"Travellers driving through the Outback should make very sure that they do not stop for strangers that they do not know. Travellers should be aware that there are many dangers in the Outback and if they are in any doubt, they should consult with the local police force. Police aircraft and Aboriginal trackers have combed the Northern Territory - an area five times the size of Britain - for persons who have disappeared there." Northern Territory Police, 2000.
After graduation, when many of their fellow students were planning holidays abroad in Europe or America, Draco had suggested that he and his lover, Harry, go to Australia. Harry had to admit he was happy with Draco's suggestion. They had spent a wonderful three weeks in Sydney, enjoying the sights, shopping and meeting Australian wizards, then another two weeks in Melbourne. When Draco had suggested that they do the Australian road trip and drive from Melbourne to Darwin, Harry had been somewhat surprised. Draco's dislike of Muggle technology was legendary, and utilising a car was not something he had ever expected the blond would agree to, let alone suggest. However, when Draco had proudly shown off the orange 1978 Volkswagen combie van he had bought, Harry had found it impossible to feel anything other than excitement.
Draco had gotten maps and suggestions on where to stop for petrol and food from the Melbourne wizards they had been staying with. His enthusiasm for the trip was growing with each passing day. Because Harry was happy when Draco was happy, the brunette had found himself swept up in his lover's enthusiasm. He had, however, been somewhat surprised when Draco suggested Harry drive the first leg of the journey and then, when they were on the open road, teach Draco how to drive the manual vehicle.
"Don't you know how to drive, Draco?" Harry teased, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Of course I do, you pillock, but I'm accustomed to driving BMW's or Jaguar's. They are automatics. This is a manual. I'm sure you are familiar with the difference between each kind of vehicle?" The blond had sneered slightly.
Harry's reply had been to kiss his lover exuberantly. And so, they had set off from Melbourne one fine summer morning, and once on the Great Ocean Road, Harry had set about teaching Draco the difference between driving a manual and an automatic. Of course, it had not taken the blond long to learn, and Harry was gratified that only after a few hours Draco was able to drive the combie van without bunny-hopping it down the road.
The back of the van had been piled with supplies: bedding, food, water, spare petrol, their wands. Because the atmosphere of the country had been so relaxed, the two had grown lapse in keeping their wands close to them. Everyone they had met had been friendly and helpful and there had been none of that sense of danger and disaster that had so dogged the two teens footsteps while they had been at school. The warnings that they received about picking up hitchhikers and stopping in the middle of deserted roads they had brushed off. This was Australia: everyone was friendly and helpful, what could possibly go wrong?
Harry had to admit that the concept of driving non-stop from Melbourne to Adelaide had been somewhat daunting. When he had mentioned his concerns to their Australian friends, he had been greeted with loud laughter. "Harry, you Brits have no idea of distance," one friend had said. "It's a nine hour drive. That's nothing, mate."
Nothing it might be to those who were used to it, but Harry had erred on the side of caution and booked a motel at the halfway point between the two cities.
The pair arrived in Adelaide with no mishaps and spent several days sightseeing in the southernmost city on the continent. They had laid their plans carefully, and once again had been given the warnings about stopping on the road, picking up hitchhikers and so on. These warnings were beginning to make both teens very tired.
"What do they think we are, idiots?" Draco seethed as the latest helpful tourism attendant had stressed the need to be careful in the Australian outback. "We're wizards, for heaven's sake! We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves. Muggles!"
Harry had been inclined to agree. And so, they had driven out of Adelaide and through the Barossa and Clare Valleys, heading towards the beginning of the Sturt Highway. The Sturt Highway was a straight line of road that connected Adelaide to Darwin. There was very little in the way of places to stop along the road. Periodically, there were petrol stops and small towns containing a pub, a petrol station and nothing else. The road had no speed limit, and this had made Draco lament for his father's Jaguar - ("I'd love to drive the Jag along this road - no speed limit!") - and once one left all traces of civilisation behind them, one could very easily believe that they were the only people alive on the entire continent.
For two days, the pair had driven up the highway. They had seen no one apart from the occasional truck, the driver honking the truck's horn in friendly greeting. Each night, if there was nowhere else to sleep, the two had slept in the back of the van, and started driving again early. The distances were great, far greater than Harry had ever imagined. Between Adelaide and Darwin was a vast stretch of desert landscape that ran for over three thousand kilometres. It was, he thought, after a while, quite daunting. There was nothing but scrub, desert and the occasional kangaroo as far as the eye could see. The air was fresh and clean, and the sunsets and sunrises were spectacular. The further they drove up the highway, the more the brunette experienced a strange sensation, as if the land itself were eating them up in its vast expanse. He did not like it. Draco seemed to be experiencing a similar sort of sensation for his comments to Harry grew increasingly waspish the further they drove. After a while, they drove in silence, gazing out at the unchanging landscape with nothing but the sound of the van's engine for company.
Night began to fall on the third day out from Adelaide and the sun set in a magnificent display across the desert. "One thing about this place," Draco remarked as they paused for supper, "the sunsets are incredible." Harry could only agree.
After they had finished eating, the two got back in the van. Draco decided to continue driving, even though he had been at the wheel all day. Harry knew better than to argue. His lover was in one of those moods the brunette had come to term 'low dungeon,' which meant that the bad temper of the Malfoy's was on a low simmer. He didn't want to push the blond from 'low dungeon' into 'high dungeon.'
It was full dark and Harry glanced at the clock in the dashboard of the van. It read 8pm. The land around them was absolutely still, and the only sound was the van's engine. The only thing he could see was the long, dirty, black ribbon of the highway illuminated by the van's headlights stretching out before them.
For a few hours the pair drove in absolute silence. Then a flickering light appeared on the horizon. "What's that?" Harry asked, pointing.
Draco frowned. "Looks like a fire."
"Who'd light a fire out here?"
The blond shrugged. "No idea."
The van moved closer to the light, and Harry could see that a large pile of logs had been dumped on the side of the highway and set alight. Draco drove through the fire, sending sparks up onto the rocky wash on the edge of the tarmac. Harry turned to look at the burning timber out of the rear window as Draco drove on. Eventually, the fire became a small orange speck behind them and was soon completely out of sight.
The brunette fell into a doze, although he felt uneasy. In a landscape where humans were at best an intruder, the mysterious fire had filled him with a sense of inexplicable trepidation and fear. Draco seemed unconcerned; his hands steady on the steering wheel, his eyes on the road ahead. There was a slight bump as the van ran over a rock on the tarmac and the jolt jerked Harry out of his uneasy doze. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands. "What time is it?" he asked, yawning.
"Midnight," Draco replied.
"We should stop somewhere and get some rest," Harry said, although he wondered where they would be able to stop. There was nothing for miles in either direction, apart from a mysterious and untended fire at the side of the road.
"I'm all right," the blond said coolly. "I'm wide awake. I'll keep driving."
Harry did not argue, and settled himself into the passenger seat, gazing out of the window. The strange sense of trepidation within him grew the further they drove.
"Fuck," Draco said suddenly, his voice full of annoyance.
"What?" Harry was instantly alert.
"There's someone in a Ute behind us. He's flashing his headlights."
The warnings that they had been given before setting out on this journey flashed through Harry's mind. "Don't stop," he said, grabbing Draco's arm urgently. The blond shot him a look of pure disdain.
"Why? Ickle Harry-kins all afraid of the dark?"
"No. But we don't know anyone out here. I just think that it would be better to be careful."
By now, the Ute had pulled up beside them. The driver of the Ute was a bearded man perhaps in his late 30's or early 40's. On the passenger seat of his vehicle was a large Dalmation dog, it's tongue lolling out. The man was gesturing to the teens, clearly indicating that they should pull over. Draco changed gears and pulled over to the side of the highway. The man pulled his Ute over behind them, got out and walked to the driver's side window.
Every nerve in Harry's body was screaming to run, get away, to flee, but Draco was calm and relaxed. Harry didn't know if this was the blond's way of proving to Harry that he was not to be frightened by warnings from the locals, or proving to himself that there was nothing to fear. There was no time for further thought however, as the man leaned on the windowsill of the driver's window and smiled.
"You're leaking oil, mates," he said cheerfully. "There's a bloody long trail of it behind the combie."
Draco frowned. "Are you sure? We had it checked at Alice Springs and it was in good shape."
The man laughed. "Alice Springs, eh? They'll as easily rip you off as fix the problem. Come and have a look, if you don't believe me."
Draco shrugged, undid his seat belt and prepared to get out of the van. Harry remained where he was, feeling that something was not right, not right at all. He reached up to the rear view mirror and changed its angle so that he could watch Draco and the man in the reflective glass. The two stood, looking down at the tarmac of the highway, talking in low tones. Harry couldn't hear what they said, but soon they both disappeared from view as they bent down for a closer look at the ground.
Harry chewed nervously on his knuckles, watching the rear view mirror and waiting. He heard a sound that was like a soft thump, but there was no other noise, so he sat, straining his hearing with all his might.
The minutes ticked by slowly, and the brunette slowly reached into the back of the van, his fingers searching for his wand. Fear was rising in his stomach, and he desperately wanted the protection of the slender piece of wood. He glanced back to see where it might be, and in that one moment, he heard the driver's door open and felt a gun pressed at his head. He froze.
The man was sitting was in the driver's seat. He smiled an oily smile. "Get out," he said.
Trembling, Harry complied. The man slid across the driver's seat, the gun pointed steadily at Harry's head. Climbing out of the van, the man roughly propelled Harry to the back of the van. Whistling to his dog, the man silently pulled out a roll of duct tape and began to tape Harry's hands together.
"Where's Draco?" Harry demanded, panting from fear and worry.
There was no reply. He was hauled roughly to his feet and dragged back to the combie passenger door. "I said, where's Draco?"
"Shut up," the man replied, punching him. Harry fell to the ground, gasping. Terror gripped him. Adrenaline pumped through him. He knew without a doubt that Draco was gone and could not help him. With a strength born of sheer desperation, the brunette stood up and head-butted the man in the forehead. Reeling and swearing from the impact, the man's grip on the brunette relaxed, and yanking himself away, Harry ran from the road and into the scrub.
He ran without any thought of where he was going. The only thing in his mind was a desperate need to hide. There was little concealment out here, however, only low scrubby bushes and an occasional stunted tree. Breath whistling between his teeth, struggling not to make too much noise, Harry dived beneath one scrubby tree and sat on his haunches, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.
The man had gone back to his Ute, and Harry could hear him swearing. He heard him shout commands at his dog, and then there was the beam of a high-powered flashlight sweeping the scrub. The teen chanced a brief look towards the highway. He had run perhaps fifty yards, and now the man was walking towards him, swinging his flashlight this way and that, obviously intent on finding him and doing whatever it was he intended to do.
In the distance there was the sound of a horn. It sounded like one of the trucks the locals called 'road trains,' huge cargo movers that freighted great masses of supplies from the cities to the country towns. A faint light appeared on the horizon. The man turned, staring at the light, and swearing again, loped towards his Ute. He quickly got into the vehicle and drove it into the bush on the other side of the road. A few moments later, he was back and inside the combie van. Harry heard the door slam and the soft roar of the engine as the man put the vehicle into gear and drove away. Several moments later, the road train drove past, and when it had gone, there was only silence.
Hours passed. Harry did not move. He did not dare. The man who had gone off in the combie could be back at any time. He felt cramped and uncomfortable, and slowly, by sheer dint of effort, he managed to manoeuvre himself so that his hands were in front of him and no longer behind his back. He tore the duct tape off his wrists with his teeth, burying it in the dirt once he was done.
Eventually, the sound of footsteps filled the night. Harry froze, watching. The man walked along the road, his boots making a great deal of noise in the silence. After a few moments, the man walked off the road and into the scrub. There was a faint roar as an engine was started and then the Ute pulled out of the bush and onto the road, to drive away into the dark.
Dawn was not far away, as the sky was slowly beginning to lighten. Harry had not moved for the entire night. As the sky continued to become clear, he crept slowly towards the highway, his eyes everywhere, his ears straining for the slightest noise. The only sound was the cry of a kookaburra above him. There was a puddle of what looked like blood at the edge of the highway. Harry's stomach flip-flopped as he gazed at it. He did not dare investigate it too closely, fearing what it might reveal to him. Instead, he ran across the road and into the scrub, hiding and watching the road, thinking on what to do next.
The sun was high in the sky when the familiar sound of the horn of a road train filled the air. Jumping to his feet, fatigue and fear making him feel nauseous, Harry ran out into the road, waving his arms at the approaching vehicle. Slowly, it pulled to a stop, and a bearded man wearing dark blue shorts and a t-shirt and black boots got out of the cabin, and approached him, concern written all over his weather-beaten face.
"Hey, mate, are you right?" The driver's voice was kind, full of concern.
Harry gulped. "No," he said, his voice faint from the experience of the previous evening. "I'm not." In halting tones, he told the driver what had happened. The man's expression became grim.
"Hop in, mate. I'll take you up to the next town. They can call the local cops."
"Thanks," Harry said gratefully, and moved to the cabin of the road train, climbed inside, and sat, his heart pounding.
The drive took about an hour, and the brunette almost wept when the truck slowed and pulled into the dusty parking lot of a general store. "Wait a sec, mate," the driver said in a kind voice. "I'll just go and tell 'em what happened to you and your friend."
"Thanks," Harry said again.
Ten minutes later, the driver and the storeowner came towards him. "I've called the cops, mate," the storeowner said. "Me name's Fred. I own this place. You come in and have something to eat, you look terrible."
Harry nodded, and opening the door of the cabin, slid down out of the vehicle and followed the man into the store.
The police arrived some three hours later. The closest police station was in Tenant Creek, a small town a good three hours drive away. The officer took Harry's statement, and then ushered him to the police car. "We'll have to go to Tennant Creek, sir," the officer said kindly. "I can radio Darwin from there and we can have a search party organised."
"It's been almost seven hours," Harry began haltingly.
"I know, mate," the officer said gently. "I know. But we'll do what we can."
They drove to Tennant Creek in silence. Harry pointed out the remains of the fire, and the officer pulled over, picking up several pieces of wood and placing them in plastic bags for forensic testing. Upon arriving at the police station in Tennant Creek, the officer gently pressed a mug of tea in Harry's shaking hands, and went to radio Darwin.
It had been nine hours since the disappearance of Draco by the time the search team was mobilised. The scope of the land meant that finding anyone would be very difficult, if not impossible. Harry's eyes had travelled over numerous missing persons posters in the police office. It seemed that getting lost in the outback was a very common occurrence. He remembered the warnings and silently he berated himself for not being more attentive. He wished he had been more insistent that Draco not pull over when the man in his Ute had driven up beside them. He wished he knew where Draco was.
Some two days later, after Harry had gone to Alice Springs where he had been met by Ron, Hermione, Professor Snape and a furious Lucius Malfoy, the police came to inform them that the combie had been found. It was hidden in deep scrub, several miles northwest of Tennant Creek. There was no body to be found, though there was a large spatter of blood on the back of the combie. The police regretfully confirmed that the blood was indeed Draco's. The puddle that Harry had seen on the edge of the highway was also confirmed as Draco's. However, the absence of a body concerned the authorities a very great deal. It was as if the blond had simply vanished.
Despite the skill of Aboriginal trackers and some surveillance footage from a petrol station in Alice Springs of a man fitting the description Harry had given of his assailant, Draco's body was never found. The Australian outback, so beautiful, so isolated, had claimed another victim in a mysterious chain of events that would never be solved.