When the end finally came for Jilly White, she welcomed it.
She hungered for it. Ached for it.
She wanted it more than anything she had ever wanted before.
There was pain, then a darkness, deep and black.
And what was the end…
… was only the beginning.
Still nothing but static.
Jilly Whites’ fingers danced across the control panel of the old sedans’ car radio, tapping buttons and stroking the auto-tune. She had been out of range of clear reception since diverging from the M1 motorway just south of Landsbrough. There had been a few tantalizing hints at music here and there but once the skyline had become encased in the looming shadows of hills and the last grey bands of sunset had washed from the sky by a starless night, the cramped interior of the small car had been filled by an almost oppressive silence punctuated only by the low, incessant hum of wheels on bitumen beneath the sedans’ chassis.
Jilly sighed wearily, working the stiffness from her slight shoulders back against the small sedan’s high backed drivers’ seat and for a fleeting moment, she caught sight of her reflection in the cars’ rear vision mirror. Even beneath the dim, orange glow of the tiny, overhead light, she could see the dark rims of fatigue which had begun to develop beneath her normally bright, almond eyes. Jilly took a deep, bracing breath and tried to focus on the harsh glow of her sedan’s headlights as they swept the dark, winding corridor of single lane asphalt in front of her. Finally, with her head feeling just a little clearer, she let her gaze fell to the small, Polaroid photograph propped on the dashboard up against the sloping glass of the sedan’s windscreen. She had placed it there when she had left the coast, an image to drive her on. One for the road. Instead, all it seemed to do now was mock her.
In the smooth, matt surface of the print, she sat with her arms around John’s neck, his head leaning towards her, hers on his broad shoulder, her long auburn hair falling like a waterfall down the front of his white shirt. They were both smiling and in love. At least, that had been what Jilly had thought. The emotion was there on their faces but the more she looked at the photograph as she drove, the less she saw of that smile in his eyes. He had just been playing the part. She knew that now and the thing that dug at her most, the thing that she hated more about herself than anything he had done, was that she simply hadn’t been able to see it then.
Jilly reached forward from her tight grasp on the old Cortina’s steering wheel and flipped the Polaroid down so that it fell face forward on the cracked vinyl of the dash. She told herself again that she didn’t need to see it anymore, that she was through with it, with him and the self doubt that looking at it bought, though she knew of course that was a lie, just another lie. She knew that no matter how hard you tried to bury the past, you could never dig quite deep enough to escape it forever.
Jilly gritted her teeth and rubbed at her tired eyes, trying to tell herself that the dry stinging she felt there was just weariness from the long drive. Deep down, she knew it was so much more.
It hadn’t taken her long to find a new place to live after she had moved out from John’s.
Her application for a transfer to the North Valestone State Primary School had been fast tracked by an old university friend in the Education Department once she had found out about Jilly’s circumstances and by the time she had finally received official confirmation that the position of Assistant Librarian was to be hers as of the twenty-third, she had known she would have to act fast.
Her first priority had been accommodation. She had rented most of her life and for Jilly, her previous ‘digs’ had always been the scant collection of usual suspects offered when on a tight budget. Low priced townhouses and cramped, inner-city flats within the immediate vicinity of wherever her work and public transport dictated. There had been all the traditional, stereotypical horror stories a young, single woman could expect when striking out on her own. Leaking roofs. Invasive landlords. Vermin, both great and small. She had even once share-housed with a fundamentalist, new-age vegetarian, though that particular six months of her life had turned her off both the idea of co-habitation and the supposed benefits of a totally vegan lifestyle. This time however, Jilly was determined that things would be different. Her new job offered her the chance of a fresh beginning, one more shot at the independence she craved so desperately, especially now, and she was prepared to embrace it with both hands, even if she had to pin it to the ground kicking and screaming.
She had spent most of the day on her last journey north ‘doing the rounds’ of real estate offices in the district without any noticeable success. The market in the area was, she had been reliably informed by most of the property agents she had called on, at the center of a recent resurgence of national interest as the state of Queensland flexed its economic muscle and affordable living was riding the crest of the wave. She had quickly ruled out a selection of units and suburban flats from the card hand of possibilities offered to her and had discounted another dozen or so due to nothing more than the over-inflated rent. That had left only a disappointing array of poorly tended, coastal bungalows for consideration - a sad and sorry second at best. Then, just as she had been about ready to give in, preparing herself to leave as empty handed as when she had arrived, she had thumbed her way through the housing classifieds of the regional newspaper while consoling herself with a latte` at a local café. It was, to her surprise, a long shot which had paid off admirably.
The house that had caught her eye was a tiny, two bedroom cottage. Two up, two down, with a postcard view of Port Curtis Bay which would be called ‘COMMANDING’ in the general blurb of ‘Estate Agent Speak’. There was a cozy backyard with just enough room for the vegetable and herb garden she had always promised herself. A fireplace (more of an ornament than anything else in the mid north-coast heat, but a fireplace just the same!). And a neatly packaged little front porch upon which she had been able to quite easily imagine herself sitting, with a good book, a bottle of ‘not too cheap’ wine and Bert by her side (’Bert’, Jilly’s only dependant, almost constant companion, was a mottled yellow budgerigar who now sat contentedly on the swinging perch of his cage which occupied the center of the tiny sedan’s crowded rear seat). The bond had been excessive but the rent a little more palatable with an option to buy - an option that Jilly just knew she would be taking up - and she had laid down a year and a half’s worth of hard earned savings on it that very day…
And you haven’t looked back since Kiddo!
She shifted a little behind the wheel, stretching her legs and turning her head to work at some of the stiffness from the long day’s driving once more and reached across into the depths of her handbag on the passenger side seat for her Alpines and a light. The pack was nearly empty with only eight cigarettes left to carry her through the remainder of the night and after a brief equation of time versus distance, she lifted one to her lips and bought it to life. A long, satisfying curl of menthol smoke crept lazily from the comer of her mouth and she smiled.
My house, she thought, tasting the words, savoring them.
And her smile widened.
The dark band of bitumen she had been following banked off sharply to the left, taking on a steady rise as it went, and a sign reared up out of the moonlit darkness at her, the words……
~ WELCOME TO ROWAN SHIRE ~
PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY!
...barely legible beneath the flare of the car’s headlights as they glanced briefly across its shotgun-blasted metal face.
‘I think we’re getting closer Bert ol’man,’ Jilly said, glancing into the rear vision mirror at where ‘Bert’ was twittering quietly to himself in the back seat. She tapped a length of ash from the end of the cigarette onto the lip of the car’s ashtray, then reached across once more into her handbag, this
time for her road map and travel atlas to get a better bearing on her coordinates. As she did so, juggling the wheel unsteadily with one hand, the old Cortina strayed from the road’s centre line, its narrow tyres kissing the broken edge of the asphalt’s serrated, gravel shoulder….
...and that was when it happened!
The rear driver’s side tyre exploded in a sudden burst of pressurized air which rang out like a gunshot through the small sedan’s cramped interior and the vehicle lunged violently to the right. Jilly jumped, her smile turning to a startled squawk and she slammed upright against the back of her seat, the cigarette tumbling from her fingertips. Shadows sprang from out of the darkness in front of the windscreen at her as the vehicle angled sharply away from the middle of the road’s narrow width towards the steep embankment which fell away to the blackened, moonlit bushland beyond. She planted her foot, forcing the brake to the fire wall and the howl of rubber on bitumen rose from beneath the old Cortina’s chassis, casting a flare of headlights across tree trunks and road side guide posts. The car veered again, stitching its way across the asphalt in a wild, snaking dance from one side of the narrow country road to the other as she fought a frantic battle with the steering wheel. A large washout at the bitumen’s edge loomed beneath the Cortinas’ glare and Jilly gave the small car a sharp, opposing yank on the reins to avoid it, her held breath burning hot against the back of her throat. This time the car responded (albeit grudgingly) as some of the last of its swerving momentum began to die, until finally she managed to bring the vehicle under a struggling semblance of control and ease it to a limping, grating halt on the roadside’s loose stone and sand surface. A cloud of red dust and dirt engulfed the car and, for a time, Jilly simply sat there behind the wheel unmoving, immersed in a kind of stunned silence where the only sounds were that of her heart pounding like a tin drum against her ribs, and the rush of blood filling her ears.
…...the smile returned.
It was only uncertain at first but it soon set, grew into a giggle and from that into an edge of laughter that came more from nervous relief than from anything else. A long, shaken sigh slipped from between her parted lips as she slowly released some of the white knuckled pressure which she had applied to the Cortina’s rebellious steering wheel in those few spinning moments, and she was about to lean back against the seat’s headrest when she felt the presence of the cigarette which she had dropped, smouldering quietly away in her lap.
‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’
Jilly threw herself up and back, her hand ferreting deep between the crotch of her legs to lift the crumpled butt from where it lay on the seat’s tom vinyl upholstery and stamped it out into the overcrowded ashtray before bending forward to examine the tiny, bullet size hole which it had burnt into the thigh of her jeans.
Damn it! she thought, slamming the dashboard irritably with the flat of her small hand.
Nice going Jilly! What do you do for an encore?
She shook her head at herself, hitting the dash once more just for the hell of it and when the dust had finally settled around the car, the last of it drifting down in front of the headlit windscreen, she pulled the keys from the ignition, killed the lights, and stepped reluctantly out into the warm, summer’s night air.
And there it was! The rear driver’s side tyre sat flat and empty beneath the full moon’s clear, blue glow and it was all Jilly could do to hold herself back from giving it at least one good, hard kick.
‘Great! Just fucking great!’ she muttered angrily, her hands planted indignantly upon her slight hips before she turned to look off along the darkened length of country road which stretched out ahead of her through its still, lonely sleeve of night.
Now what was she supposed to do?
She knew that she was a reasonably capable, new century kind of gal when it came down to the brass tacks of automobiles and their wily ways. She could look under the hood and pull off a better than average attempt at naming most of the machinery she saw there. She knew what to keep an eye out for in the way of general, on-road maintenance. Hell! ...She could even top up or renew the oil in a pinch, but when it came to the simple masteries of changing a flat tyre, that fell more into the realm of an act of strength than anything else and that, as yet, eluded her. (The last time she had attempted that particular feat herself, she had been left with a handful of grazed knuckles and a dented ego from having to ask her next door neighbour to help.)
But you’re still going to have to give it the old college try, Jilly, she thought, turning once more back towards the offending tyre .....
…… Traitor! .......
……..before she shook her head and moved around to the Cortina’s sloping trunk to slide her key into the lock there and lift it stiffly open.
There was something endlessly disheartening about the fact that at twenty-seven her life had been able to be so easily condensed into what amounted to barely enough possessions to fill the trunk compartment of a small, family sized sedan. The rest of her belongings, her C.D. player and television, her microwave oven, most of her clothes, her pots, pans and the odd, mismatched pieces of furniture she had accumulated for herself over the years would all be following in the removal van tomorrow morning, but for the most part, this was it. Meager but important, these were HER things. Her trinkets and ornaments, her beloved books – everything from James Patterson through to James Joyce, the acoustic guitar she had never learnt to play but had always said she would, the collection of tiny, ceramic cats she had amassed ever since she was a little girl. These were the things which truly meant something to her and which spoke of her to others, and now, here they all were, crammed into half a dozen neatly labeled Archive boxes, stranded by the side of some backwater country road in the middle of God –only –knows -where.
A wave of something that was close to, but not quite, depression washed over her as she stood there beneath the glow of the full moon surveying the few packaged trophies of her young life and for a moment, just for the briefest of times, she felt as if all she wanted to do was forget everything. Forget the new house. Forget the new school. Forget the new life. And instead, point her battered old seventy-four Cortina back in the opposite direction to head once more for the comforting, disappointing familiarity of her old life…….but not before sitting down in the dirt next to that godforsaken tyre and having herself a good cry. Then, as she so often did, Jilly drew herself in, flicking her long, dark hair away from her brow in a determined sweep. She was no quitter, she reasoned, giving the very idea a mental slap across the face. Never had been, never would be! And she definitely wasn’t going to let something as simple as a flat tyre or a sudden flash of homesickness stop her from getting to where she wanted to go. Flat tyres can get changed, can’t they?
…They might take a while, and sometimes they might rip the shit out of a girl’s nails while she was doing it, but they DO get changed. And as for homesickness? …..Well!.....
That changes too! Jilly told herself adamantly and with one last stalwart flick of her hair, she set herself to the task at hand of heaving the spare tyre out from beneath the trunk’s crowded clutter and rolling it around to rest against the side of the Cortina’s rear bumper. It wasn’t until she turned to go back for the tyre lever and jack that she glanced up over the top of the vehicle’s rounded roof and saw the headlights glittering far off in the distance as they took the peak of the road’s next rise.
A lot of things went through Jilly’s mind in that one moment as she stared into those dual eyes of light approaching her through the wall of bush land darkness which shrouded the single lanes of that lonely country road.
Hope. Doubt. Relief. Unease.
They were all there but the strongest of these thoughts struck a chord deep down inside of her, in a place where only fear and blind instinct live, and that thought was one of danger. She found herself taking an involuntary step backwards and then, hesitated.
What are you so scared of? she asked herself. It’s just another car coming your way. Just another person doing a little late night traveling. Maybe you’ll even get some help with this damned tyre if they stop.
But the voice inside of Jilly’s head wasn’t so strong any more. It was no longer the voice of the Jilly who could change tyres, or pack up her life to move halfway across the state to start a new job. It was no longer the voice of the Jilly who could sometimes feel that anything was possible and as if she could turn her hand to any task if she just applied herself. Now, the voice was of the other Jilly. The one who occasionally did feel homesick, or lonely. The Jilly who sometimes only wanted to sit down and have herself a cry when things made her blue. The Jilly who occasionally said that if the world was trully her oyster then occasionally it would also give her food poisoning.
And then, as if to somehow deny the unease she could feel steadily building inside at the sound of this voice, she forced herself to try and envisage within her mind’s eye the safety of the face she hoped would be sitting behind the wheel of that diverging, twin glare.
Would it be a family man’s car? A station wagon perhaps, or .....no ...Maybe it would be some old rambling wreck of a truck. Yes! That was it. It would be some rusted old utility that was spending its last years as a farmer’s work horse, traveling its way through the backblocks of a small country shire with a dog and a couple of bales of straw in the tray.
‘Can you help me sir?’ she would say to the man sitting behind the wheel (for although Jilly didn’t know why, she felt assured that it would be a man) when he pulled up next to her on the loose dirt at the side of the road, easing his truck to a comfortingly gradual and totally trustworthy halt amongst the squeak of stiff suspension and old brakes.
’Why sure lil’miss’, the driver would say, favouring her with a warm, reassuring smile. ‘Let me have a look at your car there and see if I can’t getcha goin’ again.’
And Jilly would thank him as she stepped closer, saying she was glad he had come along when he did. .:…
…. ...but what if the car did stop and it wasn’t some kind old man with a reassuring smile? What then? This wasn’t the good ol’ days anymore and, after all and she was a young woman on her own, stuck out in the middle of the ‘Boonies’. How safe would she really be if this approaching stranger pulled up along side of her and saw that she was by herself? How long had it been since she had last seen the welcome glow of life from some farm house porch light set off alone in the night? Who would be there to help her if, God forbid, worse came to worse?
No one Jilly! No one at all.
But what if? ...What if?
She tried to suppress these worries and the cold knot of fear she could feel moving restlessly in the pit of her stomach at the thought of them. She tried to tell herself in a voice that was finding itself struggling hard to retain some semblance of calm and reason, that she was just being plain stupid to let her imagination run away with itself in that direction. The type of things her mind was just beginning to play around the fringes of - the rapes, the abductions, the murders - only ever happen to other people. They only ever happened to people who were just names and faces on the evening news, not to the Jilly Whites of this world who were moving north to start a new job and a new life. Not to the Jilly Whites
who had only just the other day bought a tapestry to cover that small stain of rising damp she had noticed in the lounge room of what was to be her new home.
But they DO happen Jilly. They do happen. Sometimes, when you least expect it, fate, or whatever in God’s name it is that deals the cards which rule and ruin a person’s life, throws up a black ace and drops you right in the shit where those terrible things happen to you.
She stood there like that for a moment longer in the stillness as the approaching headlights grew larger on the night-time landscape, feeling unsure, scared, and for all the world like some small, doe eyed animal caught in the high beam grip of an onrushing truck, before she finally shook herself and decided what it was she should do. She moved back around towards the trunk of the car to pull the tyre lever from its place in the darkness there - not knowing what good simply holding it would do or even if she would be capable of using it if the need were to arise but feeling better for having it just the same - and stole one more brief glance across her shoulder at the looming headlights before turning to quickly scan the shadowy, moonlit roadside for somewhere to conceal herself.
A dozen or so feet from the asphalt’s broken, saw toothed edge where Jilly’s Cortina now rested, the gravel shoulder disappeared over the side of a loosely packed rock and dirt embankment raised up from the bushland beyond. Grass grew only sparsely on this slope, claiming stretches of red earth here and there in dry, stalky masses which reached from out of their place in the blackness of night to greet the roadside. In other places, the ground lay bare save for a cluster of scraggly weeds or the tiny stalks of eucalyptus saplings which struggled to reclaim the man-made wedge of bitumen slicing its swathe through the surrounding bushland. And at the base of this embankment, some eight or nine feet down where the run-off from the infrequent summer rains had gathered, a band of thicker, not quite ‘lush’ scrub grew, now in shadow beneath the pale moonlight, before giving way to the darkness of trees beyond.
Moving quickly, Jilly slammed the trunk shut and rounded the side of the Cortina to carefully ease herself over the edge of the steep, roadside gradient. If the approaching car stopped or even slowed, she thought, then she would at least be able to get a good look at the driver before she was seen. And as she lowered herself onto her hands and knees to lie against the hard ground halfway down the slope of the embankment with her small car just in view, she could only hope that the’ good look’ would show her if there was going to be any danger before she found herself right in the middle of it.
There was a long moment’s darkness. A time for Jilly which seemed to stretch off into an eternity of restless, churning thoughts. Of fears and of doubts, tightly held breath and trembling knees, until-faintly at first, a dull glow began to grow discernibly in the air, reflecting dimly in the rust scarred chrome of her car’s front bumper. She steadied herself, her head cocked to the side, listening for the first low roar of the vehicle as it broke through the curtain of night sounds hanging around her in the still, evening air. Her hand tightened around the tyre lever’s thin metal shaft, her fingers gripping it, releasing it and then gripping it again. She realized she was shaking. The light surged in intensity, filling the night with its brilliance…..
….. and the first she saw of the car through the tall, wispy stalks of roadside grass in front of her face was almost the last.
It shot by in. a high tuned growl of pitched up engine and loud thumping music. Not stopping. Not slowing. The broken line of cat’s eyes set into the middle of the asphalt’s narrow breadth sparkling to life as it sped past. Jilly let her head drop, hissing out a relieved sigh from between her tightly clenched teeth, feeling at the same time both a little foolish and very, very vulnerable. She emerged slowly from her hiding place, climbing the remaining few feet above her with the tyre lever still firmly -within her grasp and looked briefly off in the direction of the vehicle’s tail-lights as it mounted the peak of the road’s next rise, before turning lack to the Cortina, lighter for the unease which had seemingly unchained itself from around her……….
……..She didn’t see the two, angry red eyes of the vehicle’s brake lights flare to life and disappear momentarily from view down the gradient’s other side.
Jilly allowed her grip on the tyre lever to relax somewhat, flexing her fingers painfully as the blood forced its way back into her joints, then lowered herself to kneel down onto the ground next to the small sedan’s empty rear tyre. There was an urgency about her movements now, one which replaced the simple annoyance she had felt earlier and she wiped her palms along the length of her jeans to free them from their nervous sweat before setting the tyre lever firmly in place upon the top lug nut and pressing down.
The first nut came easily, as did the second. The third came free with a little more effort and two scraped fingers where her hand had slid off the lever’s shaft, striking the wheel’s metal rim before finally twisting free beneath her slight weight. But it was the fourth that refused to budge for her. Jilly shifted position a little, moving over the top of the lever and shoved down hard with both hands, the effort telling in her neck and tightly clenched eyes. There was a moment, only the space of a held breath, where she was sure she could feel some give, the slightest play of metal upon metal but. ..
She stood again, moving back a step from the wheel with the tyre lever still in place upon its stubborn nut, and, using the car’s sloping roof to support her, slammed the heel of her boot down onto it again and again, each angry blow punctuated by an increasingly agitated…….
……‘COME...ON... YOU ...BLOODY...BITCH...MOVE!’……
…...the last kicking off the tyre lever, causing it to fall free on the hard-packed earth at her feet. She stamped her heel into the dirt, the edge of frustrated tears rimming her eyes, and reached down to pick it up and try once more.
That was when she heard the car door slam shut behind her.
And that was when she knew!
Jilly froze, her breath locked within the suddenly strangled confines of her throat. …....
Why didn’t I hear them? Why didn’t I hear them come back? Why didn’t I see their lights?
……...and slowly, fearfully, she straightened and turned around.
Six men, none of them any older than their mid to late twenties, stood in front of a dark green Holden station wagon with painted-out panels, on the other side of the narrow, black-top road. The loud music playing when the car had first sped by (Jilly now only distantly recognized it as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’) had been turned down to little more than a vague, distorted whisper. The car’s headlights were off. One of the six, a thickly set figure with pockmarked cheeks and a long, dark pony tail draped across one shoulder, stood closer than the rest, almost to the broken white line marking the road’s centre, his ice blue eyes holding a cold, predatory smile that showed only fleetingly in the comers of his mouth. The other men standing behind him jostled one another, leering at her from between tugs at the beer bottles in their hands. One of them looked down nervously at his feet, shuffling them on the loose roadside gravel.
‘Ain’t flat tyres a bitch?’ the pony-tail said, casually cocking a thumb into the thick studded leather of his belt as he lifted a beer bottle to his lips to take a long draw. His eyes held Jilly’s, grinning from over the bottom of the rounded glass, narrowing on hers. ..
Murderer’s eyes, she found herself thinking, Cold and soulless. ...and she shivered.
The pony-tail took a step forward, his high biker’s boots striking out ominously against the road’s dark surface and Jilly, fighting for control now more than ever, retreated from him, her legs weak and strengthless, her grip tightening once more around the hard metal shaft of the tyre lever in her hand. She tried to speak, to say something. .. ...anything ...but the words (if there were any) remained frozen within the tightness clutching at her throat. All she could manage was a soft, barely audible whimper which ran like water from between her trembling lips.
The pony-tail moved closer. ‘Yep,’ he continued, the dark smile never once leaving his eyes, ’them flat tyres are a real ‘A’ grade bitch. But I’ll tell you what honey, I’m a real gentleman and hate to
see a woman in distress, especially one as pretty as you, so I’ll change that there tyre for you and all that you’ll have to do for me in return is just one, little thing. Do you know what that is?’ And when there was no immediate response from Jilly to his question, the calm in his voice shattered, erupting into any angry shout. ‘DO YOU!!’
Jilly flinched and shook her head, her almond brown eyes as wide as saucers.
‘Why, all that you’ll have to do,’ the pony-tail continued on, his voice suddenly calm and conversational once more, ‘is put out a little for me and the boys here’. Then, back across his shoulder to those who stood behind him, he called. ..’What do you reckon guys? Does a little poke in the whiskers sound like a fair enough trade-off for helping out a young lady with a flat tyre?’
…….And they laughed.
A soft, shuddering moan issued from the back of Jilly’s throat. She went to stagger back another step when her shin caught the comer of the Cortina’s rear bumper and she stumbled, her hand just managing to find the rounded edge of the closed trunk for support before she fell. She steadied herself as best she could - though her legs felt as if at any moment they would collapse out from beneath her - and said in a dry, hoarse whisper…….
‘J...Ju...Just leave me alone.’
She held the tyre lever out in front of her as if to somehow add strength to her words but her hand shook so much she almost dropped it. The pony-tail saw this and as his smile widened. Jilly started to cry.
‘That’s no way to talk to someone who’s trying to help you, now is it?’ the pony-tail replied, his voice parodying hurt with a hand raised to his chest in mocked offence and he took another slow, oh-so deliberate, step forward, the dark threat in his eyes alive with the fear that he saw on Jilly’s face. ‘In fact, I’d say that that was a damned rude way to speak. What do you reckon guys?’ he called out over
his broad shoulder again as he rubbed at his stubbled chin, his eyes not leaving Jilly’s own. ‘I’d say that we’re going to have to teach this little lady here some manners.’
‘Rude. Yeah.’ One of the young men answered drunkenly from behind.
And another. .. ‘Got to teach the bitch a lesson.’
‘Please,’ Jilly pleaded, the tears which streamed down her face telling in her shaking voice, ‘just leave me alone. I only want to go home’. She moved back some more, using the boot of the car to support her every clumsy step. There was no strength left in her now. She felt empty, drained, by the fear, by those soulless blue eyes, and now it was only the boot of the car that held her upright.
Please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt me, please don’t hurt……
Then the pony-tail’s eyes flicked briefly to the space behind Jilly’s left shoulder as if he was looking at someone there readying to grab her. And even though she knew instinctively no one was there, even though she knew that the action of those cold, blue eyes was only a ruse by the man in front of her to allow himself the time to get closer, Jilly felt powerless to stop herself from turning to glance around at the gap of empty darkness. There was a brief, fleeting glimpse of movement, caught in the very comer of her eye from the front and she spun back to the road, knowing in her heart that she was too slow, to see the pony-tail lunging towards her with his arms outstretched, his moonlit shadow spilling out across the broken ground before him. A strangled cry escaped her and she swung her arm around defensively with the tyre lever fully extended in her small hand to catch him across the forehead, just above the eye. The blow was weak and impotent, little more than a glancing shot, but she felt it hit its mark and the pony-tail went down into a heap beneath it, collapsing to the hard ground at her feet. Jilly looked up towards the others, uncertain, as stunned by her sudden actions as they seemed to be, and she felt a faint glimmer of hope break through some of the all-numbing fear. None of the young men standing by the station wagon on the other side of the road moved. They only looked from one to
the other as if they were all unsure as to what was going to happen next and it wasn’t until the pony-tail called out. .. ‘Get the bitch.’ ...from where he lay groaning and clutching his head in the palms of his hands that one of them took a drunken, hesitant step forward.
Everything for Jilly seemed unreal after that, somehow slowed, as if seen from beyond a thick glass veil. Her mind felt detached from the cold reality of where she stood and of what was happening to her. Now it was focused on only one thing. The need to escape. The need to run and run and not stop until she was finally safe. She spun away from them, her breath burning at her insides in hard, fast bursts, and stumbled across the last of the gravel shoulder’s cleared surface to the slope of earth falling away to darkness beyond it-the same slope behind which she had hidden herself only moments earlier. Her legs worked frantically down the loosely packed rock face, skidding and sliding beneath her in a desperate attempt to maintain her unsteady balance, and when she hit the uneven ground at the base of the man-made incline, she landed heavily, her knees coming up at an awkward angle which drove the air from her lungs. She pitched forward, staggering on the very edge of falling as she fought for each aching breath-and when she finally found her feet again, she crashed off into the thick scrub and bracken that crowded in through the pale darkness at the foot of the slope. Branches tore at her soft flesh, cutting into her exposed forearms, scratching at her face as she forced herself on and all the time, through the race of panicked fear filling her mind and the feverish pounding of blood in her temples, the cries and drunken animal howls of the pack in pursuit of her pierced the still night air-very loud, very close. The last of the thickets gave way beneath her and Jilly reeled blindly out over the broken, summered earth on the other side, through long reedy grass whipping and slashing at her heels, past the fire blackened trunks of eucalypts and their fallen sun-bleached shells lying like the ghosts of slain soldiers beneath the eerie, haunted glow which broached the dark canopy of leaves from the full moon overhead. Tears burnt at her eyes, streaming down her dirtied cheeks, each step fighting for an unsure
balance amongst the night shadows which cloaked the ground at her feet, each footfall guided only by her racing, unseeing fear.
. .. ...her foot caught something. The edge of a fallen branch perhaps or maybe it was a rock thrusting up through the dried earth. Whatever it was, it sent her legs spilling out from underneath her and she went down, arms flailing in a vain effort to try to take the fall. The ground rushed up to meet her and she hit it ... ...hit it hard! Her jaw struck on the peak of its chin and a sharp burst of pain fired up behind her eyes, her teeth scissoring through the meaty flesh at the side of her tongue. Blackness threatened her, washing in at her from the edges of her sub-conscious but she fought it back, pushing herself on as the warm saltiness of her own blood filled her mouth, knowing only that she had to move-to get away. She shook herself, pulling her knees up beneath her and then, in that one sinking moment, realized with a cold and certain dread that the tyre lever, her only weapon, her only defense, had been knocked from her grasp in the fall. In her blind panic she hadn’t realized that she had still been holding onto it but, now it was gone, she felt more vulnerable at its loss than ever before. She searched frantically around her, down on all fours with her hands sweeping wildly through the long grass and weed for its reassuring touch, but it was nowhere to be found. Then there came a crash and a shout from behind and she spun around, her heart leaping up into her mouth.
They were close now, so very, very close and she knew that she had to move. Jilly forced herself painfully to her feet-a terrible ache burning in her ankle from where she had fallen-and she managed to clear no more than a dozen, limping, staggered steps before the ground came out from beneath her once more and she fell, sliding and rolling down another, steeper embankment to come to rest on the soft loamy surface of a dried creek bed.
There was blackness……
……..and for a time…..
. ..all was silent.
She felt as if she was watching herself from somewhere far away, from somewhere off within a long, dark tunnel, buried deep inside of her mind. Then, slowly, through this darkness, she began to become aware of distant things. Distant sounds. There was the sound of her own breathing, coming to her in short, labored gasps. There was the sound of voices, far away and yet so very close. And with these sounds came movement. Long shadows began to sway and shift within the uncertain landscape of Jilly’s dark subconscious. Shapes began to form and condense. And as she slowly opened her eyes……..
…....there was fear, sinking like a knife blade into her chest as she saw the pair of legs astride her own and the ice blue eyes burning into hers.
Jilly went to scream but a hand fell across her mouth, holding her cry deep within her. She tried to raise her arms to protect herself but other hands came down, encircling hers, to lift her painfully to her feet to stand within a circle of dark, leering faces. She was tossed from one to another, thrown between them like a rag doll. She was kissed. Touched. Groped. They tore at her clothing, pulled at her hair, pawed her breasts, thrust their hands down between her legs, and then, when she could stand no more, she was thrown, kicking and struggling, to the ground. The pony-tail moved over the top of her as she lay there, fighting against the hands that pinned her beneath him, his cold eyes afire, his hands working at the thick metal buckle of his belt.
‘Now, you little bitch,’ he growled, blood from the cut above his eye trickling down the side of his face as he undid his jeans, ‘I’m gonna make you pay.’
And as he came down onto Jilly and forced his way into her, she threw her head back to the moon, and she screamed.
Peter White woke suddenly, slamming upright in his bed, the sheets falling away from his chest to lie in a crowded bundle across his lap. He had been dreaming.
‘Oh God! Jilly.’
He shook his head, dragging a rough hand down over his prematurely lined features as the last of the nightmare screams echoed away from him off along the lost, lonely corridors of his sleep, and let his tired, unfocused gaze slowly wander across the darkened room to the opened balcony doors of his eighth storey inner city apartment. A gentle breeze shifted the still night air, tugging restlessly at the thin, spidery lace of the bedroom curtains with its passing, and slowly, piece by certain piece, he began to feel his bearings reassert themselves.
‘Just a dream’, he told himself hoarsely. Just a bad dream
He sat that way for some time with his hand across his dry mouth, his mind hovering somewhere in between trying to understand the dream, its moving shadows, its leering faces and only wanting to forget about them, until at last, he eased himself out from beneath the loose cotton sheets and, wrapping a bathrobe around his slight form, made his way across the cold touch of the room’s polished timber floor to the opened, sliding glass panels of the building’s terraced landing.
The city slept peacefully below him, silent in its blanket of night. Cars moved noiselessly through the darkness, their headlights guiding them along dimly lit streets; office towers loomed black and brooding against the clear, starlit sky. ……….
……...and for the first time in his life, Peter White felt truly alone.
A slow, shuddering sigh drifted from between his parted lips and he shivered.
It would be a long time until sleep finally returned.
Senior Sergeant Frank Brannigan had always had a feeling for trouble. It was something a man developed after as many years as he had spent serving on the force. It was something special. Something to be tended and when that feeling called, then a man was a damned fool not to listen to it.
Now Frank Brannigan was many things (and if you cared to spend a night warming a bar stool in either of the small town of Rowan’s two local hotels, you more than likely would have heard what most of them were) but a fool wasn’t one of them, and on that clear, dry morning, the last in the month of February - Summer in name only - that feeling had tingled aplenty. Hell, it had damned near rung off the hook.
Frank had been out along Donnier’s Road at the old timber mill on his first call-out of the day when the contact about the abandoned car had come through to his unit from the station. Since the turn of the century, Greiner’s Mill dominated the skyline of the small, rural community with its waves of corrugated iron roofs and tall, skeletal wash towers which thrust their way high above the scattered brown-green of low, bush land scrub. To the people of Rowan it was at once both a stark reminder of the pioneering spirit which had claimed the dry, central western landscape as its own while at the same time one of just how harsh this land can be to those who choose to press her limits. In the towns’ embryonic boom years of the late twenties, the mill had adjoined the mines when the pessimism of the great depression and war had given way to a new, postwar optimism and the state’s push to industrialize the countryside had gathered momentum. They had been profitable times then, for both companies as well as for the tiny township of Rowan which had, up until that point, marked the barren earth only as little more than a rest stop on the State rail line. There had been jobs here then for the menfolk in pulling the wealth from the ground, with the mill and Consolidated Silver and Tin (a name now known only by a faded, weather-worn sign on the side of one of the mine’s old washing sheds and in the long term memories of some of the town’s more venerable locals), taking up the slack of the countryside’s able bodied workforce when the crops had failed them – as it often did in those alternating years of flood and drought. Investments had been made, developments pursued and though there had been no shortage of people who had bemoaned the fact that the goods times would have to end sooner or later as all good times must, so they say – in those early years, the small town of Rowan had grown and prospered when it might just as easily have withered and died like so many other tiny farming settlements around it.
New businesses and stores had opened up, seemingly overnight. A highway had been laid north to south. Houses had grown where once there had been little more than native scrub and summered earth baked to red clay tiles. There had been halls built, a hospital in the neighbouring shire of Tarro which, according to the the ‘Mid Coast Inquirer’ – the local newspaper of the day – had been equipped with the most modern, postnatal facilities in the state. The foundations of a new church had been laid (and a Catholic one at that, something which even to this day remained a sticking point in the gullet of a predominantly Lutheran parish). A Masonic Lodge had been constructed, a town hall, as was a rail yard with its depot situated at the rear of the mines foundry (a sure sign, some said, of the town’s growing importance in the economy of the state). And finally, as if to in some way cement its position as a fully ordained and recognized community of worth, a police station had been erected at the edge of town. That had burnt to the ground in sixty-five after a direct lightening strike during one of the north coasts more violent summer storms (the building from which Frank now served the shire had sprung diligently, like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of the old, only this time brick and steel instead of wood and tin).
Then, as if to fulfill the dour prophesies of the town’s resident doom-mongers, after so many years of the good had come the bad.
Consolidated Silver and Tin had gone to the wall in sixty-eight when the earth had given up its last and the profits had soured, the boom finally turning to bust. There had been some talk, the way there always was in small towns, of bad investments and financial mismanagement by the board members, but it had amounted to nothing, the way that ‘Small Town Talk’ often does. Inspite of everything else however, the damage had been done and the mine’s gates had swung shut for the last time, two months shy of Christmas that year, taking most of the small community’s spirit and the better part of its population with it. Stores had run their obligatory closing down sales with no one coming before eventually disappearing to whatever grave yard it is where commerce goes to die, leaving only their deserted shop fronts of painted out glass and wind-loosened awnings behind to show they had ever been there at all. Church attendances had dropped as families either lost their faith or took it to wherever the work was. The Masonic hall closed down except for a special occasion such as the infrequent wedding reception or on a Tuesday night when the local branch of Daughters of Job ran their senior citizens bridge and bingo night. And generally, for what it was worth, Rowan had slipped back into its sleepy, lumbering existence. Barely alive. Small town people with their small town dreams. Only the mill had stayed on as anything close to the community’s lifeblood, rolling on from decade to decade as best as it could, laying off staff under the growing financial burden of a country side stripped of its full growth of timber until only a skeleton crew remained.
‘Scrubbie’ Hollows, the mill’s night watchman and janitor, had called the station house earlier that morning just after Frank had come on duty, complaining across the telephone line in his familiar stuttering drawl about some broken windows which he had stumbled across out in one of the old wood mill’s cavernous storage sheds.
‘P-probbl’y them f-fuh-riggin’ kids again,’ he had bemoaned, his voice harsh and impossibly thick from a long night of sipping at a whiskey flask and smoking his foul, unfiltered cigarettes. Frank had told him he’d head out and have a look around just as soon as he could manage it - expecting it to be nothing more than a case of willful damage caused by a couple of local kids who had been fooling around with nothing but time on their hands - and ‘Scrubbie’, who at sixty-eight looked at least thirty years older, had muttered something else Brannigan hadn’t caught before he had hung up. Frank had rubbed his wide brow and simply sat there in the confines of his small office for a moment longer, staring blankly at the telephone headset, dully contemplating the sour churning in his stomach and just generally feeling like shit, before he had opened the top metal drawer of his Government issue desk and pulled out a pack of Panadol from the scattered layer of paper clips, post-it notes and biros accumulated there. In the corner of the small office, a portable fan rattled weakly from its perch on top of the filing cabinet, struggling against the first of the days’ stifling heat which had already begun to fill the room. A thin bead of sweat trickled clammily down the small of his back and Brannigan had felt his stomach lurch again.
Down boy, he thought without any humor and patted a hand tentatively against the rise of his expansive gut. He had nursed back a dozen beers the night before on the front steps of his quarters adjoining the station house proper, mulling over the trivialities of balancing the station’s fuel and expense accounts against the shire’s increasingly stringent budget and this morning, with ‘Scrubbie’ Hollow’s stutter still ringing in his ears, he was feeling every single one of them. Brannigan had popped two of the Panadols into his mouth as he stood slowly from his chair, groaning with the effort, and walked leadenly across to the water dispenser next to the office door. He downed their powdery bitterness with a sip of luke warm water and it was only really then, as he scrunched the paper cup in his meaty hand, letting it fall into the waste basket at his feet, that he had begun to recognize something of the old, almost forgotten feeling of ‘wrong’ curling through the pit of his bloated stomach.
Frank had just eased his patrol car into the red dirt drive of Greiner’s Mill, coming to a grating halt on its loose surface, when the voice of Dottie Millway, who manned - or rather womanned - the station’s dispatch, had come through, crackling and distorted with the first blurred edge of the day’s heat static over the police band two-way radio. She had said that Andy Heise, who ran the early morning milk collection service to some of the shire’s outlying farms, had been coming back into town along Munrow Road with a full load in the tray when he had seen what he had thought to be a car lying in the scrub by the side of the bitumen stretch. Dottie had quickly added that she had asked him if he was sure it was a car he had seen and not something else, and Andy, who was known to run his morning deliveries more than at little ‘in his cups’ from his homemade moonshine, had said that he was.
Brannigan hit the patrol car horn, letting out a long, purposefully sorrowful blare in the still morning heat and strained his gaze off amongst the tall piles of cut timber, wood chip and rusted iron machinery of the deserted mill yard for any sign of ‘Scrubbie’ to come and let him in past the front gates.
‘Come on you old fart,’ he muttered irritably, standing halfway out of the patrol car’s opened door with the two-way held in his sweaty hand, ‘Where the hell are you?’
He hit the horn again, this time its moan striking a little closer to home, rattling threateningly at the thunderstorm clouding the inside of his head, and he let his hand fall away from the steering wheel hub to slump back inside of the vehicle, its cushioned seats folding comfortingly around his full frame.
‘Frank? Are you still there?’ Dottie asked.
‘Yeah,’ he replied with a weary sigh into the radio handset, ‘still here Dottie.’
‘Well,’ she asked impatiently, ‘what should I do?’
‘Look. I wouldn’t worry about it. If Andy Heise reckons he saw anything lying on the road, then the chances are it’s just an old bit of tin or something.’
‘I don’t know,’ Dottie replied, sounding somewhere about as convinced as Frank was interested, ‘Andy did seem pretty certain. And besides, he didn’t say that it was on the road, he said the car or whatever it was that he saw was in the bush beside the road.’
‘He’s always seeing things Dottie,’ Frank said, his gaze still scanning the crowded lumber yard amongst the long morning shadows for any sign of life in the form of Greiner Mill’s ageing night watchman, . ‘God knows, the man drives around the backblocks here as pissed as a parrot on his home made booze most of the time.’
‘FRANK.’ Dottie screeched and Brannigan allowed the handset to fall from his mouth while he pinched at the bridge of his prominent nose in a vain attempt to try and ease some of the ache behind his dry, red eyes. Her voice was beginning to give him a mother-thumper of a headache, one on top of the monster he had been carrying around inside his skull like excess baggage ever since first light. Dottie didn’t like it when he took the Lord’s name in vain, she didn’t like it when he swore ,(which he often did, sometimes just to get a rise out of her but mostly because he just couldn’t give a rat’s arse whether she was listening or not). Come to think of it, Dottie Millway, Rotarian, devout Lutheran and wife of the town of Rowan’s pissant shire chairman, didn’t exactly care for all that much else either.
Frank rubbed at the back of his neck, not surprised in the least to find the first of day’s beaded perspiration building there, and said ‘Okay Dottie. I’ll head over that way now. It looks like I’ll have to wait here all day to find out what Scrubbie’s bitchin’ ...sorry! What he’s complaining about. Out by Munrow Road you say?’
‘According to Andy.’
’All right. I’ll check it out. Oh. And Dottie….”
“If Scrubbie Hollows wants to ring the station again to make any sort of complaint, you can tell that old bastard to make damned sure he is here when I turn up or I’ll pull his file of D.U.I.’s and he’ll never sit behind a steering wheel again. Over.’
Brannigan lay the headset back into the arms of its dashboard mounted cradle before he slammed the vehicle’s door shut and swung himself around behind the wheel. He gunned the patrol car’s eight cylinders more than he needed to, burning off a little of his mounting irritation at both of the early morning calls as the engine came to life, and rammed the gear stick into second, spinning around in the mill’s wide, dirt drive, cutting up a peel of red dust and gravel as he headed off towards the other side of town.
The tyre lay on its side a dozen or so feet in front of him, half concealed in the wall of summer burnt straw grass which grew on the edge of the dark ribbon of asphalt. It was no flat (though that is what Frank had first thought it to be when he had caught a brief glance of its dark shape as he performed a U-turn across the single lane highway’s broken white line and brought his vehicle to a halt on the other side), no blowout kicked off a passing car in the same way a horse would throw an errant shoe. The tyre was still on its rim. Still wholly circular and formed, and even from where he stood, as he stepped out into the dry, busy stillness of the surrounding bushland and eased the patrol car’s door shut behind him, he could see the wheel’s well defined tread gleaming out bright and new in the mid-morning sun from beneath its thick, protective coating of tyre-black.
Frank walked across to where it lay, his size twelve boots, dulled by years of faithful wear crunching out a beat on the loose gravel, and pressed his heel onto the wheel rim. There was a full belly of air beneath his foot allowing little in the way of give under his excess weight and he looked up, letting his pinched gaze follow the road’s faulted line off into the curtain of shimmering heat haze which obscured the world beyond the next rise. A soft, barely discernible breeze whispered , through the summer-parched bush and somewhere further off in the distance, amongst the dry arms of the eucalypts and pepperinas, a Kookaburra began its mocking song.
Okay, he thought, hitching a heavy sigh, so someone’s driving here along Munrow Road, probably as a link-up from the Bruce Highway, coastal bound. They take the rise with the car suspension working overtime on the depressions and potholes that scar this stretch of road and one of them gives the car a jarring that the shock absorbers can’t forgive. The car’s trunk flies open without the driver knowing it and coughs up the spare tyre to bounce and then roll its way to where it now lies.
It seemed a reasonably convenient enough assumption to Frank, and, as if to reinforce it, he tried to remember when it was that he had last heard of a Department of Works road crew doing anything even vaguely resembling maintenance out this way to smooth down the pitted surface of the road. Was it after the last big flood? Ninety-eight perhaps or somewhere close to there?
Whatever. He guessed that it didn’t really matter. In Frank’s eyes, all that mattered, standing there on the shoulder of the deserted length of country asphalt and feeling the first sting of the day’s promised heat beating down onto the top of his balding head, was that it seemed an easy enough step to deduce what had happened next. Andy Heise had come along sometime later in the earlier hours of the morning on his way back from one of his delivery rounds and in the notoriously over active imagination of the man - no doubt fuelled on by some of his equally notorious home grown ’shine, he has seen the above mentioned tyre and like a magician pulls a rabbit from a hat….. Hey Presto! .......concluded from it a car. Case Closed!
Frank squinted his eyes tighter, narrowing them down to hard, dark stones beneath his heavy brow, and turned into the morning sun, allowing his gaze to flow on past the patrol car and over the next rise to the east.
But that’s not right, is it Frank? he thought after a time as he shielded his gaze with the upturned palm of one hand. Or rather; it doesn’t quite feel right. If the trunk came open and a tyre came out, then why not something else? Why isn’t there a ...kid’s shoe or an ‘Esky’ or some such thing lying further off in the heat haze of the road?
Maybe the trunk slammed closed again, he thought, offering the notion up for evaluation. After all, if a pothole or a bump in the road could throw a car’s trunk open, then couldn’t another one just as easily throw it shut again? Maybe, he thought. Just maybe. But he didn’t feel particularly convinced. Not by a long way. And then there was the tyre itself. It was clean, almost spotless in fact. There were none of the scuff marks it should have incurred if it had been thrown free from a passing car. There were no small, road surface stones embedded into its near immaculate tread. There was no dirt on its black pitched rim. For all intents and purposes, the tyre couldn’t have looked any fresher if it had been taken from a show room floor and placed where it now lay by hand.
Frank gave the wheel one more absent nudge with the toe of his boot and hitched his trousers at the knee to go down onto his haunches for a closer look at the ground around it.
The earth here was soft. A shifting, red, loamy soil that had been worn by the wind from its shalestone base into a fine, wind blown sand. In some areas the scrub grass and black-boys came right up from the surrounding bushland to reclaim the dry ground beneath it and greet the road’s edge, but here and there around the tyre, as in dozens of other places along this road, the soil remained bare of everything bar the hardiest of weeds. A web of prints lay trapped within the parched ground at his feet. Of them Frank could see that most were old, worn by the elements of a harsh summer and temperatures that had all too often tipped the wrong side of forty. Some of the wider tyre marks belonged