Far HorizonAuthor: Tony Park
Imprint: Pan Australia
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‘Theron needs to speak to you.'
The voice on the other end of the mobile phone was South African. Normally its tone was friendly, jovial.
The man driving the truck said nothing, but swung the steering wheel hard, one-handed, to the left, bringing the bright yellow Bedford to a halt on the grass verge of the road.
He said nothing despite the flurry of questions.
‘What is it? Did you see something?' asked one of the tourists from the rear cab. ‘Why have we stopped?'
‘Mike? Are you still there, Mike?' Rian de Witt said into the phone from his office in Johannesburg , four hundred kilometres away.
The driver ran his free hand through his long, dark hair, until it stopped at the band holding the strands in a ponytail. On the other end of the phone line he heard an ambulance siren in the background that brought back memories of the hospital where she worked. As his mind raced he stroked his bristly jawline. Anything to stop his hands from shaking.
He looked out across the expanse of dry yellow grass, the plain spotted here and there with stunted, thirsty acacias. A bachelor herd of impala rams grazed a hundred metres off to the right. They barely paid any notice to the garish overland tour vehicle or the chatting passengers.
‘Yeah, I'm still here,' he said. The accent was from half a world away, maybe softened a little after more than a year's absence from his native Australia.
Michael Williams was there in body, but his mind was across the border again, out past where the little antelope were grazing, over the Lebombo Hills that marked the border better than any line on a map. He was thinking of Mozambique.
‘Where are you?' Rian asked, knowing what was going through the Australian's mind. Worrying.
‘Kruger. I'm still in the national park. Up north. Near Punda Maria. Mobile phone's only just come back into range again. What do you mean Theron wants to speak to me?'
‘He didn't say, but he said it was urgent.'
Sarah Thatcher, a blonde-haired woman in the front passenger seat, realised the tour guide hadn't stopped because he'd seen a lion or an elephant, or a leopard. This was personal. Sarah's instincts were aroused. She reached for the notepad in the side pocket of her daypack, flipped it open and wrote the word ‘Theron' on the blank page, shielding it from his view. It might be nothing, but the way the colour had drained from Mike's face suggested the opposite.
He was normally so bloody laid-back. But she had been trained to observe and now saw how his shoulders were bunched and knotted, like a big cat tensing before a final leap. His stocky frame was tensed, the muscles on his nut-brown arms clearly defined, the khaki T-shirt blotched dark with sweat. Something in the truck's big diesel engine tick-ticked as it idled.
He said it was urgent. Mike felt his pulse rate climb. His left hand gripped the steering wheel now, so hard it started to hurt. The mobile phone felt like it might shatter in his right hand.
‘You're supposed to be crossing from South Africa into Zimbabwe tomorrow. You still on schedule?' Rian asked.
‘He wants you to report to the South African Police post at Messina , at the border crossing, tomorrow morning. I gave him your schedule and he said he'd meet you there.'
A hundred possible reasons. But why the urgency?
‘Are you really OK? Is everything all right, man?'
‘I'm fine, the passengers are fine, everybody's fine,' Mike said, trying to sound relaxed.
He'd run away from the horror, changed his life, but he hadn't run far. Maybe, he told himself, he'd stayed in Africa because one day he might get a call like this one. He hadn't heard from the detective for a year and had nearly given up hope that he ever would. Or, he wondered, had he started to hope the call would never come?The faces, the places, that lived in his nightmares had grown dimmer and appeared less frequently as the months marched on, but now, as he said his goodbyes and switched off the mobile phone, they leapt back into horrible focus.