Remembering she is supposed to be checking something, Anita blinks, looks again and sees one of the Suzuki's back wheels is halfway onto the pavement. The tyre is teetering on the concrete kerb, an ugly swell distorting its black rubber and threatening any second to burst. Anita stares at it, until she notices a sharp pain in her hand. She has been clenching her fists so tightly that the broken fingernail of her middle finger has pierced her palm.
She raises her hand to inspect it and sees a tiny drop of blood appear. The drop swells and then - too fat to resist the pull of gravity - starts making its slow way towards her wrist. Under the hard summer sky, Anita fancies she can see her reflection in the shiny claret. She licks her hand clean, keen to understand the meaning of the blood, and immediately wondering if this is what insanity will be like. Empty minutes unexplained, significance given to everyday nothings.
She pulls her sunglasses down onto her face and takes a deep breath that does her no good - the air so hot it scrapes. Her dress is clinging to her sides. The breeze comes again, stronger this time and somehow even dryer than before. It is a brickfielder straight from the desert, like opening an oven door: that searing rush you always forget to prepare for. But at least it wakes her up. She regards the deformed tyre once more and sighs. Climbs backs into the Suzuki and edges the car further forwards - the unexploding bump of tyre into gutter a disappointment somehow - then climbs back out, locks the door carefully behind her and sets off along the broken pavement.
They say there is a storm on the way, but, for now, the sky is a pitiless blue. As Anita passes the empty shop windows of Crosley town centre, she wonders why she has parked so far from The Flying Pan. Only an idiot would walk to the café on a day like today. She stops abruptly and turns. Considers hurrying back to the car and driving across the town centre instead. Then, annoyed at her indecision, she tuts loudly. Surely this dithering in the early afternoon heat is the strongest sign yet she is losing her mind? But no. She is not losing her mind. She can't - she's got Riya to think of. So she takes a deep breath, turns again and strides purposefully on.
'Anita! Hi! Anita - wait up!'
A man in Stubbies and a PPC work shirt is waving from the shadows of a torn awning on the other side of the road. He hurries towards her, crossing in front of one slow car and waiting for another to pass. He is only metres away before she recognises him. It is Tom Brandle, the PPC warehouse foreman. Anita manages to drag up a smile, grateful for her sunglasses.
'Are you a mad dog, Anita?'
Tom's smile is crooked and yellow, his skin the colour of a summer spent outdoors.
'Or an Englishman? Aren't they the only ones who go out in the midday sun? You know, the song?'
Anita doesn't reply and Tom squints at the sky as if looking for confirmation his joke is valid. He is an amber-eyed man, tanned and shaped by a life of hard work, somehow still fair-haired as he approaches retirement.
'Jesus, it's hot,' he says. 'What you doing out here?'
'Getting away from everyone at work.'
She watches him get it.
'Oh. Sorry. Listen, Anita, I'm desperate but. Do you know when Scott's back? I'm not allowed to push out the Hanjin order till he signs it off and he'll be upset if we miss the shipment date. Y'know what he's like about deadlines. Only I can't get hold of 'im.'
Now. Right now. Anita could let it all out. Burst like the tyre had refused to, scream and cry and fall apart. Or she could just close her eyes, fall to the ground and let Tom Brandle call emergency services. Surely, he could be trusted? She could pretend to be unconscious and let Tom put her in the care of strangers, people who could take her to a clean hospital bed where she might remember how to sleep. The thought that those strangers - men - would touch her, handle her, lift and undress her, taints the fantasy. But, again, it is the thought of Riya that kills it. What a burden it is to have a small child. For the rest of her life Anita will have to be strong for Riya's sake; stay alive for Riya's sake; act happy for Riya's sake. No matter how a man might look at her, no matter what thoughts he might have, Anita can never complain. Tom coughs uncertainly.
'Scott's in the office right now.' She can hear the curtness in her voice but she doesn't care. 'I just left him there. He's got a meeting at three but otherwise he's free all afternoon.'
'But he told me ...'
Tom frowns and looks at her with his head slightly tilted. Anita can see he's preparing to ask if she's sure. They both know she's got things wrong in the past. Without another word, she walks past him and further on along the cracked pavement. When she hears him shout after her - 'Thanks! Sorry for bothering you during your break!' - she doesn't respond.
The Flying Pan is busy, a birthday lunch taking up all the tables, the booths so full strangers are being asked to share. Around Ly at the till is a huddle of people and, between there and the door, three young women with improbably straight hair are reading their phones as they wait.
Anita frowns and checks her watch. She has to be back in the office in under an hour - will she really have to return there hungry? Isn't she even allowed to eat? Seeing her in the doorway, Charlie Lam calls out from behind the counter.
At this, two of the straight-haired women look up, but Anita, safe behind her sunglasses, stares back at them until they remember their screens. Charlie caught her crying in one of the booths once. He didn't ask what was wrong, just patted her arm and told her to take her time finishing her sandwich. He must have said something to the others too because the bill didn't come until long after she had pulled herself together. Now, whenever Anita comes in, they all make a fuss.
'Window seat so you can look at all losers outside on day hot like today!' Charlie points towards a lone free stool at the shelf running along the front window. Someone has left a small metal Reserved notice on its seat.
'Bloody hell, Neets,' Mark Lam calls from further along the counter. 'Don't know what you ever did to Dad, but he's smitten. I'm telling Mum!'
The girls on their phones look up again, real life more interesting than Instagram for once, but this time Anita hasn't the strength to stare back. Her mouth is the first to go, loosening as she gasps, then she feels her chin grow weak as tears dampen in her eyes. She turns away out of shock rather than shame that anyone might see her crying. Surely not Charlie? Surely not here? She thinks about the amount of work that would take, everyone in the café in on the plan. There is no birthday party, just an excuse to have the place full, to put her on a stool in full view, her bum visible from wherever he stands.
Mark looks up from his cutting to share his smile. It drops when he sees her face. 'Jesus, Neets, I was only joking. You all right?'
Anita hears Charlie yell at his son in harsher Mandarin than normal and knows she has to leave. She has to get back to the car and lock herself inside before anyone can touch her.
Bronwyn, Mark's tiny mother, appears. 'Come here, Nita,' she says, guiding her towards the stool at the window. 'These stupid men and their stupid jokes. I think Mark isn't too big for me to spank like baby, what you think?'
Anita smiles and says, 'Of course, I mean, of course not, it's fine, sorry.' The light changes and she tells herself it's because she's seated in the huge window now, not because she was dreaming awake again. She is back, she is sane, she is normal. She wants to turn to the straight-haired girls in the queue and ask them what they think they're looking at? To shout over to Mark that he has done nothing wrong. Instead, she lets Bronwyn tell her she is having a bacon roll because that's what she likes. And an iced tea, no argument now.
It is several minutes before Anita is ready to turn and face the café. The girls in the queue are on their phones again, no doubt texting each other about the crazy lady. Mark Lam is cutting another sandwich. When, at last, he looks up, Anita gives him a smile and watches relief light his face, his lovely teeth showing as he smiles in return. And just like that she understands what she has to do. She has to make a sacrifice to her sanity: she has to kill a man.
Later, on her way back through the heat of Macquarie Road, Anita passes a homeless woman, bent over, shouting into a bin. The woman must have been pale-skinned once, before her life got dirty. Now, worn and eaten away, she is rifling through the bin with one hand while flailing about with the other to keep her phantoms at bay. There, Anita tells herself, that's what a mad woman looks like. Not like me at all. She takes another look to reassure herself and, as she does so, the homeless woman glances up feverishly. The eyes beneath her matted hair are a startling blue, the only surviving part of the girl she once was. Near one blue eye - down a bit, out a bit - she wears a blue teardrop tattoo, the first Anita has ever seen on a woman. In the blistering sunlight it shines as clearly as the woman's eyes and this, Anita knows, this is a sign. A sign she must never go to prison. So now the question isn't just how she is going to kill Scott Patterson but how she is going to get away with it.
From the Author
BOOK 1: HEADLAND (Oct 2017)