The Disappearance of Anna Popov ; Chapter 5; On the plane to London, 11 January

5
On the plane to London, 11 January
‘You asked me the other day how I find the material for my articles, remember?’ said Jack, leaning back in his comfortable business class seat just before takeoff. He reached for his glass of champagne and turned towards Rebecca sitting next to him.

‘I don’t find the stories, they find me. Cheers.’ They touched glasses.
‘You went back to that farm with Will yesterday? Why?’
‘Because I believe another story has found me.’
‘Oh? And are you going to tell me about it?’ asked Rebecca, looking at him mischievously, ‘or is it a secret?’

‘You really want to know?’
‘Of course. Don’t tease me.’
‘It’s about a girl. A backpacker, who disappeared without a trace with her girlfriend four years ago in Alice Springs.’
‘Fascinating.’
‘Listen to this.’ Reaching for his briefcase, Jack told her about his discovery at the farm. He showed Rebecca photos of the piece of leather found in the fireplace at the abandoned homestead. He described the derelict farmhouse, what was left of the kitchen, and the room with the strange wall covered with numbers.
‘It all comes back to the inscription,’ said Jack. ‘How do we explain it? Is it some practical joke? Hardly. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Popov is an unusual name in Australia. I’m convinced that the secretaire has been at the farm for a long time. So, whoever carved “Anna Popov Help 07” into the desktop, must have been there in 2007. It’s the most logical explanation, don’t you agree?’
‘Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?’ asked Rebecca.
‘I thought you were on my side! Aren’t you supposed to give me encouragement?’ replied Jack, pretending to be hurt.
‘Minders like me have to make sure that their charges keep at least one foot on the ground, and one eye on reality.’
‘Inspiration moves in mysterious ways and fact can be stranger than fiction. I’ve seen it many times, and so have you. Take our current book, for instance. We’re travelling the world promoting it, millions are reading it, the media can’t get enough of it and politicians have taken notice of it and changed laws. It’s a great success, yes?’
Rebecca nodded.
‘Yet, as we both know, that story began with an old photograph found by accident in the ruins of a cottage destroyed by bushfire. Look where it ended up.’
‘Point taken,’ said Rebecca, reaching for Jack’s hand.
‘And guess who found that photograph and alerted me to that story?’
‘Your friend Will. I know.’
‘If I have any talent at all, it’s certainly not my writing. Many can do that much better than I. I’m a reporter, not a writer. It’s my instinct for a good story, that’s the difference,’ said Jack. ‘I’m a newshound with a good nose. I love to investigate, get to the bottom of things, solve the puzzle, explain the mystery and if I’m really lucky, find, no, expose the truth. I can feel it in my bones that this is one of those stories. I can’t wait to get back to Sydney …’
‘To do what?’
‘Talk to this man,’ Jack answered quietly, handing Rebecca another photograph.
‘My God! Who on earth is that?’
The photograph looked like a typical mugshot of a delinquent under arrest. There was even a number at the bottom. Long, shiny black hair neatly parted in the middle, fell down on broad, tattooed shoulders. The eyes – a little too far apart – were slanted, reptilian, and almost almond shaped. Prominent cheekbones, a heavy jaw and a drooping moustache gave the subject a distinctly Mongolian look. A thin scar running diagonally across the forehead, brow and cheek, pointed to a large earring in the left ear.
‘Eugene Alfonso Cagliostro. Aka the Wizard. Founder and president of the Wizards of AUS motorcycle club. You’ve already seen the club’s emblem.’
‘The piece of leather from the fireplace?’

‘Exactly. That was the important clue. Eugene’s a notorious character and very dangerous. My sources told me that he’s the only son of an Italian trapeze artist and a Gypsy fortune teller – circus performers – and has spent more than half his life behind bars,’ Jack said. ‘Armed robbery,

extortion, numerous assaults, drug trafficking and bestiality, would you believe, are some of the more colourful entries in his charge sheets over the years. The club is quite small, but run with almost military precision, demanding monastic obedience from its members.’
‘He looks evil.’
‘A bit different from the Amish lads you grew up with, I suppose?’
‘How did you find all this out in such a short time?’
‘Friends in the police force – well placed friends, that is – and prison wardens, can be an excellent source … of valuable information,’ said Jack, enjoying himself.
‘I knew it from the start: travelling with you, Jack, could never be boring. Here’s the list of your UK engagements.’ Rebecca thrust a sheet of paper into Jack’s hand. It was time for a reality check. ‘How about another glass of champagne?’
Jack signalled to the stewardess. ‘I was afraid of this. Look, book signings, talk-back radio, morning TV shows, dinner engagements with book clubs, receptions, speeches and a press conference. It’s never ending. I won’t have time to come up for air!!’
‘You’re famous, Jack. That’s the price you have to pay. You entered almost unnoticed through the back door and went straight to centre stage. And all that without the usual hurdles: the knock-backs, the countless rejections, the waiting … Many would give their proverbial right arm to be in your position,’ came the gentle rebuke.
‘I know … It’s just …’
‘What?’
‘Not me.’
‘Get used to it, buster. Think of your bank balance. It must be rising at an alarming rate,’ Rebecca said.
‘If you can arrange a day off for me – just to give my fingers a rest during the London book signing, you understand – I really would like to meet this man before I talk to Eugene,’ said Jack, handing Rebecca another photograph. ‘The one on the right, here.’
Three sophisticated looking, middle-aged gentlemen in dinner suits were smiling at the camera.
‘Who is this?’
‘Professor Nikolai Popov, Anna’s father. The photo was taken last year in Stockholm. He received the Nobel Prize for physics.’
‘You want a whole day off?’ asked Rebecca, shaking her head disapprovingly.
‘Purely for research purposes, you understand. Please?’
‘All right. I’ll see what I can do,’ Rebecca sighed, shrugging her shoulders in resignation. ‘Authors!’
‘Eugene is obviously not the only one expecting monastic obedience,’ mumbled Jack.
‘Did you say something?’
‘No, nothing,’ he murmured, and closed his eyes.
Jack adjusted his seat, stretched out his long legs and nodded off. He found himself back home in his study. The old secretaire was whispering to him: ‘Help me … help me’. Jack woke with a start. He opened he eyes and stared drowsily at Rebecca’s hand on the armrest next to him. The silver bracelet he had found in the secret drawer looked lovely on her slender wrist. I wonder, he thought, rubbing his eyes. A link perhaps?

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