The digital clock on the dash showed a little after two am when Tom Bradley parked the Commodore in the drive. Tired and just a little drunk, he couldn’t help stopping to stare back at his car. Painted in candy-apple red, it was an SV6 Lightning VF. All Tom’s life he’d worked towards owning a car like that. He pressed the button on the key ring and saw the amber and red flash in the darkness as the locks clicked into place.
Tom Bradley reeked of beer and sex. He’d been with Deb since about nine, after her kids went to bed. He was still thinking about her as he walked to the side door of the house and turned the key. That woman was something special. He pushed the door open and walked inside.
It was good to get out of the bushfire smoke and dust that had been blowing through town since the north westerlies had started a few days earlier. Even now, it was still hot, and Tom reached for the buttons of his RM Williams shirt on his way into the kitchen, running the tap for a glass of water.
It was one hell of a life, Tom thought to himself. New car. New woman. Finally, two days earlier, Deb had called her husband and told him that she was in love with someone else and was leaving him. It hadn’t been easy for her – Tom had been through a divorce himself, and knew that walking out of a marriage was a big step.
Deb hadn’t told her kids yet – two young girls, but she was going to have a talk with them tomorrow. Then it’d be official. Over the next few months, Tom decided as he lolled against the kitchen bench, sipping from the glass, they’d let people know that they were together, attend a few functions arm in arm. Deb was, most people reckoned, the best looking woman in town – brunette – nice figure. Not only that but she did a thing with her eyes … something unmistakeable to men who knew what to look for.
Deb’s husband, Jack Boyd, was a ringer on a station two hours from town, a skinny bastard, uneducated, and could hardly string a sentence together. Quick with a laugh or to buy you a beer, but without much to offer a woman. A nobody, really.
Tom on the other hand, was a big man in town. He owned a car yard, a couple of main street freeholds, and the rents rolled in every week. Sure, his start had come from his old man, but Tom had developed it all, made shrewd investments. Secretary of the Rotary Club, a fixture at the Chamber of Commerce, nothing much happened in town that Tom didn’t have a hand in.
Tom walked back into the lounge room and switched on the light. Almost bare chested, red shirt flapping around his sides, he stopped dead, finger still on the switch.
A man sat on the lounge. In his hands he held a shotgun. The twin barrels were pointed at Tom’s chest.
The man was sun-browned, with muscled arms, wearing a plain blue singlet and filthy jeans. He hadn’t shaved for a few days, and ginger-brown whiskers covered his face and down his neck.
It was Jack Boyd. Deb’s husband.
Tom stared back. He saw the hand shaking on the grip, the forefinger trembling inside the trigger guard.
Tom felt a rush of blood to his face and ears, and somehow his legs folded underneath him. His world swam as he waited for the tightly packed lead pellets to strike his chest, break ribs on the way through, tear bloody holes in his heart, lungs, and stomach.
Moments passed that he would never recall, lying on his back down on the carpet, trembling. He saw Jack Boyd standing over him. Yet, now Jack wasn’t really like a man at all, but something much more frightening.
Jack Boyd said nothing as he shouldered the gun and walked out towards the front door, moving effortlessly across the carpet.
Tom stared after him, breathing as if he had run a mile. Was he seeing things?
He raised himself on unsteady feet. Were the blinds still moving from the passage of a man, or was he imagining it? There was only one way to find out. He followed.
Outside Tom’s breath made fog in the cold air as he hurried across the dewy grass to the footpath. There he looked in both directions. At first he almost sighed in relief, but then he saw Jack, walking away in the light fog, down past the Uniting Church towards town with that bowlegged horseman’s stride of his.
Tom followed, one step after another, eyes staring ahead at the figure. He walked quickly, slowing only to unbutton his shirt to keep out the cold. But strangely, when he hurried, his armed visitor seemed to get no closer, and no further away when he slowed.
Tom’s hands were clenched, cold as ice. He wanted to run but he had no energy for it, and still that strange figure walked on.
They had almost walked right into town, fog increasing as they neared the river, when twin headlights probed from up ahead, went past Tom, then swung into a U-Turn and came alongside, diesel engine rattling the cage built into the rear tray.
The face in the window was Tom’s mate, the station sergeant, Dale Brown. He was skinny for a cop, with sucked in cheeks and a runner’s body.
‘Hey Tom, whaddaya up to, walking around at this time of night?’
‘Nothing. Couldn’t sleep.’
‘Doesn’t look like you’ve been to bed, and where’re your shoes?Sounds like you’ve had a few, mate. Get in and I’ll drive you home.’
Tom opened the side door and climbed in, clicking on his belt and staring straight ahead at the road.
‘So what’s happening, Tom? Not like you to be wandering down the road at this time of night.
‘I thought I saw someone, at the house, and I was following him …’
Dale took the Highway Patrol car around the corner and down two blocks before pulling up outside Tom’s house. ‘Do you want to come over to my place for the night? We got a spare bed. Sandra won’t mind.’
‘Nah, she’s right mate.’
‘As long as you’re sure you’ll be OK.’
‘Yeah, I’ll just lock the doors and give you a call if I hear anything.’
‘No problem. If you do I’ll be over here in two minutes. Busy night tonight,’ he sighed. ‘I done a three hundred k round trip out to Flores Station. Bloke committed suicide out there. Grisly business. Shot himself. Found out his wife had been cheating on him. Bloke called Jack Boyd. You know Deb, don’t you?’
Tom stared, frozen. ‘Yeah, I know her.’
‘Bloody hot bit of pussy. He must have been devastated, poor bugger. He’s in the freezer down at the morgue. Shotgun pellets took half of his head off.’ Tom stopped talking for a moment, watching him. ‘You sure you’ll be OK?’
‘Yeah, no worries mate.’
‘Well I have to go and tell Deb what happened to her hubby. Not now – I’m not gonna wake her at two in the morning. After breakfast maybe – gawd I hate doing that kind of thing.’
Tom closed the car door behind him, waved and walked inside, doing his best to stay straight and sober, then double locked the doors and made his way down towards the bedroom.
When Tom woke in the morning the sun was shining in through the blinds, Jack Boyd sitting on the chair down the end of the bed, the shotgun held loosely in his hands, his eyes like brown pebbles.
Tom stared for a moment, then closed his eyes tightly and the vision went away. He walked into the en suite, dropped his shorts on the floor and stepped into the steaming water, every time he turned away from the door he looked back expecting Jack to be there.
Yet when he drove himself to the Paragon café for breakfast he was feeling better, ordering himself bacon, eggs, sausages and mushrooms, reading the morning paper from Sydney, checking his phone. Saying g’day to people as they came and went. Big Tom Bradley dispensing bonhomie like a professional – Eric Samson and his family scoffing pancakes down the corner. Billy Kesby from the pub and his missus looking like death warmed up over their morning coffee.
Then at work, Tom kept himself busy. He set one of the apprentices to work, detailing the red Commodore inside and out. Then made half a dozen calls to prospects, set up three inspections and two test drives.
Deb called on his mobile a little after ten, she could hear her crying down through the line.
‘Tom, have you heard what happened?’
‘Yeah, bloody terrible. So sorry Deb.’
Of course he went around to her flat. Deb was beside herself, bawling her eyes out and blaming herself, and Tom. She never said it, of course, but the accusation was in her eyes. It was he who had pressured her into breaking it up.
The two girls hadn’t gone to school, but stayed at home – tear stained little wraiths, hanging onto their mother’s legs. Tom bent down to talk to them.
‘Sometimes bad things happen in life, and that’s when you’ve got to be strong.’
The eyes stared back at him, burning up his heart.
Later, alone in the house on his fifth Crown Lager, Tom saw Jack again. This time the bastard wouldn’t keep still, appearing for a microsecond, leaning against the door jamb, or the kitchen bench, sometimes next to the fridge when Tom went for another drink.
Always he carried that damn shotgun. Tom Bradley was a pragmatic man. He knew the difference between possible and impossible. His eyes were playing tricks, that was all.
Three days later, the morning of the funeral, Tom opened a bottle of rum, just to settle his nerves, he told himself, drinking it neat with ice. By the time he was ready to go it was half empty and he tipped as much of the rest as he could fit into a hip flask.
Only a handful of people attended the church service, and even fewer turned up at the graveside. Men in big hats from the station stood clustered together, staring at the ground. Tom stood across from the grieving widow, and the two little girls. Strangely more beautiful than Tom had ever seen her, Deb held her daughters’ hands and dabbed at her own eyes with a Kleenex. The only thing that made Tom feel better was the rum in his veins and the knowledge that later he’d be holding Deb’s tight body naked and making them both feel good again.
It was all for the best, Tom was thinking as they lowered the coffin on ropes. There would be no ex-husband, no visiting weekends, no divorce court. Jack Boyd was gone. He’d done them a favour. Deb was his now, with no one to get in the way.
After the funeral the crowd stood around talking as if they had nothing better to do. Tom was by himself, watching two men with shovels fill in the grave when Dale sidled up to him. He was wearing full uniform, the Glock in its holster black and oversized against his lean body. ‘Tom, I need you to call in at the station a bit later.’
‘One of the boys from the station saw your car down at Flores Station the night Jack died. Says he heard arguing.’
Tom shrugged. ‘Suicide. That’s all you need to know, Dale. Whether I was down there or not. It doesn’t matter.’
‘There’s more to it than that mate. The coroner says that Jack was strangled before he was shot. Now that doesn’t quite make it a suicide, does it? Jack Boyd wasn’t big, but he was a tough customer, it’d take a strong man to overpower him.’ Dale’s eyes clearly said, ‘Someone like you.’
‘I’ll call in later,’ Tom said. ‘But it’s nothing to do with me.’
It wouldn’t have looked good for Tom and Deb to travel together to and from the funeral, so after the priest and his altar boys packed up and whispered their last incantations he gave her a quick hug like the others, and walked to the red Commodore.
Tom took the long way back into town, gunning the car into the corners, opening her up on the straight past the racecourse, thrilled to hear the engine work. He loved how there was not a scratch on the duco, and still only 30K on the clock.
Fuck Dale, he swore under his breath. And fuck Jack Boyd. Deb was his and he wouldn’t share her. Not with a dead-beat ringer like Jack Boyd.
He concentrated on the car. Control. The steering was direct, the cornering perfect, and the Mill Lane curves had awesome camber, as if the long ago road builders made it especially for this car. The Pirelli tyres, on 18 inch alloy rims, held the road like it was in a tunnel of light.
Strange thing, though. The passenger seat had been empty, but then it wasn’t.
Tom glanced across to see Jack Boyd grinning back at him. The under/over barrels of the shotgun pointed at Tom’s face.
Tom whipped his head sideways. He’d had enough of this. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
Jack Boyd’s face crinkled into thousands of tiny brown lines, ‘Don’t ask questions, just drive faster.’
Tom hadn’t meant to kill him, just to tell him face to face. Warn him off. Tell him not to go near her again. That Deb was his. But Jack Boyd wouldn’t take it. Said he knew stuff about Tom. Things that had happened in the past. Then Jack had pulled the shotgun. Tom was quick and strong. He knocked it aside.
Tom would never forget how that neck had felt in his hands. How Jack tremored as the life left his body. Tom had dragged him into the cab of an old Acco farm truck, putting the gun in his hands and blowing his head off. Vehicle interiors deadened the sound of gunshots. It had looked to Tom like the perfect crime.
‘Drive faster,’ Jack Boyd screamed. ‘Or I’ll put a hole in your gut you can put your fist into. You think you’re good with your fancy car. You think you can drive? Let’s see how fast you can go.’
Tom pressed his foot on the accelerator. The engine growled. He watched the needle climb on the tacho. ‘You don’t deserve her – not a woman like that.’
‘I’m an honest man, Tom, and you don’t fuck with an honest man.’
He lifted the rifle. ‘That’s not fast. You can do better than that. Faster! Show me how good you are.’
The speedo needle climbed. One ninety. Two hundred kilometres an hour.
Tom saw the old farmhouse ruins as a blur on the left, then the corner just a few hundred metres away. It was a good one, well designed like the others. He had taken it at speed before, but nothing like this. He jabbed at the brake but there was no resistance. The pedal went right through to the floor.
‘You bastard. You fucker,’ Tom screamed. ‘What have you done?’
He was committed, starting to drift before he was half way into the corner.
Tom felt the car leave the road. He saw the tree up ahead. He and the car were moving towards it at impossible speed, airborne. It was a yellow box tree, solid and old. The Commodore hit it squarely.
Time seemed to stop. Strangely at first, Tom was more worried for the car than himself, the front bumper crushing inwards, then the whole front-end crumpling with the slow motion tearing and squealing grind of metal as the main weight of the car came to bear on the tree.
Only then did he start to feel pain. The impact of his face on the dash. The last thing he heard was Jack Boyd laughing. That was the end.
Greg Barron 2015