Authors: Antonia Marlowe
Not So Noble Books
The Book Folks
© Antonia Marlowe
The bodies of the Richardsons had been hanging from the giant fig tree for only two days and nights but the creeping, crawling, flying and burrowing inhabitants of the bush had wasted no time in finding a new home.
A strong gust of wind blowing through the secluded rainforest was enough to set the bodies swaying and twisting in a macabre dance that little disturbed their new inhabitants. Small animals, lizards, ants and assorted bugs foraging for their sustenance had lapped greedily at the juices and tissues that dripped and dropped, oozed and trickled down from the bodies.
As the strangely entwined pair spun and swayed slowly in the breeze there was, at times, a flash of light from the blackened fingers of what had once been a woman and a glint of gold from the wrist of what had once been a man.
A hungry kookaburra tugged at stray entrails that dangled like long juicy worms. The tantalising smell of putrid flesh had attracted many more creatures of the bush and the discordant hum and incessant buzz of a thousand or more blowflies and other insects filled the air. But there was no one there to hear it.
At six in the morning Sydney sweltered, the outside temperature already reaching thirty-five degrees. When it hit forty-five, filtering sky-shields would unfurl automatically, but for now the November sun blazed nakedly from the cloudless eastern horizon.
Awakened far too early, Verity Burne stared at her skydome, mildly annoyed that she’d forgotten to darken it the night before. She imagined she could feel the sting of the sun, though the cooling system of her house worked as efficiently as always. What had woken her this early? She didn’t recall having a nightmare; they hadn’t lasted for long after Terry was murdered. Ruthlessly, she pushed any thought of him away.
She decided to make an early start, catch up on some work. Little more needed to be done on the Coopers for their appearance on the chat show RAZZ! this Friday night, but a lot more research was needed on Gerald and Roberta Richardson for the following week’s show.
What she’d uncovered about the Richardsons and their fabulous
diamond intrigued her, but they were something of an enigma. According to readily available information, they were from South Africa but she was running into unexpected blank walls searching for more information. The short article she’d written about Roberta Richardson’s jewellery had been sparse on personal details, and both Richardsons had refused to allow photographs of themselves to be published. She had confirmed a few suspicions she had but she needed a lot more information before she could pin them down. They hadn’t responded to her calls and messages for the last two days either.
Then she remembered she had a meeting today.
Verity yawned, stretched and said, ‘Good morning, Jeannie. Internal security off, please. Deactivate security for the greenhouse door only. Coffee in ten minutes, please.’
Good morning, Verity. I hope you slept well. Coffee will be ready in ten minutes. Internal security is off. External security is on, greenhouse entry is unlocked. The time is three minutes past six on Tuesday the eighth of November, 2067. Current temperature is 35º. Expected maximum 45º. Do you want news headlines?
‘No, not yet, thanks.’
She was always polite to her computers.
Verity showered, finishing off with an icy blast from all six jets that left her tingling all over. Though the tempting aroma of fresh coffee wafted up from the kitchen she dropped the towel and looked critically at herself in the full length mirrors of her dressing room. No one but Verity would have found fault with her body; at thirty-two she was at the peak of physical health.
The scars barely showed now.
She rummaged in her wardrobe for something to wear, settling on a soft red tank top which complemented her dark hair and pale complexion. She added charcoal-grey pants, low-heeled slides and a light jacket for the air-con in Medea House. One quick glance in the mirror: the semi-permanent eyeliner and lip colour were about halfway through their life cycle and still looked fresh. She had been talked into it in a weak moment, but now was secretly pleased with the result. Adelaide and Lucy were right—it certainly saved time. Nano-cosmetics had advanced dramatically in the last few years; Verity now used the concept to watermark all her electronic products.
As an occasional freelance feature writer for
magazine, she wrote lightweight fluff, articles like the one about the Richardson woman’s jewels. The cover that job provided proved useful for uncovering dirty secrets for cousin Adelaide’s show.
Verity slid her wrist unit on as she ran down the curving staircase. She was proud of her renovated Paddington house with its trickling water wall, part of the filtration, aeration and cooling and recycling system, all her own design.
She headed to the kitchen and poured coffee, took a couple of savoury rolls from the freezer, zapped them and perched on a stool to eat. She poured another mug of coffee and headed out of the kitchen and across the hall.
Verity gestured at a wall panel to unlock her study then activated her system console. She’d had a routine query from
yesterday, asking her to explain a deep probe into the bank accounts of the Richardsons—she’d been a bit careless there. If she needed to dig deeper she’d have to use her shielded equipment. She didn’t have time for that now.
These people are taking far too much of my time. I’m going to tell Adelaide this is the last time … she’ll have to find another RAZZ! researcher.
At eleven she abandoned her attempts, frustrated at the small amount of extra information she’d dug up on Gerald and Roberta Richardson. Someone extremely accomplished had hidden all but the most superficial data, hidden it many layers deep. Why?
That in itself was sending alarm signals.
On this hot morning, Jim Lawrence decided to take his dog to a forest reserve hidden away off a secluded road deep in the Blue Mountains. It was only a forty minute drive but he checked to make sure his car was fully charged. He packed lunch and drinks, settled Rolf on his rug, then set off. Rain or shine they went walking every day. It was already so warm the thought of meandering under the leafy canopy appealed. Little used these days was a picnic area near a giant fig tree which his family had visited in the past. His late wife had loved the tranquillity, and his daughter, the old fig, with its nooks and crannies which were peopled with her imaginings. There was a little creek there, cascading down a slight rocky incline, a nice spot to cool the feet.
He drove up to closed gates. Puzzled, he said to Rolf, ‘Never seen that before, boy.’ He got out of the car, and let Rolf out before walking over to shake one of the heavy metal gates. Broken weeds and deep scrape marks were witness to how long it had been since the old gates had been closed.
He looked down at the dog. ‘Reckon we’ll have to walk from here, boy.’
The gully was well protected, a tiny pocket of temperate rainforest, with tall spindly gum trees, palms, acacias and massive tree-ferns forming a canopy that filtered much of the sunlight. The shaded floor was dense with small ferns, weeds and leaf litter, and the rocks and fallen trees were covered with mosses and lichens. The sharp crack of a whip bird’s call reverberated in the still air.
Jim squeezed through a narrow gap between the gatepost and a thick creeper that had brought down some of the rusty old wire fence. The dog trotted beside him as they walked down the rough dirt track. Suddenly Rolf darted ahead, racing around a bend. A few seconds later the stillness was broken by frantic barking and whining. Jim hurried on; he had never heard the dog make so much noise.
‘Rolf, Rolf,’ he called. ‘Where are you?’
Another outburst came from the left of the track. He caught a glimpse of the dog almost hidden in the exposed roots of a giant fig tree. He could see Rolf jumping up and down, visible with each leap and appearing desperate to climb the tree.
‘Rolf, to me,’ Jim called. Rolf obeyed but pushed himself hard against Jim, trembling. Nervous now, Jim walked a few more steps to where the mighty tree stood, an ancient giant amongst the tall, spindly gums and palms.
He made his way carefully through the snaking roots. A smell hit him. Then a noise—a noise like a million bees humming. He stopped, gagging. Then Jim looked up and stood, mesmerised by the sight of some movement as a gust of wind swept through.
From a thick branch dangled a rope. On the end of the rope a noose suspended a strange distorted body. Then Jim realised the body was two naked people, their arms wrapped around each other in a bizarre final embrace. Their legs and feet were tied together. Intestines snaked obscenely between them and the noose snugged their necks as one. Maggots tumbled from one of the man’s eye sockets. Clouds of insects buzzed around the swaying bodies. Their feet almost touched Jim’s head as he stood petrified and the world spun for a second or two.
He gasped, ‘Rolf, boy, we gotta go. Gotta get away from here. Gotta go.’
Rolf followed Jim as he half ran, half staggered back along the track. He scrambled over the gate, grabbed his phone and moaned, ‘Emergency! Emergency!’
He stared at the swirling pattern on his screen as his retina was read.
‘What is the nature of the emergency? Do you require police, fire or medical assistance?’ the auto responder enquired.
‘I found … bodies! Uh … police!’
There was a pause for a few seconds. ‘Thank you, Lawrence, James. Your identity has been verified. Please leave your communicator switched on for locators. Remain where you are until a response team arrives. ETA is twenty-five minutes.’
Verity programmed the day’s security instructions. She walked through the rear courtyard to the garages that stretched across the three adjoining properties where stairs led to a small gym above them. Seeing the glint of sunlight from the large windows reminded her that the trainer she and Adelaide shared was due tonight.
Doors opened as she approached and she touched a sensor to bring her car up from underground. She disengaged the recharger, settled into her seat and clicked on seat restraints as the car went through its checklist. The satnav was already programmed for her destination in Lavender Bay. The grid picked her up as she headed for the Harbour Bridge, so now on auto she could reread her notes.
She gazed out at beautiful Sydney Harbour as she crossed the bridge, thinking how lucky she was to be here rather than the cold, wet misery of England, or in America with so many bad memories. On an impulse she switched to manual as she rounded the corner to the massive building that was Medea House, then pulled up beside Havington-Clark Park opposite it. She programmed the on-board comp to take it to her parking slot under the building.
After the morning’s intensive research she had a slight headache and in an effort to relieve it, she slung her bag over her shoulder and walked into the park, heading for the illusion of cool in a small grove of trees. The old Prof might be there and she could pry a little more of his story from him.
As she reached the trees Verity stopped and stretched. A voice behind her said, ‘Hello, Miss Brookes.’ She spun around, laughing.
An elderly man sat on a bench deep in the shade. Though shabbily dressed, his beard was trimmed and his thick grey hair tidy, though ruffled by a light breeze blowing from the Harbour.
‘Hello, Prof. How are you?’ she asked as she sat on the bench beside him.
He smiled and said, ‘I’m very well, thank you. I haven’t seen you here for a while.’
‘No, I only come in occasionally to catch up with the gossip. And you’re still calling me Miss Brookes!’
She shook her finger playfully at him.
He laughed … it was an old joke as he had always claimed she looked amazingly like Louise Brookes, a star from his collection of very old movies.
“You’re my first visitor today. It’s a shame not too many stop here these days, nice park. Best view in the world, the Harbour. I never get tired of it. And every year the water creeps a little higher—fascinating.’
She glanced at her wrist unit.
Ten minutes. I’ll take ten minutes to sit and unwind
Verity said, ‘Last time I was here you were about to tell me a story.’
‘So I was, yes, and your phone called you away.’
‘I think I’m safe for now,’ Verity said. ‘I switched it off a while ago.’
‘They recruited me from Cambridge for the History Chair at ANU. That was back in ‘21, so I grabbed the opportunity, and my daughter, and headed for the Antipodes. They blew it up, you know, most of Canberra and the ANU. I was in there when the bombs went off.’
He peered at her over his glasses and gave her a quizzical look. ‘Sorry, Verity. I do tend to go on, I’m afraid. Tell me to be quiet if I bore you.’
Verity slipped her shoes off, stretched her legs out and wriggled her toes in the soft grass, sighing contentedly.
Curiosity piqued she asked, ‘What is ANU and who blew it up? When did that happen?’
‘Australian National University in Canberra. Used to be the capital.’
‘Of course, I know about Canberra … it’s still radioactive, isn’t it? The dome keeps everyone out and the radiation in. I’m a bit hazy on the details.’
The professor continued, ‘In my lectures I made a point of including that terrible event, April, thirty-five, no, thirty-seven years ago.
‘I was down in the university basement when it happened. Luckily for me those basement walls were metres thick and lined with steel to protect the archives. Got buried for a few days. Fortunately I had some food and drink with me. They dug me out but I was in out of action for months. Had radiation sickness, lost my hair.
‘They killed over a million people in that attack, so I was lucky. The docs used me and a few other survivors as guinea pigs, y’know. Cell regeneration therapy was experimental then. I ended up with almost no scars and got back all my hair. And there’s a bonus … all the tests estimate my age at about sixty and I was ninety-one this year.’ He grinned happily.
She relaxed and realised the threatening headache had gone.
Still curious she asked, ‘What about your daughter? Was she there too?’
‘No, Pippa was, let me see, about twenty-five then. She got married. Nice chap he was, from Perth so she was well out of it.’
‘Oscar, how would you feel if I wrote a short article about your recollections for my magazine? Maybe younger people need to be reminded that life here in Australia wasn’t always as safe and secure as it is now.’
He glanced around. ‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ he said, lowering his voice.
‘I won’t mention your name, if you’d prefer it. I’m sorry, I daresay you don’t want to be reminded but if you change your mind, here’s my card.’
‘It’s not that so much. It’s more … um.’ He looked uncomfortable and touched a finger to his lips briefly. ‘It may not be politic to revive the story. You may need more than
She nodded and stood. ‘I understand. I have to go now but it was a pleasure seeing you again.’
He stood as she did and took the hand she offered.
‘Now I wonder if I could run something by you … there’s something rather worrying that’s on my mind. No, no, I won’t bother you with that now. But yes, Miss Brookes, I will give some consideration to that other event and let you know.’
Verity shook her head and grinned at him. ‘Burne, Oscar, Burne.’
He winked at her. ‘Of course, but you do look so much like her.
‘Now don’t worry, my dear,’ he said, patting her hand gently. ‘Don’t let the past ruin your life. Put aside the sadness and be open to happiness again. Life is far too short. I’ve seen it all, Verity, and it’s there in your eyes, but never mind that now. Come and talk to me again. I’m here most days. And there is that something I … well, never mind. It will keep.’
Verity nodded then turned aside and hurried out of the park. She didn’t know how but he had penetrated the somewhat hard surface she presented to most of the world.