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Deadly snakes. Determined assassins. A genocidal plot.
Private detective Raja Williams and his partner Vinny Moore travel to the land called Oz to investigate the unusual death of a grad student doing an ecological study in one of Australia’s famed eucalyptus forests. Raja’s intuitive powers and Vinny’s computer wizardry are once again tested as they hunt for the student’s killer.
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING
“The twists and turns will keep you reading way too late, plus you will enjoy all the local flavor included. Highly recommend Death Down Under!”
“I particularly liked the aboriginal mystical rituals. These are not cookie cutter mysteries, they are complex, interesting, surprising and always entertaining.”
“love, love, love it . . . twists and turns that will keep you in suspense until the very end“
“characters are likable and well defined, the story line is suspenseful and well developed. Included in this story is a glossary of Australian phrases and their definitions. The books in this series are definitely fun to read as they are clean, compelling adventures“
Prologue: Once Bitten
Dreams have always been a part of Lizzie Branson’s life. One of her earliest memories was of flying through the tops of the Cypress pine trees on her family’s farm in the country outside of Perth. When she was ten, she told Dorrak, the Murri jackaroo* who took care of the horses on their small farm, about her dreams. Dorrak responded by calling them spirit journeys into Dreamtime and told her they were a blessing to be cherished. That made her feel special.
Her mother, on the other hand, had insisted they were nothing more than the overactive imagination of a foolish child. The continued browbeating about the dreams had a cumulative effect. Just before Lizzie’s thirteenth birthday the dreams stopped altogether. Lizzie decided that her mother was right. Foolish, childish dreams. She forgot all about them and went about her life. That is, until her current assignment in north Queensland.
Lizzie had studied zoology at the University of Queensland, or Uni, as her friends called it. She specialized in marsupials. That was certainly no stretch for a girl who grew up in Australia. There are 370 known marsupial species worldwide and over seventy-five percent of them are indigenous to the Australian continent. Her thesis paper in school had been about the genetic divergence of placental mammals and marsupials and the origins and causes of the dominance by marsupials in Australia. After earning her master’s degree, Lizzie spent the next two years on the island of Tasmania chasing rumors that an extinct species of carnivorous marsupial called a thylacine still lived there. What was a fool’s errand to some was an exciting opportunity to Lizzie. Australia is a big place with as yet unexplored wilderness. Four animals previously thought extinct had been found in the last decade. Granted, they were nowhere near the size of a thylacine, but that didn’t matter to Lizzie. She had the optimism of youth on her side.
Still, after spending two long years on the island and failing to find any evidence of what was known as the Tasmanian wolf, she was relieved when her former professor at the University of Queensland had called and hired her for a straight and simple job of cataloging and estimating animal populations in the north-central region of Queensland. Because of the unique biodiversity that Australia represents on the planet and the continued expansion of mining and logging operations on the continent, the government had initiated regulations requiring extensive studies of plant and animal species to be maintained.
There were two thousand square kilometers of old-growth forests in north-central Queensland and another two thousand of rainforests. Although much had been explored, for the most part that consisted of a cursory walk through with little documentation of the flora and fauna. Of course, the Australian aborigines had lived or traveled through most of the territory for over 50,000 years, but until the arrival of Europeans, had seen no need for keeping written records. Their folktales include many creatures that have never been found by the colonists, and were assumed to be mythological.
Lizzie set up her tent one hundred meters inside the edge of an old growth forest of eucalyptus trees. Comfortable in the wild, she had brought enough provisions for two months, including the shotgun she had learned to use to chase the wild dingoes that were often a nuisance on her family farm.
Lizzie had been cataloging animals in the forest for two weeks when the dreams started again. They were never frightening, and always included observations of and interactions with animals in the environment. Each morning she would wake up feeling refreshed with a renewed interest in her work. In fact, she now realized the dreams she had as a young girl were a big part of the reason she pursued zoology as her field of study.
That all changed in the middle of one warm January night. The dream started like all the others, Lizzie hovering above her tent looking down at the khaki colored canvas top. It was nighttime, and she could see the moonbeams that filtered down through the tall eucalyptus trees above. Slowly she floated up into the trees until the tent became a small square far below. The wind swirled through the leaves, and she could smell the unmistakable scent of eucalyptus. She soared over the treetops, dizzied by the height. Finally, she dipped down through the branches and found herself standing on the ground below. She began walking through the forest and occasionally noticed the orange eyes of some nocturnal animal glisten in the moonlight as the unidentified creature watched her from the underbrush. She thought they might be quolls, cat-sized marsupial mammals that hunt at night, or even dingoes. Despite any possible danger, she was unafraid. Something drew her forward, and she continued walking.
Lizzie came to the edge of the trees where several large jagged outcroppings of rock rose sharply twenty meters into the air, as if they had burst through the ground and gotten stuck there. Blocked from continuing, she stopped and surveyed the rocks looking for a gap that would let her through. A dark area to her left looked promising and when she walked over to investigate she discovered the entrance to a cave. Peering inside, she noticed a faint blue light coming from deep within. She walked toward the light which seemed to get stronger once she was inside the cave and out of the moonlight. Ten meters in, the ceiling, which to this point had been only a couple of feet above her head, opened up and she found herself in a large cavern. There were splotches on the ground and on the rock ledges that seemed to be a luminescent source of the eerie blue light. She swiped her finger on a splotch and held it to her nose. It had the pungent odor of animal feces, but there were no signs of animal tracks on the ground. A soft rustling sound pulled her eyes upward, but the ceiling was more than ten meters up and hidden in darkness. She sensed something was there and strained to see. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she realized the ceiling was covered by bats. Startled by the discovery, she gasped.
Suddenly the creatures burst into motion and the room got considerably brighter. The bats spread their wings to take flight, revealing the same luminescence on the undersides. At first they swirled quickly around the chamber, and then without warning swooped down past Lizzie and flew out of the cave.
Lizzie gasped again and threw up her arms to protect her face. When she opened her eyes she found herself back in her tent lying on her cot, drenched with perspiration. It had been another dream.
The next day Lizzie continued her work cataloging plants and animals, but could not stop thinking about her dream. She remembered she had seen similar creatures in her dreams as a young girl. Rock formations like the one she had seen were not uncommon in Australia, and she couldn’t shake how real the dream had been. That night she was eager to go to sleep in the hopes she would have the dream again. It never came.
Three more days passed and the details of her dream were beginning to fade. To her knowledge there were no bioluminescent terrestrial vertebrates anywhere in the world, only insects like the firefly and glowworm. Deep in the ocean where no light from the surface can reach, several species with bioluminescence have been discovered. But this was dry land in the middle of Australia. What if there were such a creature? The thought rekindled her goal to discover a new species.
With her cataloging work running ahead of schedule, Lizzie decided to do some exploring before she forgot her dream. She recalled where the moon had been in the night sky during her dream and that night set off in what she thought was the right direction. She found no rocks and no bats. Although a second night yielded similar results, she was more convinced than ever that they were real. Perhaps she had been disoriented in the dream, or misinterpreted the direction. The third night she went out searching in the opposite direction. She was about to give up and return to her camp, when she noticed an area ahead where no light passed through the trees. Her pulse quickened and she hurried forward. There it was—the rock outcropping she had seen in her dream. She ran along the edge fifty meters in one direction and found nothing. Turning around, she retraced her path and found the cave about twelve meters in the opposite direction. This time she had her Maglite and played it into the opening, seeing nothing. Shutting off her light, she stood in the entrance and waited for her eyes to adjust. Deep from within she could see a faint blue light. It was real.
Cautiously approaching the inner cavern she was certain she would find, she stopped when the roof turned upward. She set her flashlight on the lowest intensity and slowly raised the beam of light toward the ceiling. Two dozen bats hung silently from the surface. She turned off the light and pressed her body flat against the cavern wall before clapping her hands loudly. The bats came to life and as they spread their wings the cavern was bathed in a soft blue light. Just as they had done in her dream, the bats circled the cavern twice and then raced out of the cave en masse. This time she ran after them, but by the time she reached the open air they were gone.
Lizzie returned to her camp but was unable to sleep. She wrote furiously in her journal, noting her observations and speculating about her amazing discovery. She reviewed what she had written, and satisfied she hadn’t forgotten any detail, fell asleep.
The next day she decided she had to tell someone immediately. There was no cell coverage where she was, but she did have an emergency sat phone. She called her brother but got only his voicemail. Then she called her professor.
“Hello, Lizzie. How is your work coming along?”
“Better than I ever could have imagined. I think I discovered a new species of bat.” She poured out her story about her dreams and the discovery she had made.
“You say you dreamed about these luminescent bats?”
“Yes, that’s how it started, but it wasn’t just a dream. I found them. They are real. I think it’s an undocumented and probably endangered species.”
“Lizzie, I don’t think you should jump to any conclusions. Good science takes testing and verifying, and retesting and verifying again. There might be any number of explanations for what you think you saw.”
Lizzie was surprised and disappointed by the professor’s skepticism. He had always been so encouraging in class. This was the discovery of a lifetime. “I’ll get proof, Professor. You’ll see.”
“When are you due back?”
“I’ve got enough supplies for another five days.”
“Okay, why don’t we talk about this when you return. And, Lizzie, I wouldn’t tell anyone else until we can do the necessary verifications. Okay?”
“Sure.” The disappointment was obvious in her voice.
“Good girl. I’ll see you in a week then.”
Lizzie decided right there that she would show him hard evidence of her find. Over the next two days she visited the cave and collected samples of the luminescent feces. She worked around the clock, collecting and labelling samples of everything from soil and rocks inside the cave to plants growing outside the entrance. What she needed was a specimen, but she had no equipment for catching one of the bats. She had her shotgun, but she certainly wasn’t going to shoot one, especially if this was the endangered species she thought it was. Pictures would have to do. She shot as many pictures of the bats as her phone would hold, but that didn’t capture the most important feature, their luminescence. After two nights without sleep she finally lay down on her cot and passed out.
This time when she dreamed there was no floating or flying, and it quickly turned into a nightmare. She lay on her cot, listening to the sound of her own breathing. Soon she heard a sliding sound on the canvas floor of the tent beneath her. Focusing on the sound, she realized a snake had somehow gotten in. She tried to get up but found she couldn’t move a muscle. The snake slithered under the cot, reappearing on the other side. When the snake raised its head and stared at Lizzie with its unblinking black eyes, she could only stare back, still unable to move. Sliding up onto the cot near her feet, the snake made its way slowly toward Lizzie’s head. It was an olive colored inland taipan, the deadliest snake on a continent full of deadly snakes.
Lizzie’s heartbeat quickened. Although not known for aggression, one bite from the inland taipan could inject enough venom to kill one hundred full grown men. When the snake reached her chest, it reared up and hovered, as if deciding whether to strike. Lizzie was still unable to move. Miraculously, the snake seemed to change its mind and lowered itself onto the floor before slithering out of the tent. The nightmare was over.
Relieved, Lizzie tried to sit up, but again her muscles did not respond. Several minutes passed before she managed to lift her arm far enough to see the two telltale marks on her wrist. As she traced the burning sensation that had already traveled to her chest, Lizzie realized that it was not a dream and that she had already been bitten while she slept. By then it was too late.
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*Murri jackaroo: Murri is a tribal name for a certain group of aborigines; a jackaroo is a farm or ranch hand