The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
Back on the beach, Katrina replaces her sunglasses, kicks back and relaxes in the warm, dry sand.
‘Why don’t you take a seat?’ she says to Gino, indicating the towel beside her. ‘If you’re still worried about your hand, maybe rubbing in some lotion would help?’
This seems as good a plan as any to Gino; his meeting with Santa Claus at the hospital isn’t until later in the morning. As he starts to sit, though, Katrina jumps up suddenly and pulls her fancy shoulder bag out of the way; he’d almost sat on it.
‘What’s in the bag?’ Gino asks.
Katrina gives him an enigmatic smile. ‘Shark repellent,’ she says.
Seconds later, Gino’s plan to relax are rudely interrupted by the ringing of his mobile phone. He can barely make out the anxiously gabbling voice on the other end, above the roar of an engine and squealing tyres.
‘Stuart? Is that you? Where are you?’
‘I’m in a taxi!’ Stuart yells back. ‘Listen – Belle-Marie is in danger. I haven’t got time to explain. Get to the Olympic Stadium – now! And tell the others!’
Gino puts his phone away with a sigh.
‘Trouble?’ Katrina asks.
‘So you know this madman, eh?’ The police inspector in the stadium car park eyes Stuart suspiciously. ‘How well, exactly?’
‘Not that well,’ Stuart replies guardedly. ‘But I’m a big fan of his books.’ He hears several of the other officers snigger. ‘And I think he trusts me.’ He gestures at the crowd of police and firefighters, who are now standing around aimlessly as if they’ve run out of things to do. ‘You could at least let me try to talk to him. You don’t seem to have many other ideas.’
The inspector grimaces, but hands over his megaphone and waves Stuart through the barrier erected around the stadium. Several members of the assembled media pack try to lunge through behind him, shouting questions at his back, but the police hold them off.
‘Try not to tread on the frogs,’ the inspector bellows after him. ‘They’re protected by law!’
Avoiding the scummy puddle he’d almost just stepped in, Stuart hurries up to the base of the tower. He feels dizzy just looking up at the elegant concrete structure; he can’t imagine how Belle-Marie must feel trapped at the top. He lifts the megaphone to his mouth.
From the bowl at the top of the tower, Stadium Australia looks like a giant green and white beetle opening its carapace to spread its wings and fly away. The view would have been exhilarated by the view, if Belle-Marie hadn’t been stuck there with Erich F Schutz.
‘We can’t sit here like this forever,’ she says, managing to sound a lot more reasonable than she feels.
But again Schutz does not reply; he has hardly spoken to her since she regained consciousness, spending most of the time squatting in the centre of the bowl, clutching his knees and sweating profusely. He checks his watch for the thousandth time.
‘I know something’s going to happen – and soon,’ Belle-Marie ventures hopefully.
‘You do?’ This catches Schutz’s attention.
‘Oh yes. Though I don’t know all the details, of course – not being as… enlightened as you are. Perhaps you should tell me more.’
‘Perhaps…’ Schutz muses.
‘I am your lieutenant, after all.’
Schutz’s sweaty face crumples into a frown, then he seems to come to a decision.
‘Yes, you are right…’ he starts to say – but gets no further as a fearful shout blasts up from far below.
‘MR SCHUTZ! ERICH! CAN YOU HEAR ME?’
Belle-Marie risks a peek over the rim of the bowl, stifling a gasp when she sees Stuart’s pale, upturned face hundreds of feet below.
‘I CAN HELP YOU!’ he continues. ‘JUST STAY CALM AND TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT.’
‘What is this? What is happening?’ Schutz looks up into the sky, startled, then realizes where the voice is coming from joins Belle-Marie at the rim of the bowl. Nervous, she edges away.
‘Ah, it is little Mikey!’ Schutz grins maniacally. ‘I thought we must leave without him, but maybe there is still time!’ He leans dangerously far over the rim and yells down at the top of his voice: ‘Come up here, little Mikey! I have a surprise for you!’
Belle-Marie sees Stuart confer with the police on the ground, then he disappears through a door in the base of the tower. She shivers; it is getting cold despite the sunshine, and the sky is somehow darkening, though there isn’t a cloud to be seen. It is also noisier than before – the TV helicopter is back, circling round and round the tower like a vulture waiting for its breakfast to drop.
‘MR SCHUTZ!’ booms an amplified voice. ‘THIS IS MARTIN SMITH FROM CHANNEL TEN NEWS. DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY TO OUR VIEWERS?’
Schutz jumps to his feet and waves crazily at the camera pointing out of the helicopter door. ‘I have suffered the lot of every great prophet!’ he yells. ‘I was betrayed, mocked, rejected! But soon I will have a new role – to show the world the Grand Design that underlies everything!’ He stops waving and scrambles back up the slippery side of the bowl, to perch precariously on the rim. ‘The Sky Heroes once ruled the world, but they too were betrayed – by cruel fate, and by those they trusted. But they have been patient – waiting, watching, working for this day. The day of their return!’
He stretches his arms exultantly, balancing on the very edge of oblivion. The sky is the colour of rain-soaked slate, and beneath the whirr and clatter of the helicopter, Belle-Marie can hear a gathering roar.
Then a familiar face pops up over the far side of the bowl, dreadlocks lashing wildly in the wind.
‘You won’t be able to help the Sky Heroes if you’re dead or in jail,’ Stuart declares admonishingly. ‘Why don’t you come down from there quietly and let me do what I can to help. Is this something to do with what happened at your lecture?’
Schutz had looked pleased to see Stuart, but at this his face turns suddenly as dark as the sky. He shuffles around the rim of the bowl, towards Belle-Marie.
Then yet another voice rings out. This is getting ridiculous, Belle-Marie thinks, as she recognizes Katrina.
‘CALLING ERICH F SCHUTZ! CALLING ERICH F SCHUTZ! THIS IS THE SKY HEROES HERE! CAN YOU HEAR US? WE WANT TO TELL YOU A SECRET, ERICH. BUT WE CAN’T LET EVERYONE KNOW – YOU’LL HAVE TO COME DOWN HERE.’
Schutz growls and reaches down as if to grab Belle-Marie, almost losing his balance as he does. Stuart leaps into the bowl, landing with a heavy clang; Belle-Marie is convinced he is planning to do something drastic – up to and including pushing Schutz off the edge himself. The helicopter swoops low, and Belle-Marie thinks of her face on a million television sets…
Then the sky goes completely black, and a titanic, ghostly, expressionless moon-face
appears out of nowhere in the air above the tower. The helicopter pulls out of its swoop, narrowly avoiding the bolt of white fire that suddenly lights the dark. Stuart and Belle-Marie drop into the bowl, shielding their faces from the glare. Then the roaring stops.
Belle-Marie opens her eyes cautiously. Erich F Schutz is gone. And in the place where he stood, she sees the fleeting afterimage of a huge, glowing white snake.
It is mid-afternoon, and the SITU agents are gathered together in Belle-Marie’s cubicle at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
‘I don’t know why they insisted I came here,’ Belle-Marie says. ‘I keep telling everyone – I feel fine.’
‘Maybe they just wanted somewhere quiet to interview you,’ suggests Grace. ‘There was quite a crowd outside the police station.’
‘What did you tell them, exactly?’ Kris demands, suspiciously. ‘We have to be careful what we say to the authorities.’
‘I told them the truth, of course. How I’m here on holiday – and how surprised I was to find myself sharing a hotel with Erich Schutz, when I’m such a fan of his books. How I think he fancies me – or something…’ Belle-Marie grimaces. ‘I didn’t give anything away, I assure you.’
‘Still, you can’t be too careful.’ Katrina tosses a grape high into the air and catches it neatly in her mouth. ‘At least you’ve got Gino to act as your lawyer.’ She reaches for another grape.
‘Will you stop that!’ Stuart snaps. ‘I brought those for Belle-Marie.’
‘Temper, temper!’ Katrina opens wide, innocent eyes. ‘You’re a big boy now, Stuart. You should learn how to share nicely. Or I might not come to help next time.’
‘Help!’ Stuart is astounded. ‘You call that help? I had everything under control until you turned up, dressed in some silly policewoman outfit and pretending to be a supernatural being – ‘
‘Cops are the same all over the over the world,’ Katrina says. ‘Incompetent. I figured that, left to themselves, they’d end up getting everyone killed.’
‘YOU nearly did!’ Stuart growls.
‘But everyone’s alright now,’ Grace interrupts hurriedly. ‘And we’re all faced with a problem – where and how did Schutz disappear? And what was the face in the air? A Sky Hero? Or something else?’
Her gaze strays to the television set above Belle-Marie’s bed. The tape of Erich Schutz’s disappearance is playing again – it seems to be on every channel. Belle-Marie is getting heartily sick of seeing her own, horrified face.
‘Shame they didn’t catch your best side,’ Katrina comments.
‘I was there too,’ Stuart says grumpily, ‘but they never show me.’
‘I wonder why that might be,’ Katrina whispers.
Through a gap in the curtains, Gino spots a face he recognizes – it is Santa, though the porter has shed his beard and red coat and is back in more normal overalls. Gino excuses himself from the others and steps outside to talk to him.
‘What’s this – you gone undercover?’ he asks, but the porter doesn’t rise to it. He nods grimly at the TV screen.
‘It’s a bad sign,’ he says, as the ghostly face looms yet again. ‘A sign a change is on the way. A sign of the end of this world…’
Back at the cubicle, a harassed-looking nurse looks in.
‘Doctor says you’re fine.’ She smiles at Belle-Marie.
‘As I keep saying,’ Belle-Marie mutters.
‘So you’re free to leave now. All of you.’ The nurse flicks a drooping strand of tinsel off her forehead. ‘Though you might want to use the back entrance. There’s a big crowd of reporters and some rather… odd people at the front.’
The agents exchange glances.
‘I’m not happy with all this attention we’re attracting,’ Kris says quietly as they prepare to go. ‘I’m going to get out of town for a while – to Madeleine, to speak to John Boone. I made some enquiries at the airport – the town has a railway station, but the quickest way to get there is on the mail plane. The next one is tomorrow, and I should have no problems buying a seat onboard.’
‘Will there be room for six?’ Gino is suddenly back at their side. ‘Because Santa’s friend the Karadji lives near Madeleine, too.’
As they wait by their plane on the baking tarmac at a shadeless, forgotten end of the airfield, the SITU agents can’t help feeling somewhat less important than the cargo waiting with them. Most of it consists of mailsacks; the rest is a motley collection of miscellaneous items presumably in short supply in Madeleine – including a large consignment of water purification tablets, addressed to a certain J. Boone.
‘His Crab article mentions something about snakes in water holes, apparently,’ says Kris. ‘I wonder if this is connected with it?’
‘Let’s get this show on the road!’ comes a cheery shout from above them. Pete the pilot leans out the cockpit and waves them and their luggage aboard.
‘Not exactly business class, is it?’ Katrina mutters.
‘Don’t I know you?’ the pilot adds, as they heft their bags and start to move. Belle-Marie realizes he is talking to her.
‘I saw you on TV. You were there, weren’t you?’
There is a chillingly reverent look on his face – a look Belle-Marir could only describe as awe. Embarrassed, she avoids his gaze and hurries for the door.
‘We have a superstar in our midst, it seems,’ says Katrina. ‘Not good for travelling incognito. Want to borrow my shades?’ She starts to remove them, then remembers the newspaper headline she spotted back in the main terminal. “Policewoman mugged, uniform stolen”. She slips the shades back on.
‘I was there too!’ Stuart still sounds aggrieved. ‘Why does no one pay me any attention?’
‘Maybe they’re just playing along with the old legends – though subconsciously, of course. The great Sky Hero Kunukban had a favourite female helper.’
The agents turn, and to their surprise see Bridgit McMahon behind them. She is carrying a flightbag, and though her mouth is set in a firm, hard line, she looks more relaxed than Grace and Belle-Marie remember her.
‘It seems we both have unexpected company on this journey,’ she continues, appraising them one by one. ‘But don’t worry – I won’t ask why you’re here, if you don’t ask about me. I’ll just assume you’re not going to Madeleine for the sights.’
In the cramped space inside the cabin, Grace finds herself sat next to a crate of lime pickle on one side and Bridgit McMahon on the other. There seems little point spending the entire flight in uncomfortable silence, so she tries to chat casually about uncontroversial anthropological subjects before turning the conversation to war shields.
‘Like this, you mean?’ McMahon reaches into her flightbag and pulls out a photocopy of the shield from the museum.
‘Er, yes,’ Grace replies. There seems little else to say.
‘Though it’s not a war shield, of course. These shields are used in ceremonies designed to contact the denizens of the Dreaming.’
‘I understand those markings are a map,’ Grace ventures.
McMahon nods. ‘But not a map in the sense that a Westerner might use the term. There’s no sense of scale, no north or south. It does show features of the landscape…’ She points at the complicated network of spirals, circles and lines. ‘But they’re more important mythologically than topologically. These marks refer to events. Take this section here…’
She spreads the sheet across the top of the lime pickle crate and outlines a tiny area of the map with one finger.
‘Here are two women, the Walpiri sisters, sitting by a fire. They see a goanna running into a hole, so they follow it, dig it out and carry it back to their camp in a bowl. They pass more dunes, then sit back down at the fire, where their husband is still asleep. They throw the goanna on the fire to wake him up with the smell of his dinner.’ She sits back and folds up the sheet. ‘Not the most exciting tale, but it shows how events can be mapped onto the landscape.’
Grace is intrigued. ‘Is the rest of the map as well understood?’ she asks.
‘Unfortunately not.’ McMahon frowns. ‘The Dreaming exists in the past, present and future, and the map represents the same. Some of the features shown there just haven’t happened yet. And maybe some we will never know. The Aborigines are a very private people –’
‘Not for much longer.’ Stuart interrupts them grimly. ‘They could find themselves overrun – when people start noticing that.’
He points out of the grimy window. Grace cranes her neck to see out. Painted in black, white and ochre on a smooth shelf of red rock far below, is a huge representation of the Sky Hero face last seen over Stadium Australia.
The painted face proves to lie just a few miles from Madeleine; within minutes the plane is coming in to land at a roughshod airstrip. It looks like the end of the world has arrived already; between the huddled knot of buildings that constitutes the town and the dark hills on the skyline, lies a vast red plain dotted with spindly trees, scrubby grass and shrunken water courses beaded with sombre, glistening pools.
‘That’s me for the day,’ declares Pete, popping his head through the door to the cabin. ‘Anyone fancy a beer? I’ll stand you a sweet sherry if you’ll tell me all about… you know what.’ He grins nervously at Belle-Marie.
‘Later maybe,’ says Kris. ‘Do you know where I might find a man called John Boone?’
‘Boone?’ Pete looks surprised at the question. ‘His farm’s a couple of hours south of town.’ Kris’s disgruntlement must have registered on her face, because Pete adds: ‘This is a big country, you know.’
‘So I see.’ Kris squints across the blazing plain. ‘Do you know anyone who might be willing to drive us out there?’
At this, Pete’s eyes almost pop straight out of his head. ‘Drive you out to see John Boone? You’ll be lucky!’
Katrina nods knowingly. ‘I’ve heard he’s a couple of shrimps short of a barbie.’
Gino is already outside, shielding his eyes from the sun. The air is dry and hot, and full of the dust thrown up by the plane’s descent. As he squints into the haze, he sees an old Aborigine woman in the scrub at the side of the airstrip; in her faded gingham dress and hair ribbons, she looks like a frayed, aged, aboriginal version of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. He crosses the airstrip to greet her, but it is she who speaks first.
‘You’re want to see Long Jack Wunuwun,’ she says without preamble. ‘Come with me – he’s waiting for you.’
Back on the plane, Grace is about to step out when, from the corner of her eye, she sees a fleeting shadow behind a sparse stand of trees beyond the airstrip. When she looks again, the shadow is gone, but she is sure someone was spying on them.
2 pm, Tuesday 26 December 2000
Everyone: an airstrip near Madeleine