Nightmare In Alice Springs
by Barry William Metcalf

Chapter IV

     Sergeant Bryan Jones, the officer in charge of the Alice Springs Police Station, was a burly individual, his flesh deeply tanned and his complexion made ruddy by long exposure to the sun and other elements. His brown shirt was unbuttoned at the neck far enough to reveal the gray hairs on his tan chest, and his shirt-sleeves were rolled up above his elbows; his sun-bleached hair was close-cropped in military style and he gave every impression of being a man who would stand for no nonsense from anyone, let alone a couple of visitors from down south.
Martin George Mitchell and Claire Elizabeth Jennings had decided, following their near-accident, to stop at Coober Pedy, some six hundred kilometers south of Alice Springs, for the night. Both sets of nerves were somewhat unstrung by the recent incident and, as this would have made driving somewhat more hazardous on these roads and at these speeds, they had decided to stop long enough to regain their composure. Besides, the Volvo needed to be checked for undercarriage damage and Martin required the use of a hoist for this. By the time this was accomplished, it was quite late. Thus they had spent the night in a Coober Pedy underground motel, getting an early start the next day.
A day behind schedule now, they had gone straight to the police station upon their arrival in Alice Springs and had immediately introduced themselves to Sergeant Jones. He had regarded them coolly (Claire tall, slim and blonde, Martin short, slightly built and dark); but, even after they had shown him their identification, his manner had not changed. He made it plain to them that he could do just as well without their interference. Yet the fact was that so far he had come up with no leads, no ideas and no suspects in this baffling case; and he had known that the case was weird enough that sooner or later the bureaucrats in Canberra would send someone to assist with the investigation. He had hoped that at best he would have been allocated another uniformed officer to assist with the running of the office while he would be free to investigate the death of Eric Stephenson; at worst he hoped that the brass would send a detective from Melbourne or, more likely Adelaide, to investigate the strange death while he was left to run the office. That someone had seen fit to send what amounted to two civilians with some sort of special badges from a department he had never heard of, galled him more than he would have readily admitted. Now he knew he would have to look after these two city slickers whilst they tramped around his territory making nuisances of themselves.
Both Claire and Martin had encountered this kind of reception before, and, although it did not make their task any easier, they had found in the past that it was best not to further antagonize the local officials in any way. Martin, therefore, made it very clear to Sergeant Jones that he was to continue his workload in the usual manner and forget that they were even there.
Bryan Jones simply grunted. He knew that sooner or later these two city investigators would need his services in some form or another; or that they would simply march off into the surrounding countryside never to be seen again. He had seen it all before: he knew that it was bound to happen again.
"To finalize our business with you today, Sergeant," Martin concluded; “Claire and I would like to view the body, if possible. When we have done that we shall find ourselves a motel and get ourselves settled in for a few nights. Do you have anywhere you can recommend?”
“The Mount Nancy Motel along the Stuart Highway is just as good as any,” offered Jones begrudgingly. At least he would know where they were staying if he needed to chase them up over anything. “It’s clean and fairly centrally located, and it’s not too expensive. Also the meals they serve in the motel restaurant are just about the best in town.”
“Thank you,” said Claire, smiling her most engaging smile. “Now if you could direct us to the morgue, we shall remove ourselves and cease interfering any further with your busy routine.”
Jones grunted and headed for the main door to his office. “I’ll take you there and introduce you. Then I’ll have to leave you to your own devices.”
“Thank you again,” smiled Claire winningly, her blue eyes reflecting the smile. “We know how busy you must be.”
“Yeah,” he grunted and opened the door, in no way at all affected by her wiles. Without another word he passed out of the office and into the street, leaving Martin and Claire to follow if they chose.
Martin glanced sideways at Claire, raising his eyebrows. She winked with her left eye, but did not speak. Together they hurried in the wake of the tall, burly sergeant.
As it turned out the morgue was located at the back of the funeral parlor on the other side of the railway line that effectively divided the town in two. When they reached the street, the sergeant was already in his Landcruiser, with the motor running. “Follow me,” he called and drove off.
Claire and Martin quickly climbed into the Volvo and followed the rapidly departing four-wheel drive.
By the time they reached the imposing edifice that housed this important amenity and had alighted from their vehicle, Sergeant Jones was waiting for them, one hand poised to open the door to the main entrance, one foot tapping impatiently on the footpath beneath his feet.
Claire smiled and entered the building. Martin followed closely behind with Bryan Jones right on his heels. It was cool but gloomy inside the reception area of the funeral parlor and, once the main door had closed behind the sergeant’s back, the only light came from a desk lamp that sat astride the counter directly in front of them. A middle-aged woman was seated behind this counter, which doubled as a work desk, her eyes glued to a computer monitor in front of her, her fingers busily locating letters on the keyboard over which they fairly flew. She had obviously not heard them enter.
Bryan Jones marched straight up to the counter and struck the small bell located there with such force that, even though both Martin and Claire had been expecting the sound, its harsh, shrill jangle made them both start a little. The woman behind the counter, however, merely turned her head sideways to take in the cause of this sudden interruption. Her face lit with a smile as they espied the form of Bryan Jones and her fingers paused in mid strike, hovering like vultures over the keyboard.
Then her eyes registered the presence of the two strangers and her manner changed. She did not become unfriendly, but her smile faded and her voice, when she spoke, was cool and soft. “Yes, Sergeant,” she addressed the policeman, while removing a small set of headphones from about her head; “can I help you?”
He cleared his throat. “Yes, Janice; these people have come to view the body of Eric Stephenson.”
Janice raised her eyebrows at this information, but her manner did not otherwise change. “Relatives are they?” she asked.
“No,” began the sergeant; “but I don’t think that’s our concern right now. Is Peter in the back or is he out somewhere on other business?”
“He’s not in at the moment,” Janice informed him. “So, if they’re not relatives, what do they want with the body?” she asked.
“Since Peter’s not here, I’ll take them straight through,” he advised, staring straight into her eyes and ignoring her question. For a moment there was something that passed between the two of them, then the contact was broken as she averted her eyes. “If that’s all right with you,” he added, already moving around the end of the counter to a door marked PRIVATE.
“Of course,” answered Janice, already repositioning the headphones on her head. “Take them through and let them see what they make of it.” She had already begun to type back the dictation that was stored on the tape of the dictating machine beside her computer.
Claire cast a quick glance at Martin, this time raising her own eyebrows. He simply smiled as they followed closely in the footsteps of their guide.
In a cool, brightly lit room at the rear of the funeral parlor was located a dissecting table, cabinets full of medical instruments, several drawers for storing bodies, a stainless steel sink, numerous framed certificates, and, along one wall, a hospital trolley upon which lay a stiff white sheet that appeared to cover a number of irregular objects of some kind. Striding towards this, Sergeant Bryan Jones grasped one corner of the sheet and whisked it off whatever was concealed beneath it. What was revealed was indeed a body, but one that had been flattened out so that it resembled little more than a cardboard cut-out. If the sergeant’s intention had been to startle his two guests, he was badly mistaken.
“This is Eric Stephenson,” he said by way of introduction. “Or what’s left of him. Examine him at your leisure.” And as the two investigators stepped forward: “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
With that he turned on his heel and, without another word, left as quickly as he had arrived.
As the door to the morgue sighed closed on its pneumatic arm, Claire and Martin approached the body before them, examining it with their eyes only, neither saying a word.
It was Martin who first broke the silence that had surrounded them since the policeman’s departure. “What do you make of that then?” he asked, stepping as he did so towards the head of the corpse.
“I think he’s dead,” replied Claire straight-faced.
Martin cast a quick, amused grin in her direction. “Jones and the woman, Claire. I meant Jones and the woman,” he explained, faking exasperation.
Claire grinned in turn. “Oh!” she said. “I’d say there’s something going on there.”
“I thought you’d pick up on that. And whatever it was, they didn’t want us to know about it. More of that later, though. For now, let’s get this over and done with, shall we.”
While they had been talking they had been superficially examining the cadaver before them on the gurney, noting the purple bruise on the shin where it had been skun a little. Now, Martin moved closer, looking intently at the cuts that the coroner had made in the victim’s chest and the crude way in which they had been restitched. With the man’s organs and bones removed from his chest cavity, there could be no doubting the fact that he looked as though he had been run over by a steamroller.
Martin now turned his attention to the head of the deceased man. Unlike the rest of the cadaver, this part of the man’s body had not been flattened, appearing huge in comparison to the remainder of the corpse. Taking a plastic packet from his pocket, Martin tore at the top edge with his teeth and then extracted a pair of rubber gloves. These he stretched over his hands and bent to more closely examine the dead man’s head. He hefted the skull, feeling of its weight, before slowly turning it to one side in order to study the back of the deceased’s cranium. His fingers began to probe the back of the head that was hidden beneath the man’s long, lank hair.
A noise off to one side of the chamber caused Martin to glance in that direction; but he merely grinned at what he saw and continued with his investigation. Claire, he noted, had retreated to the sink located at one side of the room and was noisily throwing up.
Satisfied with his inspection of the head, Martin at last turned his attention to Eric Stephenson’s face. That the man had died in horrific circumstances was obvious: his eyes were wide and staring, his teeth were bared, his lips pulled back in a rictus of fear, and the flesh was a pasty color that had managed to erase the dead man’s ruddy complexion but had failed to blanche the myriad of tiny drink-emphasized veins that ran, like cobwebs, across the entirety of the dead face.
As he concluded his investigation, Martin was aware that Claire, white-faced and sniffing, had re-joined him. “Do you have a hankie I can borrow?” she asked. “I seem to have misplaced mine.”
“Right!” he announced, reaching into his jeans’ pocket and extracting a freshly ironed handkerchief. He passed this to her without commenting on her little excursion to the sink. “Let’s go and locate that motel and get ourselves settled in. I don’t know about you, but I definitely could do with a shower.”
Less than ten minutes after Claire and Martin had thanked the receptionist at the funeral parlor and had driven off in the Volvo, Sergeant Bryan Jones once more entered the reception area and approached the counter where sat Janice Porter. This time, however, his entrance did not pass unnoticed; in fact, she was waiting expectantly for him for she knew that he would return once the two strangers had completed their business and had left the premises.
“Janice,” he said the moment that the door had sighed closed behind him; “did you tell them anything?”
“Don’t be bloody stupid,” she replied, the color high in her cheeks. “They didn’t even ask my anything. Anyway, it’s just as well they didn’t because you didn’t even attempt to warn me.”
“I couldn’t.” He had stepped across the intervening space between the door and the counter, his long legs eating up the distance in but a few strides. “They arrived in my office unannounced only minutes before they insisted I bring them here.”
She rose from her chair, heading around the counter to the side where he stood. She was tall herself, bottle-blonde, with a well-preserved figure which the outfit she was wearing accentuated now that she was no longer seated behind the counter. She wore a very short skirt and high heels. And, despite a few lines that had been etched into her face by the climate of the area, her features were fine and unblemished in any way.
“Well, I didn’t tell them anything, so there’s no harm done,” she said quietly, reaching him and placing a hand on his shoulder. He was trembling, she noted, but whether from fear or from passion she could not tell. “Unless,” she added thoughtfully, looking into his eyes; “you told them something you shouldn’t have.”
He started, surprised at her quiet accusation, but then the smile of earlier returned to his face and he turned so that he was facing her full on. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he answered. “As a matter of fact, they didn’t ask me anything either, except to recommend a motel.” And he laughed.
“Then I hope you had the good sense to recommend the Mount Nancy,” and she, too, laughed out loud.
“You should know me better than that. Of course I recommended the Mount Nancy.”
The laughter and the little exchange released the slight tension that had been between them since Janice had noticed the two strangers in the office and now Bran Jones pulled the woman to him, crushing her curvaceous figure against his. They kissed, passionately and lingeringly, the kiss of lovers who meet far too infrequently.
When the kiss was over, Janice drew back from him a little and placed her mouth against his right ear. “I’m not wearing any panties,” she whispered conspiratorially.
“You wicked woman,” he muttered into her neck, his breathing quickening as he felt his passion start to rise in his groin. He placed his hands on her thighs where her short skirt ended and commenced to run his hands up under the material until he was cupping both her buttocks in his large, calloused hands. She was wearing neither knickers nor pantyhose and her flesh felt warm, whilst her bottom itself felt round and tight. “But what about your husband?”
“Peter? Oh, I’m not sure what he’s wearing." He glanced into her face for a fleeting moment, and then commenced to laugh at her little joke. Janice joined in his laughter before continuing: "Don’t worry about him. He’s gone out to the airport to take care of some business. He won’t be back for hours yet.”
“In that case, why don’t we just take advantage of the situation?"
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
She kissed him lightly on the mouth and moved away towards the door. She turned over the sign in the window, changing it from OPEN to CLOSED and slipped the bolts at the top and bottom of the portal into place.
“There!” she muttered. “That should keep the locals out of our hair for as long as we need.” She walked back towards him, her hips swaying seductively.
Sergeant Jones licked his lips, his tongue indicating what he would do to her once he had her at his mercy, and reached out for her as she moved within reach. She slapped his hands away good-naturedly.
“Not here,” she scolded. “How many times must I tell you that?” She laughed. “If you’re really good, though, I’ll let you make love to me on the table in the back where Peter performs his autopsies.”
He smiled, a light of pure lust entering his eyes. His penis stiffened at the thought.
Janice smiled wickedly, tracing her fingers over the front of his trousers. “I see you’re just about ready for me.”
She laughed, took his hand and led him through the door marked PRIVATE.



     “I’m glad that you changed your mind,” commented Martin Mitchell as he soaped his grimy body under the cascade of warm water from the showerhead.
“Changed my mind about what?” queried Claire Jennings, watching the sudsy water run over and down her companion’s body.
“Throwing up on my boots when we were viewing the body back there,” he answered, handing her the soap and allowing the full force of the water to land on the back of his neck. There was a slight stiffness developing there that had resulted from their long drive from Melbourne.
‘Oh that,” she chuckled. “It wasn’t so much a matter of changing my mind as it was of being able to make it to the sink before I totally disgraced myself.”
“Well, I’m so pleased that you were able to maintain SOME control over your bodily functions.”
“You know that I have NEVER been able to view a corpse without being physically sick. It’s not something that I can choose to do or NOT to do.“
He stepped out from directly under the water and allowed Claire to take his place. He watched as the water struck her shoulders then ran in tiny rivulets down her slender body. He noted her erect nipples and he felt himself stiffening.
“All I know is that you threatened to throw up all over my boots if you were ever forced to view another body. I’m just so grateful that you changed your mind.”
“Uh huh,” she grunted, splashing her face with cupped hands filled with water. “And just what did you find out about the victim?”
Martin cast a quick glance over his shoulder before answering. “Not here. Not now,” he eventually said. “We’ll go somewhere later--once we’ve had something to eat--and I’ll fill you in then.”
“Why not now?” Her voice denoted puzzlement, but her eyes told him she understood.
“Didn’t you notice anything?" he asked, changing the subject.”
“You mean about the heat?”
“The heat and the hostility.”
She kissed his mouth and slid open the shower door.
“The hostility is about what I expected,” she said, stepping out of the shower and reaching for a towel. “But the heat seems to be much more intense that I would have expected...especially for this time of the year.”
“Far too hot, far too intense,” he agreed, shutting off the taps and joining her in the small bathroom where he also reached for a towel. “Tomorrow I want you to check up on some weather details for me. Think you can do that without throwing up?”
“You bastard!” she hissed, pretending to be furious. She swung her towel with the obvious intention of flicking him across the buttocks with it, but he grabbed the end of it and used the material to pull her towards him. He forced her arms to her sides, moved in close to her and hugged her to him, his arms encircling her.
“You bastard!” she repeated. “You’re still wet and you know I’ve just dried my…”
The pressure of his lips against hers cut off further words. At first she stiffened in his grasp, but only for a second; then she melted in his arms, her long body fused against his. The kiss lingered for some moments before he pushed them slightly apart. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gently brought pressure to bear there. She commenced to assume a kneeling position before him, smiling knowingly, her eyes never leaving his.
“Here’s something I KNOW you love to eat, and I KNOW you won’t throw up over either.”
She dropped her face to his groin and opened her mouth willingly.
For several minutes the only sound in the motel room was the noise of the air-conditioner as it attempted, only somewhat successfully, to counteract the effects of the unseasonable heat. Then came the sound of Martin grunting, a sound that was somewhat like that of a wild cat coughing in the night, a sound that ended with a quick intake of breath.
Claire rose to her feet, licking her lips, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Perspiration had once more begun to trickle down the cleft between her heaving breasts. Martin, too, was no longer merely dripping with water from the shower.
“That was nice,” she announced with a smile a satisfaction on her face; “but I hope you’re going to provide something more substantial for me now that I’ve had the entree.” She kissed him lightly on the end of his nose. “Right now though, I think I need a quick shower to cool me down again.”
She turned on the water once more and, when the shower was at the temperature she desired, stepped back into the small cubicle. Without a word Martin joined her again and they assisted each other in washing sweat from their bodies, continually turning the hot water back in an effort to cool themselves.
Once dried, dressed and ready for the road, the two investigators headed out to the motel car park and the Volvo waiting there for them.
As Claire unlocked the driver’s side door, she commented dryly: “What a mess! The car looks like it hasn’t been washed for months!”
“Never mind, darling,” responded Martin as he opened the passenger side door and entered the car. “Just think what it would have looked like if we’d hit one of those rocky outcrops when we ran off the road, or smacked into that old man kangaroo, for that matter.”
Claire wedged herself into the driver’s seat, pushing it all the way back to accommodate her long legs.
“You’re right there. It could have been a right mess…we could have ended up a right mess!”
She started the engine and reversed out of the parking bay in front of their unit. Selecting first gear, she eased out of the parking lot and stopped to give way to traffic traveling along the Stuart Highway.
“Where to?” she asked, her hand poised over the indicator.
“Right, I think. Why don’t we find a fish ‘n’ chip shop then head out to Ayers Rock? I always wanted to see it at sunset.”
"You are aware that Ayers Rock is more than two hundred kilometers from here?"
"All the better."
Claire selected the direction indicated and they drove slowly along the Stuart Highway until they located a small cafe where they purchased hamburgers, chips and cappuccinos to appease their appetites.
Their simple if greasy repast over, they settled back into their respective car seats, both remaining quiet until they had reached the town’s perimeter. Once there, and beyond the restricted zone, Claire accelerated hard, finally selected fifth gear and let the automobile cruise along the straight stretch of tarmac.
“So, my sweet, what did you learn from the victim’s body when you examined it earlier this afternoon?” the woman finally ventured.
“You mean while you were being sick?” He smiled.
She smiled a sickly grin in return. “Yes. While I was being successful in not throwing up on your new boots.”
He laughed. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “I found a tiny fragment of bone!”
“That’s right!  It was lodged in his hair at the back of his skull!”
“And there was no damage to his skull, right?”
“So how do you expect it got there?”
“I don’t know!”
Perplexed, she lapsed into silence and Martin waited for her to regather her thoughts after this disclosure. Claire possessed a most analytical mind and she was more than likely to come up with answers that he would never have dreamed about. “So, why didn’t you wish to talk in the motel? Afraid there might be hidden microphones or something?” she eventually asked.
He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, wondering if she had not fully understood him when they had been emerging from the shower in their room. Then he decided that she had, that she simply needed him to help clarify his and her thoughts with a vocalization of his suspicions. “Didn’t you notice how quickly Sergeant Jones recommended the Mount Nancy Motel to us?”
The look she gave him suggested that this had indeed not escaped her notice, so he continued without waiting for an answer. “He didn’t even have to think it over at all. Now, either he directs people to that motel every day (which I seriously doubt), or he had some particular reason for suggesting we go there (which is a distinct possibility), or he had a first-hand experience with that particular motel (which is highly likely) and it came to mind without any really conscious thought on his part.”
“Janice Porter and the sergeant?” mused Claire, her eyes never leaving the road before her. "I know we both picked up some sort of connection between them in the funeral parlor."
“Yes. But whatever his reasons, I didn’t wish to discuss the case while we were there just on the off-chance there was more to its selection than the sergeant’s guilty conscience.”
He paused as his companion pulled out to pass a vehicle with Victorian number plates. The car was crawling along the highway at what seemed to be a snail’s pace.
“So, what then do we really know about this case?”
“Well, firstly,” Claire began; “we know that a man has been murdered.”
“One!” Martin laughed, but extended his left thumb.
“We know that his organs and his bones were crushed or removed without there being a trace of however this was accomplished.”
“Two!” His finger was extended to join his thumb.
“We also know that the locals are distinctly hostile. That could be because we’re outsiders and they resent our intrusion…”
…or they have something to hide and are frightened about what we might discover in our investigations.”
“Which do you think?”
“It’s too soon to tell.”
“Okay, then. Three!” A second finger joined the first and thumb. “What next?”
“Someone tried very desperately to prevent us from getting here.”
“Not a fact.”
“But what about the suddenly booked airlines?”
“Coincidence? A glitch in the computers? Human error? Who knows?”
“What about that high-pitched noise from the mobile phone?”
“Maybe just another example of modern technology gone berserk. What did you do with it, by the way?”
“The phone? Oh, I put it in the boot. By the time I had located it lying in the dust where I had tossed it from the car, it had stopped emitting that screaming sound. It was a little dusty, but otherwise seemed none the worse for its experience.”
“What else do we know? Anything?”
“What about the old man ‘roo that stepped into the middle of the road?”
Martin laughed. It was usually he who grasped at straws when a case like this was being difficult. He found it hard to believe that Claire had suddenly undertaken that role, while he that of the detractor. Still, he was enjoying this unusual switch in their roles.
“Well, what about the kangaroo?” she repeated, turning her head slightly towards him. “Why do you think he picked that spot, while we were preoccupied with that bloody mobile phone, when the otherwise straight stretch of road suddenly decided to curve all over the place?’
“Sometimes that’s just the way things happen, that’s all.”
“Huh! I don’t know what, but right now I just have one of those feelings…call it woman’s intuition, if you like…that there are too many COINCIDENCES in this case.”
“Now, there I agree with you,” advised Martin, patting her bare leg with his right hand. They had both changed into shorts and t-shirts for the excursion to Ayers Rock. “The problem ahead of us it to pick out those things which are coincidences and those which are not.”
“Easier said than done,” she advised as she maneuvered around another car, this time with South Australian license plates. “Aren’t there any Territorians on this road?”
“The Essex,” responded Martin, ignoring the latter question.
“‘Easier Said Than Done’…a group called the Essex had a hit with it in…"
“Hardy ha ha! Thank you for that little bit of trivia. But there is something else we’ve overlooked. Something else that might just be a factor in this case.”
“And that is?”
“The weather.”
“You’re right!”
“I know I am.”
“Of course,” added Martin thoughtfully.  “It could just be…”
“…ANOTHER coincidence!”
“No. That’s not what I was thinking.”
“What then?”
“It could just be that it’s bloody hot here in the Red Center at this time of the year!”
“Oh sure! And my name’s Elle MacPherson!”
“Really! I always thought your body was too good to be just plain Claire Jennings.”
“Enough of the ‘plain’ business, buster. I’m going to check with the Weather Bureau tomorrow and find out just how unseasonable this heat is.”
“Good for you." He sighed and stretched, extending his frame in the seat. "Well, if that’s all we know about this case, let’s listen to some music and relax." He reached over and turned on the cassette player. The mellow vocal tones of Elvis Presley singing ’Witchcraft’ filled the car’s interior.
"Didn’t we play this tape already on the way to Alice Springs?" Claire asked.
"I thought you liked this tape." Martin yawned and stretched again.
"I do. I just thought we had it already."
"No, that was the other Elvis tape."
"Oh! So when is it my choice?"
As soon as this side is finished."
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, each occupied with their own thoughts, as they continued the long drive to Ayres Rock.
Some time later, Martin ejected the tape and selected another. When the music commenced, Claire recognized her favorite group, the Fureys.
"Thank you," she said to her partner. "I was beginning to think you weren’t going to give my music a turn."
"That’s okay," he answered, smiling mischievously because Claire had been right--it was the same tape. "Now is that Uluru up ahead?”
“Certainly looks like it.”
“I wish I’d brought my camera!”
“Uh huh!”

Read Chapter 6 and 7