1 THE OWNER HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
DR JONATHAN CHASELING – young, bearded and hipsterish-looking – navigated his car around ruts and potholes on a relentlessly straight, orange-red dirt track stretching away to infinity. Up ahead he saw a lone tree, a ghost gum with thin, white branches reaching for the sky like skeletal hands.
A few minutes later, he parked near the tree, which was growing in a hollow beside the track. There was no mobile reception here, so he couldn’t take a GPS fix or use Google Maps, but the tree ghost gum was a landmark that would help him find his way back to the car, a RAV4, normally white but now coated with red dust.
A 26-year-old medical graduate on his way to Alice Springs to start a hospital job, Chaseling had detoured off the main highway to check out this place. It was renowned for marine fossils – a legacy of the time, aeons ago, when this part of Australia was covered by a vast inland sea. He got out of the car and walked into the scrub.
Taking a weaving course round scattered patches of saltbush, he kept his eyes to the ground, which was littered with small pieces of flat, rust-coloured sandstone. Every now and then he stopped to pick up a rock and look at it, turning it over in his hand, hoping to see the form of a trilobite or other long-extinct species.
He’d been walking for about 10 minutes when he saw a flat slab of stone, almost a metre long, distinctive because it was the only large rock he’d seen since leaving the track. Chaseling bent down and gripped the edge of the slab. He gave an experimental tug but it didn’t budge. Then he shifted his right foot forward to give his body some leverage and put his back into the job, hauling upwards with both hands. There was a sucking noise as the slab came away from the damp earth beneath.
Holding the rock on its edge, he looked down at the patch of dirt he’d revealed – and noticed something white and rounded protruding from it. An ancient sea shell, perhaps. He set the slab down off to the side. Then he started scraping away the ochre dirt with a finger-length, sharp-edged piece of flint that had been underneath the rock. He gave a gasp. Staring up at him was the eye socket of a human skull.
His hands shaking, he uncovered the other socket, which like the first was filled with compacted ochre dirt. Next he scratched away the earth over the mouth, revealing a perfect set of teeth. Probably an Aborigine from the times before white settlement, Chaseling thought to himself. The teeth seemed to be grinning at him. He looked down at the piece of flint in his hand. It was a dark tan colour, very different in shade and composition to the other rocks in this area. And the picture became clear. This had been the dead person’s prized knife and it had gone to the grave with him. Or possibly her, although judging by the large size of the skull and teeth, it had most likely been an adult male.
Now he knew what to look for, he could see the shape of a rib cage in the dirt. And his eyes were drawn to something else. A small, disc-shaped object the size of a dried apricot, but thicker. It was caked with earth like chocolate on a Kinder
Surprise egg. He picked it up – it was heavy, some kind of rock – and scratched at the dirt with the piece of flint. There was a flash of phosphorescent colour. Opal! His heart started thumping with excitement.
As he uncovered more of the precious stone, he saw that it had raised, spiral ridges radiating out from its centre. It glittered with a kaleidoscope of hues – now emerald green, now a brilliant magenta morphing into electric blue, each shade burning with a fire from deep within the rock. He uncapped his water bottle and rinsed the stone. He thought how 100 million years ago or even earlier, a marine snail – an ancestor of the modern-day nautilus – had lived and died in a primeval sea bed. Its shell became filled with silica-rich mud and fragments of marine life. And after the sea retreated, the contents of the shell gradually transformed into a gem which shimmered with the green of long extinct seaweeds, the blue of ancient fish scales, the iridescent purple of giant sea urchin spines and the brilliant red and orange of prehistoric jellyfish. It could well be worth of a fortune.
Chaseling put the flint back down where he’d found it. After a few moments’ hesitation, he placed the opal in the pocket of his cargo shorts. It won’t be missed, the voice of his shadowy other self whispered inside his head. The previous owner has left the building. He scooped up some dirt and covered first the grinning mouth, then the eyes and nose socket of the long-buried skull.
Sorry Time Description:
You’re driving along a lonely outback road when suddenly a kangaroo leaps out in front of you. Your car is wrecked and then things rapidly go downhill from there as you find yourself under attack from a pack of wild dogs. Having survived that, you cross bloody paths with a pair of violent criminals who’ve murdered two people on a remote Aboriginal community.
And then things go REALLY pear-shaped as you find yourself caught up on a rollercoaster of bloody revenge that takes you to the other side of the globe and to the edge of madness.
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