General Murad, Old Bullskin to the troops, was the hardiest, most resolute of all the Mughals; and even General Murad was wilting with exhaustion. His men and their horses were managing to follow, in the main, but much more time or altitude would mean failure; and that involved perishing, not retreating. Until every possible fastness had been explored, they could not turn back, and one remote strip of plateau, the highest and least accessible, was yet to be reached.
The only known approach was from the steep south-east side, and steepness was only a part of the problem. These treeless mountains were jagged, with frequent sharp dips, so that constant dismounting and tramping were required; horses had to be tugged much of the time, the ground was loose and slatey, punishing a single heedless step. All artillery had been abandoned lower down, though under guard.
Unlike similar landforms elsewhere, the folds offered no moisture or variations of air currents. A single wind nagged, whistling up from some steppe to the north, and it either chilled or parched.
None of these chosen warriors would have made much of a distinction between death and the failure of a mission. An expedition ordered by the Emperor Aurangzeb in the service of God and in the name of the Prophet could not be aborted.
Without anything else, the suspicion that an isolated group of Europeans existed in these mountains would have compelled investigation. The general knew that Emperor Aurangzeb was no tolerater, unlike his great forbear, Akbar. His hatred of heresy was greater than his hatred of degeneracy – and that was very great. Servitude, eunuchs, dancing women, drunkards and drug fiends were among his especial hates. But unbelief was a death in life, and it would not find a haven anywhere on Mughal ground.
Yet the rumours were far more serious than that. Nobody said the disturbing word “crusade”, but certain travellers were bringing word of a band of Europeans who, entrenched somewhere in the west of the Empire, had a line of communication by land with Austria. This was cause for high alarm. The piratical English had been dealt with at sea, but the threat of Austria to the Sultan of Turkey was a threat to Mughal India and to all Islam. Yet the only confirmed event was the interception further west of some traders accompanying a number of young girls of definite Western appearance. The traders escaped, the young girls, probably of slave birth, could tell little of their origins and nothing of their destination.
General Murad knew that far more urgent threats to the Empire lay in the south, where the Hindu Marathas ravaged and expanded. At times he questioned more than he should, though never aloud. Would not peace with all others be a wise course, especially with Sikhs? Even with Christian Europeans and their traders? Did they not brawl constantly with one another, these Christians? Why not find allies in Austria’s Christian enemies, the French, for example?
But Aurangzeb was Muslim first and Emperor second, though he was a capable and energetic ruler. So it was that the general was engaged on what seemed an almost fanciful mission. An advance post of a new crusade? It was not that General Murad believed such a community existed. It must not be thought to exist. It must be shown not to exist.
They would know shortly.
As the troop advanced they could glimpse what appeared to be natural rocky battlements above. There was relief and apprehension at the sight of what had to be the last but most likely place of refuge for the mythical band.
And the expedition had not been vain, after all! They glimpsed shapes very like humans, but unmoving, ranged along the tops.
As the Mughal soldiers came into closer view, they could see that the forms were indeed people, male people. They were dressed like vagrants or beggars, though their faces were smooth-shaven; their hair, against the bright, empty sky, was wild. Whoever they were, they gave no signs of war.
Old Bullskin was, of course, wary. He watched rocks, especially, for any motion. On such steep ground, an avalanche of rocks would be disastrous. He sniffed the air for anything burning. There were smokey aromas wafting, but they were the familiar smells of cooking food and burning dung. Apart from the clank and squeak of their own weapons and harnesses, the crunch of their horses hooves on the slatey ground, the only sounds were of mountain sheep and children at play, coming faintly from above.
Soon the troop could see details of faces. Sure enough, these men were pale-skinned, some blonde, some dark-haired, and the eyes of many were green or blue. Certain of the strangers were now visible in their full length. Their clothing consisted of simple tunics, though a few wore crude leggings. All were empty handed. They gave the impression of being a mountain race who had been here for a long time, not an invading military or espionage unit.
Though the general felt some relief, he remained watchful for tricks, for ambushes. Yet where, in such exposed and remote country, could an ambush come from? And how could these wretches take on elite troops which included Punjabis whom even the general found fearsome?
The troop, with stares, nods and the odd wave exchanged, reached the top of the narrow plateau, rode past the protecting outcrop and into a crude village. Children stopped their play, women looked up from dung fires or a small stone cistern which served as some kind of town centre. Either these people were without fear, or without any resort, so they did not bother to react. General Murad had encountered this before with isolated races. Most of his soldiers found it profoundly odd.
The men who had been watching from the outcrop followed the troop into their village. When the soldiers had halted, there seemed little for anyone to do in such a small place but wait and stare.
General Murad, as always, remained alert and continued to absorb details of the village. There were actual houses, indicating long settlement, though they were little more than sheds of well stacked slate, roofed like a tapering helmet.
The general remained mounted, continuing to look about him. There was no evidence of any kind of culture, no crosses, no Hindoo or Zoroastrian symbols.
The only striking thing was a long building where he could glimpse small, wiry horses stabled. About the village there was horse dung lying about to dry or piled up for some other purpose. Perhaps on the gentler slopes to the west these shepherds had other horses grazing amid their sheep or goats. Well-horsed shepherds! In traversing the world’s greatest empire, the general had seen many oddities. This was another.
Under an open stone shelter there was a huge jar, its decaying flanks reinforced with rope. Evidently, these people were so poor that this was the only closed storage they had in the entire village. There were no other pots of any size: even clay and charcoal must be at a premium here! The jar was so old that it could not contain liquid, so perhaps it contained precious seed.
Evidently, these people were ragged shepherds, once mobile and equestrian, subsequently stranded during some ancient migration or retreat, then forgotten. There would be more of them away from the settlement, minding animals or gathering plants. Perhaps they hunted a little with their horses. The strict yet upright Aurangzeb would want them treated as infants, not enemies. This his general knew.
He called Yaqub to his side. The son of Bagdadi Jews, Yaqub was now a scholar of Islam, a good enough soldier, and quite the brightest fellow the general had ever known. Among his accomplishments was an ability to communicate with anybody, using an array of languages, gestures and symbols.
“Yaqub, what do you think?”
“Europeans, sir, most definitely. Tidy them up and they might be a crew of our English gunners. That fellow there looks much like the French physician who attends the Emperor.”
“So it seems. Well, speak to them, however you can.”
The interpreter began to address the villagers in local languages. There was no response. English, French, Portuguese, Latin were tried, but to no effect. When a villager addressed him, it was in a language completely unknown. Gestures were tried, and after some nods and grunts, a few things were becoming clear, at least to Yaqub.
“Sir, these people say they have always been here, or, at least, no memory survives of any previous country, let alone a country of origin.”
“Well, question them further. They are the Emperor’s people, whether they know it or not. Inbreeding has made them a little stupid, but they can still hear the word of the Prophet. They are human, and their Emperor is kind.”
“Indeed, sir. It’s just that…”
“I feel they are neither inbred or stupid. This is a race which wishes to be silent…or so it seems to me. They are not eager to communicate anything, nor are they curious about us. See their faces, sir.”
The general took the suggestion and examined the villagers’ features and expressions. It was as if they were the imperial conquerors, and the Mughals were the conquered. They were – yes! – indifferent. It was as if they were standing around politely, waiting for unwanted guests to leave.
“Yaqub, I see your point. But one never knows with strange races. Out on the islands I encountered a tribe where the mother must not look at her son, nor name him, after a certain age. Perhaps custom requires these people to show this cold composure.”
“Perhaps, sir. Perhaps. In any event, it may take some time before I can speak with them.”
“You will be given time. I must leave you here with a strong detachment. When I have reported to Aurangabad, the Emperor will no doubt want to provide religious instruction and incorporation for this odd folk. Between you and me, I wouldn’t worry about rumours of crusaders and Christian infiltration. As you see, they are shepherds who have been here for many generations. I don’t like the idea of losing your services for some months, but this matter is close to the Emperor’s heart. Find out all you can, learn their language and customs, Yaqub, but don’t exaggerate. I know you won’t.”
The villagers were dispersing to their various tasks and interests, indifferent to this incursion by representatives of the greatest of empires. There appeared to be no law of hospitality with them, any more than there was an urge to defend their territory.
The general shook his head slightly, as if realising the triviality of his task. He leaned in and spoke to the interpreter almost in a whisper.
“We might be more and better occupied with an emergent Hindoo empire in the south. The Mughals may soon pay a great price for this wide dispersal of their forces. Yet perhaps God will reward piety over practicality: we cannot know God’s mind. In any case, Yaqub, you and I have no choice.”
“Sometimes life must be boring.”
General Murad was surprised and even dismayed by the Emperor’s continued interest in the mysterious village folk, especially after Old Bullskin had made it so clear that no threat of any kind was posed by such an obscure and disconnected community.
Yet they were Europeans dwelling within the empire, and Aurangzeb would have them monitored and converted. To the general’s amazement and chagrin, he was put in charge of the return expedition to the village. The task was to relieve Yaqub and his temporary garrison and to introduce officials and religious instructors, as well as a permanent garrison. If there were any problems or suspicions, the whole settlement must be relocated to an unrelated part of the empire. If there was outright resistance from these strange people, particularly concerning acceptance of the Prophet, their elimination would be called for. Emperor Aurangzeb had too many problems in the south to allow for any serious distractions elsewhere.
On leaving the palace at Aurangabad, the general made his way to Delhi to gather forces, supplies and specialised religious personnel. After that, he once again headed north and west, into those desolate mountains he had hoped never to see again.
Better supplied and with previous knowledge of the track, the general found his second expedition went much more easily.
As the convoy approached the plateau with its natural battlements, they expected to see people above, but there was nobody visible. There were no smells, no sounds but those they themselves made in progressing. Old Bullskin was surprised that Yaqub had not come down to receive them. He commanded several men to fire their matchlocks. As a result, a number of large birds rose from the plateau and wheeled about.
But there was no sign of human life.
Old Bullskin ordered a halt. He was watching, as before, for movements of rock; he sniffed the air for those siege scents in which he was more expert than any other; and he listened.
There was nothing, except the wheeling birds, which now began to settle again.
Now he ordered a detachment of scouts up the slope, while the rest of the troop waited in silence after drawing their arms.
The detachment reached the summit and rode in past the rock battlements. There was no sound above or below during a tense wait.
The scouts now reappeared at the top, and its leader gave the traditional sign for safe advance. There was something in the way he gestured that showed all was not well.
On reaching the plateau, the general rode into the settlement first, accompanied by the scout leader, a Punjabi called Aman. His soldiers formed a perimeter.
The village was deserted, but for corpses of his soldiers. Judging by the bodies strewn about, most had been attacked while sleeping. A few had the hacks and multiple wounds which indicate self-defense, but most had their throats cut or had neat, deep wounds to their torsos. Or perhaps they had been overcome first, then executed.
Yet how did this come about? It would not have been easy for any force to eliminate an entire garrison. For a village of unarmed shepherds, it should have been impossible.
The general dismounted, called in several men from the perimeter to help with identification and preparation for cremation. Over by one of the stone huts, Yaqub was found by a soldier who knew him, and immediately cried out his name. The soldier was about to move the body to the centre of the settlement when the general, on an instinct that only such veterans can have, snapped:
“Don’t move him. Don’t touch anything. Just move away – carefully now!”
The general moved to the spot and began to peer hard, not just at the body – which had shrivelled more than rotted in the dry steppe winds – but at the ground all about it. A piece of slate from the side of the hut still lay across Yaqub’s fingers.
“Aman! I need your sharp eyes. Come tell me what you think. Be careful of how you tread.”
The senior scout drew up to the general’s side.
“Aman, Yaqub must have bled out for a while before dying. It seems to me he has used a stone to etch something in the hard ground here. Tell me what you think.”
“General, I’d say…the outline of a strange shaped sword. It is broad, single-edged. The back is straight, the blade side curved, narrowing toward the handle. I have never seen such a blade.”
“I have heard of warlike shepherds who had swords good for slaughtering sheep or battling humans. Perhaps…but I speculate. What do you make of this circle, and the symbol within?”
“A shield? With what looks like a star or sun symbol?”
“That is what I conclude. But what does this symbol on the shield indicate? A sun or star with – let me count – sixteen rays. Well?”
“Couldn’t say. We have a number of scholars with us, sir. Perhaps we might ask them.”
“I wanted to ask you first, Aman. Scholars will discuss all this as long as there is an empire. I am in no mood for long analysis of symbols and the like. Somehow, an imperial garrison has been overwhelmed by a ragtag of shepherds using a cache of traditional weapons. I need to know who these shepherds were, and where they are going.
“More importantly, the Emperor will want to know.”
The general, still keeping Aman by his side and the chattering scholars at a distance, next inspected the stables. They were empty.
Checking further around the settlement, he noted that the huge jar was gone from its stone shelter.
“I wonder what was in that jar…”
“I beg your pardon, sir? A jar?”
“Yes. There was an enormous old jar here. It was so crumbly that it was wrapped all around in hemp.”
“No, too fragile. They had caves and shepherd’s huts all about the slopes to the west for their swords, shields and whatever else. In any case, they have taken the brittle old thing along with them in their flight. Possibly it had some religious significance.”
“Indeed, sir, before the Prophet men believed many strange things.”
Captain Cornelis Pietersz was a fleshy giant whose drooping sneer and gin-soaked complexion belied his resolve, his hardiness. He was also a man who detested brutality, seeing it as a failure, not a confirmation, of strength.
Yet his ship was in contested waters, and at a time when colonial fortunes were turning. Spain and Portugal may well be loosening their grasps, but the French and English were more adventurous than ever. Word was out that the English had hoisted their flags and unloaded convicts in Nieuw Holland. Another story insisted that they were followed into their first anchorage only days later by the expedition of La Pérouse. Only half of it needed to be true to be gravely concerning. Then there were those Russians!
Since the Treaty of Paris, there was no legal way of stopping the English passing where they will. Yet this part of the globe was still Dutch, if it was anything. The various straits in the southern East Indies could not all be secured, but the captain would, by God, secure whatever he could for Holland.
So it was that Cornelis Pietersz had given orders to interrogate, by any means, the strange, blonde savage his men had captured while drawing water. Their boat had beached below a high plateau on the peninsular, an unusual land form for the region, and they had come across an obviously European man working a stone fish trap in an estuary. The man had tried immediately to escape, though Pietersz’ men had not threatened him. On capture, he had been silent…but more than silent. He exuded a strange indifference, as if he were the captor, yes, as if he were the person of authority. A strange thing in a man dressed in rags and bound in the ropes of a navy that was still far from the meanest on earth.
Who was he? Who were his people? It was like shouting at a storm-tried cliff face. The man would not even acknowledge the existence of those who had him in their power. Every language was tried, he responded to none. If the man had been a brute, if he had been willing just to seem such, the captain may have found a way to spare him, maybe even release him. The man was anything but a brute. He had the staunchness of Pietersz himself, and an an air one could only define as a sleeping intelligence. The man knew something. The something was important, at least to him.
Pietersz was haunted by the possibility that the man represented the dawn of a whole new era of trouble for the Dutch Indies. He may be Russian. Since Tsar Peter had made his way anonymously to Dutch shipyards to learn how to make his country a sea-power, the fear of an altogether new and monstrous power in eastern seaways was pervasive.
Pietersz ordered the kind of official savagery he abhorred.
The man was whipped, firstly with a negenstaart, then, when he remained completely impassive, with a long zweep. To the captain’s horror, the man refused not merely to speak but to react in any way.
Piertersz was obliged to let his officious second-in-command take it further. What made the situation worse was the mounting delight of most his crew.
The man was laid on deck and fastened between points. Chocks were placed under his knees and ankles, then an anchor dropped on his shins. It was a torment based on execution by the wheel, and certain to produce results. The victim screamed briefly after several drops of the anchor, but that was all.
Pietersz’ second officer, a young Company prig by the name of Wiggers, had wanted to continue the interrogation by still other methods. The crew began to joke about suspending the man overboard for sharks to feast on his mangled legs.
At this point, Pietersz drew his pistol and shot the man neatly in the head. Wiggers would no doubt make a complaint to the Company or to officials in Malacca. Let him complain his fill. Pietersz would rather end his career in disgrace than become another white, two-legged monster of the South Seas. Torture was cheap sport for Company prigs like Wiggers. Wiggers had not yet faced a typhoon or Malay pirates, let alone a French warship. Let him complain.
Still, the area where they had found the stranger would have to be investigated. In fact, they would have to assume it was an enemy post to be taken with arms. However unlikely the assumption, it was safer to make it. The man they had captured was no ordinary castaway or straggler. Had there been just a glint of triumph in his eye when Pietersz gave him the coup de grace?
After he gave orders for an expedition to the shore next day, Pietersz went to his cabin. With the help of some rum in lieu of the gin he preferred – the entente with the English had at least made more rum available – he was starting to forget what he had just been forced to do. If it were not for the tattle-tale Wiggers forcing his hand he may have been able to spare the stranger and his conscience. Yet the Company always made sure that there was a Company type on board. What if, as was being mooted, the colonies were to pass from the hands of the VOC, the East India Company, to those of the government? Would things be less dire, less urgent? A government could waste more time and money than a trading company, though the VOC had proven a great wastrel. Might governments prove more benevolent, less exigent?
There was an uncertain knock at the door.
After a hesitant lean-in, one of the common sailors entered. It was Spronk, a quiet fellow, not stupid.
“Well, matroos, what’s the matter?”
“Kapitein, it’s about…”
“Spronk, I noticed you were one of the few men not amused by the proceedings a few minutes ago.”
“Sir, it’s not that I don’t understand the need for such things…”
“Never mind! You were right to show revulsion. Let these pranksters joke in the face of an armed pirate crew…Now, your business, Spronk?”
“Sir, I cannot say if what I have heard is relevant to what…”
“Out with it, matroos. I’ll decide what’s relevant. Tell what you know, or what you’ve heard.”
“Sir, when I was working out of Ceylon there was tavern talk about a group of Europeans, very white, like Swedes or…like us. They had kept to themselves very carefully, living high on a plateau, but near the sea. One contact would come to an arranged place on the shore to transact certain essential trades.”
“What sort of trades?”
“Oh, grain, liquor, cloth. The only unusual thing was women. Somehow they conspired to import young women, it was said.”
“What sort of women? Whores, you mean?”
“No, more like wives, sir. And those wives had come from afar, and were white. It was said they wished to maintain the purity of their race. Such was the talk one heard, but one heard it more than once.”
“And what did they trade with?”
“Just gold and silver, sir. Some of it was very old coin. Some of it was new. It was thought these people did land raids, but very rarely and always in the most secret fashion.”
“A Portuguese who knew of the contact point, once climbed to their plateau – or so he claimed. Perhaps it was a story he told in exchange for drinks, for the fellow was little more than a vagabond.”
“And what did this Portuguese claim to have seen?”
“Some husbandry, perhaps of goats.”
“He said they appeared to worship a large clay jar. Perhaps that was where they kept the coin, he said, but nobody has ever worshiped a money jar…”
“Except certain Dutch burghers, perhaps, late at night, when nobody is watching…Now, tell me, are these mysterious folk still there?”
“Sir, the last rumour I heard was that, after we got Trincomalee back from the British, the Company was determined to secure as much of the coast as possible. An expedition was sent to where the white tribe was supposed to be. They were found, but escaped somehow.”
“Now, a final question, Spronk. It will be confidential, like the rest of our conversation. I think I can trust you.”
“You can, sir.”
“Spronk, was there ever any talk of Russian language or Russian nationality, in connection with these mysterious people.”
“No, sir. Nobody had a clue who they were, where they had come from, or how long they had been on the coast of Ceylon.”
“I see. Well, since we are talking in confidence, and we are both sickened by what just happened up on deck…have a drink, matroos!”
Deserted. An entire village of elevated thatch huts, with bamboo enclosures for animals of some sort, was deserted. Except for countless chickens wandering free, the animals had all gone, though there was fresh dung about, and something resembling a goat was grazing on a rocky rise in the distance. There was evidence of very small fires – which would explain how nobody sailing these straits had ever observed smoke by day or glow by night.
After the hours of puzzling their way uphill, the captain and his men were in no mood for a conflict. On reaching the largely cleared plateau and village, what they got was nothing. A tribe of some sort had inhabited this place for a long time, and was now gone. Gone where? Into an uninhabitable inland?
A cannon shot in the distance! It was likely an alarm from Wiggers, left in command of the ship. Or was there another ship? There was a second shot. The captain now recognised the sound of his own cannon. He ordered the men to form a perimeter around the village, then told Spronk to accompany him to a part of the plateau’s edge which was likely to have a vantage point over the strait.
The two men looked down. Out on the ocean, many long native-style boats and two large launches were advancing on their ship, approaching toward the stern and bow, so that they were hard to fire upon. Captain Pietersz raised his eyeglass, and saw, to his horror, that the launches were their own. He began to curse. Spronk’s bewilderment finally overcame his acute sense of subordination:
“Kapitein, for God’s sake, what’s happening?”
Pietersz did not answer, but swung the eyeglass down in the direction of the beach where the armed party had disembarked. Their launches were absent, the bodies of their two sentinels lay on the sand.
Pietersz handed the eyeglass to the sailor, who looked first out to sea. He saw the launches and boats converging on their hopelessly undermanned ship. The attackers were ragged looking, males, females and children…and all unmistakably white, just like their captive of the previous day.
“Kapitein, what can we do?”
“Nothing, Spronk, nothing at all. We have been outdone, starting with the bravery of that wretch we killed yesterday. Now we must hope that Lieutenant Wiggers is as courageous in the face of an armed invader as he was with one helpless man pinned to the deck.
“Whoever these tramps are, they are no mean tramps. They are wily as Ulysses, and fight like Achilles. Do you know who Ulysses and Achilles were, Spronk?”
“Ancient Romans, sir?”
“Near enough, matroos.”
Their fears were realised: there was no negotiation. After seizing the ship, the strange tribe made off with it, south through the strait. It was not possible to know if they were using Dutch survivors to sail it or were relying on their own skills.
The stranded troop could do nothing but build bonfires up high on the plateau and down on the beach, waiting for a passing ship, and hoping it would be Dutch or, failing that, a ship of their new and grudgingly acquired friends, the English.
One of the sailors, while fossicking for food, came across a brass amulet that had slipped through the bamboo floor of a hut. He showed it to the captain. It was round, and bore the embossed shape of a star or sunburst, with sixteen rays.
Two older men sat on the balcony of the Haven Grand, East Haven’s new and stylishly fitted pub, with wide views of the ocean, though thoughtfully set back from the dunes and from the strip of coastal swamp and littoral rainforest backing the dunes.
One of the men was lean and tanned, with silver hair swept back in a regal style that was all his own. John Philipson was entitled to his own style. His family were the magnates that developed so much of the region, from their magnificent stud high up toward the Divide, to the “sensitive” coastal resorts and other developments along the Haven River and Haven Coast beaches.
Even those of the green persuasion who might wince at the notion of “sensitive” development were often persuaded, in the end, that the Philipsons did things rather well. The Philipson’s put their finish on things. The Philipsons had what used to be called “tone”.
The man drinking with him was recently retired Chief Inspector Don “Dibs” Dibble, the model of an old style policeman with his big rambling frame and features folded into dips and crags like a sandstone cliff.
While other patrons of the Top Deck Bar were sipping on bottled and boutique brews, the two old contemporaries, born and raised in the area back in the forties, were having their customary “middie-of-old”, in celebration of early times.
John Philipson did not need to limit his expenditures at the Haven Grand. He owned the Haven Grand. But some people are rich enough to indulge the plainest tastes. Old John was a true Philipson, above most things, even business, never in search of friends or contacts, and having very few of either. Yet the remoteness, the downright loftiness of the Philipsons was strangely valued, in that contradictory Australian way, as relief from the egalitarian; Old John P, in his home region, was like weather or the facing Pacific, too big to question or complain about, and people were rather glad of it. His friendship with Don Dibble? That was a rarity, an odd survival from an otherwise closed and privileged childhood.
Dibs, in his own way, was a man apart: a senior Sydney copper, religious, quietly fierce, uncannily in-the-know and yet, like some of those long-dead saints he still prayed to, “gloriously incorrupt”.
The two men spoke to one another as they had always done, quietly, mockingly.
“Dibs, nice of you to invite me to my own pub to catch up for a beer.”
“Nice of you to pay for the beer, Johnno. I’d say we’re even on who’s been nice.”
“That doesn’t add up somehow. But how’s retirement suiting you, Dibs? You’re back in the Haven where you started?”
“Can’ t think of a better spot, can you? And now I’ve got this flash new pub where I can drink for free.”
“Finally taking bribes after fifty years of purity, Dibs? I wish I’d known about this corrupt streak sooner.”
“Well, Johnno, I didn’t have it till now. Pity I only drink one beer a day.”
“It’s just so good to have you back in the area. With your fishing skills you’ll be needing to buy lots of Philipson beef…Dibs, what’s this I hear about you being some kind of celebrity? Involved in some spooky business, to do with the Girl in White?”
“Yeah, well, they said it had to do with spooks. I wouldn’t know. Not the only weird case I’ve had lately. I seem to be attracting them in old age.”
“Maybe you’re just going potty, old feller. Happens to everyone after sixty-five. Except me.”
“Well, you won’t believe it, Johnno, but I’ve had one more weird case dropped on me.”
“Really? In retirement? Don’t tell me…This is a consultancy. Pure jam. The public service caring for its own.”
“I hope that’s how it’ll be, what with the price the Top Deck charges for a bloody hamburger.”
“So, what’s this new case? And why you?”
“It’s to do with people I know, people not many others can get close to.”
“Sounds interesting. What people?”
“Oh, pretty remarkable people. Kind of a family, but kind of a breed or race. They’re rich. They own half a region of NSW. Came into the area long ago, some say from the North West of the continent. They breed superb animals, especially up on the Somerville plateau, where they have a stud as good as any in the Hunter…”
Old John had his head back and was chuckling soundlessly. Dibs went on:
“They seem to breed their own kind too. They all seem to marry in Europe, where they have a villa or two. The marriages are usually with Europeans of a certain type. Good types, mind you. But it’s like these people were under siege, protecting a bloodline or…I dunno. I’ve known the various mafias and triads in Sydney, but these people aren’t like that. More like they feel above everything, and want to keep feeling that way at any cost. Lately, however, there may be reason for some to think they may done certain things like those mafias and triads. I’m not saying I believe it, and I’m sure I don’t want to…”
“Ah, Dibs, you’re a hoot, old mate. They’ve got you investigating me, and my whole bloody family? What are you all going to investigate? Peptides in the horse feed? A few hired bikies collecting bad debts? Slops in the beer at new Haven Grand?”
“No, Johnno. I don’t do that kind of work for anybody. And when people have taken shots at you Philipsons I’ve always told the envious buggers to get rooted.”
“Johnno, your cousin Paul, dead in London last week…”
“What about him? The family did absolutely everything for Paul. Can you cure an alcoholic? I can’t.”
“Johnno, the London police think he was murdered.”
“Murdered…murdered…I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Dibs, you remember Paul when he was young and riding the first surfboards in the Haven. Those huge planks! But that’s not how he turned out. You didn’t know him in the seventies. Drink, drugs, bookies, perverts…the more money we gave him, the more damage he did to himself. It broke our hearts. You know better than anyone what a close mob we are.”
“Johnno, Paul left documents. They’re interesting to the London police. And to the Feds and NSW police. And to me, as a friend of Paul’s, all those years ago.”
“Documents…about what? Our corporate structure? The taxes we don’t pay? The taxes we don’t pay represent reinvestment, in this region especially…”
“It’s about taxes, and business. It’s about the Philipsons generally.”
“We’re odd? We keep to ourselves? We’re rich through doing quality work, like this pub you and I are sitting in? We do our charity without church-going or masonic stuff? You could never drag me to Mass with you? Those are agendas now, not personal choices?”
Old John had possibly never lost his composure entirely, and he now regained what little he had lost in the last moments. He flashed a smile at his old friend, as if the conversation was just beginning. Yet an expression came into his eyes that only Dibs was likely to perceive. It was the expression of a born anticipator, who resolves all by firm, fast decision, and who has just taken such a decision.
“All right, Dibs, what’s in these documents?”
“A lot. He pointed to certain criminal contacts, certain accidents and events that…helped you along. There’s a lot of detail, Johnno. Paul mentioned his fears that, as an out-of-control Philipson, he might be marked for…putting aside. And he named a few of the family, and several outside the family, who’d been…put aside. He gave details of how they were dealt with and why.”
“You believe this? About us, about me? Maybe ghost hunting has loosened a few screws, Dibs. Another beer? I should get back to the stables, but this is getting interesting.”
“No, no more beer. It doesn’t matter what I believe. It’s what all these authorities believe, about your family, Paul’s death, the documents…My belief is that you’ll be heavily investigated, no matter what you and I say now over this beer. Certain people thought I should talk to you first, that’s all. A show of respect, for both of us. There’ll be no accusations or speculations coming out of my mouth…
“But, Johnno, there’s always been something about your family. Paul once hinted something to me, back in the surfing days when he’d had some beers. Okay, too many beers. I’ve kept it quiet all these years. It was pretty bloody far-fetched, but it would explain a thing or two. It wouldn’t incriminate you in any way if you talked about that now, just to me. Really, it would just satisfy my curiosity. Whatever reckoning you have to give of your activities, legal or otherwise, won’t concern me, or this other matter.”
Old John let out a laugh that was a little too shrill. He rose from his seat.
“Dibs, let’s have another drink soon, when you’re over this latest spooking episode. Really mate, I’m not being rude. We’ve got a new foal coming on up at the stud. Could be an all nighter. When will these investigators want to start poking at me and the family? Can you give me till the end of the week? I want our lawyers to come to us. I’m not going to Sydney over all this, not with yearling sales to be planned and Beef Week coming up in Casino.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, mate. I appreciate you’re just the meat in the felafel…”
“I told them not to involve me.”
“Good on you, cobber.”
“I told them never give a Philipson a heads-up. They’re sharp enough without it.”
Old John laughed.
“Well, I can hardly go anywhere, can I? The Philipsons are all over this region like the lantana. Horses up on the plateau, beef on the floodplain, boats trawling, every second property development…We can hardly skip out. But thanks for the compliment. And don’t worry, Dibs. We’re not bad boys. Paul was sick for the last twenty years, demented for the last five. He said and believed all kinds of strange stuff. Anyway, I’d better scoot. Come see the foal next week, if you can push past all the investigators and auditors.”
Just as Old John was moving away, Dibs grabbed his arm hard.
“Johnno, remember the big jar?”
“The what? Look, I’d better go. Young John hasn’t got a clue with these foalings.”
“Johnno, you do remember, don’t you? The day your uncle left the vault open to answer the phone?”
Old John slid back down into his chair, dropping his voice.
“I remember something like that. I remember we snuck in to the old vault. Then we snuck out. We were maybe five or six. How would I remember exactly?”
“We were seven. We snuck in and you showed me some huge jar, the only thing in the vault. It had all kinds of old rope around it, and it had been strengthened with mesh as well. You told me it was special, very special.”
“I don’t remember, Dibs.”
“You hoisted me up, so I could see the old clay lid. It was sort of embossed with a round face that had tentacle things coming out of it. Or maybe it was a sunburst, or star…”
“Dibs, I just don’t…”
“Is it still there, in the vault?”
“Maybe. I never go down there. It’s full of old rubbish. Mate, I have to go. I can’t leave Young John in charge. It’s his first time, and this foal’s grandfather was Danehill. I’m not making it up…”
The fire that gutted the Haven Grand the following Sunday night had concerned the whole region. There were no deaths, but plenty of exhausted locals. Dibs spent some time with Young John and the Philipsons who were on the spot, till he realised he was just in the way. Old John had been madly co-ordinating and phoning, the chief task being to move masses of stock and fittings from the parts of the building not under threat. Trucks came and transported what they could, presumably back to the stud on Somerville Plateau, where there were huge sheds and refrigeration units available.
Nobody questioned why Old John eventually had himself driven to the heliport. Nobody questioned the trucks thundering in and out of the Somerville Stud some forty kilometres west. When the family plane took off from the stud in the early hours of Monday morning, it was assumed that there was an excellent reason. In view of the fire which was gutting the Haven Grand, nobody was surprised by all kinds of movement to and from the Philipson family farm.
The two men wandered about the deserted property. Dibs was stunned. Overnight, the Philipsons and much else had simply disappeared.
Harold “Jockey” Roberts, a small and wiry aborigine just slightly younger than Dibs, was over his amazement. He had been at the property since five in the morning, having been asked by Old John to come at that exact hour. On arriving, he had found the place deserted but for the horses and dogs. In the stable was a wad of cash, a document, and a note asking Harold to care for the horses and dogs, as well as for all the cattle lower down the Haven Valley. Arrangements had been made for the prompt sale of stock. In the meantime, Old John was willing to trust only Harold to handle all animals well.
The last instructions were to lock the main gate, then to ring Dibs.
As they walked through the grounds, Dibs shook his head again and again:
“Harold, did you have any inkling…?”
“No! Who leaves horses like these? Did you have an idea of something going on?”
“Well, between you and me, the Philipsons were in a bit of trouble over stuff I shouldn’t talk about. Old John had a beer with me on Saturday. I discussed that with him.”
“Dibs, how does a whole family like the Philipsons just disappear? They were the size of a tribe. Twenty of them living on this stud alone. More down the valley and in town. All their money, their property…and they did it all overnight. Do you reckon the pub fire…?”
“Yes, I do. They burnt the Haven Grand to distract everybody, and use the confusion to get away. Maybe they got professionals in. They liked professionals.”
“But so much money, land, stock, all that expensive furniture they’ve left…”
“Judging by the efficiency shown so far, I’m guessing that all kinds of things were owned by all kinds of companies across the world. We may find find that a lot of leases and ownerships have been transferred electronically overnight. The Caiman Islands aren’t just for scuba diving.”
“Dibs, it’s like they had this already planned, like some huge military operation, and just needed to throw switches to start it all.”
“It was a military operation. That’s what it was, Harold. And planned…a hundred, a thousand years ago?”
“How do you mean?”
“Harold, many years back Paul Philipson got drunk and hinted about something that seemed pretty far-fetched. I’ve never mentioned it to anyone. Now I’m thinking maybe it wasn’t so far-fetched.”
“What was it?”
“You were close to Old John. If there was something he would prefer you not to know, would you want to hear it?”
“I suppose not.”
“Look, all I’ll say is that a long time ago, and a long way away, a tide, a human tide, swept across the world. Nobody and nothing could stop that tide, those people. Then the tide got sucked back, and left some of the people isolated, stranded. But they were people who had never been beaten or even restrained. They’d never copped anything but winning, and on a huge scale at a lightning rate. How do I describe these people? They were history’s biggest winners. They refused to be dominated or absorbed by anybody because they didn’t know how to be absorbed or dominated. Those people were the proudest…how can I put it…?”
“They were Philipsons?”
“That’s about it. They were Philipsons. And you’ll understand if I say no more?”
“If Old John would have wanted it that way…Dibs, he left me the foal.”
“The foal! But that thing’s grandfather…”
“I know. Danehill.”
“Bugger me. They certainly knew about loyalty. They had their ways…They had their ways…”
Dibs found his way alone down to the basement of the vast house. He had expected the vault to be sealed. The hefty metal door was open.
He stepped in. The vault was completely empty.
In the middle of the concrete floor was a round outline. It might match the base of a large jar or pot, big enough to fit a man inside. He touched the stain that formed the outline. It was faintly sticky, like honey. He smelled his fingers. Was there a scent of spice and resin? It was so faint, or maybe he was imagining.
Again Dibs rubbed his fingers on the spot.
“So…the original Philipson. Where have they taken you now, I wonder? Philipson… son of Philip…”
Dibs laid his hand flat in the middle of the circle. He moved the hand around, in a sort of caressing tribute, till he found himself murmuring the name that had been revolving in his brain: