The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Last Flight of Kunukban
‘Did anyone else see that?’ Grace says quietly. ‘I’m sure we’re being watched. Over there – behind those trees.’
Katrina leaps into action first; she has been looking a little bored lately, and seems to relish the prospect of some action. But by the time she has crossed the dusty airstrip, there is no sign of any sinister observer – if he or she was ever there.
‘Always in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ she muses to herself. The breeze lifts suddenly, blowing a crumpled sheet of paper into her feet. She picks it up to inspect it; it is black on one side, white on the other and heavily creased, but there are no marks to be seen.
‘I’m not happy about this,’ Stuart mutters to anyone who will listen as they follow Pete the pilot into town. ‘Weird stuff happens in Sydney, and the first thing we do is jump on a plane somewhere else. Shouldn’t someone be investigating back there?’
‘Maybe, but we’re here now.’ Kris speaks firmly, though privately she’s almost wishing she had stayed behind – the journey to Madeleine wasn’t the smoothest flight she’d ever taken.
‘I suppose I might as well tag along,’ Stuart says. ‘But I’ll contact the police back in Sydney later, to find out if they’ve come up with any leads about Erich’s disappearance. I suggested to them that he might have been kidnapped.’ He stops suddenly and frowns. ‘Is there some sort of fancy dress party going on here?’
The main street of Madeleine, far from being the deserted ghost town he’d expected, is criss-crossed with bunting and colourful streamers, and a sizeable crowd of people is milling about on the road and the shaded verandas – many of them teenage boys swaggering about in stetsons and cowboy boots.
‘It’s the local corroboree,’ explains Pete. ‘‘They hold it this time every year – everyone in town joins in, plus homesteaders from hundreds of miles round about. It’s an excuse for a giant galah session, mainly, and drinking, of course – and sports, too. Cricket, horse-racing, golf, chuck-balancing – ’
At these words, both Kris and Grace experience an inexplicable sensation of cold, chilling deja vu.
‘ – and those cowpokes are here for the rodeo. Now, here we are – I could murder a beer.’ He leaps over a hitching-post and flings open a door, greeting the barman like an old friend. ‘The usual,’ he orders, ‘and whatever my mates here are having.’
Compared to the street, the bar is almost strangely quiet; the television set is turned down to a barely audible level, and the only occupant beside the barman is a middle-aged man with a sun-reddened and face and long, dusty beard. He is nursing a large glass of beer at a table by the window, pausing between sips to glare sourly at the activity outside. He studies the SITU agents without interest, then suddenly growls at Belle-Marie: ‘Have I seen you somewhere before?’
‘Uh – I don’t think so,’ Belle-Marie mutters hurriedly, then turns to the barman and adds, in a low voice: ‘Can use your bathroom, please?’
Clutching her bag anxiously, she hurries out of the room.
‘Good afternoon, sir.’ Grace approches the bearded man politely, He glares at her, but she soldiers on. ‘We’re looking for a Mr John Boone, but we’ve been told he lives some way out of town. Do you know of anyone who might be able to drive us out there, by any chance?’
The bearded man is about to take a gulp of his beer as she speaks, and almost chokes on it. ‘You must be joking!’ he grunts.
‘What’s the problem, exactly?’ Kris comes over to join them. ‘No one seems to have a good word for him.’
The bearded man scowls. ‘He’s got an got an itchy trigger finger, that’s why. You’d be mad to go up there these days. He took a pot-shot at the last neighbour who called round – the poor bloke was laid up for a week.’
‘He hasn’t been the same these last ten years or more.’ The barman stops polishing glasses and suddenly joins in the conversation. ‘Not since his wife left him.’
The bearded man shakes his head. ‘I blame the abos. That native title claim of theirs has been dragging through the courts for years, and there’s still no sign of anyone making their mind up. No bank will give him a loan, he can’t get any investment. So he can’t make any improvements, can’t make any repairs. He can’t make any plans, you might say.’
The barman nods sagely. ‘Idle minds.’
‘Too right.’ The bearded man sighs. ‘And it could happen to any of us. Poor fella.’
‘Any man with too much time on his hands is bound to start thinking too much – ‘
‘Imaging things, you mean?’ Kris decides to interrupt their ramblings. ‘Such as snakes, for example?’
The barman laughs. ‘Boone’s always had a thing about snakes. Round the time his wife left, one of ’em jumped right out of a waterhole and swallowed up two of his workers – or so he says.’
‘They probably just went walkabout,’ adds the bearded man with a dubious frown.
‘I hear he has seen snakes again, recently,’ Kris says. ‘Do you have any idea why?’
‘Beats me.’ The bearded man shrugs. ‘Sounds like more crazy blackfeller talk.’
‘We saw something rather strange ourselves, on the flight here,’ Stuart ventures. ‘A giant face on the ground.’
‘The one on Boone’s land, you mean?’ Pete the pilot picks up his beer and wanders over to the table. ‘Yeah, that is weird. It wasn’t there last time I flew over, about six weeks ago. Maybe Boone put it there, eh?’
‘I’d certainly like to meet this Mr Boone.’ Kris interrupts again; time is moving on – as must the agents, if they are to get to Boone’s and back before dark. ‘I see he has a delivery on your plane, Pete – why don’t we save you the, er… danger of taking out it to him. Though we’ll need to hire a vehicle, of course…’
The bearded man’s eyes light up at this. ‘I might be able to help you there,’ he says.
It is a rather different Belle-Marie who emerges into the street from the washroom. I wonder what Daniel would think of me, dressed up like this? she muses, catching sight of her reflection in the window of the café across the street. Colour-washed blonde hair, make-up, short skirt, tight top… she barely recognizes herself, so hopefully everyone who saw on TV will have the same problem. I must get in touch with Daniel, she thinks; I should let him know I’m alright – and maybe he or one of his contacts can shed some light on what happened in Sydney… Then she catches one of the cowboys leering at her; annoyed, she turns and hurries back round to the entrance to the bar – carefully. She isn’t sure she remembers exactly how to walk in high heels.
She almost collides with Bridgit McMahon coming out.
‘In disguise, are we?’ Bridgit recovers herself quickly and regards Belle-Marie with amusement.
Belle-Marie mutters a non-committal answer. Bridgit seems to be hiding something herself – she is wearing sunglasses, a large hat with a floppy brim that throws her face into shadow.
‘Sorry I made you jump,’ the lecturer adds.
‘No problem,’ Belle-Marie says. ‘I guess I’m on the receiving end this time.’
‘Ah, Waterstones.’ Bridgit nods. ‘I’m sorry about that, too. I shouldn’t have been so rude to you. I was feeling rather… stressed at the time. Serves me right, though – I was so wound up, I managed to lose my credit card.’
‘I take it that wasn’t your usual reading matter,’ Belle-Marie ventures.
Bridgit smiles enigmatically. ‘At least you saved me from further swelling the coffers of that repulsive little crow-eater. Though you’re a big fan of Schutz, aren’t you?’
Belle-Marie shudders. ‘But why,’ she says slowly, trying to turn the conversation away from her and Schutz, ‘were you buying his book if you hate him so much?’
‘Maybe it’s a matter of knowing of your enemy – now, here are your friends at last!’
Bridgit turns suddenly as Grace and Katrina come out of the bar. Grace nods politely and takes Belle-Marie aside.
‘We’re going to see the Karadji now,’ she says in a low voice. ‘Hopefully, he and Gino won’t be finished yet.’
‘It’s time to meet the witch doctor at last,’ adds Katrina. ‘Plus maybe pick up a few tribal nik-naks to brighten up my pad in London – maybe one of those cool tribal shields… Hey, the world may be about to end, but if it doesn’t I need stylish stuff.’
Belle-Marie can’t help smiling. Katrina has changed her outfit, too.
‘Do you like my little black spy number?’ Katrina catches the direction of Belle-Marie’s gaze. ‘It makes me look like Modesty Blaize, don’t you think?’
‘I’ll tag along too, if you don’t mind.’ Bridgit comes up behind them. ‘I’d like to meet this Long Jack Wunuwun.’
There seems little they can do to protest. Although, Grace decides, it will be easier to keep an eye on her if she’s with us…
Kris is also keeping an eye out, though in her case, for pursuers. She is fairly certain they are not being followed, however; from the bumpy red road, she can see for miles, and she and Stuart are totally alone. Apart from the truck, the only moving object is a cloud of smoke rising from a nearby stretch of ash and blackened tree stumps – evidence of a recent bush fire, Kris presumes.
‘I’m not happy about going off on our own like this,’ Stuart grumbles, on cue. ‘John Boone sounds completely mad – and dangerous to know, if your new friend Bob is to be believed.’
‘Which is precisely why it wouldn’t be a good idea for six strangers to suddenly turn up on his doorstep,’ Kris says. ‘Trust me, it’s safer this way.’
A few miles further on, and John Boone’s homestead bounces into view, slumped beside the road like a becalmed junk yard in a sea of scrubby trees.
‘I see what Bob means about lack of investment,’ Stuart says.
The whole plot looks ready to fall to pieces; various desperate attempts to patch and prop with tarpaulins, chicken-wire and corrugated iron sheets are clearly doomed to failure. With the truck parked beside a pile of rusting engine parts and unidentifiable bits of machinery, Kris and Stuart climb out and pick their way carefully around sacks of stinking household rubbish.
‘Mr Boone?’ Kris calls out warily – better not let him think we’re trying to sneak up on him, she reckons. ‘We have a delivery for you – those water purification tablets you ordered.’
There is no reply. The only sound is the creaking of the windmill peeping over a towering stack of old tyres.
‘No-one home,’ says Stuart, almost gratefully.
Rather more confidently, Kris strides up to the house – rather strikingly, it is built on stilts – and knocks on the door. Still no response, so she steps onto the veranda and tries to see through the nearest grimy window. Then she stops.
‘Look at this, Stuart,’ she calls. ‘Recognize the painting?’
On a peeling wall facing the window, she can just glimpse a large framed portrait. The sitter is rather younger, neater and much less frazzled than the last time Kris saw her, and has swapped her shapeless linen dress for a long black skirt and lace blouse. But it is undoubtedly Bridgit McMahon.
Stuart edges around onto the veranda – stepping rather cautiously in case the boards collapse beneath him. It runs the length of the house and is decorated with dried-up hanging flower baskets, wizened potted palms and a large enamel bath tub.
‘And what do you make of this?’ he asks. Next to a deckchair is a table, and on the table is a haphazard pile of maps and newspaper cuttings. Kris joins him and together they sift through them.
‘Looks like Boone’s been working on another article,’ Kris says. ‘All these cuttings refer to strange events that have happened around the country – rains of frogs, six-headed sheep, ghosts, ghouls and goblins.’
‘And not just Australia, too.’ Stuart rifles a separate sheaf of cuttings. ‘These seem to be stories from all over the Pacific. New Zealand, Tonga, Vanuatu, Nauru… It reads like the itinerary of some very exotic cruise.’
Beneath the pile of newspapers is a large map, clearly torn out of an atlas, showing Australia and the South Pacific. The map has been annotated with a multitude of black dots and lines; a quick check of the cuttings suggests that the dots represent sites of ‘strange events’, and the lines link them together.
‘Almost like ley lines,’ says Kris. ‘And see where all the lines converge – Ayers Rock.’ Boone has circled the rock in red. ‘A visit there might be in order. Perhaps we can hire Pete and his plane…’
Meanwhile, Stuart is taking a closer look at the map, lifting it up to the sunlight and turning it around in his hands.
‘Boone has made a pattern of straight lines here,’ he murmurs, to himself, ‘but if you hold it at arm’s length and squint a bit, you can almost imagine other shapes… I suppose it’s a bit like star constellations. Different cultures see different forms… Look – ‘
He holds out the map to Kris, then freezes. A battered pickup truck is careering down the road towards the homestead.
‘They said turn left at the Torch Relay marker…’
‘Why bring the Olympic flame to a one-eyed dump like this?’ Katrina wonders, stumbling awkwardly after Grace. Beyond the relative ‘civilization’ of the main street, the ground isn’t designed for stiletto heels.
‘…And we’ll find him on the seventeenth green.’
‘Seventeenth green!’ Katrina frowns. ‘So much for that culture shock I’d planned.’
‘This doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d expect to find a golf course,’ Belle-Marie starts to say, then stops. ‘Ah, I see.’
The course is actually quite ingenious in construction: a wide open space cleared of vegetation and dotted with bulldozed bunkers interspersed with greens – or blacks, in this case; hard, sun-baked ebony patches that look suspiciously like oil mixed with sand.
Long Jack Wunuwun looks up to greet them even as he sinks his putt.
‘Hello, you must be Gino’s friends.’
He looks like any other aged aborigine, and is unremarkably dressed in jeans, a checked shirt and a baseball cap. Katrina’s chagrin must have registered on her face, because he adds: ‘Well what were you expecting? Some sort of witch doctor?’
Katrina isn’t sure how to respond, but Long Jack doesn’t wait; with a genial grin, he stoops to pick up a small square of Astroturf (for teeing-off, presumably) and waves them towards a truck parked behind the eighteenth green.
‘We must hurry,’ he says, ‘or we will miss the big moment.’
‘What big moment?’ Belle-Marie asks warily. ‘Where are we going, exactly?’
Long Jack only smiles. ‘Follow me and find out,’ he says.
The SITU agents are rather nervously expecting a long trip miles out into the desert, so it comes as quite a relief when Long Jack pulls the truck to a halt in the bush only a few minutes drive out of town. There, in a sparse clearing surrounded by thorn-bushes, a young aboriginal man is hacking away with a rusty spade at a small hole in the ground.
‘What is he doing?’ Grace asks.
‘Opening a new gila – a water-hole,’ replies Long Jack. ‘You’re privileged to see this, you know. It’s a very hallowed moment.’
Grace is prepared to believe him, but the scraggy dogs, the gaggle of chattering children and the bored-looking old women lounging around the hole don’t add to the sense of occasion. The young man’s efforts seems to be almost ignored by his companions, though she sees Gino watching intently from outside the clearing. As the man digs, the breeze lifts the dust away, and it looks as if the earth is steaming from the place it is breached.
‘So why have you brought us here?’ demands Katrina. ‘And why, by the way, do they call you Long Jack?’
Long Jack laughs, then is suddenly serious again. ‘I brought you here to ask for your help.’
‘To ask for our help?’ Katrina is astonished. ‘Pardon me, but I thought the idea was, you help us – by explaining what the hell is going on around here, for a start.’
‘All in good time,’ Long Jack says. ‘There are important matters to deal with first. I have to honour the water hole, and then – ‘
‘No,’ Katrina persists. ‘First, you can tell us what it is you think we’re going to do for you.’
Long Jack sighs, and his aged face seems to grow centuries older. ‘This land is sacred to these people,’ he says, quietly. ‘They have lived together in harmony for millennia. But a great threat lies over it now. And not just this land. The whole world faces this threat – a danger of which I think we are all aware.’
The look on his face is intense. Grace glances over her shoulder at Bridgit, who has been sitting silently in the back of the truck. ‘Could we talk about this in private?’ she mutters.
‘No need for that,’ Bridgit says, curling her lip slightly. ‘I know rather more than you think. Rather more than you know, perhaps.’
‘Ah, look – we almost missed it!’ Without warning, Long Jack suddenly opens the door and leaps out of the truck, leaving the SITU agents perplexed and somewhat frustrated inside. Grace hurries after him, followed by Katrina, Belle-Marie and Bridgit; they arrive at the clearing in time to see the cloud of dust dissipate and the earth belch up a clot of muddy water. A ragged cheer goes up from the assembled aborigines, and a pair of old women produce a brightly painted canvas, which they spread out on the ground.
‘They are laying claim to the land,’ whispers Bridgit. ‘Land they’ve already lost once, and risk losing again.’
Grace edges closer. The canvas is covered with rather cruder and more modern versions of the map symbols she recognizes from the ceremonial shield. And among them are other symbols she recognizes.
She grabs the nearest arm she can find – it is Belle-Marie’s – and pulls her aside.
‘I know those symbols,’ she hisses. ‘And I’m sure I can read them. They’re the ancient Ylid script…’
Katrina leaves Grace and Belle-Marie to it and wanders over to Gino.
‘You’re very quiet today,’ she says, hoping to snap him out of his reverie.
It doesn’t work. Gino doesn’t even look at her; his gaze is fixed on Long Jack Wunuwun, who is now leaning over the gila and muttering incantations.
‘I’ve met that man before,’ he mutters. ‘On the plane as we came into Sydney. He’s different, somehow, but I’m sure it’s him.’
Alarmed, Katrina looks back at the gila. ‘Do you think we can trust him?’ she whispers, but she doesn’t get any further as the hole belches again, and out of the earth spews a shimmering, shifting, giant snake-like form. Long Jack falls backwards, dazed, and children scatter screaming in all directions. Before anyone can react, the snake rises into the air; it is ten feet long and growing. Then it opens its dripping fangs, and darts straight at Katrina and Gino.
5:30 pm, Tuesday 26 December 2000
Belle-Marie, Gino, Grace and Katrina: a water-hole near Madeleine
Kris and Stuart: John Boone’s homestead