Nightmare In Alice Springs
by Barry William Metcalf

Chapter II

     The sun had long ago risen and had traveled more than half way toward its zenith on this bright, cheery Saturday morning and yet, snuggled beneath the comforting confines of her doona, Claire Elizabeth Jennings slept on, blissfully unaware of the arrival of daylight. Martin George Mitchell, however, had been awake for over an hour, occupying his time reading a new "X-Files" book, an intriguing title which dealt with a killer who could alter his shape at will.
     Reaching the end of the novel, he placed the completed book on the table beside his bed, turned out the bed lamp he no longer needed, and turned lazily toward Claire. It was still cold in the room, a legacy of the chilly spring night--the sun had yet to find its way inside the unit and heat the air therein--so when he placed his hands beneath the doona and on his companion’s warm flesh, she gave a little gasp of surprise, which yet failed to awaken her fully.
     Martin nibbled her left ear, running his tongue around the inside of that organ as he did so. Again she stirred, still not fully awake; but, despite this, she rolled over so that the front of her naked body was toward him.
     Martin smiled and let his hands wander freely over her warm, lithe body, cupping her breasts gently before moving his left hand down the length of her torso, over her flat stomach and down toward her pubic mound.
     Claire stirred again, stretching her long legs to their fullest length (which caused them to poke out from beneath the doona and over the end of the bed) and slightly parted them. Martin smiled again: even in her sleep, Claire continued to show just how much she enjoyed sex with him. On most occasions she would freely admit that she simply could not get enough of him and that suited Martin right down to the ground.
     He moved his mouth away from her ear, letting his tongue trail down the side of her face to finally come to rest at the corner of her mouth. There he contented himself with gently kissing the softness that was her slightly parted lips. Meanwhile his left hand had found its way unerringly through the tangle of her pubic hair to her slit. As on most occasions this part of her body was both warm and moist, denoting the fact that she was already in the mood for lovemaking.
     Martin smiled again and rolled easily over on top of her, taking his weight on his elbows and knees.
     He kissed her mouth, also warm and moist, again and this time she returned the kiss, her tongue probing its way into his mouth. He reached down with his right hand and guided his already erect penis into the welcome opening between her legs and gently pushed it all the way inside.
     Claire sighed and opened her eyes.
     “Good morning,” he greeted her. “I see you’re finally awake.”
     “Good morning,” she answered, smiling. “What makes you think I’m awake?”
     He laughed, beginning to stroke gently back and forth inside her. As always when he had just entered her he was overwhelmed by the exquisiteness of the feeling; it felt like it was the first time rather than the umpteenth time that they had made love. Then he put that thought and others from his mind as they went about the most enjoyable task of pleasuring each other’s bodies.
     Some time later, they lay panting side by side, the afterglow of their recent lovemaking still all-embracing them, perspiration glistening on the exposed parts of their bodies above the doona. Smoke from the inevitable cigarettes drifted lazily upward, hovering around the ceiling of the bedroom, the air of which the sun was struggling to heat up despite being blocked by the blind-covered window.
     “Well,” Claire chided playfully. “That was certainly the best performance we’ve managed in quite a while.”
     “Yes,” Martin responded thoughtfully. “It’s amazing how tired one becomes from having to get up and go to work every day.”
     “How can you say that?”
     “How can I say what?”
     “That bullshit about getting up every day and going to work.”
     “Quite easily. All I have to do is…”
     “You know what I mean!” Claire rolled back toward him, the cigarette momentarily forgotten in her hand. “You haven’t had to get up and go to work for more than three months now.”
     “I know I haven’t,” he responded with a grin, his mouth kissing her quickly.  “I’ve been on Long Service Leave, but you’ve been going to work every day.”
     “That’s not what you said…” she began. Her retort was, however, interrupted by the strident jangling of the telephone in the other room.
     “I’ll answer it,” Martin advised, throwing back the doona, uncovering Claire as well as himself.
     “It’ll be for you, anyway,” she called after him.
     He laughed and ran naked from the bedroom.
     “Love that arse,” she added.
     He laughed again.
     Martin reached for the phone before it had rung seven times and switched over to the mobile that he had left by the bed.
     “Hello,” he said. “Martin Mitchell speaking. Can I help you?”

     At the very moment that the phone rang in the Mitchell-Jennings unit, Suzie Powell, one of the operators in the control tower at the Alice Springs Airport noticed that the clock above her head, the clock which informed her at what time she was to take her afternoon break, the clock by which her very working life was ruled, had apparently stopped. Unsure at first, she had double-checked with her wristwatch only to confirm that which she already suspected. The clock had indeed stopped! She wondered what could have caused it: surely not an electrical failure, for the instruments before her were still functioning. A casual glance revealed that all of the other instruments
within the tower seemed to be working.
     She was about to call her supervisor when something happened which drove all thoughts of the stopped clock from her mind.
     A blip suddenly appeared in the centre of the radar screen before her where no blip should have been, where no aircraft had been scheduled to be, where nothing should have appeared without first registering at the periphery of her screen. And, even as this fact registered in their consciousness, even as she was trying to raise the incoming craft by radio, the screen in front of her abruptly went blank. Her eyes went wide in disbelief and a small “Oh!” of surprise involuntarily escaped her lips as she swiveled her chair toward the
controller on her right; but the look on his face coupled with the sudden exclamations from around her of similar displays of bewilderment told her instantly that all radar screens within the control tower had inexplicably and impossibly shut down.
     For a moment an air of surprise filled the control tower, but only for a moment. Almost immediately the surprise was replaced by another emotion, fear, closely followed on its heels by panic. For, although the skies over Alice Springs were clear of aircraft at the moment, the next flight from Melbourne was due to be within the tower’s range in just a matter of minutes.
     “Quiet everyone!” It was the voice of the supervisor that rang out over the top of the babble of excited and panic-stricken voices that filled the chamber. She had to shout to make herself heard, indicating that the electronic communicator she usually used was also non-functional. “Quiet everyone, please,” she instructed again. “This is not a drill. I repeat. This is NOT a drill. Please remain seated at your posts. Please be calm. I am sure that the emergency power shall be on in just a moment.”
     As if on cue, the lights in the tower flickered once and then glowed, instantly coming to full brightness while the screens shimmered a little more slowly back to life. Suzie breathed a deep sigh of relief. She glanced up and noticed that the clock above her was working again, if a few minutes slow. Then her screen registered an in-coming blip and she turned her attention back to her job, forgetting no only the stopped clock, but the unexplained blip and the sudden shutdown of the radar system.
     Downstairs, when the power had gone off, the booking computers had died along with every other piece of electrical equipment. But, as each monitor returned to life with the same information displayed on its screen as before it went blank, and as there were customers to be served, everybody simply cursed the unreliability of computers and went on with their business with no further thoughts of the matter.

Chapter III

     Even at one-hundred-and-fifty kilometers per hour the once-white Volvo seemed to do little more than crawl along the black ribbon of highway that stretched interminably across the vast wastelands of the Red Centre. It seemed to Claire Jennings and Martin Mitchell that they would never reach Alice Springs, yet, in reality they had left Port Augusta only three hours ago and were making excellent time. Barring accidents of any kind, they figured they would reach their destination in less than ten hours from now.
     On both sides of them the red earth seemed to stretch forever, the stunted tress and shrubs that struggled to grow there seemingly completely identical to each other; and the pitiless, cloudless blue sky to encourage the sun to burn them to a crisp through the windscreen and side windows. Despite the air-conditioning running full-bore, the air was hot and gritty within the cabin of the car; and a film of red dust had settled over every flat surface available, so that the inside color of the Volvo almost matched the red-ochre of the outside.
     Martin wiped the back of a grimy hand across his forehead before returning it to his companion’s jean-clad thigh, and turned to her with a wry grin.
     “I still don’t know why we didn’t fly,” he mused, returning his attention immediately back to the road. Despite the straightness of it, he did not wish to take the chance of a kangaroo or emu (or any other kind of animal, for that matter) stepping out onto the road in front of them.
     Beside him, Claire sighed. “I’ve told you twice already,” she said. “Don’t you ever listen to me? How many times do I have to say it?”
     “I know what you said, darling; but it still doesn’t make any sense,” he replied without looking at her, the smile returning to his lips. “Perhaps I just like to hear the sound of your voice,” he added.
     “That’s right! Change the subject!”
     “Tell me again about what happened with the travel agent,” he suggested, his grin widening. Without taking his eyes off the road, he leaned toward her and planted a gentle kiss on the side of her face. He noticed that she did not try to stop him, but accepted it gracefully.
     “When I rang Traveland they told me that all flights to Alice Springs were booked out for the next two weeks,” she informed him, her voice taking on the tone that indicated to him that there was nothing to gain by restating all this information that she had previously imparted to him.
     He cast a quick glance at her face, but she was looking at something outside the speeding car, something far off into the distance. He returned his gaze to the road.
     “Didn’t they initially say that they could get us on a flight that day, or at the latest, the day after?” he asked.
     She shifted her gaze from the landscape outside the car and turned her face toward him. “Yes,” she answered thoughtfully. “They did. It was strange that they suddenly changed their minds.”
     “That’s what I was thinking. What do you think happened?”
     She thought for a moment before answering, replaying the phone conversation with the booking agent in her mind.
     “The girl said that there had been plenty of seats available when she last consulted the computer, but that when she looked again all seats had been taken.”
     "How long ago had she looked?"
     “I asked her that,” she answered smiling once more, the smile saying; ’I knew you were going to ask that!’ “She said that she had consulted the booking schedule only fifteen minutes before and had booked a flight for someone at that time.”
     And there were still seats available then?”
     “Yes. She said that most flights were only half booked at best at that time.”
     "And it was the same with Qantas?"
     "Exactly the same."
     Martin paused in the conversation for a moment, his eyes scanning the road ahead, not really seeing that at which he was looking. There was a look of concentration on his face, and Claire could tell that some hazy idea was beginning to take form in his mind.
     Eventually he turned his head a little toward Claire and asked: "Don’t you think that’s a bit strange? That both airlines should have been suddenly fully booked within the space of an hour?”
     “Yes. Not only did I think it strange, but the girl at the booking office thought it unusual as well. She made the comment that nothing like that had ever happened to her before in the five years she had worked for Traveland. Eventually she put the whole thing down to a computer glitch.”
     “What do you mean, mmmmmm?”
     “Nothing. Now,” he smiled at her once more; “tell me again why we have been sent to assist the Alice Springs Police in investigating a simple hit-and-run case?”
     “Well, that’s the point,” she answered, reaching over onto the back seat and extracting a folder from their briefcase there. She turned around and eased herself back into her seat again before continuing. “They are no longer treating it as a simple hit-and-run."
     “This morning while you were in the shower at the motel and I was in the office paying the bill, a fax arrived for us.”
     “The Alice Springs Police managed to locate us in a motel at Port Augusta?”
     He was obviously surprised by their powers of deduction, given that they did not even know the two agents were on their way.
     “Not quite,” she smiled. “This fax was actually from Canberra.”
     “Canberra! You don’t mean to tell me that those idiots who make up the hierarchy of ASIO were able to get something right? Did Gavin send us anything useful?” Gavin August Bryne was their immediate superior, being the current head of the Department of Strange & Obscure Cases unit, an autonomous offshoot of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.
     “Yes. But it seems that our bosses wish us to investigate more than just this latest killing. Apparently several hitchhikers have been reported missing in the area prior to this incident. Also they have indicated that this may just be the extraordinary kind of case in which we specialize.”
     “Why is that then?”
     “Well,” and she paused to open the file on her lap and read from the top sheet; “it appears that the man who was killed, a local drunk by the name of…” and her eyes scanned the printed material) “…of Eric James Stephenson, was not the victim of a hit-and-run accident.”
     “What was he a victim of? Too much alcohol in his system?”
     Claire looked up and regarded him intently for a moment then, realizing that he was only being facetious, smiled and continued with her explanation.
     “Although the authorities at first thought that he had been hit by a car, the autopsy failed to confirm that theory in any form or manner.”
     “You have the report there?”
     “Yes. It was faxed through to me this morning along with a cover sheet explaining why we, especially, have been called in to take over this investigation.”
     “What does it say?”
     “Well, to begin with,” and Claire eased her rump again on the seat. They had been in the car for almost two full days now, sharing the driving, and were beginning to feel the effects of that confinement; “it states that the victim’s torso was squashed completely flat.”
     “Flat?” There was disbelief in Martin’s voice. “Flat! But the photographs we were faxed the other day did not show any evidence that his body had been squashed by anything.”
     Claire consulted the papers in her lap once more.
     “That’s right,” she agreed. “Not only that, but his organs and bones had been extracted so that his body was so flat it looked almost as if…”
     “…he had been run over by a steamroller!” He finished the sentence for her.
     “And his body, his flesh, his skin? There was no evidence on the outside of his body to suggest how this was accomplished?” Martin asked this last question in a manner that indicated he already knew the answer.
     “That’s right,” Claire assented. “Apart from a few bruises on his chest and a barked shin caused by a fall over a shopping trolley earlier in the night, there were no marks at all on the outside of his body.”
     “So,” Martin mused; “once more the authorities are baffled.”
     “Once more when they can’t find a logical explanation for some mystery they send for our help.”
     “Once more when they want a fresh approach to some new mystery, they send for their special team of investigators.”
     “Only it’s not really a NEW mystery at all, is it?” he added.
     “No! It’s not.”
     “Uh huh!” he muttered. “Now I really can’t wait to get there and examine the body. Now I know why they sent for us.” And he pushed the accelerator even further towards the floor.
     Claire grimaced and continued her reading.


     Less than half an hour later, with the heat inside the cabin of the Volvo continuing to increase, they had lapsed into a thoughtful silence, each in their own way sifting through the information they had so far gleaned concerning this case, trying to look at it from different angles, attempting to uncover some so far unseen explanation.
     Martin was beginning to rue the fact that he had not changed into something more comfortable, something that suited the present climatic conditions; but it had been quite cold when they had left Port Augusta that morning and he had fully expected the air-conditioning to counteract the outback weather better than this. Maybe the unit was in need of new gas or something, he thought; but the car had only been serviced the week before so that should not be the problem.
     Claire had allowed herself to slump sideways in the seat, her head resting against the side window, her eyes closed. Beads of perspiration ran down the side of her face, collecting around the collar of her denim shirt, staining it a darker blue. She, too, regretted that they had not changed at the service station where they had last bought fuel; and she considered complaining to the manager at the garage where she had had the Volvo serviced. She knew the air-conditioning should be coping better than it was.
     It was quiet in the car, the only sounds being the steady and rhythmic thrum of the engine, a little road noise as the tires hummed over the tarmac, and the steady hissing of the wind as it slid aggressively past the speeding automobile. Lulled by a combination of the heat, the quiet and the soporific car noises, Claire began to drift off to sleep.
     Suddenly the peace was shattered by the shrill ringing of the mobile phone, which had sat silently in its holder under the dashboard of the car for the past two or three hours.
     Claire jumped, sat upright, her eyes momentarily out of focus and her mind befuddled from the lingering tendrils of sleep.
     “Wha…?” she muttered, her hand reaching automatically for the telephone.
     Martin, however, was quicker. He had been fully awake when the phone had rung, so that, although he was somewhat startled by its strident ringing, he had reached for it with greater speed and accuracy than did his companion. 
     He grasped the telephone with his left hand, retrieving it from its holder. Not once did he take his eyes from the road, his right hand remaining steady on the wheel. As he did this, a frown creased his forehead and a puzzled expression clouded his face. Even as he extracted the small aerial and pressed the SEND key, he was thinking that he had, only this morning, checked the map Telstra had provided and it had clearly shown that they would be out of mobile phone range during most of their trip from Port Augusta to Alice Springs.
     “Hello?” he said, placing the phone against his left ear. Claire was looking at him wonderingly. Fully awake now, it had come to her mind, too, that they should not be able to send or receive calls this far from The Alice.
     “Hello?” Martin said a second time, as nothing was forthcoming from the small telephone.
     Suddenly, a high-pitched tone erupted from the mobile phone and seemed to fill the entirety of the car. Martin dropped the Nokia 100 as if it had been a hot coal, and immediately placed his freed hand over his left ear; but the sound continued to erupt from the telephone and, if anything, was increasing in pitch and volume.
     Claire was slumped forward, both her hands over her ears, seemingly attempting to find refuge under the dashboard from the ear-piercing sound. Her face was pale.
     Martin removed his foot from the accelerator in an endeavor to slow the speeding vehicle, wishing that he had a free hand to block his right ear as well as his left, but he did not dare remove both hands while traveling at over one-hundred-and-seventy kilometers per hour. Yet, he also knew that unless he did something very quickly indeed, the high-pitched sound would turn their brains into mush.
     As these thoughts flashed through his tortured mind, he became horrifyingly aware that the road, which had been boringly straight for the last several hundred kilometers, abruptly changed to a series of gentle curves that had been designed to avoid several outcrops of large red rocks. And it was at this point, as if anything further had been necessary to make driving difficult, that an enormous old man kangaroo decided to chance his luck crossing the bitumen.
     Despite the pain throbbing inside his cranium, threatening to blind him and robbing him of all semblance of coherent thought, Martin grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and wrenched this control as hard as he could to the right.
     Claire, who had momentarily raised her head from beneath the dashboard (since she had found no respite there from the high-pitched whine anyway, she was searching for somewhere else to hide), screamed as his eyes took in the looming figure of the startled kangaroo that had suddenly stopped in the middle of the road directly in front of them.
     Then she was being flung hard against the left-hand door as the car careered to the right and off the highway. There was a thump as the Volvo left the edge of the bitumen, flew momentarily through the air and landed in the red dirt that bordered both sides of the Stuart Highway. Still with her hands clasped over her ears, she was flung against the roof by the impact of the landing and for a brief moment lost consciousness.
     When she regained her senses, she observed that their automobile was plowing its way through the thick red bulldust that was a feature of this part of the countryside. Smaller trees and shrubs were uprooted or brushed aside by the unchecked flight of the vehicle. She also realized two other things: that they had been lucky so far not to have crashed into one of the many outcrops of rock (only by a combination of good luck and expert skill had they so far achieved this) and Martin could not brake for fear of overturning the speeding car in these adverse conditions; and that the pain in her skull caused by the impact with the roof of the vehicle had somewhat
dulled the sound emanating from the discarded mobile phone.
     Acting on impulse, before the sound could again incapacitate her, she wound down her window, grabbed the Nokia 100 from where it lay in the space between the bucket seats and threw it as hard as she could out of the window.
     The sudden semi-silence was almost shocking, but she could see that, with the source of the debilitating noise removed from the cabin of the Volvo, Martin was once more able to sit up straight and devote all of his attention and strength to the task of keeping the car from crashing. In a matter of seconds he had accomplished this, steering the automobile to a standstill between two enormous outcrops of rock. They looked at each other in the growing silence, each thinking the same thing.
     Was someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching Alice Springs?

Read Chapters 4 and 5