Sunday Story – Secret Heart

First published in Terror House Magazine


“Bastards!”  The man’s exclamation rang out through the bush, fading until the only sound was the cicadas droning in the heat.  His vegetable patch was completely turned over, the chook-wire fence pushed down and flattened.

The man looked like a retired bikie but in fact he was a retired biologist who’d let his greying beard grow wild.  He stood bare from the waist up in the blinding sunlight, a surgery scar livid on the brown skin of his chest.  He stared at his ruined tomatoes.

“What did it, Julius?” asked Alina.  “You said there are no bears here.  Was it wild pigs?”  His young wife put an arm around him sympathetically.  She spoke with a strong Russian accent.

“Could be.  Maybe roos – kangaroos.  Or wombats, they can get through anything.  Something bloody hungry, whatever it was.  We should keep an eye on what happens out here at night.”

Alina shook her elven head.  “Never mind.  We live in the forest, what do we expect?  Just build a stronger fence.”

Julius built a stronger fence but he also did something else.  He installed a motion-activated camera that could send images directly to his phone.  It had an infrared feature.  He hid the camera in one of the new, sturdy fence posts where it could not easily be seen.

The morning after installation, Julius received notice of the camera’s activation.  He rushed to his wife and told her what he’d done.  “Whacko!” he said excitedly as he waited for the images to load.  “Let’s see what it was.  You want to place a bet?”

“No, dear,” said Alina.  She looked unenthusiastic, perhaps angry about the unilateral spending on the camera.

“I reckon goats,” he said.  They flicked through the photos.  A kangaroo – innocently grazing off at a distance.  An owl flying by.  A trundling echidna.  And then, there it was.

“Deer!” he yelled.  “I heard they’re round here.  They’re a pest; feral.  People hunt them.”  He swiped again and saw a small herd of them straining to get at the vegetables, this time failing and giving up.

“Well, now we know,” said Alina.  “It is not a dangerous animal.  Let’s have breakfast.”  She touched his shoulder but he continued to look through the night’s pictures.  Suddenly he gasped.

“What is it?”  The young woman rushed to his side.  He pointed.  At the tree line, on one knee, holding an indefinable object, they could see the grainy but unmistakable figure of a man.

“Who the hell is that?” Julius snarled.  “I’ll kill him!”

“Calm down.  Your heart condition.  Maybe it is a hunter.”

“Yeah, one who opened a gate clearly marked ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Shooting’.  Maybe a rustler who thought we had cattle and only found a few veggies.  Or a burglar.  Either way, I’ll sort him out.”

After stewing for a day and a sleepless night, Julius told Alina his plan.  She grudgingly agreed to the stronger locks and expensive alarm system for the house but balked at his idea of purchasing a .22 ‘for rabbits’.  Following a heated argument which at times descended into swearing in their respective vernaculars, Alina finally talked him down to a mere cricket bat by the bed so long as Julius pledged not to panic and hit her on the head every time she woke him up going to the bathroom.  She accepted his promise.  While occasionally hot-headed, his scientific mind was not usually prone to panic.

Julius had a third security idea that he decided not to tell his wife in order to avoid an argument.  The rifle had, after all, only been an ambit claim to strengthen his hand in spending money on the alarm system.  In the three years they’d known each other, he’d improved his ability to negotiate with his adorable but formidable spouse.  One strategy was to overclaim then retreat to the middle ground.  Another was to beg forgiveness rather than ask permission.

His third idea was cameras – six more cameras – hidden around the property, pointed in all directions into the bush.  Better cameras.  Pricy ones.  High-definition cameras that could record sound.

The money was spent, the credit card was stretched, and Julius used his ‘private’ account, as he liked to call it, in order to surreptitiously order the extra equipment.  He installed the system while Alina was away sorting out paperwork at the embassy.

Julius didn’t believe all that nonsense about flighty Russian brides but just in case, he kept a few assets out of sight of Alina and the authorities.  The couple had already passed the two-year mark when she could have left him and keep her residency but Alina was still around and apparently content.  The fund was perhaps no longer necessary for financial security if they divorced.  Nevertheless, it was handy for delicate situations like this.  Also, he didn’t want to draw the attention of the tax office or of anyone too interested in where the money had come from. 

Alina had grown up in the dark days of the post-Soviet economic collapse, while Julius was accustomed to a high-flying international career as a virologist.  Not that he’d saved much over the years aside from that hidden, offshore account.  His wife’s instinctive parsimony was perhaps just what was needed to steady the keel of their marriage.

There was only one time he’d questioned her intentions.  That was when he discovered contraceptive pills hidden in her drawer.  They’d agreed to have children.  But, what of it?  He already had two grown kids with his previous wife.  Alina probably didn’t want to start a family with an old man who’d already suffered two heart attacks but she was willing to enjoy the security he could offer.  She was almost perfect, aside from that.  It was what it was.  He’d closed the drawer and decided to let it go.  He was sixty-three.  Wanting too much would only anger the gods.

Six weeks passed after the intruder’s appearance and nothing much happened.  Julius discreetly checked his stream of images and saw a fascinating menagerie of wildlife but not the one animal whose return he feared.  Still, it was an engaging hobby.  In one picture, a tawny frogmouth flew straight past the lens.  In another, a fox carried a joey in its snout.  And then there were the mating wombats.  It was a busy, mysterious world out there after the sun went down.

The rustler must have been a one-off.

In late summer, Julius was notified of a new flurry of pictures.  He opened the app casually, expecting more deer, and his blood ran cold. 

The first image showed a man, in a different place to last time.  He had very short hair.  Camouflaged clothing.  A rugged appearance, like an ex-soldier.  He appeared to be looking straight at the hidden camera with a high-tech pair of binoculars but Julius realized that he was actually looking behind it, towards his home. 

His blood ran even colder as he looked through the rest of the photographs.  There were two more men.  One had a camera with a long lens.  The other carried something that looked like a metal detector.

He decided that these were probably not nocturnal prospectors.

Next he listened to the sound files on his headphones.  By luck, a microphone had been close to one of the intruders and he heard distinct chatter between the three via radios.

In Russian.

Julius did not lose his nerve.  In his career, he’d dealt with very dangerous situations.  The trick, he knew, was to keep his head, to keep thinking and to keep doing whatever needed to be done.  While Alina pottered about in the kitchen, he sat staring at a wall, calculating.  Soon he had some ideas.

He played the audio through an online translation program.  Some of it came out as gibberish but other phrases emerged clearly and confirmed his worst suspicions:

“. . . target sleeps on window side of rear bedroom . . .”

“. . . confirms agent’s reports . . .”

“. . . locate the vial . . .”

“. . . two hundred hours tomorrow . . .”

Julius sighed, seeing his paper world fall away beneath his feet.  It all became clear.  The timing of his meeting with Alina just after he had put together the means to retire.  The contraceptive pills.  He wondered if his solicitor’s recent, unexpected trip to South America might be related.  In any case, those were the facts and he could only react.

“Alina,” he called.  “I’m popping in to town to get some pasties for lunch.  You want anything?”

“Pasties?  I am already making lunch.”

“It’s okay, we can put them in the freezer for later.  Do we need any bread?”

“Must you go now?  Lunch is almost ready.”

Julius had thrown a few things into a backpack and was walking out the door.  “Yeah, they sell out by the afternoon.  Be back in an hour.  Never get between an Aussie and his pasties!”  He sauntered to the car, trying not to look hurried, threw his backpack onto the passenger seat and started the engine.

Then he turned it off.

Three men approached from different directions.  All held a handgun pointed in his direction.  Their faces were familiar, though until now he’d only seen them in infrared.

“Get out of the car,” said one.  He was a small, wiry man of middle years who looked like he’d done too much in his life to be concerned about committing one more sin.  His finger was on the trigger.

Julius got out of the car.

“Go inside the house.”

Julius went inside.  One man went in ahead of him and the two others followed behind.  They closed the door.

Alina stood on one side of the living room with a blank expression.  She did not meet Julius’ eyes.  He gave her a rueful smile.  “Well, at least we had some fun,” he said.  “Or I did.”  Alina said nothing and her expression did not change.  Julius noticed the phone in her hand.  He’d overdone it.  Should have stayed for lunch, left the backpack behind.  Had he panicked, after all?  Too late to worry about it now.

“Where is it?” said the wiry man.  He was clearly the leader.

Julius smiled ironically.  “Where’s what?” he said in an exaggerated tone, putting on a comically innocent expression.

“We searched the entire property while you were on the Gold Coast.”

“Did you take one of my socks?  I’m missing a blue one.”

“We searched the house, including the walls and roof.  If it were here, our metal detector would have located it.”

“Maybe in the car?”

“Don’t waste our time, Julius.  We checked last night.  Titanium is easy to detect.”

“Maybe I transferred it to a plastic vial then buried it somewhere.  Did you ever think of that?”

Now it was the wiry man’s turn to smile.  “As you and your . . . wife . . . are not covered in boils and dead, we can see you have not attempted to transfer the virus.  It is still in its original vial.  And as it is not in your house or grounds, it must be on your person right now.  Please hand it to us.  Carefully.”

“Carefully?  You could drop it out of a helicopter and it wouldn’t break.”

“I wouldn’t want to try.  Give it to us.”

“I don’t have it with me.  It’s in a bank vault and even I don’t know the location.  I set up a dead man’s switch.  If I die, events are automatically put into motion, the vial is handed over to Western authorities and your program is exposed.  That’s why I took it – as an insurance policy, in case you guys came after me.  And here we are.  If you leave me alone, the virus stays safe and hidden forever.”

“Of course we cannot leave you alone.  You stole information from our lab and sent it to the Chinese, purely for money.  A foreign patriot we might forgive, but we never allow a traitor or a mercenary to get away.  Your dead-man’s switch story is false.  We questioned your solicitor thoroughly and he knew nothing about it.”

Julius swallowed.  “He’s not in South America, is he?”

“Emails can be deceptive.  It is unfortunate that your irresponsible actions have already caused the painful death of one man.  Please hand it over before you cause any more harm.”

“You’re going to torture me?”

“We know about your condition.  You would probably not survive long enough to tell us anything.”

“Thank heavens for that, then.  And if I were to hand over the sample, you’d let me go and forget the whole thing, right?”

“Yes.”  It was the least convincing answer Julius had ever heard.  The man went on: “Recovering the virus is essential to our national security.  That is our priority.”

“What, the ‘biological neutron bomb’?  Its only practical use is to wipe out the population of a city then safely move your army in a day later.  It’s purely offensive.”

“No.  Our nation has been invaded many more times than yours.  It is an enhancement to our traditional, scorched-earth strategy.  Eliminate the invaders, then reoccupy our own territory without being concerned about long-term biological contamination.  But in the hands of our enemies – NATO – it could be used as an offensive weapon against us.”

“Well lads, I’m afraid I’ve been wasting your time.  I don’t have it.  I safely disposed of the vial long ago.  Why would I carry around a thing like that around?  I assumed the mere possibility I still had it would be enough to keep you blokes at bay.  Like Saddam Hussein tried to do with his chemical weapons after he dismantled the program.  Hmm.  Didn’t work for him, either, did it?”

The wiry man said something in Russian and his comrade ran the metal detector over Julius’ body.  Julius tried to be as helpful as possible, stretching out his arms and legs upon request.  Finally, the detector gave a loud and distinctive buzz. 

“Strip,” the boss commanded triumphantly.  As he did so, Alina finally spoke.  She said a few words in Russian, to which the wiry man’s face darkened.  With his shirt off, they could see Julius’ scar for themselves.

“She told you about the pacemaker, hey?  Two years ago.  Got it done in Thailand on the cheap.  They make them out of titanium.”  The man with the detector went over the spot and the detector was set off again.  He then went over Julius’ whole body two more times but nothing else turned up.  They searched each item of clothing carefully but none held a vial.  They detected only the belt buckle, car keys and a stray two-dollar coin. 

The men handed back his clothes, defeated.  Julius put on his trousers and left the rest on the floor.

“Anything else I can help you with today?” Julius asked.

“Just one thing.  I think you know what it is.”  The wiry man held his pistol to Julius’ head.  “Unless you have anything to tell us.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Please,” Julius said quietly, his voice breaking. “I know I can’t change your mind.  You are an honourable man, so I’m just going to ask one thing.  My family always have open-casket funerals.  We like to be frank about death, not hide it away.  So please – not in the head.”

“Then you have nothing to give us?”

“No.”

“This is your final choice?”

“Yes.”

“It is true,” said Alina in English.  “About the funerals.  I went to his uncle’s funeral.”

Julius looked at her sadly.  “Thank you, dear,” he said.  “It doesn’t quite make up for breaking my heart and getting me killed, but it’s good to know you’re at least a human being.  Maybe you should go outside.  You don’t need to see this.”  She looked at the wiry man but he shook his head, indicating she must stay.

The commander adjusted his aim, pointing the weapon directly at the scar on Julius’ chest.  “How nice of you to draw a target for us,” he sneered.  The muzzle was about ten centimeters from Julius’ flesh.

“Better give me three shots, ya bastard.” said Julius with icy calm.  “Or you’ll probably miss.”

Three shots rang out through the bush in quick succession, startling the birds.  Then there was no sound but droning cicadas.

Local police visited the property a week later, after relatives reported that Julius and Alina could not be contacted.  They found five bodies – one with gunshot wounds to the chest and four entirely covered in enormous, seeping boils.


For 14 more stories like this, get Tales From Captivity:

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4 comments

  1. Klaus · December 12

    The second best story in the book! What a wicked plot twist.
    Felllas – buy Nick’s book and give it as a Chrissie present…err…to a bloke.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. luisman · December 12

    Didn’t you publish this a while ago already? I remember having read this before.

    Like

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