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 Dying to Live

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: Dying to Live   Mon Sep 04, 2017 6:08 pm

Chapter 7

 

            Ari was shaking physically as he started his motor bike. He tore off into the traffic recklessly, to the ensuing angry blaring of horns and aggravated shouts that suggested he had a death wish, as well as outlining his grossly limited mental capacity. Heading in the opposite direction to the city to confound any would be pursuer; Ari completed a number of circuitous detours before taking a road across the river and tracing the river’s route into the city. After parking his bike almost opposite Brewsters, and tucking his computer firmly under his arm, he walked across a bridge to the café. The sun had set a little time ago on this mild night, but the lights of the city and the tree-lined river promenade lit the area well. Collette was not there yet. He realised that he wasn’t sure whether she would actually meet with him. He was still a little rattled that he was almost apprehended. This was the first opportunity to review the situation and he started to attempt to piece together the recent events. ‘The big man,’ he thought ... ‘the tough... that must have been... What was his name?’ “...Clarridge?” Ari was thinking aloud now.

            Becoming aware of a form suddenly appearing behind him, Ari jumped and turned with a start. Behind him stood a petite young waitress dressed as a French maid. She had a mildly concerned look on her face.

“Sorry for giving you a fright sir, would you like to order?” she smiled.

“Ah, yes thanks, a large flat white thanks.”

“Anything to eat sir?”

“No thanks.”

She wrote quickly on a small order pad and left.

 

            Just after his coffee arrived he thought he spotted the attractive brunette walking amongst a group of people. She walked determinedly and started to pass by. Ari stood, waved an arm and was just about to call out when she turned toward him. It was then that he realised it wasn’t Collette. The stranger looked at him as if responding to his hail and Ari was required to hold up both hands, shake his head and mouth ‘sorry’.

            He drank his coffee slowly and watched the night life of the city flow by as he waited. He soaked in the noises and the sights—the laughter, the traffic, trains passing beyond the river, the distant sirens, clatter of steps and the hushed tones of close conversations. Shimmering lights reflected off the river, sliding cruise barges, crowded restaurants, and quiet couples sauntering by but no Collette. Overwhelmed with a smothering wave of loneliness he shook himself and looked at his watch. The pretty waitress approached, seeming to still be amused by her jittery customer.

“Is there anything else you would like?”

“No thanks.” He looked up and smiled in an effort to convince her that he was normal, but it went unnoticed. She was busy writing his bill before placing the docket in front of him.

“Thank you sir,” she said in a cheery voice, and gave her good looking, fair haired customer a big smile and a slight cheeky tilt of the head. Normally he would have enjoyed the flirtatious interplay and made some witty remark, but not now. He studied his watch again. ‘What was wrong?’ Where was Collette? There was an ache in the pit of his stomach.

            Now Ari was getting worried. She should have been here by now. He used his phone to dial Collette’s number. After a brief interval there was a recorded message. It said that the number was not available at the present and would he leave a message. Pleadingly, he asked Collette to contact him. He said he would meet her at her place at nine thirty. He got out his computer and checked the location of Collette’s place, working out the most direct way to get there. Once he had assured himself that he knew the way, he packed up, paid for his coffee at the cashier and headed to his bike.

            His riding was restrained as he travelled along dark, unfamiliar streets. Ari only had a few turns to go and was restive on the seat wondering if she’d be there and how she would receive him. Around the next corner there was a blaze of flashing lights. Blue and red blinking police, fire brigade and ambulance and the yellow of tow trucks in a riot of bright surging beams. Before getting too close a policeman pulled him up.

“You’re gonna have to go around the other way sir.”

“What happened?” Ari already feared the worst. A knot developed in his throat as he tried to speak.

“An accident,” he clinically replied. “I’m sorry sir you’ll have to go the other way. We don’t want you impeding the emergency workers.” He was getting a little annoyed.

“Was it a girl?” he asked insistently. The policeman nodded.           

“I think I know her.” Ari croaked. “We were supposed to meet tonight.”

The policeman’s manner immediately changed. “Er, why don’t you leave your bike on the side sir and we’ll have someone come and chat with you.”

Ari wobbled to the side and suddenly felt weak at the knees. He stood his bike, placed his helmet on the carrier and then swayed with nausea. The policeman furiously waved an ambulance officer over and explained; “Knows the victim... gone white as a ghost... could be shock.”

The medic came over to Ari, shaking his head at how everyone thought they were an expert diagnostician.

“My name’s Greg, what’s your name sir?” he started with a reassuring smile.

“What happened?” asked Ari oblivious to the introduction.

“Sir, your name? Mine’s Greg”

Ari’s eyes were a little glazed as he stared at the mess. A bright green compact car was crushed up against a light pole. They were just dragging a four wheel drive off the crumpled wreck. As Greg helped him sit down, Ari took in the rest of the scene. There were small clumps of onlookers on the street and in yards. Police were interviewing a disoriented, middle aged, balding man sitting on the kerbside. Rescue workers were furiously cutting open what remained of the car’s interior. The paramedic looked inside, and then slowly withdrew, shaking his head.

“Is it Collette?” tears began trickling down Ari’s cheeks.

Greg put an arm around Ari and tried again. “What’s your name sir?”

“Ari James.” Ari mumbled. He felt pathetic, unable to reconcile that someone so alive and as vibrant as Collette, could now be dead.

“Mr James, I just want you to relax... take some deep breaths... someone may want to talk to you in a minute.”

            Ari watched as the first policeman spoke to the officer taking notes and pointed in Ari’s direction. As he was doing that the medics slowly withdrew Collette’s bloodied body from the wreckage. The familiar dark hair splayed down from her head.

“Collette!” was the despairing cry emanating from Ari’s lips. Almost every head turned to the choked off shout, heads shook sadly as Greg gave a somewhat patronising hug in front of the audience.

            A short time later the investigating policeman came over.

“So you knew the victim?”

Ari nodded.

“What is your name sir?”

“Ari James.” Ari tried to focus on the policeman through tear clouded eyes. He wiped his face with his arm.

“Sir we may need you to identify the victim.”

Ari nodded again. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“All I can say is that the driver of the four wheel drive vehicle collided with the small sedan and crushed it against the pole.”

“How?” Ari was dumbstruck that this accident could happen in such a quiet street. He remembered they said, ‘Make it look like an accident.’ But it was an accident... or was it? Maybe there was more to this.

            “Could you come with me sir?” He motioned for Ari to follow him to the stretcher next to the wreck. All eyes were tracking his progress. As he came nearer the horrific sight gnawed his being. Apart from a nasty cut to the side of the head Collette’s face was unmarked. Her side and arm had severe gashes that left her clothes blood soaked, and both her legs were misshapen with serious fractures. Without warning Ari vomited and then cried, utterly bereft. Those about watched compassionately as he composed himself. When he was finally ready he was asked, “Can you tell us who this is?”

“Her name is Collette Downs. She is... was a photographer.” Ari said croakily.

“Would you be prepared to sign a statement to that effect?”

Ari nodded, then whimpered, “They murdered her, you know, they killed her.”

“Sir, it was an accident,” he shook his head and motioned to the medic. Greg the ambulance officer came over.

“Do you have someone who can help you home?” Greg asked.

He shook his head. Then realising there was much he had to do. Information he had to find out.

“No, I’ll be right, just give me some time.”

            Greg stayed by him as he went back to his bike, concerned that he should be more alert and focused before getting on his machine.

“Greg, how could it happen?” Ari asked knowing that he wasn’t bound by the same strictures as the police. Greg was all too eager to give his version of events.

“That old fool is as drunk as, totally wasted; obviously lost control and steamrolled that little car. It’s a miracle he could drive at all. They found him unconscious at the wheel.”

Ari wasn’t quite expecting such a graphic explanation and paused to think over what Greg had said.

“What did he have to say for himself?”

Greg scowled disparagingly, “Gordon, the paramedic over there said he can’t remember a thing. Says he can’t even remember getting into his car. It’s disgusting!”

Ari decided he had to find out everything he could so he carefully framed his next question.

“What else did Gordon hear?”

Greg was enthusiastic in sharing what he knew. “It’s all bizarre really; Gordon heard that one of the first witnesses saw a guy looking into the wreck. He shouted to them to phone an ambulance. When they returned he was gone. Someone else saw him getting into a car and they say he was carrying a camera. What do you make of that?”

Ari shook his head. But he knew what to make of it.

“I mean,” continued Greg, “he must have stolen the camera. You wouldn’t run to an accident with a camera would you? And then they drove off!”

Confident that Ari had gained control of his emotions and had recovered sufficiently from the shock, Greg gave him a final pat and then headed to rejoin the other paramedics.

            Ari watched while photographs were taken, and then the ambulances and some fire trucks drove off. Eventually the wreck was removed and a cleanup crew arrived. The last of the police cars followed the tow truck as it left. An elderly lady who had been watching him from nearby much of the time asked,

“Are you all right dear?”

“Yes thanks, fine,” he managed before his voice choked. He stood still reflecting on the fact that he found it difficult to handle sympathy. Donning his helmet and starting the engine, Ari pulled away slowly, giving the lady a small wave.

            Still unclear in his mind regarding what he intended, Ari completed his journey to Collette’s unit. Clambering up the stairs while removing his helmet, he was immediately confronted by the front door swinging open in the wind. It showed ominous signs of being forced open. Ari hesitated. Were they still inside? He was struggling with his rage and fear. There was no sound. Inside it was eerily quiet. Tentatively, his fingers fumbled for lights as he moved inside. Everything appeared normal. He jumped at a sudden sound. He cringed, tightening every muscle to lash out with an avalanche of fury. Round the corner rushed a black cat. It stopped and purred as it rubbed itself on his legs. Ari heaved a sigh of relief. He tried to think positively. Maybe he could find a computer. Collette might have down loaded photos. His hopes were shattered when he came to a small bedroom converted into a study; a monitor and keyboard were there, but no computer. Had they known about copies? Was his phone bugged or were they just careful?

            He sat in the small kitchen gathering his thoughts and started talking to himself as he often did. ‘How did you get yourself into this Ari? You need to get some help. Go to the police. You have your recording, and they should have a record of the phone calls. Who else is there?’

He put his head in his hands and reflected that his parents weren’t on the scene. ‘No, can’t go to Mom and Pop... wouldn’t tell Gran, she’d want to help but it’s all too dangerous. Friends, huh, bit thin in that department. Reece would be a goer, but he’s mad.’ Ari chuckled to himself. ‘And Juzzy... Juzzy...’ He felt incredibly empty at that instant. Compared to Juzzy and Reece and the others, his relationships with people now were plastic and superficial. How real did Juzzy seem to him then? He wondered if she even thought of him any more. He had shunned her. Was it his pride, his stubbornness? Ari wanted to weep, but he knew there were things to do.

            He was about to leave when a thought occurred to him. Walking purposely to the bedroom, Ari surveyed the room. He hoped, ...maybe... where had that thought come from? Ari slipped his hand under the mattress. He bent down on his haunches and lifted it to be sure... nothing. Not to be deterred, he lifted the foot of the mattress and still nothing. Going to his knees he examined the far side of the bed, and as he lifted it up, there it was—a data key. He snatched it with his hand, unconsciously looking around to see if anyone was watching as he put it in his pocket, and then he strode for the door. What was it that made him look? Was it her coy look at meeting him that he could imagine; when she says ‘guess what’s under the mattress,’ and they share the joke?

           

                                    -----------------------------------------------

            It was late now, almost twelve, and he was undecided whether to go straight to the police or go home and see if he actually had something. ‘What was on that... on that minute, solid state drive?’ he wondered. He pulled it out of his pocket and turned it in his hand, pondering over its contents. Shuddering involuntarily as the experiences of the night flooded his thoughts, he breathed, “Poor Collette,” and then decided to go home and organise his ‘case’. His determination to avenge the heinous crime committed against Collette grew as his mind tracked events. His thoughts were in a tangle, and because of that he rode distractedly, not really noticing his surrounds. Abruptly, when he was about halfway there, one particular dark idea materialised and Ari had a panic attack. They knew he’d informed the police; he was almost captured at the parliamentary library. Was that a coincidence? They knew where he lived. They’d be waiting for him, surely! At the next intersection he turned the bike around and headed for the hills, literally.

 

            Ari had been going for fifteen minutes in the new direction trying to get some semblance of calm to his frazzled thinking when he realised that he was heading to his Grandmother’s. Perhaps away from the city he could sort out this puzzling threat and ease the turmoil in his mind. Feeling a little more at ease as he started travelling the familiar roads of his home suburb, Ari began thinking of Justine and how she had been one of the few bright spots in his life. He wondered what she was doing now. He smiled to himself. The irony struck him. At first he had told her that he would be bad news for her. Then Juzzy had told him they would be bad news for each other because of her new found belief. He would contact her again, he thought. He had grown up. They should be friends... they were friends. He needed friends.

            It was with that resolution that Ari turned into his old stomping ground. He rode up the sloping tree lined street and pulled into the familiar driveway as quietly as he could. Even though it was dark, the street lights lit up the front yard. He thought he would mow the lawn tomorrow as even in the dimness the long dandelion flower heads and straggly long grass were clearly visible. He suddenly felt awkward. It was too late to walk into his Gran’s place, even if, technically, it was his home too. He should have called her. Ari turned his bike around deciding to coast down the hill and find a motel room for the night.

            Just then he noticed a flicker of movement in a car across the street. A churning feeling surged through his being. Were they waiting for him here? Had he blindly endangered his only significant family? Maybe he was imagining it. If they followed him he would have removed the threat from his grandmother. If the car stayed, he had to assume there was no threat. The bike freewheeled down the drive and down the road. Suddenly the car started and its lights came on. Ari frantically started his engine and roared down the road.

            Screaming though the gears and then slamming on the brakes, he turned into the T intersection at the bottom of the hill, barely scanning for traffic on the deserted road. The sleek, dark car chasing him screeched around the corner much closer than he expected. Fish tailing slightly as he accelerated down toward the highway, Ari tried to piece an escape route together. The high powered vehicle was almost onto him by the time he reached the traffic lights. It was far too fast for him on the open road. Somewhere he had to go cross country, or find a narrow lane, but he couldn’t think of anywhere while they were menacingly close. He sped through a red light, swerved dangerously across the path of traffic, causing brakes to squeal and horns to blast. The pursuing car broadsided into the traffic causing minor collisions amongst traffic avoiding it. With surprising acceleration it slewed back into the right direction and rushed at him, almost crushing him against the car ahead. Instead, he avoided contact with a skilful swing over into the next lane and a dangerous zigzag about the slower vehicles.  Ari raced along the thoroughfare, dodging in and out between traffic, attempting to lose the nagging, sinister shadow.

            Again it gained on him as traffic thinned at the front of the cluster of cars. There was an all night mall on his left. Passing the first entry, going as fast as he dared the deadly tail drew ever closer. When it was almost upon him, at the last possible opportunity, Ari braked and veered sharply left into the second car park entrance. Pushing the motorcycle as hard as he could, risking a fall around the convoluted pathway back to the first entry point, he spotted the dark car taking the next entry point. Ari charged back to the highway, through a red light again, but more carefully this time, and up another hill. Turning quickly into another main artery with the traffic, he crossed it and u-turned away from the shopping complex. At an impulse, over a steady rise, he switched off his lights, diverted down the next side street, shut his engine off, rolled to a stop and waited. In the uncanny quiet, after the loud engine roar, Ari heard the distant sounds of traffic and felt the thudding of his heart as he trembled from the excitement and tension of the chase.

            Seconds later a dark car cruised past the end of the side street. He waited. Ari decided to lay low for an extended period and sat on the kerb next to his bike. He weighed up the serious predicament he was in. ‘They were determined, it seemed, that he should be eliminated. The carefully orchestrated ‘accident’ that had removed Collette might succeed’. He admitted to himself that even to him, who was aware of the plot, it appeared to be a genuine accident. With his intrusion an unexpected complication, they were more desperate now. The ‘accident’ was still their preferred method, but they weren’t fussing with finesse now, they just wanted him out of the way.’

            Somewhere in the distance a plover shrieked. He heard the mournful baying of a big dog that set others barking, like gossips passing on a message. Impulsively, as if robotically switched into action by some remote command, Ari grabbed his computer and backed up Collette’s data key. The bright glow from the screen surprised him and made him feel vulnerable. Its blue grey shimmer highlighted his presence in the dark neighbourhood, while he quickly transferred a file, simply named ‘photos for Ari’, muttering about the time taken and experiencing a miserable communion with the memory of Collette. In his mind he was seeing her in her shattered car all over again. With a paranoia instilled in him by the recent events he grabbed another data key attached to his set of keys and redid the copy. Once done he closed up the computer and put it away. “What now?” he breathed.

            Ari was at a loss as to where he should go. The oppressive feeling of being isolated, of having no friends, of having no-one, it made him remember what his Gran said; ‘It’s not like a club, it’s like having a real friend.’ “God help me,” he whispered. What did they say at the retreat? ‘The only wise God...’ He needed a bit of wisdom. All his life he had been determined to show that he was clever, but, like his father, he wasn’t wise; he was a fool. The retreat... the germ of an idea suddenly took root and sprung into full blossom. He would go to the old church guest house. Even if there was a group there, surely they’d let him sleep somewhere. Although off the road, he was sure even at this time of the morning that he could sneak in and sleep on one of the hammocks on the veranda. He had his leather jacket and an old duffel coat in the other storage satchel to keep him warm. And if no-one was there, it would be even easier.

             

            Once decided, he knew it was the course to take. He walked the bike to the dual lane road looking and listening. It was deserted. He started the motor, conscious of the racket he was making and imagining that the whole world stopped and stared at him. Riding steadily and as quietly as he could, Ari went down the sloping road to the small collection of shops and then steered toward the hills. He didn’t notice a dark car pull behind him with its lights still off. It stayed a fair distance back and was soon joined by a second dark car.

            Still agitated by the idea that there were people who had no compunction in taking the life of another human, Ari considered eternity. He hated the idea of succumbing to religion because of his fearfulness and endeavoured to shut his mind to any thought of belief and faith. “Go to church,” his grandmother had said. “Come to church with me,” Juzzy had encouraged. No, he didn’t want to think about it; nevertheless his thoughts went to Juzzy and the disturbance he felt emotionally when he remembered the attraction he had to her. He worried that maybe she had met someone. Maybe she had linked up with that annoying teacher who had stirred feelings of jealousy within him. Ari castigated himself for being so petty.

            Almost at the instant when Ari had started to relax and enjoy the peace of the night, headlights shone in his mirrors. The vehicle behind was drawing nearer at a considerable rate and he tensed as he quickly evaluated his options. To outrun the car on this open road on his relatively small capacity bike would be almost impossible, and there weren’t many detours to choose from. He slowed down and pulled onto a dirt road, almost immediately regretting his choice. It was a short cul de sac, and there was nowhere to go. Ari gritted his teeth, preparing to accelerate back past the car if it turned into the road. He needn’t have worried. The dark car surged past and disappeared into the night. 

            Shaking his head at his own panic stricken timidity, Ari reclaimed the bitumen and resumed his steady pace. The overhanging canopy of branches occasionally obscured the glint of a waning moon. ‘Any other time,’ he thought, ‘this would be a delightful ride.’

 

            Suddenly, the hairs on the back of his neck tingled. There was a glint of reflected moonlight glimmering in his mirrors from the rear. Sensing rather than seeing the dark, ominous shape looming up behind him, Ari gunned the engine and launched into the tunnel of light ahead of him. The charging predator exploded into light, training its dazzling high beam on Ari as if mesmerising a rabbit. And relentlessly the snarling metal animal zeroed in on its prey. Ari was hurtling flat out around one sweeping bend and then the next, hardly holding them at bay. Streamlining himself low against the handlebars, Ari swung dangerously fast into a tight corner and was appalled to be confronted with a dark car parked transversely across the lane. Unable to go inside, and frantically trying to prevent a collision, Ari aimed for the gravel shoulder. Immediately the bike lost grip and plunged over the edge, down a grassed verge before slamming into a grass submerged trunk of a fallen tree. Catapulted over the handlebars, Ari tumbled at speed metres through the air, before landing on his head and slamming his legs down in a completed somersault. Sliding on his back from the forward momentum, his helmet half tore off his head, the frayed strap failing from the frictional force just as his feet struck another impediment and he lunged forward across another large tree trunk.

            That was how they found him. From where his pursuers stood, shining a powerful torch in his direction, it appeared as if Ari’s neck had snapped back from the impact. His helmet tilted back at an impossible angle, while in reality his head dropped down the far side of the log completely out of sight.

“Broken his neck I reckon Hampton,” said the large man.

“You want me to check Clarrie?” asked the sinuous, weasel faced accomplice. An evil sneer creeping onto his face as if death was something he was familiar with.

“Nuh, the less we interfere with the accident scene the better,” he smiled, self satisfied that they weren’t required to employ their hardware and remembering their instructions. “Don’t worry Mr Burke, this one looks like an accident too but it’ll cost you,” Clarridge spoke icily to no one in particular.

“Grab his computer,” he commanded Hampton handing him the torch. And as his partner in crime moved toward the bike, he added urgently, “and be careful...  and stick to the tyre marks will ya, so you don’t make no tracks,” he directed his accomplice. Hampton dutifully tightrope walked the flattened track in the grass to the damaged motorbike. Withdrawing the computer case, he backtracked to where Clarridge was waiting. Ari hadn’t moved.

“What do we do now?” asked Hampton, crawling up the bank.

Thinking he heard the noise of a distant car Clarridge ordered abruptly, “We get out of here before anyone shows up.”

            They ran to their respective cars and drove up the road for five minutes before returning past the scene of the crime. Pulling up briefly, the big man emerged and satisfied himself that nothing had changed. The body was still, and in the same position lying across the log with the head contorted back. He called out to Hampton who waited behind in his car with his window wound down and a questioning look on his face.

            “A job well done, Hammy, a job well done. Let’s go.” He only used the other’s nickname when he was in a good mood, and things couldn’t have gone better. They drove off convinced the casualty of the night’s events would be listed in the papers in a day or two.
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