Dead Heat
By Caroline Carver
Published by Mysterious Press  
March 2004; 0892967781; 336 pages

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Dead Heat by Caroline Carver

ONE

The cassowary had died instantly.

A single whack from the hood of the Suzuki broke its neck. One moment the largest and most spectacular animal of the rainforest was crossing the road, the next it was a corpse, a seven-foot hump of sodden black feathers with blood seeping from one open brown eye.

Georgia Parish couldn't believe she had just killed one of the rarest birds in the Wet Tropics. Sure, she'd been driving fast, trying to make it to the aerodrome on time, but in the torrential downpour she hadn't expected to meet any wildlife. She'd assumed all possums, bandicoots, rat-kangaroos, and the like would be tucked up immobile in their dens and nests, sheltering from the secondary storms of Cyclone Tania.

Not this guy, though. Wiping her face of rain, she glanced behind her at the outskirts of the town, the handful of ramshackle weather-board cottages slumped beneath palm and fig trees, but nobody was about. She wasn't sure whether to be glad of this or not. On the one hand she wanted to apologize; on the other she knew that any resident of Nulgarra would be tempted to knock her flat, especially since she'd just driven past a huge yellow-and-black sign cautioning motorists that cassowaries sometimes cross roads.

Her stomach hollow with guilt, Georgia surveyed the dent above the bull bar, where the bird's head had thumped the hood. I'm sorry, she told the dead cassowary, but I'm very glad of the bull bar or you'd have come straight through the windshield and probably killed me. Not that I'm happy you're dead, but better just one of us than two, don't you think?

She turned her mind to Evie, who had loaned her the Suzuki. Even if Georgia paid for the damage, it would be Evie who would have the hassle of taking it to a body shop, maybe even getting the thing resprayed. Talk about a favor backfiring in her friend's face. She said a brief prayer for the dead bird. The heavy smell of the rainforest, a place of wet moss and mud and mangroves, coated the back of her tongue. When the sun came out, she knew the temperature would soar, as though the atmosphere had been ignited by a giant gas burner. The air was like a simmering stew and she was glad of the cloud cover.

 

Back inside her small four-wheel drive, Georgia eased around the carcass. No way was she strong enough to haul the corpse clear of the road. The young male had to weigh at least as much as she did, around 130 pounds, if not more. She set a more sedate pace down the dirt road, her wipers thumping, her senses alert for another encounter with a forest creature.

Two deaths in one day. Not that her grandfather had died today, but he'd been cremated four hours ago. A shiver of foreboding made the hairs stand up on her forearms and she was suddenly glad her mother, Linette, wasn't with her. She would have been clutching the crystal around her neck and pronouncing all sorts of grim portents and fateful connections between the two dead males while Georgia rolled her eyes and tried to change the subject.

Skirting a broken palm on her side of the road, she pondered on her mother's almost unnatural composure at the funeral, until she remembered the huge joint she had rolled in the car on the way to the crematorium.

"Sweet, you've had your brandy," she had said serenely in answer to Georgia's raised eyebrows, "and since you know I don't drink..." Georgia wondered how many mourners had caught the scent of marijuana on their clothes and decided she didn't care. Everyone knew that they'd once lived at the Free Spirit Commune just outside of Nulgarra, and had probably been surprised, maybe even a little disappointed, that the chocolate sponge at the wake was not some colossal hash cookie.

Holding the steering wheel tight as the little four-wheel drive dipped and shuddered over water-filled potholes, she squinted through the rain for the first sign she might be nearing the creek. Just about everyone had told her she'd never make it through, and despite the fact that her mate Bri hadn't been able to guarantee her a seat on his plane to Cairns, she had to try. No way did she want to stay with Mrs. Scutchings another night. Thanks to her mother, she'd been bunked up with her old headmistress over the last few days and, boy, had her patience been tested to the limit. The old bag was about as liberal as a barracuda and went as far as believing that the American tourist killed by a crocodile last season had done it on purpose, to keep potential tourists in Sydney.

"You lot down south," Mrs. Scutchings had said over a breakfast of rubbery fried eggs, "twist all the facts to make Far Northern Queensland look remote as heck and twice as dangerous."

Georgia had remained silent and forced down her solid egg. So far as she was concerned, the newspaper reports were right on the nail. The nearest major city up here wasn't Queensland's capital, Brisbane, 1,200 miles south, but Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, 450 miles across the water. Driving to Sydney would be the equivalent of driving from New York to Miami. London to Gibraltar. Remote was exactly the right word. And not only were there estuarine "saltie" crocodiles to contend with, but there were sharks, stinging trees, and poisonous spiders. There was even a deadly jellyfish that, with a single sting, could kill an adult within five minutes.

Some days she could hardly believe that her mother had dragged her and her sister, Dawn, out here from Somerset just to be near their grandfather. Yet Georgia could also see she hadn't had much choice. When their father died, killed in a hiking accident in Wales, it fell to their mother to run the New Age shop in Glastonbury. Within weeks they were overdue on their rent and being threatened with eviction, and then the bailiffs began to appear. Hightailing it to the other side of the world must have held enormous appeal.

She could feel the shock of arriving in Nulgarra, aged eight, as if it were yesterday, straight from a frostbitten winter into the sticky heat, where clouds of mosquitoes seemed bent on draining the last drop of blood from her. She recalled those first bewildering twenty-four hours, trying not to cry, missing the snug comfort of their little flat above the shop, the smell of burning incense, the sounds of wind chimes tinkling above the Glastonbury traffic.

She wondered if Glastonbury had changed much since she'd left, because Nulgarra hadn't. The town looked exactly the same as it had ten years ago, along with its residents. God, even Bridie hadn't changed. Her old schoolmate had bounced up to her outside the chapel. "George! I can't believe you haven't cut your hair! Heavens, don't you find it awfully hot? It's so long! And you're still wearing trousers! You always were such a tomboy. You haven't changed a bit!" Maybe, if she hadn't felt so tired, she could have embraced Bridie and told her she hadn't changed a bit either. As it was, Bridie had managed to make Georgia feel bad-tempered and disagreeable, as always.

She possessed that endless cheerfulness Georgia found exhausting, the kind of girl mothers asked to help bake birthday cakes or decorate the tree at Christmas, because she was so pretty and enthusiastic.

Georgia didn't get approached to do any of that stuff. She was the kind of girl who got asked to nail the chicken shed back together, or change the oil in the ute.

"Are you married yet?" Bridie asked. "Anyone special in your life? Go on, spill the beans, I won't tell a soul!"

She had made a noncommital gesture and Bridie looked at her pityingly, then added in a more sympathetic tone, "Mr. Right will be along soon, don't you worry. And get some rest, will you, George? You look like you need it."

Which wasn't surprising, since she was tired to the bone-tired from organizing the funeral, tired of the fact her sister wasn't there to help, and most of all tired of being asked if she was married yet. It had been a struggle to find her usual good humor each time she was asked where her other half was. Why in the world did everyone assume she didn't have a life unless she had a man?

Briefly wiping her face-the four-wheel drive Suzuki soft-top leaked like a sieve-Georgia swung the car around the next corner and caught a flash of white through the torrents of rain. Immediately, she slowed. "Cassowary Creek," the sign said, and after an initial jerk of regret at the bird she had killed, Georgia halted the car and gazed glumly at the boiling, soil-capped torrent.

Hell, she thought. It wasn't a creek, it was a goddamn river. How on earth was she going to get out of here? The inland road south, to Cairns, was closed, and the coast route hopeless since the ferry across the Daintree River was shut. The road north led nowhere but to tiny Cooktown, with nothing but storm-tossed ocean to the east and impassable jungle to the west. If she didn't fly, she was well and truly trapped.

Please, God, she prayed, let me get through, let there be a spare seat on Bri's plane. Please get me back to normality. I can't stay with Mrs. Scutchings another night, and if I stay with someone else I know she'll be hurt, and even if she is mad as a cut snake, I wouldn't want that. She's been kind.

A log the width of the Suzuki churned past, creaming the water a muddy brown, and she watched it slam briefly into the opposite bank before the tide snatched it free and hurled it downriver. Should she risk crossing? Or should she return to Nulgarra and spend the next few days sitting in the pub drinking beer and watching geckos climb the walls?

Wearily she replaited her hair, retying it with the black felt scrunchy she'd worn at the funeral. Bridie was right. It was too long, too shaggy. She wondered if cutting it would thin it down or thicken it to a mop. She'd always had long hair. Maybe it was time to chop off her bell-rope, as her boss called it, and risk going short, even change the color.

She wiped the rearview mirror clean of condensation and tried to imagine her too-large jaw and gray eyes topped with a cap of red or black instead of the usual muddy blonde. No chance. It would make her freckles stand out even more. Not for the first time she glared furiously at her reflection, wishing she'd been blessed with a little sprinkle of the things across the saddle of her nose, which might have been attractive, rather than spread all over her face.

Georgia became aware that, way in the distance, a bright blue fissure had cracked the leaden clouds. The break in the weather had arrived as predicted, and she knew that Bri's SunAir flight would be leaving as planned at 2 PM. She had forty-five minutes. The sooner she got to the airfield, the better, in case others were doing the same and turning up in the hope of a ride out of the storm-thrashed area.

With a critical eye, Georgia studied the churning torrent ahead, wishing her grandfather was with her; he would have tackled the creek no problem.

"Georgie," she fancied she could hear him, "you really oughta wade it before you cross. And where you going to aim?" Tom's voice seemed to grow louder the more she stared at the foaming water. "Does the water come above the axles? The engine fan? The body floor?"

"Yes, yes, and yes," she replied. The water looked dangerously deep and the current was quite fast, so she'd have to aim well up stream to go straight across. And she would bet the bottom was sandy, giving her less grip than large, heavy stones, and pitted with bottomless holes made by other vehicles getting stuck. She swallowed, aware her palms had dampened.

Evie had loaned her the four-wheel drive specifically for Cassowary Creek. She'd told Georgia the water level was bound to be high, and not to worry if she flooded the car, it was used to that. She and her trusty Suzuki had crossed the creek loads of times, even when it appeared impassable, so Georgia had better not be a wuss. She could hear Evie's voice start to override Tom's caution.

"Why'd you think I bought a bloody four-wheel drive in the first place? To sit outside my van and look pretty? Stop buggering about and go, girl!"

Copyright 2003 Caroline Carver
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

Her critically acclaimed first novel, Blood Junction, won the prestigious Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger Award and was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best mystery books of the year. Now rising star Caroline Carver breaks new ground with a fast-paced and thrilling adventure into uncharted wilderness, unfathomable mystery, and unmitigated terror...

Georgia Parish left the small town of Nulgarra in northern Australia to pursue a promising career in publishing and vowed never to return. But when her plane crashes in a remote rainforest, Georgia finds herself back in Queensland struggling to comprehend a sinister fact-the plane she was on was sabotaged.

Rescued and brought back to Nulgarra, Georgia is determined to uncover the truth. Who was the target of this attack? The pilot, her dear friend Bri? Lee Denham, the grim-faced hero who disappeared after saving Georgia's life? His beautiful and brilliant companion Suzie, who died in her arms?

As she starts asking questions, Georgia attracts the attention of smugglers who believe that she has something that is theirs, something immensely valuable, something that they will do anything to reclaim. Pursued and terrorized in the very town where she grew up, Georgia is shocked to discover that there is no one she can completely trust-and that under this community's placid surface lies a network of corruption where freedom is bought and sold on the open market and heroes become villains in the blink of an eye.

The tortuous trail of clues she follows will take her into the heart of this continent...and into the most exotic, colorful, and savage landscape on earth. With relentless criminals behind her, she is unaware that something worse lies ahead-a merciless enemy who may know her all too well...

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Author

Caroline CarverCaroline Carver participated in the 1992 London-to-Saigon Motoring Challenge as part of the only all-female team on a 63-day, 12,500-mile journey. In 1993, she took on the London-to-Cape Town 4 x 4 Adventure Drive. The daughter of a female land-speed record-holder in Australia and a jet fighter pilot.

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