The Disappearance of Anna Popov – PROLOGUE

Prologue
Alice Springs, January 2005
Anna was dancing in The Shed the night she disappeared. The Shed was a notorious watering hole frequented mainly by thirsty truckies. It called itself a bush pub, but that was an exaggeration.

It was more like a long wooden bar with a corrugated iron roof held up by gnarled fence posts and barbed wire. There were no walls. The floor, hard as rock, was red desert earth compacted by thousands of feet shuffling to the bar for a drink. Because the beer was always cold and the steaks huge and cheap, the place was always packed. More recently, however, there was one more added attraction: backpackers,

mainly girls, touring the Outback. Looking for cheap grog and adventure, the young nomads had made The Shed their own. Located three kilometres out of Alice, it was within easy walking distance of the youth hostels and budget motels popular with tourists.
A local bush band was playing country and western music and the mouth-watering aroma of frying onions and sizzling sausages drifted across from the barbecue. It was very hot and very late.

‘Beer, mate?’ asked the barmaid, sizing up the tall dark stranger.
The handsome Aboriginal took off his broad-rimmed drover’s hat, wiped his forehead with a red handkerchief and nodded. ‘One for your friend as well?’ she asked, pointing to the huge snake wound around his neck and shoulders.
‘No thanks, she’s driving,’ he said,

affectionately stroking the exquisite python.
Standing at the other end of the bar, a group of truckies were eyeing off the girls on the improvised dance floor. ‘Look, the sheilas have to dance with each other ’cause there’re no blokes here having a go,’ said one, downing another beer.
‘I bet you can’t get them to dance with you, mate; not even one,’ said another, patting his friend on the hairy beer gut bulging over his shorts. ‘Just look at you, you slob.’
‘Sure can.’
‘Oh yeah? You’re all talk. What’s it worth?’
‘Ten rounds.’ The others laughed.
‘You’re on.’

he man slammed down his glass, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and belched loudly. Pulling down his singlet to cover part of his protruding gut, he slipped his thongs back on and shuffled unsteadily towards the dance floor.
Barefoot and wearing the briefest of shorts and a tight-fitting pink tee shirt accentuating her firm breasts,

Anna, silky blonde hair swishing against the tips of her tanned shoulder blades, was dancing with her friend Julia. Anna was looking for freedom, Julia for the adventure which the novelty of travel to remote places invariably offered. The Shed had it all. Excitement, danger, and the lure of the unknown far away from the watchful eyes of fretting parents and curious friends. Enjoying her favourite Dixie Chicks song, Anna swayed from side to side with her eyes closed, letting the familiar beat of the music carry her away. When it stopped and she opened her eyes, she almost bumped into the grotesque fat man towering over her.
‘How about a dance, luv?’ said the fat man, his bald head glistening with sweat.
‘No thanks,’ she snapped, turning away. ‘He’s gross,’ she whispered to Julia. ‘Let’s take a break.’
As his mates at the bar roared laughing, a flash of anger raced across the face of the fat truckie.
‘Come on, sweetie, just one. Be a good sport,’ he persisted, putting a heavy, sweaty hand on Anna’s shoulder.
‘Get off me!’ shouted Anna, pushing the fleshy hand away in disgust.
His mates at the bar began to whistle and hoot. Instead of walking away, the fat man grabbed Anna from behind, spun her around and lifted her up like a rag doll. Pressing her against his huge chest, he lumbered awkwardly around the dance floor like a dancing bear, performing his tricks at the fair. Anna, the man’s hot beer breath in her face, began to retch.
The man with the snake sipped his beer and watched the odd couple stagger across the dance floor. Slowly, he unwound the python, lifted it over his head and gently put it down on the bar.
‘Look after her for me, luv,’ he said to the barmaid, ‘she’s harmless. I’ll be right back.’ He walked slowly over to the dance floor.
‘That’s enough, mate. Put her down,’ he said, patting the fat man on the back.
The truckie turned his head and glared, his bloodshot eyes slightly unfocused.
‘Fuck off, darkie. This is none of your business,’ he hissed angrily.
The snake man’s right hand shot up in silent reply and grabbed the fat man’s ear. ‘I don’t think you heard me,’ he said, twisting the ear. ‘Let her go.’
The fat man let go of Anna, clenched his fists and spun around.
The tall man let go of the ear and stepped back.
The fat man charged – 120 kilos of rage.
Like most professional fighters, the tall man had the waist of a ballerina and the shoulders of a weightlifter. Rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, he stood poised like a cat watching its prey. He sidestepped the charge easily, letting the fat man crash into the bar.
‘Fight, you fucking coward!’ bellowed the fat man, picking himself up.
‘Okay.’
The tall man exploded into action. The first punch, delivered by his left fist, landed on his opponent’s beer gut and went deep. The second, delivered by his right, caught the fat man on the left cheek and broke a bone. The fight was over in an instant. Two more massive blows, one to the chin and one to the nose, finished the truckie off.
‘Anyone else?’ the tall man asked, squaring his shoulders. No one stepped forward. ‘He had it coming. It’s over. Get back to your beers.’
The tall man walked to the far end of the bar, uncoiled the snake which had wound itself around a post, and slung it over his shoulders.
‘Thanks for looking after her, luv,’ he said to the barmaid. ‘One more for the road, please.’ Gulping down his beer, he reached for his hat, threw a few coins on the bar and walked out into the darkness.
Julia put her arm around her friend. ‘Are you alright?’ she asked, a worried look on her face. Anna nodded. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here before they all have a go at each other and we’re caught in the middle.’ The two girls left the dance floor and hurried outside.
‘Shouldn’t we wait for the others?’ asked Anna. ‘One of the guys from the hostel had a car.’
‘No. They’re out the back, eating. We can walk. It isn’t far.’
The road leading into Alice was deserted. The girls took off their shoes and walked along the warm asphalt.
‘Did you see that guy with the snake? What a hunk! And I couldn’t even thank him. Pity.’
The powerful V8 of the ute purred into life after the girls had walked past. Inching slowly forward without lights, it left the car park behind The Shed and headed slowly for town. Startled by the engine noise coming towards them out of the dark, the girls turned around. The headlights came on suddenly, momentarily blinding them.
‘Get off the road!’ shouted Anna, pushing her friend into the bushes.
The ute accelerated and screeched to a halt next to them. ‘Walking along the road after midnight isn’t such a great idea. Especially ’round here,’ said a voice through the open driver’s window.
‘Look who it is,’ whispered Julia excitedly.
‘Hop in. I’ll give youse a lift back to town.’
‘Come on,’ said Julia, pulling Anna out of the bushes. ‘Julia, don’t!’ cried Anna. ‘No hitchhiking, remember?’
‘It’s all right … he’s your hero.’ Julia walked over to the car and opened the passenger door. ‘You scared us,’ she said, climbing in.
The snake man smiled at her, revving the engine. Reluctantly, Anna climbed in after her friend and closed the door.

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