Home > Force of Nature (Aaron Falk #2)

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk #2)
Author: Jane Harper



Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No-one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.

   The women were late to the rendezvous point.

   The men’s group – clocking in at the beacon a respectable thirty-five minutes ahead of the midday target – slapped each other on the shoulders as they emerged from the tree line. A job well done. The retreat leader was waiting for the five of them, looking warm and welcoming in his official red fleece. The men threw their high-tech sleeping bags into the back of the minivan, breathing with relief as they climbed in. The van was stocked with trail mix and thermos coffee. The men leaned past the food, reaching instead for the bag containing their surrendered mobile phones. Reunited.

   It was cold outside. No change there. The pale winter sun had fully emerged only once in the past four days. At least the van was dry. The men sat back. One of them cracked a joke about women’s map-reading skills and all of them laughed. They drank coffee and waited for their colleagues to appear. It had been three days since they’d seen them; they could wait a few more minutes.

   It was an hour before smugness gave way to irritation. One by one the five men prised themselves from the soft seats and trudged up and down the dirt road. They thrust their phones towards the sky as though the extra arm’s length would capture the elusive signal. They tapped out impatient text messages that wouldn’t send to their better halves in the city. Running late. We’ve been held up. It had been a long few days and hot showers and cold beers were waiting. And work, tomorrow.

   The retreat leader stared at the trees. Finally, he unclipped his radio.

   A handful of reinforcements arrived. The park rangers’ voices light as they pulled on high-vis vests. We’ll pluck ’em out of there in no time. They knew where people went wrong and there were hours of daylight left. A few, anyway. Enough. It wouldn’t take long. They plunged into the bush at a professional pace. The men’s group bundled themselves back into the van.

   The trail mix was gone and the coffee dregs were cold and bitter by the time the searchers re-emerged. The shapes of the gum trees were silhouetted against the darkening sky. Faces were set. The banter had disappeared with the light.

   Inside the van, the men sat silent. If this were a boardroom crisis, they’d know what to do. A drop in the dollar, an unwanted clause in a contract, no worries at all. Out here, the bushland seemed to blur the answers. They cradled their lifeless phones like broken toys in their laps.

   More words were muttered into radios. Vehicle headlights bored into the dense wall of trees and breath formed clouds in the frigid night air. The searchers were called back in for a briefing. The men in the van couldn’t hear the details of the discussion, but they didn’t need to. The tone said it all. There were limits to what could be done after dark.

   At last, the search group broke apart. A high-vis vest clambered into the front of the minivan. He’d drive the men to the park lodge. They’d have to stay the night, no-one could be spared to make the three-hour trip back to Melbourne now. The men were still letting the words sink in when they heard the first cry.

   High-pitched and birdlike, it was an unusual sound in the night and every head turned as four figures crested the hill. Two seemed to be supporting a third, while a fourth tripped along unsteadily beside them. The blood on her forehead looked black from a distance.

   Help us! One of them was screaming. More than one. We’re here. We need help, she needs a doctor. Please help. Thank God, thank God we found you.

   The searchers were running; the men, phones abandoned on the minibus seats, panting several paces behind them.

   We were lost, someone was saying. Someone else: We lost her.

   It was hard to make the distinction. The women were calling, crying, their voices tumbling over one another.

   Is Alice here? Did she make it? Is she safe?

   In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four had asked after Alice’s welfare.

   Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them.



Chapter 1


‘Don’t panic.’

   Federal Agent Aaron Falk, who until that moment had had no plans to do so, closed the book he’d been reading. He swapped his mobile phone to his good hand and sat up straighter in bed.


   ‘Alice Russell is missing.’ The woman on the other end said the name quietly. ‘Apparently.’

   ‘Missing how?’ Falk put his book aside.

   ‘Legitimately. Not just ignoring our calls this time.’

   Falk heard his partner sigh down the line. Carmen Cooper sounded more stressed than he’d heard her in the three months they’d been working together, and that was saying a lot.

   ‘She’s lost in the Giralang Ranges somewhere,’ Carmen went on.


   ‘Yeah, out in the east?’

   ‘No, I know where it is,’ he said. ‘I was thinking more of the reputation.’

   ‘The Martin Kovac stuff? It doesn’t sound anything like that, thank God.’

   ‘You’d hope not. That’d have to be twenty years ago now anyway, wouldn’t it?’

   ‘Going on for twenty-five, I think.’

   Some things would always linger, though. Falk had been barely a teenager when the Giralang Ranges had dominated the evening news for the first time. Then three more times over the next two years. Each time, images of search teams tramping through overgrown bushland with sniffer dogs straining at their leads had been projected into living rooms around the state. They’d found most of the bodies, eventually.

   ‘What was she doing all the way out there?’ he said.

   ‘Corporate retreat.’

   ‘Are you joking?’

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