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The way the body was lying, it was obvious she hadn't seen it coming. The limbs were splayed at a grotesque angle. A pool of blood beside the head had dried in the sun before it could make it the few centimetres to the side of the road.

Blowflies hovered impatiently. The October sun was high and unseasonably nasty. Anybody with any sense was sitting under the shade of the only tree for miles. Or they were somewhere else.

The sergeant was crouched beside the rapidly ripening corpse, talking into a small digital recorder. Cato Kwong squinted at the sergeant and took a swig of lukewarm water from a bottle that felt like it was melting in his hands.

He turned it off and removed the earphones. He checked his watch: still only midmorning. Time seemed to move so slowly these days. The sergeant's name was Jim Buckley: he chattered to himself, loving every minute, every detail of the task at hand. For a big bloke his movements were graceful.

Pavarotti in a butcher's apron. No apparent signs of an exit wound so we presume bullet number two is still lodged inside. I now intend to conduct an on-the-spot autopsy to confirm. Recording suspended at Detective Sergeant James Buckley. That's one big difference between Homicide Squad and Stock Squad, Cato mused, you don't have to wait for the autopsy, just do it yourself.

Homicide Squad, Major Crime, even Gangs, they had a ring to them that made you puff out your chest and stand a bit taller. Stock Squad? They were there to deal with cattle duffers, sheep theft, stolen tractors. They were touted as industry experts, they knew the farmers, knew the lingo. In Cato's view they were washed-up has-beens recycled as detectives.

Mutton dressed as lamb? The Laughing Stock Squad. So if you come across a suspicious cow will you take it back to the station and grill it? Or leave it to stew? So far Cato felt like little more than a glorified agricultural inspector. Stock Squad. It kind of escaped from the corner of your mouth like a coward's curse.

Coward's curse pretty well summed up his situation. He was here because he'd been hung out to dry by a bunch of cowards he'd once worshipped and he couldn't do anything about it because of the Code, the Brotherhood, the whatever other bullshit name that might conceal a multitude of sins. The Stock Squad was on tour: hearts and minds. The other two members of the squad taking the high road to the north, Cato Kwong and Jim Buckley on the low road south.

A week of 'intelligence gathering' was how Buckley saw it: pressing the flesh, nosing around, random checks and a healthy per-diem budget — it would keep them in piss until they got back to Perth. A week of chewing straw, swatting flies and nodding sagely at stuff he didn't give a rat's arse about was how Cato saw it.

Cato Kwong: Stock Squad. A nickname inflicted on him at police academy. Cato hadn't seen any of the movies so he'd rented the videos to see what they were getting at. Cato, the manic manservant? Cato, the loyal punch-bag? Or just simply Cato the Chinaman? Jim Buckley was already red-faced with effort as the saw bit into the back of the cow's neck. Blood spurting, blowflies going berko, he was in hog heaven. Cato winced primly; he preferred his meat plastic-wrapped and barcoded.

Cato still didn't know how to address Jim Buckley. It wasn't that he didn't have any respect for authority, it was just that he was still working on it in Jim Buckley's case. It's pretty obvious. The cow was run over, finished off with a couple of bullets to the head.

The back leg was chopped off with a chainsaw and taken home to the barbie. End of story. Cato took another swig of the mountain spring water.

He didn't function well in excessive heat. Maybe he should join the Canadian Mounties, or the Tasmanian ones, somewhere nice and cool. Jim Buckley frowned, a tad disappointed with the younger man's attitude. And it's our job to find the bad guys. Cato knew he was banging his head against the proverbial.

Buckley, after twenty-five years in the force, had finally found his niche. Stock Squad was Jim's domain and he was in no mood for negativity. He mopped a sodden brow with a wipe of his shirtsleeve and passed the blood-soaked implement to Cato. Her lungs were bursting and her left hip was agony: two kilometres from home and four behind her. For the last twenty minutes she'd been feeling a bit old, worn out.

Too many twinges these days and getting harder to keep them at bay. But then she rounded the corner, hit the top of the sand dune and there was the ocean. Beautiful, she thought, gorgeous. A slight breeze rippled the surface and the sun was just coming up, dispelling the shadows on the hills in the national park over to the west.

The huge open sky was striped orange, pink, purple, and blue. And would you believe it, dolphins, two of them, splashing in the shallows near the groyne.

She semi-sprinted the last two hundred metres along the sand where it was packed hard at the water's edge, never taking her eyes off the dolphins. As she drew nearer something changed. The way those dolphins were moving, the shape of the fins, the frolicking and splashing; no, it wasn't splashing — it was more like thrashing.

And there was something in the water with them, something brown, floppy, lifeless. A seal maybe, from the colony on the rock a few hundred metres out from the groyne. She quickened her step. This would be something a bit special to share with her primary class in news today.

One of the sharks seemed to be shaking the seal in its jaws, like a puppy with an old sock. Finally it let go and the seal flew a few feet through the air, landing with a soft plop at the water's edge.

From five metres away she could see they'd ripped the poor little bugger to shreds; just one flipper remained and the thing didn't seem to have a head.

She was right on top of the carcass now. She stopped, caught her breath, shivered. It wasn't a seal; it was a human torso. It wasn't a flipper; it was an arm — a left arm, no hand.

She'd been right about the head though — there wasn't one. She bowed forward, hands on knees, and threw up. Behind her she could hear the sharks still splashing in the shallows like a couple of dolphins, playfully taking the piss. Hot flush. Senior Sergeant Tess Maguire put down her coffee, opened her jacket and cracked a car window.

The smell of rotting roadkill nearby forced her to shut it again, quickly. Tess swore and flicked on the air conditioning. Six-twenty on a sharp, spring south-coast morning and she was sweating like a pig. Suddenly cold again, she flicked the air conditioner back off. She felt completely out of sorts. How could she be getting hot flushes when she'd only just turned forty-two?

Tess looked at herself in the rear-view. The short-cropped blonde hair was losing its fight against the wispy greys. She kept on threatening to let it grow out to all-over grey.

It was natural.


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