CHRISTMAS IN ALICE
Our visit to Alice Springs in Australia led to this story. Although the resort hotel is fictional, the Henley Boat Races on Old Todd are indeed real. In this story, Margaret, a Canadian married to an Australian, flies to Alice Springs to help an old university friend implicated in a fatal accident.
Published in Blood on the Holly, A Christmas Anthology, Caro Soles ed., Baskerville Books, 2007.
Outside the rain had stopped, but even under the dull overcast, the desert heat seared her skin. Enormous ghost gum trees edged the hotel driveway. Margaret followed their chalk-white trunks out to the main road, fragments of their brittle bark crunching under her sandals. Immediately the flies sprang upon her, invading her mouth and nostrils.
Beating them off, she hurried down the main road, the incongruous roar of a river filling her ears. She spotted the bridge over Old Todd a short distance away, just as Constable Owen had said.
A rickety metal barrier prevented her from crossing over, but from where she stood on the road, she had a clear view. A foaming brown torrent sluiced under the bridge. Branches and debris tore past. Black oaks leaned like charred match sticks into the flood. No one could survive a fall into those waters, not even a giant like Constable Owen.
Several police officers were searching along the far bank close to the raging river. She recognized Owen who looked up and waved to her. Margaret half-raised her hand in reply. The flies settled on her again. She turned and walked swiftly back to the hotel.
“Cheer up,” Imogen said, when Margaret returned. ”Grab some tucker from the breakfast buffet. Christmas present from me to you. Do you good.”
Perhaps coffee would help, Margaret thought and thanked her. She joined the crush of guests charging the buffet tables set up in the dining room, but her appetite was gone. She filled two bowls of fruit salad, one for herself, one for Eileen, and found a table.
Alone in the crowd, she pulled the digital camera from her purse and switched it on. An image of Uluru in the rain popped up on the screen, the rock’s blood red surface laced with streams of water. She flicked through dozens of photos of gaudily dressed tourists who were hugging koalas, brandishing gift store souvenirs or raiding dinner buffets. A cheerful, heavy-set woman centred in a lot of them. Eileen appeared only once, standing next to the white Christmas tree in the lobby, her narrow face barred with shadow.
The last image was black.
“Fine little camera, that.” Imogen had appeared at her table. “Lots of you Americans like it.”
Margaret slipped it back into her purse.
“Can I ask you something?” Imogen took the chair opposite her. “Have the police found Phyllis?”
Margaret shook her head.
“It’s stupid to hope, I know.” The girl’s face crumpled. “I should have stopped them. Eileen couldn’t possibly have meant the Henley Boat Races. I mean, that’s stupid. But Phyllis was so keen. She wanted to see every last thing in her guidebook. She was such a lot of fun, such a nice lady. Everybody liked her.”
Everybody liked her. That’s what they’d said about Laura, too.
“Her son gave her the trip,” Imogen went on. “He’s flying in tomorrow. He’ll never feel the same about Christmas now, will he?”
Back in the room, Eileen was sitting up in bed, hands splayed on the sheets. She snatched the bowl of fruit salad from Margaret and stared into it. “Why do they always put in cantaloupe?” she grumbled.
“Eileen, we need to talk,” Margaret said, setting her purse down on the writing desk. “About Phyllis Redding.” She watched Eileen chew the pieces of woody melon. “Her son will want to know what happened to his mother.”
Eileen lifted a bony shoulder. “Nothing happened to her.”
“Don’t be like that.”
Eileen shoved more salad into her mouth.
“If you say nothing, people will think the worst. No one can blame you for an accident.”
“Don’t treat me like an idiot.” Eileen’s bowl tipped over, the dregs of syrup staining the sheet.
“I want to help, but I can’t if you continue this way.”
“OK, fine.” Eileen was getting loud. “We were on the bridge. She walked down into the dark.”
“What do you mean?”
“I guess she wanted to take a closer look at the river.”
Margaret sat down. “Why didn’t you stop her?”
“Why should I? She never listened. All she did was talk. Talk, talk, talk. Everything was always so wonderful, like fucking Disneyland.”
For an instant something primal flashed into Eileen’s face, the way it had in graduate school when she smashed the glass tubes of her failed experiments into the sink, one after the other.