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Dr. James Remington flipped open his visor as he sped down the arrow-straight highway. He revelled in the power of the vintage Harley engine growling between his legs, the air on his cheeks and the way the softening light of the encroaching dusk blanketed the thick bush in its ghostly splendour.
He raised his face to the sky and let out a long joyous whoop, his gypsy heart singing. This was the life. The open road. The sun on your face. The wind at your back. Freedom. He felt a surge of pleasure rise in his chest as a familiar affinity with the environment enveloped him. He felt a part of the land.
A solitary road sign appeared in the distance, announcing Skye, his destination, was only five kilometres away. It loomed large and then was gone in the blink of an eye. He felt anticipation heighten his senses. On a deeper level an unwanted thought intruded. Maybe this time he'd find what he was looking for. A place to hang up his helmet. A place to call home.
He shook his head to quell the ridiculous childhood longing. The wind was on his face, he had freedomwhy did he need roots? The township of Skye was just another outback stop in the many he'd made in the last few years. And after Skye there'd be another and then another until he reached the Cape and then he'd figure out his next move then.
The road started to twist and turn a little as it wended its way through thick stands of gumtrees and heavy bush. James eased back on his speed as he leant into the curves, enjoying the zigzag of the powerful bike.
He rounded a bend and came face to face with his worst nightmare. His headlights caught the silhouettes of several cows meandering across the highway in the waning light. He had seconds to respond. He braked and swerved and in the split second before his bike slid out from underneath him and he was catapulted across the tar, James knew that, whatever happened next, it wasn't going to be good.
Helen Franklin was annoyed. It was nine p.m. She'd been hanging around for a couple of hours, waiting for the locum doctor to arrive. Had he arrived? No. His bags had arrived by courier earlier but he was still a no-show. The casserole she'd cooked for him sat uneaten in the fridge.
She could be at the Drovers' Arms, joining in the weekly trivia night. Her team was at the top of the table and she hated missing it. She'd tried phoning his mobile number the agency had furnished her with a few times but had had no response. Not that that necessarily meant anything. Mobile phone reception out here was dodgy at best between towns and only marginally better in them.
An uneasy feeling bunched the muscles at her neck and she hoped some catastrophe hadn't befallen him. But as he was only two hours late she doubted she'd manage to convince anyone to send out a search party for him. No, she just had to wait and hope that he showed or at least rang in to explain.
He'd probably just changed his mind about coming to Skye and hadn't bothered to tell anyone. Country towns were notoriously hard to attract medical staff to. She'd had a request in for a locum since Genevieve had announced her pregnancy and she was now thirty-six weeks gone.
Well, damn it all, she wasn't going to hang around all night, waiting, when the new doctor couldn't even be bothered to let her know of his delay. He'd better be here by the start of business tomorrow, though. Genevieve should have given up work a month ago. Her blood pressure was borderline and her ankles were starting to swell. She needed the break. She'd admitted only yesterday that she was completely exhausted by lunchtime most days.
Helen left a terse note on the dining-room table, gathered her stuff and left, pulling the door closed behind her. There was no need for a key. This was Skye. Nobody locked their doors. And when she saw him in the morning, she was going to give Dr James Remington a piece of her mind, and if that set the tone with her flatmate for the next four months then so be it.
James woke to birdsong and the first rays of sunlight stabbing at his closed lids. The pain in his right leg grabbed at him again and he gritted his teeth. He felt like hell. He'd had a fitful night's sleep on the hard ground. He was hungry, his bladder was full and his mouth tasted as if an insect had crawled inside during the night and died there.
His broken leg throbbed unmercilessly despite the splint he'd managed to fashion from the branch of a tree. At least it was daylight now. His hopes of rescue had improved dramatically. He looked at his watch. He was now twelve hours past his ETAsurely someone would be worrying?
All he had to do was get himself to the roadside and hope that the highway to Skye was busier during the day than it had been during the long hours he'd lain in the dark. He'd only heard two vehicles all night. The bitumen was probably only a few metres or so away, but he knew just from the small amount of moving he'd done after the accident that with his broken leg, it was going to feel like a kilometre by the time he'd got there.
He'd decided against moving too far last night. Dusk had turned to darkness quickly and visibility had been a problem. The night was impossibly black out here, the bush incredibly thick. Through a mammoth effort he'd managed to drag himself over to his nearby bike. He hadn't been able to see it and had had to rely on his sense of hearing, heading towards the sound of the still running engine.
Thirty minutes later he'd been sweating with effort and the excruciating pain of every bump jolting through his injured leg. He'd pulled his torch out of his bike's tote bag and located some paltry first-aid supplies to help him with his leg. He'd had his swag and some water and with his mobile phone showing no reception, he'd known he was there till the morning.
As tempting as it had been to push himself, he had known it would be sensible to wait for daylight. Apart from his leg and some minor scratches, he'd escaped remarkably uninjured so the last thing he'd needed had been to reach the road and then be run over by an unsuspecting car. He was in black leathers and a black T-shirt. Even his hair was black. He had hardly been the most visible thing in the inky outback night.
James relieved himself with difficulty and with one final look back at his bike gritted his teeth and began the slow arduous crawl through the bush to the road.
Helen woke to the ringing phone just before six a.m. and was dismayed to find the spare bedroom not slept in and the note she'd left last night untouched on the table. She'd come home from the pub to an empty house but had hoped the missing locum had crept in during the night.
She answered the phone tersely, preparing to give James Remington a good lecture. But it was only Elsie and she spent ten minutes listening to the latest calamity before she was able to get off the phone. Damn it! James Remington had better have a good excuse for his tardiness.
A feeling of unease crept over her again and she quickly punched in the local policeman's number.
His sleepy voice answered. 'Sorry, Reg, it's Helen. I know it's early. I hope I didn't wake you.'
'It's fine. What's up?'
'The new doctor still hasn't shown. Have there been any accident reports?'
'Not that I know of. Do you think something's happened?'
'I'm sure he's fine, Helen. Like I said last night, he's probably just been delayed.'
'Probably,' she agreed, thinking dark thoughts about their new locum.
'He'd have to be missing for at least twenty-four hours before we could mount an official investigation.'
'But if you're worried I can start making some enquiries straight away. I can take the patrol car down the highway a bit.'
Helen pursed her lips, unsure. She knew Reg was probably right but she couldn't shake a nagging sense of unease. 'No, it's OK. I'm off to Elsie's now. Some of their stock broke through a fence last night and she's all het up. I'll keep my eyes peeled. I'll ring later if I still haven't heard from him.'
She rang off and looked around the empty house. You'd better be in a ditch or laid low by a severe illness, James Remington, because this is just plain rude.
James grunted as he inched himself slowly closer on his bottom. His movements were awkward, like a dyslexic crab. His arms were behind him, his left leg, bent at the knee, was used to push himself backward as his right leg slowly dragged against the ground as it followed.
The morning sun wasn't even high in the sky yet and he was sweating profusely. Although his leathers contributed, it was pain that caused moisture to bead above his lip and on his forehead. Every movement was agony, his leg protesting the slightest advance. He'd have given anything for a painkiller.
At just about halfway there he lay back to rest for a moment, the road now in sight. A silver car flashed by and he raised his hand and yelled out in the vain hope that he was spotted. Of course, it was futilehe was still that little bit too far away to be detected.
But he was slightly cheered by the presence of traffic. All he had to do was get the rest of the way and wait for the next car to come along.
Helen left Elsie's still distracted by their missing locum. The Desmond farm was on the outskirts of Skye and her little silver car knew the way intimately. Helen had lived with Elsie and her family on and off most of her life, permanently from the age of twelve after her mother's death.
Her mother's mental health had always been fragile, necessitating numerous hospital admissions, and her gypsy father, overwhelmed by his wife's problems and gutted by her eventual demise, had been ill equipped to care for his daughter. He'd flitted in and out of Skye as the whim had taken him, leaving Elsie to raise her.
And she had, providing stability and a much-needed loving home despite the fact that she had also been raising Duncan and Rodney, her grandsons, after their father Elsie's sonand mother had been killed in a car accident. Duncan, who had stayed in Skye to run the farm, was the same age as Helen and they were still close.
At eighty, Elsie was a much-loved part of the family. She still lived at the homestead and now Duncan's children were benefiting from Elsie's love and eternal patience. Unfortunately in the last couple of years Elsie's health had started to fail and things that once would never have bothered her now weighed on her mind.
More often than not, when she was in a state, it was Helen she phoned. Duncan was busy with the farm and Denise with the kids and Helen never minded. It was the least she could do for a woman who had helped her through some of the darkest times of her life.
She knew that half an hour of chit-chat and a good cup of tea soon put Elsie right. How often had Elsie taken the time to allay Helen's own fears as she'd lain awake at night, scared about the future? Elsie's hugs and calm, crackly voice had soothed her anxieties and had always loosened the knot that had seemed to be permanently present in her stomach. Easing the old woman's own fears now was never a hardship.
Helen put thoughts of Elsie aside as she concentrated on the road. Her eyes scanned either side and checked the rear-view mirror frequently. Just in case.
James mopped at his face with his bandana. He was nearly there. So close. He could hear a car approaching from a good distance away and he tried to move the last few metres quickly. Pain tore through his leg and halted his desperate movements. He swore out loud as he realised by the sound of the rapidly approaching engine he wasn't going to make it in time for this car.
In a final act of desperation he stuck up his arm and frantically waved the red bandana, even though he could tell the car had already passed. He lay back and bellowed in frustration.
Helen's gaze flicked to her rear-view mirror. Her eyes caught a blur of movement. Something red. She took her foot off the accelerator. She didn't know why. It was probably nothing. She searched the mirror again. Nothing. It was gone. But the same feeling of unease she'd had since last night was gnawing at her gut. The car had slowed right down and acting purely on instinct she pulled over and performed a quick U-turn.
She drove back slowly towards where she had seen the flicker of red. Her green eyes searched the side of the road. Nothing but red dirt and brown bush greeted her. She'd almost given up when she saw him. A figure lying just off the edge of the road.