Late evening, mid-winter, outside Armidale, along the old highway – that’s lonely.
Surrounded by treeless, frosted sheep paddocks gnawed to the root, the oddly named Palms Service Station was large, not all that old. It had been renovated fifteen years before, in readiness for more truck traffic as expressways made the coastal run more expensive. But fuel and time were soon at a premium. Supermarkets and regulators had made clock-watching serfs of those wild truckies of the seventies.
The tableland route was quiet. The Palms servo was quiet.
Inside, the lone employee, a stooped man in heavy specs, was leafing through a copy of Rugby League Week. There were no customers.
The phone rang.
“Palms Servo. Darryl speaking.”
“Darryl, it’s me, Warwick.”
“Listen, I want you to close up early. Straight away, actually. I’ll pay your full hours.”
“Close now? What’s up?”
“Nothing. It’s just that…you know Quinlivin? The one the cops hunted for two years?”
“Star of the new A-Maximum, other side of town.”
“Not any more. He got out today. Escaped.”
“Again! From A-Max? How?”
“Long story. It’s all over the news. You haven’t heard anything at all?”
“No. You don’t like us playing the radio.”
“Christ, you must be the only night manager I’ve ever had who’s obeyed that rule. Seems like Quinlivin gave himself an allergy attack with pawpaw, swelled up like a toad. As soon as they got him to hospital and medicated, he walloped his guards and ran out the front entrance. Stole a car, they think. There’s already a huge reward being offered.”
“Bugger me. He’s done it again!”
“Look, Darryl, just be careful. Lock up, then go home. Quinlivin is probably heading for the forest and the escarpment, where he knows all the caves and old shacks. But just in case he needs fuel and cash, get yourself out of there after you drop every cent to the safe. Are there any customers now?”
“Nobody. Wait. There’s a bloke on foot coming towards the place. He’s got a fuel drum in his hand.”
“What does he look like?”
“What does Quinlivin look like?”
“How long is a piece of string? You only see photos of him after time in the wild. How does this customer look?”
“Normal. My age. Looks like he’s just run out of fuel. Happens a lot since the old south Caltex closed.”
“All right. But make him the last customer for the night. And lock up tight. Bolt the lube bay.”
The scabby ute swung into the forecourt and came to a halt with a grinding of suspension and squeal of tyres. The driver jumped out. He was dressed like trouble: dark jacket and trackies, heavy gloves, a Penrith beanie pulled down low.
He saw a man in uniform, stooped, with heavy specs, turning off the last of the lights near the shop door. Gathering up several very full shopping bags, the man then stepped outside, pausing and turning to lock up. The driver rushed toward him.
“Wait. I need fuel.”
“Sorry, I’m shutting up for the night. Strict instructions from the boss.”
“I need fuel, urgently!”
“I can’t help you. The computer is turned off till the 6am shift. The pumps won’t start. Really, only the boss can start the pumps, and he’s not here.”
“Of course you can start the pumps. You just don’t want to.”
“I can’t start the pumps. The boss has to input a code. A bloke was in here a while ago to fill a drum. You might have seen him walking along the highway. I told him not to bring his car in for a fill because we’d be shutting the computer down. Instructions from the owner.”
“I don’t care about the owner or who was walking along the highway…Look, is that your Subaru parked over there?”
“If you’re leaving now, what about giving me a lift? I’ll leave the ute here. It’s a heap of junk, anyway.”
“No, I can’t do that. It’s against regulations – and I’m expected home.” As he spoke, he pulled the heavy front door shut and locked it. “But I have a mobile with me. I can call you a cab.”
“No cabs. I’m heading way into the bush. Very remote little shack. How much money you want. Fifty bucks? Plus fuel?”
The uniformed attendant stared, stepped back. Something had occurred to him.
“I’m sorry, really, but…I’m expected. If I don’t come home, there could be…people worrying…”
The other peered at his badge then his face, sneering.
“Darryl. So that’s your name. You think you know who I am, Darryl? Maybe I am who you think I am. In which case…”
The stranger drew a long flathead screwdriver from his sleeve.
“I can use this to open a man’s guts. I’ve done it before. Better than any knife. Now, you are going to drive me where I tell you. First, give me that mobile. Good. Now we’re going for a little spin through the scrub, Darryl.”
“But can’t you just take the car? Just take the car.”
“Ah, that wouldn’t leave me with much time, would it? You’d report me within minutes. And don’t say you wouldn’t, Darryl. My intelligence would be insulted. I could truss you up somewhere, of course, but, with all these cops about, I need someone known to the locals, someone in a nice, neat servo uniform, behind the wheel of his own car. Someone who isn’t a cop magnet.”
The attendant had fumbled and whimpered as he started the car.
“Don’t know your own car, Darryl?”
“It’s new. Not like my old Subie. And I have trouble doing anything with a screwdriver stuck in my ribs.”
Soon they were underway, heading south along the old New England.
“Normal speed, Darryl. The cops are out. But they won’t be likely to bother an old mole like you, in his gay uniform and his nice Subaru. Just cruise along. You normally drive without your glasses?”
“I can’t drive with them.”
“Pity. They make you look even more of an old tart. Now…here’s the Falls turnoff. Take it.”
They turned left to head east.
“Keep going slow and smooth. Cops are swarming. You know why. Just keep going till we get past the last farm. Then it’s a right turn into the forest. And remember…”
The stranger stroked the head of the screwdriver along the attendant’s ribs. He winced, and the car swerved a little.
“Careful, Darryl. We don’t want to attract attention. Now, here’s our turn.”
They were in the forest, on a dirt road, moving slow with lights on low beam.
“Now, Dazza, we’re going to stop up ahead for just a moment. Know why?”
“You’re going to send a text message to your family, explaining you’ve had a breakdown and won’t be home for some time. We don’t want the police to start looking for you or this car yet, do we? No voice, just text.”
“It’s not necessary. I live alone. No wife or girlfriend.”
The stranger looked him over with an appraising sneer.
“You know, Dazzie, I believe you. I actually do. Somehow I can’t see you as anything but a bedwetting mummy’s boy. I just can’t picture you on top of a sheila – or even under. I just can’t. So we’ll drive on.
“But you’re not a homo, I hope. Nah…you’re a nothing, aren’t you Daz? Just as well, since we’ll be spending the night together.”
“The night! You said you just wanted a lift.”
“We all say a lot of stuff. You said you had a family. No, you’ll stick with me for a bit. Tomorrow we’ll have some fun with that fancy phone of yours. There’s a reception hotspot I know, not far from where we’re going. We can do some bank transactions with your phone. From your accounts to an offshore account a Bandido mate of mine runs. He’ll kick me back fifty percent in cash. And before you tell me you haven’t got any accounts, let me tell you I hate liars, Dazzle.”
“But it’s not that kind of phone, and I don’t…”
The attendant felt the metal tip sharp between two ribs. He winced.
“There’s good news, Daz. Want to know?”
“I’m not Quinlivin!”
“I’m just an honest car thief. I was quietly doing my job around Armidale and Uralla today. That’s how to score good cars in this age of electronic security, Dazzler. Work the towns. Something about country towns. City people get out of cars and don’t bother to secure them. Rich local cockies are even worse. Those squatters think because they own the local coppers and council they can leave a new Longreach or a C Class unlocked outside the pub.
“Anyway, there I was with a flash Bluebird some young city dickhead had left parked outside the Acropolis Caf. Now this was a hot car, dripping with mods, and I’d just made it much hotter. For me, a car like that is a month’s work in a day, but their owners love them and coppers notice them. You have to get a car like that off the street within the hour – even under normal conditions. But what happened today? Bloody Quinlivin escaped and there were hundreds of coppers everywhere. Even back roads. When Quinlivin escapes, you don’t see most of the cops. They’re behind trees with infra-red, did you know that?
“I had to ditch that Bluebird and pinch the ugliest old ute I could find, just to get clear. Even pinching the ute was a huge risk on a night like this. Next thing, the ute had no fuel. The rest you know. Bloody Quinlivin. He’s very selfish – don’t you agree, Dazzler?”
“Look, can you call me Darryl, or nothing at all?”
Immediately, the stranger jabbed the screwdriver into his thigh, making the attendant squeal.
“Just a little reminder. I don’t take orders from soft turds. I don’t even take reasonable requests…Dazzlepuss. Now, I want you to pull over so I can drive. We’re going to put your jacket over your face so you can’t see the rest of the way to my special hide. That way, I won’t have to kill you later. Good idea?”
The car was moving in rough, heavily forested country. The stranger had been driving for a good half hour, while the attendant sat with his jacket wrapped about his head. Even without the blind, it would have been hard to remember a way through the maze of fire-trails.
At last, the car stopped.
“We’re going to walk the rest of the way. There are a couple of logs across a gorge where you’re going to have to be careful. Take that jacket from off your head.”
As the two men got out of the car, the attendant could see that it was parked under a massive overhang. There was a sound of rushing water nearby.
“Follow me. We don’t need a light. I know every step.”
They advanced to where the sound of water was loudest, then stopped.
“You go in front, Dazzlepie. Two straight logs across the creek, so you just have to keep balanced. I’ll be right behind you.”
The attendant advanced timidly. At one point he staggered a little and the other grabbed his arm from behind, to steady him.
“Daz, you’ve got biceps! Who’d have thunk? Pity you don’t know how to use them. Now, keep going. Nearly there…”
The two men were on solid ground again. In front of them was the outline of a shack.
“This is an old timber getter’s place. Nobody has used it since the main track on the other side disappeared in a landslip. Very private and nice, don’t you think? Quinlivin would love this place, if he knew about it. Now, just before we go in, I’m going to tie your hands behind with a bit of cord I keep in my pocket here. Just so we can relax a bit better together.”
The car thief pushed the door open. Both men entered.
There was a flurry of sounds. A human figure reared up from somewhere. Then a strange voice.
“What’s going on? Who’s that?”
“Who the bloody hell are you? What are you doing in my shack?”
“Your shack? I didn’t know it belonged to anybody. It’s within a State Forest…”
“And it’s mine! Don’t move. Stay right where you are. Wait till I get some light happening.”
The car thief went to a shelf and pushed the button of a large LED lamp.
In its glow, they saw that the intruder was a wiry, bearded man, who was seated on an old bunk-bed. His sleeping bag had fallen down to his waist.
“Look, I’m very sorry…I was just…you may not believe it but…”
“Well…I’m doing a solo bushwalking challenge.”
“Bushwalking? Alone? Where’s all the fancy equipment?”
“I’m a member of Bird Damp. Our equipment is kept minimal on purpose.”
“We’re a hiking and environmental society, based on Armidale campus. But we also raise awareness of climate and social issues. We hike holistically, ethically. The name, Bird Damp, refers to…”
“Bloody middle-aged uni student, eh? That’s a better lurk than mine.”
“Well, no. I’m a lecturer, actually. I…”
“Well? Something tells me you don’t teach dentistry.”
“I never know what to tell people about what I teach. It’s a very unusual subject called Comparative Semiotics. Not that it matters.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t. Thank Christ I don’t pay taxes. So, tell me again, what are you doing here? With no gear!”
“Well, our club constitution requires that we walk in wilderness without specially bought clothes or equipment. Everything is handed down, second-hand. Even socks. We reject excess manufacturing.”
“Excess…Are you some bloody ratbag who likes yanking people’s cords? I don’t like being made to look a dill if you are. You’re telling me you teach in a uni and buy rags from Vinnies so you can walk on your own in the freezing bloody cold? Across the New England bloody tableland in the dead of winter, dressed in used rags on purpose?”
“Look…it may not matter to most…But did you know all that specialised hiking gear is made in sweat-shops in China, Dominica, Sri Lanka, anywhere they can exploit labour conditions?”
“Maybe you should explain to my mate Darryl. He’s a tender soul. Worries about Sri Wanka and all that, I’m sure…But I’ll do you a deal, Professor Doctor Armidale. You show me some ID proving you are who you say you are, and I’ll let you stay the night here. Meanwhile, I’ll start getting some food ready.”
The car thief fossicked in a draw under a portable gas cooker. The other continued:
“Well, we don’t travel with things like licenses and IDs. The whole purpose of our group is to lose identity, merge with wilderness…”
The blow struck his temple with a cracking sound. The bearded man fell back lifeless on the bunk. The car thief stood above him with a hammer, waiting for any breath or movement.
“What have you done? You’ve killed him!”
“Have I, Darryl? Pity.”
The car thief felt about the wrist and neck of the stranger’s now lifeless body.
“Bugger it, maybe you’re right. Don’t know my own strength. Wanted to keep him fresh, because Quinlivin will be worth more money in a few days. They’ll be offering quarter of a million by next week.”
“That’s right. But I need to do some thinking. Sit down in that chair, Darryl. I’m going to have to think…”
The attendant sat in an old armchair, his arms pinned behind. The bearded man on the bunk still had not moved. There was a trickle of blood from his nostrils, and no movement of his chest to suggest breathing.
The car thief sat on a stool, crouched forward, softly whistling and nodding, as if the right thoughts were coming to him now.
“Darryl, now I’ve got Quinlivin, I have to work out the best way to hand him over. According to the radio, the present reward is a hundred and fifty thousand. I wish I could trust you…”
“But how do you know that’s Quinlivin? He looks and sounds like some educated type. Which is what he said. And how could he have a beard, if he’s just got out of jail?”
“Wake up! How do you think Quinlivin survived all these years? How do you think he got to be famous? Quinlivin can live off the land, sure – but the real trick is how he watches people and then becomes those people. I’ve been inside for pinching a Winnebago, heard all about Quinlivin. He’s all they talk about, a legend. If Quinlivin wanted to become you, he’d meet you, study you a few minutes, then he’d be you. As for the beard, he’s famous for that. Got himself some kind of medical certificate. Something to do with a skin condition and his human rights and all that sort of caper. Means that nobody really knows his face. They reckon without a beard he looks like the dead average of every bloke in Australia.
“Christ, Darryl! What would a bloke be doing out here on a night like tonight? With an old sleeping bag, some dero clothes and an old canvas bag to carry a bit of stuff? A typical Quinlivin stash. He’s got money and gear hidden all over the state, in old trees, in caves. He’s out here because he’s Quinlivin, that’s why! Use your loaf, Darryl!
“Of course, he came up with a good story. Of course, he was convincing. He can persuade anyone of anything. That’s Quinlivin. Or that was Quinlivin. He met his match tonight. A bush car thief, eh? The only bloke he couldn’t con.
“Darryl. I think I know what to do. Sadly, you don’t fit into my plans any more. That’s a pity.”
“What…what are you going to do?”
“Well, Quinlivin is worth money, lots of money. But it’s not legal to kill people, not even Quinlivin. And you’re a witness if you’re alive, whereas, if you’re dead, you’re one of his victims. Now, let me think…The Palms servo doesn’t have cameras on the forecourt, so nobody knows where I’ve been tonight…If Quinlivin had kidnapped you from the servo, and brought you here and killed you…Let me think a bit longer…And if I’d walked in on him when he was hurting you…”
“It’s crazy! Look, you can’t collect on a dead body, even if that’s Quinlivin. Let me help you bury him. I won’t talk. I’d be implicated. I won’t talk.”
“No, Darryl, I know a bit about these things. If I apprehend Quinlivin, the money’s mine. And since I know never to leave prints on a vehicle, they’ll assume he stole the ute, left it at the servo, and forced you to drive here. What could make more sense?”
“But that’s not Quinlivin! That’s just some poor misfortunate bastard you’ve killed. Check in his pockets, check for some ID. Nobody can pretend that well to be someone else. He’s just some uni bloke…”
“Well, Darryl, since you believe in pixies – and since you believe professors appear without proper gear in the middle of nowhere, with the biggest manhunt in Australian history getting underway…”
The car thief went through the small canvas bag then shook it out on the floor. Nothing. He shrugged. Next, he approached the body and began to fumble through the clothes.
“Nothing. It’s Quinlivin. The man who snuffed poor Darryl.”
“I tell you it’s not Quinlivin. Look around his neck. Check for inside pockets. What if you’ve killed someone who’s just a hiker? What will happen to you then?”
“I’ll take one more look. But this is Quinlivin. He might fool a soft dick like you, but not a pro.”
The car thief was bent over the body, perhaps a touch uncertain, if just for a moment. The other blubbered on:
“I tell you it’s not Quinlivin. It’s just some poor bloke. Quinlivin…this shack is perfect for him, he’d think this was an incredible find right after an escape…like winning the lottery…but that’s not Quinlivin…Quinlivin is here, but that’s not him.”
The car thief raised his head without turning.
“I told you, Darryl, a long time ago. I’m not Quinlivin. If I were, do you think I’d be going to all this trouble…”
He froze. Was there a change in the voice of the other, a sharper tone, just as he said the last few words?
When the car thief went to raise himself, it was too late. He could feel the bite of the rope on his throat. There was a voice next to his ear.
“No, you’re not Quinlivin. But that’s okay…I’m not Darryl.”