Their old lives had gradually been subsumed. New lives, a new country and fake names had all become their reality, their existence, after 10 years. On a lonely, isolated bench seat at the edge of Wallis Lake just south of Forster, NSW, Kat and Jared reflected on the swings and roundabouts in their lives. They’d only been in their mid twenties when their old lives had careered headlong towards an unexpected and abrupt halt. Wiremu and Tui had been associates of the outlawed motorcycle gang in South Auckland. Wiremu wasn’t a fully patched member at the time when he and his partner Tui had witnessed a horrific and gruesome crime committed by the sergeant-at-arms. They’d given evidence against him and other top ranking bikers. The price paid for their starring role within the corridors of justice was a contract on their lives, a short-term safe-house in a sleepy village in coastal Taranaki, then a final door closure to New Zealand.
As a floor tiler, Wiremu, now Jared, enjoyed the relative obscurity of working alone in his adopted country and, by degrees, he’d become less given to flicking worried eyes around him throughout the day. He’d taken to wearing collared shirts in public to mask the distinctive tribal moko inked on his neck. Tui/Kat, who bore no noticeable tattoos, had gained work as a receptionist in a small medical practice in Tuncurry. Despite her visibility to the public, she outwardly enjoyed her front-desk job and segued relatively smoothly into her new community.
A flight of north-bound pelicans was silhouetted against a peach coloured sunset over Wallis Lake and the settlement of Coomba on its western side. The all-day throb of a helicopter transporting fittings and furniture across the lake to the newly built eco-resort was gradually abating as daylight diminished. Marauding bushflies buzzed obsessively around the wrapping paper enveloping the hot fish and chips Kat and Jared were sharing.
Kat ran her nose over the top of the wrapping to inhale the escaping smells of vinegar and steaming chips; odours she deemed an integral part of a fish and chips experience.
“Mmmm… wicked, eh. My second favourite smell.”
“Right… and your favourite?” he asked.
“Easy. Gotta be puha and pork-bone soup. With my family, their laughter, plenty of kai on the table. Yeah…. Sometimes I miss the whanau, the family… big time. What do you miss, Wiremu?”
“It’s Jared. Call me Jared,” he hissed. He always wore his cranky pants whenever they dropped their guard. It was safest to live in the now with their adopted personas.
“Yeah… sorry… but what’s your favourite smell Jared?”
“That’s easy eh. It’s when we rolled away the hot stones and lifted the hangi baskets out of the ground out the back of the marae. Yeah… the earthy smells of juices, steamed kumara, muttonbird. Yeah I miss all that. Wonder if it was worth it all, Kat. We did the right thing ten years ago didn’t we, eh?”
Muting a helicopter’s distant hum, a feathery flock of screeching silver gulls descended. Several hovered nearby but the majority landed on the grass between their bench seat and the watery edge of Wallis Lake just in front of them. Beady eyes were singularly focused on the wrapping paper clutched in Kat’s fingers. Each hand movement between the inside of the wrapping and their mouths was met with indignant squawks and a sudden expectant ascent into the air. Shrewd gulls instinctively know that a head start is particularly advantageous in the pursuit of a thrown hot chip. Several adventurous chip thieves advanced on strutting skinny red legs to within a metre from Jared and Kat’s feet, noisily warning off others. When Kat threw a chip into the throng, mayhem erupted as the lucky catcher attempted to lift off firmly clasping its prize in an orange beak. It didn’t get far before feathered friends shredded the chip mid-flight and morsels fell to the ground for further plundering. Kat giggled at their antics like a kid. The ensuing tumult muffled the car door closing quietly in the lonely carpark seventy metres behind Kat and Jared.
“You’ve started it now, Kat. Never get rid of the gulls, eh.”
“Yeah but they look so ridiculous fighting amongst themselves. Imagine if our family feasts were like that! Here you go birdbrains… here’s a few more.”
Amused at his partner’s enthusiasm for simple pleasures in life, Jared glowed inwardly at the measure of warmth and fulfillment Kat had brought into his previously turbulent life. He hoped he balanced her emotional ledger.
The battle for remnants of greasy deep-fried chips was raucous. It also masked the sound of approaching footsteps fifty metres behind them and the soft click of a sawn-off double-barreled shotgun being loaded with cartridges and snapped shut. Kat launched several more chips into the air, and there was a further frenzy of whirring white wings. When her upturned face was struck by a huge blob of white gull poop, her laughter ceased abruptly. Sliding from forehead to nose, she frantically wiped it away, swearing demonically. Sensing Kat might drop the packet of chips in her frenzied removal of sticky bird crap, Jared tore it from her grasp and doubled over in spasms of belly laughter.
“Wrong place, wrong time eh Kat?” he snorted convulsively.
Twenty metres behind them, an ear splitting explosion rocked the peach sunset over Wallis Lake. Kat and Jared hit the grass prostrate, frantically whipping their heads around to peer behind. Heart rates doubled in an instant, skin tingled all over. A tangled pile of shattered spruce and maple timbers, a birdnest of wires and ivory keys, and the twisted iron frame of a Steinway grand piano now lay directly behind them. Gulls shrieked as they fled the carnage. A pair of hideously splayed, crumpled legs protruded from underneath the debris and a bloody spray pattern surrounded the impact site.
At a later date, the coroner laid fault directly with the aviation charter company that had been ferrying the grand piano from Forster to the remote, high-end eco-resort adjoining the Wallingat National Park. She ruled that the straps supporting the 450 kilogram concert piano underneath the large Bell helicopter had been insecurely fixed causing the payload to plummet from an altitude of 3000 feet. This had led directly to the instant death of the unknown, yet heavily armed, member of the public on the shores of Wallis Lake, NSW.
Wrong place, wrong time, eh?