The Disappearance of Anna Popov; Chapter 10, First Visit to Wolf’s Lair, 21 February

‘What on earth is that?’ asked Rebecca, pointing to the huge motorbike parked in the driveway of Jack’s house.
She paid the taxi driver and walked across to where Jack was polishing the chrome handlebars. ‘Last time it was furniture, now this. I’m getting worried about you, Jack.’

‘This is a chopper. Every biker’s dream,’ he answered, proudly patting the saddle of the gleaming machine.
‘Where did you get it from?’ she asked.
‘It belongs to Will. He lets me use it whenever I like. Isn’t she a beauty?’
‘Looks powerful.’
‘Sure is. You’re wearing your jeans. Good girl.’

‘Oh no … we’re not …’ protested Rebecca, stepping back.
‘Oh yes, we are,’ replied Jack, enjoying himself. ‘You wanted to come along to meet the Wizard, remember?’
‘Yes, but …’
‘Did you really think we would arrive by hire car at the clubhouse?’ Jack began to laugh. ‘No way! Here, this is for you.’

Jack handed Rebecca a black helmet. ‘I hope it fits.’
Rebecca looked at him dumbfounded. ‘I’m not doing this.’
‘Suit yourself. Black. Should go well with the designer jeans and your suede jacket. At least try it on.’
Twenty minutes later they were ready to leave. ‘Are you sure you can drive this?’ asked Rebecca, looking suspiciously at the bike.

‘Trust me. Helmet looks great with the shades,’ he teased. ‘Your New York buddies would be impressed.’
He adjusted his own helmet, put on his aviator sunglasses and started up the bike. It roared into life with a deafening bang.
‘Hop on,’ shouted Jack, checking the traffic, ‘and hold on tight, Easy Rider.’
‘I must be out of my mind,’ mumbled Rebecca, climbing awkwardly onto the saddle behind him.
‘Did you say something?’
‘No, nothing.’
‘Ready?’ Engaging first gear, Jack accelerated smoothly into the street.
‘You and your mates …’
‘It’s so nice to be hugged,’ Jack said, leaning into the curve.

To her surprise, Rebecca actually enjoyed the ride. The raw power of the bike, the throb of the engine, the speed, the noise and the fun of it all were exhilarating. But most exciting of all was holding Jack around the waist, and leaning against his muscular back as he weaved through the heavy traffic. They got strange looks every time they stopped at a red light or pedestrian crossing, with the occasional compliment of ‘great arse’ thrown in from wolf-whistling truckies. Jack was an experienced rider but it still took them over an hour to reach the hot, western outskirts of Sydney. Jack stopped several times to ask for directions.
‘What are we looking for?’ shouted Rebecca.
‘An old cemetery and an abandoned church. We should be just about there.’
‘A graveyard? Great. Now you tell me!’

They almost missed the cemetery because the grass was so high it covered all the tombstones. A broken lichgate marked the entry. Jack pulled over.
‘That must be it,’ he said, pointing to a small church on the top of a hill. He gunned the engine and was about to take off through the gate when two bearded men on huge bikes roared up out of nowhere, blocking the way.

‘Where do you think you’re going, mate?’ asked one of them, spitting into the dust.
‘There’s no funeral today, unless you don’t turn your fancy bike around. Get my drift?’ said the other. ‘Be a good boy and piss off.’
‘I don’t think the Wizard would like that,’ said Jack, glancing over his shoulder at Rebecca. ‘I hear he hates to be kept waiting. Tell the Wizard that Jack Rogan tried to call in as arranged. See you later, guys.’ He started pushing the heavy bike backwards, away from the gate.
‘Hold it!’ shouted one of the bikies. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a walkie-talkie. After much shouting and crackling static, he pocketed the walkie-talkie.
‘Follow me,’ he growled, gunning his Harley and roaring up the hill ahead of them.
The gleaming choppers lined up in a row in front of the church looked like a congregation of giant insects attending a funeral. Banished by loud music – heavy metal – booming through the open windows, hymns and piety had fled long ago. Jack parked his bike at the end of the queue and looked at the burly man standing at the church door. ‘The Reverend?’ asked Rebecca, poking Jack in the back.
‘I doubt it.’
‘Over here, both of you. Shakedown time. House rules,’ growled the man, pointing to the landing.
Reluctantly, Rebecca walked across. Running his sweaty hands down her tight jeans, the man was enjoying himself.
‘Nothing suspicious here, luv,’ he said, slapping her on the bottom. Rebecca glared at him. ‘You’re next,’ said the bearded man, looking at Jack. Jack noticed that several security cameras were pointing at them from above.
‘Great idea,’ whispered Rebecca, following Jack into the church. ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’
‘I did warn you: being an author can be dangerous. You didn’t believe me,’ said Jack, taking off his dark sunglasses. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Inside, the music was deafening. In the middle of the church where rows of pews had once faced the altar, a group of girls were dancing with each other. Wearing skin-tight leather pants and high-heeled boots – their long black hair streaked with red – they looked like witches waiting for a date with the devil. Some wore glittering dog-collars, others had multiple studs in their ears and noses. One of the girls spun around as Rebecca walked past. Staring at her with unseeing eyes, she leaned forward and stuck out her tongue like a snake searching for its prey.
Standing on a dais in front of the altar, a heavily tattooed transvestite was operating a pair of turntables, cranking out audio-poison. Perched on stools along a bar fashioned out of wooden confessionals, their backs turned indifferently to the dancing girls, a couple of middle-aged bikies were drinking beer. Pungent smoke – unmistakably marijuana – curled slowly around the coloured fingers of light reaching through the stained glass windows from above.
‘Down this way,’ grunted the man who had frisked Jack. He pointed to a narrow set of stairs cut into the stone floor behind the altar.
‘I don’t like this,’ whispered Rebecca, holding onto Jack’s arm.
‘Too late. Come on.’

Lit entirely by candles, the vaulted crypt below the altar was surprisingly cool. Except for a large round wooden table and twelve chairs, the crypt was empty.
‘Look at this,’ said Jack, pointing to a row of pictures hanging on the sandstone wall. ‘Exquisite.’ There were twenty-four pictures in all.
‘Do you know what this is?’
Rebecca shook her head.

‘Come over here, I’ll show you. You start with this one, the Fool, and then you go anticlockwise to the next one, the Magician. Then comes the Priestess, see?’
‘You’re well informed. What is it?’
‘The twenty-four Major Arcana of the restored Tarot …’

‘Exactly,’ said a deep, gravelly voice from behind.
Jack spun around. Slowly, a dark shape separated from one of the pillars, moved a little to one side and floated into a pool of candlelight.The Wizard was much taller than Jack had expected. Lit up from below, his face looked quite different from the police mug shot. The long hair, now streaked with grey, was pulled back and tied into a pony tail, accentuating the slanted eyes and prominent cheekbones.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Mr Rogan,’ said the Wizard, his voice echoing through the chamber. ‘Perhaps you have.’ He began to laugh. ‘You obviously know a bit about the Tarot. That’s a good start. Welcome to Wolf’s Lair. This is our round table where everyone is equal, but lies and deception are costly …’ The candlelight lent the Wizard’s features a sinister sheen, as he pointed to the oak table.

‘I’m curious, Mr Rogan’, continued the Wizard. ‘Why would a famous writer like you want to meet someone like me? Please, sit down.’ The Wizard gestured towards the table. ‘You can have the Alchemist’s chair, right here, and your friend …’

he nodded, acknowledging Rebecca for the first time, ‘can have Cassandra’s, over there. Cassandra’s the only female on our council.’
Looking wistfully at Rebecca, he asked, ‘Can you see into the future? I think not’, he continued. ‘Cassandra can, she has the gift …’
The Wizard sat down opposite them and rested his huge fists on the table. Unbuttoned to the waist, his black leather vest barely covered his hairy chest. The broad shoulders and bulging biceps were the result of years of pumping iron in jail. Even in middle age, the Wizard radiated brute strength. He looked like a man who could easily crush a human skull with his bare hands.
‘But back to the present for now,’ he continued. ‘Why did you come here, Mr Rogan? Tell me.’
His mind racing, Jack watched the Wizard watching him. He realised that his answer held the key to admission into the secret world of the Wizards of AUS.
‘Your success in rehabilitating prisoners,’ began Jack, ‘is well known in certain circles. The Parole Board, the prison authorities, even the judges are talking about it.’ He paused, letting the words find their mark. ‘I thought it was about time the public knew about it as well …’
‘So that’s it,’ said the Wizard.
Jack decided to press on. ‘Setting up a successful courier business employing only released prisoners,’ continued Jack, ‘has been a stroke of genius …’
‘You really think so?’ asked the Wizard, enjoying himself.
‘One mistake, you get a warning. One more, you’re out – right?’ said Jack. ‘Former prisoners understand that …’
‘You’re well informed. I like that,’ said the Wizard.
Jack took a deep breath. Dangling recognition and fame in front of the man’s ego was obviously the way to go. It was widely rumoured that the Wizards of AUS used their courier business as a front for extensive and highly lucrative drug operations. The club’s cat and mouse games with the police were legendary and the feuds with rival gangs never-ending and bloody.
The Wizard noticed that Jack kept looking at the painting hanging on the wall behind him.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked.
‘I had no idea it was here,’ replied Jack.
‘You know what it is then?’
Jack looked at the Wizard sitting below a portrait of himself dressed as a clown, wearing a harlequin suit and a conical hat. The resemblance was uncanny. The artist had captured the essence of the Wizard’s face with a few bold brush strokes and vibrant colour.
‘Oh yes. Pagliacci – Bald Archy. Four years ago, I think.’
‘Very good.’
‘This place is full of surprises …’
‘So, what did you have in mind, Mr Rogan?’ asked the Wizard, rocking back in his chair.
‘A series of articles based on interviews. Perhaps even a short documentary …’
‘I see … I can’t give you an answer right now. Our little organisation is run by a council.’ The Wizard pointed to the round table. ‘The council will decide. But before that can happen, you will have to meet Cassandra and pass scrutiny …’
‘Why?’
‘Because she can recall the past and see into the future …’ Jack glanced at Rebecca and frowned.
‘I can see you’re sceptical, Mr Rogan.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘No need to be. That’s to be expected. I’m sure once you meet Cassandra you’ll change your mind.’
‘What kind of scrutiny?’
‘She will examine your intentions. Any problems with that?’
‘When?’

‘Soon. You’ll be contacted.’ The Wizard stood up. ‘Next time, Mr Rogan, please come alone.’
Turning around, the Wizard walked slowly to the back of the crypt and disappeared behind a pillar.
The Wizard had gone, but his presence lingered. Reaching for Rebecca’s hand, Jack took a last look around the crypt and then turned to leave.

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