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Watershed is a dystopian political thriller about the insidiousness of political corruption, the dangers of social injustice, the fragility of democracy and the power of family, as one man prepares to abandon all he believes in to save the woman he loves.
The story is set in Brisbane, Sydney, and Canberra, and takes in the vast wilderness of Cape York, and the raw beauty of the Kimberly, with flashbacks to war torn Baghdad.
Read Chapter 1 below
Jarrod von Wilkins squints against the glare as he watches riot police filter into the street below. Overhead, the over-exposed sky domes in desiccated uniformity, but sunglasses diminish his view. He slides them back to the top of his head.
From his vantage point on the fourth floor of a vacant office, the Chairman of Homeland Security Enterprises has a view along both Roma and George Streets. As he waits, he anticipates the events about to unfold and suppresses a shiver of trepidation. An unexpected sense of his own destiny prickles at his nape. It’s what he must do, but he will be forever marked by this day, as history’s dark instrument.
A sneeze takes him by surprise. His concentration was so intense he didn’t notice the dust. It creates havoc with his sinuses. He pats his left breast, feeling for the antihistamine tablets his wife usually slips into his pocket before he leaves home, and pops one into his mouth.
In the street four floors below, heat rises in waves from the bitumen where mounted officers manoeuvre into place. They spearhead the gathering force, keeping a tight rein on burnished geldings. The animals, wired in anticipation, stamp and paw, tossing their heads with impatience.
Behind them, two armoured vehicles—BearCats—idle. Bolted-on water cannons make them look top-heavy and alien. A bus pulls up and scores more men disembark. They position themselves in phalanx formation and move forward. The tramp of their booted feet and the occasional jingle of a bridle are the only sounds above the purr of engines.
Once assembled, they wait and swelter with fixed eyed stares, their dark protective gear absorbing the western sun. The smell of horse manure, and diesel fumes, merges with the rising reek of gutters, and the stench of brimming café bins, to mingle with the sour aroma of their own sweat.
The police chief, a man with steel grey hair and determined jaw, cocks his head to listen as the mob advances toward the intersection. Its discordant volume grows as the mass of people approach. He looks at his watch then depresses his earpiece, receiving the signal; it’s time.
Around the corner, a column of hundreds, perhaps a thousand people, straggles back along the length of George Street. The carnival brings traffic to a standstill. Costumed citizens’ surge out from side streets to join the throng. They holler their grievances, waving banners that add to the forest of brandish captions.
A woman, draped as Justia, leads the procession. She wears a blindfold tied around her forehead, its lower edge obscuring her eyebrows. Occasionally she tilts her head to see where she walks, pushing the scarf out of her eyes. In one hand, she holds a set of scales, and in the other a banner. A canvass bag hangs over her shoulder, bumping against her hip as she strides ahead.
A child skips along at her side, sometimes clutching her skirt, sometimes dancing away to pirouette into the air. It’s the girl’s sixth birthday. After the protest, they will celebrate, but for now, she’s happy to be here. It’s a chance to show off her birthday gift of spangled fairy costume complete with wings and wand.
Jellybean drawings decorate her mother’s banner with words saying, End Conscription Now! In tentative letters below, a postscript adds please bring my daddy home.
Her mother turns to walk backward, shouting to the following protestors. ‘What do we want?’
The crowd responds, ‘rule of law.’
‘When do we want it?’
‘What do we want?’ She says again.
‘End the war!’
‘When do we want it?’
‘What do we want?’
‘When do we want it?’
Blake races to catch up with her, zigzagging from pavement to road, dodging the crowds, vaulting over obstacles, and sidestepping pedestrians.
Justia smiles as she sees him arrive. ‘Hey Blake.’
She digs in her bag, pulling out a black legal gown and wig. He plonks the tie-wig on his dishevelled dark hair. It’s back to front, but she says nothing. Protocol is irrelevant.
The wig slips sideways, and he grins trying to straighten it. ‘How’s Richard? Have you heard anything?’
She shakes her head. ‘Not much, but he’s okay, thank God.’
Blake jerks the legal gown over his white hospital coat. She points at the stethoscope and he pulls it off, stuffing it into his pocket.
‘You’re late,’ she says.
‘Sorry Allie, I got held up.’
‘Not Allie, Justia.’
‘Okay Justia,’ he grins.
‘She said she couldn’t make it, some photo shoot she has on.’
‘More like a cop out,’ Allie says under her breath, but Blake doesn’t hear.
The little girl bounces up waggling her wand. Two of her milk teeth are missing, and the gap shows as a dark hole. She laughs at Blake all dressed up in Grandpa’s old wig and gown.
Blake touches her wings. ‘Hey, happy birthday Sproglet.’
‘I’m not a soglet, I’m a fairy.’ Her forehead creases in a frown.
He gives her the thumbs up before turning to the mob and shouting, ‘you too Marabou, you wanker.’
The crowd whoop at the use of Minister Marabaux’s nickname, and someone sets up a new chant. ‘Marabou’s a wanker.’
They join in, echoing, ‘Marabou’s a wanker,’ and surge forward.
Two of the other procession leaders carry a banner that says, Blind Justice Demands the Rule of Law. They are also dressed in legal wigs with black gowns that flap and cling to their legs. They jiggle their banner in greeting.
Blake waves, ‘bloody fine banner mate.’
As he turns to follow Justia, he notices a woman in a hotel doorway. Something about her stops him, and he stares entranced. She’s laughing and waving, jumping up and down on the spot. A man waves back. Disappointed Blake turns to find Allie. She is already twenty metres away, approaching the intersection to Roma Street, and he hurries to catch her.
Around the corner, the police commander raises his gloved hand in readiness. His men lower their goggles, fitting them snugly against gas masks. As his arm’s long shadow travels in a dark band across the road, the officers’ eyes remain fixed on his signal. Those mounted extend their batons, rising in their saddles thigh muscles taut, and slacken their grip on straining horses. The commander’s hand falls. The animals surge, gathering momentum as the riders’ human distinctiveness blurs into robotic singularity.
As the police charge, the advancing column turns the corner, plunging into the jaws of the trap. Truncheons slash their blows indiscriminate as flesh gives way to thwacking steel, and flailing hooves. The demonstrators scatter, terror replacing protest in an orchestrated cacophony of screams.
Allie abandons her scales and banner, crying out with fear as she runs to rescue her child. Hoisting the girl into her arms, she turns to flee, but a steel blow knocks her to the ground.
Blake battles through the panic to reach her, vaulting and dodging obstacles, ducking between horses, running to save the woman and child, cursing his momentary distraction for the sake of a pretty face in a doorway. He bends to protect Allie and reaches out to draw Sproglet into safety. Something slams into him, and he falls to the ground. Blood seeps from a gash in his head, blossoming to stain his wig.
The child, crouching beside her dazed mother, stretches out to touch his head. She pulls her hand away, and stares at her fingers, sticky with his blood. Etched terror pulls her eyes wide, and she pants in fear. Her mouth opens in a silent scream as she sees the BearCats advance.
Metres away her fairy wand lies crushed on the road and a little further still, the fractured scales. Her mother groans and struggles to get to her feet. The girl tugs her arm to help, while foaming mouthed horses trample an arc around them, their eyes wild.
The rear of the chanting column falters as they concertina into the corner and see their leaders under attack. For a moment, they dither. Then some run into the fray while others hesitate at the brink. A few just melt away, taking alleys and side streets as they shed their costumes.
Charlotte Miller ducks back through the doorway against which, moments before, she had leaned watching the procession pass. Her friend, Evan Chandler, was in the crowd and she wished she could leave her post to join him.
She had waved, cheering-on the protesters, thinking it was like the old days. So excited was she by the cheerful mass of citizens rolling towards her along George Street, she didn’t notice the police amassing around the corner.
The bar of the hotel where Charlotte works straddles the northeast corner where Roma and George Streets meet in Brisbane city. The hotel is a relatively new building completed in 2024. Its sixty-eight stories of wedge-shaped gleaming steel, marble and glass, fits neatly into the narrow road junction, and rises to an imposing tower that casts the street below into deep shadow.
Charlotte dashes across the empty cocktail bar to a frescoed window so she can see what’s happening in Roma Street. The coloured glass makes it difficult to see out. As she presses her forehead against the pane, a jet of water from the armoured truck’s cannon crashes against it. She leaps back in fright, then runs back to peer out the clear glass panes either side of the entrance door.
People run in all directions to escape the advancing BearCats. They turn into George Street, firing more water jets. The high pressure bowls the escapees over like leaves tossed along a storm-flooded gutter. Mesmerised, she flinches at each new attack.
Behind the BearCats, officers on foot march around the corner and halt. Those in the front row raise weapons to unleash a hail of rubber and pepper bullets. Only a few men aim their rounds to ricochet off the road. Projectiles slam into fleeing flesh, increasing the terror.
The sharp double crack of real bullets breaking the sound barrier makes Charlotte jump. Simultaneously a plate glass window across the street shatters. Her head hits a hanging brass lamp. She rubs the spot, unconscious of the pain. The lamp above swings wildly and she ducks to avoid another collision. Her breathing shallows as she peers through the window.
Four shielded riot police break ranks to lob smoke bombs into the crowd. Seconds later, an opaque pink squall fills the street. A gust of wind shreds the rosy smoke spirals, snaking them towards Charlotte. Twenty metres away a toy wand glitters in a shard of light. Then it’s gone, hidden by the pall.
Her friend Evan appears from the fog supporting an injured man. Blood runs down his face and soaks Evan’s shirt. Another man runs to help. Between the two of them, they support Blake, his legs no longer obeying his will. Charlotte jerks open the door and cries out for them to hurry.
Two mounted police break through the smoke, hunting the fleeing men. In practised unison, they cast a sticky riot net. It finds its mark and the three fugitives falter and thrash for freedom. Only Evan escapes.
Charlotte calls out again, opening the door wide, but he darts down an alley opposite the bar and disappears. The police let him go, concentrating on the other two.
Blake lies motionless with eyes shut next to his struggling companion. ‘For Christ sake, keep still. The bastards will only hurt you.’
One of the officers dismounts. He walks towards the captives, reeling in the rope that tightens the net. With his booted toe, he prods Blake who doesn’t respond. As he bends forward to cuff his wrists, Blake’s hand shoots out through the net’s diamond mesh, wrapping the stethoscope around the officer’s throat. The police officer drops the ropes, scrabbling at the tube. His face turns blotchy as he sinks to his knees.
‘Go,’ Blake shouts at his comrade.
The man doesn’t hesitate, struggling from the now loosened net. He escapes and runs down the alley after Evan.
The second officer slides from his horse and runs to his mate’s aid. He pulls out a taser and fires. Blake’s body contorts and twitches with the repeated zaps of high voltage electrical current. Disrupted brain signals spasm muscles, and Blake’s hand flops and jerks on the ground.
Charlotte pushes the door closed unable to watch the carnage. Her eyes smart from the tear gas laced smoke. She rubs her tongue against the roof of her mouth, and bends over an under-counter sink to rinse her face, feeling the stinging itch in her nose. Memories of the last time she got a face full of gas crowd her mind.
That was when protesting was almost a weekly event, when they were still at university, before the economy crashed, before the new national security laws banning mass assembly. This time it’s not so bad. She knows she only received a fraction of the gas she breathed in back then.
As she dries her face with a paper towel, an image of the tasered bloke in the net fills her mind. He’s finished. He’ll be conscripted for sure and dead before the year is out like all the rest. She wants to cry at the futility and unfairness.
Across the road in a fourth-floor office, Jarrod von Wilkins rubs his forehead, pleased with the result. He will wait until they mop-up. It wouldn’t do to report success prematurely. Paddy wagons pull up and take off in orderly fashion, six prisoners per van. It’s almost done. The commander will get his bonus as promised, as will the others around the country.
A bleep distracts him from the scene below and he presses the side of his watch to hear. The commander in Darwin reports, his disembodied voice rising from the e-cript light-CellTab sitting on the window ledge. The operation was a success nationally. Von Wilkins could have delegated command, but he was keen to make sure there were no mistakes.
The national community-policing contract is due for renewal soon, and he doesn’t want to lose it. It’s only one of the government contracts for Homeland Security his company has, but he’s aiming for the big prize. One day perhaps they will contract out the old federation policing agencies too.
He’s enjoyed himself. There’s a certain ironic appeal in devising and organising a nationwide crackdown on a protest he planned. Its creating history and besides, he’s never found violence disturbing. It’s just a part of human nature, a way of sorting out the pecking order. All animals do it and he’s not the squeamish sort. In his mind, it’s straightforward; you do the crime you wear the time, regardless of whom led you to temptation.
Jarrod von Wilkins is a man of medium height with a broad chest. Today he has on a brown shirt with a gold dragon motif. His wife gave it to him for his last birthday, telling him the dragon is good luck. It hangs untucked over pressed beige slacks. The grizzled stubble on his head and cheeks catches the shafting light. Its afternoon shadow shows his hair receding into the shape of a tonsure.
Usually he shaves his head. It’s a vanity, but today he hasn’t had time since flying back from Perth last night. He hasn’t slept for forty-eight hours and his eyes feel gritty. Now he has a sinus headache, but it was important to ensure the preparations were perfect.
He’s satisfied with the result and rubs his hand over his chin, feeling the day old growth, then looks at his CellTab on the window ledge. Next to the phone is a movie camera transmitting the film feed to Canberra, 950 kilometres away.
He touches his watch and says, ‘are you receiving okay boss?’
Sir Arnold Marabaux, Minister for Homeland Security, sits in a darkened study crammed with his passion for electronic surveillance. He glances at his own watch and then leans forward to pick up a remote sensor from his desk. His fingers fumble with the small buttons until the film feeds coalesce into ghostly light pixels that form holographic images in the space before him.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘The footage is coming through now. You’ve done well.’ After watching for a minute, he depresses the remote switch to cut off the Brisbane carnage and pushes another. A new image forms of a similar protest crackdown in Perth. As he pushes the button again, the picture changes from Perth to Sydney, to Adelaide, to Darwin, patching from city to city.
Every new image shows simultaneous insurrections around the country. Von Wilkins has excelled himself, he concedes. The final film feed is of Williams Street in Melbourne, outside the National Court. A gaunt, lined face comes into frame. It’s the local commander in charge.
‘Yeash?’ The commander’s tone is slurred.
The man is drunk again. Von Wilkins has to get rid of him, but Marabaux stifles his irritation to say, ‘was Jonathon Castile among them?’
The man rolls his eyes. Why else are they doing this? He has already told von Wilkins, but all he says is, ‘he’s in custody.’
‘Good.’ Marabaux stabs the remote and the pixels vanish. He leans back in his chair, and places his hands on the desk before him, fingers drumming. His plans are taking shape. A small thrill of triumph runs through him but he suppresses it, knowing only he can make their strategy work, and he’s proved it.
Bart Priestly may have the charisma but he has the brains. The others in Cabinet are all idiots, and not worth the time of day, but appearance is everything. If he hasn’t learned that in his life, he’s learned nothing. It’s just a matter of time. It won’t be long before they re-evaluate their candidate.
He speaks to a shadowy figure standing at ease near the door, ‘right, get the photos delivered and make sure she understands the consequences.’
The man nods. ‘Capo,’ he says, and leaves, closing the study door softly behind him.
After a minute of contemplation, Marabaux straightens his dark suit jacket, tugging at the sleeves to cover the protruding shirt cuffs. He pats his silver blue silk tie ensuring it lies flat and neat on his white linen shirt. When he is satisfied with his appearance, he leans forward to press the e-cript phone button to transmit.
At Kirribilli House in Sydney, the Australian Prime Minister reclines on a mahogany-coloured Chesterfield. A petite young blonde woman stands in front of him holding out an etched crystal whisky glass. He takes the aged single malt from her smiling his thanks, and pats the sofa beside him. The phone rings and he depresses a receiver button in the sofa’s arm. An image forms as he runs the back of his fingers up the woman’s arm. ‘Thank you sweetheart,’ he says.
Jenna Martin, his Chief of Staff, smiles at him and turns to look at the image.
Marabaux waits until he has their attention and then says, ‘it’s done.’
‘And Castile?’ Jenna leans forward, the eagerness in her face a disturbing glimpse of vengeful fury.
‘Arrested.’ Marabaux ignores her, looking only at the PM. This is not about Castile’s rejection of her ardour all those years ago, but about the threat, he poses to their plans. The woman needs reminding of her place, but she can wait.
‘Any media?’ She asks.
‘No,’ he snaps, irritated by her domination of the exchange. To cover his abruptness he adds, ‘none licensed anyway.’
The Prime Minister understands the source of his friend’s irritation. He also knows Jenna’s obsession. People are so transparent. It makes his job easy, but God save him from a woman scorned. His thoughts remain concealed as he leans forward, his hand resting on Jenna’s thigh. ‘Well done Arnie. It flushed them out just as I predicted. I take it we have all the Blind Justice leaders?’
‘We’ll know soon enough but the back is broken I think,’ Marabaux says, noting Bart has taken credit for his plan.
‘What about the opposition?’ Bart asks, but he’s losing interest. Details bore him; leave the menial slog work to people like Marabaux who seem to thrive on it. It’s why they are a great team. ‘World beaters,’ Marabaux once said referring to Bart’s genius coupled with his dedication to detail.
‘The opposition leader will not be worrying about the arrest of a corrupt Chief Justice. Once the photos arrive, she’ll be more worried about her party’s survival. She will have to resign and Huge Valentine will replace her.’ Marabaux remains watchful as he says, ‘what about the replacement appointment for the Chief Justice position?’
‘I haven’t forgotten. As agreed, I will advise the Governor-General to make the appointment as soon as a decent interval has passed. Who have you in mind to take over the Solicitor General’s role when Newel Bramly is appointed?’
Startled Jenna interjects, ‘you’re kidding aren’t you?’
Bart pats her knee. ‘Stoker will be fine. He’s loyal, and he has the requisite qualifications.’ He turns back to Marabaux. ‘I imagine you have someone in mind to head up ASIO in his place.’
‘Yes, I want to collapse all the intelligence agencies under Baz Mulholland. It will save money and duplication as well as break down the silo mentality they have developed. It will give us a more holistic view.’
Bart laughs. ‘Ken Bowan will have a fit if you touch his military intelligence. What does he have to say, or haven’t you told him yet?’ He refers to the Minister for Defence.
‘No not yet, but he’ll come around. He understands the need for uniting the powers of the military and intelligence communities in these uncertain times. One doesn’t know who has infiltrated the system.’
‘Does he indeed?’ Bart says it absently. ‘I’m not even sure that I do.’ He gazes thoughtfully at Jenna’s shapely body leaning across his lap. Her finger hovers over the switch to terminate the connection, but Bart holds up a hand and she waits watching him. ‘What about the foreign Minister, she’ll hardly agree surely.’
‘She already has, but she is more distracted by considering her retirement from politics at the next election.’
‘Ha,’ Bart smiles. ‘I suppose you offered to take their intelligence sections off their hands and let them keep the Departmental money, like you did with the others, but if you think I will give you her portfolio as well…’
‘No I don’t want it.’ Marabaux’s expression doesn’t change.
Bart is suddenly bored with his dour Minister, and the machinations of arranging his Cabinet. ‘Just as well. You have enough on your plate. Well, I suppose you know what you are doing. So long as they are loyal.’
‘They are all loyal…,’ Marabaux says as Jenna’s finger severs the connection. ‘… To me,’ he finishes, but the Prime Minister has gone, and there is no one else in the room to hear him.
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