The Disappearance of Anna Popov ; Chapter 4; At the old farm near Bathurst,10 January


At the old farm near Bathurst, 10 January
‘Do you know what time it is?’ asked Will. He turned to look at the clock on the bedside table and almost dropped the phone.
‘It’s important, mate! There’s something I have to show you!’ said Jack urgently.
‘Can’t it wait till the morning?’


‘No, it can’t. Please, Will …’
Will lived in the flat above his antique shop a few hundred metres up the road from Jack’s place. It was faster to walk than to try to find a parking spot in the crowded Balmain street. He arrived ten minutes later, wearing a pair of baggy shorts and a crumpled tee shirt he had obviously slept in. Jack was waiting on the front doorstep of his cottage, a glass of wine in his hand.



‘I thought you were having dinner with your posh agent last night. What happened? Did you have a blue?’ said Will.
‘No. She caught the last ferry back to town hours ago. Come in. I’ve been working on this since she left.’ Jack led the way to the courtyard at the back and pointed to the secretaire by the fountain.
‘You dragged me out of the sack at two in the morning to show me this? Is that it? You must be blotto.’
‘Not quite. Here, have a look.’ Jack wiped the desktop with his polishing cloth, switched on his torch and aimed the beam at the top right-hand corner. The desktop was badly marked with deep scratches, indentations, faded inkblots and candle wax stains. All normal wear and tear from more than a century of extensive use. Colonial patina, as it was affectionately called in the trade.


‘What am I looking for?’ asked Will, rubbing his eyes.
‘There’s something written here – look.’ Jack pointed to some letters scratched into the wood.
‘What does it say?’
‘First, there’s a name. Here – “Anna Popov”. Can you see it?’
‘And then one more word. A little to the right – “Help”.’


‘And then comes the really interesting bit over here in the corner. A date. Well, just the year actually – “07”.’
‘So? Is this some kind of joke?’
‘Far from it. Does the name ring a bell?’
‘Should it?’
‘Come on, Will. Think back! January 2005. Alice Springs, two girls disappeared …’
‘Popov … Popov. Oh yeah … It was in the news for months. They vanished without a trace. Backpackers.’
‘That’s it. I looked it up on the internet before you came. The police operation was huge at the time with lots of overseas interest and media attention, especially from Britain. Almost as big as Azaria Chamberlain. The police even brought in Aboriginal trackers and a psychic. “Operation Dingo II”, it was called. It came to nothing. The case was closed a year later. No leads, no clues. Zilch.’
‘What are you getting at, Jack?’ asked Will impatiently.
‘Aren’t you even just a little bit curious? We find this old secretaire here – purely by accident – on an abandoned farm in the middle of nowhere with “Anna Popov – Help” scratched into the desktop. Next to a date – 07. That’s two years after she disappeared!’ Jack said, jabbing his finger at the numbers.
‘You’re not seriously suggesting it was this Popov girl who wrote this desktop graffiti two years after she vanished? Are you saying she could be alive, or was at least, in 2007? Come on, mate, I can think of a hundred other explanations. I’m going back to bed.’
‘I have a funny feeling about this, Will,’ said Jack pensively. ‘What if this is for real? What if this is a desperate plea for help and we ignore it?’
‘You’re a hopeless romantic, Jack, admit it. This is bullshit! Sheer speculation and you know it.’
‘The place was spooky, you said so yourself,’ argued Jack. ‘I think we should at least go back and have another look. Make some enquiries, poke around a little. You know, find out who lived there before, what happened to the place, why it was abandoned, the fire … The agent acted strange, admit it. He accepted the pittance we offered for the stuff without argument. He was happy – no, relieved – to be rid of it.’ Will shook his head. ‘Come on, Will, it’s only a three-hour drive. We could do the whole thing in a day, easy. There and back.’
‘I thought you had to go to London. Pressing author business.’
‘I’m leaving on Monday. We could do it today.’
‘You’re wasting your time.’
‘I’ll pick you up at six.’
‘We’re getting too old for this, Jack!’
‘Dreamer,’ said Will.
‘Me? What of?’
‘I may be on to something …’


They arrived at the farm just after nine in the morning. It was already very hot and the flies were unbearable. They had to walk the last 200 metres to the gate because the track was too rutted for Jack’s MG. On their first visit, they had completely ignored the house. This time, however, they decided to take a closer look at it.


The fire had obviously started in the kitchen. It was almost completely gutted.
‘Here, look at this,’ said Jack, picking up an urn with a rubber hose attached to one end. ‘And all this junk over here.’ He pointed to a rusty stove-like six burner lying on top of a heap of glass tubes, steel clamps and broken bottles.
‘Looks more like stuff from a laboratory than a farmhouse kitchen,’ commented Will, kicking some metal tubing aside.
The front room was empty. Fingers of sunlight reaching through gaping holes in the roof illuminated intricate cobwebs ready to ensnare the careless and the curious. There were no doors left. All the windows were broken and most of the floorboards had rotted away. Lying on its back, a fly-encrusted rat was decomposing in front of the fireplace.
‘Here, have a look at this,’ said Jack. He pointed to a timber wall next to the fireplace. The wall was covered in black numbers carved into the wood in neat groups of three sixes: ‘666’
‘How weird … Look over there; above the fireplace. What do you reckon it is? A stuffed goat’s head?’
The mantelpiece with its forest of black candles reminded Jack of a strange pagan altar waiting for a sacrifice. Pools of hard candle wax coated the floorboards below the mantelpiece.
‘This place gives me the creeps,’ said Will.


Jack picked up an iron poker and went through the mound of ash in the fireplace. Buried under the ash, charred bones, an iron cross covered in soot and a dagger with a broken blade had escaped destruction by the flames. Leftovers from a black mass? thought Jack, glancing at the back of the fireplace. Then something behind the grate caught his eye.



It looked like a piece of limp material – burnt around the edges – with some kind of picture in the middle. He lifted it up with the poker and dropped it on the floor in front of him.
‘How weird,’ he said, examining the strange thing lying on the floorboards. It turned out to be a piece of leather with a picture of a human head cut in half. The left side of the face was a grinning skull, the right, the face of a bearded man. On top of the head sat a conical black hat with strange looking symbols like silver arrows and stars.
‘What do you reckon? A magician?’ ventured Will, pointing to the head.
‘Half dead, half alive?’
‘Yeah. Something like that.’
‘Black magic.’
‘Scary place. Let’s get out of here.’

‘Why don’t you track down the agent?’ suggested Will on their way back to the village. ‘See what you can find out about the farm. I’ll try the store and the pub. Let’s meet there in an hour.’
Everyone they spoke to had two things in common: suspicion and a reluctance to talk about the farm. The responses varied. Moving from polite evasion via pretended ignorance and obvious lies to rude rebuff, they covered everything but the truth.
‘I could do with a cold beer,’ said Jack, pulling up a stool next to Will’s at the bar. Apart from the publican reading the paper behind the counter, the bar was deserted.
‘Any luck?’ asked Will.
‘Nothing! The bastard didn’t want to know me and almost threw me out.’
‘Same here,’ said Will, lowering his voice, ‘except for the vicar. You just missed him. He was having a quiet beer at ten in the morning.’
Jack ordered two beers. ‘What did you find out?’ he asked.
‘About a year ago, there were some rather unusual characters at the farm who caused the village here, and particularly the vicar, a lot of grief. They terrorised the locals for months and only left after the farm burnt down.’
‘Not your ideal tenants,’ said Jack. He took a sip of his beer and nodded appreciatively. ‘Who were they?’
‘At first, even the vicar was reluctant to talk. But three scotches later he opened up a little.’
‘A bikie gang,’ said Will, lowering his voice even further. ‘Can you believe it? Here, in this God forsaken place?’
Jack looked up, surprised. ‘Yes, I can,’ he said, grinning. ‘And we have the proof right here.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘This.’ Jack pulled the piece of leather he’d found in the fireplace out of his pocket and put it on the bar in front of him. ‘Do you know what this is?’
‘No idea.’
‘The penny dropped as soon as you mentioned the bikies. This, my friend, is the colours of an outlaw motorcycle club.’
‘You’re kidding! Do you know which club?’
‘Yes. The Wizards of AUS.’
Will’s jaw almost dropped into his glass. ‘Let me buy you another beer, mate. You deserve it,’ he said.

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