short story

The Case of the Missing Turtles

This story was in the Spy genre, which actually had me stumped for a long time. It had to feature smuggling, and a character who was a mentor. In the end I went for a teenage protagonist and set part of it in one of the waterholes of my youth. The mentor is Danger Mouse. My main problem this time around was time management, as this challenge started on my first week back at work and sadly I left most of the writing until the last two days.


The Case of the Missing Turtles

The waterhole was home to an ecosystem of decomposing leaves, slippery sticks and clumps of brown green algae. Undisturbed, the dark water was a glass mirror of the afternoon sky. Ivy, as part of her teen spy regime, had perfected the art of careful waterhole entry and knew to step lightly over twigs and leaf sludge on the bottom; too much movement and the water would become a murky soup. Once she was in deep enough, Ivy began to swim, a gentle breast stroke, and made her way to her familiar submerged rock where she sat in peace and quiet. On the far bank Ivy noted a group of freshwater turtles, spread out and soaking up the last of the sun through their knobbly green shells. It had been a good breeding season. Now that she was back at school it would be more difficult to keep an eye on the turtles.


She was getting ready to swim back to the bank when she heard a splash and a voice downstream. She couldn’t see who the person was and had left her binoculars on the bank, but she heard snapping sticks and swearing so it was clear that the person wasn’t familiar with the forest. When she heard a second male voice she froze, and focused her senses, trying to see through the trees. She saw a flash of yellow, a face in profile, but she couldn’t tell who it was from this far away. They seemed to be moving off down the creek and were soon out of sight.


When she got home, Ivy’s mother was cooking dinner but still made the time to look her daughter up and down. The wet hair was a give-away. ‘You know I don’t like you swimming in the creek alone. Leave those muddy shoes outside.’ Ivy took her shoes off and tossed them onto the back landing. ‘And tell your brother that dinner’s ready.’


Her brother Conrad kept his room dark. He’d used a staple gun to put a blanket over the window, but he didn’t have an eye for symmetry, so it hung to the side and let some light in. The room also smelt like unwashed oily hair, cheap spray deodorant and an earthy smell she couldn’t quite place. All this contributed to a powerful younger sister forcefield. What was missing from the room now was the lanky frame of Conrad himself. As a dedicated spy, she felt the urge to snoop through his things, although similar ventures in the past had yielded little but lolly wrappers, incomplete homework sheets and a small coin collection. She noticed a few new toys- Kermit the frog on a skateboard and miss piggy in a pink car- and this solved the mystery of why he insisted, at seventeen, of choosing McDonald’s happy meals. As she closed his door again, she heard him come in the back door and passed him in the hallway as he went straight to his room and closed the door. Despite his mother’s mild hysteria over the dinner getting cold, he took a long while coming to the table.


Ivy never planned to become a teenage spy. When she was ten and the family were out Christmas shopping, she’d been delighted to see her mother slip into a camera shop. She was hyper aware of the rectangular box under the tree and opened it last. When she peeled back the paper, it took her brain a full minute to register that inside the box was a pair of binoculars, and not the camera she so desperately wanted. After the disappointment simmered down, she took the binoculars and went out looking for birds. But of course, it was much more fun to spy on the neighbours. Ivy had always been a bit of a daydreaming loner but with the binoculars she became obsessed with imagined crimes, plots, deals and heists. Above her bed was a large poster of Danger Mouse, with his sidekick Penfold. Ivy watched the cartoon religiously, and Danger Mouse had become the perfect teen spy mentor; he spoke 34 languages, could shatter metal with his voice and could perform military style push-ups on his index finger. Ivy had eventually saved up for her own state of the art polaroid camera. It was more expensive to buy film for, but it meant she didn’t have to send the roll away to be developed. She could keep the documentation of her discoveries away from prying eyes. In her first year as a full time spy she had captured evidence of: six drug deals, one case of projectile vomiting, numerous incidents of pre-teen nose picking and one extra-marital affair. The most recent item that Ivy added to her spy kit was a small cassette recorder and she was currently experimenting with ways to conceal the device while recording conversations. She’d tried to record a conversation with Conrad, but her brother’s inability to do more than grunt made things difficult. She’d recorded a one-way phone conversation her mother made to a friend, but the details were little more than basic variations on the following: I know! Can you believe it? How awful, what did she do?


The school yard was always a hive of espionage and extortion. On any given day you could witness blackmail, theft and stand over tactics, and this was just in the canteen line. Conrad was a senior this year, so he could jump the queue of juniors. Although this was vaguely irritating, at least it would finally stop him from hassling Ivy to buy him food or let him push in. When she saw her brother- a boy with no part time job and very little pocket money- pay for a sausage roll with a fifty dollar note, she knew that something odd was going on. Like a good spy, she pretended not to notice. She also pretended not to notice when he gave his mate Riley a twenty and worked even harder to contain herself when she saw him put the rest of the money back into a wallet that seemed to be bulging with notes.


At home that evening Ivy watched Conrad closely. He’d gotten back home much later than usual and went straight to his room without raiding the pantry or fridge for food. Very suspicious. Ivy knocked on his door and lied, ‘Mum wants me to see if you have any dirty cups or bowls in here’. She could hear him moving something around. There was a scraping noise which sounded like he was putting something under his bed. When he opened the door, he grunted and pushed a cup into her hands. She took in the smell inside his room again, but the earthy smell seemed to be gone.


A whole school week had passed before Ivy made it back to the waterhole to check on the turtles. Putting her bag down she noticed a scrunched burger wrapper and a slushy cup. With a frown she shoved them in her bag. She didn’t like to think that people had come here and had disrespected the place enough to leave their rubbish. She slipped into the water quietly and swam to her rock. From there she looked to the far bank but couldn’t see a single turtle. This was quite perplexing. It was the time of day when they would normally be out, catching rays in the late afternoon. This was strange indeed.


When Ivy arrived at school the next day she was surprised to see that Conrad was already there. He and Riley were sitting at the far end of the playground, hunched over, and there was a third person with them who she didn’t recognise. She wouldn’t normally use binoculars at school, lest she get a label as some kind of weird pervert, but she was just too curious to let this meeting go unobserved. She slipped in behind the garden bed where no one else could see her and carefully adjusted the focus until she could make out the trio. The third person looked to be the new casual science teacher. Riley was drinking from a slushy cup and Conrad, shoulders hunched, kept looking around and then leaning in closer to the other two. His lips were moving but it was impossible to hear what they were saying. She was determined to know more.


Later in the day, Ivy was pleasantly surprised when it was the new casual science teacher who welcomed her class into the lab. Being able to observe the man up close was fortuitous indeed. He looked young, even though his haircut and dress were overly neat and formal.  His accent was Australian but had a hint of something more difficult to identify. Was it South African? It was hard to tell. When he wrote his name on the board- Mr. De Bruyn- Ivy smiled to herself. She might not speak thirty-four languages like her mentor Danger Mouse, but she knew that this was a common surname in Afrikaans. The lesson itself was dull, mainly textbook work, and she noticed that when the class were working, Mr. De Bruyn would intermittently take himself into the storeroom at the back of the lab. He was careful to close the door behind him, but when he came back out the last time, Ivy could see that there were a few large glass tanks on the benches in the storeroom, but not what was inside them. She kept pondering the connection between this man and her brother. She had to find out what her brother was involved in. He had money. He was getting up early. He was definitely up to something. She knew that this was the time to be discreet. Conrad must not know that he was under surveillance.


The next morning Ivy was ready for the next phase of her operation. She got up at dawn, pinched a ten dollar note from her mum’s purse and left the house for the little bakery near the school. At this time of day, the bread was hot and the smell of the croissants was enough to drive anyone mad with hunger. She bought two French pastries and a large coffee and made her way to school. No students were at school yet but Brandon, the school cleaner, was just finishing up. He was a man in his forties and he held himself like someone who was truly disillusioned by life. She wasn’t sure it would work, but Ivy was bold. She offered the man a coffee and fresh pastries in exchange for the use of his keys for ten minutes. He agreed. She didn’t even have to make up a story about leaving something in one of the rooms.


The Science block was set apart from the school and was near the teacher’s car park. Without students the lab seemed gray and hollow, and the sound of her shoes made a clicking noise on the tiled floor. When she opened the door to the storeroom she registered an oddly familiar smell, like forest slime. It was the same odour she had smelt in her brother’s room. Along one wall was a long bench and on it were a series of glass tanks. All of them had a small amount of water and a few rocks. As she moved closer, Ivy could detect movement and was shocked to see that one tank was crowded with freshwater turtles, clumsily trying to climb on and over each other. At the back of the room, Ivy lifted a blanket to discover a tank containing a listless brown platypus who was about the size of a hotdog bun; a creature that should never be kept in captivity. Ivy was dismayed. She’d never known the science staff to keep any animals except for tadpoles to teach students the life cycle of amphibians. Something was very wrong here. Even though it was difficult, she left the animals in the storeroom and locked the lab door behind her. On a sheet of paper, Ivy took an outline of the key, so she could make her own copy using her key blank set. Danger Mouse would be proud.


For a second time Ivy got up extra early. It was raining, so she put on her heavy black raincoat with the hood, and her waterproof backpack. Even if she was spotted it would be hard for anyone to make out her true identity. She waited until the cleaners had finished in the Science Block and using the key she had made, was overjoyed to find that it worked to unlock the door.


Inside the lab storeroom she had to move fast. She commandeered one of the large fishing buckets and poured in a little fresh water. Nimbly she plucked out the freshwater turtles one by one and gently plopped them into the bucket, where they squirmed around and over each other. ‘Sorry guys, it’ll be a little crowded in there for a while.’ She counted seventeen all together. At home the night before she’d sat down with the family set of encyclopedias and she knew that when she popped the small platypus into the same bucket, the two species would not attack each other. She’d also done some research into the Australian wild animal trade and knew that turtles were kept as exotic pets in South Africa and that a single platypus could fetch as much as five thousand dollars. Carefully she lifted the shy, plump creature from the other tank and marveled at his flat fleshy bill and smooth, slick fur. ‘I’m going to call you Penfold. Come on buddy, you’re going home.’ Before she left the lab, Ivy did one last thing so that the smugglers would know their plans had been deliberately foiled.


Later that morning there was some commotion in the playground after Mr. Be Bruyn had found several happy meal toys in a glass tank in the Science storeroom. He’d become uncharacteristically agitated and all the witnesses would attest that the teacher was out of line when he’d gone over to where a few seniors were sitting and had shoved a boy by the name of Conrad. The police had been called and Mr. De Bruyn had been escorted from the premises.


Down at the water’s edge, Ivy carefully released the platypus first. Little Penfold was so keen to be back home that his webbed feet started making swimming motions even before he made contact with the water. He slipped under the surface, made a few gentle ripples, then was gone. Carefully she put the turtles on the bank one by one. Each made a slow race for the water and clambered through the leaf litter. Their knobbly shells looked like living rocks as they swam together for the far side of the waterhole. Ivy sat for a long while, alone in the peace and quiet.



flash fiction


In this flash fiction round my genre was horror, my setting was the North Pole and my object was a survival kit. I knew I didn’t want to set this story in the actual North Pole so I found that there was a place in the Western Australian desert of the same name. Again this one features Australian desert landscapes, a gorge and a haunted waterhole surrounded by flesh eating plants. I had a very strong image of a waterhole oasis from a trip I went on with my dad to the red centre and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park when I was thirteen.



The two had broken the rule by splitting up, but there was just too much ground to cover. This part of the Pilbara desert was called The North Pole, which must have been a great joke for the early gold miners, because it was barren and baked hot by the desert sun.  The landform was your typical Western Australian mix of sedimentary rocks from the ancient sea floor and red rusty iron dust. To the north the land opened into a gorge that looked as if an angry ancestral spirit had cleaved the earth apart during a tantrum. Kirra was to stay south of their vehicle and document the endemic flowering plants and grasses. Paul had taken his backpack, survival kit and a length of rope and set off towards the gorge.

Kirra’s most surprising discovery looked like a common Emu Bush, Eremophila Aracnoides, but in this particular specimen the normally yellow flowers were deep red. The common variety did not have these spikes and she accidently scratched her palm on a thorn. Not many Australian plants were poisonous, so she wasn’t worried. She made a detailed sketch of the foliage and flowers in her specimen book and marked the page with a drop of blood.

Her shadow was elongated across the earth and the wind changed direction before she paused long enough to wonder why he wasn’t back. She recorded the co-ordinates using GPS:  21° 6′ 0″ South, 119° 21′ 0″ East, packed up her kit and set off into the melting pink sunset to find Paul.

It was slow going in terrain she was only just getting used to. She carefully chose a path down the crooked rock face and descended into the ravine from the southernmost point. The sand at the bottom was coarse and cool and as she moved along she noticed that up ahead the two rock faces came together, leaving an opening just wide enough for a person to enter.

Paul? Paul!

But her voice was swallowed by the looming monoliths. A flow of cool, sour air was coming from the opening and this meant that the path would open out again at some point. Taking a deep breath, Kirra moved between the two rock faces.

She emerged into a small oasis and tried to absorb its incredible beauty. Nothing on the map indicated a place like this existed. From the centre of a still green pool emerged a gnarly tree which looked like a weathered strangler fig with drooping, twisted branches that caressed the water in a few places. The waxy yellow foliage was serrated and glistened with condensation. Small droplets from the leaves appeared to hiss when they hit the water. The waterhole was encircled by more of the red-flowering bushes.

Then she noticed Paul’s shoes, his bag, his hat. But there was no sign of the man. She called again.


She knelt beside the pool and squinted into the water. The surface reflected the sunlight so intensely that she found it impossible to see what lay beneath. She kept tilting her head to get a better look but it was futile; all she saw was her own reflection. There was only one way in and he couldn’t have drowned.  So where was he?


Suddenly the air seemed to vibrate. Shielding her eyes, Kirra looked up as a single grey cloud moved its wings across the sky, erasing the last of the day, and revealing the glowing white arc of the rising full moon. The quality of the light changed to a translucent grey as the sparkle of the day was washed away. Kirra felt a burning hiss as a droplet from the fig made contact with the cut on her palm. She fell back in pain.

Fumbling in Paul’s bag she found his specimen book with a detailed description of the twisted fig and the oasis. She was also glad to find his small survival kit and cleaned her palm with a sterile swab, which helped to alleviate the stinging. She swallowed the last swig from his water bottle and looked around again. The rock faces were changing as the moonlight intensified. Blinking like a child in disbelief, she was beginning to see, on every rock surface, the white ochre splattered outline of a hundred pairs of hands. They screamed a silent warning. Get out. Never come back.

The surface of the water was also changing. It no longer reflected the sunlight; instead it began to absorb the moonlight and from deep below the surface, a soft light began to glow. At first it was muted, but soon Kirra discovered she could make out shapes below the surface. She froze in terror but could not look away. Skeletons. Skulls. Kangaroo. Human. Long femurs and small carpals. Teeth. The curve of a human ribcage. The bones twisted and throbbed in the ghostly moonlight, dancing and swirling in a soup of souls, and the surface kept hissing and fizzing.

White hot pain shot through Kirra’s forearm and broke her stupor. She saw that the skin on her hand had become so transparent that she could make out the skeleton beneath her own skin. Her bones were beginning to glow like the bones in the water. She groped inside the kit again and located the snake bite pack. As best she could, using her good hand, she slipped a thin rubber tourniquet up to her elbow and pulled it tight. Her hand was tingling, her skin a mesh of cobwebs in the moonlight.

When she woke in the recovery ward of the Port Headland hospital, the doctor told her that while the tourniquet had stopped the necrosis from spreading, the long car drive had resulted in extensive tissue death and they had not been able to save her hand.

A team of scientists and detectives tried unsuccessfully to locate the gorge. The page on which Kirra Grey had recorded the satellite co-ordinates had been torn out.


flash fiction

Quinkin Rock

When I started entering the NYC midnight short story and flash fiction competitions, this was the first story that I had success with. I wanted to write something uniquely Australian and capture the funny side of our culture as well as explore the more spiritual aspects of the desert landscape. In the competition you get assigned a genre, a setting and an object. For this one I got action/adventure, an underwater cave and a dumb-bell. You have 48 hours to write and the story must be <1000. The image of the underwater cave came to me quite quickly. I wanted the protagonist to feel a bit alienated, a bit of an outsider, so I took a city type- used to working out at the gym- and put him in an outback town. I really wanted to capture some of the more haunting aspects of the ancient landscape and Aboriginal culture. I read a story when I was younger called ‘Quinkin Mountain’ by Percy Trezise and I liked the idea of the quinkins; often tricksy and sometimes frightening ancestral spirits who live in caves. I was never really happy with the ending and have learnt it’s a real skill to come up with a story that has a satisfying ending in less than 1000 words.

Read the story below;

Quinkin Rock

Beneath the nothing blue outback sky, Nathan replayed the events of last night. His face was already starting to turn rash red and he felt the trickle of stale beer sweat run down his back and soak into his jeans. It was just after seven but already the horizon had melted into a mirage of shimmering ooze. In his pocket was a rough map printed from Google with a smudge of pink lipstick marking the spot. No wallet. No phone. No shoes. No dignity.

The first week on the farm had been heavy work. Nathan’s soft hands were blistered and weeping and he’d suffered his share of humiliation. It was pretty clear that his ability to lift weights in an air conditioned gym did not translate into an ability to toss bags of grain onto the back of a flat-bed truck. His prowess at lifting dumbbells made no difference to his ability to dig fence holes in baked earth. When it had come to letting loose on Friday night he was left with no option but to head to the only pub in town, a shabby relic of former colonial glory now dulled with red opal dust, and drink beer and shots of rum with the locals.

He could feel the curse spreading out from his solar plexus as it tightened his chest and corrupted his lungs. He could still feel the vibration of the old man’s voice as he pointed the human bone, hair glued to the end with spinifex sap. Every stab to his chest felt bayonet-deadly. Nathan had gaps in his memory from the night but knew he’d had too many drinks and engaged in too many flirtatious gestures with the wrong woman. He was a sucker for pink lipstick. When the singing curse was done, he saw the yellow white of the Aboriginal man’s eyes blink closed and his earth coloured skin dissolve into the impenetrable dark before he disappeared entirely. The effect of the curse had been instant. The locals stood around Nathan who began to clutch at his chest as his head slumped and rocked sickly on his neck. Falling to his knees, he began to wretch with big violent spasms that bought up a stomach juice steak dinner and a gush of beer froth. A crowd had gathered and there was some low whispering. The girl with the pink lipstick crossed her arms, shook her head and went back inside the pub. After that only fragments of the night…talking…a map…a bumpy car ride. Then the morning sun white hot on the horizon.

He trudged on painfully. After a few unbearable burning breaths he saw the landscape up ahead begin to change and a burnt orange monolith rose, ominous and ancient, from the bedrock. Blackened tree trunks stood like watchful sentinels as he stumbled on towards the craggy rock form, terrifyingly human in its shape.

Nathan rested on the rock and was grateful to be out of the sun. He followed the wall around and located the rocky outcrop with the opening, like a jagged smile, just behind it. His feet had been cut and scratched and he was happy to feel the more forgiving coarse sand of the cave mouth. Small wiry shrubs clung to the rock and the earth exhaled a mossy breath which cooled his face and spoke with a silent ancient tongue. It was strange, but as he crossed from the outside into the shelter of the cave his stomach, which had been burning and twisting, seemed to settle somewhat. He kept going over the instructions; move deeper into the cave until you come to a small body of water that seems to be glowing with a holy light. Strip naked. Dive into the pool and swim towards the light. You will surface in a second cave. What happens next is not certain. You may be met by the Quinkin spirit. You might not. He might forgive you. He might not. You need to take one of the smooth, ancient river stones from the secret cave and swim with it back to the other side. If you are not forgiven the water will swallow you down into its monstrous belly womb where your blood and flesh shall feed the earth and your bones will rattle for eternity. Simple.

The water shrunk his genitals and his heartbeat throbbed in his temples. He could see light bubbling up from below and braced and inhaled as he slipped under the surface, the first time just to look. His vision ebbed and flowed and he tried to keep his submerged body still. The light was indeed coming from a large hole under the water, big enough for him to slip through. Surfacing, he took one huge breath and this time he exhaled slowly, as he had learnt from skin diving documentaries, and swam towards the light.

When he emerged again, river stone in hand, his clothes were gone. Nathan made the long walk back towards the town naked, relieved, exhausted. As he approached the pub a collective cheer went up and the Aboriginal man from the previous night came out to greet him, grinning broadly, shook his hand and slapped him on the back. He grabbed the river stone from Nathan and beckoned him to follow. In a special room at the back of the pub was the ‘wall of shame’. It was decorated with numerous photos of naked sunburnt men, all taken as they emerged from Quinkin Rock. In a corner of the room was a large glass cabinet full of similar smooth river stones.

‘You survived the initiation.’

But that night in bed there was something more. Inside the cave, something had stirred inside him. An ancient voice spoke and he knew he was home.