This story is by Karen Bath and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
After a frosty night in the gloomy shed, Rose welcomed the columns of warmth that entered through the few small holes in the stone walls. As the sun rose like a burning orb over the horizon Rose could see the red ochre soil and low, straggly brush that typified the Australian outback. She had passed a day and night replaying the argument in her mind, wishing she could take back the venomous words, longing only to see her family again. Her eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. A lump rose into her throat as she registered the sound of jeans swishing and boots shuffling in the dust outside.
Sergeant Angus Richardson began the tense briefing.
“Our subject is twenty-seven-year-old Rose Fitzgerald. She’s been missing for more than thirty-six hours.” The next twelve hours would be key. If she wasn’t located by the end of the day, Angus would be forced to assume she was dead.
“Her family reported her missing after a dispute which occurred at Warapilla mid-afternoon on the twenty-second of March. Rose departed in her vehicle, the pictured Toyota Corolla. Officers report that she has not returned to her residence in Weston,” he indicated the map that highlighted the thousand-kilometre span between the towns.
“She was last seen two days ago. She isn’t in a medical facility. It’s possible she’s simply taking time out. Could also be she’s had an accident in a remote part of the state and hasn’t been located… or she’s met with foul play. Let’s start eliminating.” He assigned officers to check financials, phone records, and anticipated travel paths. The group moved in unison to achieve their goal: locate Rose Fitzgerald before the end of the day. Beyond that, experience taught, would be too late.
In her semi-conscious daze, Rose was on a conveyor belt of broken glass. Regaining painful awareness, she realised she was being dragged with lurching movements over the rough red earth. Burning rocks clawed into her flesh. The figure hauling her by a rope tied around her wrists was the farmer who had plucked her from the side of the road. At the rest stop he had appeared to be just like any other remote farmer who doesn’t see more than the postman’s dirt-streaked ute once a week. Now she noticed the holes in his threadbare jeans, the shine of the curved knife bouncing on his hip, and the limping gait that caused her to bounce haltingly over the sharp rocks. He’s got a bad knee, came the thought as she drifted back into darkness.
They had halved the search area. A bank card record for petrol put Rose at Forestville near midnight the day of her disappearance. She had made it halfway home, and there was nothing to indicate that she would veer off course. From Forestville there were two possible routes to Weston.
Angus felt a brief surge of optimism until he looked at the map and was struck once more by the vast emptiness that is outback South Australia. Rose could be anywhere along the highlighted routes, or the countless side roads branching out across the landscape like spider webs. On a five-hour journey, a shortcut that would shave forty minutes was a no-brainer. It was a search area of over a thousand kilometres of road.
“We’ve canvassed accommodation along both routes. She’s nowhere,” reported Officer Dustan.
Angus sighed. “Circulate the essentials to every station along both routes and talk to the officers. They’ll have to do the legwork. And ask her family if they’re aware of any shortcuts off the main roads she might use,” he directed, loosening the button at his neck. His eyes burned into the map, imagining the terrain along the roads and the circumstances that could lead to Rose being in a ditch out of sight of passing traffic. A wayward kangaroo, a blown tyre, simple fatigue… the tiniest error could have the most dramatic consequences, he knew all too well.
Rose was tied against a gumtree, the ropes constricting around her chest so that she could not take the full, refreshing lungful of air that she dearly needed. She was sweating freely, the result of delirium, heat, and terror. A rhythmic, earthy, chilling sound came to her from a few metres away. Crunch. Swish. Pause. Crunch. Swish. Pause. Crunch, the shovel split the rubbly soil. Swish, the soil slid from the metal. Pause.
Nothing. The investigation had resulted in no new leads. The Toyota wasn’t anywhere to be found. There were no fresh skid marks on any stretch of either road. The mother reported no preferred short cut or back road.
Officer Jenny O’Connell knocked hesitantly on the Sergeant’s door and was called in. She faltered as she sat in the stark chair opposite her superior, bearing a stack of files.
“I don’t know what this means, or if it means anything…”
“There’s no such thing as coincidence, O’Connell. And there’s potentially a life in danger. So what is it?”
“Officer Dunstan wrote it off as making something out of nothing…”
Angus’ stare bored into the young officer’s skull.
“Did you know that over the last ten years, eight people have gone missing?”
“Only eight?” came the terse reply.
“No, no,” she rushed on. “I mean, some of the regional officers I talked to have been asked about eight missing persons cases in the last ten years.”
A frown of curiosity.
“The cases are unsolved, and when I compared the reports I realised… well I can’t believe it hasn’t been seen before…”
Angus gave an impatient nod.
“They all seem to have gone missing along the same stretch of road. The northern one of our two routes,” she blurted, indicating the road on the map with her chin.
A fervent nod.
“Over ten years?”
A murmured agreement.
“Where exactly?” Angus asked, moving to the map.
“George Freeling got petrol at Coonamurra in 2010,” she indicated a small town on the western stretch of the highlighted route. “And two years ago, Lucy Benson bought coffee at Widgerra in the east.”
“So, you think somewhere along that three-hundred-kilometre stretch is a Bermuda Triangle of missing people,” he mused, then reached a decision. “Good work. Follow up with the locals. Focus on violent offenders with incidents up to ten years ago. There might be something in this,” he threw a note of recognition in at the last.
O’Connell hustled out, and Angus called Dunstan in for new orders: every resource that could be mustered in the new target area was to search and not come back until Rose was found.
The silence was deafening. The grave was complete. A shadow fell over Rose and she saw her angel of death, scythe in hand. The rope around her chest loosened and she gulped down nourishing breaths. Her vision cleared and once again the farmer stood before her.
“Please,” she croaked, her throat as dry as the sunburnt country around them.
“You want water?” he asked. She couldn’t fathom this, but she nodded. Anything to stay the executioner’s blade.
He held a bottle of lukewarm water to her parched lips and she swallowed greedily. The fog lifted. She would never see her family again, never tell them she was sorry. The things she had said… were they even looking for her? Or would they just accept that she didn’t want them in her life? Her breath quickened as fear and anger flooded her veins. She was filled with an alien feeling: sheer and bloody-minded violence. No. Her family would see her again.
She realised he was talking to her. “What?”
“I like to hear the last words,” he had his curved blade in his left hand.
Her mind flat-lined in a red surge of anger. Adrenalin surged as her blood-streaked leg kicked up into his groin. She felt the satisfying crunch of collapsing flesh. He crumpled, his ruined knee splaying him onto his front.
Officer Shelley Fraser had covered two thirds of her section of Mosquito Flat Station’s search area. With the unflinching summer sun beating down, she tipped the last of her reserve petrol into the tank, an eye on the woodlot behind her. She heard the shuffle of dry leaves behind her and turned warily, pistol at the ready. Nothing. Leaves rustled. She inched through the tree line. The gums towered around her now. A rasp to her left.
As Shelley swung, the farmer’s curved blade sliced through her throat. Reflex jerked her finger against the gun’s trigger. In a grotesque dance, both farmer and officer fell to the ground and breathed their last.
Metres away Rose lay crushed against a blood-stained gumtree.
The Sergeant hung up the phone and slumped, defeated. Rose Fitzgerald had been located.