July 8th, 9:47 P.M.
About thirty miles outside Brisbane
Kenny Lush had never been particularly fond of the dark, an unfortunate characteristic for a person who, for most of his life, had scratched out a living burglarizing homes and the occasional small electronics or musical instrument establishment. That, however, involved "inside" darkness, something for which Kenny had developed a tolerance, and which in any case was seldom as deep as one might first think. There was almost always something that gave off a glow: a digital clock, the display on a DVR, a street lamp one or two doors away, a tiny penlight held in one's teeth while one disconnected the umbilicals of a high definition home theater system.
The darkness Kenny was in now was real. Bush country black, and he didn't like it one bit. It didn’t help that the Aborigine he was trying to follow was as dark and silent as the night itself.
As instructed, Kenny had parked his ute in an abandoned drive half a mile from the entrance to Queen Mary Falls. He didn’t have to wait long before his guide, a young Aborigine, appeared out of the night and beckoned him to follow on foot.
The lights of just one passing car briefly illuminated their path as they made their way along the side of the road. After ten minutes of stumbling behind his guide that seemed like an hour, Kenny was glad for the soft light coming from outside a neat white house on the other side of the road. Some ground level lights were directed at the house and outbuildings as well as the neatly tended flower beds, illuminating the grounds and sharing just a bit of their light with the foot travelers. Kenny paused to look at the house before following his guide away from the roadside and on to the path leading to the falls.
They followed the path just a short way before the Aborigine turned off to the right into the thick vegetation. Kenny reluctantly plunged in after, scraping his hands against the coarse, stiff bush that had seemed to open wide for the youth. The black back moved silently ahead between the trees, a dark, moving patch against the darkness all around them.
“Hold on!” Kenny raised his voice to carry, but it seemed such an unwelcome intrusion into the black stillness that he was immediately sorry.
He thrashed ahead and told himself that once this deal was done he would be set for life. This would be his first really big score. First and last. Kenny cursed the inconveniences and difficulties that big scores apparently required, but hurried after the silent figure, trying and failing to match the youth's combination of speed and silence.
He finally caught up with his guide standing next to an enormous gum tree. The youth motioned for Kenny to go ahead.
Kenny leaned forward, hands across the tops of his thighs.
“No more chasing around the bloody forest,” he said between gulps of air. “Where's Big George?”
The Aborigine repeated his go-ahead gesture. Kenny straightened slightly and peered ahead. The darkness seemed to be even deeper in the direction indicated. “I don't think so, mate. You tell Big George this is as far as I go. If he doesn't like it we can bloody well call the whole thing—” Kenny turned to give the youth the full force of his resolve in the matter. But the Aborigine was not there.
Kenny searched the shades of black surrounding him, but his guide was not to be found. He turned around twice, or was it twice and a shade more? his eyes straining for a trace of his guide, but his vision extended no more than a few, inadequate feet in front of his nose before the shadows took over and made everything unidentifiable and menacing. As sorely lacking in congeniality as the young Aborigine’s company had been, now that he was gone the night seemed to rush in on Kenny. It was pitch black. Crushed-velvet black. Black as the soul of a rabid dingo.
He heard a sound. A rustle or a snap or a shifting aside of a tree branch.
“Big George?” Kenny’s voice came out a bit on the high and strangled side. He tried to swallow. “That you, mate?”
Kenny's heart thundered with what he was sure had to be an unsustainable fury. Bloody hell, he was going to die. His heart was going to give out and he was going to die in the middle of the bloody bush. Kenny waited to slump forward or backward or whichever way the slumping would carry him as his physical self abandoned this mortal coil. It wasn't so much the slumping and abandoning Kenny minded as the thought that in the process he would be making a mess of himself. That's what Leslie had told him happened when people died and Kenny had no reason to doubt Leslie knew what he was talking about.
But he had just acquired—shoplifted, actually—the designer chinos he was wearing in anticipatory celebration of his soon–to–be status as a Somebody. Now the thought of what would likely happen to those chic trousers should he expire in them somehow steeled Kenny's nerve. That was not how he wanted to go, in the middle of the bush with a big pee stain on his Ralph Laurens. Not Kenny Lush, thank you very much.
The noise had not repeated itself, at least not yet, but he wasn’t anxious to wait around for it to do so. What he was anxious to do was to get the hell out of there and back to his ute. He would call the whole thing off, at least for now, and count as a victory his continued survival. The hell with the dangers waiting for him if returned without having completed this mission. They would just have to take care of themselves in bloody good time. Kenny would trust to luck and lies in dealing with them. This damned dark bush country with its boogey-boogey sounds was totally unfamiliar territory and best not challenged any longer than absolutely necessary.
No more than twenty hesitant paces away from his starting point Kenny paused at the side of a huge gum tree—but then all of the trees were huge gum trees, cousins of the forest—and tried to persuade himself it was one he had passed on his way in. He held himself very still, at once straining to hear the sound again and hoping he wouldn't. There it was again.
Choosing an angle calculated to take him in a direct line away from the sound—which seemed to him like it was getting nearer by the second—he stepped as quickly as the darkness, the trees and his quaking limbs would allow.
Five paces out Kenny’s right foot found air where it had expected ground and, at the same moment, he heard a low, rumbling sound very close behind him. He screamed and pitched forward down a short slope, coming to an abrupt halt when his right shoulder slammed against a tree stump.
The low, rumbling sound revealed itself as laughter. Then a circle of light spread over his sprawled body and a deep voice sounded above his head.
“Damn, boy! You going to make me chase you all over the forest?”
Kenny twisted around onto his back and squinted up into the brightness of the lantern. He angrily kicked a heel into the ground, which had the unfortunate effect of driving his left shoulder into the stump.
“Ow!…damn it! What's so bloody funny?”
“Maybe next time we meet at Jo-Jo's like I suggested. Better footing and they serve a nice Morton Bay Bug.” The laughter rolled out once again.
“Stop your stupid laughing and give me a hand up, will you?”
A big, black hand swallowed Kenny's outstretched one and pulled him to his feet. The laughter quieted, but did not stop. It came from an Aborigine of perhaps fifty, perhaps sixty, years of age. He was a barrel–chested, ebony man, with a large, flat face sprayed with short, white whiskers. His nose was wide and flat and his eyes had streaks of bright red running through the pale yellow that surrounded wide black centers. He was wearing a navy blue warm-up suit and a pair of new looking, high-top athletic shoes. A brown canvas bag with drawstring cord was slung over one shoulder.
“So, having fun with your little adventure? Hmm?”
“Yeah, well if I'd known you were going to have some ignorant, mute jungle boy leave me in the middle—“
”Wait a minute,” Big George raised the lantern higher and he leaned into Kenny. “That ignorant, mute jungle boy is my son. He knows this land better than your right hand knows your little twig of manhood.”
“Yeah, well, he didn't have to…hey! What kinda shot is that?”
“I am very sorry if you were frightened.”
“Who was frightened?” Kenny demanded. “Pissed off is what I was. Still am.”
“Then I apologize for causing you to piss off, but it was important to make sure about your intentions, and…” Big George looked over Kenny's right shoulder, as if tracking some movement in the shadows, “…that you were alone.”
“Of course I'm alone.” Kenny darted a glance back over his shoulder, bringing a smile to Big George's wide face. “Who d'you think I'd've brought? My mum?”
Big George studied Kenny for a moment. “It's who you may have brought, shall we say, unintentionally?” His gaze shifted to over Kenny's left shoulder. Once more he appeared to be following some silent stirrings behind Kenny. It brought the same reaction as before, and Big George's laughter once again rumbled through the darkness.
“You're a sick one,” muttered Kenny. He poked a finger at Big George, but the forward motion of his upper body caused a backward motion of his feet, and he would have fallen again if the older man had not caught him.
“I think we better move to level ground,” said Big George. “After you, Indiana Jones.”
He led Kenny to a relatively open, level patch. Big George set his lantern down and reached into the canvas bag. From it he withdrew two thin pieces of wood, nearly identical in size and shape. Each was about eighteen-inches long and three-inches wide. They were rounded on one end and curved in a stubby angle at the other. The wood was highly polished, with stylized inlays or etchings of some sort of fat, low-slung animal. He handed them to Kenny, who knelt and examined them in the light of the lantern. He started to fit one of the angled ends to the other, but Big George stopped him with a gesture.
“Don't do that. Not yet. Not unless you brought a saw to open it up again.” Again the rumbling laughter. “Once it is put together, it is together.”
“Perfect. Two-thousand dollars perfect.”
“How're the compartments?”
“See for yourself.”
Kenny turned one of the angled ends to the light. The wood was hollowed out, surrounded by a carved lip. The cavities were lined with a thin layer of felt. He nodded approvingly and handed the pieces back to Big George. He untucked his shirt and reached under it to a thick, leather belt circling just above the waist of his pants. There was the faint burr of a zipper being worked, and Kenny drew out two small, yellow, padded envelopes. He gingerly folded back the flaps and slid out two slightly convex-topped disks, each about the diameter of a poker chip.
Big George knelt beside him and moved the lantern to shine directly on Kenny's upturned hand. The disks were deepest, shining black. Within the black were glowing patches and streaks of orange, red, yellow and green that danced with a movement beyond the trembling of Kenny's hand.
Big George gave a long, slow whistle. “Oh my. I have never seen opals like those, not even when I worked down in Coober.”
“Something, aren't they?” Kenny tilted his hand back and forth, letting the light play across the stones.
“Very beautiful. And mysterious. Opals like these have secrets in their souls.”
“You got that right, mate,” Kenny said quietly. “You got that right.”
Big George gave him a quizzical look, but Kenny ignored it and got right back to business. He took two small clear plastic sleeves from a jacket pocket, pressed the sides of one of them between thumb and middle finger to open it and slid in one of the opals. The action was repeated for the second stone. From the opposite pocket, he took a small wad of cotton and a wooden popsicle stick.
“Hold one of 'em out.”
Big George held out one of the wood pieces, hollowed end up. Kenny tamped a bit of the cotton into the opening, followed by a plastic-protected opal, then another bit of cotton. Big George offered the second piece. Kenny nested the second opal in the other hollow then slid the popsicle stick back into his pocket. Big George picked up the lantern and held it high between the two of them as Kenny brought the two pieces together. There was a soft click as they joined. He held the assembled boomerang to the light, examining it from every angle. He drew a finger across the angle. He tilted it one way and then another, trying and failing to detect any sense of movement inside.
“Nice. Very nice.”
“Thank you.” Big George nodded. “But I still don't understand why you are going to such trouble and expense for two opals, no matter how lovely. I don't mind doing a dirty deed against Mr. Gatting, he is an evil man, but what is so special to him about these stones? Why a boomerang? And why did it have to have wombats?”
“I thought you folk weren't supposed to be nosy.” Kenny tucked the boomerang through his belt into his pocket. “Discreet, you know. Want something done quiet and kept quiet, go to the abos, uh, Aborigines, that's what they say.”
“Thank you from my people for the compliment. We 'abos' are also smart enough to know that two opals, even very beautiful ones like these, are not something for which a man risks his life.”
“Who said anything about risking his life?”
Big George regarded Kenny solemnly. “Anything taken from Mr. Gatting had better be worth somebody's life, or he is a fool who takes it.”
“It's worth plenty.” Kenny patted the boomerang. “Don't you worry about that. Kenny Lush is nobody's fool. That bloody Yank has dudded me one too many times. Now I'm going to get a bit of my own.”
“You don't make sense to me,” said Big George, “but we'll let that be. Let's finish up our little transaction and get back to our cozy beds. Two thousand dollars and we call it a night.”
“I thought we said...Stop that! I told you, it's not funny!”
Big George was once again peering intently over Kenny's shoulder. This time he did not break into a wide grin at Kenny's skittishness. He held up a hand for silence.
“Not bloody funny,” Kenny said, but he said it very quietly.
After a long half-minute, Big George turned his attention back to Kenny.
“Two thousand, Kenny.” Big George's voice was lowered to a baritone whisper. “You have the boomerang. I need my money.”
“I've got your money.”
“Since it is my money, I think I should have it now, don't you?”
“No worries, mate, just take me back to the road and I'll take you to the money.”
“You don't have it with you?”
“Are you crazy? Wander around the bleeding bush with that kind of boodle?”
“Until I get payment, I think I will be keeping the product.” Big George advanced a step and Kenny saw there was a knife in his hand. The blade was a good fourteen-inches long, with a ragged edge and upswept point. A nasty looking instrument.
“Aw, Big George, you and me, we're mates.”
“The boomerang, Kenny.”
Big George reached to take the boomerang and, truth be told, what with the knife and all, Kenny was of a mind to let it go without further objection. The bottom end of the boomerang, however, had angled into the coin pouch inside the front pocket of his Ralph Lauren chinos and as Big George tried to pull it up and out, it caught in the narrow pouch and once again Kenny lost his balance. He grabbed at the nearest support, which happened to be Big George, and the two tumbled into each other as something went whoosh over their heads followed quickly by a thwack behind them. From where they landed, Big George on his hands and knees and Kenny across his back, the two men swivelled their heads in the direction of the thwack.
In the light of the lantern they saw a silverish, metallic looking thin shaft stuck about five feet up the side of a tree directly behind them. The portion of it that wasn't embedded in the tree was about six inches long, with three evenly-spaced wings at the end. It was vibrating with a faint hum.
Big George threw Kenny off his back and disappeared into the darkness as quickly as his son had done minutes earlier.
Kenny rolled out of the lantern’s circle of light and into a eucalyptus tree. Now he was glad to be in the dark. It would give him time to reflect on just what to do and which direction to do it in. His reflections were interrupted by a repeat of the whoosh-thwack motif that this time included the variation of rip as it did business with his jacket. Time to move on. Kenny had no idea where he was moving on to but he had a pretty good idea what it was he was running away from and it motivated him. He scrambled to his feet and ran headlong through the forest, stopping only to crash into the occasional eucalyptus.