt tracks through a burnt-out pine forest to where a group of vehicles was parked.
The overpowering smell of burnt pine trees hit Stella when she stepped out of the car. As she looked around, she could see wisps of smoke snaking their way towards the clear blue sky. Stella thought she'd stepped into an alien landscape.
They walked over to where Forensics' crime scene investigators had cordoned off the area around the skeleton, which had been discovered by a local Country Fire Service crew conducting mopping up operations after the bushfire that had ripped the life out of the pine plantation.
Stella felt unnerved by the deathly silence of the place. It was the first time she'd been in a forest immediately after a fire where there were none of the usual sounds of nature. The only sound she could hear as they walked was the crunching of burnt pine needles under their boots.
'This place is giving me the creeps,' said Brian.
'Know what you mean.'
They stopped at the line of crime scene tape and waited for Dr Steve Wright, the forensic pathologist, to walk over and join them.
'Hello, Steve,' said Stella.
'Nice day for a drive, Stella.' He smiled. 'How are you, Brian?'
'I'm good, Doc,' said Brian.
Stella pointed to the skeleton lying on the ground less than three metres from where they stood. 'What's his story? What makes you think he's not a camper that forgot to wake up?'
'The holes in his skull. There's one above the eyes and a larger one at the back. Whoever this guy was, Stella, he didn't die in his sleep,' said Steve.
'Any sign he was camping here?'
'We've looked for tent pegs and metal utensils but haven't found anything. To be honest, I'm more inclined to think he was probably shot somewhere else and dumped here.'
'What makes you think that?'
'See those burnt sticks on top of the skeleton? I'd say they're what's left of whatever was used to hide the body from view.'
Stella pictured a body under a pile of fallen branches some twenty metres from the nearest track. Steve's hypothesis sounded plausible.
'Any idea how long he's been here, Steve?' said Stella.
'We'll have to wait until we can get one of the guys from the museum to analyse the bones back in the lab. I'm afraid the fire has made it impossible to guess with any degree of certainty.'
Stella nodded. 'Have you found anything that might suggest this is at least from our lifetime?'
They walked back to their car where the local constable was waiting.
'Any likelihood he's a local?' said Stella.
'Pretty tight knit community here, Sergeant. Whoever he is, he's not from around here.'
'This might take a while,' said Brian, as they got back into the car and followed the local constable back into Wirrabara.
They ate lunch at the Wirrabara Hotel and listened to the buzz of conversation among the locals discussing the find in the forest. After lunch they returned to Adelaide, as there was little they could do until they had some idea who the skeleton belonged to and some expert had confirmed it was not from the ancient past.
Steve Wright asked Dr Malcolm Edwards, a forensic anthropologist attached to the South Australian Museum, to analyse the bones recovered from the floor of Wirrabara Forest to determine their age and how long they'd been in the forest.
After examining the bones and conducting a series of tests to determine how long they had been exposed to the elements, Dr Edwards advised that the skeleton belonged to a young adult male who had died somewhere between five and ten years ago.
After studying the holes in the skull in his laboratory, Steve Wright confirmed his original opinion that, whoever he was, the young man had died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head, and that the dimensions of the entry wound were consistent with a round fired from a twenty-two calibre rifle. He also advised Stella that access to the victim's dental records would give them a good chance of identifying him, as the skull contained a complete set of teeth and its lower jaw appeared to have been fractured at some point.
Stella reviewed the list of long-term missing persons in the database. There were six potential candidates in the South Australian list and considerably more in the national list.
She looked at the names on her list of missing South Australians and imagined each of the six families waiting to find out what had happened to their son. If the bones belonged to one of them, she realized that family would be devastated and the others would be traumatised by the experience of reliving their loss. Stella wondered how she could minimize the amount of trauma those families would have to endure as she read through the summary of each case.
Five of the young men on her list had gone missing from Adelaide or one of its suburbs. One person on the list, however, nineteen-year-old Mark Semmler from Spalding, had gone missing five years ago after a football game in Clare, which was a little over a hundred kilometres from Wirrabara.
Stella read the Semmler case notes. Mark Semmler's disappearance was described as suspicious and unresolved. According to the file, his abandoned car had been found in the car park of the Clare Hotel, the day after he'd failed to return home from playing football in Clare on the afternoon of Saturday the twenty-fifth of June, 2011. Although his wallet and mobile phone had been found in the car, it appeared he'd taken his keys with him.
The file detailed the extensive public appeal conducted at the time. Stella noted that it had failed to elicit any sightings of Semmler after he'd left the dining room of the Clare Hotel, around eight pm on the night he'd disappeared, to drive home to Spalding.
After reading the file, Stella decided she'd contact Pam Ross, Mark Semmler's mother, who had reported him missing, and wondered how much of the media's reporting of the finding of bones in Wirrabara Forest had reached her. She looked through the file again and located Pam Ross' mobile phone number.
'Mrs Ross, Detective Sergeant Bruno from Major Crimes in Adelaide. Are you somewhere we can talk in private?'
'This is about those bones from Wirrabara, isn't it? I wondered when I'd hear from you. Is it Mark?'
Stella noted that her voice was matter of fact, without any obvious emotion.
'We don't know who the bones belong to yet, Mrs Ross, which is why I'm calling. Do you remember who your son's dentist was?' said Stella.
'He went to the clinic in Burra. There's only the one.'
'I'll give them a call.'
'Will you let me know?'
Stella thought she could hear a note of desperation in her voice.
'Yes, Mrs Ross I'll let you know as soon as I find out, one way or the other.'
Pam Ross had been dreading the call ever since she'd seen the item about the bones in Wirrabara Forest on the TV news. She'd been tempted to call the police herself and ask but hadn't been able to muster the courage. She'd wanted to hold on to the hope that Mark was still alive out there, somewhere, and would come home to her.
The supermarket was empty. Pam went outside for a smoke and wondered whether she should call Grant and let him know the police had called. But, after thinking about it, decided she'd rather not speak to him. She didn't want to hear him blaming her again for being a bad mother to their son.
Grant blamed her for Mark's disappearance and, on the few times they had spoken since Mark had gone missing, had taunted her with his claim that if she'd been a better mother Mark wouldn't have run away from her. In fact, when she thought about it, she realized Grant had blamed her for everything that had upset him during the twenty years they'd spent together.
She wrapped her arms around her thin body and remembered the beatings. She could almost feel the pain of his fists hitting her, and had to remind herself that she'd finally had enough of being his punching bag and had found the courage to leave when Mark was fifteen. Four years before he went missing.
It had been Mark's choice to come with her when she'd returned to her home town. He'd been afraid of the violent man his father had become. In fact, he'd only started speaking to his father again in the year before he went missing. By then, he'd left school, started work as an apprentice motor mechanic in Spalding, and become part of the local football team.
Pam blew a stream of smoke into the air. Mark had been football mad ever since he'd discovered the game in primary school, and she'd been all over the mid-north as a football mum in his teenage years.
It was only when Mark had started playing senior football that Grant had shown any interest, loudly boasting of his son's prowess on the field. Pam had stopped going to the games when Mark had bought his car. She couldn't stand being in the same space as Grant and his new woman.
A picture of a jeering Grant appeared in her mind.
'Fuck you, Grant!'
Pam turned her thoughts to Peter, whom she'd married the year after Mark had gone missing. He was nothing like Grant. He was kind and considerate, and had never once hit her in anger.
She flicked the end of her dead cigarette into the dust at her feet and went back into the supermarket to tell Peter about the call. She found him in his office.
'I've just had a call from the police about that skeleton they found at Wirrabara.'
Peter looked up from the inventory report on his desk. 'Do they think it could be Mark?'
'They don't know. They wanted to know who his dentist was.'
Peter stood and walked around to where Pam was standing and put his arms around her. 'You okay?'
Pam had no idea where the tears were coming from but she couldn't stop them and let them flow.
'Do you want to go home?' said Peter. 'I can look after the shop.'
Pam found a tissue in her apron pocket and dabbed at her eyes. 'I just want it to be over, Pete. I don't know that I can take much more of this not knowing.'
Shortly after his thirteenth birthday, Mark Semmler had received a kick to the face during a game of football that had broken his lower jaw and resulted in extensive work being done on his teeth at the dental clinic attached to the Burra Hospital.
The records of that dental work enabled Dr Wright to identify the skeleton found in Wirrabara Forest, and he called Stella as soon as he'd confirmed the skeleton was Mark Semmler's.
Stella, relieved she had made the right call, contacted Pam Ross and advised her that they had identified the skeleton from Mark's dental records.
'What happens now?' said Pam.
'Now we work out what happened to him,' said Stella.
'What do you mean?'
'It's a murder investigation now, Mrs Ross. Your son was shot in the head.'
Stella heard Mrs Ross suck in a deep breath.
'I guess that explains why he didn't come home. I knew he wouldn't stay away by choice.'
'I'm sorry, Mrs Ross,' said Stella.
'Well, at least I can stop waiting for him to call now. When will I be able to bury him?'
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