Well, I started this on the weekend, so it looks like I’m writing a crime novel in my spare time.
The highway went on forever, or so it seemed to Stevie. Eucalypts and spinifex on either side, sometimes flashes of creeks filled to brim by recent rains, sometimes just the long grasses rippling like a sea under the weight of the wind. But the road, the bitumen stayed the same, the long black ribbon with stripes down the middle, sometimes solid, sometimes broken. It seemed always to be straight, even though he knew it curved.
He was heading north along the Bruce, was Stevie, up to Cooktown where a mate had a pub and an offer of work. He’d exhausted his options in Brisbane, worn out his welcome too if he was honest, with relatives and friends, and even the few acquaintances who’d been happy for him to crash on their couch until he ‘got on his feet after the divorce’; he was almost forty and a bit broken and adept at getting people to feel sorry for him. What Stevie neglected to tell those who didn’t know him that well was that the divorce had occurred two years ago, and he and Sue had split mostly amicably. There’d been no kids and she’d had a career and neither needed nor wanted any financial support from him. Truth be told, he missed her income: it was reliable, steady and unlikely to result in an arrest. Stevie’s, however, was another story.
He wasn’t a thief, but he knew a lot of people who were, and sometimes those people left things with him, items that might have been seen by some folk – police-type folk – as stolen property. And that might have led said police to view Stevie as a receiver of stolen goods, which was not good. He’d only avoided a charge last time because he’d dobbed.
Another reason for Stevie to be heading north, where no one but Barry knew him and there was a clean slate, and Stevie could start afresh, work hard on avoiding people with fluid concepts of ownership, and do his best not to fuck up.
Sarina was ten minutes in the rearview mirror. He’d only stopped there for a pie and an iced coffee at a bakery, and there was a fat vanilla slice (puffy pastry, unnaturally yellow custard) in a white paper bag on the seat next to him, because he couldn’t resist the things; had loved them since his grandma first bought him one after he’d accompanied her to bingo and been a very good boy. Stevie wasn’t driving fast – the job would be there when he arrived – and he wasn’t doing his Australian male best to ‘make good time’, unlike his father and his father before him, and all those fathers back to the invention of the car … although it was also probably something men did when there were only horses and wagons … and before that Shanks’s Pony. Nah, he was enjoying himself, looking out the windows (although keeping an eye out for roos morning and night because those bloody things would go right through your windscreen and tear the shit out of you with their claws as they died and then you weren’t half fucked), taking in the scenery.
Besides the faded green Holden Kingswood wouldn’t react well to a sustained burst of speed. She was like an old athlete, remembered her paces but she petered out after a bit. She’d get him where he wanted to go, but it wasn’t going to be a quick trip.
That was why, really, he saw the suitcase.
That was why he noticed how new looking it was.
Silver and a bit shiny, one of those expensive ones, hard case high-tech plastic. It had no doubt come off the roof rack of an equally silver and shiny four-wheel-drive carrying professional parents and two-point-five children; both parents no doubt regretting the decision to drive instead of fly wherever they were going, however short the trip. Stevie slowed down; he’d passed the suitcase. There were no other vehicles around so he did a u-turn and drove back to the spot by the side of the road where the thing had been.
This, he told himself, was neither stealing nor receiving. This was salvage, and no one could say otherwise. Especially if they didn’t know about it. Stevie pulled over onto the shoulder, made sure he wasn’t likely to get swiped if some idiot suddenly appeared, trying to break a land speed record to wherever or a Double-B flying against a deadline (driver probably flying too on wakey-wakey pills).
He got out of the car, giving the sticky door a gentle kick as he did so, and headed down the slight slope to the silver rectangle. The ground was damp and he felt water seeping into his old Dunlop Volleys – he’d replace them when he got his first pay or, if this suitcase had anything of value in it like electronics or jewellery, maybe sooner – and did his best not to slip. He could see now there were marks on the outside of the case, water and mud. It had gone into a creek somewhere and been washed up here, left behind as the flood subsided; he wondered how far it had come. He hoped whatever was inside hadn’t been damaged.
Still, he wouldn’t know until he got it open, would he?
At last he got his hands on it, the handle wasn’t slick but there was a crust of dried mud around it that made the holding unpleasant, like grabbing an old desiccated snakeskin. The case was heavier than he’d expected and Stevie made a face, pleasantly surprised, as he hauled the thing back up the slope. When he got to his car, he let the suitcase go and took a breather. Leaning against the bonnet, he looked around: nothing to see but landscape. No cattle nor sheep nor horses; no humans, no vehicles. Not even clouds in the sky, just the burning blue ceiling that covered Australia. Stevie was sweating even though it was April: the country really only had two settings, burning and freezing, and maybe four days of ‘liveable’ either side. Ah well, made you tough. Midges and flies were starting to buzz around his head, and something had worked its way through the thick hair on his legs to get at the skin. The bites were sharp and would swell, itching and driving him nuts pretty soon.
He’d best hurry up before this all seemed like a bad idea.
Stevie crouched in front of the suitcase, ran his fingers over the Samsonite label, delighted to find the lock combo was set to all zeros. He grasped the zippers and pulled. The noise was loud in the still air. Stevie used one finger to flip the lid open, but before the action was even complete he wished he hadn’t.