The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
Stuart is at least as surprised as the red-faced author looks, but it is he who recovers first.
‘My god – this is incredible!’ he gasps. ‘I can’t believe it’s true! I’m sharing a bathroom with Erich F Schutz – the greatest author in all the world!’
Clutching his roll of toilet paper tightly to his pyjama top, Schutz eyes Stuart suspiciously. ‘Do I know you?’ he demands.
‘You won’t know me – I’m no one,’ Stuart gushes, ‘but I know all about you! My name is Mike Walters, and I’m your oldest, biggest fan! I’ve got a stack of your books in my room – will you come back with me and sign them?’
A flicker of interest crosses Schutz’s smooth, round face, but then the wariness returns. ‘You are not one of those… how do you say… ‘paparazzi’ scoundrels, are you?’ He narrows his eyes. ‘If yes, I have nothing to say.’
‘Of course not!’ Stuart looks scandalized. ‘I’m your greatest admirer, honestly! I’ve read all your books… Listen, would do me the honour of letting me buy you a drink? The hotel bar doesn’t look too bad, considering…’
Schutz seems to relax. ‘That would be most kind. But not here. We may attract unwanted attention. There is another bar, across the road. But first I must slip into something more… comfortable.’ He nods down at his striped pyjamas and slippers.
‘I’ll wait here, then,’ says Stuart.
As he lurks in the corridor outside the toilet, amazed at this turn in his luck, Belle-Marie appears from around the corner.
‘My room isn’t quite as en suite as that hotel proprietor claimed,’ she says, with a rueful grin. ‘Oh – is there a queue?’
‘Not at all – step right in!’
She turns with a startled gasp, as a menacing, lederhosen-clad figure looms up behind her (as much as a five-foot-nothing figure can loom).
‘Erich F Schutz!’ she gasps. ‘Why, I – I don’t believe it! I’m your greatest fan!’
Erich F Schutz smiles. ‘What is this – a convention? I am flattered. Come, we shall all have a drink – on me!’
And he grasps Belle-Marie’s hand in one damp, bandaged fist and Stuart’s in the other, and steers them both towards the stairs with a cheerful skip in his step.
‘I wouldn’t expect to see a great author like yourself in a dingy hotel like The Bondi,’ Stuart says conversationally, as he accepts another drink from a still-smiling Schutz. His plan to get the author drunk isn’t working; Schutz is knocking them back at twice the rate, but it’s Stuart who’s feeling woozy.
‘Herr Nakayama suggested I move there,’ says Schutz. ‘He said it would be safer than my old hotel.’
‘Safer? You mean you’re in danger?’
‘All great prophets have their enemies.’ Schutz refills his glass.
‘But who would want to harm you?’ asks Belle-Marie.
‘Who do think?’ Schutz grunts, with a dark, melodramatic grimace. ‘THEM!’
Enough said, Belle-Marie thinks. She hasn’t heard anything yet to convince her that Schutz is anything more than an egotistical, paranoid New Age loony. She says as much to Stuart, when Schutz makes yet another toilet break.
‘But he seems almost reluctant to talk about his theories – not what you’d expect if he is just a loony,’ says Stuart.
‘That’s because he’s too busy trying to look down my blouse,’ Belle-Marie mutters. ‘And if he tries to grab my knee one more time, I swear I’ll – ‘
‘Another drink?’ Schutz is suddenly back at their side, mopping the balding head above the bandage with a handkerchief. ‘Up your bottom!’
‘I’d love to hear some more about your theories,’ Stuart persists. ‘What will happen, do you think, when the Sky Heroes arrive?’
‘The old order will return. Giants will walk among men once again. The lost wisdom of ages will be revealed to human eyes.’
‘It sounds wonderful!’ says Stuart.
Schutz sighs sadly. ‘There are many who do not agree. There are many who wish to undermine me, to trample my work into the dust! But tomorrow all will change… tomorrow I will show them!’
‘At your lecture, you mean?’ prompts Belle-Marie.
Schutz smiles and tickles her chin, before she has a chance to react. ‘You are almost as clever as you are beautiful, my poppet. Herr Nakayama has ensured the widest publicity for my revelation. Newspapers, television – all will be there to witness the coming of the new dawn!’
‘This sounds terribly exciting!’ gasps Stuart. ‘I’ll be coming to the lecture of course, but I don’t think I can bear to wait until then. Can’t you give us a sneak preview?’
Schutz wags a chubby finger. ‘And you, little Mikey, are most definitely as naughty as you are cute – trying to trick me like that! You will have to wait, like everyone else. But I will keep a special place at my side for you, yes? Each of the great Sky Heroes had his trusty lieutenant – and you shall be mine.’ He turns to Belle-Marie. ‘Do not be jealous, my poppet. You shall be my lieutenant too!’
He reaches across to squeeze her knee, then jumps up and heads for the toilet again. Belle-Marie grimaces at his retreating back, across the crowd of shuffling, scruffy-looking clubbers. A flash of light in the gloom catches her eye, and she glimpses a smartly dressed, oriental man slipping out of the toilet and up the stairs to the exit. He looks so out of place in the club, that she leaves her seat to follow him, but by the time she’s pushed her way through the crowd, the oriental man has gone.
To her surprise she does see Katrina, though – she is lurking in the alley outside, deep in conversation with a tall man in broad-brimmed hat. Belle-Marie is unsure whether to approach her or not, but something in Katrina’s manner warns her against it. She sees money change hands, and a package. Then Katrina smiles coldly to herself and walks away.
The ARRC Christmas do is like every student party Katrina has ever encountered – full of nerdy social lepers with bad dress sense and no conversation. Even a plateful of sausage rolls and limp pineapple chunks on sticks isn’t enough to entice her to stay downstairs with the crowd. Dick’s dancing (the Mashed Turnip? she wonders) most definitely isn’t.
‘The girl of your dreams just slipped right through your fingers,’ she murmurs, pausing on the stairs to peer down at his wildly gyrating form. She smooths down her stunning new outfit. The dagger in her garter sends an icy thrill through her thigh.
It isn’t hard to find the library – it still stinks of charred wood, and Katrina just has to follow her nose. She pushes open the door cautiously. In the light from the staircase, she can see why the fire left everyone baffled; some bookshelves and display cases remain intact, untouched by the blaze, whereas others have been reduced to ashes, with no apparent pattern to the destruction. The walls and ceiling are criss-crossed with scorch marks, like someone had gone crazy in there with a flame-thrower.
Katrina flicks idly through an untidy pile of papers stacked on one of the intact reading desks. It seems to be Professor McMahon’s inventory, the one Kris mentioned earlier: photocopied pages of a catalogue of some sort, with various items – books, cassettes, photographs, artefacts – ticked off or circled in black marker pen. One photograph has been circled many, many times; the paper has started to shred under the pressure of the pen. Katrina lifts the page to inspect it.
‘I was wondering where you’d got to!’
She turns to see Dick in the doorway. He is panting slightly after his dance-floor exertions.
‘Oh, I just had to get away,’ she says, with a simpering laugh. ‘I was about to OD on fun down there.’
‘So you thought you’d find somewhere quiet.’ Dick nods. ‘Somewhere away from the crowd. I like that.’
He stumbles into the room and weaves his way carefully between the cases and desks; not so much because he’s drunk, Katrina guesses, but because he’s not wearing his glasses.
‘I thought I’d never get you away from that old bird you brought as a chaperone.’
‘Grace, you mean?’ says Katrina. (She’d been surprised when the staid anthropologist invited herself along to the party. Katrina had been planning to take Belle-Marie; the poor new girl was looking a little overwhelmed, it seemed to Katrina – and nobody had even tried to kill her yet! But Belle-Marie had wandered off somewhere with Stuart, so Katrina was stuck with Grace.)
‘Now why would I need a chaperone?’ she continues, coyly. ‘It’s not as though I might get into trouble.’
‘Oh, I do hope so,’ moans Dick.
He stumbles a few steps further, then stops with a gasp as Katrina thrusts the page of the inventory in his face.
‘I love this aboriginal stuff,’ she says. ‘It’s so primal, so untamed. I find it so… stimulating.’
‘Really?’ Dick grins. ‘This is your lucky day – I’m an expert.’
‘Then maybe you can tell me what this is.’ She points at the circled photograph. ‘This old shield-looking thingy.’
‘That old shield-looking thingy…’ Dick leans over her shoulder and breathes heavily in her ear. ‘Is an old shield-looking thingy. It’s an ancient ceremonial shield. The pattern on the front is a map of the Dreaming. The place where we go when we’re in asleep. Which what happens after we go to bed.’ He drops his voice to a whisper. ‘We’ve a great collection of boomerangs here, too.’
He starts to slide his hand up Katrina’s thigh, then stops. His eyes open wide in surprise.
‘What was that?’ gasps Bridgit McMahon. She ducks slightly and raises her hand, as though expecting attack from above.
‘It sounded like a hard right to the jaw,’ says Grace.
‘Students, eh?’ McMahon attempts a weary smile, but her heart is clearly not in it.
‘You seem a little jumpy, if I might say,’ Grace adds. ‘Though that’s understandable, after that trouble you’ve had with the fire.’
She has managed to steer the professor away from the rest of the ARRC crowd, and into a quite corner beneath the staircase. McMahon seemed grateful for the distraction – it’s obvious by her manner that she isn’t enjoying the party; she accepted Grace’s cover story without question.
‘So, er… what’s your field of research, Dr Ikanga?’ McMahon gazes miserably into her empty plastic cup.
‘Call me Joan, please,’ says Grace. ‘I’m an anthropologist, as I said, and a teacher, like yourself – but my main interest is the belief systems of Sub-Saharan African peoples. I’m currently researching a paper on the role of serpents as ubiquitous harbingers of change – as intermediaries between the worlds of man and god.’
McMahon frowns. ‘Serpents are important in Africa?’
‘Oh yes, very much so!’ Grace says, brightly. ‘And I’m interested to know how they feature in Australian myth.’
‘They feature very strongly,’ murmurs McMahon, a far-away look on her face. ‘And not just in myth?’
Grace lowers her voice. ‘You mean, they feature in reality, too?’
McMahon stares at Grace for a while. She opens her mouth as if to speak. Then a yell overhead snatches the moment.
‘It’s Richard!’ someone shouts. ‘He’s out cold – fetch the first aid kit!’
‘Sorry,’ McMahon mutters. ‘I’ll have to go see what’s happened – I’m accountable for accidents here.’
Avoiding Grace’s gaze, she crumples the plastic cup in her hand and dashes up the stairs.
Gino rises early on Christmas Eve morning, and takes a cab to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The staff are clearly working hard to bring some festive cheer into the lives of their patients; a raggedy Santa Claus sits on a stool in the reception, and garlands of paper chains and silver stars deck the walls.
Skirting around Santa (who smells suspiciously of gin), Gino approaches the counter and greets the receptionist.
‘Hi – and Merry Christmas!’ He launches quickly into his speech before the girl has a chance to speak. ‘This may seem like a weird request, but hear me out first, huh?’
‘Well, okay.’ She glances over her shoulder at a wall clock, and the Christmas baubles tied in her hair tinkle like tiny bells. ‘But make it quick, will you? I’m due off duty at eight.’
‘Sure. It won’t take long. I just need you to take a quick look at the last month’s duty rosters.’
The receptionist frowns. ‘And why would I want to do that?’
Gino treats her to the most charming smile in his extensive collection. ‘Don’t look so scared – this is all above board, I assure you. I represent a group in the States…’
‘…that is collecting data from around the world on certain unusual injuries – for training purposes.’ Gino flashes one of his cards from Uncle Sammy’s ‘medical resources’ company. ‘I’m on the data collection team, and I’d like to speak to someone who was on call in the ER on the twelfth and thirteenth of this month.’
‘I was here that night,’ replies the bored-looking resident. ‘So what’s your interest?’
‘The local papers reported that an author was admitted that night, with injuries sustained in odd circumstances. According to our group’s data, such cases are often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, or even reflex sympathetic dystrophy. I don’t pretend to know anything about those – it ain’t my field after all – but would this guy be at risk of something like that? I’m not asking you to name the patient,’ Gino adds. ‘I just want to know the general situation.’
‘Well…’ The resident looks interested; Gino guesses his offer has probably brightened a very dull shift.
‘And to compensate you for your time,’ he continues quickly, ‘I’m pleased to be able to offer you a brand new, top-of-the-range Psion organizer as a reward.’
The resident re-adjusts his plastic elf ears, with a shrug. ‘Can’t say fairer that, I suppose. What do you want to know?’
Armed with his information, Gino pauses on his way out, to speak to the frayed old Santa sat in the hall.
‘You look mighty hot in that suit, Nick.’
Santa scowls up at him warily from beneath his fluffy white wig. ‘Ho, ho, ho and Seasons Greetings to you,’ he grunts, charmlessly. ‘Wanna sit on my knee, little boy?’
Gino laughs. ‘I bet you’re just longing to strip off that beard and take a long, cold drink, huh?’
‘That depends who’s payin’.’
Santa rattles a large collecting tin marked with the logo of some hospital charity. Gino drops in a couple of dollars and beckons towards the door.
An buzz of anticipation fills Lecture Theatre B; the stark concrete shell hums like an over-excited beehive. Mingling with the crowd, Stuart can’t help but feel he’s about to witness something special.
‘He’s the greatest author in all the world!’ gasps one ageing hippy-type (I’ve heard that one before, thinks Stuart). ‘We’re privileged to be here – to hear his big revelation.’ A girl covered in bangles and beads jingles past. ‘Twenty years from now, we’ll tell our children we were here. Sydney, Christmas Eve – the day the New Order began…’ ‘They tried to silence him, you know, with all those trumped up charges. The police are working with THEM…’ ‘I heard someone lied about him, tried to get him locked away…’ ‘But who could hate him that much?’ ‘THEM, didn’t you hear me?’ ‘It’s time to put up or shut up,’ grunts a cynical TV cameraman. ‘Erich Schutz, this is your life.’
‘He’s certainly got them excited.’ Stuart takes a seat on the front row, beside Belle-Marie. ‘Who’d have thought a lecture on Christmas Eve would draw such a crowd?’
The room is filling fast; only the back seats remain, and even the aisles are crammed with sound equipment and press reporters.
‘It’s a pity our party couldn’t put up a better showing,’ he adds, grumpily.
Belle-Marie smiles nervously. ‘I have noticed a certain lack of – ‘
‘Sort of. And I’m still a little confused as to what your roles are, exactly.’
‘I’m a PhD student,’ Stuart declares. ‘So you might be surprised to learn that it’s me who does most of the work around here. Grace and Kris are good for researching things – Grace is an anthropologist and Kris is a librarian. Gino’s good for the strong-arm stuff; he’s an Italian-American businessman. Enough said. And Katrina… I’m not quite sure what Katrina’s good for – ‘
As Stuart speaks, the door behind the lectern opens, and Erich F Schutz appears to a rapturous round of cheers and applause. Cameras whirr, flashes flash. Schutz basks in the glory for an indecently long moment, then beats it down with a flap of his arms. He has taken his bandages off, and Stuart and Belle-Marie can see reddened lumps in the palms of his hands and the centre of his forehead.
‘Friends – and enemies!’ There is another bout of cheering. ‘It is good to see you here, to see so many sharing in this common quest for truth!’
More applause. Schutz accepts it with a regal wave of the hand. He pauses as he surveys his subjects, to grin broadly at Stuart and Belle-Marie. Belle-Marie’s flesh crawls.
Then, in response to some hidden signal, the room suddenly plunges into darkness. There are a few annoyed mutters from the TV camera crew, then a photograph of Ayers Rock appears on the screen high on the wall.
‘Guardian of ancient mysteries, keeper of timeless secrets… For thousands of years, the great rock Uluru has gazed across the desert. Focused on eternity. Reading a message in distant stars that mankind has long forgotten. And today – ‘ There is a click, and Uluru is replaced by a crowded city scene filled with a seething grey mass of faceless humanity. ‘Today, as our civilization stands poised at the end of a great cycle, this message is a mystery that demands to be understood.’
Click – St Peter’s in Rome. Click – the Great Pyramid. Click – the temple at Angkor Wat. Click – a giant spider etched in the barren Nazca plains…
‘Mankind has a rendezvous with destiny,’ Schutz breathes. ‘A rendezvous in the future that will unlock our distant past. These are mighty secrets, my friends – but secrets hidden no longer…’
Click. Silence falls.
‘My god, that’s disgusting!’ someone gasps.
‘Pardon me!’ squeaks Schutz. ‘There must be some – ‘
‘I’ve never seen – ughh!’
‘That can’t be legal, surely?’
‘Lights!’ Schutz wails. ‘Please, someone – put up the lights!’
Click. Click. Click. The audience sits transfixed in the darkness, watching Schutz’s slide-show with a mixture of equal parts disgust, amusement and lewd fascination.
‘They’ll never let this on the six o’clock news,’ grunts the TV cameraman.
Above the mounting sniggers, Erich F Schutz begins to sob.
‘Poor old Erich,’ says Stuart. ‘You can’t help feeling sorry for him.’
The look on Belle-Marie’s face makes it plain that she doesn’t agree. ‘He bolted straight out of the hall,’ she says, ‘and no one’s seen him since. He’s certainly not been back here – I checked at the desk downstairs.’
The agents have gathered together in Grace’s room, to discuss their progress so far. For once, all are present.
‘Save your tears, Stuart,’ says Gino. ‘That guy has serious problems, I tell you.’ He taps his head meaningfully. ‘When Schutz arrived in hospital, he had lumps of quartz crystal stuck in both his hands and his forehead – but it was no mystical power put them there. More like a rusty pocket-knife, and a pretty poor attempt at trepanation. He caused his own injuries, I’m sure. And there’s more. The doc told me that Schutz… well, he called it a ‘sub-incision’.’
‘What’s that?’ Stuart asks.
Gino grimaces. ‘You don’t wanna know.’
‘It seems we can rule out Erich Schutz as a Karadji,’ Grace comments. ‘I’d like to meet a real one, though. I’ve been doing a little reading, and apparently they do still exist in certain parts of the country. They’re ‘marked out from birth’ in some intangible, indefinable way – from an early age, for example, a future Karadji shows a particular affinity with the tribe’s totemic animal. The Karadji are also sometimes called ‘Keymen’ – the guardians of the sites that are most important in the mythology.’
‘Like Ayers Rock – Kunukban’s home,’ adds Kris. ‘I’ve been looking into strange events surrounding it, but it’s proving rather hard work! There have been hundreds over the years.’
‘I suppose Uluru attracts the same kind of attention as Stonehenge or the Pyramids – or any other mystical site,’ Grace says. ‘Visitors who are emotionally charged tend to see what they want to see.’
‘That’s right,’ Kris agrees. ‘But I may have found one lead, at least. Remember we asked SITU to let us know if any contributors to Crab magazine live in Australia? Well, I chased them up about that, and one sounds interesting: a certain John Boone, who lives in a town called – ’
Kris frowns at Katrina. ‘Madeleine, actually. It’s not far from Ayers Rock. Earlier this month, Boone submitted an article detailing strange events near the town.’
‘What sort of strange events?’ asks Grace.
‘Oh, just giant snakes pulling people into water holes and eating them.’
‘Gulp,’ says Gino. ‘I guess we need to make friends with a Karadji soon – and I may be able to help. Through my new friend Santa Claus.’
‘Not Santa the Ylid, by any chance?’ asks Kris.
Gino shakes his head. ‘This Santa’s day job is a porter in the hospital. But over a couple of drinks, he told me all about his family, and how his cousin’s grandfather’s uncle’s son might be able to put us in touch with just the kind of guy we’re looking for. These Karadji are healers too, and I’d like to ask about my hand.’
‘I want to meet a Karadji, too,’ pipes Katrina, petulantly.
‘You?’ Stuart gapes in horror at Katrina’s high heels and micro-dress. ‘You can’t go meeting distinguished tribal elders looking like that!’
‘Why toil through dusty books?’ She pouts her cherry-red lips. ‘Up-close and personal interviews always reveal so much more, I find!’
‘If they let you meet them at all,’ Stuart mutters on, to himself. ‘They’d probably… tar and feather you first!’ Though that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, he thinks.
Even the normally equable Grace looks perturbed. ‘Maybe we can discuss exactly who meets him nearer the time… Gino, what’s your plan?’
‘I’m due to meet up with St Nick tomorrow – after he’s delivered his presents, of course.’
‘Talking of which!’ Cheering up suddenly, Stuart reaches into a shopping bag under his chair. ‘I’ve done a little shopping myself.’
There is a general chorus of: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have!’ and ‘Sorry – I don’t have anything for you,’ as Stuart hands round his Christmas gifts.
‘For Grace, an English–Australian phrasebook.’
Grace frowns, perplexed. ‘But Australians speak – ‘
‘It’s a joke phrasebook,’ Stuart explains. ‘Here’s a bottle of brandy for Gino. A pack of those sweets that stop you getting travel sick, for Kris.’
A wry, almost sad smile softens Kris’ stern face. ‘Thanks for the thought, Stuart,’ she says.
‘Now, what else do we have in Santa’s sack? A vase of flowers for Belle-Marie – they’ll brighten up that attic room. And for you, Katrina, a can of shark repellent. I don’t want the sharks getting hurt if you take a swim.’
‘Cute.’ Katrina bares her teeth in a thoroughly shark-like grin.
‘And for myself,’ Stuart concludes, ‘a pair of earplugs.’
The flowers certainly do lift Belle-Marie’s poky room, but they don’t have the same effect on her spirits. As she lies awake in bed, watching the hands of her alarm clock move towards and past midnight, she can’t get thoughts of Rhiannon out of her mind. It’s Christmas Day, she thinks, and our baby is on her own…
The en suite toilet still isn’t working, she finds at just gone two o’clock, so she ventures into the dimly-lit hall and heads for the bathroom downstairs – pulling on yesterday’s clothes first. No way, she thinks, am I going to risk bumping into Erich Schutz in my nightclothes.
She doesn’t get the chance. As she opens the bathroom door, a hissing noise surrounds her. Then an acrid smell fills her nose, and she slumps unconscious onto the floor…
Gino can’t sleep either. After a night of tossing and turning, he rises early and wanders down to the beach.
Even at this time, there are sun worshippers out and about, and one in particular catches his attention – long legs, pink bikini, face hidden behind a large parasol. She squirts sun lotion into her slender hand and begins to rub it in languidly…
‘Need a hand with that?’ Gino says.
The hand moves the parasol aside, and Katrina gazes up at him, raising her eyebrows quizzically.
‘Are you propositioning me, Mr Ferrocco?’
Gino laughs. ‘We really must stop meeting like this.’
‘Or people will talk? Who cares?’ Katrina yawns and stretches, luxuriating in the warm morning sun and the soft Pacific breeze. ‘This beats Christmas in London! I’m going to spend today on the beach, then hit the shops tomorrow – d’you fancy going shopping on Bridgit McMahon’s credit card?’
Gino nods absently; he is staring into the cloudless sky. He raises his hand to shield his eyes, and in the sunlight, his flesh looks almost translucent – except for the smooth, dark mass in the centre of his palm…
Stuart sleeps so well, he allows himself a lie-in. It is Christmas Day after all, he thinks at noon.
Rousing himself a little, he turns on the TV (that, at least, works) and hops idly from channel to channel, wondering what the Australian equivalent of Noel’s Christmas House Party might be.
He stops hopping on Channel 10. Unexpectedly, it’s a news broadcast – live from Stadium Australia, across town. An excited reporter is speaking from the road beneath the massive Olympic Flame tower, surrounded by police cars and fire engines. Intrigued, Stuart increases the volume.
‘…disgraced author Erich F Schutz. Police have yet to determine his demands. The hostage…’
Stuart is too shocked to hear any more. As the scene cuts to the view from a helicopter circling overhead, the camera zooms in.
The tiny mannikin standing on the tower is Erich Schutz. And the hunched figure beside him is Belle-Marie.
12 noon, Monday 25 December 2000
Stuart, Grace and Kris: the Bondi Hotel
Gino and Katrina: the beach
Belle-Marie: on top of the Olympic Flame tower, Stadium Australia