For disclaimers, see chapter 1.
Adventures in the Dust Trade, Part 6
Pictures of Coober Pedy, South Australia
Set in sun-scorched desert, the city's best feature was a field of conical hills resembling a moonlike terrain. Very scenic until one remembered they were standing in a gravel pit, gazing at piles of dirt kicked up by the worlds largest opal mines.
When white men began to dig for the precious gems on the eastern edge of the Great Victoria Desert, they found their shafts and drives were more comfortable places to be than their surface tents and shacks which baked all day in fierce sun and froze all night in desert cold. So the miners created -- not built, but excavated --an underground township.
The Aborigines of the region, whod never seen anything like it, were much amused. In their experience only animals lived in holes in the ground. They described this extraordinary behavior by white men in words that sounded like 'Coober Pedy', which meant something like 'cave men,' or 'people living in burrows'.
Miners and their families made neither primitive dugouts nor caves, but homes as comfortable and well fitted out as any surface house anywhere. Many were former mines, but some became underground mansions, where they enjoyed a year round temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, thus ignoring the extremes of the Great Victoria Desert a few meters above their heads.
Some joked that it was the kind of place where if one wanted another room, you simply dug one and if you were lucky, you could find enough opals during excavations to pay for the entire place.
Nicole shook her head at the funny anecdotes as she descended the steep steps leading into the underground restaurant and paused momentarily to absorb the interesting architecture of the place. The Smokey Cave, once an opal mine, was a popular hangout for both the population and tourists.
Devoid of any windows, the uneven walls and ceiling, carved out from the rock, gave the impression of being hundreds of meters underground instead of just a few. Like the name of the establishment proudly announced, a light smoke filtered throughout the place bringing with it the delicious smell of grilled meats.
Wooden tables and chairs lay side by side, so tightly close together that patrons had to side step in order to get through. Waitresses carrying numerous pints of beer in their hands adroitly avoided some customers who suddenly walked in their paths and others who gestured wildly as they laughed, recalling their working days in the opal mine fields.
The noisy conversations taking place throughout the pub easily blended with the loud music playing from an old fashioned jukebox located in one corner. Nicole smiled as two strong hands rested on her shoulders and she tilted her head back to look up at her partner.
"I just spotted Ludwig," Kris spoke in her friend's ear so she wouldn't have to yell. "Dean and Scott are sitting at a table next to him."
Nicole rose on tiptoes to have a better view at what the taller woman was pointing. She easily saw her brother in law sitting by himself and waved when he spotted them. "Oh yeah, Kyle's there too. Shall we join them?"
"Lead the way," Kris smiled and followed her partner across the packed room. "Are you waiting for somebody?" she asked her brother once they were next to him and nodded to the Australian rally drivers. "Hi guys." Both men silently waved at the stuntwoman, their mouths filled with food.
"The seats are for you. I assumed Nicole would be hungry by this time." The dark haired man winked and gave Nicole a brief hug when she sat next to him.
"Hi Lou," Nicole smiled and studied his meal with an interested gaze. "You're right, I'm famished. What are you eating?"
"The house's specialty." He cut a piece from his steak and lifted his fork. "Wanna try it?"
"Sure!" The young blonde quickly agreed and grabbed the meat between white teeth. "Hmm, tasty!" she chewed the morsel, taking her time, enjoying the strange flavor. "That's not beef, is it?"
"Nope," Ludwig replied with a smile and cut another piece. He looked at his sister sitting on the other side of the table. "Want some, Kris?"
"What is it?" she asked, not trusting the amused smirk on her brother's face.
"Very good meat," Lou continued, completely ignoring her question. "Very lean too. There's just a hint of smoke from the grill. Wish they had that back home." He looked at his younger sibling who hadn't taken the offered meat yet. "You don't want to taste it?" he shrugged when Kris shook her head no. "Your loss."
"I'll take it then." Nicole reached for Ludwig's wrist and brought the fork closer to her mouth. "That's what I'm having to eat tonight. I love it!"
With a light shake of her head, Kris leaned forward and spoke softly. "Hmm, Nick? Maybe you'd like to know what you're eating before you order."
"Why?" she asked as she slowly chewed. "It's good."
Sitting at the other table, Kyle chuckled as he cut a piece from his own steak. "You seem to know what it is, Sprout. Why don't you tell her?"
"Tell me what?" Nicole asked, wondering what the big deal was about. It was just meat after all, wasn't it?
Kris glared at the bald stunt technician and shifted her icy blue eyes on Dean and Scott. The Australians quickly stopped smiling and concentrated on their own food. Sighing, she turned her attention back to her partner and pointed to her brother's plate. "I think that's kangaroo."
Nicole stopped chewing. "You mean " Her eyes grew big as she looked at Ludwig's steak, then at the laughing men sitting at the other table. "Is it?"
Dean nodded. "But you did say it was good, no?"
The first thing the young blonde wanted to do was spit the meat out, but if she was honest with herself, she had to admit that it was very good indeed. "But " she said with the meat still in her mouth, " I feel like I'm eating Skippy the kangaroo."
Having heard the young blonde's comment, a waitress stopped by their table. "That's not Skippy," she smiled as she pointed to the plate. "We ate him last week." The reply caused everybody to howl in laughter.
Nicole's eyes widen and her skin began to take a slightly greenish color. She couldn't help herself from thinking about the small Joey she'd had in her arms at Shannon's mother's place. Feeling like she was eating the family's pet, she was about to reach for the piece of meat in her mouth when the waitress laughed heartily and patted her back. Surprised by the gesture, Nicole swallowed unintentionally. She then looked at her partner with a stricken expression on her face. "How can people eat that? They're so nice and cute."
Not sure if Nicole was going to laugh or cry, Kris smiled and took her hand in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Just think of it as the roo you dreamt about. You know, the one you saw boxing with me?"
Scott leaned forward to get a better look at Nicole. "Lambs are nice and cute too. You eat them, right?"
"Yeah," she sighed. "Please, don't remind me."
"So," the waitress spoke again as she pulled a note pad and pen out from her pocket. She looked at both women. "What will it be tonight?"
"Anything that doesn't hop around," Kris replied dryly. "I'll have a T-bone steak and a beer."
"Make that two." The waitress nodded and left with their orders. Nicole elbowed her brother in law and scowled at him. "That wasn't funny, Lou."
Ludwig reached over and gently patted Nicole's hand. "You must admit it was tasty," he teased and watched as she eventually nodded. "See? I knew you'd like it." He looked at his sister. "So, about the offer I made you. Do you have an answer for me yet?"
Kris leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. "No."
"Bu " he frowned. "No, you didn't make a decision yet or no, you're declining?"
"No," she repeated and nodded her thanks as another waitress came back with their beers. Kris saw Nicole hide a smile and she winked at her friend, the gesture completely missed by her confused brother. She looked at Kyle. "Where's Shannon?"
"Still working on the car," he explained, his tone of voice slightly tinted with anger. "She said she wasn't hungry. She was planning on doing an oil change and get the car ready for tomorrow. Guess she didn't want me in her way." He stabbed at the remaining piece of steak then chewed it furiously.
Kris lifted an eyebrow in surprise. "But Kyle, the last thing you'd do is dirty your hands doing repairs. Why the sudden change?"
"I didn't say I wanted to I mean, maybe she wanted some company or something." He shrugged. "Never thought I'd say this, but she's nice to talk with."
Nicole smiled. "Let me eat my meal then we'll both go and find her, okay?" she told Kyle. "I've got something I wanted to ask her anyway."
"Okay," the American nodded, pleased that he now had a reason to be with his teammate.
The tall stuntwoman chuckled and lifted her mug of beer to take a sip. "You wouldn't be falling for her, now would you?"
"Me?" Kyle squeaked, "Why do you say that?"
"Maybe it's because of the cute little smile you have on your face every time you look at her?" Nicole teased.
"Or the sighs you make when she touches you?" Ludwig chimed in.
Kyle shook his head. "I do not!"
Dean elbowed his partner in the ribs and laughed. "If Shannon didn't get rid of you yet, that's because she likes you too. Trust me, we know her!"
Kris leaned both forearms on the table and grinned at her friend. "Kyle, just the fact that you didn't try to seriously seduce her should tell you something. The last time this happened, you stayed with the woman for six years!"
The American lifted his hands in surrender. "Okay! That's enough. I'm not saying that I love her."
"But you're not saying you hate her either," Ludwig replied, causing everybody to laugh.
Kyle groaned as the teasing intensified. He spotted the waitress as she arrived with Kris and Nicole's meals and pointed to the plates. "Just eat and shut up, okay?" he said, having great difficulty at stopping a smile from forming on his lips.
With their dinner finally finished, Kris watched Nicole as she stood up to join Kyle who waited impatiently close by. She smiled as the younger woman moved to stand behind her and rested her small hands on her shoulders. With her head tilted back to look at her partner, Kris winked. "Don't you go looking for trouble, okay?"
"Me?" Nicole laughed softly. "I don't. It finds me," she said and kissed the dark haired woman's temple. "Will you stay here long?"
The stuntwoman lifted her beer, "Just long enough to finish this," she answered before taking a sip.
"Good. I'll go see Shannon now so we both can get some sleep." With another gentle kiss on a cheek and a wave to the men sitting with them, Nicole left the restaurant with Kyle leading the way.
Kris kept her eyes on her lover until the smaller woman was out of site then took another sip of her beer before putting the mug back on the table.
The blond Australian rally driver leaned towards Kris and smiled. "If you don't mind me saying this, I find that you and Nicole make a very nice couple," Dean spoke softly.
"Thank you," Kris said and briefly cast her eyes on Scott who was deep in conversation with her brother. She turned mischievous blue eyes on the young man sitting next to her. "Like another couple we know," she replied gently.
"Huh?" The blond driver frowned and looked at Ludwig. He didn't understand her comment because her brother had been without the company of a woman since the beginning of the rally. Dean turned to look at the door where Kyle had disappeared through. 'Is she talking about him and Shannon? Nah, they're just friends.'
He was about to ask for more information when he saw Kris slightly tilt her head in Scott's direction. Only then did her comment fully register in his brain. "Oh How did you Did somebody I mean, nobody knows," he finished softly and looked worriedly at Ludwig who seemed oblivious to his conversation with Kris. "I thought we were so careful in hiding our relationship. What tipped you off?" he nearly whispered.
Kris shrugged. "Nothing in particular. Just the way you speak to one another or look at each other."
Dean played with his mug for a while before continuing. "If the rest of the guys knew about this, I'm sure they'd do their best to get rid of us."
"Why would they?" Kris frowned. "From what I've seen so far, you're both good drivers. What difference does it make who you're in a relationship with?"
With a snort, the blond man shook his head sadly. "You don't understand. Racing is mainly a man's world. Nobody wants queers around, no matter how good they are, it makes them nervous." He took a few sips of beer and pointed his mug in the stuntwoman's direction. "You never hid the fact that you're gay. I bet life is a hell of a lot simpler this way, huh?" he sighed. "I wish I was more like you."
Kris moved her chair back and turned to face the younger man. She leaned her forearms on her thighs and jerked her head, motioning for him to come closer. "Listen to me, Dean. Even if you tell the whole world, you'll always have to deal with ignorant and bigoted people. That won't change no matter what you do." She saw the man's shoulders slump slightly. "But there's one thing I can tell you and that comes directly from experience. You'll start feeling much better once you stop living a lie."
"What do you mean?"
Thinking back to her own past, Kris tried to find the best example to explain what she meant. "People ask you if you have somebody in your life. You either say no, afraid they'll find out you're in a gay relationship or invent an imaginary lover, somebody you know everybody will accept with no further questions asked. You go to parties and introduce your partner as just a simple friend. You join in the tasteless jokes against gays, thinking that if you do, they won't know that you're one yourself. Sound familiar?"
Dean silently nodded. "But I can't imagine you ever doing that. I mean You were always "
"That's what I used to do, many years ago," she cut him off gently. "I was so afraid that people would find out I was gay, I worked twice as hard to show that I wasn't. All it did was make me miserable. I started to really enjoy life the day I decided to stop hiding my preference and live the way I was meant to do it. I stopped worrying about what people thought and felt much better for it."
"And you never had any trouble after?" the Australian asked, his blue eyes hopeful.
"Far from it," Kris smiled and drank the rest of her beer. "But that decision also gave me the best friends I could ever hope for, people who didn't care who I slept with." She patted his back and stood up. "Just remember that the friends you'll lose by coming out, well, they weren't really friends to start with."
"That's what Scott always said," Dean nodded as he replayed the conversation in his head while the tall woman pulled a few dollar bills out of her pocket and put them on the table. 'I guess everything she said makes sense. The only person who can change the way I live is myself. Everything depends on me from now on.'
Kris bent down to whisper in his ear. "If you really want somebody to talk with, try Nicole. She's a lot better at this than me." She gave his back another pat before leaving. "Good night everybody."
Scott and Ludwig waved their good-byes. "See you tomorrow."
"Thanks for the chat, Kristina," Dean said as he stood up to join his partner and Ludwig. "Good night."
"Anytime," she smiled and headed towards the exit.
The wind started to pick up slightly, causing the sand to blow in all direction. Shannon rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand to clear them and gave up with a sigh, knowing that if the wind blew any harder, visibility would soon come down to nothing. She shut the portable lamp off and put it in the box along with the tool she was working with, then pulled a rag out of her pocket and wiped her hands. With a look around, she noticed that she was the only one still working and decided to call it a night too.
She slammed the hood of the car shut then put the toolbox in the trunk. The Australian stuntwoman cast an eye at the restaurant where she knew Kyle was. The poor man had looked disappointed, even upset at her refusal for any extra help, but she needed to be alone and think for a while. When she had met Kyle the very first time, Shannon had taken great pleasure in teasing him, knowing, thanks to Kris, that he was quick to argue and that he loved to tease as well.
With the amount of time spent with Kyle, Shannon had begun to see through the man's solid front as a womanizer. He had a good heart and she bet he was a romantic too. The only trouble was, she knew she was starting to care for him and they had only a few days together before he would head back to the United States.
'Maybe I should just enjoy the time we have together,' Shannon thought to herself. 'After all, we can always stay in contact if.... Hello, who do we have here?' she thought as she caught a glimpse of a figure emerging from between the rally cars.
The stuntwoman approached from behind and grabbed an arm to slow him down. "Hey! You heading over to the restaurant to " Shannon stopped, not expecting to see a masked face before her. As she was about to call for help, a fist headed directly for her face and struck her on the jaw, sending her stumbling.
Instinctively, she shook her head to clear it while blinking dazedly at the form who was again approaching her. Before his hands were on her, Shannon side-kicked her attacker as hard as she could, connecting with his stomach, sending him reeling back. "That'll teach ya!" His only response was an unintelligible grunt as she started her escape to get help.
"You won't get away that easily," he mumbled as the brunette tried to run past him. He reached out and solidly grabbed her jacket with one hand while the other pulled back to slap her across the face.
At the same time, Shannon reached into the man's open jacket and grabbed a double handful of his coveralls. In a quick motion, she let herself roll onto her back, bringing the taller man with her and used her legs to push against his stomach, sending him flying over her. She heard the sound of cloth ripping and some of it give way.
Enraged, the man quickly sprung back from his unsuspected tumble and shoulder rammed the smaller woman, sending her sprawling to the sandy ground.
"Hey Shannon," a man's voice called in the night, causing the attacker to turn. "Still out there?"
"Ya son of a bitch!" was all Kyle heard, the yell sounding angry and fearful at the same time. 'What did I do this time?' he silently asked.
The man spotted Kyle as the technician headed towards them with Nicole following close behind. "Shit!" he swore and started running, hoping that the rising sandstorm and darkness would help in hiding him should he be pursued.
Spotting the fleeing figure, Kyle called over his shoulder. "I'm going after him!" and the chase was on.
"Okay, go! I'll check Shannon," Nicole yelled back while she ran straight for the person still lying on the ground. She looked like she had trouble breathing but seemed otherwise uninjured. She knelt next to the brunette who was slowly sitting up and gently touched the woman's back. "Are you okay? You hurt? What happened?"
Unable to talk, the stuntwoman waved a hand at a worried Nicole, motioning to wait while she caught her breath. " Okay just out breath." Shannon slapped her hand on the ground in a frustrated motion and glared in the direction her attacker had gone to. "Damn! First time somebody gets the best of me and I don't even know who it was," she growled then took a deep breath to calm herself.
"What happened?" Nicole asked again.
Still sitting on the ground, Shannon shook her head with a sigh. "I'm not sure," she replied as she rested her forearms on her knees. "I saw somebody near the cars and I thought it was one of the drivers. The bloody bastard attacked me!"
The blonde did a quick inspection of her friend, wanting to make sure that she was uninjured. "Did he have a weapon?" she asked, thinking about Kyle who had just given chase.
"No, no weapons. All we had was a short, old fashion brawl." Shannon looked down at her hand and opened it. Inside were a button and a small piece of dark clothing. She frowned. "I must have ripped it off the guy's clothes when I sent him flying."
"Were you able to see what he looked like?"
"Nah. He wore a stupid mask! With the damn darkness, I couldn't even see the color of his eyes."
Sensing somebody near, Nicole lifted her eyes to see Roberto crouch near the women.
"What happened? Is somebody hurt?" he asked, looking at both of them. All he heard was a sigh from the stuntwoman.
"No, I'm okay," Shannon mumbled as she started to get up from the ground. "The bloody bastard just " she stopped and closed her eyes as a wave of dizziness hit, causing her to slightly lose her balance. She suddenly found herself in Roberto's arms. "Hey! Let me go! You know I can walk."
"I know you can," the Italian replied and followed Nicole towards the motel. "But you won't until we get a doctor to check you over."
"I don't need a Roberto, put me down, NOW!" she commanded but the man refused to obey. "Nicole, do something!"
The small blonde giggled at her friend's exasperated tone of voice and winked. "I will," she said and looked at the rally driver. "I'll go get the doctor."
"Nicole!" Shannon barked, outraged.
Roberto shook his head. "We'll ask for one at the motel. Maybe we should get everybody together, nobody knows what the guy was doing near the cars."
"You're right," Nicole agreed. "There were a few at the restaurant. I'll go get them and meet you in the lobby." She left a frustrated Shannon behind and jogged back to get Kris, Ludwig, Dean and Scott. Once she had descended the steps, Nicole was surprised to come face to face with her lover. "Oh!"
"Whoa! What's the rush?" Kris asked with a smile but quickly lost it when she saw that her partner was out of breath. "What's going on?"
"Glad you're still here. There was some trouble outside " she started and lifted a hand to stop Kris from commenting. " And I had nothing to do with it." Nicole saw the three men on their way out also and waved them over. She waited until they were closer to continue with her explanation. "Shannon caught somebody near the cars. They fought a little and he took off with Kyle chasing him."
"Is she okay?" Dean asked and sighed in relief when Nicole nodded.
Scott stood next to his partner and frowned. "What was he doing? Trying to steal one of the cars?" he asked Nicole.
"I have no idea."
Kris held her hands up for silence. "Let's go see what's going on first before we jump to any conclusion, okay?" She gently guided Nicole back up the stairs and grumbled, "And here I thought that we'd have a very nice cross country rally. We've had nothing but trouble since the beginning."
Having heard her lover, Nicole replied over her shoulder, "You'd have been bored otherwise. Nothing's worse than having you bored," and got lightly smacked on the butt for her effort. "Hey! It's true!"
Kris smiled. "Just keep walking." Once outside, the group shielded their eyes as the wind blew dirt and sand everywhere. "I hope it won't be like this when we leave in the morning. It'll be hell to drive in," she murmured as they made their way to the motel. Halfway there, they met Kyle who changed direction when he saw them. "Did you get him?" she asked.
"No. I lost him," he grumbled as he kicked a rock in a childlike way. "I nearly fell in a damn mining hole while chasing the bastard." He looked at Nicole and spoke softly. "How's Shannon?"
"A little dizzy but I don't think she was badly injured." She patted his arm reassuringly. "She's gonna be fine." Nicole rubbed her face to wake herself up. She was really tired and could only imagine how her partner felt.
Stepping out of the motel, a young man approached the women. "Excuse me. Is one of you named Nicole?"
The blonde nodded with a smile. "That's me."
"There's a gentleman inside who asked me to tell you that he was bringing his friend to her room. He said you'd understand."
"I do, thanks." She looked at Kris. "Maybe I'll go see if she needs anything."
The tall woman guided her partner away from the group and stood behind the blonde to gently massage her shoulders. She whispered in her ear. "Okay, but don't take too long, you look like you need some sleep." She smiled as Nicole leaned against her chest and heard a small contented sigh.
"You need some too and it's past one o'clock already."
Kris nodded. "I know. I'll join you right after we figure out what we'll do about the cars."
"You mean hire somebody to watch them overnight in case the man comes back?"
"Maybe." Kris kissed the head in front of her and gave Nicole's shoulders a final squeeze. "Now, you go in and out of this sandstorm. I'll be with you shortly." Blue eyes watched until the younger woman entered the motel, then Kris walked back to the arguing group. "Why don't we continue this conversation indoors? I don't know about you, but I'm getting fed up of eating sand."
"You go," Scott told Dean. "I want to see if the car's okay." He left without waiting for an answer.
Ludwig briefly considered going with Scott, but the blowing sand made visibility difficult, not to mention the trouble it would cause during an inspection of the vehicles. The tall, dark haired man shielded his eyes from the dust and cast one last look around, making sure that the mysterious attacker hadn't come back. 'First, there's the assault on Scott, now Shannon. Could it be the same person?' he silently thought to himself as he followed the group down the steps that lead into the underground motel.
The rooms themselves were similar to the ones at the Smokey Cave. Carved out of the rock, the walls and ceiling were painted in a light shade of beige, the wooden floors highly polished. On the left was the motel's administration desk and to the right was the salon where the rally participants now stood. In the middle was a corridor that led from the entrance to the rooms and Ludwig spotted Tony as he entered the lobby, his clothes dusty and rumpled.
The Italian driver stopped, surprised to see so many people assembled, which were now looking at him. He was about to turn back when Kyle broke away from the group and headed towards him, both hands formed into fists.
"Where the hell have you been?" he demanded as he pointed to the man's appearance with his chin. "Where were you for the past hour or so?"
Tony snorted. "None of your business," he replied and turned to head back to his room. 'Should've stayed there in the first place.'
"I'd answer if I were you, Tony," Dean said as he blocked the man's path. "How come you're so dusty? Did you fall into a mine shaft or something?"
The Italian frowned at the blond man. "I'm not stupid, you know. We've all been warned not to go in the fields at night." Then, he nervously looked at Kyle who was slowly approaching him, an angry scowl on his face. Ludwig stood in the middle of the entrance, blocking the exit while his sister stood by herself, silently watching everybody. "What's this all about?"
"Shannon was attacked earlier," Ludwig answered bluntly. "Maybe you know something about that?"
"Attacked?" the driver exclaimed. "Why would I know something surely you don't " he looked at the tall Austrian stuntwoman. "Did you plant this stupid idea in their heads?" he asked but received no reaction from her. "Why would I do such a thing?"
"You tried to push Kris and Nicole off the road for no reason," Kyle stated. "Why not try something with Shannon too?'
"I didn't even see her tonight!" Tony explained with an exasperated voice. "As for what happened on the road earlier, it was during a race." He pointed a finger at Kris. "She tried to kick me off the road too!"
Kyle was about to reply when another rally participant showed up in the salon. The American took one look at Roberto and frowned. Like his team partner, the man wore a dark coverall covered with dust. "What about you?" he asked the Italian. "Where have you been?"
Having heard enough, Kris stepped closer to the arguing men and spoke for Roberto. "He's the one who brought Shannon to her room, Kyle," she explained and gave Roberto a small nod, thanking him for the help.
The rally driver smiled then turned his attention on Kyle. "To answer your question, Tony and I were working on our car earlier. I was heading back to our motel room when I heard voices yelling. That's when I saw Nicole with Shannon on the ground."
Kris glared at Kyle who was about to say something and raised her voice to be heard as the people started talking at once. "This is pointless. Why don't we stop accusing each other and try to figure out what to do about the cars. Nobody knows if the guy wanted to steal one or "
"Or damage them," Ludwig finished instead of his sister. "So far, we've had two attacks on our people for no reason "
"Three if you count what Roberto did to Nicole," Kyle mumbled under his breath with an evil eye towards the man.
Having heard the stunt technician, Roberto took one step forward but was stopped by Kris who warned him with a shake of her head.
" Maybe it's somebody who doesn't want this race to be completed." Ludwig finished and looked at Dean. "Were there any drivers who were warned against participating in this rally? They could be causing trouble because of it."
"This is not an official event. Everybody was invited to participate, no exceptions were made." Dean brushed his hand through his short blond hair and sighed. "It could also be just a coincidence." The door opened and the Australian driver looked back and watched as Scott descended the steps.
"I don't think so," Roberto finally spoke. "Shannon told me that the man who attacked her wore some kind of coverall, like the ones the mechanics usually wear. Something like Tony and I are wearing right now. Before he ran away, she ripped this off his clothes." He opened his hand and showed them the button."
"He wore coveralls?" Scott asked, his eyebrows lifting in surprise. "The guy who attacked me was wearing that too. He also wore a dark jacket and had some kind of mask to hide his face."
Roberto looked at Kris and frowned. "That's exactly what Shannon told me. Could the guy be one of the participants?"
"What else did she tell you?" Kyle asked sarcastically. "You seem to have spent quite a bit of time together."
Kris glared at the American and elbowed him in the side. Her patience had reached its limit.
"That's enough, Kyle!" she suddenly barked, making everybody jump. Kris closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm down. She was so tempted to leave the group to their bickering and go to her room. 'Why do I even bother figuring this out?' She scrubbed her face to get rid of her fatigue then opened her eyes. "All we have so far is somebody wearing the same thing for both attacks. That doesn't prove it's one of us."
"But Kris, we all have coveralls in our cars," Scott argued. "We wear them when we do mechanic work. Have you seen anybody else outside our group wearing them?"
"We could ask everybody to show their coveralls," Tony suggested. "That way we'd see who's missing a button."
"I don't have one," Ludwig said and looked at Kyle. "Do you?"
"Whoa!" Dean held up his hands to stop the conversation. "We're not turning this into a witch hunt, okay? We'll just have to keep our eyes and ears open for any signs of trouble."
"I'm starting now," Scott replied and looked at his partner. "I'm sleeping in the car tonight."
Tony snorted and shook his head. "You doing that won't help the other vehicles, you know. It'll just guarantee that your car won't get stolen."
Roberto nodded. "What we could do is take turns at doing some kind of guard duty. It's now " he looked at his watch. " Two o'clock in the morning. The first car leaves at seven. It only gives us five hours of watch to do."
Kyle looked at the assembled drivers. There were the teams of Tony and Roberto then Dean and Scott present. The three others represented half their teams. "Should we get the others involved too?"
"Let them sleep," Kris answered. "Ludwig and I can take a watch."
"Roberto and I take the first one," Tony quickly said, thinking that this way, both of them could get some decent sleep right after.
Dean nodded then looked at Kris. "Can you take the second? That's the three thirty watch. Scott and I will take the five o'clock run."
"What about me?" Kyle asked with a confused look on his face. "When do I get to "
"You go check on Shannon okay?" Kris softly said. "Nicole is with her right now. Tell her to get some sleep."
"But what about tomorrow? Are we going to keep watch like this until the end?" he wanted to know.
"No," Dean answered. "I'll call base camp and let them know about this. We'll get some security guards to keep watch at the next stages."
Kyle grunted, glad to hear the news but he was upset at being kept aside from keeping watch on the cars. He shoved both hands into his pockets and mumbled under his breath.
Kris had been watching her friend and had seen the different emotions playing on his bearded face. "Come on, your team partner needs you right now. We'll manage here. If you really want to help, get up earlier than planned and take over for Dean and Scott at six thirty."
"Guess that's all I can do." He looked at the tall woman then nodded. "I'll tell Nicole the news."
With a bang, the outside door suddenly opened and everybody turned to see who was coming down the steps. Singing voices could be heard, sounding off key and slightly slurred. Ludwig stepped away from the entrance and saw the French team stumble in the lobby, drunk. Lou's team partner was following behind, looking as bad as Stephane and Gilbert.
"That's three people we won't be able to count on tonight," Ludwig mumbled to himself as he looked at Greg.
"Didn't know " Stephane burped, " know that there was a party party here." He smiled drunkenly. "Where's the beer?"
Gilbert wrapped his arm across his friend's shoulder, nearly causing the man to lose his balance and crash to the floor. "My partner and I are looking for some fun," he started then looked behind them and spotted Greg. "Hey! Wanna join us? We'll have a party of our own!"
"Sure!" Greg hiccuped and waved at Ludwig. "See you " he burped and giggled. "See you in the morning."
The tall Austrian shook his head as he watched his team partner stumble down the corridor with the two Frenchmen. "I'm gonna have one hung over partner tomorrow," he laughed and winked at his sister. "Remember those days?"
"I try not to," Kris replied dryly. How could she forget the evenings spent drinking until the wee hours of the morning and then showing up for work with only a few hours in between to sober up? She remembered how her brothers and herself used to head over to a bar after a hard day of performing and start drinking until nothing mattered. Each had his or her reason for doing so. Hers had been to try and forget the pain caused by the loneliness in her life.
Kris sighed at the memory and thanked whoever was responsible for bringing Nicole back in her life. Who knows where her destructive lifestyle would've led her to if she were still alone today? She approached her brother to whisper in his ear. "I'll go make sure Nicole gets some sleep. She won't like this watch idea too much and I know she'll want to be with us. I'll meet you here at three thirty, okay?" Ludwig nodded and she gently slapped Kyle's back then said in a normal tone of voice, "Let's see how our partners are doing, shall we?"
"Lead the way," the American smiled and both left the group behind.
Having registered for her own place, Kris followed Kyle as they made their way to Shannon's motel room. The man lightly knocked on the door and slowly opened it with the help of his own key. His teammate was lying under the covers while Nicole was sound asleep, stretched out on the sofa near the bed. Kyle chuckled at the sight and winked at Kris. "It makes for a cute picture, don't you think?"
Kris nodded and slowly approached her partner. She crouched next to the sofa and gently brushed a lock of blonde hair back behind her ear. She took her time as she watched the sleeping woman, enjoying the relaxed features on her lover's face. Nicole looked so peaceful that she was sorry to have to wake her up. "Hey," Kris called softly so she wouldn't startle her and gently brushed her hand against the soft cheek. "Time to go to bed."
Nicole slowly stirred and took the larger hand in hers and brought it against her chest. "We are in bed," she replied sleepily.
The dark haired woman smiled and softly kissed her lover's lips. "We're in Shannon's room and you're sleeping on the couch."
"Hmm?" Nicole opened her eyes and sat up. "Oh, now I remember." She rubbed her eyes and blinked as she looked at Kris. "What time is it?"
"Late," she answered and helped her up. "How is she?" They turned to look at Shannon and saw that Kyle had knelt down next to the bed and was softly speaking with her. In all the years she had known the stunt technician, Kris had never seen him act so gentle with anybody. He was a flirt and he was proud of it, but what she was seeing now didn't look like his usual games with women. She could see the worry and concern written all over his features.
"She refused to see a doctor and kept telling us that she was okay," Nicole said softly and tugged at Kris's hand. "Maybe we should leave them alone."
"Right," she nodded and caught Kyle's eye. They waved good night and quietly left the room. Theirs was only a few doors down the corridor and Kris took a deep breath, trying to find the best way to let Nicole know about the night watch. She followed the smaller woman in and closed the door behind her.
Nicole slapped her forehead and turned around. "We forgot our overnight bags in the car!"
"We don't really need them now, do we?" Kris asked. "Unless you really want a nightshirt to go to bed," she grinned.
"Not really," she smiled. "But what about when we wake up? All our toiletries are in the bags." The blonde frowned when she saw Kris hesitate, looking as if she wanted to say something but was unsure how to do it. "Something wrong?"
Kris brushed her fingers back through her hair and blew a breath. 'Well, at least I'll be able to bring our bags back once the watch is over with.' "I know you won't like this, but it's only for tonight. They'll hire security for the next stages."
"What are you talking about?" Nicole asked. "What's for tonight only?"
The stuntwoman walked to the bed and let herself fall on the mattress. She covered her eyes with her arm and mumbled. "We're taking turns at guarding the cars tonight." She waited for Nicole to comment and when nothing was heard, she moved her arm and looked at her partner. The small blonde stood next to the bed, both arms crossed over her chest with a scowl on her face. "There's a chance the guy wanted to do more than just steal a car. Maybe he wanted to sabotage them."
Nicole kept silent as she stared at her lover. 'I can't believe this!' she silently growled. "This town has no police force? Why do you have to do their job? Kris, in the last few days, you barely slept and you've been driving since the beginning." She paced the motel room as her anger let loose. "I can't believe you're going to spend half the night watching parked cars! Maybe all this will be for nothing. I bet the guy won't even come back."
"It's not for the whole night, Nick," Kris replied softly, trying to calm her upset friend. She sat up and grabbed Nicole's hand as she walked by the bed. "I've got some time for a nap before my watch and it's only for an hour an a half. Then I'll be able to get more sleep after. It's not so bad."
"Not so bad?" Nicole snorted. "I really don't consider a nap proper rest, Kris." She looked at the blue eyes watching her and shook her head. That was so typical of Kris to volunteer herself for such a duty thus saving somebody else from having to do so. "But you're already so tired."
"I'll be back before you know it, I promise."
"You're not doing this alone. I'll go with you."
Kris smiled and wrapped her arms around Nicole's slim waist, bringing the younger woman against her and rested her head against her lover's chest. "The more we're arguing over this, the less time we've got to rest." She heard Nicole sigh and knew that she had just won this battle.
But there was no way she would let her partner get up in the middle of the night and patrol the parking lot with her when there was no need for her to do so. She'd just have to be careful when the time came to get up so she wouldn't wake Nicole up. "Come on, let's go to bed."
Wednesday morning, South Australia
The morning wasn't much different from the previous night, Nicole thought as she made her way towards their car. It was still very windy, which caused the sand to blow and look very much like a snowstorm. For the first time since their arrival in Australia, the sun refused to shine and rain clouds could be seen in the horizon but seemed to be heading away from them.
Nicole pulled the keys out of her bag, opened the car's door then sat in the passenger's seat, leaving the two overnight bags on the ground at her feet. At least this way, she was fairly protected from the stinging sand. The young blonde sighed and took another look around, trying to catch a glimpse of Kris. Her friend had been out of sight for the past hour. "Guess I really did it this time," she murmured to herself. "I shouldn't have stayed upset with her that long."
Movement caught her attention and she looked up with hope in her eyes, but was quickly disappointed when she saw that it wasn't her partner who was approaching the car but the Australian stuntwoman. Aside from a bruised jaw, Shannon didn't look too bad for a woman who had been attacked the night before. Nicole gave her a small smile. "Ready for another day racing?"
"Yeah, I am," she grinned. "Hopefully, the hours on the road will keep Kyle from continuing to act like a mother hen." The brunette frowned when Nicole didn't make a comment. She squatted next to the car and gently patted the younger woman's thigh. "What's wrong? You've been silent all morning. The dark one too for that matter."
Nicole shrugged. "The morning didn't start too well, I guess."
"All I wanted was to be with her last night. She didn't even wake me up when it was her turn at guard duty." Nicole bit her lower lip and looked down at her hands. "The least I could've done was to be there with everybody."
Shannon took the blonde's hand in hers and gave it a small squeeze. "Not everybody was there, Nicole. There were only Roberto's team and Dean's. Kris was there with her brother but that was it. Nobody else was checking the cars and that was only for one hour an a half shifts." She tilted her head to catch Nicole's attention and smiled as the green eyes looked at her. "I'm sure Kris didn't wake you up because you needed sleep, not because she didn't want you with her."
"I know that," she said softly. "But I was so angry when I realized I just " she sighed. "I hope she's not too upset with me. All I want to do right now is tell her I'm sorry but I don't know where she is. Guess I'm more tired than I thought, it's making me snappy."
"You do look tired. Rallies are hard on people, especially when they're not used to them."
"Well, the same goes for Kris," Nicole replied. "It may be my first rally but she doesn't have that much experience with them either. The lack of sleep is making her cranky too and she has a hard time to control her temper then. The last thing I want is to see her upset." She leaned her head against the headrest and closed her eyes. "I wish I was as good a driver as she is. At least this way I could drive for a while and let her rest."
The brunette chuckled as she reached for the map lying on top of the dashboard. She turned it around and pointed to a highlighted route. "See this track?" she asked and waited until Nicole looked at what she was indicating. "That's where we're heading. It's a very rough road and the driver needs to be incredibly careful so that nothing happens. See the next one? It's a much smoother ride, trust me."
Blonde eyebrows furrowed as Nicole looked at the map. "Okay, so?"
"So, once the rough roads are done with, you can switch sides with Kris and drive for a while."
"I could do that," the younger woman agreed then shook her head. "But it's going to be a battle to get her to sit in the passenger's seat. She keeps arguing with me that she's not that tired. Unless " she thought for a while then smiled. "Unless I trick her."
"Huh, what do you intend to do, Nicole?" the brunette asked as she stood up. "I'm not sure doing that is such a good idea, especially if she's as tired as you say she is."
"I know what I'm doing. It'll work." 'I hope,' she silently added.
"I hope so," the Australian stuntwoman smiled. "Well, talk about the devil, there she is!"
Nicole turned to look in the direction Shannon was indicating. Kris was making her way across the parking lot with two small identical bags dangling from her fingers. She was dressed in a light blue pair of jeans and shirt, the boots she wore making small puffs of dust as she walked. Except for a small ponytail to keep her hair out of her eyes, the long raven tresses were worn loose and cascaded over her wide shoulders, her wraparound sunglasses sitting on top of her head.
The younger woman watched as her friend headed straight for her and she tried to figure out the mood Kris was in. To anybody watching, the tall woman had an intense look on her face, the stoic mask she wore hiding any emotion she might be feeling. But as she came closer, Nicole spotted a hint of a smile tugging at her lover's lips. Only somebody who knew her well could have spotted the small gesture. She relaxed, knowing that everything was going to be alright.
Shannon, on the other hand, wasn't as calm as the younger woman still sitting in the car and she swallowed nervously when Kris stood before her with a scowl on her face. She had seen Kris' temper flare once a few years back and she didn't quite care to see it again so soon. The outburst had left the careless stunt technicians speechless and fearful of the stuntwoman.
"Ah I think I'd better go to my car now," Shannon said as she cast a worried look at the blonde. 'You okay?' she mouthed and received a nod in answer. "I'll see you later." The brunette gave Kris a wide berth as she walked around her and left the two women alone. If sparks were going to start flying, she didn't want to be there to see them.
Nicole shook her head as she watched the nervous woman walk away then turned her attention back to her partner. Kris small smile had now developed into a wide grin. "You like doing that, don't you?" she laughed softly and stood up.
"Just wanted to make sure I wouldn't be teased. Sometimes Boomer goes too far."
"I see," Nicole bit her lip to keep from smiling. "Listen, I'd like to apologize for this morning. I didn't mean to snap at you the way I did. I "
Kris raised a hand and pressed a finger against Nicole's lips to silence her. "No, I'm sorry." She chewed her lip, the only sign that she was nervous. "I should've let you decide what you wanted to do last night. We're a team and you should have equal say in what we decide to do." Kris looked in the gentle green eyes watching her and smiled. "But what I did was because I wanted you to get some rest, that's all."
"I know," Nicole replied softly. "I guess it's a good thing you let me sleep. Can you imagine the mood I'd be in right now if I hadn't slept much?" she grinned.
"Nobody wants to see that!" Kris teased her small companion and got slapped on the arm for it. "So, you forgive me for last night?"
"As long as you do the same for me about this morning."
"Done," Kris smiled in relief and gave the smaller woman a gentle kiss before she walked around the car to sit in the driver's seat and closed the door. She put the two small bags on her lap and waited until Nicole had slipped the overnight bags behind the seats and sat down herself.
Nicole was about to put her seatbelt on when she noticed that the motor wasn't running yet. She glanced at her partner and found Kris looking her with a mischievous grin on her lips. "What?" she asked as she closed her door. "Something wrong?"
"Nope," the dark head shook in answer. "But I've got something for you." Kris motioned at the bags in front of her. "Which one do you want first?"
"For me?" Nicole smiled, excited at the prospect of getting a surprise. "What is it?"
The young woman pursed her lips as she looked at both bags, identical in size and shape. She lightly tapped her cheek with one finger, trying to make up her mind. "The blue one," Nicole finally decided.
"Why this one?" she asked with a smile as she handed the small bag and watched, amused as her friend hurriedly pulled the silk paper out.
"Why? Because it matches your eyes," she grinned and heard Kris chuckle. She reached inside to pull the item out. "Oh! It's so cute!" Nicole exclaimed as she held a small plush koala. "What a nice souvenir from Australia. I love it!"
"I saw you looking at them in Perth. I was surprised when you didn't buy it so I figured I'd get you one now."
"Thank you," she smiled and put the gray koala on the dashboard. "I love the fluffy ears."
"And this one," Kris started and looked down at the remaining bag with it's light green paper. "Well, you were also looking at this and you really liked it so I just had to buy it for you." She raised her head and smiled shyly. 'Why am I so nervous suddenly? It's not the first time I give her such a gift. Maybe it's because she knows what it cost and she'll argue that it's too much. But I know she'll love it.'
Nicole took the offered bag, curious at what Kris was talking about. Since the beginning of the rally, she had visited a lot of the boutiques and souvenir shops they had seen on the way, playing with items ranging from boomerangs to stuffed toys to admiring aboriginal pieces of art. But she honestly couldn't remember anything specific that could warrant Kris looking so nervous.
"Is there a reason for these gifts?" she asked softly.
Kris shrugged. "Just wanted to give you something special," she smiled and pointed to the colorful bag in Nicole's hands. "Hopefully it'll bring you good luck. God knows you need it with all the trouble you find yourself into."
"Hey!" Nicole exclaimed and started to laugh. "I told you already, trouble finds me, not the other way around." She reached in past the silk paper and pulled a small, black satin jewelry case out. She studied the box in her hand for a few seconds before she looked at her lover. "What did you do this time?" Nicole asked as she lightly shook her head.
"Bought you something nice?" Kris answered with a grin and watched as Nicole slowly opened the black case.
A gasp escaped her lips when she spotted the item inside. "Oh! You didn't!" she breathed, surprised beyond reason. Inside was a solid black opal pendant mounted on a gold chain. As Nicole rotated the stone, all the colors vividly danced over the surface. The bright greens, highlighted by a tinge of red, sparkled constantly amid the blue colors.
"But " she swallowed, unable to keep her eyes off the pendant. "That's too you know how much Duh! Of course you know, you paid for it. Kris, that's too much! That gem cost a fortune!"
"You like it?" Kris asked, highly amused by her friend's shocked state. She smiled when Nicole's only response was a weak nod. "When I saw you looking at them, I asked the jeweler to mount it this way."
Nicole gently fingered the precious gem, not sure what to say. "You mean they can do this with the rough gems I saw?"
"Of course they can. And I paid him extra to make sure you'd have it before we left."
"I didn't know that," Nicole murmured, feeling slightly disappointed.
Kris saw the sudden change in Nicole's humor and wondered if she hadn't made a mistake. "Maybe you would've liked the gem better as it was?"
"No!" the young blonde quickly replied. "I love it this way, don't get me wrong."
"What's the matter then?"
Nicole sighed as she closed the box in her hand then reached into her shirt pocket and pulled a small deep purple jewelry bag out. "If I had known, I would've asked somebody to do something with this," she said as she gave Kris the bag. "I bought this for you this morning."
"Nicole " the older woman started and held her breath as a small opal slipped out of the bag and in her hand. The precious gem had an incredible intensity of colors showing their brightness from all angles, the tints changing from a delightful Royal blue to bright green with red, sparkling against a smokey black background. "You shouldn't have."
"I wanted to, love," Nicole replied softly. "When I saw it, well, it reminded me of you. The blue colors sparkle like your eyes do sometimes and even though it's a rough-cut, it's still very precious like you are." She looked down at her hands as they held her own opal. "I only wish I had thought of having it mounted in some way." Nicole looked back at her speechless lover and smiled. "Guess we were both on the same wavelength when we bought those, huh?"
"But, Nick " she took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. "They're so exp You didn't have to "
"You're worth a lot more to me than what I paid for it." Nicole took the larger hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. "You've given me more than I can possibly imagine and I kept thinking of something special to give you in return and well, this is what I found."
"It's beautiful," Kris finally said and gently kissed her lover. "Just like you are. Thank you. But know that you already gave me what I wanted most in the world; your friendship and your love." She kissed Nicole again and smiled at the blush crawling up her partner's cheeks. "I love you."
"I love you too,"
Delicately, Kris slipped the precious stone back in its satin bag and handed it to Nicole. "We'd better put this safely away."
"Glad you like it," she smiled and put the two opals in their overnight bags behind the seats then reached for her safety belt. "I know I adore mine." She snapped the belt in place and rubbed her hands together. "Ready for another day?"
"As I'll ever be," the stuntwoman smiled back and brought the engine to life.
"You'll let me know if you want me to drive sometime, right?"
"Sure, but I'm okay for now. I'm not tired."
"Huh uh," Nicole smiled to herself and started thinking about her plan in case she decided that Kris was indeed too tired to drive. "Just don't wait until it's too late, okay?"
Kris shook her head and laughed. "I won't, Mom."
The once red and white Mitsubishi Lancer, now covered in mud and grime, bounced all over the nameless dirt road like a drunk kangaroo. Both occupants stayed silent except for the occasional curses uttered in German. Nicole saw the concentrated look on the driver's face and tightened her safety belt even more, then went back to clutch the roof handle with a solid grip.
Kris looked so tired, it was beginning to worry Nicole. There were no doubt that the stuntwoman was the better driver of the two, but she made up her mind that at the next stop, she would tell Kris to take the passenger side so she could rest a little. Hopefully by then, the road would be in a better shape and her partner's driving skills wouldn't be needed.
The track was disgusting, to put it mildly. Driving on a road covered with rocks the size of footballs would have been much better, Kris thought as she swerved the car to avoid another pothole only to have the front wheels slam over a bump. The rally car jumped easily and bounced a few times before settling into a near normal drive.
Sometime during the day, a freak rainfall had muddied the usually arid ground in some places, causing more trouble for the driver who was doing her best to keep the vehicle on the road. Kris wished they'd be on the Oodnatta Track right now, a much better path to drive on she'd heard from the Australians, at least she hoped they were right.
There were a few remaining clouds in the sky and the violent winds that had started the night before were still going strong, sometimes causing their field of vision to be totally obscured by the blowing sand. Kris cursed again as a gust of wind pushed the car slightly off the path and she wrestled with the control to bring it back on track. The rear end skidded, sending them into a side slide for a second before the vehicle was brought back to its original position.
In normal times, Kris would have enjoyed the driving conditions, but the little sleep she had since the beginning of the rally made for her temper to rise at the slightest thing. The weather was doing its best to make her lose control it seemed. She glanced at her friend and saw the worried look on Nicole's face.
"Nervous about the drive?" she asked the younger woman.
"No," Nicole answered softly. "I'm more worried about you. You only slept for a few hours." She saw Kris' jaw muscles tighten briefly before she answered.
"I had enough sleep," she lied with a smile. "Besides, once we're off this track, the driving will be much better. I'll be able to relax a little more then."
Nicole knew her lover well. The little smile she received didn't fool her one bit. She knew the reason why Kris had fibbed. She simply didn't want her to worry, but Kris' body language didn't lie. 'Next stop my friend, you're out of the driver's seat, want it or not.' With a smile of her own, Nicole nodded and shifted her eyes from her companion to the scenery outside the racing car.
Out in the distance, a few kangaroos could be seen jumping across the red desert, their long tails bobbing with every skip, looking as if they were keeping up with the car. On the other side of the track, Nicole spotted some emus, flightless birds that looked similar to the ostrich but slightly smaller in size. Their long powerful legs allowing them to reach speeds up to fifty kilometers per hour. Other movements caught her attention and she looked up in the sky to see wedge-tailed eagles flying along with peregrine falcons, each bird of prey looking for unsuspecting victims to capture and feed upon.
Nicole looked back at Kris as she continued to grumble in German. The younger woman smiled at her friend's use of a particularly graphic curse. "That's a new one," Nicole said in Kris' native tongue. She knew that her use of the German language always made her partner smile. She was right. "Was that a reference to your brothers or to a certain part from a well endowed bull?"
"Sorry about that," she apologized with a small grin. "The wind is driving me nuts. It looks like it's tapering down but it's still causing the blowing sand to blind me once in awhile." Kris shifted gears as she guided the rally car up a small hill. "It wouldn't be so bad if " she started then heard Nicole gasp as a blanket of dust and sand covered them, obstructing their vision once more.
Kris let go of the accelerator and down shifted as she kept the car going in a straight line. It only took a few seconds of driving blind but it was enough to cause them to leave the track, not realizing that the road turned right on the other side of the hill, and end up stuck in a mound of sand.
"Shit!" Kris swore and slammed her foot on the gas pedal, hoping that the 4x4 drive would do its job and take them out of the sand trap. The front wheels cleared the bank but it was as far as they went. The car refused to go any further. With a slap on the steering wheel, Kris opened the door and looked back at the wheels. They were stuck halfway in a mixture of sand and mud and no matter how much power she gave the engine, the vehicle wouldn't move forward.
"The road isn't supposed to turn right!" Nicole said defensively as she tapped a finger on the map on top of her thigh. "We still have some distance to go before it does!"
"Don't worry about it," Kris replied as she tried to look further ahead. Not able to see anything because of the blowing sand, she put the gear in park and shut off the motor then unbuckled her safety belt and stepped out of the car. She heard the other door open and turned to see Nicole getting out as well. The wind eased up slightly and Kris was able to see the road again.
"Look!" Nicole said and headed towards the object she had spotted. It was the remains of an abandoned car, halfway buried by sand. The vehicle had been stripped to a minimum, only the metal shell remained. "That's why the track veered off this way."
Kris nodded and sighed. "If it wasn't for that, the road would've continued in a straight line and we wouldn't be stuck like this." She walked back to the rear of the Mitsubishi and rested both hands on her hips as she studied their situation. The wind picked up again, sending her long hair flying everywhere. She dug into her pockets in search of an elastic band and having found one, proceeded to tie her hair into a ponytail. "Looks like you'll be doing some driving earlier than planned."
Nicole walked back from the wreck and stood next to the open driver's door. "I can push you know," she grinned, glad to see that her partner wasn't too upset. She bent her arm and pointed to the small bulging bicep. "You're not the only one who's been lifting weights."
The tall woman shook her head and chuckled. No matter what the situation was, she could always count on Nicole to make her smile. "I know you can, but I'd rather have you in the driver's seat. Can you pop the trunk open for me? I want to see if there's anything that'll help us dig ourselves out."
"Sure," Nicole nodded and reached inside for the lever.
With a click, the lid opened and Kris lifted it to peer inside in search of something to dig the wheels out of the sand. "How I wish we had brought a shovel," she mumbled as she moved aside one item after another. Inside the trunk were two spare wheels, a toolbox, two gallons of drinkable water, another container filled with gasoline and a cardboard box. She opened it and smiled at the content. Only Nicole could've thought of assembling such a kit. There were enough canned foods, sealed survival meals, bags of cookies and sweets to last them for a couple of days.
Having walked around the front of the car, Nicole called from her position next to the passenger side. "Would a map help?"
Kris looked up and saw her partner make a shoveling motion. The map had been folded in a way that it was as large as a small shovel. "No, it's the only one we have. We can't risk getting it damaged. Nice try, though."
"Oh, that's right." Going back inside the car, Nicole sat in the passenger seat and looked around for something else to use. Her small bag didn't contain much and the few pamphlets she had were too soft to accomplish anything. She opened the glove compartment and smiled at her find. "How about this? I'm sure Shannon will understand." In her hand was the owner's manual.
"Oh, that's good!" Kris nodded with a smile. "Try to shovel as much as possible with it. I'll go find a few rocks to put under the wheels for traction."
It took a while but both the women's tasks were finally done. Nicole sat in the driver's seat and mumbled to herself as she rolled down the window. "That'll be interesting." She cast an evil glare at the gear stick, which rested near her left hand. "I don't think I'll ever get used to driving on the other side." With her feet barely able to reach the pedals, she moved the seat forward and nodded in satisfaction. "Okay, now where's Kris?" Automatically, she reached for the rearview mirror to her right and sighed when she remembered it was on her left.
"Are you ready?" Kris called out. She stood behind the car, straight in the middle.
"Okay, we'll go slow first and went I yell, give more gas."
"Got it!" Nicole answered and closed the door. She started the motor, shifted the gear in first and took another look in the rearview mirror to make sure that her partner was ready.
Kris planted her right foot forward and her left one back then leaned her right shoulder against the trunk. Her left hand rested against the body of the car while her right tried to find a solid hold to allow her to push with a maximum of efficiency. She took a deep breath and called after Nicole.
"I'll start rocking the car. Give gas with every forward move."
"Right," Nicole nodded and felt the car start to move slightly. She waited for the second lurch forward then pushed on the accelerator.
The tall woman added more strength as she rocked the car back and forth. The wheels started spinning under the car, sending sand and mud to splatter against Kris. "Whoa!" she yelled and let go of the car and backed up, waving her arms to clear the cloud of dust. She coughed a few times and rubbed her eyes to clear them of sand.
Having heard Kris yell Nicole reacted the only way she could and slammed the brakes without using the clutch, causing the engine to stall. A string of curses escaped her lips as she put the gear back in its neutral position. She opened the door and got out of the car, worried that something had happened to her friend.
"Are you " the blonde started and stopped when she saw Kris standing a few feet behind the car. Her once light blue shirt and jeans were now covered in red grime. Nicole bit her lip so she wouldn't start laughing. "Oh!"
"Yeah, oh." Kris repeated as she brushed her hand over her clothes, her eyes never leaving Nicole's. "Let's try this again, but this time, go easy on the gas, okay?" She watched as the smaller woman nodded and went back to sit in the driver's seat. She rearranged the rocks under the wheels and took her position once more. "Ready?"
"Easy this time," Kris warned again and waited until the engine was brought back to life. They tried the maneuver, this time with more success. The muscular woman, seeing that the car was about to get out of its trap, shifted her position and rested both hands against the back and pushed with all of her strength.
"Go!" Kris yelled and used her legs to add to the push. The car took off with speed and left the dune, leaving the stuntwoman with nothing to hold on. 'Oh no!' she barely had time to think before she went crashing to the ground. Kris quickly closed her eyes as a wave of sand and debris, caused by the spinning wheels, halfway covered her body.
Nicole let out a victorious yell and drove the Lancer to a safe position away from the sand trap. She looked in the mirrors and frowned when she didn't see Kris. "What the " She stepped out of the car and stopped walking as something started moving and slowly rose from the ground. "Oh my God!" Nicole covered her mouth with her hand and stared at Kris. 'This isn't the best time to start laughing!'
Keeping her eyes closed, Kris slowly stood up and spit the sand out of her mouth. She wiped her eyes as best she could before carefully opening them. The first thing she saw was Nicole standing a few feet away from her, both hands covering her mouth, her green eyes a mix between concern and amusement.
"Nice driving," Kris drawled and spit again. She started brushing her clothes again but gave up when she realized that the more she brushed the worst it got.
"Hmm, thanks," Nicole said with a snicker and approached her dirt covered lover. "Are you okay?"
"Peachy," she replied sarcastically then frowned as an uncomfortable feeling came over her. Kris twisted slightly as she pulled at her bra, letting a small amount of sand escape its confinement. She sighed and tugged the shirt out of her jeans, causing more sand to fall to the ground. 'God knows where else I've got sand.'
A small laugh made Kris look up and she saw Nicole lift a hand and brush her cheek with her thumb.
"Mud," the young woman explained with a smile. "I guess it must be uncomfortable to have sand everywhere."
"You have no idea."
Blonde eyebrows furrowed as Kris started to undo her shirt. "You can't change here! What's going to happen if another car shows up?"
"They're gonna get a show?"
"Listen, I've got sand and mud where it's not supposed to be. I'm not driving all the way to Marree feeling this way," she reasoned and undid another button.
"It can't be that bad. Maybe if " Nicole started and blinked as blue eyes stared at her. Not able to guess what mood Kris was in, she slowly took a step back and swallowed nervously. "Or maybe I can let you change and " She never had time to finish what she had started to say.
In a lightening fast move, Kris grabbed Nicole and spun the smaller woman around, causing her to land in the red sand in a puff of dust. Only Kris' solid hold on the blonde kept her from getting hurt. "How 'bout you tell me how sand feels?" she asked with a grin and let go of her friend then stood up as she crossed her arms over her chest. The half-undone shirt opened sending the tails to flap in the wind, showing a red-tinted flat stomach.
Shocked at the sudden turn of event, Nicole blinked and this time, it was her turn to spit sand out of her mouth. She glared at her smirking friend and shoved a handful of dirt at Kris' legs. "You think that's funny?"
Kris looked at her jeans as the thrown sand slid down her legs and went back to the desert floor. She raised an eyebrow at the woman sitting on the ground. "I wouldn't do that again if I were you."
"Oh yeah?" she replied with a grin and grabbed a handful of sand and threw it, this time hitting Kris on the chest. Nicole barely had time to close her eyes before a wave of sand hit her in the face, kicked by the tall woman. She spit again and growled. "Why you " she blindly reached for Kris, grabbed her belt then tugged, sending her lover to sprawl on top of her. In minutes, what had started as a simple teasing ended up in a full-blown sand fight.
The noise of an engine sounded closer with every second and suddenly a car appeared on top of the hill. Without the sandstorm to blind the driver, the green Mitsubishi easily followed the track and veered off to the right, avoiding the trap Kris had fallen into. The car stopped near the women and the window on the passenger's side slowly went down.
Kris took one look at Shannon's smiling face and pointed a warning finger at the brunette. "Not one word, Boomer!"
"But " the Australian stuntwoman started and bit her lip to keep from laughing.
"Don't even think about it." Kris stood up and gave Nicole a helping hand up.
Kyle bent forward from his driver's position and chuckled at the sight of Kris and Nicole. Both women were covered from head to toe in red dust, the smaller woman's shirt was pulled halfway out of her jeans while Kris' held closed by two buttons only. Nicole's hair looked more like a redhead than a blonde.
The American cleared his throat, hiding a small chuckle in the process. "You gals need any help?" he finally said and started laughing, causing Shannon to laugh along with him. "I can offer help with the washing."
"In your dreams, curly," Kris glared at the bald stunt technician but ended up smiling. "We're okay. Just got stuck in that sand trap over there."
"And that little wrestling match we just saw was because " Shannon trailed and winked at the women. "You know, we should be at the next stage around seven thirty tonight. I know you gals love each other but I'm sure you can hold on until we can get to Marree. We all have a motel room waiting Oh shit!" Shannon exclaimed when she saw Kris start running towards them. She slapped her partner's arm and yelled, "Go!"
Kyle looked in the rearview mirror and saw the stuntwoman quickly approaching them. He slammed his foot on the accelerator to escape and grinned. "Thought you were gonna catch me, right? Sucker!"
Shannon's warning startled him and he shifted his attention from Kris to the track in front of them. At least that's where he thought the road was. He realized too late that the reason his team partner had shouted was because they were driving off the track in his rush to escape and were heading straight for a sand trap similar to the one Kris had driven into.
He spun the steering wheel, hoping to avoid it and cursed as the car slid sideways, out of control and slammed into the sandbank. No matter how much power he asked of the engine, the vehicle wouldn't move a single inch. Kyle glanced at Shannon who had covered her eyes with a hand and saw her shake her head in despair.
"Don't you dare say a word!" he warned her and looked back in the mirror to see that Kris had doubled over and was laughing hysterically. He rested his head against the seat and closed his eyes. She'll never let me forget this," he groaned.
"If she does, I won't," Shannon chuckled. "Come on Curly, admit it. That was funny!"
"I don't think so," Kyle grumbled then turned his head when he heard the sound of somebody knocking on the car. He sighed and rolled his window down. "Come to gloat?" he asked Kris.
"Why not?" she said as her blue eyes twinkled in amusement. Kris planted both fists on her hips and grinned at Nicole. "Look who needs help now. Should we even bother?"
The blonde looked at the car and its wheels deeply stuck in the sand. "Déjà vu. He did as good a job as you love," Nicole told her partner and laughed softly when a dark eyebrow rose. "There's only one difference though. He "
"Ha!" Kyle snorted and pointed a finger at Kris. "Even your girlfriend says you're not a better driver than I am."
Nicole smiled. "That's not what I said and you know it. The difference is Kris didn't need help to get out but it seems that you do."
"Who's the better driver now?" Kris asked with a smirk and poked the tip of her tongue out at Kyle.
Shannon stepped out of the car and waved her hands for silence. "Kids! Kids, that's enough!" She winked at a laughing Nicole and pointed to the car. "We're stuck and we need to get out. Are you gonna help or not?" she asked the taller woman.
"You give us a ten minute head start and we'll help you."
"What?" Kyle poked his head out of the open window and shook his head. "We didn't have that much difference in time between us, stretch. I'll give you five."
Nicole stepped closer to her partner and whispered. "Will they be able to catch up to us with that difference in time?"
"Not if Kyle's driving," Kris replied in the same tone of voice and winked at a smiling Nicole. She looked at both Shannon and Kyle then nodded. "Okay, you've got yourself a deal."
"Great!" the Australian stuntwoman exclaimed and rubbed her hands together. She moved to stand behind the car along with Kris and Nicole and saw Kyle getting out of the driver's seat. "Get back behind the wheel and show us more of that wonderful driving you've been doing," she said sarcastically and heard Kris chuckle.
Kyle mimicked Shannon's comment as he sat back down and closed the door, not bothering to put his seatbelt on. "I'll show them what kind of driving I can do. I'll get myself out of this mess with little help from them." He waited for the women to get ready then shifted the gears and slowly gave the engine more gas. The car began to rock back and forth and he grinned as he felt the vehicle move slightly forward. "See? It wasn't that bad," he told himself and stepped on the accelerator to clear the sandbank.
As the wheels spun under the car, a cloud of red dust suddenly lifted in the air and Kyle bit his lip as he wondered how far he had gone. He looked back to see how the women were doing and frowned when they were nowhere in sight. "Damn dust! I can't see anything." He was about to open the door when it swung open and gave a startled yelp when a pair of hands suddenly grabbed him and pulled him out of the car. He blinked in surprise at the stormy blue eyes bearing down on him.
Kris tightened her grip on the man's jacket and brought him closer to her. "I've got sand in the most uncomfortable of places," Kris slowly growled. "And I am NOT amused."
It was suicidal but Kyle couldn't help himself and he started to laugh. Standing before him was Kris completely covered in red dust with only the whites of her eyes and teeth visible. 'She looks like a tall clay monster,' he silently thought and bit his lip to stop laughing. A quick look behind Kris showed Nicole and Shannon equally dusted, both women standing with their arms crossed over their chests, none looked too happy. He started laughing again.
"If you think this is funny " Kris' voice rumbled and she smiled, one that showed no humor. "I'LL show you funny "
Continues in chapter 7.
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