Max turned at the lake’s edge and took his eyes off the road to absorb the one hundred and eighty degrees of stunning, hot pink sunset in front of him. He’d watched the sun rise and fall over this stretch of water his whole life and it could still knock the breath out of him. Tonight, a gentle breeze skipped across the water’s surface, shattering the reflected image of perfection into a million pieces. If he was a philosophical man, he might come up with some crap about his life and the gust of wind he knew was heading his way, but he wasn’t so he didn’t try, just held onto the magic a moment longer.
The small roundabout up ahead was just a kink in the quiet lakeside road and Max was going straight through but he worked back a gear anyway, in no hurry to start the rest of the evening. He was in the bend, almost at the adjoining street, when the car approaching on the left jerked forwards suddenly, launching itself into the intersection, it’s silver chassis suddenly large and solid and right in front of Max’s grille.
He slammed the brake. Rennie gasped. In unison, they were launched into their seatbelts and thrown back into the upholstery. As the compact four-wheel drive coasted past Max’s much larger work ute, a pale-haired kid eyeballed them through the driver’s window. No fear in his face, no apology.
Max thought briefly of the wreckage his bull bar might have caused and made the words large on his lips. ‘Good driving, mate.’ He flattened his palm on the horn to reinforce the message but the car continued without pause, the driver lifting a fist to the window and flipping his middle finger.
‘Arsehole.’ Max shoved the stick back into gear. ‘You okay?’
Rennie still had a hand pressed to her chest. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. What a jerk.’
‘Doesn’t look old enough to have had a licence for more than five seconds.’ Max checked the rear-view mirror as he continued through the roundabout, saw the four-by-four had started another loop around it. Beginner’s version of a donut. Idiot.
‘Your reflexes were all over it, though,’ Rennie grinned.
‘You like my reflexes?’
‘One of your best features.’ She glanced around the car. ‘We forgot the wine.’
It wasn’t the only dumb thing he’d done tonight. ‘We can pick up a bottle on the way.’
She nodded, watched him a second. ‘About before . . .’
She didn’t mean the kid in the roundabout. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘It’s just . . . I didn’t think . . .’ She stopped, restarted. ‘Are you all right?’
Not close to all right. ‘Yeah, babe. Just been a long week.’
‘Anything you want to talk about?’
He was sick of thinking about it. ‘No. Let’s just go say happy birthday to Trish,’ he said. ‘Have a few drinks and chill out for a while. Okay?’ He made it sound like ‘Okay with you?’ but meant, ‘Let’s leave it at that, okay?’
She didn’t push it. It didn’t mean the subject was closed.
He followed the road that wound along the water’s edge, a black path tracking the ins and outs of the rocky foreshore. Beside him, Rennie scooped her hair into a twist at the back of her head.
‘Leave it out,’ he said. ‘It looks good.’
‘Are you kidding? I didn’t have time to dry it properly. It’s a mess.’
No different from usual, as far as he could tell. Not exactly blonde, not exactly brown, it tried hard to be neat but never quite made it. ‘I like it.’
‘Good reflexes, no taste.’
‘What the . . .?’
The roundabout was three or four bends behind them. Max figured the kid had had a little fun burning rubber around the traffic island then kept going in the direction he’d been heading. ‘The car from the roundabout, it’s behind us.’
Rennie turned in her seat to see for herself but he stopped her with a hand on her arm.
‘Why? What’s he doing?’
‘Sitting on our tail.’
‘What, he followed us?’
‘Looks that way.’
Rennie ducked her head to the passenger side mirror. ‘I can’t see him. How close is he?’
‘Close enough for a nosebleed if I hit my brakes.’
The kid wasn’t just a smart-arse now. He was dangerous, his right-hand tyres drifting into the oncoming lane on the narrow, winding road. Max’s fingers tightened around the wheel, anger firmed his jaw. He didn’t have the patience to deal with this tonight. He checked the mirror above the dash again. The four-wheel drive was so close he couldn’t see its headlights. There were two silhouetted figures inside: the driver hunched forwards, one hand punching sign language insults through the dark; the other a small head outlined against the front passenger seat. Max wanted to pull over and give the kid a mouthful.
‘He’s a jerk, Max. Just head to the car park like it’s no big deal. Like you don’t even know he’s there.’
She was right. Only an idiot tailgated a dual cabin ute around bends doing sixty k at dusk and there was no point explaining it to the guy who was stupid enough to do it.
Despite his urge to pull ahead of the kid, Max kept an eye on the jostling and baiting and his foot light on the pedal as he drove the long way round to the strip of shops at ten clicks under the limit – just to make the point – turned left and headed past the cafe. The party was already underway in there, people standing about, balloons clinging to the ceiling, a pile of gifts on a table in the window. No paying guests tonight. And no parking left out front. He turned between the newsagency and the bottle shop, then again into the parking strip behind.
‘Is he still there?’ Rennie asked.
‘Yep.’ All the way into the car park.
Max pulled into the first available space, half a dozen from the top of the row. The kid kept going, speeding up as he headed down the lane, screeching as he slowed for the corner. Turning off the ignition, Max watched until the car paused at the exit. ‘Well, folks, that’s the entertainment over. Come on.’
But the four-wheel drive was still sitting there with its rear lights glowing as Max hit the auto lock. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Rennie for a moment, staring down the length of the car park at the vehicle.
‘What do you think he’s doing?’ she asked.
‘Probably using his GPS to locate his brain. Forget him. Let’s go say happy birthday.’
He took Rennie’s arm and she nudged him with her shoulder. She wasn’t big on public displays of affection, preferring to stride rather than nuzzle in close, but he knew what a nudge meant. They were okay. At least for now.
Almost at the top end of the row, Max heard a noise, checked over his shoulder and felt his hackles rise. The kid was coming back and he wasn’t looking for parking, that was for damn sure. He was hustling up the next lane, pointing a finger at them in some kind of aggressive incitement.
Max’s hand tightened on Rennie’s arm. ‘Let’s wait here a second.’
Pebbles scattered as the kid’s car took the corner at the top of the row, more skittered about as it ground to a halt, blocking the end of the parking lane. Max took half a step in front of Rennie. ‘Max.’ She said it like a warning.
‘We’ll just see what he wants.’
As the window came down and Max waited for the driver to make the opening gambit, he took a closer look at who he was dealing with. The kid would need ID to prove he was eighteen. Clean shaven, nice shirt, teeth straight enough to have cost some parent a bomb. And the car was a long way from a hoon vehicle – a toy four- by-four that had probably never felt the dirt of off-road.
The boy kept his hands on the steering wheel as he lifted his chin and spoke with schoolyard belligerence. ‘What did you say to me?’
Max hadn’t said anything yet, unless he meant back at the roundabout. ‘I said, Good driving, mate.’
The yell was sudden and stunning in its vehemence. ‘You’re the shit driver! You could’ve hit me. Don’t you know the fucking rules?’
Max hesitated. A lesser reaction and he might have met aggro with aggro but this was way over the top. He kept his voice at conversation volume. ‘Yeah, I know the rules. You’re meant to give way to your right, dickhead. Are you even old enough to have your licence?’ He cocked his head at Rennie and started walking.
That was when Max saw the girl in the passenger seat. Sixteen, maybe. Sweet kid, if you could tell that at a glance – pretty dress, nice hair, a little make-up, like she’d gone to some effort, like maybe she’d kissed her mum and dad goodbye on her way out. Max met her eyes for half a second. She dropped her gaze. Didn’t look like she was having a great time.
As he and Rennie drew level with the kid’s front fender, there was a rev of the engine. Not a quick hrrumm as it slid into gear but an extended growl from a foot working the accelerator. The driver didn’t say a word, the car didn’t move but Max’s skin tingled at the intended threat. Without a hitch in her stride, Rennie slid the strap of her shoulder bag to her hand and bunched it in her fist.
The car rolled slowly forwards, keeping pace with them as they walked, the fender at their sides, the cab behind them. It stopped with its bumper almost touching the rear panel of the last parked car in the row, blocking their way out.
Oh, man, the kid was pissing him off now. Max backtracked to the driver’s window, stayed out of arm’s reach. ‘What is your problem?’
‘I was on the roundabout first,’ he said. ‘The rules say the first one on the roundabout gets right of way.’
Did he think it was a race? ‘I don’t know where you learned to drive but you should be asking for your money back.’
The kid’s chin came up. He tried for a sneer but his face wasn’t mean enough to pull it off. ‘Don’t you believe me? You calling me a liar?’
The smart-arse in Max wanted to laugh. Who picked a fight over road rules? Who picked a fight with that corny line? But wariness stopped him. There was a tonne of metal under the kid; he’d already used it to try to run them off the road and he’d brought a cannon to a yelling match.
Max glared at him for a second, trying to let the face of experience warn him to drop it. Rennie’s hand curled around his forearm.
‘Come on,’ she murmured.
He resisted, not wanting to turn his back, not wanting to fold for a snot-nosed boy. But she pulled at his arm and he caught the uneasy look in her eyes. Walk away, Max. You’re the grown-up. Not so grown up he didn’t want the last word, though. ‘No, mate,’ he finally answered. ‘You’re a real stand-up guy. Have a good night now.’ He glanced at the girl as he stepped back from the window. Her face was averted, her neck flushed with embarrassment.
‘I will,’ the kid barked out the window like a tough guy who’d won the scrap. He made a big deal of shoving the stick into first and over-revving as he pulled away. He yelled his final gesture as he headed into the narrow road that led to the street. ‘Rich fucks!’
If it hadn’t been for that, they might have crossed the lane to the bottle shop a little shaken up, wondering what the hell had just happened. But his parting words topped off the absurdity of the moment. Max raised his eyebrows at Rennie.
She raised hers back at him. ‘He thinks we’re rich.’
‘Probably should’ve checked our bank statements before he fired that one at us.’
They were both laughing as they stepped into the roadway, out loud, letting go of the edginess. Max channelled De Niro in Raging Bull: ‘You calling me a liar?’ He didn’t hear the tyre spin until it was a squeal. Until the four-wheel drive’s brakelights glowed red through a cloud of smoking rubber as it reversed fast down the narrow road at them.