by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 14

Travelling On

They drove north. Subdued. Trying not to be depressed. But every town they visited, large and small, was a reminder of the horror. Women trying to look their best in long flowing garments made of pleasantly designed and colourful materials, despite being shrouded from head to toe and followed by irritable husbands or brothers who would rather be somewhere else.

When possible the five men struck up conversations with couples in parks and on the street, ostensibly asking for directions. Most were too frightened to respond but the women whose husbands permitted them to speak said they weren't too fussed about the robes as they were actually cooler than sun frocks. What they deeply resented was being forced to wear them. And although no one admitted it, it was clear from their behaviour that no one of either sex could see anything good about all the other new laws.

At the entrance to a town famed for its tomatoes and mangoes, Protectors were stopping all vehicles. After having their identity papers checked and scanned they were directed to the showgrounds, told to park, then to take a seat on any grandstand. There would be a short service in praise of God's forgiveness and mercy, followed by the public chastisement of wrongdoers.

As it would be not only pointless but also exceedingly dangerous to protest, they smiled, thanked the Protection Officer and arrived ten minutes later at a pair of impressive stone gateposts surmounted by weather-beaten concrete kangaroos. The magnificent wrought iron gates were guarded by two young men in black boots, black Lycra shorts, T-shirts and caps. Trainee Protectors, they announced proudly when Fidel asked. A driveway, overhung by ancient trees disgorged them into a substantial car park. Bart and Robert arrived ten minutes later. Affecting not to know each other, they joined the crowds heading towards the stands.

'Where'll we sit?'

'As far from the front as possible. Thanks to Jacob, we've learned they're keen on audience participation.'

Fortuitously, Bart and Robert ended up sitting directly behind the other three at the top of one of the grandstands that encircled the oval grassed area where, on show days, farmers would parade their best stock, and on weekends inter-club cricket was played. The entire town appeared to be there and the ambience was an odd mixture of excitement, nervous anticipation and revolt.

Numerous black-clad guards increased the feverish atmosphere while quelling incipient high spirits. Having no idea what crimes were to be punished, they asked the couple next to them. The woman hid her face in her scarf and sobbed. Her husband told them it was a public punishment to act as warning to everyone of the consequences of disobeying JECHIS. It was the first they'd had in the town and they were hoping it'd be simply a warning; that nothing really bad would happen. His wife was worried sick because her sister was being tried for adultery and the punishment for that was...' He looked pleadingly at Fidel and friends. 'They wouldn't really do that, would they? Not in this day and age? Surely we're beyond such medieval cruelty?'

His listeners shook their heads in sympathy, and said they also hoped it would be just a warning, certain in their hearts that it wouldn't be.

A large truck drove into the centre of the oval, hauling a trailer of the sort used by travelling circuses to carry lions and other wild beasts from town to town. There was movement behind the bars, but they were too far away to see what creatures were imprisoned.

'Please tell me this isn't what I think it is.'

'Ok, I won't, but I also think it is.'

'We don't have to look.'

Hylas was right, they didn't have to, but like everyone else they couldn't take their eyes off the poor wretches. A trumpeted fanfare announced a black-clad figure who mounted a type of pulpit draped in black cloth, and began to speak. There was no obvious microphone nor any visible speakers, yet his voice seemed to come from beside each listener. Soft and warm. Deep and intimate—as if they were hearing the voice of god inside their heads.

'Children of almighty God. Servants of the Lord of Creation. You are gathered here to affirm your obedience to the laws of your Father in Heaven revealed to you through the benevolence of the priests of JECHIS and carried out by their devoted servants the Protectors. Most of you are bravely fighting the original sin with which you were born. But sadly, there are among you men and women who have chosen not to quell their arrogant and selfish notions of individual rights, and have angered God; in the process shaming everyone else. Today, praise the Lord, You will all witness, and some will have the honour of assisting in, the chastisement of those who have betrayed you, thus gaining honour in the eyes of the Lord.' He stopped speaking and gazed around as if seeking out evildoers. In the silence everyone's hearts thumped, certain the speaker knew of their traitorous thoughts and wrongdoing. When he continued speaking, a soft sigh of released breath and tension flowed from the assembled sinners.

'From this day on there will be a monthly public chastisement, which every citizen must attend. Also, every citizen is henceforth required to confirm his or her allegiance to JECHIS and god by attending prayer meetings in one of the reconsecrated temples on Sundays. Your attendance, or lack of it will be noted, and those who fail to honour god with their attendance will be suitably chastised. Stand and pray.'

Everyone stood and bowed their heads.

'Almighty father in heaven, maker and creator of all things, forgive us our sins by granting each of us burdens that, by bearing without complaint, we may prove our love of thee and our abject devotion. Amen.'

A rallying blast from the trumpet announced the dragging of the first sinners from the cage, weeping and crying their innocence, their regret, their contrition. They stood in trembling fear before the priest who gazed down with an expression of the utmost compassion.

'You, my children, have been foolish. You have disputed the authority of God's servants. You have disobeyed the will of those who serve him. You have questioned his right to dispose of you as he will. You have profaned our city. Your eternal souls are in peril unless your recalcitrant hearts are purged of insolence. In his infinite compassion god has arranged a penance which, if you accept in the spirit in which it is served, will redeem you in his eyes.'

The twelve sinners were then stripped and tied to stakes by Protectors, while other guardians of God's justice and love selected healthy young men from the stands. Reluctantly they moved to the arena, were handed canes, and told to lash the sinners till the blood ran. The first man refused, so was himself tied to a post and lashed till he sagged, bleeding and insensible. The other amateur assistants then quickly took up their weapons and set to with a fury that astounded their fellows on the stands. On returning to their seats every one hung their heads, mortified.

The entire stadium was silent as if everyone was terrified to breathe in case that would be seen as disrespectful. The woman beside Fidel suddenly stopped sobbing and gasped. 'There's my sister. Oh please don't let them hurt her.' Her voice sank to a trembling wail. Her husband encased her shoulders in a protective arm.

Another trumpet call and the priest raised his arm. Frowning. A chill of fear ran through the assembled crowd. 'Daughter,' said he, addressing the naked, trembling, terrified woman, 'you have been guilty of a heinous crime. You have had sexual intercourse with a man other than your husband. You have disobeyed the will of God. You have shamed yourself, your husband, your father and your father's father and performed your vile acts under your husband's roof in his absence. You have profaned his sanctuary with your crime. Your husband will avenge the crime committed against him.'

The husband, who clearly regretted denouncing his spouse, was handed a baseball bat, then the pair were locked in a cage large enough for him to swing his weapon.

'Avenge god and reclaim your honour as a man!' the priest shouted. 'The gate will not be opened until the harlot is dead.'

The wife sank to her knees and pleaded. Her husband stood above in anguish, lowered his club and turned to the priest and said he wished to pardon her. He was told it was too late. When he still hesitated a Protector shoved a cattle prod through the bars of the cage pressing it against the man repeatedly until, screaming in agony from the high voltage shocks he smashed his club onto the head of his supplicating wife, killing her instantly. A great sigh rose from the watching crowd as Protectors dragged the dead body out of the cage, followed by the stumbling, dazed, bewildered husband.

The final act of the afternoon's macabre exhibition of God's mercy and goodness was also the most horrible. Three men and two women, all naked, were led by ropes tied around their necks onto what looked like a large barbeque grill, raised a few centimetres above the ground on bricks. The ropes were tied securely to a central pole projecting from the grid, jamming their heads together, leaving the rest of their bodies unfettered but unable to do more than writhe. Nervous laughs erupted from several overwrought onlookers.

A trumpet sounded. The priest gazed down on his victims and shook his head in disgust. 'My children,' said he, 'you are guilty of the abominable crime of worshipping false gods. You have been holding secret religious services of a banned cult, and have insidiously and meanly dared to do this beneath the sacred roof of a newly consecrated temple. You have profaned that sanctuary with your crime. You have insulted God, your father. Your punishment is to be purified in holy fire that will consume the sin from your souls so they may enter the kingdom of heaven.'

A Protector stepped forward and bent over the grill. With a whoosh that could be heard on the topmost rank of the stadium, flames erupted from under the sinners' feet, fed by gas burners directly beneath. The victims screamed, swayed, couldn't fall, writhed, and continued to scream as the stench of burning flesh reached to the heavens where apparently it would appease the righteous wrath of God. It was a truly horrible death as their flesh melted and burned slowly from their feet up. Death took a very long time to arrive because, unlike the traditional medieval Roman Catholic auto da fé which used a wooden pyre, the smoke of which asphyxiated the victims long before the flesh fell from the bones, with gas there was no smoke, no relatively easy death, only a long, excruciatingly agonising incineration.

When the last corpse stopped twitching the gas was turned off and in the silent arena it seemed no one dared move, let alone speak..

None of the spectators looked at anything but their feet as they shuffled back to their cars and homes; escaping physically, but not mentally from something more terrifyingly vile than they could ever have imagined.

Ten minutes later and five kilometres distant the five renegades parked in a side road, then gathered in Bart's vehicle.

'I don't want to stay in this town.'

'Neither do I, Fidel. But do you think it's different anywhere else?'

They agreed that probably nowhere was better, but they drove away all the same, spending the night in an abandoned farm shed. No one wanted to eat, or even talk about what they'd seen. Silently they prepared their beds, then lay awake, wondering what on earth they were going to do. How could they survive? And did they even want to in such a world?

The following day a sudden impulse drove them along a barely visible, dusty track across the bleak plain towards the western hills. There was no signpost to indicate where it went, or if it went anywhere, which made it all the more attractive. The urge to avoid other humans was overpowering. They drove silently between burned out cane fields, skirted the still-smouldering ruins of a farmhouse, then more fields of charred sugar cane. After crossing several cattle stops they arrived at a small stream, on the far side of which a mass of huge gray boulders protected the base of a steep, rocky hillside devoid of vegetation. They got out and smelled the air. Dusty, dry, but not unpleasant. Not smoky. No birds called. Utter silence. Hot and humid despite the cloudy sky.

'I like this place. It reflects my state of mind. Lets stay a while.'

'Ok, if the water's drinkable.'

It was, and although not deep enough to swim, was refreshing to lie in. An exploratory hike along the streambed led them into a narrow gorge, then up a series of waterfalls that ran between and over giant boulders where loose stones had eroded circular pools. They spent the day as high as they could climb up the narrow valley. The sea was visible as a flat line of slightly darker blue-grey than the land.

There had been no rain since the bushfire so the trees and shrubs were still black and bare, and the sight of burned wallabies, kangaroos, bandicoots and lizards that had been trapped at the end of the canyon was a depressing reminder of God's retribution. Talking, thinking, cooling off in the water followed by more talk helped reduce the experience at the showgrounds to something they could process without wanting to scream. Hunger sent them back to their encampment feeling less angry but more helpless; a state of mind that persisted for five days until they ran out of food.

'Now that JECHIS has turned the country into somewhere we don't want to live,' Robert said seriously, 'how about we just stay here drinking only water until we die? I've read it isn't a terrible death. After a few days the desire for food vanishes and you just get more and more tired, and after a week or so fall asleep and die painlessly.'

'Is it really that hopeless?'

'It's pointless to think we can change anything.'

'That's true, Robert, but life is pointless. We each have to invent our own raison d'être.'

'I'm not unhappy. I'm shocked and horrified at the cruelty, even though I know it's no different from the way most humans have always been controlled and regulated. I just fear we won't be able to avoid notice and will end up on that grill. It might feel like a game, but it isn't.'

'It sure isn't a game, Robert!' Bart was finding it difficult to speak. 'I'd certainly prefer to starve myself to death than be stoned or incinerated by those monsters.'

'I still don't understand how JECHIS managed to take control so easily.'

'One of the humanity's many weaknesses, Hylas, is to desire a strong leader—one who knows everything. But no one knows everything, so we follow the guy who says he does, especially when he says he has a hotline to the bloke who made the universe. It's unadulterated superstition, unworthy of a species that considers itself rational. Another human weakness is that we're basically honest, and therefore credulous, and therefore easily manipulated. We want to believe our leader, so we do. We're also inconstant. What yesterday affected us strongly is today but a vague memory, and to-morrow will be disregarded. Humans have always ignored the lessons of history and we're suffering the consequences. Add to this each individual's certainty that it could never happen to him or her, and you can see how easy it is for mountebanks to take control.'

'And where, oh sage, is happiness in all this?'

'Arnold! You sweetheart. No one's ever called me a sage before. As for happiness, I'm usually a miserable sod. Robert's the happy one.'

Robert looked up as if startled. 'Me? I just muddle along. In one of our Economics lectures we talked about the idea of happiness being an important aspect of advertising. Economists are a cynical lot. They reckoned we had to tell the masses the truth about the way the world works so they'll realise that everything, both good and bad is pointless, and will sink into despair. That's when the clever salesman steps in offering objects guaranteed to give happiness.'

Fidel was shocked. 'That is so sick. Filling your life with stuff is not happiness, it's nothing but fleeting pleasure. Happiness is a gentle, lasting state, experienced when one's life and actions are based on virtue, which is the offspring of reason, and therefore permanent.' He looked around at four amused faces and blushed.

'Them's weighty words, Fidel. What do you mean by virtue?'

'Those aren't my words. They're from a book by Anne Radcliffe.' He blushed again. 'A Sicilian Romance.'

'Where'd you find it?'

'It's an eBook from Project Gutenberg. As for virtue, for me it's what feels right or good. If I feel shame or embarrassed or doubtful, then it isn't virtue. Of course it depends on people accepting the basic premise that we should at least do no harm. Otherwise the JECHIS priest's actions would be virtuous, but they aren't because they do harm and, most importantly, they're based on superstition, not reason.'

'So… if I feel good when I'm sharing and not being greedy, that's virtue, and when I'm in that situation I'll be happy?'

'You'll be in a position to be happy, but you have to be emotionally ready to be happy.'

'So the priest wasn't happy?'

'I think he is planning to be happy by having total power over everyone, and this was an important step towards that. So he was probably pleased but won't allow himself to be happy until he has the entire world grovelling in terror.'

'And will he be happy then?'

'No, because he is doing harm, therefore he will live in fear that his power will be usurped and the same thing will happen to him.'

'You're right,' Robert said thoughtfully. 'Suzie said something years ago that sticks in my head. If you want to be happy, then want what's possible. All I've ever wanted is to have someone to love and be loved by and for us to be independent of the world. And I've actually got that, so I guess I'm happy.'

'You don't sound very sure.' Bart said wryly.

'Oh, I'm sure, it's just that I've suddenly seen where I'm going wrong at the moment.'

'And that is?'

'I'm wanting what's not possible.' He shrugged. 'JECHIS has won. There's nothing I can do to reverse that, so I'll start from there and concentrate on taking care of us. That's a virtuous enough plan to keep me from falling into dread despair.'

'I agree with Robert, about loving and being loved,' Arnold said thoughtfully. 'That's the most important thing, but we really aren't independent, are we? As far as I can see we're going to be forever dependent on civilization—if we want to live.'

'What we need is a nice little farm, totally private with permanent water and good soil so we can be self sufficient.'

'Exactly, Hylas. Have you seen one like that?'

'No. And now I think about it, I haven't seen even one for sale sign since we started driving north. That's very odd.'

'Remember that notice we saw in a newspaper a couple of weeks ago? It didn't mean much to me at the time, as we don't own any property, but now I realise the implications. JECHIS has resumed all titles and now owns the entire state, in the same way kings have always have done. Actually, the state has always had the power to take any land they want. Everyone has always been a tenant in reality, paying land rates, taxes and so on. All that's changed is that JECHIS don't have to waste time going through the courts to take whatever they want. That means they've also taken over all food-growing properties; so no farm for us.'

'Yeah. I remember now. We're too late. Too late for anything good it seems. I wish I was old and had had my life and would die before it get's worse.' Arnold looked down in the vain hope of preventing the others from seeing how depressed he really was.

'We've all had good lives so far compared with most people, Arnold. Please don't be depressed.' Hylas wrapped an arm around Arnold's shoulders, precipitating a few salty tears that dripped onto his knees.

'Hylas is right, Arnold. We love you as much as we love ourselves and it really hurts to see you unhappy.' Fidel stroked his lover's hand. 'You don't have to put up with the horror. You can die now if you really want to. I promise we won't stop you.'

Arnold looked into Fidel's eyes searching for sarcasm, but found only deep compassion. 'Would you miss me?'

'Don't be a fuckwit! It'd be like cutting out a piece of our hearts. But we aren't you. We can never know exactly how much you're hurting. We not only love you but also respect your right to use, abuse and dispose of your life as you wish.'

Arnold sniffed and looked up in surprise. 'Hey! You're right! I've never thought if it like that. It's true. I can kark it whenever I want.' He shook his head and smiled. 'Look at me, I'm grinning like an idiot because now that I know I can kill myself whenever I want to, I don't mind living. I was thinking I had to go on and on until someone else decided. Fuck that's a liberating thought. Thanks Fidel.'

'Any time. But I'm glad you'll be hanging around a bit longer. We'd both miss you, wouldn't we Hylas?'

Hylas wiped tears from his cheeks, and managed a strangled, 'Yes.'

Fidel ruffled his brother's hair. 'You're such a sentimental bloke, that's one of a thousand reasons I love you.'

'And we too would be very sorry to see you depart prematurely,' Bart added, unwilling to say more in case he too cried.

The long straight stretches of road before Townsville were an invitation to speed, but they conserved their fuel, drove at the legal limit and attracted no unwanted attention. Forty kilometres before the city the sun was setting and the thought of trying to find somewhere to park so late in the day caused them to follow a modest sign advertising a store and petrol at a beach thirty kilometres to the east. If it was pleasant they might stay a while, having nowhere important to go, no people to meet and nothing to do apart from attending to their own needs. Nomads with bank accounts. A life style that was increasingly addictive. The thought of having to go to work every day, be there on time, meet and greet whether you felt like it or not, was very unappealing. And having no desire to do anything that might support the new regime, their present situation suited them perfectly. They'd not yet been bored.

The narrow sealed road meandered between fields of tall sugar cane nearly ready for harvest. Then the cane stopped and through the encroaching dusk they made out a band of scraggy trees. The road then traversed what looked suspiciously like a swamp, occasionally disappearing under a few centimetres of water. After crossing a rickety wooden bridge, the road ended at a circular turnaround under a canopy of trees on the edge of the beach. A lone car was parked in front of the unpretentious shop and takeaway that boasted three tables and two fuel pumps on a sealed area in front.

A yellow path stretching across glassily calm water to meet the rising full moon, created a beguilingly romantic atmosphere. They pulled in, topped up their fuel tanks then entered the shop. The woman at the register accepted their money, frowned as she counted it, then gave vent to a piteous sigh.

'I haven't got much in the freezer (sigh) but if you're desperate, (sigh) I suppose I could rustle up something for youse to eat.' On learning they weren't desperate—at least not for her food, she nodded in relief and returned to the TV.

A narrow track ran parallel to the coast past an empty camping ground, trailer park, and several uninhabited beach houses before petering out about a hundred metres into dense melaleuca scrub behind low sand dunes. They drove softly on until well concealed, then sat with the windows up, not willing to brave frenzied mosquitoes that hummed, swarmed and settled on the windows.

Eventually, covered from head to toe, faces protected by netting draped over hats, they managed to throw a meal together, set up the sleeping shelves, clear most bloodsuckers from the vehicles, and sleep.

The morning revealed malodorous mudflats stretching hundreds of metres out to the sea on one side of the low dunes, and a swampy wasteland on the landward side—breeding ground of the mosquitoes. Seagrass that had been dredged up by trawlers, had washed ashore and now lay in large smelly lumps, looking like dead sheep.

'The sun seems to have sent the mozzies into hiding.'

'Then let's break our fasts before they regain their courage.'

'Has everyone finished admiring the view?'

'Yeah. Makes you think, doesn't it?'

'About what?'

'That international trade is an astonishing triumph of human insanity.'

'How do you make that out?'

'Deforestation to grow a zillion tons of sugar that's created a world-wide fat epidemic, has eroded the hills and given us these stinking mudflats. Dragging the ocean bottom, killing the coral and destroying the seagrass so dugongs starve to death and the beach is littered with muck, has enabled us to export a zillion tons of fish to feed the world.'

'Only a zillion?'

'You're not an easy man to please, Robert.'

'Actually, I am. It's just that what pleases others doesn't please me. I've come to the conclusion that money really is the root of evil. Without it there'd be no incentive to grow all this sugar, to remove every fish from the sea, or dig up every last piece of coal. If we had to barter we'd soon discover the real value of things. Without the ability to save and store wealth by hoarding bits of paper of zero intrinsic worth, we'd appreciate what is of value; the environment that provides what we need, not always what we want.'

'I vote we get away from this place before the mozzies return.'

'Yeah. They're nearly as evil as money. Surely it hasn't always been like this around here? They wouldn't have built the camping ground and those houses if this was the norm. And why are there no people here?'

An elderly man standing outside the shop nodded pleasantly when they drove past, so Fidel stopped, greeted him and asked where all the holidaymakers were.

'It's the tides,' the fellow replied morosely. 'They've been telling us for years that the seas were rising, but no one listened.' He waved vaguely to the west. 'Most of the land over there behind the dunes is just on sea level now, so when we have king tides the salt water spills over and turns the place into a swamp, killing the trees and breeding mozzies. And the beach is all silted up and stinks. Used to be good swimming and fishing at high tide, no stingers and hardly any crocs. Not any more. No one wants to stay here and I can't blame them. If I could sell this bloody shop I'd scram too. We get the occasional sightseer but that's all. At least those JECHIS Protector bastards leave us alone.' He stopped and turned pale. 'I didn't mean! I mean…'

'It's Ok,' Arnold said with a sympathetic nod. We understand. Your secret's safe with us.'

The old man nodded nervously. 'Thanks, boys. My tongue's always getting me into trouble. That's why I'm out here. Something I said this morning made the wife mad. I've no idea what, but she's kicked me out and won't even make breakfast. Not that I feel like eating.' He turned abruptly and disappeared around the back of the shop.

'Poor bugger. Stuck out here; terrified of saying the wrong thing.'

'Yes indeed. So I suggest we get out of the place before the tide comes in and we're cut off.'

An hour and a half later they were driving through featureless suburbs.

'Fuck this is a boring place. Flat, endless little boxes, clusters of boring little shops, where is everyone? It's a bloody ghost town.

'D'you think something's happened? How long is it since we listened to any news?'

'At least three weeks.'

'We've been stupid. We have to keep up to date to avoid doing something that'll attract attention.'

'Let's stop at the next newsagent and get a newspaper.'

Hylas returned with a paper, ice creams and an official JECHIS handbill. 'These were on the counter, so I took one.'

When the other vehicle arrived they drove to the next park, sat on the grass and Hylas read the latest updates.

'From the date of this announcement, all marriages must be approved by the Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Marriages in the planning stage are herewith cancelled and permission must be sought before they continue. In keeping with the new austerity, marriage ceremonies will be simple and involve only the immediate family.

'Women must choose to be either a wife and mother, or to be part of the commercial world; working to support herself.

'Prospective spouses will be required to repeat the vows three times before a priest of JECHIS, for a marriage to be considered legal. The same process in reverse will annul the marriage. A man may take no more than three wives.

'In the case of an annulment, the children will remain with the father who may take another wife. A divorced woman may not remarry.

'Circumcision is expressly forbidden for both males and females.

'All schools are now under the jurisdiction of JECHIS. The curriculum for boys will remain the same; that for girls will be restricted to learning things useful to their social position.

'All primary health care is free, as all hospitals are now run by JECHIS.'

'Nothing that affects us, thank goodness.'

'Actually it makes sense. Research has shown that the children of two working parents do worse socially, educationally and health wise than kids with a parent that remains at home and takes care of them. I can't imagine why any man would want to have more than one wife though.'

'Yeah. That poor old bloke at he beach wasn't an exception. And I've always been glad I went to a single sex school. My mates used to tell horror stories about the girls' behaviour in the lower streams at their co-ed schools. The bright girls were Ok, but the others!'

Satisfied they weren't about to make a gaffe that would get them arrested, they continued into hot, dry, enervating Townsville, topped up their cash reserves and bought new pay-as-you-go phones, a monthly ritual to ensure anything that might have alerted the spies couldn't be followed up. Having two vehicles travelling for the most part separately, the phones were essential for coordinating meet-ups. After a visit to the aquarium they wandered along the central mall and stopped to watch a troupe of acrobats.

Fidel suddenly grabbed Hylas's arm and whispered, 'Look over there, next to the dead palm tree. That woman.'

'It's Mum—I think. Hard to tell with that scarf on her head. Yes, it is.'

'She looks old and nervous. Who's with her?'

'Can't see anyone. Don't tell me the silly bitch has come out alone.'

'Lets ask her for the amulet.'

After telling the others to watch out for them, they crossed the patch of grass and approached the woman.

'Excuse me, Madam,' Fidel said quietly, 'But do you have a son called Fidel?'

The woman looked startled. Stared at him for several long seconds then whispered as if afraid of being overheard, 'Fidel! Oh my boy! How wonderful to see you. You've no idea what trouble I'm in. The man I've been with has kicked me out so I've no one to protect me from those JECHIS crazies…'

'Shhh! Do you want to die?'

'Sorry. I'm just so excited to see my darling boy again.'

'What about this darling boy,' Hylas said softly.'

She stared, shook her head, then in a scarcely audible whisper, 'Hylas. You're a man! Now I have two men to take care of me like I took care of you.'

Hylas and Fidel exchanged looks of incomprehension. Did she really think she'd taken care of them?

'I was wondering, Mum, if you'd taken the amulet from the wardrobe, and if you did, can I have it?'

She fished the small bone pendant on a leather thong from inside her blouse and held it up. 'This thing?'

'Yes. I'd really like to have it seeing my father promised it to me.'

'No, I want it. It might be valuable. Anyway, he wasn't your father. He was a fuckwit who lost his job.'

'So you murdered him.'

His mother's head snapped up. 'I did not! He…'

'I saw you.'

Instead of arguing, she stared from one to the other in silence as a slow smile spread across her face, revealing stained teeth. 'Take care of me,' she said softly, 'or I'll tell those Protectors over there that you're the people who blew up that building in Brisbane. You've tried to change your appearance since, but I recognised you in the photos—they were in all the papers and on TV for weeks.'

Fidel shook his head sadly. 'Mother, you've not asked how I survived when I left home, nor have you asked how Hylas fared when you took off. You've shown no remorse for making our lives miserable. You refuse to give me the amulet. You're still a nasty, vicious, evil woman and I never want to see you again.'

As he turned away his mother screamed at the top of her voice, 'Help! Help! These two men were molesting me! Help, they're the Brisbane bombers. Help!'

They ran, but curious onlookers blocked their path and seconds later their arms were up their backs, wrists handcuffed and they were on their knees with faces thrust into the grass. Their mother was in a similar position. A black van bearing the JECHIS crest arrived. They were bundled into one compartment, their mother into another.

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