Her Stolen Passenger
May Harp can smell the smoke as she watches the fire swallow her home in a writhing, squirming mass of brilliant heat. In the darkness of the sweaty rainforest at midnight, she sits behind the steering wheel of the Ford Thunderbird at the far end of a gravel track, just before the turn. She blinks and when she puts a hand to her face to wipe the thin strands of black hair from her eyes, she feels that the muscles of her jaw are as hard as fists.
Harp sighs and shakes her head, swears to herself and winds the crank on the door to drop the window. The night air is warm on her face and Harp flicks on the air-conditioning with a quick snatch at the dashboard.
She watches the destruction ahead of her, the turmoil and chaos of screaming neighbours and terrified volunteers, with a tight, almost flat frown.
There are no street lamps or nearby houses so deep in the rainforest, so the world outside that enormous point of flame is entirely black. The faces of the nearest palm trees, all entombed by vines, hang down to stare at the carnage, but the trunks of these giants are lost into the natural gloom outside of this human interference.
Even from this far distance, Harp can tell the firefighters apart from the civilians. The reflective strips of high visibility material on their uniforms move from the blaze out into the darkness and back again like swooping magpies.
Something in the house explodes and a plume of red flame with black smoke slips out over the mud and sparse, tall spears of lawn. A frantic chorus of screams is projected out into the rainforest.
Harp swears again, this time in Mandarin and this time much more fervently. Her frown deepens until one of her crooked front teeth points out of her head in a tiny triangle. She presses the little “A/C” button on the dashboard of the car to turn off the cool air and she cranks up the heat as high as it will go. She places a palm over each ventilation duct in front of her and wraps her thin fingers over the plastic like talons. Beads of sweat begin to form on her forehead and they reflect the red, orange and yellow of the burning. Thin trickles of the salty body fluid run down her thin frame, under her shirt, from armpits adorned with coarse, dense black hair.
The animal of that murderous fire seems to be growing tired as the peaks of the tallest tongues dip and sway and finally die. The bungalow in front of Harp, now a pile of destroyed building materials, is smouldering and the spears of water from the firefighters’ hoses seem to be calming the final glowing patches. Steel stems topped with floodlights are erected to light the scene as the onlookers trudge off into the night with torches and small lanterns.
People are resting and removing layers of protective clothing. There’s so much moisture in the air now that the beads of sweat from Harp’s face have swollen and run in rivers to the collar of her top.
A tall man in a Queensland Fire Service uniform approaches her vehicle. He’s scratching at his short blonde hair and slipping in rapid, unsteady bursts on the gravel path. He reaches the vehicle and he’s holding a firefighter’s helmet under his arm like a roman soldier.
“Miss Harp?” he begins, but she does not move and she does not reply. Her palms are still pressed to the ducts pumping hot air into her car and she continues staring at the place her house once stood.
“They told me to talk to you before the police get here. Well, before the important cops, I guess. There are a few coppers dealing with the onlookers-“
“They want you to talk to me before the detectives get here. So talk,” Harp says in quick, defined syllables.
The man shuffles his feet and he opens his mouth to speak once more, but Harp looks up at him with furious black eyes sitting in thin sockets and nothing but air comes out of his mouth.
“Talk,” she repeats.
“The building is totally destroyed, I’m sorry, there’s nothing left. But, there’s a safe in the floor of the bedroom that we think might have survived.”
“It’s blast proof, it’ll be fine.”
“OK, well, um.”
“I was asked to find out if it’s, you know, good to open?”
“Good to open?”
“Yeah, if it’s dangerous for us to open.”
Harp lets out a short chuckle and says, “Why would I rig a trap to a safe in my own room? How am I supposed to sleep on top of that?”
“OK, so it won’t, you know, explode or anything?”
“It’s full of money and there are a few guns. I’m sure whoever opens it will be pleased.”
“OK. There’s something else.”
“I know people are dead in there. Tell me, how many bodies?”
“What? Only one?”
“Yes!” Harp barks and her lips tremble as she draws in two shuddering gulps of stinking oxygen, “Is there only one body in the house?”
“Yes, I’m so sorry, but it’s a child. An infant in a crib.”
“Just the one child? You’re certain?”
“Yes, well, we haven’t uncovered anything else, there still might be-“
Harp turns the key in the ignition and spins the car around in a spiral of screeching tyres and flung gravel. She flicks the headlights on, engages the high-beams and accelerates into the night.
Taylor Wu pulls her car over to the side of the slim, muddy road as she hears the sirens of the fire trucks approaching. The vehicle is dark green and it’s as camouflaged as a toad on such a black night. Tears stream down her face while the baby in the backseat screams and screams and screams. The noise of the wailing in the car makes Wu all the more nervous and she pulls short, rampant breaths into her lungs without any control over her diaphragm.
“Shhhhhhh, please, please Harrison. Please be quiet. Shhhhhhh,” she begs the infant as he lies on his back in the bassinet.
Wu can’t see past the bend in the road ahead, but she can hear the sirens of the firefighting trucks approaching and, in an instant, the rainforest is soaked in red flashing lights.
Wu shrieks as the huge vehicles suddenly turn the corner ahead and the lights from the massive machines blind her momentarily.
Now they’ve moved on and the cacophony of alarms slips away towards the distant glow to the north.
Wu takes a moment to force a single, deep breath into her lungs. She wipes the veil of tears from her eyes and shoots Harrison a fake smile before moving the car back onto the road. Harrison is still screaming while his tiny red feet and hands are flicked up around the bassinet in which he squirms.
As Wu nears the river, she sees the sign stating ‘Daintree Rainforest Ferry,’ and she parks the car at the back of the line of vehicles. There’s a round woman pacing up and down the column of vehicles collecting the ticket fee and balls of fat gather on her cheeks as she smiles at Wu.
“Good evening, two dollars, please. Are you all right love?” the fee collector asks when Wu winds down her window and Harrison’s cries fill the night.
“Yeah,” Wu begins as she wipes her face once more. “We’re fine, he just hates travelling at night.”
“Awwww, bless him. Is he yours?”
“Yes, he’s mine. Yes.”
A giggle leaves Wu’s lips as she looks back at the tiny boy.
“How precious. How old is he? Let me guess, nine months?”
“Close, he’s eight months.”
“Hmm, they can be a handful, can’t they?”
“They sure can,” Wu sniffles, “But we’re not going far tonight.”
“That’s good, enjoy your evening little guy,” the attendant finishes, collects the fare and waves to the backseat.
The solid platform of the ferry fills with cars and the cables that hold it on its track dip slightly as the bulk of the machine moves out over the crocodile-infested river. The vehicle creeps across the black water and sneaks quietly through the dark night.
Other passengers are peeking out of their car windows and glimpsing down at the liquid, or up at the black, cloudy sky, but Wu stares back at Harrison and smiles. As the ferry reaches its destination at the other bank, the first cars move slowly onto dry ground and accelerate off into the night.
Wu follows a moment later, steering her vehicle onto the sealed road and quickly bringing the car up to the speed limit. She looks back behind her and into the rear-view mirrors at the people following her away from The Daintree Rainforest National Park. The brilliant balls of light from another vehicle’s headlights are ruining her vision and she squints to see if she can recognise the vehicle. This car is right behind Wu and she slows a little to warn the other machine to back off, but the daunting car moves to sit just a few centimetres behind her boot.
“No,” she groans as she realises it’s a red Thunderbird.
“No, no oh God no, it can’t be her,” Wu prays as she presses her foot down on the accelerator and speeds ahead of the pursuer. A decent gap stretches out between to two cars, but then the Thunderbird jerks forwards and approaches once again.
Wu can’t push her vehicle any harder and the steering wheel is trembling in her white-knuckled fists. The Thunderbird approaches, bearing down on Wu and taunting her with its superior speed.
“No, oh, what have I done?”
The Thunderbird swerves on the road, missing the rear of Wu’s car by no more than a couple of centimetres and Wu is certain that the machine will knock hers and send her vehicle into a chaotic, spiralling roll.
Wu slams her foot down on the brake and throws the car onto the emergency lane beside the road. Wu’s vehicle’s rear end skids to a halt and Wu looks up to the passing Thunderbird to see a pack of young men laughing and waving obscene hand gestures down to her.
“I’m sorry honey,” she says as she looks back to the wailing infant.
“It’s going to be all right, I promise.”
Cairns is lit with yellow streetlight as Wu and the child arrive in the early hours of the morning and Wu parks the vehicle in the car park of a seaside hotel. She steps out into the warm air and leans on the vehicle for a moment to stretch. Harrison is asleep so she silently gets into the back with him. He garbles and he’s snoring in tiny, quick puffs. Wu places a hand on his warm belly and the infant settles into a silent and tranquil slumber.
“It’s going to be all right,” she says as she closes her eyes to rest for a moment.
When she opens them, the sun has risen above the horizon and the final remnants of morning dew are returning to the sky. A young couple is glimpsing at Wu periodically as they walk hand in hand towards the nearby hotel. Wu steps out of the vehicle and an old man walking a dog through the car park deliberately looks away.
“Good morning sunshine, are you hungry?” she asks Harrison as she unclips him and raised the infant to rest on her bosom. He clutches at her collar and makes unimpressed sounds until Wu sits back in the car, undoes two shirt buttons and feeds the young boy.
As soon as Harrison seems content, Wu carries him to the main road and she draws two thousand dollars out of an ATM.
“Everything is going to be all right.”
Harp leaves the Daintree River Ferry behind in that dark, evening forest and her red Thunderbird charges onto the main road. There are no cities in the distance or passing towns, so the horizon is entirely black, and grey with the passing bulbs of clouds. She slips past every other vehicle around her and soon she’s barrelling down the highway. She slides the machine into a service station advertising unleaded petrol for 61.7 cents per litre and stumbles down out of the car. She stands here, bent and hunched and groaning with pain, and she pulls out her long, fibreglass hiking stick from beside the seat.
Holding the extendable stick in-between her legs, Harp forces her back to straighten. She produces a small bottle of pills from her pocket and swallows a couple before filling the car with gas in the lonely lot.
Her legs move her between the fuel pumps and into the service station easily, but her spine threatens to topple over and Harp clutches to the elongated hiking stick to support her back.
“Are you all right ma’am?” the young attendant asks as she arrives at the counter and pays the bill.
“Yes, yes, thank you for asking. But, I do have a small problem. I was supposed to meet my son earlier today and I got lost.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Could I please use your phone?”
The attendant scratches his nose and Harp notices the valley of a harelip surgery scar below his nostril before he passes her a small beige handset, stretching the winding cord from a dock beside the register. He retreats back into an office.
Harp reaches over, taps at the numbers with agitated jabs and she puts the speaker to her ear.
“Who’s this?” a male voice answers.
“Have you heard about the fire?”
“Oh damn, Harp? That you? Yeah, I heard.”
“What are you doing?”
“Hey, come one, don’t be like that. Just ‘cause I don’t work for you no more doesn’t mean I’m gonna ignore ya. We’ve been trying to find you.”
“We’re on the way up now, we’re almost at the ferry.”
“Come back to the last servo on the highway. I’m here. I’m on the move.”
“What? Why? Your goddamn house is on fire.”
“The house is gone. I don’t care about that. Find Wu.”
“Why? Wasn’t she in the house? I thought she’d be with you.”
“No. She’s disappeared and there was only one kid inside the fire.”
“Is that a serious question? How the hell would I know that? It’ll be weeks before the charred-bloody-crispy body is identified.”
“Damn. I’m sorry-“
“Shut your mouth.”
“Yeah, you’re right. We need to find Wu.”
“Yes, we do.”
“OK. I’ll put the word out and I’ll meet you at the servo in fifteen minutes.”
“Good. Be quick, I don’t want to stay in one place. The cops just found a kid’s body in my house, they’re looking for me.”
Harp hangs up and calls out, “Thanks again,” in a sweet, chirping tone as she walks out of the building.
She moves with her stick and that quick, unsteady stroll out to her vehicle and drives it across the street to sit at a highway rest stop. A spattering of small, white moths congregate around the lights of the car and Harp listens to the SNAP and CRACK of the cooling bonnet in the hushed space beside the road. When Harp sees the vehicle of the men she’s waiting for arrive at the petrol station, she flicks her lights at them and they drive over to park beside her in the vacant bitumen plot. All windows are rolled down and the four men in the second car announce how sorry they are.
“Shut your mouths, all of you. What have you done so far?”
“Big Ben spoke to-” one of the passengers begins to answer, but the driver cuts him off.
“I’ve spoken to the boys in Brissy. If she goes south, they’ll be waitin’.”
“That’s too far, we need to get to her before then. We need to find her now. I don’t want this to draw out.”
“Where do you reckon she’ll go?” Ben asks through a beard so dense that his lips look like nothing more than fingertips.
“Definitely south, there’s too much road to the north and not enough people for a little Asian slut to blend in.”
“If she’s an idiot. There are so many cameras and toll booths on the highway that we’ll find her straight away.”
“Do we need to watch the airports?”
“No, she doesn’t have a passport; she’s here illegally.”
“Forget that, let’s find her tonight.”
“All right, well,” Ben begins as he sticks a thick finger into one nostril and scratches around a bit. He flicks a long string of snot out the window and it spirals through the air like the tail rotor of a helicopter. He says, “We’re watching her credit card and we’ll know if she gets a parking ticket in that green piece of junk she drives, so we’ll find her soon enough.”
“Good. When you find her, I want you to tell me where she is and back off.”
Harp widens her eyes so that the men can see the rims of the huge black bowls within them and says, “Because I’m going to get her myself.”
A passenger in the second car mutters, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“What? Who said that?” Harp asks the back seat of the vehicle.
“What he means is,” Ben says, “This is really Angela’s problem, with the kid and all, so don’t you reckon we should probably put everyone on it? We don’t want to screw it up.”
Harp leans back in her seat and grins to herself. She takes a moment to mutter something in Mandarin before looking back and saying, “Boy’s, little boys, I’m going to do it because I know you’ll screw it up.”
The men all look to one another and Ben says, “We can do-”
“I don’t care what you think you’re capable of, this needs to be done properly. We’re talking about my grandson here, there will be no excuses and no errors.”
“If you say so.”
“What did Angela say when you told her about the fire and the body?”
Ben doesn’t answer; instead, he looks forward through the dirty windscreen and shakes his head.
“What does that mean?” Harp asks.
“No one knows where she is. She was at a club in Surfer’s Paradise last week and she was really, really messed up and-”
“That’s just bloody perfect. Perfect. Christ, she’s so hopeless,” Harp continues to mutter under her breath and the men all stare down at their laps.
“Listen to me, Ben,” now Harp points a bony finger at him, “Find that useless boyfriend of hers and, are you listening?”
“Cut off one of his feet if he’s lost her too. Do you understand?”
“Jesus, yeah, all right. I get it.”
“I’m not playing now. We’re going to sort this out now. Agreed? Tonight.”
“Yes boss, whatever you say.”
“Good. Now, you’re all going to go back into that petrol station I was in and make sure they don’t have surveillance footage of me, destroy every cassette. You’re going to make sure that the little prick behind the counter forgets seeing me. You’re going to stay together in a group tonight and call everyone we know. In the morning, you’ll wait by the phone in the Mossman house. I’m going to call you tomorrow and you’re going to tell me where I’m going to find the whore. Agreed?”
“Yes boss, whatever you want.”
“All right, get out of your car.”
“The police will be looking for this vehicle, so we’re going to swap.”
“Fine, no problem.”
The men exit their car and stand waiting as Harp steps out of the Thunderbird and takes a moment to straighten her spine in a series of jolting cracks. When she’s sitting in the new vehicle, Harp says, “All right. I’m going to drive south for a while. so I’ll already be on top of her when she appears.”
“Wait a sec,” Ben begins, “What happened out there? I mean, in the house?”
“Just do your damn job.”
The sun is hot on Wu’s face as she sits outside a little café with a black crocodile on the sign. There are people strolling up and down the footpath in their bathers and children are standing beside the road with no shoes. The park on the other side of the street is freckled with teenagers lying on colourful towels and small dogs on long leashes sniff at the round bases of palm trees. The sea breeze blows the menu off Wu’s table, so she moves inside. Here, under the morning air conditioning and beside the fridge full of soft drinks, she hugs Harrison to her chest. His perfectly white skin is a sharp contrast to her pale buttery tone, but he smiles up into the mother’s face as if he knows they will share the same fate.
Wu is bouncing Harrison on her tubby little belly when she notices a note on the paper menu that reads, ‘Please order at counter. Thank you.’
She steps up to the register and a short, brown-haired woman with a chin dimple asks, “Good morning, coffee or breakfast today?”
“Apple juice please, thanks, and two scrambled eggs on raisin toast.”
“On raisin toast?”
“Yes please,” Wu beams with her most exaggerated grin and the waitress nods back at her before Wu hands over her credit card, then returns to her table.
“What do you want to do today, my sunshine?” Wu asks the infant. Harrison giggles as he grips Wu’s fingers and she bobbles him on her thick, soft thighs.
The food comes and Wu eats quickly, sipping at the juice as she looks out towards the busy street and the park and all the kids skateboarding.
“Excuse me, where are the bathrooms?” she calls to the barista.
“Just behind the café, you walk through that hall, past the kitchen.”
Wu stands in a slow, lazy stretch and kisses Harrison on the forehead as she carries him into the thin hallway. It’s long and she turns left and pushes open a door and ends up standing in a wide room full of steel top benches and cooking equipment. The space is loud and two women at the other end of the room are shouting to each other, laughing.
Harrison begins to wail over all the noise and his face turns bright red.
“Shhh, it’s all right my sunshine.”
“Are you looking for the dunny?” a young man with sweat patches under his arms asks.
“No worries, happens all the time, just go back the way you came and follow the hall to the right.”
Wu kisses Harrison’s forehead again and bounces him a little as she walks. He settles as they emerge from the building and enter a little concrete courtyard. The tall, plastic bins here are all a deep green and they all have little black wheels and streams of sticky looking muck dribbled over the rims. They sit beside a wire fence that sags at the top like a roll of human fat. Wu finds the doors leading to the male toilets and the female toilets and she leans into the scratched wooden panel to open it.
Wu uses the facilities and she looks at herself for a moment in the mirror. She didn’t bother with makeup this morning and a new zit is poking out of her chin to join the swathe of acne on her face. She looks at the zit for a second, then gazes down at Harrison and pulls a funny face before walking out of the bathroom without tending to the blemish.
She’s on the way back into the café when something catches her eye. Wu doesn’t recognise it so much as notice the shape and colour. To the side of the little concrete courtyard is a wire fence leading to a small car park. In that small car park is a white ute, a yellow motorcycle and a red Thunderbird.
Wu’s feet cautiously step her up to the fence and she stares at the vehicle with a trembling jaw. She stares at it for a long time and she reads the licence plate out loud. She finds the door to the fence and when she tries to open it, she finds a thick padlock holding the deadbolt in place. Wu turns around and walks cautiously back down the hallway, towards the cafe.