At a remote biotechnological research centre in the Australian outback, chief scientist John Parker is developing a virulent and contagious chimera, a fatal bacterium for which there is no cure. When a young female scientist is found murdered at the research facility, John encounters Diana Pembridge, an animal rights activist who suspects there is more to John's work than meets the eye.
Diana has dedicated her life to caring for majestic birds of prey. When she discovers the body of her childhood friend near the research station, she immediately suspects murder. Her questioning leads her into a web of scientific corruption. But when people will go to deadly lengths to protect their secrets, getting too close to the truth threatens to lead to her own demise.
Blanche d'Alpuget examines complex ethical questions about biotechnology, animal experimentation and wildlife trafficking, but also explores broader issues of freedom, love and gender equality. She skilfully unfolds the dramatic conflicts that define both the human and animal worlds.
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About the Author
d'Alpuget's first book, Mediator: A Biography of Sir Richard Kirby was published in 1977 to critical acclaim. Robert J. Hawke: A Biography (1982) was both a national bestseller and the winner of several awards. She is also the author of On Longing and Hawke: The Prime Minister.
She has served on the boards of the Copyright Agency Ltd and the Australian Film Commission, and was the Chair of the Australian Society of Authors in 1991. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son.
Read an Excerpt
By Blanche d'Alpuget
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 1993 Blanche d'Alpuget
All rights reserved.
In the heat of the day, when eagles soar highest, Diana Pembridge drove to the camping ground near the lake. All summer she had observed a family of wedgetails hunting over the wheat fields and the mountain, and sometimes seizing ducks from the bulrushes. A huge, dark-phase female eagle had claimed this district as her territory more than twenty years ago, when the Pembridges grew wheat on the flat land south of the highway and ran sheep on ground that was now the Exotic Feral Species and Microbiology Research Centre. During January and February, the female, her young mate, and their newest offspring had sailed together through the tall blue days, but now two had vanished. Which two Diana did not yet know, for on the autumn thermals the wedgetails rose to amazing heights, too far from the ground to identify.
As she looked toward Mount Kalunga, she saw the one remaining eagle coming down. From the way it was flying, in slow spirals, she could tell it was curious about something it could see on the ground on the other side of the airfield, but from where she was standing she could not work out if the eagle would alight outside or inside the Cyclone-wire fence. Beyond the fence, near the base of the mountain, was the land where Diana exercised her falcons.
She focused her binoculars on the bird, holding her breath with excitement: it was the wily resident hen eagle, and Diana had never seen it so close. The huge wings measured, she estimated, three meters across.
The eagle hovered lower and lower, her big pale feet extending like airplane wheels. Suddenly there was a shot. The bird jolted, then cartwheeled to the ground.
The road between the shore of the lake and the Cyclone-wire fence ran due west for half a kilometer, then petered out on no-man's-land. Diana looked for the injured eagle as she drove, but the ground was uneven. When her van rounded the edge of the fence she could see no one, only a bit of bright-red clothing hanging on the wire. Maybe there's a rabbit tied to it, she thought: the lure that tempted the eagle down.
Up ahead, the big bird floundered along the ground, its right wing broken and flopping out, unfoldable. Diana jerked on the handbrake and reached into the back of the van. She grasped a slide-action rifle and her fowling net.
As soon as the eagle saw her, it made a desperate effort to fly, jumping away on its big, black-feathered legs, left wing pumping, right wing trailing over the grass. Diana dropped the rifle and sprinted after it.
She netted it on her first try, only to realize she was a fool to have forgotten her gloves; as she pulled the net tight, tipping the eagle onto its side, the bird's taloned feet thrashed free. It was like a panicking horse. She grabbed at the legs and, with her face averted, held on, her arms jerking in their sockets from the eagle's kicks. It curved its body up and, through the net, struck her leg with its beak — but suddenly the fight went out of it and it collapsed in a heap of loose feathers. Diana held tightly to its legs, then turned to look at what she had caught.
The eagle was lying on its back, glaring at her from beneath pale, almost white, eyebrows. For a moment she was bewitched by the power of this mysterious, other life, then a movement at the edge of the tree line caught her attention.
She squinted at the spot. The figure stepped forward a pace so she could see him, then vanished again among the Aleppo pines.
"Morrie!" she yelled.
There was no answer and no movement from the trees. Had he forgotten how to speak?
"Why did you shoot the eagle?" she shouted. Her words fell into the silence of the afternoon.
The eagle kicked, jerking her attention back to her task.
One-handed, she unbuckled the belt of her jeans and dragged it through the loops. She folded the eagle's broken wing flat against its side. The bird was lying still again, and she was able to slide the belt around its body and wings and secure them. With both hands around its legs, she lugged the bird, upside down, to her van. She needed to drive to the vet's — an hour away, in town — before the eagle had a stress fit.
Instead of seats, the van had poles in the back for birds to perch on, but they were all too small for the wedgetail's feet. With her pocketknife Diana cut a strip off an old blanket and wrapped it securely around the largest pole. When, wearing gloves this time, she picked up the eagle and stood it on the perch, its massive feet gripped with ease. With eyes bright as suns, it stared past her as if she were invisible, fixing its attention on something far in the distance. It was still terrified — Diana knew from the way it flattened its feathers — but she was almost certain it had no injuries apart from the broken wing. She pulled the black curtains that encircled the rear section of the van and quietly closed the door. In the dark, the eagle would probably go to sleep.
As she walked around to the driver's seat she glanced toward the mountain.
He was back again.
He had moved farther forward and was standing near the gray fence post that had once marked the western boundary of the Pembridges' property. Morrie looked as sinewy as dried meat, his only clothing a string tied around his waist, with a bit of rag hiding his genitals. A rifle rested across his shoulder. Diana turned to see what he was pointing at, over near the fence, but there was only the piece of red cloth she had glimpsed earlier.
She looked back at him, her hands raised in inquiry. He gave an emphatic, almost impatient, jerk of his chin, then motioned for her to follow him.
Diana did not try to get too close but let him walk past her, and when he was about two meters in front, she fell in behind his easy loose-kneed stride. The land closer to the fence dipped and rose from the erosion of water running off the mountain, but when Diana saw the cloud of flies, she knew what was there.
The body lay on its side in the creekbed, facing the fence, hands tied behind its back, bare buttocks a pale blue-gray, the legs a slightly darker color from suntan. Diana's heart jumped: it was Carolyn Williams. Carolyn had unhinged her jaw, screaming at whatever had been done to her.
Diana flinched away. "Morrie ...?"
"I never kill anyone! They tell lies. They shut me up wrong." He was quivering with agitation. "Last night. Lights comin' here. Then, goin' again. This mornin', early, it was there."
Diana interjected, "For God's sake! She was shouting for help! When you heard her, why didn't you —"
He shook his head. "No noise. She make no noise."
His mind had lost the power to dissemble, she realized, leaving his face a mirror of his thoughts.
"The police will have to question you."
"No! No!" he wailed. "No policemen!"
Diana took a step back to the corpse. Now that the first shock had worn off, she realized she was seeing details she had missed before: a mole on Carolyn's back she remembered from childhood; brown roots showing through her scarlet-tinted hair; the scuff marks of a row of toes inside a gold sandal. Again and again her glance was drawn to the mouth, silently screaming out flies. One for every time I wished you dead, she suddenly thought. In the next moment she realized she must be very careful of everything she said and did from now on.
"Morrie, you must ..."
But when she turned to look at him he had vanished again. She squinted at the trees and saw him standing between two pines; he was invisible unless you knew he was there.
She ran back to her van and climbed into the cabin, where a faint alkaline stench of bird mutings was ever present.
With the lake behind her, the road ran south, still parallel with the fence, past an outlying house, the laboratory complex, and the administrative and residential buildings of the research facility. It had been a private road when this land belonged to the Pembridges, but now it was public, like the paddock on its other side, which was used as a campsite by duck shooters. As she drove past the camp she noted the forty-four-gallon drums brimming with rubbish and the crates of empty bottles and cans in unstable towers. There were piles of duck feathers around spots where plucking machines had been set up. Just twenty minutes ago she had been walking around here, checking that fires were properly smothered, picking up bits and pieces — more cans, a dirty sock, a digital watch, a condom. She'd found a stick, carried the thing to the garbage, and flipped it in, feeling a twinge of loneliness.
The memory of the condom made her brake sharply. There had been an ornamental pink hair comb nearby, she recalled, the sort of junk Carolyn loved. Diana had thrown the comb into the garbage too. As the van slowed, she realized she had been driving at ninety kilometers an hour along the rutted dirt road.
Had Carolyn been shot? Or was she stabbed?
She could not remember seeing any blood.
Maybe it wasn't murder. Maybe she committed suicide. The moment this idea was out of her head, Diana knew it was ridiculous. Carolyn's hands were tied behind her back, as if she had been a prisoner.
She was already passing the lab complex where Carolyn used to work, BIOHAZARD signs were attached to the doors of its low, white buildings and fixed to the Cyclone wire every hundred meters. The signs had red broken circles with skull-and-crossbones painted above them.
Up ahead was the T-junction where the unpaved road to the lake met the highway. She could turn right, drive to the main gates of the research facility, and report to one of the guards that Carolyn Williams's corpse was lying over near the mountain. Or she could turn left and drive straight to the vet in Kalunga — and have time to think of an explanation about how and where she had found the eagle and who might have shot it. She stopped as a truck thundered toward her. When it had passed, she idled for a while, then shoved the van into gear and turned left, following the truck into town.CHAPTER 2
Diana thought that Jason Nichols might be catching up on some sleep after having spent much of the weekend attending to injured birds and the neglected animals from a scruffy little circus on the outskirts of town. She was relieved to see, when she pulled up at his clinic, that the front door was ajar.
The eagle lashed at her — first with its beak, catching her on the face, then with its foot — when she tried to lift it off its perch, so in the end she threw the torn blanket over its head and dragged it out of the van. As she barged into the vet's clinic she almost trod on his receptionist and another woman, both huddled over a spread of tarot cards. Jason was looking on, bemused.
"Go straight through," he said, and after a glance of apology to the women, who stared at Diana and her extraordinary bundle, he followed her into the examining room.
"It's a wedgie," Diana said. "She's been shot. She needs a general anesthetic while we X-ray the wing, then something for pain when she comes to."
There seemed to be nothing damaged except a couple of tail feathers and the wing, but it was too soon to be sure. While the eagle was still unconscious, Diana braced both wings flat to its sides with thin leather thongs and Jason injected the bird with a painkiller. They carried her out to the laundry, where he had a big cardboard box in which his computer had been delivered. Diana held the eagle upright until she regained consciousness and could stand on her own. As soon as the bird woke, however, she showed signs of distress again. She twirled her head around and flared her long, blade-shaped hackles until they stood out from her neck.
"Turn off the washing machine," Diana whispered.
When the noise stopped, the eagle relaxed, and they tiptoed out.
"Let me put some cream on that lovely cheek of yours to prevent its bruising," Jason said. He gave his mild, shy grin.
"It's my leg that really hurts." Her thigh was hot where the wedgetail had struck her when she captured it.
"Where did you find the eagle?" he asked suddenly.
"On the flying ground." The instant she spoke, she felt color rise from her neck to her hair roots. She turned to hide her face, coughing. Jason gave her back a tentative pat.
"I hope you're not getting the bug I had," he said. "Those new flus are killers."
When she stopped gasping, her cheeks felt even redder, and there were tears in her eyes.
"You look exhausted," he added. "What a weekend!"
He walked with her back through the waiting room, where she paused to apologize to the receptionist and her friend, a small, sharp-faced woman whom Diana had seen driving around in a Land Cruiser. "Did those duck-killing drongos shoot the eagle?" the woman wanted to know.
"Not sure," Diana muttered.
The receptionist said huffily, "I don't imagine it was one of your animal liberationist friends."
Back in the van, Diana rested her head on the steering wheel. In her mind she was on the veranda of the old homestead with her mother, welcoming their guests to the weekend of duck shooting in 1973. Louise and Jack Williams had driven over from their property for the Friday night barbecue. Beautiful Louise. "Diana's very tall for twelve, but so quiet," she said. "Carolyn, the little wretch, thinks of nothing but boys!" Someone standing nearby quipped, "Like mother, like daughter." Everyone laughed, even small, dour, wealthy Mr. Williams. Joan Pembridge smiled gently.
Diana started the engine and five minutes later was back at her house in Fig Tree Gully Road.
Grace Larnach bent and straightened slowly as she tidied the wreckage left by the anti-shooting campaigners who had slept on the floor downstairs that weekend. Downstairs was Grace's part of the house, set up as an art gallery. She ran it with occasional help from Diana; when Diana was away, Grace looked after the birds and the animal hospital in the back garden.
Diana kissed her on both cheeks and went through to the kitchen to make tea. When she returned with the pot and two mugs, she said, "Any phone calls?"
Grace took a long slurp. "I wrote 'em down."
Diana went to the desk and looked at the list: most of them were radio stations wanting interviews about the anti-shooting campaign.
Grace watched her curiously. "You expecting someone particular to ring?"
Diana shrugged. "The big wedgie was shot, down near the lake. I took it straight in to Jason, so I haven't had a proper look round yet. I better get going." She left her tea steaming on the desk.
There were three hours of daylight left, she calculated, enough to drive to the flying ground, check the corpse again, and call the security guards from the research facility. As she drove, she tried to remember details of the body, but her mind was stuck on Carolyn's unhinged mouth. She must have been yelling loud enough to burst her lungs. Why did nobody hear her? In the stillness of night, someone must have heard her shouting.
Diana looked across the wide fields of burned-off wheat stubble beside the highway. If you knew this country well, you knew where all the houses were, tucked away behind trees — and there were hectares upon hectares of uninhabited land where a woman could scream her head off without being heard.
She drove past the campsite again and along the marshy foreshore of the lake. When she rounded the curve she saw that Morrie was waiting for her. He was now wearing blue jeans and an unbuttoned shirt: clothes she had left for him by the fence post last Christmas. The shirt still had folds in it from its box. Diana remembered how Louise Williams had shocked everyone at that long ago barbecue by ruffling his dark curls. "He's a sweetie, that rouseabout of yours," she had said to Diana's father, who answered in a jocular tone, "Not too sweet when he's got a skinful."
Diana jumped down from the van and once more allowed Morrie to lead with his silent, thin-legged stride, making for the place where the body had been.
Excerpted from White Eye by Blanche d'Alpuget. Copyright © 1993 Blanche d'Alpuget. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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