Light cast long shadows as she raced towards the official exit. Her already dry mouth parched further. Would one of the utes try to overtake her and block her in? Or would they use the other exit and get out onto the highway before her, then ram her and push her off the road?

A glimpse in the rear-view mirror offered no answers, only darkness. She veered right, floored the accelerator and hit the welcome bitumen of the highway.

Her eyes flickered between the rear-view mirror and the road in front of her, both fraught with danger. Headlights appeared in the distance behind her and fear’s long fingers sank deeper. Was it traffic or were they following her?

The low fuel light glowed orange. Her chest cramped. Had she escaped only to fall prey to them when she ran out of petrol?

Her belief in God was almost non-existent, but heaven rose out of the night like a rising golden sun in the form of a roadhouse. Thank you.

She pulled in, killed the ignition, then slumped over the steering wheel, shaking hard. Move!

She rubbed her eyes, then glanced around, testing if this reprieve from a starring role in a horror movie was actually real. The reassuring presence of a cop car steadied her—thank God for coppers’ coffee addiction.

She made it inside on unsteady legs and headed straight for the toilet, where she vomited into a bowl that was long overdue for a date with bleach and a brush. After rinsing her mouth, she parted with a few precious dollars for a sugar-laden coffee. By the time the glucose hit and she was capable of cogent thought, the police car had left. Not that she had any numberplates to report.

Nursing her coffee, she leaned back on the banquette and closed her eyes, absorbing the warmth of the heated restaurant.

‘Hey, lady.’

Helen startled. She had no idea how long she’d been asleep and she blinked a few times, bringing her eyesight into focus. A gold name badge with black writing declared she was being addressed by Sam. ‘Yes?’

‘You buying more coffee? Something to eat?’

‘No. I’m heading out.’

He nodded and walked away. Helen closed her eyes again.

‘Hey!’ This time he jostled her arm. ‘We’re not a motel. It’s time to go or we’ll call the police.’

Once Helen would have argued, but tonight she barely had enough energy to breathe. Rising under his unsympathetic glare, she walked slowly and warily back to the car. It was four o’clock. In less than two hours, light would filter into the sky, bringing with it comparative safety from terrorising morons.

Not prepared to risk sleep, Helen drove. When she saw Welcome to Boolanga. Home of the Brolgas and an accompanying blue road sign with the white symbols for a picnic table and toilets, she took the exit.

Riverbend picnic ground greeted her in a spectacular sherbet dawn with myriad shades of pink, purple and peach splaying across the sky in long graceful strands. The Murray River, wide at this bend, glinted violet in the light and a lone pelican glided towards her. Cockatiels shrieked and wheeled above, bursting yet another myth that the country was a quiet and peaceful place.

The wide sandy beach with its tall over-hanging trees—perfect for swinging and bombing into deep water—provided Helen with the real gift. Its existence meant the shire had spent the big bucks installing a boat ramp, gas barbecues, an instant hot-water tap, picnic tables and a playground. There was also a state-of-the-art amenities block complete with a toilet for people with a disability, a sink, baby-change area and, miracle of miracles, a shower.

Despite her exhaustion, Helen whooped with delight. She lathered up and washed her hair, herself and then her clothes. Afterwards, she fired up a barbecue, cooked an egg in bread and ate it sitting in the folding camping chair she’d found on a roadside collection weeks before. Soaking up the view, she pretended she was living in one of the impressive riverside homes, enjoying her custom-built outdoor kitchen on her deck.

Daylight meant no one would ask her to move on; she had a few hours’ reprieve. A few hours to luxuriate in normalcy and ignore her homelessness. Then the sun would inevitably sink, giving carte blanche to the insidious march of inky darkness and all the dangers that lurked within.



Tara Hooper stood in her bedroom, blinking at the unfamiliar but glamorous woman in the mirror. She swayed a little, admiring the way the crystals on the dress caught the light and threw it back to her in a rainbow of dancing colours. Was it really her?

It wasn’t just the dress—she’d also treated herself to a professional hair and make-up session. She usually wore her hair down or tied back in a quick and easy ponytail, but Ebony had swept Tara’s long blonde tresses into an up-do, accentuating her long neck. Then she’d blushed her cheeks and smoked her eyes in a way that enlarged and darkened them to an arresting come-hither blue. An altogether sexy blue, which had been the brief. Tara intended to knock Jon’s socks off.

She slid some ibuprofen, lipstick and tissues into her evening bag and was looking for her phone when she caught the time on the bedside clock: 6:30 pm. How had it got so late and where on earth was Jon? The babysitter had arrived half an hour earlier to settle the kids and give her and Jon time to dress. They were supposed to be leaving for the Boolanga Chamber of Commerce business awards in five minutes. Hoopers Hardware, Timber and Steel was up for an award and after all Jon’s hard work—their hard work—they deserved a win. They needed a win, in more ways than one.

Tara found her phone and called Jon.

‘Don’t stress,’ he answered, pre-empting her. ‘I’m just turning into the drive now.’

‘You still have to shower and dress! Why have you cut it so fine?’

‘Denny North finally turned up just as I was leaving. Apparently we’re not the only business in

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