Ness checked her phone as she and the ambulance were spotlighted by the high beam lamps of the returning police car. This road received so little signal it was a wonder her emergency call had gone though.
The ambulance driver, who’d breathlessly introduced himself as Sammy back when she thought there was a crisis, now leaned against his door, shielded from the flashing red and blue police lights, smoking his second cigarette.
The policewoman – her name has been Doherty, if Ness had read her lapel badge correctly – climbed out and slammed her door with a forceful weariness. She looked like she’d been driving for hours rather than twenty minutes or so. Her partner stayed in the cab, in conversation with his radio.
Ness didn’t need to wait for the policewoman’s report. “Nothing?”
Constable Doherty shook her head. “We drove up and back three kays in both directions,” she said, pulling her hat on even though dawn was still a few hours away. She drew out her notebook again and consulted her notes. “We dodged a few early kangaroos, but saw no sign of anyone in distress or any kind of accident.”
“Sounds like a false alarm, ay?” muttered Sammy, over the sound of idling engines.
Doherty ignored him. “Ms Buckingham, are you certain-”
“Call me Ness. I don’t – Formalities make me uncomfortable.”
“Yeah, take it easy on the lass, Constable. She’s had a shocker tonight, I reckon.”
Doherty nodded, slow and encouraging. “Okay, Ness. No problem. Are you sure about what you saw?”
“I didn’t make it up!” It came out more forcefully than she meant it to, but Ness looked the policewoman right in the eye and straightened up. She’d heard Australian cops could be hard-nosed about tourists getting cheeky and wasting their time.
“You stand up for yourself, love,” called Sammy. “Don’t let her intimidate you.”
“I didn’t call you a liar, Ness,” said Doherty, holding up a placating hand. “It would be good if we could just go through it all one more time.”
Ness swallowed hard. She didn’t want to tell her story over. Without any evidence, it sounded absurd even to her. She glanced at Sammy and wondered if it was too late to beg a cigarette off him. When she answered, her voice quavered. “There was a man in the middle of the road. He had blood on his face and he was carrying something. An animal. Maybe a – what do you call those small kangaroos?”
“He was carrying a wallaby?”
“I think so. Something like that.”
“And he was in the middle of the road? So you swerved to avoid him and -?”
Behind Ness, parallel black lines traced a long arc from near the centre of the road to its verge, and two deep ruts in the soft dirt picked up where they ended. Her rental car lay thirty or forty metres downslope, tangled in the twisted remains of a wire fence. “At least I missed him.”
“Bloody lucky you didn’t hit a tree, love,” observed Sammy.
“When you got back up here-?” Doherty prompted.
“The man was gone. The wallaby too. I tried looking for them. Then I called the emergency number.”
Doherty closed the notebook with a sigh. She turned and made a gesture at her partner, who reached across and switched off the patrol car’s front lights. He left the flashers running; the scene was alternately flooded in red and blue.
“Where did you say you’re from, Ness?”
“Isle of Dogs,” replied Ness, bracing for the inevitable joke.
Doherty appeared not to be in a comical mood. “That’s in London, right? Have you seen those before?” She pointed at a small cluster of white crosses and weathered plastic flowers at the road shoulder opposite.
“A roadside memorial? It marks the spot where there was a fatal accident.”
“That’s one of thirty-three along this part of the Mulga Highway. This stretch is what we call a black spot. It has a higher rate of road accidents than the national average. The fatality rate is also at the wrong end of the bell curve.” Doherty pocketed her notebook and unclipped a halogen torch from her belt. She pointed its powerful beam into the darkness. “Six years ago, just up around that corner, a bus rolled over, killing the driver and six passengers. Twenty others injured. About two minutes back up the other way, there was a head-on smash last year that turned into a five-car pileup. Seven dead in total.”
Ness shivered. “That’s awful.”
Sammy crushed his cigarette on a wing mirror and lit another. “I’ll say.”
“Oh, there’s more.” Doherty took a step toward her, shining the light at Ness’ feet, then around the road, then into the quiet bushland beyond. “Three kids thrown from the back tray of an overturned ute, two dead and one a paraplegic. An old couple dead when the gas cylinders in their caravan exploded, and another killed when two responding emergency vehicles collided. And last week-”
“A man was killed by a hit and run driver after he stopped to help an injured animal.”
“What kind of animal?”
“An unlucky one,” said Sammy, blowing a smoke ring.
Doherty stepped closer, flashing her light everywhere. “He hit a wallaby, Ness.”
“Are you saying – What are you saying?”
Doherty was close now. Ness tensed up and took an involuntary step back.
“We have more than one reason for thinking of this highway as a black spot, Ness.” Doherty’s voice was low. “A lot of people die here. None of them are happy about it. Tell me, have you seen anyone else?”
Ness took another step back. “I don’t understand.”
Sammy said, “Back off, copper. You’re scaring her.” He flicked his cigarette away and started towards the women.
“Ness! Do you see anyone else here right now?”
Ness shot Sammy a frightened glance.
Doherty’s eyes flicked in the same direction. She squinted.
“Ness, you should get in my car. Right now.”
A bit of a spooky one, in the Halloween spirit. This story is another example of me reworking an old story that never went anywhere. In the same way that Aeolian Wine and Southbound Again were more or less complete refurbishments of concepts I once tried and failed to execute, this time I’ve dusted off an idea from one of my earliest attempts to get serious about writing, back in the mid-to-late nineties.
I’ve taken the core idea of that story in a different direction here. As I recall, the original story was about an ambulance officer who gradually suspects malicious intent behind a country highway notorious for car crashes. It was very Australian outback gothic-noir, and almost certainly contained dangerous concentrations of melodrama. You’re better off with this version, believe me.
If you happen to be new to these Friday flash fiction stories or my blog, you can see more of my writing in my collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales (which is available for free if you sign up to my newsletter by filling out the simple form below).