This is an extract from The Bluffs by Kyle Perry (Penguin Random House, $32.99), available from your local bookstore and online. The Bluffs is the Tasmanian author's debut novel, a gripping crime thriller set in the Great Western Tiers.
The rain woke her.
She needs you.
Eliza opened her eyes. She was facedown in the gravel of the hiking track, the smell of wet earth in her nose.
You have to get up.
She sucked a breath through her teeth. Everything ached. The back of her head stung. Her glasses dug into her temple, the left lens cracked. Her puffer jacket and hiking tights were soaked through to the skin.
The icy mountain rain grew heavy, slapping against the gum leaves with the wind. A yellow wattlebird called off in the bush: the sound like a cork pulled from a bottle.
Get up. She needs you.
At the edge of the track grew a native laurel, peppered with white flowers. She leaned on it, dragging herself to her feet, spiky leaves cutting her palm, the crushed flowers releasing their sweet wild scent.
Her hiking boots were gone, her socks were gone, her feet numb and tinged blue in the alpine cold.
She spun, scanning the fog. The motion caused her skull to throb. She put her hand to the back of her head and it came away red.
She realised her honey hair was stuck to her cheeks by some- thing sticky-brown. She pinched it away from her cheek, confused.
A human voice - distant, but growing closer.
Eliza froze. All her half-thoughts snapped into one decision. She lifted a white gum branch off the track: thick and smooth. She stepped into the ferns at the edge of the path, her clothes catching on the laurel. Was there a place she could hide? Did she really want to leave the track?
The sound of breaking branches behind her. 'Miss Ellis!'
Eliza shouted, spun, and swung her stick.
The figure - a teenage girl - scrambled back with a yelp.
'Jasmine!' Eliza could have cried with relief. 'No . . . Carmen?'
'You tried to hit me!' Carmen backed away, her long dark hair slick against her face. 'What the hell is wrong with you?'
The stick fell from Eliza's frozen fingers. 'I'm sorry.' She grabbed Carmen's wrist and pulled her closer, into the cover beneath the trees.
'You're freezing, Miss Ellis.'
The rain stopped, like a tap turned off. The bush was suddenly fog-quiet, save for gentle dripping. Waiting.
'Where are the others?' whispered Eliza.
'Everyone's at the bus, but they can't find Jasmine, Cierra, Bree or Georgia. Mr North says we need to call off the hike because of the storm. He's already called the bus.' Carmen seemed unaware her own voice had grown hushed. 'You weren't answering your phone. He sent me and Mr Michaels to find you.'
'No one has seen those girls?'
'Aren't they with you? Is it true there was a fight?' Carmen peered closer. 'Is that blood on your face?'
'Where's Mr Michaels?'
Carmen was looking at the blood, at the bruise on Eliza's face, at her cracked glasses. Realisation dawned.
'Carmen. Where is Jack - where is Mr Michaels?'
'We split up, he took another track. We've been looking for you for ages,' said Carmen. 'What's happened? What's happened?'
'You were on this path alone?' shouted Eliza, and Carmen scurried another step back, panicked.
Eliza's world lurched and she steadied herself against a gum tree.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket - maybe it had been buzzing the whole time and she hadn't noticed. She had to see to Carmen's safety first.
'Where's your phone, Carmen?'
'We left them at school,' said Carmen, voice shaking. 'We handed them to Mr North before we left. Oh, God. Don't you remember? Oh God, help . . . w-what happened to you? Where are the others?'
'Carmen, I need you to listen carefully . . . in just a moment, I need you to run back to Mr Michaels. Run. Don't stop for anything.' She picked up the stick she had dropped and handed it to Carmen. 'If you see anyone you don't know . . .'
'If you can't find Mr Michaels, just run back to the bus. Stay away from anyone else. Do you understand me?'
'Wh-what's going on?' Carmen whimpered.
'Just wait there a moment.' Eliza answered her phone. 'Tom?' she said. 'Are all the girls back?
'Eliza! Finally! Where the hell are you?'
'The girls, Tom.'
'We're still missing Georgia, Bree, Jasmine and Cierra. I sent Carmen and Jack to find you. Are they with you?'
'I'm sending Carmen to find Jack, and then back to you. If she's not there in the next fifteen minutes, lock the other girls in the bus and come looking. I don't know where we are right now.'
'We're j-just off the Lake Nameless trail,' stammered Carmen. 'W-west of it.'
Suddenly the rain started again, this time with ice in the water. Eliza's skin stung in the sleet.
'Carmen's coming from the western track of the Lake Nameless trail. And call the police. Now.'
'What the hell's going on? Where are the others?' said Tom.
'I'll find them,' said Eliza. 'Just call the police, Tom.'
'Eliza, you shouldn't -'
'Tom. Call the police.' She ended the call.