Early Friday morning, I trod the white line carving the track, gazing at the horizon. A clang made me snap around, ready to dive from danger.
I scanned the shadowy buildings. Expecting the noise to repeat, movement. Nothing. But I sensed somebody watching. Usually, it would irritate me – unwanted male attention shouldn’t come with the territory. But with my bruises still smarting after yesterday, it went beyond irking me. The hairs on my nape prickled, and I held stiff awhile, before deciding all the creep wanted to do was watch.
Preferable to more fuss.
My face burned, as I relived the fuel drum striking me. The thud and simultaneous pain. Hitting the ground, the drum spinning past. Staring at clouds. Scrambling up, no harm done that painkillers wouldn’t sort. Except that blokes rushed from everywhere to offer help I didn’t need or want. One was Klimmy, our co-driver. When I returned from my errand, the whole of VP Racing had swarmed on me, making a big deal.
Thank God this isn’t another embarrassing moment.
After my tension leaked out, I went on strolling. The scene transformed from murky and featureless to a soft golden glow over black tar glistening with dew. I’d forgotten that this place could be beautiful, peaceful. Seeing it now, you’d never dream that it regularly saw death over the iconic annual meet. More often from the myriad clashes and smashes off the 6.213-kilometre street circuit than the official event. Some said, one person died a year. Amazing really, the number wasn’t higher. It also didn’t hint at how unsafe it was for women to walk around Tent City alone.
It stank, but little of it was deemed newsworthy, unless it involved supercars or their drivers. I knew that better than most.
White plumed the air with my huff. By habit, my fingers felt the bumps on my right wrist, where two pins pushed up under the flesh. My surgeon had done a tidy job stitching lacerated skin, fixing shattered bones with masses of titanium hardware, and what he could with my torso – nobody saw me without a long-sleeved top anyway. But my gratitude was tempered by my deepest scars. The invisible ones.
Feeling the past sucking me down, I focused on the sky until it erupted into streaks of yellow, orange and purple, stalling my steps.
‘How good’s that?’
The voice came from behind, and I knew it well. Smiling at VP’s Team Boss, I said, ‘Hi, Strutty.’
‘Dusty.’ He cocked his head. ‘Your mum still talks about giving you the nickname, you know.’
‘She does?’ I chuckled. A mix of happiness that the two old friends were staying connected, and nostalgia.
‘Uh-huh. You used to go off, clean as a whistle. Come home—’
‘Looking like I’d been rolling in dirt.’
‘Lucky you outgrew it.’
Strutty added, ‘Did I mention it’s good to have you back?’
I grinned. ‘Several times.’
We fell quiet, viewing the awakening racetrack. Soon, a heavy arm draped my shoulders. I stiffened, not from pain. Hoped Strutty didn’t notice. Even before the pandemic, you didn’t encroach on personal space in my last workplace – the most tactile those bosses got was a clap on the back or hand pump. That’d suited me. Other than with Mum and Dad, I’d dreaded close contact since I was twenty-two.
Strutty sighed. ‘Big Tommy would say, Mornings like this make you think you died and went to Heaven.’
My throat seized as memories flooded in. Years’ worth of Dad murmuring that phrase, often standing near this spot, me alongside and a few inches taller on each occasion.
Not now. Even better, not ever.
By choice, I wouldn’t have returned to Mount Panorama. Dodging emotional triggers and deep conversations was draining…and useless. Breaking one of my rules today in leaving our digs alone before sunrise, I’d won a short reprieve. Only to be cornered now.
Change the subject. To what?
Strutty saved me. ‘You came close to dying yesterday.’
Big-eyed, he whistled. It caught the attention of three blokes crossing the tarmac. They shot us a look, scurried away with their esky and folding chairs, clearly worried they’d be asked for their pass. We laughed, and I slipped free of Strutty’s arm.
‘That’s a bit extreme…it was no biggie.’
‘You sore today?’
He U-turned and I tagged along.
‘They call this place the Mountain of Drama,’ he mused. ‘Normally, it’s when we’re racing.’ He shook his head. ‘Eagles is at his best this year.’
I glanced at him, bemused by his tack to our gun driver.
‘We’re on target for our first championship since ’08. Hope your near miss isn’t a bad omen.’
I kept silent. But the way Strutty flipped my misfortune into a negative for our team’s prospects cut. Despite myself, I questioned yesterday. A no biggie? When Klimmy yelled, What happened? Who set the drum rolling? nobody answered. Odd, if it were an accident. But why hurt me – a stand-in data engineer?
Unless Strutty’s right…and it’s about sabotaging VP’s campaign?
‘Morning all!’ Strutty shouted, gaining assorted responses.
We’d reached the garage, finding the crew crowded around our #11 Ford Mustang. Busy or idle, their energy crackled. Sunday was do-or-die day. But to get a car on the grid took a concerted effort over all four competition days, and some luck. Our B-Double transporter had been packed with whatever we’d conceivably need away from home – from tape and cable ties to wings and engines – but that wasn’t a never-ending supply. Bathurst 1000 was an endurance race in every sense.
Strutty said, ‘Eagles is hyped,’ as we moved through the throng.
Observing our driver with the mechanics, I nodded. Practice three wasn’t until 10:40am, but Eagles never left anything to chance. My mind jumped from that back to the chances of a runaway drum.
Strutty noticed my frown. ‘You can do better, Dusty.’
My chest warmed at his fatherly concern. ‘He’s just a teammate.’
Work’s the only reason I’m here.
True. Yet there’d been a shift inside me this week. I trailed Strutty, trying to pinpoint it.
The hyped atmosphere in the garage, rev of engines and whine of rattle guns, scents of fuel, grease and rubber, and medley of people flocking the track. Wherever we travelled, these elements were ever-present, though we’d no longer take a full-capacity crowd for granted.
So what’s different?
Wilko interrupted my musing. ‘Who’s your admirer, Dusty?’
He swivelled my chair, revealing a posy of pale-pink four-petalled flowers on branchlets covered in hairy-stemmed heart-shaped leaves. They came from a plant indigenous to Mount Panorama, profuse among the shrubby woodlands and rocky hillsides. I used to admire it.
Gathering myself, I moved closer. ‘Aw, which of you?’
Strutty said, ‘They were there when I arrived.’
‘Same.’ Wilko added, ‘No note either.’
They looked shocked when I dropped the arrangement in the bin, explaining with a lie, ‘Hayfever.’
I sat, with Strutty settling in between me and Wilko. Drum, watcher, flowers. My mind throbbed. The first two, taken as isolated incidents, were innocuous. The flowers were not.
Cranking up my laptop, I donned my headset for a mic-check. Automatically scanned the wall of screens us techies shared. Squirmed when my mobile phone rang.
I went to reject the FaceTime call, but Strutty leaned across, connecting us.
‘Hey-hey!’ Go-Joe grinned, and I mirrored him.
Strutty asked, ‘How’s it hanging?’
‘Great.’ Go-Joe’s face disappeared as the camera reversed. ‘See!’
We stared at his legs poking from a hospital gown, bandaged and suspended by stirrups. I’d viewed it numerous times in the flesh over the past twenty days. Still winced.
With a second flip, Go-Joe eyed us again. ‘A birdy told me you nailed it yesterday, Dusty.’
Strutty patted my shoulder – the sore one, but he wasn’t to know. I sucked up the pain, saying. ‘You’re a top teacher.’
Go-Joe waved a finger. ‘It’s all you, mate. She’s ready for Sunday, Strutty.’
‘She was born ready.’
My cheeks were flushed when we ended the call and began our run-throughs. We analysed the weather station, the track’s live feed, each micro-sector breakdown, and the telemetries to and from the car, directing the mechanics accordingly. When our Mustang competed, I would deal with the go-fast bits, the stuff that’d earned Go-Joe his nickname, while Wilko monitored the vitals. Strutty would move around, running the entire show.
Will I ever get used to it – him instead of Dad?
I fixed my eyes forward, tapping into the energy among the crew. Radio comms flew about. Heaters primed the car’s block and sump to avoid nasty failures with an exhaust hose blowing toxic fumes outside. Eagles had his preparation underway, and we left him alone where possible.
Yesterday, first time as a techie for real, I’d been amazed at my coolness. With two sessions under my belt, I was streets ahead in confidence and couldn’t wait for more.
And then…we were racing. Totally in the zone as the Mustang owned the road.
‘Nice one, mate,’ I told Eagles. ‘02:05.1223. Fastest so far. Your gap is 0.3644 to Zwijgers.’
Wilko said, ‘Last lap. All vitals good. Hold steady.’
Eagles had done enough: bettered yesterday, making it seem easy.
Faultless, until approaching Murray’s Corner, the last bend before the finish, a kangaroo sprang onto the track. Eagles swore, and Wilko echoed him. At the station, we scanned the monitors, Strutty barked instructions through the comms, and Wilko flicked a warning to Eagles via red lights on his screen to watch the brakes. My mouth went dry.
When Eagles said, ‘Minor bump. Roo’s okay. Pitting now,’ our tension released.
We soon grasped the minor bump necessitated a replacement spoiler. But it could’ve been worse – especially for the kangaroo – and we had two hours until our next outing.
Thankfully, the only drama in that practice session was during the eighth lap, when the door flew open on Klimmy. He held it shut, kept driving. We came in fourth.
Then things rose to a whole new level when Eagles went solo for qualifying.
Strutty gave him a pep talk, though I couldn’t imagine anybody needing it less. ‘Here’s where it matters.’
Eagles dropped into the car. ‘I know.’
Time warped, eleven laps in under forty minutes, taking forever yet flashing by while we hung on what he’d deliver.
Wilko whooped. ‘And that’s why they pay him the big bucks!’
I was too slow to dodge a group hug from him and Strutty. Suffered through it, worth it because we’d come second, and Eagles still held the quickest lap.
Having sustained no major damage to the Mustang, we worked for several hours rather than pulling an all-nighter before Strutty rotated my chair.
‘Done, Dusty. Barbecue.’
We wandered out, crossing the paddock to join a psychedelic blaze of colourful sponsor logos on uniforms. Rivalries were parked tonight. Every member of the eleven teams would try to swing by. Many from my old days, Dad’s days. My guard went up.
‘Your mum said to make sure you eat plenty.’ Strutty passed me a hamburger on a paper plate.
Wilko appeared at my elbow, holding bottles. ‘Water or beer?’
If it had a broken seal, I never touched it. Not anymore, not even from a mate. The beers weren’t capped. The water looked sound. ‘H20, cheers.’
Later, misreading my belly grumbles, I found a sausage and an intact beer, and downed them while mingling. Always near lights, in a crowd. No awkwardness, just good fun.
When we returned to our digs, I thought, No need to have worried, stupid.
But then my stomach spasmed. With sweat dotting my lip, I barely made it to the toilet. If the crew had begrudged me a single room with ensuite as the sole female, they would’ve instantly backflipped.
The runs settled by 3:00am. But I rested fitfully. Thankful I’d mastered functioning on little sleep years ago and that nobody else was suffering, yet envious of my slumbering teammates. Couldn’t quash the sense that my upset gut wasn’t coincidental. Of an impending collision between the past and present.
It’s 2008 on repeat.
Who’s behind it?
Boarding the shuttle bus at dawn, I felt battered but safe in numbers. As the sun rose higher, so did my spirits. Easy in the daylight to deny the whispers in my mind. I walked into the garage happy that I’d be absorbed all day by supercars world.
Klimmy began with the co-driver session. Then he and Eagles were lethal together in the final practice, undeterred by a scrape along the passenger side and a recurrence of the door incident respectively. Eagles improved his fastest lap by 0.1527.
‘Good job,’ Strutty told them. ‘We’ll patch up the Mustang to get through today.’
He warned Eagles, ‘We need your best in the top ten shootout.’
Eagles said, ‘I’ll win pole.’
As the drivers strolled off, I said to Wilko and Strutty, ‘He’s confident.’
A female called, ‘Hello!’
We turned as she rushed in.
‘Hayley Govern, Undercover Trackside. Can I steal you?’ She pointed at me. ‘Return of the prodigal daughter…it’s a great story.’
‘That it is.’ Strutty propelled me forward.
Hayley snapped photos, then the two of us settled behind the garage and bonded over my early racing.
‘Australian Kart Champion at eighteen. Impressive…especially as a female.’
‘Loved karting. Winning was the icing.’ I left the last bit alone.
She nodded. ‘And I’m sure it helped you ace your supercars exam and secure support from VP Racing for your driver training…’
After exhausting her questions about the four-year training period, Hayley said, ‘2008. Here, Bathurst. Following VP’s win, they announced you as co-driver for the next season. Replacing Virtanen. Selected above your fellow trainees Wilko and Jock.’
She lifted a palm. ‘Yet Jock co-drove in 2009?’
I tried to steer from danger. Too late. I’d crashed backwards. Starting at the sky-high of Mum and Dad’s thrill over my signing and VP’s hard-fought victory. Then a hug that turned into a kiss with Jock, before we drifted to Tent City, had drinks between kisses – best night of my life – no wonder I felt giddy. With a heavy bellyflop, I lost Jock. Felt disorientated. Was snatched into the darkness from behind. Panicked as a hessian sack swathed my head, pulled tight. Cursed my uncoordinated efforts to stop my attacker forcing me into a drum.
I only remembered Hayley when she said, ‘Dusty?’
What was her question?
We locked eyes. It helped me recover. As an almost-supercars-driver, my nightmare had generated four paragraphs in the news – more about me as Dad’s daughter and VP speeding towards a long-overdue championship win than the accident rendering me serious-but-stable in hospital.
I wouldn’t disabuse the illusion.
‘A car accident… I couldn’t…’
The insurers refused to cover me. The stakeholders didn’t want me as damaged goods.
‘Jock was next in line. He’d earned it.’
He couldn’t face me, regretted not keeping me safe. Broke my heart.
Hayley looked troubled, maybe reflecting my expression. She jotted a note. ‘So, after achieving Honours in Automotive Engineering, you were headhunted by Magna Canada.’
She’d jumped five years. Phew. A soft sigh escaped my lips. I gladly chatted about my rise to Design and Vehicle Concepts, creating street cars of the future. My dream job.
‘Must’ve been hard to leave?’
Weighing my answer, I hesitated. Mum pretended supercars didn’t exist. She’d break pattern for a story featuring me.
‘Canada never seemed far from Australia – until the pandemic sunk in, and rumblings started of borders slamming shut. I wanted to be with Mum.’
‘Don’t blame you.’
‘So…what came between then and when you rejoined VP Racing?’ Hayley blinked.
All I could think of was stuff I wouldn’t share. Being thirty-four, living at home again and supporting Mum through cancer tests – thank God she got the all-clear – unemployed and overqualified for every position I’d applied for throughout Melbourne’s sporadic, soul-crushing lockdowns.
Chuckling, I deflected. ‘Lockdowns one, two, three…’
Hayley’s eyebrows pinched.
‘There were no openings in my field. So in March this year, I took,’ better than admitting crawled back reluctantly, ‘a job using my experience and skills.’ Somewhat. ‘Crewing for VP.’
‘And after Go-Joe’s accident, you were promoted?’
A question, not a statement.
Does she think I orchestrated his crash?
My mate’s brakes failed between our HQ in Campbellfield and his home. Terrible luck. Or not? Considering the creepy things stacking up around me. Considering the dozens of people on the supercars circuit capable of tampering with his car without a trace.
Hayley sat forward.
‘Big Tommy is still a legend. How difficult has it been to return to his old team?’ She fluttered a hand. ‘And especially coming here, basically where he died in 2009?’
I rubbed my neck. Couldn’t talk about Dad’s death. Then unable to censor the spilling words.
‘Very difficult at first because everything reminded me of Dad’s absence.’ The elusive gearshift inside me suddenly made sense. ‘But then, doing the go-fasts for real, I was struck by an acute sense of his presence instead…and that this is exactly where and what I’m meant to be.’
Cringing, I asked, ‘Sounds a bit out-there?’
‘No.’ Hayley scribbled notes. Beamed. ‘Word is you’ll be Team Boss in the future.’
I tried it on for size. ‘Sounds good…when Strutty retires.’
We wrapped up, and I immersed in work. By the time top ten shootout arrived, my chest ached from the pounding of my heart. Pole after pole, race win after race win – all season, Eagles kept raising the bar, but it never mattered more than now. This session would determine his spot on the grid tomorrow. Win tomorrow, and the championship was ours.
I warned, Don’t get ahead of yourself. But we all were. Judging by the hum in the garage as the Mustang travelled down pit exit and entered its warm-up. And the reverent expressions when Eagles floored it for his single clocked lap.
Flawless to the chequered flag. We cheered.
‘You’ve done it, mate!’ I said over the radio. ‘02:03.5662.’
That covered everything. He’d outclassed even reigning champion Zwijgers and secured pole position, his confidence justified.
Regardless, we spent a long night rebuilding the left flank and resolving the door gremlin. But it was a different level of pressure, allowing other thoughts to creep in. Hayley’s questions had revived difficult memories. And forced me to face facts.
The watcher, my attacker, they were the same person. He’d been hanging around the circuit this year and was here at Bathurst. He’d caused Go-Joe’s crash to get at me.
While working, I pondered that. Looking for clues in the rest of that night in 2008.
Trapped, hearing a vehicle rev, rolling as it accelerated, ricocheting against sidewalls with turns in the road. Then stopping. My slim hopes dashed when he dragged me from the drum, ripped away the sack and lashed into me. I stared, a mute ragdoll. Eventually, blacked out. He finished by pitching me off the mountain. Things might’ve been dire if a trail bike rider hadn’t found me, according to the police. Later, reading a card with pale-pink four-petalled flowers left anonymously – its message in block letters YOU SHOULD BE DEAD – I’d vomited, destroyed the card.
A voice jolted me to the present. ‘Dusty?’
Wilko drew me into a confab. From there, my brain was ninety-nine per cent on the job. The remainder brooded over the thorniest question: Who is he?
Hard to remember exactly how, but we grabbed food and rest amid ensuring the Mustang was ready for Sunday morning, and the 9:10am practice run went without a hitch. Hopefully, not a bad omen.
An hour before the big race, my mobile vibrated. I took the call privately.
‘Mum? You okay?’
‘Yes! Just wishing you well for today.’
Understanding what it cost Mum to acknowledge Bathurst, my response caught in my throat.
‘Dusty, your dad would be so proud… I am.’
I mumbled how much that meant. We talked awhile. She unwittingly helped me with some troubling questions before I said goodbye and slipped into the garage. Shaken by what I’d learned. But done with my old injuries and fear crippling me. Determined to reclaim my life.
How? The question hammered. He’s going to finish it tonight.
‘Dusty?’ Eagles was in front of me. Fortunately, he repeated himself.
‘Sure.’ I flexed my fingers over my laptop. Determined to shelve my personal worries and give my all to VP Racing this afternoon.
If it’s the last thing I do.
Grimacing at the unhelpful postscript, I fed off the crew’s controlled chaos, and focused until the pre-race pep talk. As we huddled together, I wondered if anybody else felt air bubbles in their veins.
This is it!
I took my place, eyes riveted on the live feed. The supercars rolled into their grid positions. Two Mustangs out front: us in pole, our archrival second. Motors revved. The track shimmered with exhaust fumes.
We heard, ‘Green flag, green flag,’ and I tensed until Klimmy soared off.
‘Great getaway,’ Wilko radioed.
Klimmy cleared Hell Corner and Strutty told him, ‘Settle, mate.’ Then he murmured to me, ‘You too. We’re here for six-plus hours.’
I nodded, knowing from past crewing that the day would feel both short and long, what thrills and spills to expect. The unchartered territory was the shifted responsibility, my first Bathurst as a techie. I mentally promised Dad, I won’t be the weak link.
Over 121 laps, the lead changed between us, the Zwijgers cohort and Virtanen’s Holden Commodore. The rest of the field seemed to be running a demolition derby.
In lap 122, we held our heads, disbelieving.
Wilko cried, ‘Zwijgers is out!’
The turn-up left Eagles dominating, the championship at his fingertips.
Then in lap 145, the Commodore slammed into our Mustang, spinning both into the barriers. Ignoring our frantic comms, Eagles corrected, leaving his rival blocking the road.
But the day’s switchbacks weren’t done. Safety car number seven happened during the 158th circuit. The following minutes blurred.
Listening to the crowd going berserk, I radioed, ‘Virtanen’s in second.’ Added, ‘Last lap.’
‘I know!’ Eagles replied.
Wilko and I gave edgy laughs, sniffing victory, aware the show wasn’t over. From next year, there’d be no more Holden-badged supercars on the circuit, and Virtanen would leave nothing in the tank trying to deliver diehard fans one last Bathurst win. Eagles would be merciless.
And then, Virtanen was in Eagles’s slipstream. Closing fast. As Eagles repelled his attempt to take him in The Chase, I silently urged, Do it for Big Tommy.
They hooked around Murray’s Corner. Dashed for the finish line, inches separating them.
Strutty punched the air. ‘Fantastic, mate!’
My, ‘Woo-hoo!’ disappeared among the crew’s shouts, whistles, applause.
‘Great work, Dusty.’
Wilko pulled me into a hug. It rattled me. But I gave him a pat, impersonating normality.
In the coming hours, I replicated the motion with most teammates and VP’s stakeholders at least once. It grew harder, not easier. And when I heard, ‘You need a drink,’ I sure did.
Strutty thrust a glass into my hand.
Saying, ‘Cheers,’ I brought it to my lips. Then launched into a story, gesturing, sloshing my champagne.
Halfway through, Wilko and Klimmy joined us with a round of fresh drinks. Noting darkness had fallen, my stomach flopped. Anytime now, it’d be on.
Awhile longer, Strutty asked if I’d called Mum to share the good news. I felt my pockets for what I’d already discovered wasn’t there. Frowned.
Klimmy said, ‘What’s wrong, Dusty?’
‘Lost my phone.’ Searching again, I said, ‘Must’ve forgotten it…in the garage… Jus’ a tick,’ and lurched away, spilling my drink.
The garage felt eerie as I entered. Flicking on the lights and confirming I was alone changed nothing. Nor did locating my mobile – on my chair, fully functional. Fitting with the idea I’d left it there, though untrue.
Within minutes, I heard the door squeak open. Acted oblivious, shedding my top with shaking fingers. Leaned on a workbench in my sports bra.
‘You hot or something?’
Reeling around, I mumbled, ‘Don’ feel well.’
Now, I looked directly at him. He thought whatever he’d laced my drink with had fuddled me. Didn’t disguise his hungry stare raking the scars on my torso, then the shoulder he kept touching – no accident.
He dug into his pockets, letting the contents dangle. Black wool. Black leather. Enough for my pulse to thrum, as I relived the terror of facing a darkly shrouded head, three white holes for mouth and eyes. Paralysed. Powerless. Watching his gloved fist wind at my jaw.
The air bubbles I’d felt pre-race repeated. I told myself, Stay calm. Get answers. Asked, ‘How’s Jock?’ sounding condescending.
Strutty’s frigid gaze met mine.
Happy I’d scored a hit, I sent silent apologies to Jock. We’d been inseparable until that Bathurst night. How did I not fight for our friendship, and not know he’d self-destructed before today? When this was over, I’d try to make amends.
‘Mum heard that Jock’s on his second drink-driver rehab course.’
The veins in Strutty’s neck roped. He was about to blow.
I fanned my cheeks. Stumbled. Steadied using the bench. ‘Bit woozy.’
‘I’ll bet.’ He sniggered. ‘I gave you heaps – it’s a wonder you’re not already legless.’
‘Like last time?’
‘You betcha. Why change a good thing?’
Here we go.
‘What wen’ wrong for Jock?’
Strutty glanced at a heavy-duty aluminium site box on wheels, his hungry look returning. Letting me know my predictions had been dead-on.
Following the post-race formalities, I’d rallied my dark side. Thought as him, assessed his opportunity and means. There’d be drugs to disable me. A ruse to get me alone – he wouldn’t leave it to chance like last time. A place with what he needed to hand. Something in which to stash me that he could load onto his ute after the crowd disbursed, bury in the bush. When my phone disappeared, I knew it’d be in the garage. The empty drums were in the B-Double, so I pictured the closest thing. Came up with the box he was eyeing again.
Telling myself, Watch it. Takes more than lucky guesses to end this, I probed the twin bumps on my wrist.
Strutty stepped closer. ‘He wasn’t given a proper go. He needed another year.’
I couldn’t believe my ears. Jock had capped a patchy season in 2009 by writing off VP’s car at Bathurst. No way they’d renew his co-driver contract.
‘He wasn’t you. He didn’t have Big Tommy in his corner.’
That stung. Dad had treated each team member equally: firm but fair; VP’s interests above bonds, whether mateship or blood. He was also a great advocate of mistakes being learning experiences.
‘The owners made the call to drop Jock.’
‘Big Tommy was their puppeteer – still is, even from the grave. There was no vacancy when you asked in March, but they created one.’ Strutty’s eyes glinted. ‘As we’re being honest here, I never bought into your pretence – all humble about your honours degree and fancy job in Canada, and that you wannabe one of the team.’ He scoffed. ‘Handy though. Just had to pick off your little mate Go-Joe to have you where I wanted.’
My nerves buzzed. ‘You tampered with his car?’
‘What do you think?’
I wanted him to admit it. Dropped it when he waved an arm.
‘Enough talk, Dusty. How’re you feeling?’
It wasn’t from the drugs though. Since this morning, I’d known who my attacker was. That he’d lied about staying in touch with Mum. And I had an idea that it centred on him blaming me for Jock’s failings. Now he’d confirmed my fears that he’d messed with Go-Joe’s car, my writhing gut insisted, Dig deeper, there’s more.
‘Dad recommended Jock’s traineeship be extended,’ I slurred.
‘That’s what he said that night.’
I stiffened, sensing another ugly truth.
Strutty said, ‘I told him, Jock should’ve gotten the guernsey – Dusty wouldn’t have if she wasn’t your kid. A girl had no place driving for us. That’s why I had to rub her out.’
Recalling being Strutty’s punching bag, I blurted, ‘Had to? You enjoyed hurting me.’
‘He didn’t like me saying it either. Heart couldn’t take it.’
Strutty mocked clutching his chest in pain, laughed.
My legs sagged, as the scope of his barefaced lies and hate hit me. What he’d done to me was insignificant compared to him causing Dad’s death and pretending to grieve with us, and sabotaging Go-Joe’s car without caring if he killed him too. In his warped world, Strutty was on a mission. Righting wrongs.
He smirked as I swayed, and red lights flashed across my mind. Simultaneous alerts. To harden up. To remember we were playing to my game plan, not his.
I spotted his hands sliding into his pockets. The green flag I’d awaited.
This is it.
Gazing over his shoulder, I transferred my weight to the left. Called, ‘Oh, hi!’ smiling.
Strutty took the bait. He whirled around, stuffing away the balaclava and gloves. I crouched. Grasped the mechanic’s creeper trolley beside me and propelled it into the back of his legs. His knees buckled, pitching him headfirst into the site box. A loud thud, then his body rebounded. Air whoomphed from his lungs as he crashed to the floor.
His limp limbs and blank expression suggested he was unconscious. Could be acting. Momentarily stunned. Dead.
I seized the wheel knocker I’d secreted earlier, mistakenly using my damaged hand. Pain zapped my arm. But I welcomed the reminder of Strutty’s sins, and the reassuring heft and leverage of the weapon as I inched closer.
Still jumped when his eyes flew open. He kicked out, missing me completely.
Swinging the knocker towards his knee, I growled, ‘I’ll smash it.’ Really want to.
No surprise, the stupid idiot grabbed at me. And mistimed it. I had his wrists and ankles yanked together with cable ties before his brain caught up.
‘I’m a different Dusty to the one you hurt in 2008.’
He made a sound. Possibly laughing at me. But the laugh was on him.
‘You said before – Why change a good thing?’ I taunted. ‘Because you were predictable.’
Strutty bucked, hurling his shackled wrists my way. Sidestepping, I rose.
‘As we’re being honest here, my laptop’s recording us. But cheers for this.’ I waggled my mobile. ‘Makes it easier to call the police.’
‘Whatever.’ I shrugged. ‘But you’re done for…and I’m still standing.’
Sandi Wallace is an award-winning Australian crime writer, crime fiction addict, avid reader and reviewer of good crime reads. She writes rural crime and psychological thrillers and short crime stories, and has four novels and two collections of short stories published to date. Sandi is currently at work on a standalone psychological thriller.