The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
Gino shakes the parcel tentatively, wondering vaguely whether it might contain pieces of dead horse – or worse.
‘It’s time to sit down and fasten your seat-belt, Mr Ferrocco.’ The stewardess lays a hand on his arm, but Gino tries to look past her, down the aisle. He can’t see which way the old geezer went – and there aren’t many alternatives.
‘OK, I do whatever you say.’ He gives the stewardess a charming smile. ‘But first, let me thank that elderly gent for this gift. Can you tell which is his seat?’
The stewardess frowns prettily. ‘Which elderly gent do you mean, Mr Ferrocco?’
‘The one who was here just now. The one who gave me this.’ Gino rattles the parcel again, but the stewardess only shakes her head.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says, with a tight smile that suggests she’s suddenly wary of him. ‘I didn’t see any elderly gent – are you sure you’re not mistaken?’
‘Now this is more like it…’ Katrina steps out of the airport terminal, into the baking sunlight. ‘This set-up seems even stranger than Russia – but at least the sun is shining here.’ She stretches her arms wide, flicks back her raven hair. As if by magic, a pair of shades appears in her hand.
‘We should try to arrange a hotel while we’re here, I suppose.’ Stuart points towards a bright blue Tourism Office booth by the door. ‘It’s strange SITU didn’t do it for us, don’t you think? Not like them at all. Maybe they just didn’t have time – ‘
‘Yeah, yeah.’ Ignoring him completely, Katrina puts her sunglasses on, grabs her Louis Vuitton flight bag and, staggering slightly, heads towards the nearest rank of cabs.
‘But what about the hotel?’ Stuart calls. ‘Don’t you have any preferences?’
‘Just make it somewhere down by the beach!’ Katrina barely spares him a glance as she hops into a taxi. ‘You’ve got my mobile number. Let me know when something happens – right now, I’m going to shop till I drop!’
Stuart watches the cab speed away, exasperated. This is just like Russia, all over again. He turns back to the door and sees Grace, Kris and Belle-Marie coming out to join him.
‘We really should arrange a hotel before we do anything else,’ he persists. ‘Unless we want to spend tonight sleeping ON the beach.’
‘Good idea,’ Grace agrees. ‘But we should also visit the Aboriginal Centre – and straight away, I suggest, however tired we are! Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and it’s a Sunday. University departments, libraries and such may well be closed.’
‘I want to do some shopping, too,’ adds Belle-Marie. ‘I’d like to get hold of Schutz’s books. I’m going to try the ‘starry-eyed fan’ approach if I meet him – and they’ll give me some reading material for the beach, if nothing else.’
‘That’s sorted then,’ says Kris, firmly. ‘We’ll head off into town, while Stuart stays here and books the hotel.’
‘Be sure to give them my false name!’ Grace pauses long enough to scribble it down on a piece of paper. She thrusts the note into Stuart’s hand, then hurries after the others.
During the seemingly endless taxi ride from the airport to the University of New South Wales campus, Grace explains her new multiple identities. ‘I doubt I would blend in seamlessly on Bondi Beach, whatever my disguise! But I am concerned that my success with translating the Ylid language might make me a particular target, so for the purpose of booking into hotels and so on, I’ll be playing the role of Miss Mildred Beattie, a harmless Canadian tourist. My professional identity, on the other hand, is Dr Joan Ikanga – an anthropologist from Witwatersrand University in South Africa. I spent some months there a few years ago, so hopefully I’ll have no problem fielding awkward questions!’
‘Your tourist disguise is working too well,’ mutters Kris. ‘I’m sure we’ve been down this street before…’
But at last the taxi turns off the main road, dips into an underpass below a glass-walled tower block, then comes to a halt in a car park outside a large, impressive quadrangular building. In one corner of the car park stands an unremarkable concrete structure, and to this the driver directs them – the Aboriginal Research and Resource Centre.
‘Surprise, surprise!’ says Kris. ‘Look who’s here…’
Katrina has somehow managed to acquire a dozen designer-label shopping bags, change out of her leathers and into a low-cut dress and stilettos, and still arrive at the ARRC before them. As she stops to catch her breath on the steps outside the Centre, Kris and Grace catch up with her.
‘What are you doing here?’ asks Kris. ‘Was there nothing left to buy?’
Katrina grins. ‘I may not be the world’s greatest scholar, but a pretty face can open a lot of doors.’ She tips her sunglasses back on her forehead and bats her eyelids innocently. ‘Especially if you pick on a particularly plain librarian…’
On this last shopping day before Christmas, the city centre is hot, noisy and very, very busy. Belle-Marie, who was tired long before she got off the plane, feels just about ready to drop as she fights her way through the crowds that throng the Centrepoint and the Pitt Street Mall and the Strand Arcade. She finally manages to find a branch of Waterstones in the Central Plaza; Erich F Schutz’s books are stocked with a vast range of other ‘whacky-ology’ titles, between rather smaller sections on ‘Religion’ and ‘Science’. There are only a few copies left, though – it looks like Schutz’s brush with the law has, at least, helped his sales.
She selects a copy of ‘Lost Secrets of the Sky Heroes’ and the last ‘Vestibules of the Gods’ and takes them to the checkout. It seems like every inhabitant of the city has descended on the store to buy their last-minute Christmas gifts; while she waits in an endless queue, she passes the time taking note of what other people have bought. The woman directly in front of her might single-handedly account for the lack of Erich F Schutz books on the shelves, Belle-Marie muses; her long, freckled fingers clutch a stack of half-a-dozen tomes.
A chance to practice my starry-eyed fan routine, Belle-Marie decides. She looks over the woman’s shoulder and says, conversationally: ‘I just love Erich’s work. I see you’re a fan, too.’
The woman jumps so violently, her sandalled feet almost leave the ground. She turns on Belle-Marie anxiously, brandishing the pile of books as though to ward her off.
‘Me?’ she squawks. ‘A fan? A fan of what? What do you mean?’
Belle-Marie shrugs, unnerved by the woman’s reaction. ‘I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to startle you. I just couldn’t help noticing the books you have there. I’m Erich F Schutz’s greatest admirer, you see. He’s so intelligent and perceptive.’
The woman’s pale face goes a shade or two paler, accentuating her freckles.
‘And so courageous, too,’ Belle-Marie continues. ‘Even when the law tried to silence him. He’s a wonderful man – don’t you agree?’
The frizzy red hair seems to crackle.
‘I’d give anything to meet him. Have you ever heard him speak?’
‘I’m sorry, I have to go. I’m late for a meeting.’ The woman turns abruptly and dumps her stack of books on the nearest stand. ‘This queue… so long… I didn’t realize the place would be so busy…’ And shielding her face with one shaking hand, she forces her way through the crowd and out of the store without a look back.
Bemused, Belle-Marie glances down at the woman’s abandoned purchases. A stroke of luck, she realizes: the books include ‘Spacemen and Spaced Women’ and ‘The Holy Grail: God’s Boiler Room’ – the titles she was missing. And lying forgotten on top of them, is a credit card.
She hesitates for a moment, reluctant to surrender her own place in the queue. Then with a sigh she abandons her own books, and follows the woman out of the exit.
‘Wait!’ she shouts across the Plaza. ‘You left your card behind!’
But the woman doesn’t hear her; she is hurrying down towards the road, her hands deep in the pockets of her baggy linen dress.
Belle-Marie shouts again and waves her arms in an attempt to attract her attention, but succeeds only in disturbing a flock of pigeons. Flapping madly, the birds scatter across the Plaza, and the woman seems to cower as they pass over her head. Then, shaking visibly, she jumps into a cab and makes her escape.
Is that a typical Schutz fan? Belle-Marie wonders. I’ll have to work on my paranoid act, if it is. She glances absently down at her hand.
The name on the lost credit card is Bridgit M McMahon.
‘Now, this is much better than that stuffy old Student Union coffee bar – isn’t it, Richard? Or may I call you Dick?’ Katrina lowers her voice and leans provocatively over the table. The young graduate student’s eyes open wider still.
‘Er, sure…’ He runs a finger around the inside of his collar. ‘You can call me whatever you want, Katrina.’
‘I’m Kat to my friends. And you want to be my friend, don’t you?’
Dick nods mutely, but is saved from further embarrassment as the waiter arrives with their drinks – a small bottle of beer and a tall, pink, exotically decorated Orgasm. Dick pales slightly when he catches sight of the bill.
‘Let me.’ Katrina snatches it up. ‘It’s me who tempted you here, after all. And in return you can tell me all about your life at the Aboriginal Centre.’
‘Oh, there’s nothing to tell, really.’ Dick takes a long gulp of beer.
‘You’re being too modest, Dick. I’m sure it must be very exciting, working with a famous TV personality.’
‘Bridgit the fidget, you mean?’ Dick laughs. ‘I think she was more embarrassed than anything by that show. She didn’t mean to make a fool of herself, or of that author guy Schutz. But she’s very opinionated, and very short-tempered. You wouldn’t believe how much she hates that crazy ancient astronaut stuff. She takes it almost like a personal affront, you know?’ He downs another mouthful of beer, then takes off his glasses and polishes them on his shirt. ‘But let’s not talk about work.’
Katrina takes the straw of her Orgasm between her front teeth. ‘What would you like to talk about, Dick?’
He puts his glasses on again, but doesn’t meet her gaze. His face is getting red again. ‘I was wondering if you might like to… come out with me tonight. We’re having a Christmas party at the ARRC. We felt we needed something to cheer us up after the fire. It’ll be nothing special,’ he adds, quickly. ‘Nothing very exciting. I’m sure someone like you will have much better things to do…’
He tails off limply, and finishes his beer so fast, he almost chokes himself on it.
Katrina opens her eyes wide. ‘I’d love to come,’ she says.
It is still only early evening, but when Gino arrives at the Bondi Hotel, he finds Grace, Kris, Stuart and Belle-Marie sitting around in the lobby looking more like zombies than top SITU agents.
‘You seem very chipper,’ grates Kris, as he greets them exuberantly.
‘I had a rest when I reached my hotel,’ Gino replies. ‘Though to be honest, I’ve felt just fine since I got here. Maybe it’s something to do with your surroundings.’ He casts a disparaging look around the cramped, grimy room.
‘It’s not my fault!’ Stuart protests. ‘I didn’t have much of a choice. Sydney’s always busy over Christmas, according to the man at the Tourism Office. And there’s some big party here on New Year’s Eve – the Pedants’ Millennium, he said. When he mentioned the ‘Bondi Hotel’, I thought it sounded nice. I thought it would, at least, be within a stone’s throw of the beach!’
‘That’d be one hell of a stone.’ Gino glances back at the cobbled street and boarded-up shops outside. ‘So what have you guys been up to?’
‘Not much, unfortunately,’ says Kris. ‘This isn’t really the best day of the year to start an investigation. Over the next week or so, there’ll be nothing much we can do but eat turkey on the beach.’
‘We paid a visit to the ARRC,’ says Grace. ‘It’s a fascinating anthropological resource – though we didn’t get to see much of it, unfortunately.’
‘Katrina stole the only assistant left on duty,’ Kris growls.
‘Before they went,’ Grace continues, ‘he did mention the fire, briefly. It all sounds rather strange – it started in several places at once, apparently, and the fire department investigators haven’t been able to identify the cause, the propellant used, or anything. Professor McMahon was reorganizing the library at the time, so they don’t even have any clear idea of what was lost.’
Kris, a true librarian, shakes her head in despair. ‘McMahon is making an inventory at the moment, according to Katrina’s grad student friend. We might be able to take a look at it somehow, but not in any hurry – the Centre is closed now until after the New Year.’
‘I had a look in the main University library before we left,’ says Grace. ‘For background information on the mythos and so on. The Sky Heroes were powerful ancestral beings who inhabited the world in the time of the Dreaming before the Yura, the black man, arrived. They have magical, superhuman powers, and are generally identified with certain totemic creatures – spiders, kangaroos, birds and so on. The greatest of these Sky Heroes was the Rainbow Serpent, Kunukban. It’s said that he arrived in Australia from ‘over the sea’, and that his flight across the continent is preserved in the natural features of the landscape – water holes where he burrowed into the ground, for example, or mountain ranges pushed up at the sites of his battles. Eventually, he descended into the ground at the sacred place we call Ayers Rock, or Uluru. The story says he sleeps there still.’
She pauses, trying to find a comfortable place in the worn, lumpy bucket chair. ‘According to the legends, it was Kunukban who created the first of the Karadji, or wise men. These Karadji were chosen from the each of the tribes of the Yura, and taken away to a secret place in the desert where they underwent painful initiation rites that included the insertion of quartz crystals into their foreheads and hands. When they returned to their people, they were revered as shamans – invested with magical power called ‘ungud’, able to see into worlds that mortal men can never know – ‘
The door opens suddenly, and Katrina bursts like a whirlwind into the room.
‘If you ask me,’ she says, loudly, ‘those Aborigines probably sampled too much – ah, Gino Ferrocco! Good to see you again! You’re looking very well – unlike these four zombies here.’
‘And where have you been?’ Stuart demands.
Katrina flings a new set of shopping bags on the ragged mat. ‘Don’t look at me like that! I’ve never been to Australia before, and I want to enjoy myself before the general weirdness starts. A few new outfits, some sight-seeing, dinner in a nice restaurant, perhaps. And I’ve got a date tonight!’
‘That’s it – I’m going to bed!’ growls Kris. She pushes her chair back so hard the legs squeal on the bare floorboards, and stomps angrily up the stairs.
Belle-Marie has been listening to all this banter, feeling somewhat nonplussed. Her thoughts must have strayed onto her face, because Gino suddenly turns to her with a brilliant smile.
‘Don’t mind her – she just doesn’t like travelling, as I remember. You must be Belle-Marie. My name’s Gino.’
He squeezes her left hand, lightly; Belle-Marie senses him registering her wedding ring.
‘Thanks,’ she says. ‘I’m sure I’ll get used to you all soon. But I have to say I’m feeling a little lost at the moment. Maybe we can take some time to work out what our roles are here!’
‘My role,’ says Stuart, filled with sudden enthusiasm, ‘is Mike Walters – Erich F Schutz’s number one fan! I’m booked in under that name, so I’d be grateful if you’d all remember it.’
‘I picked up a few of his books in town,’ says Belle-Marie. ‘Though I’ve only had time for a quick glimpse. They’re full of weird stuff, but nothing I’d call original or in any way out of the ordinary – there are dozens of fringe writers churning out much better theories than his. This new book is the first time he’s dealt with Australia – the earlier work concentrates on Biblical times and the Middle East.’
‘But there must be something to it, if Crab magazine chose to sponsor him,’ says Stuart. ‘I’ve asked SITU if they can send me a list of Crab contributors – I’d like to find out if any of them live in the country.’
‘Is something wrong with your hand, Gino?’ Belle-Marie asks.
Gino looks down at his right palm. It itching slightly, and he has been scratching at it unconsciously; the skin is reddened and sore. He thinks again of the old man on the plane.
‘I had a strange experience on the way here,’ he says. ‘I saw a man who wasn’t there. And he gave me this.’
He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the square of wrapping paper.
‘I thought it was a parcel,’ he says, ‘but when I unwrapped it, this is all there was…’
When the conversation in the lobby lapses, Stuart decides to follow Kris’s example and take a nap. Despite his tiredness, he has trouble sleeping, though. His room overlooks the dingy street, and one of the boarded-up buildings is not an empty shop, as he’d thought, but some sort of underground club; it is still only early, but pounding music is already spilling across the road. He might take a look at it later, he thinks, but for the moment he just wants to rest.
He is annoyed but not surprised to find that his en suite toilet doesn’t flush and his sink has no hot water. Grumbling to himself, he sets out in search of the communal bathroom he spotted on the next floor down. This toilet is engaged, though; he has to stand there, legs crossed, for ages, listening in mounting consternation to the puffing and panting noises that emanate from inside. He is almost ready to give up – when the cubicle door opens and a short, chubby man steps out, clutching a roll of toilet paper in one bandaged hand.
He is fatter and redder-faced than his jacket photograph would suggest, and his head is swathed in Elastoplast. But Stuart is certain that the man is Erich F Schutz.
8 pm, Saturday 23 December 2000
The Bondi Hotel