1. Western Australia
[Great Sandy Desert, W.A. (-19.7333, +121.7111), 16 Oct 2013, 12.30PM]
The Nissan Pathfinder was heading, rocketing, in a geometrically-perfect straight line across the desert plain. A plume of dust like a jet’s vapour trail stretched out behind it, an emphatic proclamation that it was coming from somewhere and going somewhere else.
Suddenly the vehicle began to slow down, almost to a stop, and just as the pursuing dust threatened to engulf it, the Nissan turned off its line, to the right, and ambled south for about two hundred metres. And then it pulled up completely with a small, final jerk.
A solid man with distant eyes, wearing brilliant, sea-ice white, Bermuda shorts and navy topsiders, stepped out of the car into the dissipating bubble of swirling dust, and looked around. Scanned the horizon in every direction, slowly, as if he needed a pair of binoculars. A fair-skinned, blonde woman in a loose-fitting white cotton dress did the same thing, emerging from the passenger’s side. It was a searingly hot, cloudless day and the sky’s blue was washed out to a hazy topaz. The red of the earth was overwhelming. There was hardly a landmark in sight, with the exception of a few low shrubs, the odd tree, and a slightly raised mound of soil and rock about half a kilometre away – the bulk of it was possibly a hundred metres long and looked like a plinth that had lost its statue.
‘This has to be it,’ Aleks said, looking up from the ragged map he was clutching. It had been folded and unfolded so many times, holes had begun to appear where the creases intersected. This, like many things, disappointed him. ‘That must be the hill, surely.’
‘Not too many to choose from,’ the woman, Lydia, remarked. They were both speaking in Russian.
‘So where is it?’
Lydia just shrugged.
‘So where.... is it,’ Aleks said again, but to himself this time.
‘You still haven’t heard anything I suppose.’
‘Africa. From our woman―’
‘You don’t think Lena might have...’
Aleks stared at her for a moment. ‘I would put nothing past that woman. You tell me, she’s your friend.’
Lydia sighed and looked away.
Aleks took off his cap and sunglasses and with his upper arms, he wiped the sweat from his eyes. Those distant eyes, they were topaz too, the same as the sky. He looked around again and cursed under his breath. ‘Maybe we passed it. There was another hill... a bit like that one, but it was miles back. I knew we should have stopped.’ He looked at his silver divers watch – it was reflecting a blinding ray of light into his face like a second sun. ‘Who knows how long it’d take to find it again. And then if it’s not the right one, we have to turn around and... Before you know it, the sun’s gone.’
‘Wouldn’t be the end of the world,’ Lydia said and took her own cap off to fan herself. ‘There’s always first thing tomorrow morning.’
Aleks stared at her. ‘You want to spend the night here? Is that a joke? Do you know how cold it gets here at night?’
‘Cold? Here?’ She shook her head, meaning she either didn’t know or didn’t believe him. Put her cap back on and stretched. ‘Anyway. It’s nice to be outside for a change. Good for that tan you promised me.’
‘OK,’ Aleks said eventually. He was nodding. ‘OK. Let’s take a closer look.’
And then they were back in the Nissan again, stirring up some more dust.
Aleks’s dream, which he’d woken up to that morning, hadn’t been the perfect way to start the day, and at first he wondered if he shouldn’t have been reading something into it, the fact it’d been so distressing. He never remembered his dreams, not as a rule, and this one had been no exception. He knew he’d had a nightmare and that he and Lydia were in it, that was all. But as soon as they found what they were looking for, the bad feeling he woke up with vanished like the morning mist.
Because praise the gods, there it was. The galleon.
Lydia saw it first. It was in a place where the red soil had ceded ground to low dunes of paler-coloured sand. The shifting sands, which for so many years had concealed the vessel – enveloped it, swallowed it whole – had now, in their eternal impatience, shifted again. Looking more like a dead tree, part of the ship’s mast, snapped off down low, was now visible. Just. And beneath that, remnants of what appeared to be the top of the ship’s once-glorious stern.
‘Over there,’ Lydia said and plonked the binoculars down on the dashboard, a habit that had begun to get on Aleks’s nerves. But she was worth it, he kept telling himself. There was only one Lydia. And right now, he’d forgive just about anything.
It hadn’t seemed so long since they were standing together, holding hands, looking out over the vast, cold expanse of the Southern Ocean, with its whitecaps stretching all the way to Antarctica. He loved her then and he loved her now, in the heat, near another ocean altogether.
Aleks threw the wheel to the right and in a great curving arc of dust, he steered his own ‘ship’ – which was how he thought of the Nissan, their loyal fellow-voyager – towards their new discovery, this reclining old lady of the sea. Towards the most beautiful pile of old wood imaginable. Lydia kissed her new GPS and tossed it down on the dashboard as well, next to the binoculars. Aleks hardly noticed.
Thirty seconds later they pulled up again, this time in a skid.
They were still a reasonable distance away, just in case. So as not to disturb anything. From where they were parked, due to some slight undulations in the terrain – as if they were in the middle of an ocean – they could no longer see the ship, but Aleks had seen enough on the approach. It was her, all right. He fumbled for the door handle, uttered what would best be described as an excited little squeal, grunted and cursed, and then stumbled out of the Pathfinder, falling over completely. Bit the earth for a second, dirtied his white shorts and scraped his face on the hot, gravelly soil. Jumped up again, wide-grinned, unfazed. Lydia didn’t stumble, was already over the rise and got there first, racing to touch the timeworn oak of the stern, where the words Destino En Distancia were, now, more or less discernible. She threw herself on the ancient warrior queen and rubbed her hands over the letters in “Distancia” until her fingers were peppered with splinters. But she obviously didn’t care – and probably didn’t even feel them – because she was in love. And so for that matter was Aleks. They’d found her.
He pulled at Lydia’s shoulder and made her turn to face him. They giggled like children. He cupped her small face in his hands. All that history. He kissed her, she kissed him back, but she was too excited to keep her mouth still, or any part of her, she was trembling all over. He slipped his hand under the hem of her cotton dress, on her thigh, and up, between her legs. She pushed him away but he persisted. ‘No...’ she began to say, but despite her splinters and despite the sand and the heat and despite Aleks, she didn’t care and gave in to him...
But Aleks was frozen, like he’d been shot. His pale blue eyes were staring over Lydia’s bare shoulder, past the edge of the Destino’s stern...
‘What is it?’ She straightened and turned to see what he was looking at.
And then they were both staring. In the distance, an approaching trail of billowing dust was rushing towards them like a lit fuse.
‘You don’t think... it could be him, do you?’ she asked, but it was a question which didn’t want, let alone require, an answer.
‘Aleks,’ she said, speaking softly now. ‘I think we should get in the car. I think we should go.’
‘It might not be him.’
‘If it’s not...’ Lydia’s words trailed off. She probably wasn’t fully trusting her eyes, or wasn’t wanting to, because it was now apparent the erupting cloud of dust was preceded by a red vehicle. Which meant there was a good chance it was the Porsche. Good chance? Bad chance.
‘They’re in one hell of a hurry to get here,’ Aleks said. ‘Whoever they are.’
‘Can we please get in the car?’
He stared for a few more moments. ‘Yeah. You may be right.’
They scrambled back, scuttling like desert prey, over sand and rocks and red earth.
‘Quickly,’ she said once they were in. ‘Start the engine.’
He was still staring though, his door still open.
‘What are you waiting for?’
‘I just want to...’
‘Make sure it’s him. It could be―’
‘The moment we make sure, it’s too late. So for the love of Christ can we please go?’
When Aleks turned the key in the ignition, the approaching vehicle was still about a kilometre away. It was really starting to look like the Porsche now. The red Porsche Cayenne. Not too many like it in the whole of Australia, let alone this insignificant corner of the Great Sandy Desert. Lydia looked like she was beginning to panic. As for Aleks, it felt like the time he got caught in his first ‘rip’, swimming at the beach two years earlier. He’d been sure he was about to die.
He was trying to start the engine – it kept ticking over, no problem, but it wasn’t catching. He swore. He’d fumbled around with his keys before trying to start the car, and now this.
‘Have you flooded it? Is it flooded?’ Lydia spat her words at him like she was throwing them.
‘It’s just a heap of fucking junk, that’s all.’ He glanced up at the red SUV – and it was a Porsche – maybe three hundred metres away now. Like a mad dog racing towards them, he thought. A mad, red dog from hell.
This wasn’t meant to happen.
At that instant, when a small cloud flirted briefly with the sun, the desert around them seemed to turn a deep shade of crimson.
Aleks looked at Lydia, but she didn’t look back. She was staring at their visitor.
The Porsche slowed to a halt – smugly, it seemed – about twenty metres away. And all Aleks could think was how it wasn’t meant to be like this. Because there he was, mostly hidden behind the reflection on the windscreen, hidden except for his smiling, white teeth. There he was, the Korean who’d confronted them in Perth four days ago. The man who’d been calling them. Who’d been following them.
Mr Song had arrived and his was a tune that Aleks, for one, was not looking forward to hearing.
About two hours later, purely by chance because it wasn’t the route they usually took (due to inexperience, they were both from ‘out of town’), a couple of sweat-soaked geologists in a Jeep spotted a Nissan Pathfinder, next to an old watercourse, just over sixty kilometres from the present day coastline – and drove over to investigate.
The occupants were nowhere to be found. And because they didn’t know what they were looking for, and because they were pressed for time anyway, the geologists didn’t explore the area thoroughly, and didn’t get to see the Destino’s broken mast and stern poking out of the sand about fifty metres away, over a small rise. If they had, and if they’d ventured inside, they would have found a white cotton dress, lying on its own, in what had once been the captain’s quarters, a place in times past replete with royal blue velvet and glints of gold, but which was now little more than a dark and stifling sandy prison.