The Top End of Australia is a land teeming with crocodiles, poisonous snakes, and curious Aboriginal myths. It's a strange place to choose to end one's life, but that is what Dinah Pelerin's wealthy American uncle has done. Dying of cancer, he has summoned his entire family – current wife, ex-wife, assorted children and niece – to a remote, comfortless lodge where he intends to rewrite his will and commit suicide with the aid of a rogue Australian physician with whom he shares a mysterious history.
Dinah sees this time with her uncle as a last chance to learn the truth about her father, who died during the commission of a felony when she was a child. But when she arrives, she discovers that the truth has more and darker ramifications than she'd bargained on. Her artist brother thinks he's possessed by the spirit of snake god who is moving his hand metaphysically across the canvas; her uncle, who isn't really her uncle, is obsessed by a woman he married but could never possess; the rest of the family is seething with resentments; and a man none of them claims to know is murdered on a nearby island, impaled on the back of a sea turtle.
A wannabe anthropologist with a passion for mythology, Dinah tries to sort out the complicated song lines of her own ancestors while struggling to understand Dreamtime and solve not one, but two bizarre murders. The Aboriginal concept of payback law takes on a terrible new meaning.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Bones of Contention
By Jeanne Matthews
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2010 Jeanne Matthews
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDinah Pelerin gazed out the window of a tiny two-seater airplane as it lifted off from the airport in Darwin, Australia, and leapt into the hot blue sky.
"She's experimental," her pilot shouted above the drone. He was a craggy man with shoulder-length white hair, leathery skin, and a nose that swooped down his long face like an Olympic ski jump. His name was Jacko Newby, a rank stranger, and why she'd hitched a ride in his flimsy tin cricket could only be chalked up to jet-lag and poor judgment.
And momentum. She'd been gathering momentum since Seattle. The redeye to L.A., the long haul from L.A. to Auckland and Auckland to Sydney and Sydney to Darwin. She should have waited for the next regularly scheduled flight to the far-flung town of Katherine, but waiting wasn't her strong suit. So long as she kept moving, catching flights and mingling with strangers, she wouldn't cry.
"Can I buy you a beer?" Jacko pulled a cooler from under his seat and dug out a Foster's.
"Isn't there a law against alcohol in the cockpit?"
"Beer's nutrition, luv. Anyway, it's for you. I stay off the amber when I'm up in Sweet Petunia." He held out the can to her, but she declined.
The ticket agent had acted as if he knew the guy and the security guards called him by name and waved him through without a second look. Surely one of them would have warned her if he was a drunk or a loony. But in hindsight she shouldn't have made so much noise about needing to get to Katherine yesterday. She shouldn't have said it was a matter of life and death.
"How long have you been flying, Mr. Newby?"
"Call me Jacko. No worries, luv. What did you say your name was?"
"Well, Dinah, I've been bending the throttle since before you were born. This bird's not in full production yet, but I'm what you might say on terms with a bloke in the company, which is how I got one of the prototypes. She's state of the art, Petunia is. Flies herself."
In Dinah's world, there was no such thing as no worries. Worries cropped up out of thin air, full-blown like toadstools after a rain, and her pilot's hands-off approach to aviation was one more hair-raiser she didn't need. Yesterday her Uncle Cleon telephoned her at work to say he had decided to forgo chemo and end his life by assisted suicide. The news floored her. She didn't even know he was sick and all of a sudden he was dying. In less than a week. In the Northern Territory of Australia of all places. The man had been like a father to her, or tried to be. At any rate, he was family. She didn't think twice.
She went straight to her boss and asked for a leave. The little swine pitched a tantrum. He spewed a few obscenities and, to emphasize his veto, heaved a statute book at her. It was the last straw. She quit, caught a taxi home, and walked in on her boyfriend in flagrante with a redhead. No worries? Did they make happy pills in that strength?
Jacko adjusted his headset, ran his eyes over what looked to be a bona fide flight plan, and rattled a string of headings into the mike. At least he showed some degree of competence. In a few minutes, Petunia leveled off. Her engine purred. Jacko's hands remained on the controls. Dinah lowered the threat level to yellow, leaned her head back, and brooded on her other worries.
Perpetual motion and a kind of dazed numbness had kept her from thinking beyond the immediate, but this was the last leg of her journey. When she reached Katherine, she'd have to stop. And think. And speak. Speaking would be mandatory. Even in extremis, Uncle Cleon would ask if the cat had got her tongue.
On the phone he'd sounded resigned, upbeat even. He was determined to go out on his own timetable, "reared up on my hind legs and calling the shots like always." Bravado was all well and good, but she had nothing spunky or uplifting to say and the thought of making pre-suicide small talk creeped her out.
Busted love, no job, and death on the docket. She felt punch-drunk, too tired and traumatized to contemplate the fallout from any of it. Her eyelids weighed a ton. She stole a peek at Jacko. He wasn't flying upside down or doing loop-the-loops and, just for a minute, she closed her eyes.
* * *
Something bumped her shoulder and she jerked to attention.
"Take a squiz out your window, luv."
She looked down and saw water. Water was wrong. The map in the guidebook she'd bought in the Sydney airport showed no major bodies of water between Darwin and Katherine. Shit. How long had she been out? Where was she?
"That's Van Diemen Gulf, an inlet of the Arafura Sea." Her pilot smiled.
Her groggy brain rebooted. Was he drunk? She saw no empty beer cans. Was he a lunatic? A pervert who preyed on jet-lagged women in airports and spirited them off to his lair to do God knows what to them?
Jerusalem in flames. How could she have been so gullible? She cast about for a weapon. She could cold-cock him with a can of beer, but then what? She eyed the controls. What were the odds of surviving a water landing? When she tore out in a fever all those long hours ago, she so hadn't planned on being plunged to her death in the whatever sea and eaten by sharks. She envisioned her obituary:
Dinah Pelerin, 30, was eaten by sharks on the way to her uncle's euthanasia. Renowned for her habit of attracting weirdos, she accepted a ride from a stranger once too often. She is survived by a planetful of very much smarter people.
She said, "We seem to have strayed off course."
"A spot of sight-seeing."
"I'm not much of a scenery person. Really. Nature's wasted on me. Better take me back to Darwin."
"Keep your hair on, luv. You'll be in Katherine in jig time."
"Take me back to Darwin right now, you, or I'll ..." she glanced down at the menacing waters, "I'll make trouble."
He lowered his woolly-bear eyebrows and mugged surprise. "Stone the crows! You're not afraid of old Jacko, are you, Dinah?"
"I'm afraid of anybody who refers to himself in the third person. Where the hell are you taking me?"
"I want to show you something before we loop back to Katherine."
"Like Jacko the Ripper wanted to show his victims his knife collection."
He laughed so hard he had to mop his eyes. "Strewth! You're too young to be so cynical."
"Obviously, I'm not cynical enough or I wouldn't find myself ten thousand feet over the ocean with a, a kidnapper."
"You've not been kidnapped, luv. Why, I'm harmless as a rubber ducky and that's the dinki-di. I'll take you to Katherine as promised so you can relax."
If he imagined she could relax, he was dinki-delusional. But until she was strapped into a parachute over dry land, the better part of valor was probably to humor him. "Do all Australians speak with as much flair as you?"
"It's not flair, luv. It's Strine, though I am laying it on a bit thick. Providing a dash of local color to go with the tour."
"Who's going to cark it in Katherine?"
"Hand in his dinner pail, cash in his chips, join the great majority. You told the bloke at the Airnorth counter it was life or death."
She slung him a look. Euthanasia was illegal in Australia. A slip of the lip could get the family deported. "Like you, I was laying it on thick. I just want to get there as soon as possible."
"The toey sort, eh?" She shook her head and he translated. "Restless. Keen to be on the go." His gray eyes assessed her with frank curiosity.
She said nothing and he turned away and attended to flying for a few minutes. Maybe this was some kind of publicity stunt or a Chamber of Commerce event to promote Australian tourism, like she was the millionth person through the Darwin Airport or something. She looked around for a concealed camera.
"So, then." Jacko fixed his inquisitive eyes on her again. "What occasion does bring you to Katherine, Dinah?"
"A family reunion." That much was true. Uncle Cleon had summoned his nearest and dearest to his vacation home in Sydney over a week ago. She'd been the last to get the call and, by then, the assemblage had moved on to Katherine for the main event.
"You can't go wrong in Katherine," enthused Jacko. "Snodger place. Where the outback meets the tropics, as the travel adverts say. June's a good time to tackle the gorges in the Nitmiluk. Water's calm. You're into the Dry."
"Do you live in Katherine?"
"Mailing address is Darwin, but Petunia and I call the whole Top End home. Wouldn't live anyplace else. What part of the States do you call home?"
"Seattle until yesterday, but I won't be going back."
"Born there, were you?"
"I was born in the opposite corner of the country from Seattle. In Georgia."
"Georgia in Dixieland? Bonzer!" He belted out a few bars of Georgia on My Mind. "Let me guess. Black hair, dark eyes, wound maybe a half-twist too tight. Some flavor of Latin. I'll guess Cuban. Am I close?"
"I'm part Seminole Indian."
"Strike me pink! One of the first people, eh? A proper American Aborigine. Well, you're grouse gear, luv. That's Strine for easy on the eyes."
That didn't sound like a Chamber of Commerce script. Was the old goat coming on to her? She looked down at the water and pictured an armada of killer sharks prowling beneath the surface. Where the hell was he taking her?
She consulted her watch. Terror agreed with her. She hadn't thought of Nick in almost five minutes. Soon the intervals would lengthen to hours and days and weeks and years. Eventually, if she thought of Seattle at all, her associations would be pleasant ones—the summer wildflowers on Mt. Rainier or the shoe department at Nordstrom.
"Where does your uncle call home?"
"Home is South Georgia, but when he was in the Marine Corps back in the Sixties, he spent his R and R leave in Australia and fell in love with the place. He likes to vacation in Australia and he has some Australian clients, so a few years back he decided to buy a house in Sydney. He's been living there for the last six months."
"How many of your rellies plan to blow in for the party?"
If it weren't for the sharks, she'd tell him to mind his own beeswax. But until he set this bird down on terra firma, all she could do was keep him talking. "His children, his wives, and me."
"Wives? Polygamy, is it now?" He pulled a shocked face, which made him look even more farcical.
She had to smile. "Don't be too scandalized. One of them's an ex-wife, his first. The other is wife number three."
"Number two couldn't make it?"
"My mother had other plans."
"Your mother? Turn it up! I thought the gentleman was your uncle."
"It's more a term of affection for somebody there isn't a right word for. He's my mother's ex-husband. It's a complicated family."
"Where did your real father enter the picture, if you don't mind me asking?"
She minded, but there wasn't much she could do about it. "My mother divorced Uncle ... the man I call Uncle Cleon to marry my father. But Cleon and my mom remained good friends and he's been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember."
"Well, whatever you call him, he's a brave bugger to stay on terms with one ex-wife, much less two."
"He's a very charming man. Sometimes the exes get snippy with each other. But numbers one and three spent a week together at his house in Sydney before they got to Katherine. I'm hoping they've made their peace by now."
"Well, it sounds like a rouser of a party. You must be fond of the old boy to come so far to see him."
Her throat constricted. There wasn't a right word for how she felt about Cleon Dobbs any more than there was a right word for what to call him. He was a fixture in her life, a primordial force not subject to categorization, and she would miss him terribly.
Assuming she didn't precede him in death. "Are you a pilot by profession, Jacko?"
"It's more a hobby, luv. Petunia lets me hop about the country fast and cheap and give a pretty girl in a hurry a lift." He didn't leer or wiggle his eyebrows, which she took as a hopeful sign.
She said, "That's kind of you. My brother Lucien's going to meet me in Katherine. I'm sure he'll want to thank you for getting me there safely."
"Beaut! Love to meet him. I take it Lucien's one of your uncle's offspring, so that would make him your half-brother?"
"That's right. My mother divorced Cleon when Lucien was four. She married my dad and I came along a year later."
"Are you and Lucien close?"
"Sure. We call the same woman Mom, we grew up calling each other brother and sister, and I call his father Uncle Cleon although Cleon Dobbs has been more of a father to me than my real one ever was."
He gave her another of his assessing looks. "Does it bother your real father that you think more highly of Mr. Dobbs than you do of him?"
"I wish he lived in constant torment. But unfortunately, he ... carked, as you would say. When I was ten." All these years later and it was still hard to keep the anger out of her voice.
"I'm sorry, luv. An accident, was it?"
She did a slow burn. Was he just an innocuous old coot with a mania for Twenty Questions or was there something kinky behind his nosiness? The sharks began to seem refreshingly simple and straightforward. "Yes," she said without amplification.
He kept quiet for a minute, but his nosiness was apparently irrepressible. "Your uncle's other children and, um, wives one and three, are you close to them, too?"
Her fuse was getting shorter. "When I see them at holiday time, we get along well enough. Don't you have divorces and remarriages and extended families in Australia?"
"Well, of course we do."
"Then you shouldn't act as if it's some kind of stigma."
"I wasn't knocking your uncle, luv. It's the exceptional hubbie who can keep the good will of every woman he marries. He's inspired me to be more sporting when my old potato peeler throws me out again."
All at once, her fear and annoyance dissolved. The absurdity of the man and his lingo and the whole ridiculous situation triggered a gale of cathartic laughter. When she caught her breath, she said, "I'm glad I could furnish you with a role model, Jacko. Does your old potato peeler throw you ...?"
"Look there ahead!" He pointed excitedly. "That's Melville Island." He flew in low across a rocky shoreline. "You see that outcrop just under us? That's where I discovered the body. Two if you count the water spirit."
Chapter TwoDinah stiffened. He was a nut case after all. Her chest tightened. She slid her hand onto the door handle and nerved herself for a rendezvous with the sharks. Didn't all seat cushions double as flotation devices?
She tried to keep her voice amiable, play for time. "Was the water spirit you saw a mermaid?"
"No, it wasn't a ... bloody oath, woman, I'm not daft. A bloke was murdered on the beach down there a week ago. Skewered through like a bloody kabob atop a sea turtle. I call the turtle a spirit because it's sacred to some of the clans, symbolizes one of their ancestral beings from the Dreamtime." His face was comical, but the intelligence behind his piercing gray eyes was indisputable.
She shivered. He made the macabre sound matter-of-fact. Like Nick. As if dead bodies were all in a day's work. "You're serious? You found a man impaled on a turtle?"
"Sad to say but I did, luv. So many flies I thought at first he was a black man."
"You could see this from the air?"
"Of course, not. I was on the ground right next to him. The spear that killed him punctured the turtle's shell, too, though it's not a cert that's what killed it."
What did the old ghoul do? Shoo the flies away and conduct a private postmortem? She didn't care to hear any more of the grisly details. "Have the police caught the killer?"
"They're completely up a gumtree, can't work out the who or the why. It's a grade A puzzler, all right, but I've noodled around with a few theories." He warmed to his subject. "The bloke was a well-known Pommie journalist—that's an Englishman to you. He wrote a series of articles about a gang of greenies who've been interfering with commercial dragnet fishing, setting off firebombs and causing a nuisance. Made them out to be a bunch of ning-nongs and thugs. In his view, every dolphin and turtle in the bloody seven seas could go extinct if protecting them cost an industry that feeds millions of people." He paused expectantly.
She picked up on his cue. "And you think that was the motive?"
"Bang-on! The turtle-huggers offed him to shut him up."
Suddenly, she got it. Jacko had discovered the body and now the murder was his personal property and claim to fame. How many times had he flown over the scene of the crime? How many hapless tourists had he lured out here with the promise of a free ride just to show off his special knowledge and expound his theory? Nick often said how some people relish their connection to a crime, especially a sensational one. They thrive on the attention and the fantasy of being indispensable to the police.
"Why," she asked, "would the so-called turtle-huggers kill one?"
"A bit of misdirection maybe, or an accident."
The radio crackled. "Robbery in progress, Bendigo ..."
"Strewth!" Jacko shut it off.
"You have a police scanner?"
Excerpted from Bones of Contention by Jeanne Matthews Copyright © 2010 by Jeanne Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.