I sank into the hot spring, relaxed my arms to let my wings float, and sighed as the tension of the fifteen hour drive washed out of my body. The water was hot, I was alone, and the only way this could be more perfect would be the lack of rotten-egg smell.
The well was artesian, drawing water from 4km underground. It bubbled to the surface under its own pressure, bringing with it a mixture of minerals, the smelliest being iron sulphide. The water at the well-head was scaldingly hot, but after passing through the little power station it had cooled to a comfortable 40C and collected in the concrete tank I now floated in.
I wished for a moment that we had these in Dubbo, but a hot pool there would be far too crowded. Here, at Lightning Ridge, 800 people living on the edge of the Outback, only the few locals and the occasional tourist came here.
A car pulled up. I swore at this occasional tourist softly and tried to ignore them. Four doors slammed. Oh no! There's more than one! I heard them talking. Oh no! There's children! Ah dammit! There goes my peaceful soak.
Two very young foxes pushed through the gate and stopped, staring at me. The parents came through the gate a moment later.
"Don't run on the concrete. It's dangerous," I said. "And get into the water slowly because it's hot."
"Listen to the flying-fox," said the vixen to the kits. "He's a local so he knows what he's talking about."
American tourists, I thought to myself. "I'm not really a local. I'm from Dubbo."
"Nice town," said the fox as he sank into the water. "We passed through on the way up from Canberra." He turned to the vixen. "You coming in, Lana?"
"Pac'jo, the water stinks!" said the young vixen as Lana lifted her from the ground.
"She's right though, Sky," said Lana.
"It is a little smelly but it's clean, Alena," said the fox. "It's no worse than the water at my old home," he added.
"I'll tell you a trick the locals don't tell tourists," I said. "You see that shed, there?" I pointed at the aluminium shed around the power station. They nodded. "There is a condenser in there that collects the steam and stores the water in a tank around the back. It has a shower attached so you can wash off in fresh water."
"Why don't they tell tourists?" wondered Sky.
"They think it's funny to have smelly tourists walking around town," I said. The kits giggled. "It's that famous outback humour," I added.
"I've heard of that," said Lana as she climbed into the pool. "We've tried a spoonful if Vegemite," she added as she gently eased the young vixen into the water.
Sky lifted the other kit into the air and lowered him into the hot water, the youngster's mouth making a little o of surprise as he sank up to his shoulders. "Is that your pickup in the car park?" said Sky. "It reeks of alcohol."
"Yeah, it has a fuel leak somewhere," I said. "And it's called a ute, here."
We chatted idly for a while, but I'd had enough when the kits, Jason and Alena, discovered the joy of splashing water at each other. I said good night and left for the motel.
At 7am I opened the door of my room, spread my wings to the world, took a deep breath, and immediately wished I hadn't. Even at this early hour the air was hot and dusty, an indication that the summer's day would be unbearable. A good day to spend under air conditioning.
Judging by the number of cars in the car park there were very few guests in the motel. Besides my trusty old ute, reeking of fuel alcohol, and the foxes Winnebago, oozing the slight fried food smell of burnt biodiesel, there was only one other vehicle, a small electric run-about that had been liberally plastered over in the white clay from a local mine. The vehicles looked out of place in the huge parking area.
I wandered the few dozen metres to the pub. Technically, the pub belonged to the motel, but the sheer size of the building relegated the accommodation to one small wing. This place could comfortably seat 2000 people, more than twice the town's population. Make that "official" population. In the books, Lightning Ridge had a population of 800. In the books that count, the hotel's membership registrar, the town had a population of 10,000. This was the place a lot of people disappeared to if they needed to, well, disappear. They were drawn here by the opals, extraordinary black gems with iridescent flashes of green, blue, yellow and red. Mining them was a dangerous occupation.
I, too, came here for the opals. As a buyer the dangers I faced were more warm-blooded and furry. I made a show of tightening the velcro strips that closed the wing slits of my shirt, while at the same time reassuring myself that my Glock was securely in place. Only an old badger sitting on the verandah was visible but that didn't mean he was the only one watching. You can never be too careful.
"Morning, Young Shady," said the old badger. I don't know how long he'd been living here but he still had a recognisable Yorkshire accent.
"Good morning James," I replied. Everyone else called him Old Jim but I felt he was old enough to earn a little respect. "Will I see you at my table?"
He nodded once, very slightly. "I'll just sit here for a while and see how it goes."
That's a bit unusual, I thought as I entered the hotel. My train of thought was interrupted by the sight of the new bar attendant, a dingo who lit up a cigarette as soon as I entered. I thought I recognised him, but the dingo I knew didn't smoke or have a black patch of fur covering the right half of his half his face. The filthy habit masked his scent. I took an instant dislike to him.
"Where's Dave?" I asked.
"Bought a small pub in Sydney," said the dingo, blowing smoke as he spoke. "Got a 6pm to 9am licence. He said you bats were an oppressed minority who needed a place that didn't close when it got dark."
I made a mental note to track down my fellow flying-fox. "Could you ask the chef to get me a bowl of fruit?" I asked. "A mix of anything but citrus would be fine."
"A big box of fresh mandarins arrived earlier," said the barman. "Er... yeah. No mandarins. Do you want a drink?"
"Apple or oran... Apple. Right. I'll bring it over."
I thanked him and went to my table. Most of the room was flooded by the artificial light of the fluro-strips, but the table I chose was a private booth directly under the skylight. Sunlight streamed down the shaft to be diffused by the window of ground glass in the ceiling. A small sun-tracking mirror on the roof ensured many hours of good light.
People started filling the room, sitting so that they had empty tables between them. No one sat closer than two tables from me. I couldn't help smiling to myself. It was obvious they were all NOT here to see me, and they were making sure everyone knew that. Oh, they might wander over to say 'hi' to their friend Shady the opal buyer, but they were here for other reasons. Most of them had nothing to sell but it never hurt to keep an eye on what the others had, and it was the only time they gathered in a large group without trespassing on claims. I remembered a sign I'd seen here many yeas ago when I took a wrong turn. 'Trespassers will be shot' it said, and underneath had been added 'Survivors will be shot again.' I started buying better maps.
My eye wandered over the gathering. They were an odd mix of people of various species, their fur colours muted by a powdering of the fine white clay picked up as they dug for the precious stones.
A shadow loomed overhead. I looked up at the antlered figure. "Andy the Finn!" I exclaimed.
"Hullo Shady! You here to buy opals?" he said loudly as he sat across the table and plonked down a bag of stones. I knew he wasn't from Finland. A more likely origin was northern Germany or Denmark, and it was quite possible that his name wasn't Andy. But he'd called himself Andy The Finn when he arrived in town 20 years ago and that has been his name since. Like I said, people disappeared here.
"How's the country club?" I asked.
He grimaced. "Ach! This rain means I have to mow the golf course! And grass is growing on the greens. And now one of the trees on the tennis court fell over so I got nowhere for the net."
I couldn't help smiling. Andy owned a large patch of scrub. One day he ran a slasher through one corner and called it the fairway, although the golf ball is more likely to ricochet back at you than bounce toward the greens. The greens were actually patches of bare sand oiled flat with motor oil. And the tennis court was an ant-infested patch of clay with the net strung between a pair of trees. The part that amused me the most was that no one in town thought this was unusual. Once a week he ran an old bulldozer through his open-cut mine, washed the clay away from the bucket, and used the bits of opal to pay for food and fuel. I nodded at the bag,
"So you have some stones for me to look at?"
"Yeah! Chust some crap," he said as he opened the bag. The last time he told me that he walked away with a $6000 cheque. We looked at the stones, haggled a bit, and I wrote out a $1000 cheque to Mr Cash, the first of many cheques Mr Cash would receive that day. As Andy stood he looked at me and said softly "I got your phone call."
"Yesterday. You rang and told me what time you'd be here. And you asked about Old Jim."
A shiver ran up my spine. "That was careless of me," I said casually. Andy knew I didn't make that call. I'd never tell anyone my time of arrival. In fact my motel room was booked for a week so I could arrive at any time during that period. And I never called James 'Old Jim.'
"You should be careful," said Andy, and he was gone.
The old stag had given me a warning. Somebody knew I was coming. My regular trip had taken a sudden disturbing turn. I tried not to show it, but I was worried and mind was elsewhere. Miners sat in front of me, I haggled a bit for the show of the thing but my heart wasn't in the job. None of the stones were exceptional, mostly crystal and irregular pieces I could sell to jewellers to make doublets.
The day wore on. By late afternoon I had decided to leave and prepared to pack up when a silence descended on the pub. I looked up and saw old James limping toward me. In my worries I'd forgotten he was outside. Rumours had been flying around the town that he'd found something exceptional. Now we were going to find out if they were true.
The old badger sat across from me and placed a cloth bundle on the table, opened it, then spread the stones out over the rag. I blinked.
"Wow. You've got a load of chips and crystals," I said. "The rumours were wrong."
"Oh no they weren't," whispered James. He placed another, much smaller cloth bundle on the table and opened it. "I knew this was a good one so I had it cut and polished."
I stared at the stone and felt my heart jump. It was a perfect black opal called a harlequin, at least 10 carats in size. The iridescent flecks deep in its heart were huge, red like fire with the occasional yellow flash. As I turned the stone under the light it changed like a kaleidoscope until an electric blue streak flashed across the surface. I tried to show I wasn't excited but I couldn't help myself: I licked my nose.
"It's the sort of stone you add to a collection," said James. I nodded. "And you put 'Not For Sale' on it," he added.
I nodded again but said nothing. In my head a cash register added up the value, reached $250,000 and added a 'plus' symbol. I licked my nose again. "I can't buy this," I said suddenly. James looked at me blandly. "I can't afford it. How about I sell it on commission?" He smiled and nodded but said nothing. He knew I would get a better price for him that way, instead of trying to beat it down.
James opened his mouth, then snapped it shut as he looked over my shoulder. "Oh ah! Here come the Yanks," he said suddenly. I turned and saw the family of foxes walking toward us. They saw me and waved. I waved back, casually rested my arm on the table and let my wing cover the stones. The old badger tapped my wing and said, "It's okay. The stone is out of the bag now. They can look." He nodded at the family. "Nice people but the kits are a bit noisy."
"I met them last night."
"They were noodling around my mullock yesterday," said James. "Didn't find anything, but I think Lana has it bad. Hullo again!" he said happily as they joined us. Jason and Alena scrambled onto the seat beside me.
James motioned Sky and Lana to sit beside him. "I see your pickup still has the fuel leak," said Sky.
"Yeah. I'll get it seen too in Dubbo," I said. "It's more a seepage than a real leak." I paused for a moment then uncovered the stones.
"Oh yes!" exclaimed Sky. "Look Jason! These are black opals! What did I tell you about them?"
The young fox screwed up his eyes. "These ones are se- seminentry but the opals from Mexico are volcamic from volcanos."
"They're not black," said Alena, poking at the stones. "They're lots of colours. What's seminentry?"
"They are formed by water," said Sky.
I listened with half an ear as the father explained the sedimentary formation to the kits, and concentrated on Lana, who was staring at the stones. "You're right, James. She has it bad."
Sky stopped talking and looked at me, then Lana. "She's got what?" he asked.
I waved a hand over the stones. Lana blinked and looked up, saw us watching her, and frowned. "What?"
James patted Sky on the shoulder. "Your mate has caught the opal fire," he said. "I'm afraid your wallet is going to take a beating until it leaves her," he added as he examined the opals on the table. "I think I have- Ah! Here it is." He picked up one of the smaller stones (my mental calculator fired off: 1/3 carat, full solid near-black, mostly greens and blues, $150-$200) and placed it in Lana's hand.
The vixen looked surprised. "I-I couldn't-" she stammered.
"Yes you can," interrupted James.
"You certainly can," I said as I wrote out another cheque to Mr Cash and handed it to the old badger. Lana's eyes grew wide as a smile crept across her muzzle. "Think of it as our apology for the Vegemite trick." I saw James' look. "It wasn't me!" I said quickly.
The smile on Lana's face grew. "Thank you," she whispered.
"It looks like foxfire," said young Jason as he poked the stone with a finger.
"It does!" said Sky. He went to take the stone but Lana's hand closed protectively over it.
I found a plastic tube with a cork in my briefcase and handed it to her. "Put it in here so you won't lose it," I said.
"I don't think that's possible," muttered Sky as he tried to prise open his mate's hand.
I packed the opals into the briefcase and closed it. "I'd better get these to the vault in the bank," I said as I stood. From the corner of my right eye I saw two others stand. I pulled my pistol and held it high as I loaded it. The noise of the action echoed around the pub. The shadowy figures sat down.
"Kangaroo and a wallaby, window table," muttered James.
I nodded. Sky and Lana were looking at us curiously. "I'm being followed," I explained in a low voice. "I'll organise secure transport for these and head off." We said our goodbyes and I turned to go, letting my glance fall on the pair at a table by a window. No one followed me to the bank.
Dusk deepened. Absently I switched on the headlights, not that I needed them but there were other vehicles on the road as well as those wild animals whose branch on the evolutionary tree did not lead to sentience. Nothing spoiled a drive like hitting a wild 'roo at 110kph.
I'd been on the road for an hour and still had a good ninety minutes to Walgett. In between the Ridge and Walgett was an awful lot of bush and no signs of civilization apart from the lights of isolated farms run by herbivores, and even these were few and far off the road.
It was no wonder vehicles tended to drive in convoys at night. You never knew how long it would be until the next vehicle would happen by. I had one behind me now. I munched on a dried apricot and adjusted the mirror so his lights weren't so bright in my eyes.
The trip was boring so I sang badly along with my Small Faces CD. Halfway through Itchycoo Park something under the ute went BANG! I braced and waited but the tell-tale washing caused by a flat tyre didn't happen. I relaxed. It must have been a stone or stick hitting the underside.
Then the motor died. I stared in disbelief as all the dash lights flicked on, filling the cab with a red glow. The ute coasted along the flat road while I tried a few unsuccessful clutch starts before pulling into a lay-by. The other car followed me to a stop.
I could smell the problem as soon as I opened the door. It only took a glance underneath to see ethanol pouring from the shattered fuel line. I swore loudly.
Car doors slammed. "Got a problem?" called a voice from the other vehicle. I squinted into the glare of the headlights and saw a pair of silhouettes walking toward me.
"Looks like the fuel line is buggered," I said.
"Bummer," said another voice. "Still, it was only a matter of time. You should have had that leak fixed before you left the Ridge."
I recognized that voice. A cold hand clutched my heart. Something was very wrong.
Yeah," said the first voice. "It would only take a small bump to break the line and here you are, stranded."
A pair of strong hands grabbed my arms before I could react. "Alone," added a third voice from immediately behind. I twisted my head and looked into the face of the kangaroo I saw in the pub. He stood a good 40cm taller than me and was twice my weight. I couldn't break free.
"It's amazing what you can do with a small detonator and a cheap remote unit," said the first voice.
The bush was silent except for the sound of a distant aircraft. One of the silhouettes lit a cigarette. The flare of the match illuminated a canine face with a black patch of fur.
I gaped at him. "Mick?"
"Yeah," said the dingo. "It's business. Nothing personal."
"It feels bloody personal to me!"
The wallaby laughed as he stepped forward and put a set of handcuffs on my ankle, then padlocked the chain to the bumper on my ute. "Don't want you flying off," he explained as the kangaroo searched the cab.
"They're not here," said the roo after a moment.
"Where are they?" asked the wallaby.
"Where are what?" I wondered.
The 'roo walked around to the front of the ute. He'd found my cricket bat and batted at an imaginary ball in the headlights. "You are an opal buyer," he said swinging the bat again. "You bought opals today. Oh! Hit a six then!"
"No, only a four," said the wallaby without taking his eyes off me. "So where are the opals?"
"I don't have-" I began. The 'roo swung instantly, the bat slamming into my left arm just above the elbow. The sound of breaking bones reached my ears, then I was lying on the ground with waves of pain burning through my body.
"Now that was a six," said a voice.
Someone knelt beside my head. "You- bastards!" I gasped.
A voice penetrated the haze in my head. "Where did you hide them?" it asked but I could not answer.
"Let me ask," said a voice. I was hauled to my feet and held there. There was a metallic click, followed by more pain heaped on the pain. They hauled me to my feet again. I blinked down at my arm and felt mildly surprised to see a knife protruding from it. A yellow-furred hand grasped the handle and removed it. They hauled me to my feet a third time. I don't even remember falling.
"Geez Mick! Don't kill him yet!"
"We're not going to kill him, Murray," said the dingo. "Bodies cause problems."
"Only if they're found," said the 'roo. "Ask old Q."
The wallaby laughed, a nasty sound. "We can't really, can we?"
"What did you do with the opals?" asked the dingo again, after a long pause.
The words swam into my mind. "Security van to Dubbo," mumbled someone. I think it was me. "I have a key."
A hand reached into the pocket of my vest. "So he does!" said a voice. I sank to my knees. Other voices intruded on my thoughts, so high and whispery I knew I was imagining them. "Dump him."
"I'll do it."
Then I was being dragged. I lay gasping where I'd been dropped. A figure bent over me and something hard was pressed against my skull. The object was moved so I could se it: a pistol. "Stay dead, Shadow. Do you understand?" No one had called me that name for years. "You have to stay dead. Don't move." The yellow hand turned the pistol to face into the bush, away from me. There was a loud explosion, a flash, and a lot of shouting.
Mick checked the pulse of the prone form on the ground before standing. "Right. I'll dump the body and head to Dubbo. Murray, you take Keith back to the Ridge and make sure everyone sees you there."
"Why?" asked the kangaroo.
"Because, Keith, it will be our alibi," said the wallaby.
"And everyone knows I'm going to Dubbo," said Mick. His ears flicked irritably. He rubbed the side of his head and frowned. "Can you hear anything?" Murray and Keith shook their heads. "I must be imagining it."
A dozen black figures dropped out of the night sky, surrounding the trio. As each figure landed they aimed a rifle and cocked it. The night filled with metallic clicks and shouting.
"POLICE! DON'T MOVE! PUT YOU HANDS IN THE AIR! PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!"
Keith and Murray gaped at the heavily armed and armoured black bats, stunned to find themselves staring onto the muzzles of Steyr automatic weapons. Across the chest of each officer's armour were the words State Protection Group.
Mick thrust his arms into the air, and with a quick movement let the magazine of the pistol slide out and fall to the ground. "You'd better put your hands up," he said quietly. "It's the SPG."
One of the officers bent to examine the figure on the ground. "He's still alive Sarge, but his arm's broken."
"See to him, Doc," said the sergeant, glaring at Keith. "I want to see how well a 'roo runs without kneecaps."
"Wait! Wait! HE stabbed him!" wailed Keith, nodding at Mick.
The sergeant scowled. "Senior Constable! Cuff these two to the front of their car."
"And call for backup and an ambulance."
Murray and Keith were herded away. The sergeant turned to Mick. "Doc? Get Mr Greyshades off the ground. The ants will find him soon." He picked up the magazine and held it in front of the dingo's nose. "Nice trick. Who are you?"
"DS Rick Gloamin, Federal Police," said the dingo as he watched the two constables move the injured flying-fox. One spread the broken wing and examined the membrane in the headlights.
"What are the Feds investigating in my state?"
"The disappearance of opal buyers in three states," said the detective absently. "How's his wing?" he called.
"It's broken, but there's no bruising," said the medic. "Your knife wound stopped the odema spreading into the membrane."
"You are full of surprises," said the sergeant. "How would a non-flyer know about that?"
The dingo smiled down at the sergeant. "Shady and I grew up together. I hope he forgives me for stabbing him."
I looked at my old friend sitting beside my hospital bed as he told me what happened.
"So you smoked cigarettes to hide your scent?" I asked as he finished.
"Yes," said Rick. "Horrible things, but sometimes a bloke has to do it."
"And you called yourself 'Mick' in case you forgot yourself and answered to 'Rick.'"
"Simple, but effective."
"And the black patch?"
"Simple melanin stimulation of the follicles," said Rick. "The boffins in Canberra did it. They reckon it will grow back to normal in a few months."
"Right." I turned my head to look at my poor right arm, stretched out and held rigid by a steel frame. Some pins penetrated the skin and, the doctor had told me, were embedded in the bone to hold it in place while the break mended. "There's just one thing."
I turned to face Rick. "You stabbed me, you bastard!"
My friend looked embarrassed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry. It was all I could think of to stop the blood from forcing it's way into the membrane."
"Yeah, well," I mumbled. "The doc reckons it saved my wing. Still, you STABBED ME YOU BASTARD."
"You're welcome," said Rick, smiling. "So how did the SPG find you so fast?"
"Did you look under the floor of my ute?"
Rick frowned slightly. "Yeah! The Sarge showed me. Where did you get five bars of gold?"
"I came through Cobar," I said. "You know that armoured vehicle that leaves the gold mine every week?"
"Empty. They actually carry the bars in any old thing; station wagons, utes, pick-ups- you name it. It was my turn this week. I phoned the mine before I left the Ridge and told them I was being followed. They got the SPG."
"But you went to the Ridge!"
"I always go the Ridge," I explained. "A break in routine would be obvious."
"I heard a plane before the squad arrived," said Rick after a moment's thought. "They jumped out of that?"
"Yeah. They tracked you down with their sonar and probably 'saw' everything your friends did. They can talk at those frequencies, you know. It's weird flying with them; they shout at each other and ping and no one else can hear them except me." We were silent for a moment, but I couldn't help myself. "YOU STABBED ME YOU BASTARD!"
At that moment the door flew open and the matron burst into the room. "If you don't stop swearing," said the tigress as she loomed over Rick, "I will throw you out." She examined my arm and felt the membrane. "I'll send a nurse in with some sorbalene to rub into your wing," she said after a moment. "The we can talk about your rehab. Oh! And there's a family of foxes here to see you. I'll send them in." She left the room, pausing on the way out to hold up a waning finger.
"Ooh! A nurse to give you wing-rubs!" said Rick. "Lucky you."
"He's not my type. Besides, he's too rough," I muttered. Rehab. If I was lucky I'd be flying again in a few months. Time to look for an easier job.