Her hair is red, but red from a bottle. She smelled of flowery perfume, which mixed with the gasoline and oil smells of the small aircraft cabin, an odd juxtaposition. We sat shoulder to shoulder, my girth taking up more than hers and I felt like I was intruding on her space. She wore shorts and a khaki shirt, it was unbuttoned revealing her white tank top. Her legs, arms, face and neck all tanned with only the smallest of wrinkles around the eyes, signifying her young age. There was an oil stain on the fabric, and the collar was fraying.
We flew low, and headed South, just the dull drum of the engine and a brief buffet here and there as we crossed the open dirt outback country below. The sky was a deep azure blue, and the dirt rust red, speckled with green bush and the occasional kangaroo. Dirt track roads were few, but those that I spied were empty. The land was sparse, harsh, and felt abandoned.
My head stopped bleeding, but my face felt sticky and crusty. I pulled out a bottle of water and poured some into my hand, splashing it on my face and trying to wipe away the blood and grit. I stared at my hands, felt the tightness of my joints, and as I flexed my fingers I could feel the deep bruising in my joints. The pain and aches helped take my mind from the woman beside me, her smell, and her brilliant red hair. I looked up and stared across the wide flat red expanse before us, feeling the reassuring vibration from the engine, sounding healthy and strong.
“So,” my companion started, her voice loud and intense in my headset. “I suppose that did not go as you had planned?”
“No. That was a dead end.” I said, squinting at the sun, the red, and the desert around.
“I had a feeling. Places like that are not too kind of strangers. Especially Yanks, or really any foreigners, eh?”
“This your first trip to Australia?”
“You’re not much of a talker, eh?”
“No. How long to we get back to Adelaide?”
“About an hour. Weather’s clear all the way, been clear for a week. See there, on the horizon, those white puffy clouds, that’ll be the edge of the Spencer Gulf. We just cross that and head south a bit, and we’ll be right.”
I took a deep breath, inhaled her perfume, and closed my eyes. I was feeling tired, bone tired. In my head were the images from the files; the road, the expanse of red dirt. Photographs of the last place she was seen. Just images, and as I opened my eyes I could see that those could have been taken anywhere around here. It was pointless to trace the photos. There must be another angle, had to be. And it would have to start in Adelaide or its surrounds. It was evident that to find this missing person, I had to retrace every step from the beginning, there would be no short course to the finish line. It would take longer, cost more, just as long as it didn’t cost her.
She nudged me awake, as I had drifted off to a very restless sleep during the flight.
“We’re nearly five miles out. You must have been knackered. Look, we’ll get you down right quick, and if there’s anything more that I can do, you know where to find me.”
“Thanks,” I said, my voice feeling sharp and hoarse.
The plane started a shallow descent and the woman skillfully took us down gently, over the coast, the rolling hills and the beautiful surf below. We lined up with a small runway, and she slipped the plane in, wheels touching dirt with the softest caress. As we pulled to a stop, I was eager to get out of the cramped confines, yet part of me whined, feeling remorse to be separated from the lovely smelling redhead. She taxied off the runway and forward to a large grass patch. She pulled the plane to a stop and shut down the engine. The silence was welcome.
As we exited the plane, I pulled my leather satchel from the rear seat and started immediately for the airport office. The young woman secured the plane, and I could feel her walking briskly behind me, trying to catch up. As we neared the office trailer, she grabbed my arm and pulled me to stop.
“Look Mate, perhaps I could show you in the back way, eh? The way you look, not good for business and we have waiting clients.”
I nodded and then followed her lead around the side of the hangar. She stopped, turned and kissed me.
“Call me,” she said.