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Chapter One--The Bag
"This is your 'great haul'?" Mandy Graham was a woman you looked at twice, if only to be sure that she hadn't just called you a wanker under her breath. The chances were that she had. She was only nineteen years old.
"It's antique, all of it." Lawrence Billings shared a mother with Mandy, and also a certain sense of entitlement to other people's goods. Right now he was on his knees in the back of their dilapidated old van, pawing through a cardboard box with a faint air of desperation.
"It's junk, Larry. You've been caught twice already, and even this load of rubbish could send you down for quite a stretch. The judge is getting sick of you, and I can't say I blame him."
"Shows what you know. This stuff could be worth a fortune. To the right people." He sat back and chewed on his thumbnail. "We'll see what Johnny has to say about it."
Mandy shrugged and climbed into the back of the van with her half-brother. She ripped open a random box, and pulled out what appeared to be a metal star with a handle. She rolled the points across her palm a few times and held up the offending instrument.
"What the fuck is this anyway?"
"It's a..." Larry eyed the thing dubiously, "...an early colonial pastry pricker?"
"You're a prick," she said absentmindedly, flicking the iron star with a painted fingernail and watching it spin.
"He's actually not too far off." John had the sharp, hungry look of a low level predator, or a scavenger. In his youth he had suffered from acne, which had pitted the skin of his face like the surface of the moon. "This is for leatherworking," he said, as Mandy handed over the instrument wordlessly. "You ranthis over the leather and it punched holes in it so you could sew. Or it might have been used for cloth."
"Well, blow me, how did you know that?"
John shrugged. "I just do. What the hell is all this stuff? Mandy tells me you've gone out for a 'large haul' and you bring me a sewing kit?"
"This isn't just a sewing kit. Some country museum or something was moving, and a few boxes went astray. Jesus, they were just sitting there--I couldn't ignore that."
"Maybe they were leaving it out for the garbage collector." Mandy rolled her eyes and hopped out of the van, her thongs slapping against the greasy concrete of the trio's garage.
"Look, I saw an opportunity and I took it. What have you done recently besides cash your dole cheque?"
"I've been looking for a job." She folded her arms across her chest.
"Yeah, in all the wrong places. Face it, there's only one job you're qualified for."
"Well, you'd be the expert," she said derisively, "or maybe you're not, considering you spend all your time trying to work out how to grow up like Johnny."
"Leave me out of this," John said, absently poking through the box Mandy had opened.
"Listen, Johnny and me, we're going places. We know opportunity when we see it. And maybe there won't be room for hangers-on."
"The only place I see you guys going is the tip." Mandy turned and walked outside, her black ponytail swinging between her shoulder blades. I feel that I'm in Mandy's POV here, but then she leaves and I switch. Can you figure out whose POV you're in and sorta stick with it
"What the fuck's her problem anyway?" Larry gestured angrily.
"You tell me," John replied in a carefully neutral tone of voice.
"So," Larry bent down and looked into the box, "any good?"
"Well I don't know, do I? And the only people who would know are the ones you stole it from." John sighed and rested his arms of the edges of the box. "Nobody gives a fuck about this stuff. If you'd found an Egyptian pharaoh or something we'd be laughing, but the government has to pay people to be interested in this junk."
"You're right. Want me to take it to the tip?"
"No, we'll go through it anyway. Maybe we'll find a gold nugget or something."
"Yeah, right." Larry looked around at the boxes in dismay. "What should I be looking for anyway?"
"Jewellery, silverware, large lumps of gold, electronic equipment in good condition..."
"Yeah, thanks mate, real helpful." Larry winced as he got off his knees.
"Well, good luck," John nodded and slouched away.
"Wait, you're not going to help?"
"You brought it in; it's your opportunity to grab. You could always get Mandy to help." His voice grew fainter as he wandered outside, and soon Larry heard him start up his bike.
Several hours later Mandy and John were at opposite ends of their decaying lounge, John listlessly watching the football and Mandy pulling bits of stuffing out of a hole in the armrest. She glanced over at a third serving of spaghetti sitting untouched in the saucepan on the stove.
"How long is he going to sulk out there anyway?"
John glanced up from the television. "Dunno. He'll get hungry sooner or later."
"That boy is so stubborn." She frowned and returned to her dissection of the lounge.
"He's three years older than you, isn't he?"
"He's still very immature." She rolled her eyes.
John shook his head and muted the commentary. "What's been your problem lately? You've been sniping at each other all the bloody time."
She shrugged, making the butterfly tattoo at her collarbone wrinkle. "I dunno. He just irritates me, and that makes me want to irritate him. And I'm sick of him following you around like you were Jesus or something."
"He thinks you're successful. Just 'cause you've organised a few decent scams."
"I take it you don't share his opinion," he said, slightly coldly.
"I have yet to meet a successful man. The minute I do..." she flicked her fingers, "...I'm outta here, baby."
John turned the sound back on and folded his arms. Mandy watched the game in silence for a few minutes. Eventually she sighed and got to her feet. "I'm gonna go make sure he hasn't fallen asleep or something."
John didn't reply.
"How's it going?" Mandy rubbed her bare arms as she picked her way around the piles of esoteric artefacts Larry had carelessly tossed on the garage floor.
"As well as you'd expected," Larry said, in a cranky tone, from amongst the unexamined piles in the van.
"Dinner's ready, you know."
"So you said earlier."
"Christ, Larry, I'm sorry, all right? Is that what you wanted to hear?"
"Are you out here to help or what?" Larry deigned to peer around the back of the van.
"Do I have to?" she asked.
Larry rolled his eyes. "Didn't see that one coming." He stepped out of the van and winced as he straightened; his back clicked in several places. In his hand was an old leather satchel.
"What's in there?" Mandy asked.
"Probably nothing." He opened it none-too-carefully and ratted around inside. "A book; old bottle of ink, just junk."
He tossed the bag at Mandy, who caught it by its flapping lid. He looked around at the mess he'd made of the garage and ran his fingers through his dirty blond hair.
"I don't get it, Mandy. This stuff is crap." He shook his head at Mandy's I-told-you-so look. "Nah, I mean, given that most of this museum stuff is crap, this is like, crap of crap. You know what I mean?"
"Okay." He bent down and picked up an object near his feet. "You know what this is?"
"I'm not stupid, it's a frying pan."
"Yeah, and it's positively dripping with historical significance. Only, you know, not."
"Nah," he interrupted her, "it's all like this. Rolls of linen bandages, complete cutlery sets, pitchforks, copies of the Bible; you could find this stuff in any junkshop in the country."
"Maybe it was meant for the tip. Or a junkshop." Mandy shrugged, feeling obscurely guilty.
Larry's shoulders drooped and he let the offending frying pan fall to the floor. "Yeah, it was packaged up so well, I just thought--ah, never mind. I'll give it a rest for tonight; hopefully my dinner won't be totally ruined."
Mandy slung the bag over her shoulder and trotted out after him. "You're the one who wanted to stay out here. You'll probably want to heat it up again."
Once inside, she dumped the bag on the kitchen table, telling Larry to sit and let her reheat his belated dinner. Larry wandered into the living room and collapsed on the couch.
"Any luck?" John didn't take his eyes off the game.
"Not really, no."
John nodded. "It's a good game."
"You stole my seat." Mandy smacked Larry lightly on the head as she handed him his dinner.
"Since when do you care about football?"
Mandy wandered back into the kitchen, and called back, "Hey, who's going to do the dishes?"
"Well, since you're in there." John's voice floated back to her, accompanied by Larry's chuckle.
Mandy started collecting up various cups and dishes and piling them next to the sink. She was going to start running the water when her eye caught on the reflection in the window, of the table and the old leather bag. On a whim she turned and sat down at the wobbly table and pulled the bag towards her.
Larry had been correct; the contents of the bag looked worthless. Mandy pulled out a little case that contained a scratch-pen and several spare nibs, a vial of what was once presumably ink, an aged compass with a cracked face, a set of draughtsman's tools and a funny little hammer. That left only the book.
Mandy pulled it out and looked at it. There was no writing on the cover or spine, merely marks and scratches in the leather. It was obviously pretty old, but it had been sturdily bound, and was in no danger of falling apart.
"I'm holding history," she told herself as the sound of cheering crowds seeped in from the next room. Someone had scored a goal. History, Mandy felt, wasn't that exciting. Still, it couldn't be less exciting than a football match.
She opened the book. It didn't fall apart in her hands, although she did flinch when a folded sheet of paper fell out of it. She ignored that for the moment and read the flyleaf.
"This is a memoir of W. J. Thompson, written in the year of Our Lord eighteen seventy-five. I have come to this land a humble servant of God," she mumbled to herself as she deciphered the unusual script.
She shivered and glanced behind her, for a moment viscerally certain that someone was reading over her shoulder. There was no one there, and she met her own startled gaze, reflected, ghost-like, in the window above the sink.
She shook her head and muttered, "Crazy." Still, she turned her attention to the slip of paper that had fallen onto the table in front of her, closing the book firmly. Setting the book aside, she unfolded the paper carefully, as it was a lot frailer than the thick leaves of the book. She unfolded it once, twice, three times and she realised that it was a lot larger than she thought. She kept unfolding the paper until it covered over half the table.
"It's a map." Gently she flattened it out, trying to work out just what it was a map of. There was a township marked "Sanctuary" and several spots, apparently at random, called 'H.S.', and followed by a name. Whoever had drawn the map, presumably W. J. Thompson, had been very thorough, with elevations of little hills carefully marked. There were also boundaries of properties marked in, and Mandy decided that 'H.S.' must have stood for 'homestead'. The map would have covered a huge area, Mandy realised, and she boggled at the fact that one man had apparently covered it all.
There were a series of little dots spread over a corner of the map, which served no apparent purpose. She pored over the map, but the cartographer had neglected to add a key. Mandy went back to the corner again, maybe there was something she had missed--yes, there was something there. It had been written over drawing of some hills and she squinted to read the words.
"Oh, my god."
"Oh, my! Guys, get in here, now!" Mandy called insistently.
"It's not another spider is it?" Larry called back, obviously reluctant to leave the game.
"Get your arses in here, now! Both of you!"
Mandy heard the television snap off.
"Let's see what her problem is then," John said.
Mandy heard the two men enter the kitchen. She rubbed nervously at her neck, not looking up.
"What's the hell's this?" Larry walked around and peered over her shoulder.
"It's a map."
"We can see that," John said. "Where'd you get it?"
"It was in the book, in the bag." She nodded at the leather satchel. She bit her lip nervously before continuing. "I think it's a treasure map."
"A treasure map?" Larry snorted incredulously.
John held up his hand. "Why do you think it's a treasure map? 'X marks the spot'?"
"No, look at the writing down here." She lightly traced a finger along the tiny inked marks. "'An untapped fortune lies here. Something-something by the grace of God.'"
"Hmm..." John was looking through the bag, and he drew out the little hammer. "Geologist's or prospector's hammer."
"So this thing could be real?" Greed lit up Larry's eyes.
"Hold your horses, how old is this thing?"
"The book's a diary for eighteen seventy-five," Mandy replied promptly.
"So, 'untapped' back then might not be 'untapped' now. What're the odds someone else has already found whatever this fortune is?"
"We can't just ignore this, Johnny," Mandy said.
"I'm not suggesting we ignore it, but I do think we should think before we splash in with both feet. Who is this guy anyway?"
"W. J. Thompson." Mandy pursed her lips. "I've never heard of him."
"Well, what's this a map of?" John tapped the geologist's hammer against his palm.
"A town called Sanctuary and bunch of homesteads. There's nothing on the map; no latitude or longitude."
"He probably didn't know what they were when he started the map."
"Guys, aren't you forgetting something here?" Larry broke in. "Who brought this map home? You could give me just a little credit."
Mandy rolled her eyes. "It was sheer luck it was in here. And if I hadn't looked in the bag you'd have tossed it away. There could be a dozen treasure maps you've overlooked in our garage."
"Give it a rest, both of you." John picked up the book. "Maybe there's a clue in here. We don't even know what the map is referring to. It could be gold or gems or anything really."
"Aboriginal artefacts?" Mandy suggested.
"Huh," Larry stretched, "that kind of treasure is worse than no treasure at all. The Abos'll declare it a sacred site, no one will ever see it again and you'll be lucky not to get your ass hauled into court for laying white eyes on their tribal finger-paintings."
"Then let's hope that's not what Mister Thompson meant." John picked up a corner of the map. "So how does this fold up?"
Larry left the other two trying to work out how to fold the map up again. He wandered back into the garage and looked at the pieces of history strewn all over the floor. Despite what Mandy had said, he didn't think he'd missed anything else of importance; he didn't remember seeing any books other than the ubiquitous bibles.
"God, Australian history's just designed to make you feel guilty, innit?" He prowled about the piles of junk, occasionally nudging something with his toe. He vaguely remembered what he had learnt at school; there was the First Fleet, then the gold rush, and then the Anzacs. And some explorers in between who usually went mad, if he recalled correctly.
And then when you got out of school you got to hear all the people complaining about the Aboriginals. He usually changed the channel. As far as he was concerned, authority was obsessed with trying to make the ordinary people feel guilty. He scowled as he remembered Mandy's father yelling at him, and the thin-lipped lectures that his teachers gave him. This nation wasn't built on courage, or mateship, it was all about the guilt.
Fuck them, he thought, they worked so hard to make him miserable, it was about time he got something back. Despite Johnny's attempts to be rational, Larry believed. This was going to get them out of the rut they'd always been in. This was the start of something big; he could feel it. Well, Johnny could play historian if he wanted, and Larry knew that Mandy wasn't one for practicalities, so it was up to him to get this show on the road. With renewed enthusiasm he attacked the boxes remaining in the truck, all thoughts of the game forgotten.
John and Mandy had eventually gotten the map refolded and had spent some time discussing how best to preserve it. Mandy suggested photocopying, but John had his doubts that the fine detail of the map would show up. Not to mention the possibility of destroying the map itself. He'd suggested tracing and Mandy had asked him if he were volunteering. With no conclusion reached, Mandy had put the map in a freezer bag and placed it back in the diary, which was now sitting on John's bed.
John could hear Larry ratting around in the garage, and Mandy doing the dishes in the kitchen. All commonplace sounds in this house, now overlaid with a sense of urgency and excitement. As much as he tried to resist it, John was starting to catch it, too.
He looked back at the diary and tried to picture this Thompson. A typical founding father image formed in his mind, all bushy beard and weathered skin, a prospector eking out a living in a harsh and unfamiliar land.
John kicked off his shoes and lay back on the bed. He carefully took out the map and placed it on the bedside table, then turned the page to meet W. J. Thompson for the first time.
This is a memoir of W. J. Thompson written in the year of Our Lord eighteen seventy-five. I have come to this land a humble servant of God.
"...Larry?" John peered forward to look out his door to the hallway beyond.
"Ow! Fuck!" Larry's voice was still coming from the garage.
"Are you all right?" Mandy called from the kitchen.
"I just dropped this stupid ... thing. I'm fine."
John shook his head and started reading.
The following being a chronicle of the life of one William James Thompson, humble servant of God and the Crown for the year 1875. (I think it looks better to have it numerical but Sandy is the last word on that)
For this to be a true and complete chronicle, I must detail the series of events that destined me for this post in South Australia, and drove me to do God's work in this hostile land.
For I was born the son of a leatherworker in the year of our Lord 1827. I received education and instruction in the word of God from the nuns at St. Mary's Parish Church for seven years. Lord forgive the young man who did so often commit minor offence in thy very own house. Just was the punishment meted out to me by the Brides of Christ.
"I hope the whole book isn't like this," John sighed. No doubt everyone was a religious maniac back then, but it didn't make for the most interesting reading. He skipped ahead a few pages, as the writer had listed in great detail the various religious revelations he had received from the nuns.
John was about to give up on his reading for the night, as the prose was sending him to sleep when the handwriting abruptly changed.
I had been working for my father for nearly five years when the Devil did whisper words of temptation in my ear, and I did commit the deadly sin of Greed. Despite my lack of learning, I had enough native wit to keep one step ahead of the magistrate for a goodly number of months.
It was here that the writing changed dramatically, the carefully formed letters loosened as if the writer had ceased to pay as much attention to what he was saying.
Me and Greg'ry worked out a scheme whereby certain well-heeled gents could be persuaded to part with their coin. If a gentleman with a reputation for gambling were to pay a visit to one of our many haunts, Greg'ry and I would arrange to argue about the proceeds of an invented card game, in which we contrived to imply we had a foolproof method of ensuring a return.
By the end of the year 1851, our act was enough to convince seven of ten who heard it that our argument was genuine. Thinking themselves clever, they would threaten to report our crimes, and we would pretend to be afraid, and we would offer them a cut of our winnings to ensure silence. We would let a certain amount of money line their pocket and eventually their greed was such that they would hand over their coin for us to procure greater winnings. At this point we would vanish, having taken care to use different names each time.
John chuckled. "What a classic scam. Thompson must have been a hell of a talker."
It had to end sometime, and on the twelfth day of February, 1852, the law finally caught up with us. We had always taken care to choose those who had money to lose, and were used to losing it, or we tried to. It was inevitable that we'd make a mistake sometime, and eventually we gulled a man who couldn't afford it. To save his own skin he expended every effort to see us caught, and his desperation landed us in the dock.
We were both sentenced to transportation to the colony in Western Australia, and none of our practiced words were any defence against that awful fate. Although at that time we had no idea what lay in store for us in the new land, we vowed to go with our heads high and make the best of it. Our plan was to return to England in triumph, and to buy our way back into the motherland's good graces with colonial gold. We had heard stories of the massive nuggets found in New South Wales and other places, and we had a mind to find some gold of our own.
John put the book away, after carefully putting the map back inside the front cover. So Thompson was interested in finding gold. It was no guarantee that that was what he actually had found, but it was a heartening scrap of information none-the-less. John decided that it was probably safest to keep the book in the bag it had resided in for over a century, and, feet bare, he padded back to the kitchen.
Mandy had presumably gone to bed, but Larry was still out in the garage. After putting the book back in the bag John went out to see what had kept him up so late.
"You've been out here for hours, what on earth are you doing?" John glanced around the garage. Larry had apparently packed up quite a lot of the stuff and there was a neat stack of boxes next to the van.
"Oh, well, I went through the rest of it." Larry emerged from the van, running his fingers through his hair. "And I've started sorting it and repackaging it."
"Well, I figured we could try and send to a junk shop. Murphy knows us, he's not gonna ask where it came from."
"He's not going to give us much of a price for it either. You're right though; we should at least try and make something out of it."
"And the more I thought about it," Larry shuffled his foot uncomfortably, "the more it didn't seem right just to dump it. The least we owe Thompson is trying to find a home for his stuff."
"It's probably not his stuff, you know."
"Yeah, but it feels like it is. You know?"
"I know." John nodded. "So you're raring to go, eh? Off to see the outback and find us some treasure."
"I know you'll think it's stupid. But you know what I said about opportunities? I think this could be real, I mean, it's not some museum prop. What did Thompson have to say in his diary anyway?"
"He's a con artist," John replied.
Larry's face fell. "So it's a fake? A genuine fake?"
"I wouldn't say that exactly. What would he have to gain by keeping a fake treasure map in his bag? And why is it so oddly-worded?"
"So..." Larry trailed off expectantly.
"His writing's worse than Mandy's; I didn't get very far. But he was conning people by pretending he could guarantee making money at cards. That's why he was sent over here."
"He did all that in a year?"
"No, it's a memoir, not an actual diary. He's probably put his whole life in there. Maybe he could only afford one journal, or it was like his last act at the end of his life or something."
"So, nothing about the treasure yet?"
"He and his friend hoped they would find gold apparently. Although that was just because they'd heard about it back in England."
"So, it could be a gold mine?"
"It could be. Or it could be your famous Aboriginal paintings. What we need to do," John held up a finger for emphasis, "is to try and find what the map is of. Try and find this Sanctuary town, and see if anyone else has already dug up the treasure."
"So you're going to the library tomorrow?"
"Or Mandy is. You're right about one thing; if we are going to do this we're going to need money. You can't just hop in the car and drive to the outback. You need supplies and shit."
"But we can't tell anyone else."
"Right. It's just us three. 'Cause if word leaks out ... people go really funny when they hear the word 'treasure'."
"Okay, I'll get rid of this stuff tomorrow. I'll just pack up the last bit."
"You might want to give Murphy a ring beforehand. So he can clear enough space at least."
Larry nodded. "Wake me up before you go tomorrow morning if I'm still asleep."
"You know," John looked back at the stack of boxes, "I don't think Thompson would have minded. The way we found his map, I mean. I think he'd have found it funny."
"He sounds like a decent bloke after all."
"I'll reserve judgement until we find that treasure. 'Night Larry."
The next morning John opened Larry's door on his way out and lobbed a boot at his sleeping friend.
"Get out of bed, you lazy bastard. Mandy's already gone. If Murphy gives you any money don't spend it."
"Whazzamatter?" Larry sat up and rubbed his hand over his face, but all he heard was the screen door slamming itself shut and John revving his motorcycle.
Larry wandered into the kitchen and as his toast was cooking he dialled Murphy's number from memory.
"Hey, mate, how's business?"
Murphy's voice, roughened by a twenty-year forty a day habit, reverberated tinnily in Larry's ear. "Not too bad, mate, yourself?"
"Yeah, I might have some stuff for you. Bit uhh..." Larry scratched his head, "a bit different from the usual."
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" Murphy asked in such a way as to imply the answer 'yes' would lead to the conversation being cut short.
"Nah, nothing like that. I just picked up some boxes of stuff. You know, recycling."
"I hear ya. Okay, so what have you got?"
"Well, it's ... it's antique stuff. Spoons and sugar bowls and stuff that's so old I dunno what it was used for."
"Doesn't sound like your usual thing."
"Things have been a little odd. But look, if you don't need the stuff just say, man. It's no skin off my back."
"No, no. I'll take the stuff. I might even have a buyer." Groom has already approached Murphy, looking to buy historical 'junk'. I think he might not say this at this point. He hasn't even looked at the stuff yet, unless Larry mentions an article or two. This way, it makes it sound like Murphy already knows what is in the boxes.
"Well, there's a decent load in the back of the van. How much are we talking?"
"Well, I can't really say ... about two hundred?"
"That's the best you can do?" Larry carefully injected a note of disappointment into his tone.
"Uhh ... look. Two-fifty? I can't see it worth my while going much higher than that."
"All right, Murphy. I'll call around and see if I get any better offers, but you know you're always the first one I call."
Larry disconnected and looked at the ceiling with its dusty spider webs. "A buyer, eh? Lucky." He grinned to himself and made breakfast. Map or no map, he'd made more of a profit than he'd expected. He'd let Murphy sit for an hour or so and then call him back, he decided. There was no point in appearing too eager.
Humming cheerfully he wandered back to the garage to load up the van.
"Don't worry, Thommo," he said to himself, "I got a good deal." He shivered and glanced around the garage. "I'm glad you agree," he said, a bit more quietly.