Adrian hot-wired the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo in a shopping mall outside Sydney after he slipped from one sugarcane field to the next, his grey suit dampening against his aching skin as what felt like needles poked into him as the mid-afternoon heat robbed him of energy, his dragging feet drawing lines in the rich, dark soil below him. When Adrian twisted the wires, the Cherokee, a hot number painted black with steel chrome hub cabs, screeched alive like the hawk he saw earlier along the road perched atop a dead kangaroo, the hawk tearing the kangaroo’s guts out when its head darted up, looking at Adrian with one unblinking deep black eye, unwavering, with a long bit of intestine dangling from her mouth. The hawk lifted the entrails up into the air and swung the piece of guts into her mouth, screeching as she flew away, leaving the rotting kangaroo corpse bleeding in the hot sun as a tan pick-up truck ran it over for a second time. From the Cherokee’s rear view mirror hung a set of fuzzy dice, the kind you buy at souvenir shops, and Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison erupted over the radio, which Adrian didn’t mind, and he kept the radio on for as long as the song played, turning out of the shopping mall parking lot to zigzag his way out of the city.
An hour ago he turned onto a dirt road marked Gold Dust, and ran a deep river almost getting caught in its current when he reached the middle of the fast moving water, which was strange to him considering it was winter, and the high pressure systems off the coast brought warm dry weather compared to summer months, drenching most of the country with rains except for the south, which stayed wet most of the year. This river was deep, reminding him of back home, where as a kid he swam in the muddy waters of Dorothy’s Stream, which his grandfather named after Adrian’s mother, on his grandparents’ property. The stream ran up against a steep canyon with deep black walls cut sharp at right angles he later drew in his notebook at class when he was bored, one day earning him an hour in detention for not paying attention. He talked to Rachel for the first time that day in detention, and while he saw her around lots, she only lived two farms away, which sounds close, but in Canada that could mean three hours walk, and on a cold winter day, it could mean your life. Adrian never worked up the courage to speak with her before then, even when she tried once at a school dance when she asked him if he studied for the history exam set for the next day. He never answered, blushing, and excused himself when his best friend, Jacob, stepped in, and answered for him. Later that evening, Rachel danced with Jacob, and Adrian watched them together, looking at the way his friend held her as Rachel’s dress hid her long, slender body, reminding him of the women his grandfather hired in summers to work in the fields, usually university students, their mature bodies tanning in the sun as they bent over the fields as he lingered when passing them, watching the way they moved in the Prairie heat.
Adrian remembered the day he walked to see Rachel after he began talking with her, finally visiting her every second day or so, bringing her warm baked goods, that day a rhubarb pie he made with his grandmother. A woman froze to death after her car broke down, it was a sunny day on the Canadian Prairies, but in February the sun meant freezing temperatures plummeting below the point, if your skin is exposed, it freezes in minutes. She was found black and blue, mouth open and face down in the deep snow. Adrian found her about 10 minutes from his driveway, not really close as his grandparents’ driveway was another 30 minutes from the road, and on this day, he wore long johns, jeans, and snow pants along with his usual winter stuff, like a toque, scarf, and mittens. He was only 12 at the time, and he spotted her body from the road, walking along the far side where the grader cleared off the snow, dumping it in a heap on the side in a deep frozen pile taller than he was himself. He noticed her body because he saw a burrowing owl drop from a telephone line to the snow, snatching a mouse that happened to crawl to the surface from one of its tunnels along the ground. His eyes noticed the dark spots of her boots as the rest of her body was covered with a thin dusting of snow from the wind drifting over the flat south Alberta landscape where his grandparents called home after striking it rich in the oilfields, modern-day barons who lived a humble life of tractors, horses, and a flock of geese who dominated the property, territorial creatures who hissed at anything moving, and if Adrian so much as looked in their direction, they chased him straight to the farmhouse, which stood atop a gentle slope overlooking the grain fields his grandfather kept himself busy with in his later years despite his oil money, along with the area’s only general store, which he bought from the previous owners, a couple his grandfather knew all his life, a favour so they could retire to Florida.
Spotting the frozen woman, Adrian climbed the small grader snow pile and fell waist deep into the soft, cushion like snow, the dry kind only found in the Canadian Prairies, resembling feathers in pillows, and waded through as if he were walking in water to the dead body. Reaching her, he remembered how he listened to the sound the wind makes when moving across the top of snow, her black leather boots sticking out, and when he wiped the snow off, he saw she wore a matching black dress and coat. Her body was hard when he touched her, and when he flipped her over she stared at him and he jumped back into the snow, sinking deep, the blue light of the sky darkening as the snow folded inward drowning him as water might before he pulled himself up using her frigid body, her arm stiffened by the cold. He wondered why she was all the way in the ditch, so far from the road, and when he told the RCMP officer, a tall woman with long blonde hair, who treated him like he was adult, he had his first erection watching her as she wrote down notes using a long black pen, every so often looking back at him straight in the eye, causing him to blush despite a dead body resting in the back ambulance nearby as he sat in the police cruiser along the windy stretch of road near his home.
“It’s okay, you did nothing wrong, Adrian. You can tell me the truth,” the officer said, taking hold of his hand one moment during the interview, causing Adrian to almost jump, spooking him like his favourite horse, Oz, when the wolves roved too close to the fence line in winters when food was scarce. They wondered in from the patches of forest looking for easy prey when the snow was too deep, and Adrian remembered the days and nights his father laboured in the fields to clear off the snow to keep it shallow enough for the horses, a herd of 50 mares and a handful of studs, so they may run from the wolves.
“Well, I remember pulling her over, as I said, after I fell in the snow, and I saw her face. Her mouth was half open, like she was screaming, she was black and blue, I guess from the cold. I don’t know,” he told her.
One day in March, his grandfather asked him to get his things on and join him outside, and when Adrian met his grandfather outside, the older man sat on a quad waiting, pointing behind him. “Get on, we’re going hunting.” Adrian walked to the quad, noticing the rifle slung over his grandfather’s shoulder, and hopped on, wrapping his arms around his waist, wrapping his arms around him tight as the quad dug into the snow and gravel of the driveway, speeding toward the fields.
“Hang on kid,” Adrian’s grandfather said as they tore up the field in the knee-deep snow toward the fence line they could see in the far distance faint and shrouded in a white mist shimmering the way ice and snow does in cold temperatures.
“Then what happened, Adrian?” the officer asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I fainted because when I woke up I had snow all over me and I was really cold. I was lying beside her. I don’t know. I guess I fainted. Then I ran home and told my grandmother. She was putting away some dishes and dropped a glass when I told her about, you know, her, and then she phoned you,” Adrian said to the officer, picturing his grandmother’s frozen stare and the descending drinking glass, a tall cylinder crashing to the floor into a hundred little pieces on the floor. She had bent down to pick them up and cut her finger, and later when Adrian used the phone to call his best friend, Jacob, he noticed a smear of his grandmother’s blood across the phone handle.
“Are you able to tell me more about her face, Adrian? It’s okay. There’s nothing to be scared of,” the officer said.
“I don’t know. Her face, it was black and blue from the cold, I guess. I don’t know. She was from the reserve. My grandfather says I have Indian blood. I am like her, I guess. She looked like me, except her face was black and blue. Just from the cold, I guess. I don’t know,” he told the officer, who drove Adrian home after taking him back out to the crime scene to re-identify the body. When she arrived to the farmhouse to take him to the crime scene, she opened the door from the driver’s side, stretching herself across the passenger seat, opening the door for him, smiling.
“Hop in,” she told him.
Reaching the fence line, Adrian’s grandfather told him to hop off and wait for him. After the wheeze of the quad blended in with the faint noise of the light snowfall hitting the ground, Adrian began to shiver as the temperature dropped and the sun plummeted to fall below the horizon. When he heard the first growl, Adrian whipped around to face the fence line and the dark forest beyond, looking for where the growl came from, searching the blackness of the pine and birch trees with willows wiggling in-between, hugging the larger trees, reaching toward the sky searching for sun, but now there was none, no light, only a deep saddening blackness and silence except for faint thudding of snowflakes and the growl that came again with a deep savage bark that caused Adrian to step back. A rifle shot rang out, echoing against the silence, then a second, a third, and then a fourth, and after that Adrian began to run.
When Adrian talked with Rachel for the first time at detention he thought about the day he heard his grandfather’s rifle shot ring out in the blackness, and the deep growls that followed the firing as he sat beside her, looking at her soft cheek bones, the way they ached their way into his dreams later that night as he woke up wet from his dream with her. The first time it happened it happened with her and he remembered it the rest of his life. The dream was like detention, where he met her for the first time, wearing her pink suede coat over top a white knee high cotton dress stretching up her legs when she sat down, and black slip-on shoes with her hair done up in a ponytail. There was no teacher, only her when he walked into the classroom, and when he sat down next to her, she smiled at him, and then the rest he couldn’t remember, only the faint smell of skin and the echo of a growl from the night the shots rang out.
“Shit,” Adrian said when he made a hard right turn, hitting a sharp rock jutting out of the dirt, tipping the Coca-Cola out of a cup holder. He found the stuff, though he never drank it until today, when he opened the Styrofoam cooler in the backseat of the Cherokee, thinking about the coldness of the melted ice as he placed the can in the cup holder before turning onto the dirt road. The can now fizzed across the passenger’s side foot rest where the soda dripped out, creating a dark stain along the floorboard.
Another turn took him by surprise when he glanced back to the road from the mess on the floor, and he turned the Cherokee hard again, going too fast, drifting the back end across the gravel road littered with sharp rocks, sending the vehicle into a circular motion, like the teenagers do, calling them donuts, before the Cherokee came to a standstill, engine revving because he slipped the gear into neutral by accident while weighing down the accelerator with his heavy right foot. He breathed hard a moment then pushed the stick back into drive and turned the thing around to face an iron fence, the fourth one he came across that night after taking the dirt road across the outback. Getting out to open the gate, he sensed the ones following him, he couldn’t hear them, see them, but they were there, somewhere in the blackness behind him, panting the way hounds do when chasing their quarry, preying on him since Sydney, getting closer, inching closer, hour by hour, minute by minute, and second by second. The place was dotted with gates, it was cattle country as old trees filled with dust and bats swarmed the night skies. He hurried back and started again, not bothering to close the gate behind him, letting his quarry know of his passage, jumping on the gas again, a heavy foot from his racing days, first, go-cart racing, and later, stock car racing the amateur circuit in southern Alberta on dusty tracks behind barns and in wheat fields after harvest. The Cherokee, its soft leather steering wheel, tough American engine like the stock cars he use to drive, reminded him of his days as a 20-year-old kid with long sandy brown hair turning a creamy soft tan colour in summer, like the walls of his grandparent’s country house, which were painted every spring by his grandmother in her blue and white checkered shirt and capris – barefoot with matching tie-died bandanna. Back then he spent his days racing, swimming in Dorothy’s Stream, and nights with Rachel, who was blossoming into a real photographer who sold prints at the local market on Sundays after church was out, it was busy then, and the people who bought pictures for their walls were in town and in a good mood.
Adrian built a small cabin near the stream on the far end of his grandparent’s property, about a day’s walk along an old trapping line his grandfather used when he was younger, trapping to make pelts as gifts for family at Christmas: scarfs, hats, and things like that, until he fell, breaking his femur in two places, ending his days on the trap line. Adrian used bits and pieces of lumber from the sawmill near town to build the cabin, and later, he won a big Texas Hold’em poker game against the mill’s owner, covering his all in, winning with a pair of sevens after his opponent missed his flush and straight, drawing with King, Queen suited, a risky night for Adrian who arrived to the game with everything he had, all $700 of his summer’s earnings racing cars, and later he bargained for better timber with his winnings, and hauled it out with his quad and wagon, staying out there for a week building his cabin overlooking the river named after his mother. When he finished pounding the last nail into the side along a smooth stretch of birch timber he found and used as sign post for the entrance along the top of the front door, Rachel appeared from around the final bend in the slim path through the popular and cedars flagging the stream holding a plate with a two slices of tiramisu, which she baked herself, and later when she shared her slice with him after he finished his, she glanced at him, searching his eyes, leaning forward in her chair, sitting across from him on a make-shift table of pine wood, stretching her arm out to place the spoon full of dessert into his mouth. He fell in love with her at that moment and made love to her later, near dawn, just before the sun lifted above the trees, when steam rose off the stream, and as she came he heard the wolf growl along the fence line and shots ring out across the frozen landscape as his mind took him back to winter as a child, and him running down the fields as more shots echoed across the cloudy sky. Then the police cruiser, the face of the dead woman with her mouth wide open, black and blue, the door swinging open and the face of the young female RCMP officer, smiling in a timid way.
His attention was drawn back to the road and another cattle gate swaying in the cool Australian breeze, and when he opened the door of the Cherokee, he heard another vehicle behind him, so he ran to the gate, threw it open and bolted back to the SUV, tearing off again down the empty, dark outback road that twisted and turned around thin trees and down empty river gullies that filled with water when it rained. He pushed down on the peddle, blasting the engine with fuel, racing through the winding path until he reached a ghost town, an old mining village deep in the outback, passing tall wooden street signs as the land overgrew the place, and a maze of turns, this way and that, led him to a dead end. When he turned the Cherokee around, a Toyota Land Cruiser stopped him in his tracks, blocking his path, not bothering to get around, he placed the Cherokee in park, switching off its lights, watching as the four doors of the Land Cruiser opened and four people as silhouettes stepped out of the vehicle and walked toward him carrying things in their hands, and it wasn’t until they reached halfway toward him, Adrian winced seeing they carried hammers and saws. He swung the Cherokee door open, reached for his service pistol, a Browning Hi Power 9mm, drawing the weapon from where he tucked it into his pants along the small of his back, his leather belt hugging the cold metal against his skin, and fired off four shots in quick succession at close range walking towards his stalkers, the lapel of his suit jacket rippling as the wind picked up, the silence broken by the gun shots and left only with a breeze along the tree tops. After he shot them, Adrian walked toward the Land Cruiser to move it out of the way, then noticed the face of one of his assailants, a slender woman, maybe 18 or younger, then glancing at the others, they all had the same face and build, wearing similar black jeans and leather jackets, and stepping over the first, bending down to get a better look at her, she opened her eyes and grabbed Adrian by the throat to choke him to death. The other three stood up and pushed him over when he stared at them for a split second too long, mouth hanging, staring wide as his eyes met the blood dripping from their wounds, where the bullets tore through their leather jackets as Adrian hit them each in the same place, above their left breast, placing his aim on their hearts. When he fell on the dusty ground, they hit him with their hammers, crushing in his elbows and knee caps before he could scream, then the first, the one who choked him, rose her hammer and smashed through his skull, and before his world faded away, he watched them sawing him apart, piece by piece.
“There you go, tiramisu, special tonight, and the chef sends his regards, he would meet you for a drink, as you requested, but as you can see, we are fully booked,” the waiter said, winking his left eye at Adrian, his clean white apron pressed that morning, looking brighter than the tablecloth, tied in a neat way behind his back over his dark attire, addressing Adrian in a English accent, as he arrived to New Zealand only a week earlier, he told him earlier in the meal, from home to work and study on the small island prone with fits and coughs of the earthquake variety.
“We are old friends, go way back. Served in the British army together, actually. Long time ago now. Send him my regards then,” Adrian said. The waiter nodded and left him to dip his spoon into the brown, soft creamy desert, and when he brought it to his mouth, Adrian smelled the tiramisu, its coffee and Mascarpone scent mixing together as the clangs of silverware and screech of forks and knives on plates ricocheted through the small dining room of the lodge where he was staying the night, filled with adventurers, the mahogany wood walls littered with tidy photographs of island landscapes filled with jungle and pine trees. Placing the spoon of tiramisu into his mouth, he sat across from Rachel again, looking into her eyes as she glanced at him, penetrating his soul, his secrets, his life, crushing him in one moment before looking down, the pine table bending and creaking as their elbows weighed it down, a soft piece of music playing from the old radio he brought with him, it sounded like Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, but he wasn’t sure because he wasn’t listening as his heart pounded in his chest watching Rachel’s face, her eyelids closed, mouth turned up in a small, quiet smile, reminding him of the Mona Lisa the day he walked to The Louvre, a thin stream of light evaporating the room where the painting hung, and alone, as it was at the end of the day, he studied the painting for a half an hour before buying a French red on his way back to his home, a small flat atop a coffee shop he owned that, in his opinion, served the best pastry in town.
“Sir, sir, please, the dining room is closing in five minutes,” Adrian’s server said, bending down, touching his shoulder in a soft, reassuring way. Adrian blinked, took a look at his Richard Mille Tourbillon Skull wrist watch, seeing the time was five minutes to midnight.
“Looks like I lost track of time, my friend.” Adrian said.
“Sir, the chef will see you now, he is just tidying up in the kitchen. Please,” the server said motioning Adrian to the back wall where a door, leading into the kitchen, swayed on hinges as bussers moved back and forth cleaning up for the night. Adrian smiled and stood, fishing out his billfold, handing the server an Australian hundred dollar bill. “It’s all I have, do you mind?”
“Of course not, sir, thank you. Most kind of you. Please, this way,” the waiter said, motioning Adrian toward the kitchen. As Adrian moved through the dining room, he drifted his index finger along the white linens draped over the tables, and entered the kitchen, a pristine room, more rectangle than square with spotless stainless steel counters and fixtures as the chef, Maxwell Cromwell, always the last to leave the restaurant every night, held a white cloth in his hands, a bucket of soapy water in front of him mixed with bleach. A large man, the kind of person who tastes all his latest creations, dipping his finger into his sauces every time, he looked up and smiled as he plunged the cloth into the bucket.
“Adrian, my good friend, you stayed until closing to see me?” Maxwell asked.
“Of course. Of course I did. I wouldn’t miss saying hi to an old friend, not ever,” Adrian answered.
Maxwell lifted the dish cloth from the water diluted with bleach, wrung it out, the water raining into the bucket, making the sound a small creek might, then began to wipe the stainless steel counter again, smiling at Adrian.
“I was wondering if you might stay until closing. So busy tonight. You know how it is?”
“Of course. I know how it is.”
“How many years has it been? At least a decade since the last time we saw each other?”
“About that. Yes, a decade, at least.’
“So what brings you here, Adrian?”
“The tiramisu tonight, perfect. I can only remember one other time it was as good. Only once, a long time ago, it was better.”
Maxwell looked up, stopped cleaning a moment, and smiled, his cherry red face lighting up, his dimples deep when he brightened. “Really? Thanks, Adrian. I appreciate that.” Maxwell went back to wiping the counter, and it seemed to Adrian he was happier this time around as he plunged the cloth back into the bucket, wrung it out, and continued mopping up the night’s service, a magnificent one where Adrian ordered the most simple thing on the menu, a streak, rare, with blood dripping from the meat, as he put it to the waiter, with nothing else but a glass of shiraz, something the waiter recommended, and not remembering the name, Adrian downed the glass and carved up his steak, then ordered another glass, and another and another until the dining room turned and heaved the way boats do in heavy seas, then he waited for dinner service to end.
“So what really brings you here, Adrian?” Maxwell asked, looking down, scrubbing the stainless steel counter over and over again.
“I don’t know, Maxwell, I just keep hearing the sounds of the mortars in Fallujah. You remember that, Maxwell? You remember, Fallujah, right Maxwell?”
Maxwell stopped scrubbing the stainless steel counter, his cherry red face disappearing, looking Adrian in the eye. “Why are you here Adrian?”
“Did I ever tell you about the mortar that dropped into our position? It was a bit of wall, destroyed some time earlier, and this mortar, you see, it sailed through the sky and landed not five feet from me, a dud, and I sat there, with a few other soldiers, and we stared at it, waiting for the thing to kill us, but it didn’t.”
Maxwell slammed his dish cloth into his bucket, looking back up at Adrian one final time, no smile adorning his face this time. “I try not to remember it, Adrian. Fallujah. You know, Adrian, it’s time to close up for the evening, I have to put this baby to bed, you know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean, Max. I know. Really, I know. But this mortar, you see, my friend, it didn’t kill us. It didn’t kill me. And now, now, I feel there’s a reason I am here. Here. You know, still alive, not dead.”
“Why do you think you’re here, then, Adrian? Why are any of us here?”
“Ah, yes, why? Why? Why are any of us here? The grandest question of all. Why are we here? Why am I here? Sometimes, my friend, I feel as if I am the reaper to collect souls.”
“Yes, souls. Collect souls.”
“I best shut this thing down for the night, Adrian. I love seeing old friends. You look good. Really. Thanks for coming in. Thanks. Really.
“Of course. I never forget an old friend, not ever. Maxwell.”
“Good. Good, Adrian. Good night then. I think you are able to manage your own way out.”
“Hey, wait. I have something for you, you know, for old time’s sake,” Maxwell said, walking over to one of the fridges, opening the door and pulling out a plate of tiramisu. “For you, old friend,” Maxwell said, handing the plate to Adrian, who took the dessert.
“Thank you, Maxwell.”
With a bit of a smile, Adrian took the tiramisu, placed it on the stainless steel counter, lifted a bottle of olive oil from the rack above the stove, unscrewed the top and splashed Maxwell with one hand while reaching for a lighter in his breast pocket the other, then lit a flame, torching Maxwell as he stood in his kitchen. Adrian continued to pour olive oil on the chef as the flames burned, even as Maxwell screamed and Adrian’s server ran with the bussers for their lives. When it was finished, and Maxwell lay dead on the kitchen floor, Adrian picked up his plate of tiramisu and left.