The Southern Ocean, 6 miles north west of the Scorpion Archipelago October 31st 1997 c. 2pm
“Look, we’ve gotta get him away from here; he’s lost a lot of blood!” She had to shout above the noise of the engines and the pounding of the sea, which had grown quite a bit rougher in the last hour.
“But the Professor, Jane, the others…”
“They’re gone, Dirk, they’re all gone. The Professor and Jane are dead! I don’t know where the others are.” She decided their story could wait until they were away from here. A surge caught the inflatable and nearly threw it against the floats of the plane. “Look, for God’s sake, get us on board!” They had brought the boat a few miles north of the archipelago, and once the fuel had run out, and the sea had grown wilder, they became genuinely anxious. The edge of hysteria in Catalina’s voice was real enough.
Dirk threw them a rope and reeled the boat in. Catalina saw just how clever Pete had been. He had lost enough blood to look pale and his stained, gory shirt meant the sight of him would prompt Dirk to take action. Nevertheless, she knew his apparent state of semi-consciousness was an act. There was no love lost between the pilot and his injured passenger; Dirk was probably tempted to go look for the Professor, but he could not deny a sick man a flight back to civilisation – he was too professional for that.
When they had managed between them to haul Pete aboard the plane, followed by the deflated boat, Dirk eyed them both up. “What the hell’s happened? How did Jane and the Professor die?”
Catalina saw now that Dirk himself was pale. “Jim killed them.”
“It’s a long story, Dirk,” Catalina started to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, “and I don’t feel ready to tell it right now.”
“Please Dirk,” she sobbed.
“Where are their bodies?”
“On the island – the Professor and Jane at least.”
“Well, I’m going back for them.”
“Dirk, for God’s sake, we’ve gotta get Pete to a hospital. And that fucking maniac could be back at the camp by now. I wouldn’t rate your chances of getting away alive – they’d want your plane for sure.”
“But I can’t just leave my friends there.” The Aussie was looking through the door towards the horizon. There was a mixture of emotions on his face, none of them winning the battle to form an expression.
Catalina saw her chance. “I know Pete’s not your friend…”
He gave her a sharp look.. “Hey, I wasn’t saying…”
She pushed on through: “…but you strike me as a guy who lives in the here-and-now. Well here and now, we’re alive, one of us is wounded, and we’re both possibly just the tiniest bit traumatised,” her tone had taken on a suitably sarcastic edge, “so I, for one, would like to get the hell away from here.”
“I know, but…”
Catalina put a hand on Dirk’s arm. The coldness that sometimes extinguished the fire in her heart wondered how he would feel if he knew that same hand had fired the gun that killed his friend, and delivered the blow that broke Jane’s neck. It would have been happy enough to shoot shot the big Aussie too, if she had had her way. “Dirk.” She turned her tearful, jungle-green eyes towards him. “They’re dead. Come back if you must.”
“Okay sweetheart, I guess you’re right.” He looked at Pete. “There’s some brandy in the first aid box; better bring him some.” Dirk puffed out his cheeks. “To be honest, I don’t think I’d have the fuel to make another landing. Let’s get away from this hell-hole for now.”
Perth, Western Australia, November 1st 1997 p.m.
“So he just turned?” queried Dirk
Catalina looked to Pete for support. Dirk had brought a field doctor he knew to his place that morning, rather than go to a hospital. He thought it best to avoid the publicity just for the moment.
“There was something about that place,” said Pete. “The forest kind of…played with everyone’s heads. It was silent as the grave. There wasn’t a trace of life in there. I don’t know whether it got to Jim a bit. Also to the Professor; he seemed to withdraw into himself. Everyone seemed on edge somehow. But things weren’t helped by Jim going around telling everyone that he didn’t believe in fairy tales, which I guess was a reference to the Professor’s story of the lost kingdom and its secret.”
Pete winced as he leaned across to pick up the glass of water by his chair. He washed down the second pain killer, it bought him important time to gather his lies into a presentable package, wrapped in half-truths; he knew Dirk would return to the archipelago, possibly find certain things that would incriminate the two of them if the story wasn’t watertight. Also, experience had taught him that the thing a liar needed above all was a good memory. The closer he could stick to events, the less he would need to rely on recall. “After a day of hacking and sweating our way through dense forest, everyone was in low spirits. On the second day, there were two discoveries; we found the ruins of an ancient city, and Sutch found a body, which turned out to be the old merchant, Tariq. He had documents on him claiming that there was still human life on the islands, and implying that those people were some of the original settlers.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“I shit you not. He said that water from one of the islands could give the gift of eternal life.”
Dirk said nothing, but Pete could see it was only deference to his old friend Sutch that stopped him from snorting in derision.
“It was around then that Jim told the Professor he wanted to do his own thing; take one of the boats and scout around the other islands. Sutch said they had already made an important find and should record everything in detail before wasting valuable time and resources elsewhere. After all, it was a preliminary expedition. But I guess Jim had other ideas. He saw fortune and glory.
“He also seemed to have quite some influence on Cobus and Robbie, who wanted to go with him. It’s not surprising really; they’re young and impressionable, he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner…”
Dirk frowned. “I don’t get it. The students all held the Professor in the highest regard. Why would they go against him?”
“Like I said, you had to be in that place to know how it felt. It played with your mind. Perhaps they wanted to see if any of the other islands were less…suffocating.
“Whatever the reason, perhaps to avoid a scene, the Professor allowed them to take one of the boats. But he made sure the guns and explosives stayed where they were, under lock and key. Jim tried getting the rest of us to go with him, but my wife’s loyalties were to her father, and my loyalties were to my wife.”
“My loyalties were with Jane as well,” chipped in Catalina. She had left all the talking to Pete, fearing to say anything that might tangle the roots of his nascent story. “After all, she picked me for this trip. Plus I thought we females should show solidarity.”
“Anyway,” continued Pete, “they didn’t come back that night. That was why, at first light, we contacted you. As a split party we were never going to achieve anything. But the Professor was also worried about the welfare of Robbie and Cobus.”
“This is crazy. I can’t quite believe it. Why would Jim do this? He seemed a level-headed guy.”
“Dirk, how many times do we have to say, the island had a peculiar effect on you,” said Catalina, unable to conceal her growing irritation. The Outback messes with your head, but this place hung all around you like a black curtain, as if bad things were just waiting to happen on the other side.”
“Who knows,” said Pete, “maybe it messed with Jim’s mind. He’d seen a lot of bad shit in his time. Who knows what he’d been bottling up, just needing some catalyst to spark a reaction. Really, I can hardly believe it myself. But the worst is to come.”
“Sorry, I interrupted,” said Dirk. “Carry on.”
“Not long after we called you, Jim did show up again…on his own. We were up by a waterfall we’d found, washing ourselves and he came marching up, not making a hell of a lot of sense, with a strange look in his eye. He said that he’d discovered something amazing. He was going to need more guns, ammunition, explosives, and he also wanted to take some kit away to set up another camp. Only thing was, he didn’t seem inclined to share why, or where. But I think he underestimated the Professor. My father-in-law didn’t get to lead teams around the world and be who he is…was…without having a backbone. He told Jim that – how did he put it? – this wasn’t a pick’n’mix expedition. He’d organised it, paid for it, was more than happy to invite input, but he was in charge. He certainly wasn’t about to hand over the keys to the gun-box or the explosives.
“You know yourself, Dirk, there wasn’t a hope in hell of breaking open those boxes and Jim knew it too. So this was where our photographer friend showed his true colours. He claimed to have left Cobus and Robbie doing a further recce on the other island and said that if the Professor didn’t hand over the keys, he’d leave them there. The Prof was shocked, but he wasn’t simply going to back down. Things got a bit ugly, and Jim’s posturing got more and more aggressive. Now Jane stepped forward and told him to back off. He was behaving like a lunatic at this point. He shoved Jane to one side.” Pete looked down in his best approximation of grief; an emotion he’d only truly experienced when totalling a Lotus a few years before. “She slipped on the rocks.” Catalina placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. They were working well together, though it would not have surprised Pete if the hand of comfort was also a reminder not to grieve too deeply. It was the hand of a murderess; was she reminding him of that, or was he simply reminding himself? “Her neck must have snapped,” he continued, still watching that hand. “The next thing we know, she’s lying under the water. I rushed forward to see if she was okay, to pull her out of the pool. I didn’t see what happened next.”
“But I did,” Catalina interjected. “Both the Professor and Jim stood there shocked – I don’t think Jim meant to kill her. In fact Pete didn’t notice it, but he seemed to have taken quite a shine to her.”
Pete glanced at her. It was a look that could have been interpreted as surprise, but he was wondering what the hell she was doing. This was dangerous. It meant he could have had a motive for killing his wife. Was she sending him a message? She continued before he could react further. “But even as Pete was struggling down the rocks to try to get to the pool, the Professor turned on Jim. He might have been an old man, but he came forward full of rage. The next thing I heard was two shots…” She buried her head in her hands and her next words came muffled through her fingers. “…he – Jim – shot that poor man.”
There was silence in the room. Dirk squeezed his thumb and forefinger against his eyes. This was just unbelievable. Just how wrong could something go? How could one old man’s dream turn into this mayhem and murder? What had gone on down there on the island? He looked at the two survivors. “How did Jim have a gun if the Professor wouldn’t allow him access to the gun-box?”
Pete thought on his feet, though he was annoyed with himself for not having covered that ground. “We posted guards each night. It had been Jim’s turn the first night with Cobus. He must have already been hatching his plans, so made sure he didn’t return the gun in the morning.”
“How did you two get away?”
Pete wasn’t sure he liked the tone of the question, but decided to keep that to himself. There was no point giving anyone a glimpse of your cards when you held the aces. “I saw this was only going one way. For a moment after he’d shot the Professor, Jim seemed almost catatonic, as if he, too, couldn’t quite believe what had happened. I saw that was our only chance. I grabbed Catalina and ran. The next thing I know it felt like someone’s hit me on the arm with a rock. I kept running – I think I’m more aware than some of the staying-power you get from adrenaline. When I was in Miami once, I remember seeing this guy being chased by the cops; he was so full of barbiturates they literally had to pump fifteen bullets into him to bring him down. Anyway, I heard a couple more shots rip into the trees around us, but for some reason he didn’t follow us. Maybe he thought it’d be a waste of energy, or bullets. Or maybe he just realised we had nowhere to go. He had access to the keys for the guns and explosives now. Perhaps whatever he’d discovered was consuming him, and he couldn’t wait to get back.
“We hid in the forest for hours, but didn’t hear the boat leave, so assumed he was still around. We knew we’d have to come out; find some way of letting you know where we were. Also my wound had bled a lot and I was feeling weak. I needed to dress it. That was when we had a change of fortune. We crept back towards the camp. It seemed deserted. The guns and the sat-phone had gone, as had some of the food. Either we just hadn’t heard the motor, or he’d decided to save fuel by paddling back. But we couldn’t believe it when we saw he’d left the other boat.”
“Why do you think that was?” Again Pete imagined – was it imagination? – an undertone of suspicion in Dirk’s voice. But wasn’t that only to be expected? People he cared about were dead, and someone he held in ill-concealed contempt had survived. Perhaps it was just despair, not doubt. But there was no denying; Dirk looked like someone who’d been left with a pan-full of dirt when he’d been prospecting for gold.
Pete shrugged, and then grimaced as the movement sent pain through his shoulder. “Perhaps he just wasn’t thinking straight.”
Pete reached for his cigarettes and chose not to take the bait. “I’ll give you that one.” He pushed himself up, wobbled a bit and started to make his way outside for a smoke. He turned at the door. “Whatever the reason, we got out of there, and that was our next bit of luck. So here we are.” He stepped outside and lit up.
Dirk rubbed his chin. “What about the bodies – I mean the Professor and Jane?” He directed the question at Catalina, but Pete answered from the porch. “They’re still where they fell – or at least that’s where we last saw them. We didn’t get a chance to return to them and bringing them with us was impossible. Of course Jim may have moved them by now. I mean, he’s got to be expecting that someone’s going to come back. In fact he’ll probably be calling you as planned. He won’t know what’s happened to us. And he won’t know we had already called you.”
“Yeah, but he’ll see the boat’s gone. He’ll know there’s a GPS unit in it. I just don’t figure how he thought he could get away with this.”
“He has the sat-phone. What use is a GPS tracker unit when you’re hundreds of miles from anywhere and no-one’s expecting you to be there? We’re not expected to call in for at least another day. As far as he’s concerned we took our chances with the sea. And if somehow we survived, he’ll just turn the tables on us.” Pete threw down his cigarette, twisted his foot on it angrily and stalked in. “After all, who are you and the rest of the world likely to believe?” He glared at Dirk. “The reputable Mr. Jim Bolton, or the playboy Pete Prince? You don’t like me; I know that. But Catalina and I have just come through a hell of an ordeal and quite frankly, I’m fed up with questions for now. For Chrissakes, I haven’t even been able to bury my dead wife.”
With that Pete slumped back down into his chair, then put a hand to his shoulder in pain.
Catalina looked at Dirk. “So what happens now?”
“One thing’s for sure, there’s gonna be hell to pay…for someone; Jim by the sounds of it, if we ever catch him. But until we get to the bottom of why this happened I suggest we keep it quiet.”
“We can’t just hush this up,” said Pete. “There’s families to tell. Candice.”
“Yeah, but nobody’s expecting to hear anything for a couple more days. That gives me time to get my head around this; get myself organised so that, at the very least, I can get back out there with a couple of well-armed buddies, bring the Prof and Jane home and…take it from there I guess.” Dirk looked out of the window, as if he couldn’t quite believe his dead friends weren’t standing there, relieving him of the burden of grief. “I’m truly shocked; not just by the deaths, but by how it’s happened. If you’d asked me to name three people who struck me as being steady as a rock I’d have said Jim Bolton, Cobus Smuts and Robbie McCulloch. Didn’t know any of them well, but that was just first impressions, which I’ve learnt to rely on.” He looked at Pete and Catalina. “Anything else leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.”
Pete felt himself tense. “Meaning?”
Dirk looked long at them, weighing up what to say. “That your – our – confidence and trust was misplaced. That the Professor’d got it all wrong. That the others were right to try to search elsewhere. Perhaps my old friend was stuck in his ways and they just wanted to make the most of the limited time.” He paused.
Pete realised he couldn’t just let that observation go. Was Dirk laying man-traps? “And you think that justifies killing the my wife and my father-in-law?” He congratulated himself silently. They weren’t just names; they weren’t just people; they were family.
Dirk looked long at him. “No. Nothing justifies that. Nothing.” He leaned back in his chair. “Anyway, you two’ve been through a lot. I suggest you rest up here for a couple of days while I get things sorted.” He shook his head again. “What a fucking mess. And to tell you the truth, the moment I saw that place I just knew something bad would happen.”
Dirk got up and made to leave the living room in which they were sitting. At the door he turned. “I’m sorry if I gave you guys a hard time.”