Banzai Towing Company

Mick Mullins listened to the static coming over the scanner in the cabin of his tow-truck. He sprawled, one leg hooked over the open window, the smoke from his cigarette curling out into the calm night air. It was after two in the morning, the occasional car heading home blazed through the orange glare of streetlights at high speed, their drivers confident of a clear run home. Even the most dedicated traffic cops had called it quits by now; besides, during the Christmas period most of them were drafted out into the country to patrol the long straight roads where holiday makers were killing themselves at speed.

It was a hell of a way to spend Christmas morning, hanging out in the desolate wasteland of suburban highways waiting for a driver to stack it. If he had any sense he would be at home in bed. But Mick knew Russo was still out there, doing the same thing, hanging on the radio, smoking cigarettes to keep awake, trying to outlast him, determined to pick up that one extra tow. The bastard never slept, living on amphetamines and black coffee, he was always there, like a vulture on the other side of the emergency channel.

Well, two can play that game. It may be stupid but the iron was in and there could only be one winner. Mick Mullins intended it would be him.

He flicked the dial on the radio and a crying country singer filled the spaces between the static. “I’m heading home for Christmas,” lamented the vocalist, making it sound like a death sentence. Mick listened to the sentiment stone-faced. There was nothing in it for him, not this Christmas anyway, not while this stoush between Russo and he remained unfinished.

Hard to believe they were once mates, partners, the two of them against the big boys. Banzai Towing Company was the best in the business, always first at the scene of an accident, often before the ambulance and the first cops. Many times they saved lives by getting there so fast. It was a point of pride that their first aid skills were as good as any emergency worker’s, so it did not matter that the competition, the other tow truckers, derisively termed them “the vultures.” The fact that the two of them won most of the towing jobs came as part of the prize for being the best – and the first.

It started going wrong when Liza came into their lives. She drove a cab when Mick first saw her, or at least she had been minutes before when a speeding truck on the freeway tailgated her. The cab was a write off, almost flattened against the side rail. She was lucky to get out alive. Sitting on the kerb, shivering with shock, with tears coursing down her face, he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She rode with him in the tow truck back to the yard.

The accident was the last straw, she said. No more cab driving for her, she had too many near misses, it was crazy on the road. From now on she’d get a proper job. There was no need to invent a job for her in the business, although Mick was prepared to if necessary. He and Russo were talking about getting someone in to help with the paper work, to operate the two-way radio and generally run the office. It was almost settled by the time Russo go back and although he hemmed and hawed a bit about how sudden it was, he agreed without too much persuasion.

It went well at first. Liza proved to be a fine organiser and soon the business was running better than either of them had imagined it could; bills got paid, debts got collected, the bank manager smiled, the office was clean and tidy, and after a long night on the road she was there with hot coffee and a sympathetic ear. She worked long hours, often sleeping over at the office, encouraging them to keep at it. She was totally dedicated. Sometimes it seemed the success of Banzai Towing meant more to her than it did to Mick and Russo.

The only time she took off was to help out at the Charlesworth Children’s Home, an orphanage out on the Bay. An orphan herself, she grew up there and maintained close ties with the staff and children, ever ready to lend a hand with outings, raising money at school fetes or simply as a big sister to talk over the problems of a life without parents and home. Apart from that she had no family.

“You’re my family now,” she told the two of them.

Mick was in love with her from day one, helplessly. He did not try to hide it and although she kept him at arm’s length, making light of his declarations, he believed she felt the same. Trouble was, before long Russo also fell under her spell. Within a few months he was as captivated as Mick and proved to be just as jealous. Although Liza tried to keep the peace there was little she could do to stop the gradual descent into enmity between the two of them. The triangle began to affect the business; neither of them wanted to leave the other alone with her. They took to haggling over whose turn it was to answer a call and they raced back to the yard as fast as they drove to reach the smash. The situation deteriorated rapidly with the arguments becoming nastier and the accusations more personal. Often the bickering would reduce Liza to tears, for which each of them blamed the other.

Finally it came to a showdown in the yard on a day when both of them arrived back at the same time, leapt from their trucks and into it with fists and boots, blood and cursing. Liza came running out of the office, screaming at them to stop and futilely tried to throw herself between them but there was not stopping it. She might as well not have been there. Neither of them even noticed when she ran sobbing from the yard.

He damn near killed Russo that day, finally clubbing him with a wrench that split his head open. Too good for the bastard!

Liza never came back. After the fighting and the blood, there proved to be no prize to claim. All they got were letters apologising for being the cause of their falling out and urging them to forget her and get back to working together as before. Fat chance – too much had gone down, too much blame, too much shame. It proved easier to let the feud fester and hate one another.

The scanner squawked into life, the disembodied voice of the operator calling the location of a smash on General Holmes Drive. Mick snapped into action, firing the ignition, gunning the engine into supercharged life, laying a wake of burning rubber as he spun out into the fast lane. He grinned tightly at the stroke of luck as he accelerated, for a while there it seemed as if nothing would happen tonight, a useless Christmas Eve vigil.

As he powered down the highway he reached across and hefted an automatic shotgun from behind the passenger seat. A mean and deadly weapon, sawn-off and hair-triggered, it was a necessary advantage in the war against Russo. Three weeks ago at the site of a smash, Russo upped the stakes by drawing a hand gun, forcing Mick up against the side of the truck and threatening to blow his head off. He meant it too, the mad, crazy bastard. Totally out of control. But if that was the way he meant to play it, he was in for a surprise.

The accident was on the corner of Southern Cross Drive, a notorious intersection where the lights changed quickly and amber light runners often came unstuck. From where he was Mick reckoned he could make it before Russo, even if only by a few seconds. They had the turf staked out, both of them with favourite lay-byes near the geographic centre. Few other operators worked the area at night; ever since the feud began it was too risky to get caught up between the two of them. Most preferred to stay away from a situation where blood would surely be spilled. During the daytime it was a different story, but at night the battleground was left to Mick and Russo.

He was touching 130 kilometres per hour on the dual carriageway when Russo came barrelling out of a side street in front of him. There was no mistaking the low-slung, super-shocked Falcon with the wide wheels. And there was no doubt he had seen Mick, biding his time before pulling out.

Mick stood on the brakes, wrenching at the wheel. The towing gear on the rear of Russo’s vehicle stood out like a battering ram on an ancient warship, menacing across the rapidly closing gap. The tow truck went into a tyre-squealing skid, fish-tailing across the empty lanes, bouncing over the median strip, leaping into the air, slewing in a shower of sparks across the opposite roadway, finally coming to rest half way up an embankment facing in the opposite direction.

His head cracked hard against the windscreen, safety belts tearing into his shoulders. Blood streamed from his nose and he blacked out for a moment. The blare of the horn shattering the night ripped through his head, forcing him back to consciousness. His first reaction was a surge of savage fury. That bastard Russo!

Almost instinctively he restarted the engine, slamming the truck into reverse, the wheels churning into the soft gravel, spewing clods of dirt as it bucked and rocked back down onto the roadway. He flung it into a tight turn and bounced over the centre divide. Russo was stopped on the crest of the hill, watching through his rear view mirror. With an enraged roar Mick slammed into first, floored the accelerator and took off after him, shaking his head to clear the blood from his eyes. Instantly Russo accelerated, disappearing over the hill.

By the time Mick powered over the crest in pursuit he had the shotgun out the window ready for firing. The range was impossible, Russo’s red taillights were too far away, but he fired anyway. Some of the shots must have found their mark because Russo began weaving across the road evasively. He kept firing until the gun was empty, then flung it from him with a curse and planted his foot harder on the throttle.

The accident scene was a mess, a nightmare of twisted metal and rising steam. The big Ford Executive sedan had failed to stop at the red lights, collecting the driver’s side of a passing taxi, lifting it up and burying it against the traffic signals. The driver of the taxi was trapped motionless in the wreckage, the shocked owner of the sedan hung against the half open car door, unable to stand, shouting helplessly at the unmoving figure in the crumpled front seat.

The two tow-trucks came racing towards the intersection, Mick chasing Russo, who came to a tyre-squealing stop at the scene, almost broadsiding across the road. He jumped from his truck and ran across to the taxi. At the sight of his short stocky figure Mick fought the urge to drive straight at him, before jamming on the brakes and skidding to a halt centimetres from the wreckage. As he came out of the cab, the familiar smell of oil and petrol mixed with burning rubber and blood assailed his nostrils.

Russo was trying to force open the door of the taxi when Mick came at him, mad with rage, hauled him away and smashed a fist into his face. He reeled back against the wreck, blood spurting from his mouth. Mick went at him again.

“For God’s sake, not now, now here, you crazy bastard,” yelled Russo. “There’s a driver trapped and dying in there.”

Mick stopped himself in the middle of another swing, hate blazing from his eyes. Breathing hard he reined in his fury.

“You tried to kill me back there,” he swore. “Once this is over, you’re a dead man.”

Russo brushed angrily past him and began to tug at the buckled door of the taxi. The driver of the Ford was vomiting on the roadway. Mick climbed around the other side, edging in between the bent traffic lights and the smashed metalwork. He wrenched at the back door and opened it just enough to squeeze through. He crawled over the seat into the front.

The taxi driver was trapped against the wheel, slumped unconscious, blood covering her face. He gently eased her back and drew the blonde hair away from her eyes.

“It’s Liza,” he said, stunned with horror, as Russo succeeded in forcing open the driver’s door.

“No! It can’t be. How can it…?” Russo stared disbelievingly at the crumpled figure, his features collapsing into grief. He tried to gather her into his arms.

“Careful, you stupid bastard, Leave her be. She’s busted up badly,” said Mick hitting away his hands.

A gust of anger surged through Russo and he thrust his face towards Mick, anger twisting his mouth.

“Don’t you tell me what to bloody well do,” he snarled.

A moan came from the woman in between them. She stirred painfully, her eyes flickering open, staring unfocused.

“What happened?” she asked barely audible.

“It’s all right Liza, you’ll be fine now, we’ll get you an ambulance,” reassured Mick.

At the mention of her name she came to her senses and stared at the two faces bent solicitously over her. Recognition slowly dawned.

“Mick, Russo, you two together,” she said, a faint smile lightening the strain on her face.

“Take it easy, Liza, don’t try to move. We’ll get you out,” said Russo, choked with emotion.

They became aware of the arrival of police cars behind them and in the distance the sound of an approaching ambulance. The Ford driver was complaining in a slurred voice that it wasn’t his fault.

“So you two did get back together after all. I’m so glad. Sorry about causing so much grief,” said Liza, her voice quiet and low.

“Yeah, sure we did. It’s going to be all right, we’ll all be back working together same as it was,” said Mick, denying the slow ebb of life from the body cradled in his arms. Suddenly she gripped his arm with painful urgency.

“The children’s Christmas presents, they’re in the boot. I was on my way to deliver them. They have to get there, they must, otherwise the children will have nothing in the morning. Make sure they get there, do that for me, won’t you?” she appealed to them both.

“’Course we will,” reassured Mick.

“Anything, anything at all,” said Russo.

“Yes, of course you will. What a wonderful pair of Santa Claus you’ll make,” whispered Liza as the light faded in her eyes, the faint smile still on her lips.

The emergency crews had to cut her dead body from the wreckage before taking it away on a stretcher. The two of them watched in blank shock, standing side by side, drained of energy, of fight, wasted by the tragedy. Mick made a move towards the taxi, removed the keys from the ignition and opened the boot. He stood looking down at the jumble of brightly wrapped gifts, all shapes and sizes, tied with shiny ribbons. Slowly he began to gather them in his arms. Russo came to help as a police sergeant intervened.

“Here, what do you think you’re doing?” he said. Mick did not appear to notice him and walked over to his truck.

“Leave him,” said Russo, who knew the sergeant.

Mick climbed into his truck and looked across at Russo.

“You coming?” he asked.

Russo picked up the remaining packages and got in beside him.

“Where are you two going?” asked the sergeant. “What about all this?” He waved his hand to take in the wrecks.

Mick leaned from the cab and surveyed the prizes with disinterested eyes.

“Let some other vultures pick ’em up. Tell them they’re a Christmas gift from the Banzai Towing Company. Today we’re Santa Claus.”

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