For disclaimers, see chapter 1.
Adventures in the Dust Trade, Part 8
Thursday, Queensland, Australia
The day started early for the rally participants. At 0300 in the morning, the leaders of the race, Teppo Gustafsson and Heikki Kankkunen left the small town of Marree, with the others following some distance away. The group traveled along the 514 kilometer long Birdsville Track, a once a feared death track where drovers, mobs of cattle and foolish outback travelers in ill equipped vehicles met their gruesome destiny. Nowadays, it was nothing more than a long boring road.
The unsealed track went from Marree in South Australia's mid-north, to Birdsville in the south-western corner of Queensland through some of Australia's driest country. Starkly beautiful and set in a landscape of mainly level saltbush flats, the track passed between the Simpson and Sturt's Stony Deserts and gave a good challenge to both car and driver.
Mid morning in Birdsville saw the arrival of the remaining seven cars, some showing signs of encounters with the desert inhabitants while others drove in with cracked windshields and flat tires in the trunks. Making most of the sunlight, the rally participants proceeded to repair the damaged parts before getting some well-deserved rest.
As Nicole walked out of the pub and into the bright sunshine, she lifted her hand to shield her eyes and searched for Kris. The older woman had left some time ago to get one of the spare tires fixed, damaged when the car drove through a particularly big pothole. She was thankful that it was the only damage caused on the car.
The Finns, on the other hand, hadn't been that lucky. Still leading the race, they had lost precious time when their car had hit a kangaroo crossing the track. The easiest damage repaired had been the broken headlight but the worst was the broken windshield and the caved in fender on the passenger's side, the metal pushing against the wheel. Thankfully, the animal hadn't survived the collision and had died instantly.
Failing to find Kris, Nicole watched her brother-in-law for a while as he helped the Finns do some bodywork on their car, aided by his team partner Greg. The men laughed as one joke after another was told, teasing each other with jibes and practical jokes. With a smile on her lips, the blonde woman continued on her way and headed towards Shannon who was sitting on the hood of her car, looking at pictures she held in her hands.
The Australian stuntwoman lifted her head and grinned as she spotted Nicole. "Hey, didja get any sleep? You look a lot more awake than you did this morning."
"I'm not a morning person," she replied with a chuckle. "Especially not when I have to get up in the middle of the night. I'm starting to hate driving nighttime." Grabbing the woman's hand, Nicole climbed on top of the hood and sat beside Shannon. "And we'll be in Longreach around 0430 tomorrow. That only means more driving in the dark."
"At least neither one of us hit something on the way here, unlike Teppo and Heikki."
"Hmmm so far," Nicole added and pointed to the Polaroids. "Are those the pictures for the scavenger hunt?"
"Yep. Out of seven things to photograph, we got six." The brunette lifted one and held it for Nicole to see. "I like this one. What do you think?"
The shot was of Kyle sporting a goofy grin, standing in the middle of a souvenir store with a boomerang balanced on his head. "Oh, that's a cute one!" Nicole agreed with a smile. "I remember that clue. Once a weapon, now a toy, been around for ages," she recited. It took us a while to figure that it meant boomerang. Which one are you missing?"
"A flightless one with many of these," Shannon answered. "The only flightless thing I know is an emu "
"And the 'many of these' would be feathers!" Nicole exclaimed as she slapped her forehead. "Of course, that's it!"
"You were missing that one too?"
Nicole nodded. "Yeah. We've got everything else also. I wonder how the other teams are doing."
Shannon shrugged as she put the pictures back into her bag. "From what I heard, we're doing splendidly, but not the rally drivers. Greg told me that the Italians are refusing to take any pictures. The only thing Tony's concentrating on is to get as close as possible to the number one spot. They've moved up another position and are now behind Ludwig and Greg."
"They're fifth?" Nicole asked, surprised. "Wow, they were eighth in Coober Pedy." She searched the parking lot for the Italians' car and found it near Dean and Scott's. Either they really want to win this race, she silently thought or Tony wants to catch up to Kris and do something stupid again. She sincerely hoped that it wouldn't be the case. Kris was in a good mood and well rested and the last thing she wanted was for Tony to upset her partner.
"Hey," Shannon elbowed the younger woman. "You still with me?"
"Huh?" Nicole blinked in surprised. "Oh, sorry. I was just thinking." She slid off the hood when she spotted Kris walking towards her with the repaired spare tire and looked at her watch. "Guess it's time for us to get ready. We're scheduled to leave at 1730."
"Yeah," Shannon grunted. "A solid seven minutes before us. Kris sure can drive like a maniac when she wants to. Scared the hell out of me when you guys passed us."
Nicole chuckled as she snaked her hand around Kris' waist. "She promised me one heck of a ride and she delivered. Right Sprout?" she winked at her lover.
Leaning her arm across the smaller woman's shoulder, Kris gave her a light squeeze as she brought her closer against her. "It was the only way to gain back the lost time," she replied with a smile. "Ready to leave?"
"Yep," the blonde nodded. "Everything's packed and back in the trunk." She pointed to the wheel Kris was holding. "Got it repaired?"
"It was the last thing to be fixed." The stuntwoman looked at her Australian friend still sitting on the hood of her car. "How 'bout you? The car's ready?"
"Right you are, mate. Did a full checkup and things are running smoothly. Everything's perfect."
"You sure?" Kris asked with a mischievous grin. "Nothing's ever perfect. Plenty of times, things go weird on us."
"What are you talking about?" The brunette frowned and silently thought, God, I hope she's not up to something. "Why are you telling me this?" she asked as she jumped off the hood to start another inspection of her car.
Kris shrugged. "No reason in particular." With her arm still across Nicole's shoulders, both women started walking towards their car parked right next to Shannon's. "It was just a simple remark, that's all." She put the spare tire in the trunk and slammed the lid closed.
"Yeah right," Shannon mumbled. "Nothing's ever simple with you." The Australian stuntwoman grumbled as she walked around the racing car. She kept an attentive eye open, expecting to see a sign that Kris had played a practical joke on her. She found nothing out of the ordinary. "Did you do something to my car?" she finally asked.
"Me?" Kris asked as she pointed a finger at her chest. "Why would you think I did anything?"
"Because I don't trust you!"
With a hurt expression, blue eyes blinked at the woman. "But Boomer, I just came back from having my tire fixed," Kris defended herself. "And you've been sitting on your car for a while, right?"
"That look won't cut it with me, Stretch," Shannon replied then glanced at Nicole. "Did she do something?" she asked again.
The blonde raised both hands and shook her head. "I didn't see a thing," she answered honestly then looked at her partner to see a slight grin on her face. But I know you did, she silently told her lover. Kris looked like the cat that ate the canary. Nicole caught the tiny wink sent her way and she coughed to hide the small laugh that escaped. "Well, I see Kyle coming this way. Time to get back on the road."
"Right," Kris agreed and sat in the driver's seat. "See you in Longreach."
"Yeah," Shannon growled as she crossed her arms over her chest. "I'll see you there. And for your sake, this car better be in top shape."
With a twist of the key, the Lancer's powerful motor came to life. "You honestly think I'd do something to damage the car and risk people getting injured?" Kris asked seriously. "You don't know me so well." Shifting gears, Kris moved the car forward and drove slowly to the departure line. She glanced in her rearview mirror and saw Shannon still standing on the same spot, both fists resting on her hips, wearing a scowl on her face. The stuntwoman looked at Nicole and grinned. "I wouldn't damage the car but "
Kyle walked slowly towards their car as he munched on the last of his sandwich. He spotted his team partner kneeling on the ground and looking under the car's frame. While he was gone, the woman had slipped into a mechanic's coveralls. "What are you doing?" he asked as he stood next to Shannon. "Something wrong?"
The brunette pointed her flashlight at another spot and shook the lines, making sure that everything was solidly attached. "I'm looking for oil leaks or any loose connections," she explained. Twisting her body, she leaned down on her back and crawled further under the car to make a better inspection. "I thought that maybe she'd put nails against the wheels but I didn't find any Too obvious, I guess."
"Nails?" Kyle repeated as he scratched his gray beard and frowned. "Why?"
"Because I think Kris played a joke on me," she explained. "Either that or she let me believe she did, just to drive me nuts."
"Not a hard feat to do," Kyle mumbled under his breath.
"Hey!" Shannon exclaimed and crawled out from under the car. Warningly, she pointed a finger at the man. "Watch that mouth of yours, I heard you."
"So?" he smirked at her. "Anyway, I don't believe Kris would do such a thing. She's competitive yes, but not to the point of doing any damage on the car." He shoved the last of his sandwich in his mouth and wiped his hands on his pants. "Didja inspect the car for bugs or something?" he asked with a mouth full.
"Bugs?" Shannon squeaked as she stood up. "Damn I hope not, especially spiders. Do you know how many poisonous spiders we have in Australia?" she asked as she looked at the man. "Too many for my taste."
"You better check anyway," Kyle warned again and started helping with the bug inspection. "Kris can be very hmm creative, when she wants to sometimes. Some years ago, she got me with a pool filled with Jell-O."
"Ew, I bet that was hell to clean up."
Kyle snorted. "You're telling me!"
Taking a long thin branch from the ground, Shannon opened the car's door and started poking the stick under the seats, then lifted the squared carpets with the branch to check under. Aside from a few harmless ants, her search had discovered nothing out of the ordinary. Looking up, she reached a tentative hand to grab the sun visor, knowing that sometimes bugs liked to crawl between the panel and the roof. She nervously held her breath and jerked the sun visor down, causing loose papers and maps to fall down on her head. The stuntwoman screamed in surprise.
"Damn!" she cursed and glared at her laughing partner. "You think that's funny?"
"Oh yes, it is," Kyle grinned as he moved around the car to stand next to the front wheel on the passenger's side. A soft hissing noise, as if air was escaping from somewhere, caught his attention. Did Kris cause a slow leak? he silently thought as he crouched near the left wheel to inspect the tire. Nah, that's really not her style and it could easily cause an accident.
But still, the hissing continued, only that it wasn't a constant noise as with air escaping from a tiny hole. He reached for the wheel but jerked his hand back as he spotted a small snake's head. "Oh shit!" he suddenly yelled and tripped over his feet in his rush to move back, the fall causing him to sit down heavily in the dirt.
Having heard the man's yell, Shannon ran around the car in time to see her team partner crawl backwards on his hands and heels. "What's the matter?"
He nervously pointed at the tire. "There's a God damned snake behind the wheel!" Finally at a safe distance from the car, Kyle stood up and took a deep breath to calm his racing heart. "I hate snakes!" he growled with a shaking voice. "If that's the practical joke you were talking about, Boomer, I don't find it funny at all."
He thought back to a joke Kris had played on him in Sweden some time ago by shoving a garden hose up his pant leg. His heart had nearly stopped when he had believed that it was a snake crawling up his jeans. "I'll take anything but those slithering things."
Shannon shook her head. "Unless Kris or Nicole are snake handlers, I doubt very much that they're involved in this. That critter's a King Brown, very venomous."
"You've got a Mulga snake stuck in there?" Scott asked as he skidded to a halt next to Shannon and Kyle. The stuntwoman simply nodded. "Well, bugger me dead! I'll go back in the pub to see if anyone can help us."
"Thanks." Shannon rested both fists on her hips. "Damn things crawl into everything." She looked down at her watch and sighed. They were due to leave in ten minutes and they still had to get the snake out of its hiding place. "We'd better not be late leaving because of this."
The woman glanced at the starting line and saw Kris and Nicole's car waiting for their time of departure. Another three minutes and they'd be on their way. "No, I really don't think Kris had anything to do with this," she murmured and turned her attention back to her car.
A small crowd had started to form around them, attracted by her navigator's terrified yells. The French and Italian rally drivers stood next to each other, silently watching while Greg and Ludwig talked to a couple of locals, occasionally pointing at the hidden snake.
A grizzled man, wearing a short duster and a weathered Akubra, walked out of the pub carrying a canvas bag in one hand and a long, thin pair of pincers in the other. "Where's the little beauty?" he asked the group and followed the indications given by Scott who was walking next to him.
The man knelt a safe distance away from the wheel and studied the snake. "Yeap, that's a mulga all right. Good thing you found me. The venom is even more deadly than the rattlesnake. Didja know that it causes more deaths than any other Australian snake?"
"Really?" Stephane, one of the French drivers said as he slowly approached the vehicle to get a better view. "How can you tell the difference between this snake and another?"
As calmly as if he was reaching for a beer, the old man directed his pincers and easily caught the snake right below the head. "King Browns are heavily built and the body is uniform in color, usually light brown like this one. See the strongly defined dark crosshatched pattern on its scales?"
"A snake is a snake," Kyle grumbled from a safe distance away. "Don't really care what they're called."
"Wow, that's a long one!" Scott exclaimed as the man slipped the snake in the canvas bag.
The gray haired man shrugged. "It's not the longest I've seen. This one makes about two meters. Some Mulgas go up to three."
Kyle counted on his fingers to convert meters into feet and blinked in surprise. "Up to nine feet?"
"More or less," the older man agreed. "Anything else I can do for ya?" he asked and saw everybody shake their head no. "Well, I'd better get my arse into gear, the Mrs is waiting for me. Cheerio."
As she watched the man walk away with his prize in the bag, a large hand on her shoulder made Shannon jump in surprise. "Damn Dean! Nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Sorry mate," the blonde man apologized. "Nobody got injured?"
"Nah, just Kyle's ego," she whispered with a small laugh. "Never heard a man squeal this way." She cast a glance at her partner and shook her head. "He still looks pretty shook up. Guess I'll be driving next. He "
"No bloody way," Kyle argued, having heard the stuntwoman. "If you think I'm not able to drive just because some snake took me by surprise, you're wrong."
"Alright," Shannon rose both hands in a placating gesture. "You're the one who got scared, not me."
"Excuse me?" he exclaimed. And it wasn't you who were halfway out of her wits, searching for spiders in the car?"
"Spiders?" Dean repeated. "Why were you "
"She thinks Kris played a joke on her," Kyle explained. "She's been paranoid ever since."
"I know she did," the Australian woman shot back as she popped the hood of the car open and began a quick scan of the engine. "Instead of running your mouth, why don't you turn the motor on? Just want to do one last check up before we go."
With a chuckle, Kyle did as he was told and sat in the driver's seat. Sometimes, the best joke is the one that wasn't played at all, he silently thought. Seeing Shannon this nervous is funny enough. He turned the ignition on and gave the motor some gas, revving it. As far as he could tell, the engine sounded normal. As he waited for the woman to make her inspection, Kyle let his eyes wander over the dashboard and windshield. Everything was covered with a thin coat of dust.
"Come on, Shannon, time to go!"
"One more minute," she yelled back.
"One more minute," he mimicked and sighed. "Damn woman's probably chasing shadows. Bet Kris did nothing at all." He trailed one finger on the windshield and shook his head. "It's so dusty, can't see a damn thing." Wanting to clean the glass, the stunt technician pushed the knob for the washer fluid and jumped in surprise when the car's horn blared suddenly.
"What the hell " Shannon exploded in anger, having hit her head under the hood. "That wasn't funny, Kyle!"
"I didn't do anything!" the American defended himself. "All I did was press this to wash the windshield and " he stopped talking when he saw the stormy brown eyes glaring his way. The brunette slammed the hood down and walked towards him. "See?" he said and pushed the control again, getting the same result.
Frowning, Shannon reached inside the car and hit the center of the steering wheel, expecting to hear the car's klaxon. To her surprise, the wipers moved back and forth across the windshield. She then turned the control for the wipers and nothing happened. "Now what?"
"Hey Boomer!" Dean called out with a smile. "Something's a bit iffy. Your hazard lights are on."
"No she didn't!" Shannon growled and pressed the hazard button. A squirt of washer fluid splattered against the windshield. "Oh Kris, I'm gonna kill you for this!"
Standing near the rally officials, "Hey, Shannon!" Scott yelled as he waved his arms to get her attention. "You're next to leave."
"Guess we'll just have to remember which control does what," Kyle chuckled. "Looks like Kris got you back after all. You shouldn't have put that black grease under the door handles in Marree. She warned you she'd get you."
With no time left to fix Kris' handiwork, Shannon walked around the car, cursing the Austrian stuntwoman, and sat down in the passenger's seat. She glared at her laughing partner. "Oh bugger off, curly," she growled and pointed forward. "Drive!"
The car drove along the darkened road, both occupants keeping silent for different reasons. The driver kept his attention on the road, making sure that none of the desert occupants would cross the track and get into a collision with them. The navigator, on the other hand, did very little to help his teammate. He stared outside at the darkness, lost in thoughts and silently grumbled at his failed attempt at sabotage.
He'd been so certain that the tampering he had done back in Coober Pedy was going to slow the Finns down if not take them out of the race completely. But they were still the rally's leaders and Kristina, even though she was reducing the distance between them, was still second. He had bet too much money on her to simply sit back and wait until she moved up to the number one position without his help.
He chuckled softly as he thought back to his plan, knowing that this time, the Finns wouldn't make it to the next stage in Longreach. Even if somebody was kind enough to stop and help them, there was no way the car could easily be repaired in the middle of the desert. Then Kristina will be leading and I'll be richer when she wins the rally, he silently thought. I'll just have to keep an eye on Shannon and Kyle and make sure they're not a threat. I can't let anything go wrong. I need that money bad.
Kris drove the car expertly as it skimmed over the few bumps and potholes in the road. According to the map and the information she had gotten back in Birdsville, this track was going to be the last of the dirt roads they would travel on, and she was happy to know that the remaining highways they'd be driving on were going to be paved ones. Not that she didn't like driving in these bumpy conditions, but after a few days traveling on dusty and corrugated roads, she was looking forward to a less jarring ride.
Looking back at the past days spent in the Outback, Kris silently thanked Kyle for having invited her and Nicole to participate in the rally. She remembered how blue she had felt back home, having no idea in which direction her life was heading. The race had done wonders for her, but what was most important was the fact that Nicole had gently persuaded her in accepting her brother's offer and become partners in the stunt school. No it was Nicole's acceptance of me performing stunts again that did it she corrected herself gently.
The dark haired woman glanced at her silent friend and was surprised to see her awake. "Can't sleep?" she asked softly.
"Not tired," Nicole smiled. "I keep thinking about Shannon. You think she found what you did to her car yet?"
"Probably," Kris chuckled. "Remind me to thank Ludwig for keeping her away from the car. I don't think I would've had enough time to do everything I did."
Nicole patted her lover's thigh and winked. "You're such a trouble maker sometimes."
"Boomer started it!" Kris said defensively. "I would've behaved if it wasn't for the damn grease she put under the car's handles." She heard her partner laugh softly and grinned. "Besides, I think Ludwig was happy to help get Shannon back. He owes her quite a few practical jokes. Every time she's invited at the stunt school, everybody's on their guard."
"I'll be sure to remember that next time she's a guest instructor," Nicole smiled. "She's been teaching for the past five years, right?"
Kris nodded. "On and off. She's our specialist concerning high speed chases."
"Oh," Nicole blinked in surprise. "But I saw you perform some. When you teach, you don't "
"I do some chases but they always end up with rollovers," she explained. "I basically teach that and high falls but Boomer can race a car between two objects with only inches to spare. She's amazing to watch and she's a very good instructor. She even taught me a thing or two."
"Really?" Nicole said and turned slightly in her seat to look at her partner. "When was that?"
"Shannon's first year at the school." Kris smiled at the memory. "She was giving her third class when I finally met her."
The black motorcycle slowly drove across the stunt school's grounds and headed directly for the one-kilometer square obstacle course, where cars were busy racing along the difficult track filled with challenges of all kind. Blue eyes hidden by dark sunglasses scanned the area, looking for the owner of the school. The rider found him standing near a racing car, talking to a few instructors.
Kris parked the custom designed Titan Gecko and turned the motor off. She casually glanced at the students as they watched the racing cars and waited for her brother to be finished with his employees. With her schedule cleared for the rest of the day, she wasn't in any hurry and going to an empty house was the last thing she wanted to do right now.
Still sitting on the motorcycle, she undid her chinstrap and took the helmet off of her head and rested it on top of the mirror. She then reached for her braided hair and pulled it out from under her leather jacket, letting it dangle down the middle of her back.
"Hey Kris!" Ludwig greeted the dark haired woman. "Back from Berlin already?"
"Yeah, things went smoother than planned."
Ludwig nodded as he shoved both hands into his jean pockets. He jerked his head towards the track and grinned. "Lots of students this week. Everybody here came to see Shannon. We had enough applications to have her teach two more weeks. Too bad she's got to go back to Australia."
Making a noncommittal grunt, Kris looked around them and spotted a small, brown haired woman walking their way. She looked upset and was grumbling to herself. "What's up with her?" she asked her brother.
Ludwig sighed. "The mechanics say her car's fine and she doesn't agree. She's been arguing with them since morning."
With an amused smirk on her lips, Kris listened while the woman cursed the men, only succeeding in understanding one word out of four due to the heavy Australian accent. Kris slid her sunglasses down her nose and looked at the woman over the rim then at her older brother. "Is that your hussy friend?"
"Hey! That's Aussie, not hussy," the stuntwoman growled at the biker.
Ludwig simply shook his head and covered his eyes with a hand, not knowing if his sibling's slip of the tongue was done on purpose. "That's Shannon," he finally answered Kris' question. "Shannon, meet my sister, Kristina."
"I know who she is, Lou," the Australian grinned. "The whole damn world knows." Brown eyes studied the woman sitting on the motorcycle. Kris wore an opened, black leather jacket over a white T-shirt, blue jeans and black leather boots. A black and red bandana was loosely wrapped around her neck. "Not that bad looking for a Hell's Angel," Shannon finally said.
Kris heard her brother gasp and from the corner of her eyes, saw him hold his breath. She was certain he was expecting the worst from her. With her index finger, Kris slowly pushed her sunglasses back up her nose and waited a heartbeat or two before she drawled, "The same goes for you too hussy."
The dark haired man kept shifting his eyes from his guest instructor to his sister and back. He was amazed that the women hadn't yet come to blows. The sound of a low chuckle made him blink and he stared at Shannon in surprise as she started to laugh. He let go of the breath he was holding when he saw Kris grin.
"So," Shannon said as she came closer to Kris. "Ludwig told me you're interested in getting a few pointers concerning racing. That true, mate?"
"Yep," Kris nodded. "You willing to show me some?"
"That's what I'm here for," Shannon winked at the woman who was getting off the motorcycle. "We'll go around the track once with you driving, then we'll switch places and I'll show you how I do it, okay?"
"Lead the way," Kris replied and followed the smaller woman towards the rally car.
The racing circuit had been built to teach the students how to perform stunts on all kinds of surfaces. The first leg of the track was made of gravel, the second dirt while the third part was completely made of asphalt. Even though most of the stunt school was located in a valley amongst the mountains, half of the racing circuit was built uphill, giving the drivers extra problems to deal with.
Having secured their safety harnesses and put the mandatory helmets on, Kris brought the car's motor to life and shifted the small microphone closer to her mouth. "So you just want me to drive around the track?" she asked as she looked at Shannon sitting beside her.
The brunette nodded. "Give it everything you've got and I'll watch."
With a twinkle in her eyes, Kris hit the accelerator and raced down the straight way on the loose gravel. It wasn't long before the road surface changed into dirt and the stuntwoman easily controlled the car into a wide left turn, then a right one, going up hill.
A hard left turn waited for them just before the track's furthest point then another, this one at a 40 degree angle. Kris drove down the hill on a short straightway before taking a sharp left turn and guided the car into a long, wide right turn.
Right in front of Kris lay the second long gravel section, the road extending in a direct line, parallel to the one she had started to drive on a few minutes earlier. She shifted gears and pushed the motor to its limit, reaching a speed that would make the most seasoned driver squirm.
In a matter of seconds, Kris shifted gears down and took a lazy right turn on the asphalt surface and climbed the hill once again at top speed. A tight hairpin turn brought the racing car on top of the slope, a fast 90 degree left turn started their way down the hill, a hard right then another on the left sent the sports car back to its starting point.
"Not bad," Shannon approved as she unclipped her safety belt and climbed out of the car, watching Kris do the same. "Now I'll show you how it's done rally style!"
Both women exchanged places and within seconds, the Audi Quattro shot down the gravel track, the spinning wheels sending a shower of rocks to fly backwards. The silver sports car bounced a few times over the uneven surface, causing the instructor to chuckle lightly.
Taking the first turn at full speed, Shannon came dangerously close to the inside of the track and brought the car into a side slide, scaring half the students standing there with a wall of dirt as it hit them. "That'll teach them to stand so close," the driver chuckled.
Kris held on to the roof handle as the Audi skidded once more into another turn. "Show off," she mumbled with a grin. Kris knew that the Australian stuntwoman was a great driver, but seeing her first hand was a real treat. She could also see that Shannon was enjoying herself tremendously.
The silver car raced up the hill and went through two more turns before making its way down again. Kris was so familiar with the circuit that she could almost drive on it blindfolded. For that reason, she held her breath as the Audi quickly approached the bump that she usually avoided. She didn't know if Shannon was aware of it or not, but either way, she was heading directly for it.
Kris quickly looked at the driver and saw her smile. Oh yeah, she knows. Still going downhill, the Quattro easily took the bump and went flying in the air for a few seconds before it touched ground again, bouncing twice. It then slid sideways to the left then started going through a lazy right turn.
With the second long straightway ahead, Shannon shifted gears as she hit the accelerator and raced down the track, back on the gravel surface. More students and instructors were lining up along the circuit to watch the show, standing at a safe distance this time, some waving flags and arms as well as the baseball caps most students were wearing.
The surface soon changed into asphalt and the car picked up even more speed as it climbed the second hill. On top was the hairpin turn, which everybody usually took at a much slower speed, but Kris was certain that Shannon had no intention of doing so if she judged by the grin that threatened to split her face in two. She was right.
With a combination of steering work and brake pressure, Shannon locked the wheels and sent the Audi's rear skidding into a 180 degrees turn. There was an incredible noise as the wheels slid on the asphalt, leaving rubber behind then another as the stuntwoman gunned the engine for more power to continue racing down the circuit. The silver car took two more bumps, bouncing over them effortlessly before it took the remaining three tight curves.
Seeing the finish line approaching, Kris relaxed in her seat, having enjoyed the little show. She was totally unprepared when the driver spun the steering wheel and made the Audi perform doughnuts on the start/finish line, the action sending rocks and pebbles to fly in all directions.
With a huge grin, the Australian shut the motor off and crossed her arms over her chest. "What did ya think of that?"
Kris looked around them, unable to see further than two feet away due to the cloud of dust surrounding them, then turned her attention back to the driver. "I was right," she drawled as she kept a straight face on. "You are a show off." Then Kris slowly let a grin shape her lips. She held her hand out and nodded. "That was great."
Shannon beamed at the compliment as she shook the stuntwoman's hand. Laughing, she hit the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. "I wish I had a recorder! The amazing Kristina said I was great."
"The drive was," she corrected her with a chuckle. "I never said you were."
With a shake of the head, Kris glanced at her partner and smiled. "I think we were the terrors of the day. Ludwig nearly went out of his mind, trying to keep us from breaking any speed records on the circuit."
"I'm sure the students loved it."
"Oh yeah, they did," Kris agreed as she turned her attention back to the darkened road before them. "But we got one hell of a sermon though. Lou wasn't too happy with us."
"I can imagine," Nicole grinned. She leaned her head back against the headrest, tilting it slightly to look at her friend. "So, that was the first time you met Shannon?"
"Yep. It's also the day she received the Boomer nickname."
"Right. Boomer's another term for Kangaroo," Nicole recalled. "But if she got the nickname because she's from Australia, why didn't you call her a I don't know, why not koala?"
"Shannon's far from being cute and cuddly." Kris grinned.
"Okay, why not just Roo? How did you know what boomer meant?"
"I didn't know at the time. What happened was that she'd been complaining all day that the car wasn't performing up to its standard. The mechanics kept telling her that everything was fine but she kept arguing with them. She eventually decided to check the engine herself...with my help."
"Okay," she drawled. "Why do I have the impression that something happened? Did you play a joke on her?"
"No jokes were played that time," Kris laughed softly. "I didn't need to."
"Well?" Nicole asked impatiently. "What happened?"
"I could hear some kind of clacking when the engine was working so I tried to find what was wrong. Shannon was obsessed in finding the problem and show the mechanics that she could do a better job than them, so she ordered me to sit in the car and let her inspect the motor," she explained with a chuckle.
"She ordered you?" Nicole repeated with disbelief in her voice. "And you listened to her?"
"It saved my butt," Kris replied with a laugh as the images came back to her. "I was sitting in the driver's seat, revving the motor a few times until she told me to hit the accelerator and keep the pedal stuck to the floor." She shook her head. "Bad mistake."
"Oh boy. I think I know where you're going with this. Am I right to assume that the motor didn't survive?"
"Give the woman a prize." Kris smiled as she winked at her companion. "The clanking coming from the engine got worst and before she could tell me to stop, the engine blew with a loud boom. You should have heard the noise! All I saw was Shannon jump in the air like a damn kangaroo and land on the ground a few feet away from the car. Never saw something react this fast," she finished with a chuckle.
"Since you're laughing, I guess she wasn't injured?"
Kris shook her head. "No, she wasn't, but it nearly gave her, and a few others heart attacks."
"So Boomer comes from the explosion, right?"
"Yep," Kris smiled. "All day, the students as well as the instructors kept walking by and loudly yelled, 'BOOM'. The name stuck since."
"That's a good information to keep in mind," she grinned. "Just in case."
Teppo rubbed his eyes for the third time, trying to stay awake. The road was deserted from traffic and he suddenly wished that some creature would cross the path, giving him a chance to do something instead of this monotonous driving. A look outside his window showed nothing but a desolate land where only sand could be seen. He shook his head and sighed.
"Damn, I can't wait to go home."
Startled at the sudden sound of a voice, Heikki looked at the driver and nodded in agreement. "Yeah. I kinda miss the forests and lakes. All this sand is driving me nuts."
"At least Sunday, it'll all be over. I'm getting real bored with this rally. We've been leading since the beginning and nobody's been close enough to challenge us."
"Kristina could have been fun but she's not taking this race seriously."
Teppo made a noise, sounding halfway between a sneeze and cough. "That's the problem, nobody does except Tony of course."
"Well, he's special," Heikki grinned. "But you know something? I'd love to be able to race against that stuntwoman on a closed circuit. I know she'd be a great challenge. They left seventh and are now only fifteen minutes behind us."
"And getting closer," Teppo agreed. "We could always slow down for her to catch up. It'd be more challenging this way."
"Somehow, I don't think we'll need to slow down. Kristina will pick up the pace once the sun rises. I heard that her partner is nervous when driving at night."
The driver snorted. "Well, yeah! I understand Nicole perfectly. Those damn kangaroos scared the hell out of me once too many. Why do they always choose to skip across the road once we're smack on them?"
"Because they're stupid?" Heikki chuckled. "Anyway, sounds like Nicole's doing fine tonight." He bent forward and turned the CB volume louder. The young woman was mercilessly teasing Shannon about the origin of her nickname and Ludwig didn't help matters as he supplied funny anecdotes concerning the Australian stuntwoman. All Boomer did was growl at everybody.
"That is one nice woman cute too."
"Who? Boomer?" Heikki asked.
"No, Nicole. I really wouldn't mind getting to know her better."
"Don't let your wife hear that," Heikki warned. "Or even worst, don't let Kristina hear you. She'd tear you apart."
"Ouch that's true," the driver chuckled. "The wife, well, that I can handle."
"In your dreams," Heikki teased. "But I, on the other hand, am not married or have a girlfriend. If I had to choose between Kristina or Nicole, I'd go for the stuntwoman. Now that's six foot of pure beauty." His team partner burst out laughing at the comment. "What?" he scowled.
"So far, every women you fell for are either married, not interested in you or are lesbians. No wonder you're still single." Teppo poked his friend in the ribs and grinned. "If you think Kristina would tear me apart for hitting on her lover, don't count Nicole out. She's mighty protective of Kris."
"Yeah, I saw that." Heikki nodded as he remembered seeing the small woman politely get rid of a potential suitor hounding Kristina. "Oh well, guess we can still look can't we? No harm in doing that."
The navigator switched the small book lamp on and looked down at the folded map strapped to his thigh. Numerous locations and roads had been highlighted in different colors, each with a different meaning. The deserted track they were driving on was coded in yellow, meaning that the road was semi rough. The line ended up at their next stop in Longreach, which was highlighted in blue as with every stage they had gone though.
"How much longer before we reach the next town?" the driver asked.
Heikki pulled a folded paper out from under the elastic band and studied his calculations. "I'd say another half hour to go. We should be in Longreach around 4am."
"Hmm, that's good."
He was glad to know that they were nearly there and was looking forward to a few hours of sleep. He was tired and his lack of concentration was making him drive over bumps and potholes that he'd normally avoid. If the sand was driving his friend nuts, what got on Teppo's nerves was the boring driving they had done for the past few hours. He had barely used his brakes and hadn't shifted gears to change speed in a long while. The engine was running to its maximum and it seemed to Teppo that they would do so until they reached the town.
The track suddenly became rougher and the driver applied the brakes a few times in order to slow the rally car down. Thankfully, the road condition soon got better and Teppo quickly brought the vehicle back to its previous speed. This was the last of the gravel roads and once they'd leave Longreach, the rest of the rally would be raced on clean and paved highways.
They drove on in silence for a while before the driver grunted under his breath, his features locked into a frown. The car was acting weird all of a sudden and Teppo couldn't figure out why. Even though the engine appeared to function normally, the car seemed to lose power, as if they were moving up hill, but the ground they were driving on was as flat as it could be. Blaming his tiredness, Teppo shrugged as he put the weird feeling in the back of his mind and drove on.
"Do you hear that?" Heikki suddenly asked, moving his head to try and identify where the strident noise was coming from. "I've been hearing it for a while now but it seems like it's getting louder."
"I thought I was imagining things," Teppo responded as he switched the CB off to listen. Leaning back into his seat, something caught his attention and he looked in his side mirror in time to see an orange glare coming from the back of his car. He quickly looked in the passenger mirror and saw the same thing. "What the hell "
Driving the rally car off the track, Teppo applied the brakes to stop the vehicle but found them not responding. "Shit! The brakes are jammed." He cursed again, this time in his native language as he wrestled with the controls and was grateful for the roughness of the terrain as it caused the car to slow down and eventually stop. Opening his door with one hand while the other unbuckled his seatbelt, Teppo hurried out of the car, his navigator doing the same, and blinked in surprise when he spotted flames behind the wheels.
Having seen the same thing, Heikki reacted a bit faster than the driver did and reached inside the car to unclip the fire extinguisher strapped to the roll bar. "What the hell happened?" he shouted as he aimed the nozzle to extinguish the flames.
Handling the spare tank, Teppo glared at the ruined wheels. "No freaking idea!" he growled. "This is just too weird to be a coincidence. Two sets of brakes jamming at the same time? No fucking way!"
The driver stayed silent as he listened to the rally participants talk on the CB. More people had joined in the bantering between Nicole and Shannon, probably due to the long and boring road. He had half of his attention on the stories being told until he heard Teppo Gustafsson's voice cut through the conversation. He sounded extremely upset.
"Sorry to interrupt," he heard Teppo say. "But we need some help. Can the first team that gets to Longreach have a tow truck sent our way?" There was a slight pause before the Finn spoke again. "And it has to be a flat bed, we can't pull the car."
The voice of Kristina Von Deering sounded through the small speaker. "What happened?"
"The brakes jammed. Can't do anything about it." Teppo replied.
"But why do you need a flat bed?" Shannon asked. "You could still "
"Because all of the fucking pads jammed!" Teppo barked into the mike. Another pause and the Finn continued, this time more calmly. "Heikki did a quick inspection and he noticed that all of the rubber lines have expanded."
"Do you need us to help you?" the Austrian stuntwoman spoke again. "We're right behind you."
"Thanks for the offer, Kris but no. Just get us a tow truck once you're in Longreach."
"We'll do that."
Trying hard not to slap the steering wheel in pure happiness, the driver bit a smile back and relaxed in his seat. Congratulations Kristina, the man silently chuckled. You are now the leader of the Australian cross-country rally...thanks to me. Win this thing and you're gonna make me a rich man and save my butt at the same time.
The tall, dark haired woman walked out of the motel as she slid her sunglasses down to shield her eyes from the bright morning sun. She dropped the two over night bags at her feet and took a deep breath of fresh air, using the time to stretch her body. The day promised to be a good one and Kris was happy to know that the rest of the driving would be done on asphalt, leaving the rough and dusty gravel tracks far behind.
A small hand wrapped itself around Kris' forearm and looking down at her partner, she saw green eyes blink at the brightness. "Where are your sunglasses?"
"Left them in the car," Nicole grumbled. "I didn't exactly need them at four o'clock in the morning you know, but I wish that I had planned ahead though."
Kris chuckled. "That's why I always have them with me." She gave the blonde head next to her a gentle kiss. "Ready to go back on the road?"
"Yeah," she nodded. "Let's get this race over with so we can have more than six hours of sleep." Nicole let go of her partner and bent down to pick up the two small suitcases. "I wonder if Teppo and Heikki got their car fixed."
"I wouldn't go near them if I were you," a voice sounded behind the women and they turned to see Dean and Scott make their way out of the motel. The blond Australian waved hello. "We saw them earlier and they were rather narkie."
"Narkie?" Nicole frowned at the term.
"It means upset or short tempered," Dean explained with a smile. "They've been working on their car all night as well as blaming the other of being the cause of the problem."
"Why?" Kris asked reasonably. "I mean brake pads fail sometimes. Why are they accusing each other?"
Scott took a few steps in order to get a better view of the Finnish team. "Because it looks like somebody put something other than brake fluid in the car. That's why all of the rubber lines expanded." He couldn't hear what was being said, but judging by the body language, it looked like both men's tempers had risen a notch.
Shifting his small clothes bag to his left shoulder, Dean watched the Finns as they worked on their car. He sighed, realizing that he'd have to go talk to them and keep the argument to a minimum. The last thing they needed was for somebody to come to blows. "Heikki said that he's the one who checked the oil levels but he's certain that he put the right one in and Teppo, well, according to him, he didn't even touch that. So if neither one of them did it, I wonder who's responsible for the damage."
"Did anybody else help them at one point?" Kris asked.
"Funny you should ask that," Tony spoke from behind the group and waited until the two men and women turned to look at him. He took a step forward, standing well within Kris' personal space. "I heard that your brother helped them back in Birdsville. I find it strange that all of a sudden, due to the leaders' misfortune, you find yourself in the number one position. Convenient don't you think?"
"Are you accusing my brother of sabotage?" Kris' voice rumbled as she glared at the Italian. She could feel her temper rise as she slowly balled her hands into fists. "If you are, then I hope for your sake that you have proof, 'cause "
"Proof of what?" Greg asked as he joined the group. Feeling the tension, he glanced around and frowned. "What's this talk about sabotage?"
"You should know, you helped them too. That's what the French drivers told me. " Tony replied with a smirk then looked back at the furious looking stuntwoman. "Who knows what they were doing when Teppo and Heikki weren't watching? They could've done any number of things to the car and it looks like it worked; the Finns aren't the leaders anymore."
Angry at the accusation, Greg shoved people sideways to get at the Italian driver. "You son of a bitch!" he bellowed and started to struggle when Dean and Scott quickly held him back. "How can you accuse us? We never even went close to the engine."
Joining the wrestling men, Ludwig grabbed his team partner and pushed him back. "Calm down!" he ordered as he kept one large hand on Greg's chest. He shifted his eyes between Tony and his sister, both of them locked into a staring match. A quick look in Nicole's direction showed the small woman with a worried look on her face. He knew that she wasn't worried for Kris' safety but more for Tony's well being. His sister seemed to be ready to strike at any second. "You mind explaining what's going on?"
"The bastard accused us of sabotaging the Finns' car!" Greg growled as he kept his eyes locked on Tony. "We didn't even do any mechanical repairs."
"Greg's right," Ludwig agreed. "We did help but all we did was some body work. They hit a kangaroo and the metal was pressing against the wheel. What happened with their brake system isn't our fault."
"Believe what you want," Tony started as he stared at the tall stuntwoman a moment longer then moved his hand to poke her in the chest. "But " His wrist was quickly captured in an iron grip and he looked down in surprise and tried to free himself. No matter how much he pulled, the woman wouldn't let him go. "Planning to break my wrist? You're really doing your best to get rid of the competition, aren't you? First the Finns, now me?"
"If I wanted to get rid of you, I'd do more than break your wrist," Kris replied with a smile devoid of any humor. "Trust me." From the corner of her eyes, she saw Nicole move closer against her and felt her hand rub gently at her back, the small circular movements calming and reassuring.
Tony tried one more time to free himself and sighed when his new attempt failed again. "I'm sure you must find this very amusing, but I have work to do," he said, expecting the stuntwoman to let him go. She didn't. He jerked his hand harder and was disappointed when she barely moved. "Let me go!" he ordered.
"I think if you add a simple 'please', things would be better," Nicole smiled charmingly. "It always works for me."
As he glared at the small woman, Tony took a deep breath, tightened his jaw and spoke through clenched teeth. "Let me go...please."
"See? That wasn't so bad," the blonde nodded and gave her partner's back a small pat when Kris released his wrist. "But Tony's right. We all have work to do before we leave so why don't we do that, okay?" Nicole watched as Tony left in a huff, mumbling under his breath, then looked up to see twinkling blue eyes looking at her. "What?"
Kris shook her dark head and smiled. "I think he's more upset because you made him say please than because I grabbed his wrist."
"Tough!" Nicole scowled. "If there's something I can't stand, it's impolite people." She looked at Greg who had finally calmed down then at Ludwig before shifting her attention to the silent Australian rally drivers. "Did the Finns accuse them of anything? Why are the Frenchmen involved in this?"
Dean shook his head. "All I heard was Teppo saying that Greg and Ludwig worked with them. The Frenchmen were standing not too far away but weren't involved in the conversation."
"They must've heard them mention the names and thought that somehow, they were linked to the problem," Scott explained. "You know how Stephane and Gilbert are. They're so quick to assume the worst."
"Well, I really don't appreciate being accused of something I didn't do," Ludwig replied and looked at his rally partner. "Come on, let's get ready."
Kris watched her brother leave with Greg in tow then turned to face Dean. "One thing I won't miss out of this rally is all the bickering we've gone through since the beginning." She leaned her arm across Nicole's shoulders and smiled. "So, my little peacemaker, are you ready?" She nodded goodbye to both men then with their overnight bags in hand, both women headed for the parked rally cars.
"As I'll ever be," Nicole replied with a grin. She slid her hand around Kris' waist and hooked her fingers on her belt. "Especially since we'll be driving daytime for the rest of the rally and "
" And that we'll be able to pick up the pace," Kris finished, correctly guessing her friend's last words. "Tony and Roberto are closing the distance real fast. I saw that they're now in the third position. We'd better "
" Hurry up before they catch us," Nicole finished with a laugh. "Between the two of us, we'll be able to speak full sentences."
"Funny," Kris smiled but it quickly faded when she saw Shannon stomp her way towards them. She tried to change direction but the Australian stuntwoman was upon them like a bird of prey.
"Hold it right there, Von Deering!" Shannon bellowed. "If you think you're gonna run away from me, you're sadly mistaken."
Cursing under her breath at being caught, Kris stopped walking then pleasantly smiled. "Good morning Boomer. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Oh, cut the crap, will ya?" Shannon glared at the tall woman. "Kyle's been pulling his hair all morning trying to fix that little prank of yours and God knows he doesn't have much to lose."
Stifling a snort of laughter, Nicole hid partially behind her friend and stole a peek at the American working on the car. Poor Kyle, I never saw him look so discouraged. The stunt technician was kneeling on the ground with a bunch of wires in his hands. "At least he's got a beard. He could always pull those hairs."
"Nick!" Kris burst out laughing. "That was mean." Nicole shrugged with a mischievous grin.
The comment was so unexpected that even Shannon laughed. "But true," she agreed. "Anyway, I want you to get your butt over to the car and fix your handiwork. I'm not driving any further with all those crossed wires. It took me forever to remember that the horn activated the wipers and if I wanted to get some washer fluid, I had to flick my hazard lights on!"
"Slow learner, huh?" Nicole piped in, safely hidden behind Kris and started laughing when Shannon gave her a dirty look. "Oh, that kind of look don't impress me at all, Boomer. I live with tall, dark, and cuddly here, remember?" She looked up in time to see a blush crawl up Kris' cheeks.
"Don't you mean tall, dark, and dangerous?" Kris replied half seriously.
Shannon snorted. "Dangerous? I'll show you dangerous if you don't get your pretty little butt over there and start working!"
Biting back a laugh, Nicole tugged on her partner's sleeve until the taller woman bent slightly and whispered in her ear. "I don't think making her say 'please' will work, huh?"
"Not this time," Kris whispered back and gave her lover a quick kiss before straightening and looking at the brunette. "All right boom boom. Move your tiny little legs and lead the way."
"ARGH!" Shannon growled and started running after Kris who hadn't wasted a second and had left at a dead run. "I'll get you for this!"
Continues in chapter 9.
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