Chapter 1

 

“SERGEI, ARE you down there?” Although voices tended to echo along the mineshaft, the walls had a peculiar dampening effect, rendering it difficult to identify the speaker.

“Come on down,” Sergei invited. It was hot in the horizontal drive he’d excavated at the bottom of the shaft, but it was a hell of a lot hotter up on the surface. No wonder so much of the Australian fauna burrowed—animals were often more sensible than people; they weren’t silly enough to curtail learning from others for fear of appearing stupid.

“Do you need anything brought down?” came the voice.

“No.”

Sergei continued shovelling the mullock into the wheelbarrow at the end of the drive while he waited for his visitor to climb down the ladder.

“Hello.”

Sergei left off his labours and turned to see the Serb who worked the opal claim next to his. He raised his goggles to the top of his head and pulled his dust mask down. “Miro, what can I do for you?”

Orange dust flecked the curly grey hairs that spread from beneath a dark blue wife beater onto Miro’s stocky shoulders like shoots of new grass.

“Do you have any spare wedges?” Miro leaned with his hand against the wall, a sign he was up for a chat.

Sergei didn’t mind passing the time. Those who chose to run a one-man mine feared neither hard work nor solitude as the hours could be long and company scant. The opportunity to have a yarn now and then was welcome, but Miro habitually frustrated him. He had the ability to talk all around a story, omitting the central thread until no one knew what the hell he was waffling about—and he took his time doing it.

Usually the only time anyone had to be anywhere in a hurry around here was when a trip into town was required before the supply store closed—or to leave the opal field before dark. With over 250,000 mine entrances, the choice of a shaft to fall down was only exceeded locally by the number of bush flies. And choosing a mineshaft after sunset was so much easier—some would say inevitable.

Things happened in their own time out here, and Sergei had mostly fallen into step with that time, but Miro took it to the extreme.

“Maybe I have wedges in my ute,” said Sergei. Unless, of course, they’d bumped their way out of the ute’s open tray. The corrugations along the track approaching the claim were getting so bad Sergei often wondered if his teeth would be shaken loose by the time he’d arrived. Maybe he should invest in a canopy to ensure his tools didn’t escape into the wilds.

Resigning himself to a chat, Sergei walked to the bottom of the shaft where the twenty-litre water bottle and tin cups sat. He grunted as he sat with his back against the sandstone wall and gestured for Miro to sit opposite. Sergei rinsed the dust from the cups before filling them. He reached to meet Miro’s outstretched hand and passed him the cup.

Miro leaned against the wall and took a drink. “Did you hear about the golf?”

Sergei shook his head. “Haven’t spoken to anyone since Saturday.” He paused. “What is today?”

Miro stared at the wall to the left of Sergei as he considered the question. “Tuesday. I think.”

Most weeks revolved around happy hour, so the further from Friday they were, the harder it was to remember which day they were in.

“Who won the golf?” asked Sergei, getting them back on track. Miro was bad enough—he didn’t need Sergei’s assistance to create tangents.

“We don’t know. There was a fight over the body.”

Irritation nipped at Sergei’s temper, already primed from their last conversation, but he reined it in, reminding himself that Miro wasn’t a bad sort and any encounter might be the spirits testing Sergei’s patience for the good of his soul. “What body?”

“Goose’s golf ball landed by a body.”

Sergei raised an eyebrow. “What sort of body?”

“A person.”

“There was a dead person on the golf course?”

Miro chuckled. “Goose isn’t that good a player. His ball rarely stays on the course.”

Aware his nostrils were flaring, Sergei consciously eased his breathing. “A dead body near the course, then?”

People went missing on occasion, presumably down mineshafts, never to be seen again, but it was unusual for a body to be found.

“Yes.” Miro chuckled. “Cheating bastard refused to play the ball. Bluey told him he could drop the ball a foot from the hole, but Goose refused to stick his hand in there to get the ball.”

Sergei refrained from grinding his teeth. “The body was in a hole?”

“Yeah. At the eighth. Goose reckoned the police would probably need to take crime-scene photos, so he wasn’t going to move anything. And because we’d already lost all our spare balls by then, a fight broke out about who was going to get the ball out of the hole, but no one would. I said he could use my ball, but he refused to take the penalty.”

Since Miro had implied that the ball wasn’t on the course, Sergei wanted to ask whether the body was near the eighth hole—in a hole near the eighth hole, that was—but it would be too easy to get bogged in a mire asking Miro a question like that.

“How did the person die?”

“Don’t know.”

Sergei waited for him to continue, but it seemed Miro wanted every bit of information dragged from him. “Why think it might be a crime scene, then?”

“The hole had tent pegs on both sides, and it looked like kangaroo skin or something had been stretched between them, but the body had been attacked by animals. It was very ugly. Looked like its stomach had exploded.”

Had Miro had some experience with bodies destroyed by explosives? He was old enough to have fought in the Bosnian war.

“The eyes had been pecked out, and the face had been torn open,” said Miro.

“Maybe it was originally a native ritual? Before the animals got to it.” It was only a suggestion, although from what Sergei knew of local native traditions, they usually opted for burial or cremation, not open holes and kangaroo skins.

“The body was a white man,” Miro assured him.

Sergei had dozens of questions but decided not to ask Miro, unless he wanted to still be talking at dusk.

He stood and stretched. “I’ll see if I’ve got some spare wedges in the ute.”

 

 

FEARING THE body the golfers had found might have been someone he’d known, Sergei dropped in at the pub on his way home in search of any useful news.

From the outside, Soda Bob’s, the miner’s pub of choice, looked like nothing more than a tin shed. In order to escape the heat of central Australia, many of the locals lived underground, taking advantage of old mining drives and adapting them to their needs. Some of the local businesses had done the same.

Sergei crossed the patio and stepped into the tin shed. The heat inside the small structure was even more stifling than outside. He walked downstairs, opened the door to the dugout pub, and entered. A wall of cooler air played pleasantly against his sweaty, dusty skin.

The place was abuzz with conversation. Apparently the discovery of a body lit Soda’s up.

While he allowed his eyes to adjust from bright sunlight to the gloom, Sergei tried to get a sense of the mood. Once he could see where he was going, he made his way to the bar through what could be considered a crowd. Sergei had never seen the place so full. Maybe it was only his weeks that revolved around happy hour. Reasonably rare that he frequented Soda Bob’s during the week, so he wouldn’t know if it was always this busy on Tuesdays.

On his way to the bar, he received several claps of greeting on his back and shoulders. The crowd seemed quite cheerful despite the golfers’ find, and Sergei decided it must have been a tourist that had met their fate near the eighth.

He tilted his chin up in greeting when he caught Soda Bob’s eye from the opposite end of the bar. Soda grabbed a pale ale from one of the fridges and set it on the bar before Sergei.

“G’day, Sergei.” He didn’t wait for a reply before continuing. “You need to top your tab up,” Soda warned him, then moved on to serve Bluey, a few men down the bar.

“How much do I owe you?” Sergei asked after him, not feeling the need for discretion.

“I’ll check when I get a moment.” Soda grabbed a tenner from the small pile of money sitting on the bar in front of Bluey and returned the change to the same pile without waiting for any input from the customer.

Soda served several other customers in a similar fashion before looking from one end to the other as though he were about to cross a road. Then he pulled a book from beneath the bar and set it on the counter in front of Sergei.

Reading upside down, Sergei found his name before Soda did and looked at the debit column. His bill was less than twenty dollars, so he topped it up to a hundred.

“Oh, a guy called Pavlova or Pav-something-or-other came in looking for you yesterday,” Soda said as he ran Sergei’s bank card through the EFTPOS.

“Pavlova? I don’t think I know a Pavlova.” Sergei ran his fingers through his beard as he tried to recall anyone by that name, or one that closely resembled it.

“It wasn’t Pavlova exactly. That’s just the closest thing to what I could recognise. Big blond bloke. Not from these parts.”

That could mean anything. In Sergei’s experience, not being from these parts simply meant he didn’t move in the miners’ circle. He might be a councillor, storeman, or even a travelling buyer trying to broker a deal from beneath the local gem stores. Although what any of those people would want with him was a quandary, since a travelling gem buyer wouldn’t know Sergei.

“At least I think he was looking for you. Not too many crazy looking Russians called Sergei around here,” Soda said with sincerity. He handed Sergei’s card back.

Sergei returned his card to his wallet and pulled what he thought might constitute a batty expression. “Crazy looking?”

Soda’s smile caused creases to appear in his cheeks like a set of waves rolling in. “How long has it been since you looked in a mirror? Four, five years? As long as you’ve been here?”

Before he could answer, someone called for a beer from the other end of the bar. At the same time, one of the regular barmaids, Lucy, appeared from the back carrying a rack of freshly cleaned glasses and set them in front of Sergei on the stainless steel bench that ran along the barman’s side of the counter.

Lucy’s black-and-purple-spiked hair stood in regimented peaks all over her head, like pinched mounds of shaving foam.

“Lucy.” Sergei raised his voice over the din, to get her attention. She looked up at him with blue eyes made brighter by black eyeliner. He leaned on the bar towards her.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Do I look crazy?”

She laughed. “Hells yeah. Only when you breathe, though. But I could fix that.”

“You’re going to kill me to stop me looking crazy?”

She gave him a friendly slap on the arm and an affectionate smile. “No, I meant I could make it so you don’t look crazy.”

“How would you do that?”

“First I would trim your hair and beard. Make it short.”

A man came up to the bar and ordered a beer. Lucy reached for it and completed the transaction, barely missing a beat in her conversation with Sergei.

“Then I would colour your hair.”

He feigned a dubious look. Strange as her hairstyle choice might be, Lucy’s hair couldn’t be considered anything but intentionally fashionable. “I would change from ginger to black and purple to not look so crazy?”

“From strawberry blond,” she corrected. “But no. Black and purple wouldn’t suit you.” She stopped abruptly and stared at him. He widened his eyes and pulled his lips in as he grinned. It drew the expected laugh. “Actually, I don’t think it would matter,” she added. “You’d look crazy regardless of what anyone did.”

He pushed himself off the bar and donned a wounded expression. “Well—” He paused for effect. “—thank you for the rousing compliment.”

“You’re welcome.” Despite her smiling bravado, a cute little flush of pink tinged her cheeks. She went on to serve another customer.

Lucy pressed Sergei’s buttons in ways no woman should, considering he was gay, but experience had taught him that anticipation never matched reality—often didn’t come close. And, he thought with amusement, neither did he, at least with women.

Hollywood, so named for his ridiculously white teeth, clapped him on the back and settled in next to him at the bar. “How goes it, Sergei?”

“I am well,” he said. “I hear excitement was had at the golfing.”

“Ugh. That wasn’t excitement. It was fucken disgusting is what it was.” Hollywood laughed. “I had to explain to Doris that where I tossed my bikkies wasn’t part of the crime scene.”

That statement raised more questions than it answered. “Is Doris a policewoman?”

Hollywood drew back and looked at him with mock horror. “How have you been here so long and not know who Doris is?”

“I usually mind my own business,” Sergei explained. “We find many opals, but finding a body is unusual.”

Hollywood laughed. “I was joking. Australians sometimes call policemen pigs, and there was a pig—an animal pig—called Doris on an Australian soap opera. About seven years ago, there was a cop here who looked just like Doris the pig, so any cop stationed here now is automatically called Doris.”

Sergei nodded as he mulled that over. The police were all called Doris. Right. “Why did you throw your biscuits on the crime scene?”

Hollywood burst into raucous laughter, and his eyes began watering. Expecting Hollywood’s bright white teeth to start flickering like a fluorescent light, Sergei waited it out. Being laughed at didn’t bother him, and it was amusing to see the man almost wet himself.

The laughter finally trailed off, and Sergei had lifted his beer to take a drink when Hollywood clapped him on the back, causing the lip of the stubby to knock against his teeth with a clunk.

“You, mate, are a fucken riot,” said Hollywood with a residual chuckle. “I didn’t throw my biscuits, I tossed my bikkies—you know, threw up, vomited, chundered, puked, hurled.”

Sergei ran his tongue across his teeth to ensure they were all still whole. “Okay.”

Why had he thought dropping in at Soda’s for information was a good idea? So far all he’d discovered was that police officers were known as Doris, and he had collected a thesaurus’s worth of synonyms for vomit—a concept he’d be happy never to have to engage with. Ever.

Still, he tried once more for some useful information. “Was it anyone we knew?”

“Don’t know. Couldn’t tell who it was from what was left of the body, and Soda Bob reckons there are still a few unaccounted for who might not have heard yet. But as you can see, the news spread, and most of us came in.” He waved his beer around to include the crowd.

“It was pretty weird, though,” continued Hollywood. “Someone had dug a shallow grave and put the body in there. Fuck knows what the point of that was. Why not fill it in if you’re going to go to the effort of digging it?” Hollywood took a drink.

Perhaps someone wanted to trap the spirit upon the earthly plain. If that were intentional, there was definitely trouble afoot. Sergei made a mental note to strengthen the protections at his claim.

Hollywood swallowed as he lowered his beer. “Maybe they were interrupted or something.”

“Miro said there were tent pegs planted either side of the grave,” Sergei prompted.

“Yeah, there were strips of hide tied to them. Some of the strips were still intact and tied from one peg to another, but most of them had been broken or chewed through. I dunno what had been at it—dingoes maybe—but it was a mess. I’d fucken hate to be Doris in this situation.” He chuckled. “Actually, I’d hate to be Doris in any situation.”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

AUSTRALIAN FEDERAL Police Agent Leon Armstrong set aside the international arrest warrant issued for alleged murderer Pavel Bobrinsky to once again examine the crime of which he was accused. The accompanying report suggested there might be involvement with the Russian mafia, but what Leon saw was ritualistic in nature, not execution style.

Maybe the Bratva boys were getting bored with making money and decided to branch out to less lucrative lines of entertainment. But then, what would he know? He was on the other end of the world to the nefarious activities in Northwestern Russia—Murmansk Oblast, to be precise.

The crime-scene photo depicted a frozen landscape containing a shallow grave surrounded by a rudimentary frame made of bare tree branches. Despite having examined the information when it first came in, Leon once again read the description to refresh his memory.

Although they looked like twigs, the strips that hung from the frame were rawhide, with feathers and bones hanging from them. Their peculiar appearance stemmed from the fact that they were frozen in place and sat at odd and varying angles. While the grave’s accoutrements were unusual and suggested ritualism, it was the state of the body that confirmed it for Leon.

The decapitated head had been buried in anatomically correct formation with the body, and its orifices had been sewn closed—eyes, nostrils, mouth, and ears, the last pulled forwards and sewn to the cheeks with what was identified as sinew. The thing that struck Leon as odd was that all those openings had been sewn closed but the neck remained open. Logic would suggest the intent was to seal off the senses. But he could think of no reason the neck would be left open.

Lars Andersson, Leon’s European law enforcement contact for the case, had informed him that Europol had as little idea as the Australian Federal Police as to what would bring Pavel Bobrinsky to Australia. However, his entry into the county had been confirmed by both agencies—if not the man himself, then someone using his bona fides.

Leon had sent out Pavel Bobrinsky’s information and a copy of the arrest warrant to all Australian state and territory police forces, and now he turned to look through the latest cases of ritualistic-type murders and body dumps matching his criteria that had filtered in.

He flicked to the next crime-scene photo, which depicted the characteristic bullshit that had been the bulk of what he’d received in answer to his request—the typical pentagrams, sacrificial altars, goats’ heads, chalices, bones, and decorated daggers.

Given the geographical spread and the commonalities, he couldn’t help but wonder at how unimaginative people were and kept having to remind himself that each religion had prescribed rituals and objects. Little wonder he was seeing the same thing repeatedly—regardless of how unusual the submitting station thought their case was. After all, exactly how many cults and religions actually performed ritualistic sacrifices these days? Not many would be his guess. And of those, most would be attributable to good old Beelzebub—hence the requisite pentagrams and goats’ heads.

In the last few weeks, he’d learned more about Satanism than he had in his entire life—which wasn’t saying much since religion of any sort had never been of interest to him.

Only one or two of the cases seemed to veer from the norm, and although they might’ve been strange, they didn’t display the sheer bizarreness of the murder allegedly perpetrated by Pavel Bobrinsky.

Next photograph. Ugh, another bloodied pentagram with what appeared to be animal legs strewn around it. The following picture showed a gory mess that turned out to be a human body turned almost inside out, legs and arms at odd angles. A smaller picture on the same page showed a clump of what looked like partially digested food and feathers. Trying to understand why he’d been sent this particular case, he found the accompanying description.

The clump was apparently neither partially digested nor food. It was an almost two-metre-long strip of kangaroo hide with feathers and bones attached. The report stated that beneath the body, which was in an open shallow grave, was a defleshed kangaroo. The bones that were largely undisturbed by the body having been laid upon it suggested they had been arranged as the kangaroo would have been in life.

Also in the description was that there was some evidence at least one ear had been sewn to the cheek with what appeared to be sinew, but forensics had yet to confirm the assumption.

Urgency gripped Leon, and seeing the date on the transmission, a surge of annoyance raced through him at his laxness in following up the cases over the last few days. The onslaught of reports involving Satanism had brought with it a complacency he shouldn’t have allowed to creep in.

According to the transmission, the South Australian Police were the issuing sector. He immediately rang the SAPOL contact and requested all available information be sent through to him.

Leon returned to his study of the initial report, trying to discern as much information as possible while he waited for the rest of the data to come in from SAPOL. Investigators stated that not much could be gleaned from the scene itself, as it had been compromised by both animals and humans. Early indicators suggested numerous scavengers including foxes, a medium-sized dog, and ravens had interfered with the corpse. Two wedge-tailed eagles were present at the scene when police arrived. Jesus, no wonder the body was such a mess—the wildlife, and possibly a domestic dog, had feasted on it.

This might be the clue he needed to pick up Pavel Bobrinsky’s trail, which had stopped abruptly after he’d paid for a hire car and withdrawn a large sum of money from an ATM two days running. The account hadn’t been accessed again. And like Pavel himself, the car had disappeared and hadn’t been spotted anywhere since.

Tom, a colleague, approached Leon’s desk, slowly shuffling through papers. “When are you leaving?” Tom asked.

Leon looked at his watch. “It’s only 2:00 pm.”

“Dickhead.” Tom threw the papers onto his desk. “To go to Coober Pedy?”

“Coober Pedy? Why would I go there?” He scanned what he could see of the faxes.

“Isn’t that where your grotesque murder is?”

Leon snatched up the fax pages. “I haven’t had the chance to see this, never mind read it. When did these arrive?” He waved the pages in silent accusation.

“What?” asked Tom, as if disagreeing that his behaviour was less than professional. “It just came in.”

“Well it obviously came in long enough ago for you to read through it and mess up the order. I didn’t know it was in Coober Pedy. My only info was South Australia.” He flicked through the papers for page one. “If it’s not your case, then stop interfering with the information.”

Tom shrugged and wandered away. Leon dismissed the pang of guilt he experienced at snapping at Tom, but frustration was part of the job, and they all had their moments.

He spread the random pages on the table and ordered them before starting at the beginning.