On Churches Plain

Harriet Mansfield changed gear and looked in the mirror. The bastard was still there. She looked down and thumbed her phone into life, pressing the speed-dial number one. She gave it a moment then pressed the speaker button. She heard the phone at home ringing. Come on, Josh, she said to herself, pick up the bloody phone.

Harriet listened to the ringing, keeping one eye on the road and the other on the mirror. It was a dirt road, and her passage was raising a rooster-tail of dust behind her. The driver of the car behind was hanging back beyond the worst of the dust.

The ringing stopped as the call was terminated without answer. Harriet speed-dialed once again: Josh usually picked up at the second call.

‘Hey, Harrie’ Josh said.

‘Josh,’ she cried, ‘I’m on the Churches Plain road and I’ve got a madman on my tail. He’s bumped me twice.’

‘What?’ Josh said.

‘I was just driving along and this other car came up behind me and smashed into the back of me.’

‘Christ,’ Josh said, ‘What’re you doing about it? Don’t try to out-run him.’

Harriet slowed and carefully steered the big car around a right-angle bend, then touched the accelerator to regain her speed. The car behind mimicked her actions as though connected by a rope.

‘Can you see how many are in the car?’

‘I think I can see two. There’s a lot of dust.’

‘Can you read the rego number? And what make and colour is the car?’

‘Jesus, Josh, I don’t know.’ It was very hard to concentrate on

driving. Churches Plain road is mostly soft sand, with occasional rocky areas where the fingers of the range on the west reach out toward the centre of the plain.

‘I can’t read the number, not unless I slow down, and then he’ll bump me again. The car is sort of beige, and I guess it’s a Toyota.’

‘Okay,’ Josh said. ‘I’m going to ring off now and call the police. Then I’ll call you back, okay?’

‘Don’t be long, Josh. I’m terrified.’ Harriet checked in the mirror.

There was no change. ‘Josh, I love you. Just remember that, whatever happens.’

‘I love you too, Harrie. I’m ringing off now, okay?’

‘Okay.’ The phone fell silent. The only thing to do was to keep her wits about her and just keep going. At least Josh knew what was happening.

If only she hadn’t taken the short cut. But she usually did when she was out that way. She liked the deserted road. She couldn’t remember ever having met any traffic along its fifty kilometres, though.

The phone rang and she answered it as it lay on the passenger seat.

‘Harrie,’ Josh said. ‘You’re still okay?’

‘I’m still on the road, if that’s what you mean. I’m not sure I’m okay.’

‘What was that? You’re breaking up.’

‘I said yes, I’m still okay.’

There was a pause. ‘I’ve lost you, Harrie. But if you can hear, I’ve called...’

The call ended. Damn, Harriet thought. Did he mean he’d called the police who were on their way to rescue her? Or what?

The sand ended and she was driving far too fast over a rocky stretch. It was a short stretch, though, and she kept the car going, bouncing and jolting. The smaller Toyota behind was even more badly affected, and she noticed with relief that it slowed to a safer speed.

Only too soon she was back on the smoother sand, and her tormentor quickly caught up with her. As though to remind her, he gave her car another bump, not as violent as the previous ones, but enough to send her car fish-tailing through the sand.

The phone rang again. ‘Thank heavens,’ she shouted. ‘He just bumped me again. Can you hear me Josh?’

‘Constable Evans, here,’ she heard. ‘We’ve just had a call from your husb...’ The phone died again.

As she glanced in the mirror she noticed that the other car was moving up closer behind her, and she braced herself. But as he came closer she saw that he wasn’t going to bump her, but to try to overtake her even though the road was single-track. He came up on her right until the passenger was right beside her. She looked in horror as he laughed at her, then drew his finger across his throat.

He couldn’t be more than sixteen, she thought.

Suddenly the overtaking car swerved toward her, smashing into the side of her car. She struggled with the steering wheel, trying desperately to stay on the road despite the force of the other car. The passenger seemed to think this was hilarious, ignoring the obvious damage to their car. Stolen, she realised. What did that suggest?

The Toyota swerved again, smashing into her car even harder, but this time maintaining the pressure while she tried to force the Toyota the other way. The screeching of torn metal frightened her immeasurably, and she moaned in fear and pulled down on the steering wheel for all she was worth. Her car was bigger and more powerful than theirs, and with relief she saw that she was forcing them off the road. She kept the pressure up, the two cars veering more and more to the right-hand margin of the road, until she saw, not far ahead, a big tree standing out ahead of them.

The other driver must have seen the tree at the same time, stamping hard on his brakes, falling back suddenly. She heaved a sigh of relief and pressed forward as fast as she could, keeping a little to the right of the road in the hope of preventing them using the same tactic again.

This time, though, she realised too late that she had left herself open to an attack on the other flank. The Toyota drew level on her left, and she shuddered to see the wild elation on the face of the driver as he slammed his car into her near side. This was more than a mere game.

Harriet was more confident of her ability to keep her car on the road now, and she held grimly to the wheel, forcing the Toyota onto the grassy verge. The Toyota bucked and surged over the rougher terrain, smashing through shrubs and bushes. Harriet kept up the pressure, calmer now and more certain of herself. The roughness of the verge prevented him from surging ahead to free himself, but it was clearly becoming a stalemate.

Suddenly the Toyota swerved away from her, taking advantage of a clearer stretch of the verge. Unwilling to follow him away from the road, Harrie watched as the other car slowed, then returned to the road behind her. Well, she had survived that. What next?

The phone rang again, and she took a chance and answered it.

‘Constable Evans here,’ she heard. ‘Is this Harriet Mansfield?’

‘Yes.’

‘And is the situation still the same? That you are being harassed by persons in another car, a Toyota?’

‘Yes. He’s tried to run me off the road twice now. I’m in great danger. They’re maniacs.’

‘We’ve sent units to each end of Churches Plain road. Which way are you headed?’

‘South,’ Harriet said. ‘Please come quickly.’

‘We’re doing our best, madam.’

‘I can’t keep this up for much longer. They’re smashing my car to bits as I drive.’

Harrie waited for a reply, but there was nothing.

With alarm renewed, she saw that the Toyota was charging up behind her once more. This time, however, its driver swerved at the last moment so that he hit her car a sideways blow, the rear of her car swinging away to the right so that she crossed the road and mounted the verge on her left.

The Toyota followed, edging forward so that it was once more beside her. Abruptly she reacted without thinking: she slammed on her brakes and heaved the wheel to the right, then stamped down on the accelerator as she turned back onto the road. She straightened up, heading north now.

In the mirror she could see the Toyota stopping in a cloud of dust, then quickly turning to chase after her. She had gained several hundred metres and kept her speed up. This really was do or die!

For five minutes she kept the Toyota at bay, though twice more he tried to side-swipe her as he done so successfully before. But each time she suddenly spurted ahead. They passed the big tree where Harriet had tried to shake him off, and very soon crossed the rocky stretch. This time the Toyota didn’t slacken, staying just metres behind.

On the sand once more, the Toyota driver got his nose around her bumper, and though she pulled to the right he crept up on her until he was level once more. The passenger was laughing and slapping the top of the dash, the driver hitting the wheel and looking at her rather than the road. They were clearly mad, Harriet thought.

But she could see that this was to her advantage, and she did her best to keep their attention by turning her face a little towards them, keeping an eye on the road from the corner of her eye. They seemed mesmerised by the fear she tried to express on her face, both of them watching her rather than the road ahead.

Harriet kept her turn until the very last moment as they approached the right-angle bend, then wrenched the wheel to the left to get back to the centre of the road. She watched with relief as the Toyota careered into the rocks and trees that skirted the bend, disappearing from sight. For a minute or so she kept her foot hard on the throttle, racing north; keeping an eye on her mirror, she realised that the Toyota had not returned to the road. Gently she braked to slow the car, though as the minutes passed she knew she would have to go back to them. Finally she stopped her car in the middle of the road, and reached for her phone. Still no signal. She sat for a few minutes, exhausted by the effort of the chase and the fear she had suffered.

With a shaking hand she carefully turned the car and drove slowly back to the bend. She could see the top of the Toyota between the rocks. There was no sign of movement. She looked at her phone once more, then tried to open the driver’s door. It wouldn’t move. She slid awkwardly across to the passenger side, and found to her relief that, though damaged, she could force it open.

She approached the Toyota with caution. She could detect no movement. The Toyota had missed the rocks but smashed head-on into a very large tree. The front of the car was a crumpled mess. She could see the body of the passenger draped over the dashboard, his head through the windscreen, his hips suspended. His head was smashed and it seemed impossible that he could be alive. Beyond him, the driver’s seat was empty and the door wide open. The steering wheel was twisted and covered with blood.

Harriet moved around the back of the car, afraid of what she might find. As she approached the open door she could see a trail of blood in the rank grass, but there was no sign of the driver.

Harriet backed away from the car. The driver might well be alive and in need of help; but she wasn’t going to search for him alone.

She carefully threaded her way back through the rocks to the road, and climbed back through the passenger seat. She sat for a moment, wondering what to do, then started the engine and drove south once more. She kept her eye on her phone, watching for any sign of a signal.

She hadn’t notice the bloody handprint on the top edge of the driver’s seat.

She did, however, hear the beginning of a manic chuckle from the back seat...