by Jazz Woodbot
Paradise is not all it's cracked up to be.
Queensland, November, 1954
The other boat was barely a speck on the horizon. It grew gradually larger as it veered toward the coast, but even if the blonde-haired girl had noticed it, she had no reason to be alarmed. Who out here, on the cool, calm waters of the Coral Sea, had reason to harm her?
After chasing the wind for most of the afternoon, Remy Sinclair was not only tired, sun-burned and wind-swept, she was emotionally drained. Caught up in a continual tug-of-war between her heart and her head, peace of mind was as elusive and ephemeral as the wind. Even now, more than a year after Richard left her, absconding in the night with the other half of her heart, she was tormented by the question of who was truly to blame. No matter how hard the logical, objective part of her argued she had done nothing wrong, the emotional, bereft part refused to accept such a pathetic shirking of responsibility. It was an exhausting and ultimately pointless battle since it was far too late to change anything.
If only she had realised earlier how despicable he truly was.
Needing to cool off and clear her head, Remy quickly brought down the sail and secured the sheets, then stripped off her shirt and shorts and leapt into the water. There was no one to see but the birds and the fish; no one to be shocked by her brazenness.
The icy water was refreshing, soothing her puffy eyes, which were red and swollen from crying. Duck-diving below the surface, she found herself in a strange new world, teaming with exotic marine creatures. A school of tiny blue and yellow fish moved frenetically through the water in perfect unison, changing direction and speed with split-second precision. She watched them, mesmerised, until she finally had to rise to the surface to breathe. How much easier life would be if she was just a tiny fish, with no cares or responsibilities to weigh her down.
A nearby splash and a familiar shrill note gave her a moment’s warning before she was nudged amiably in the back by a young bottle-nose dolphin. The cheeky creature was a long-time acquaintance and the only member of its pod ever brave enough to approach her. He grinned and beckoned her to follow him – or so it appeared – racing away with a splash of icy water and gliding through the clear depths as free and uninhibited as a bird in flight. The pod followed close behind, mimicking his every movement, diving and gliding and resurfacing to breathe with an effortlessness that seemed magical. How liberating to be so unconstrained!
Remy swam after the pod for a time, pushing through the water with strong, efficient strokes, hoping the exercise might clear her mind. If nothing else, it would give her tense muscles a much-needed workout. Perhaps she would even sleep tonight, too tired to dream.
Arms aching, she halted at last, turning onto her back and staring up at the azure sky, dotted here and there by high, scudding clouds. Perhaps if she was patient enough, the current would drag her out to sea, out of sight of land and civilization and any hope of rescue. Or of absolution. Closing her eyes against the light, she wondered how long it would take before her strength gave out and she succumbed to the lure of the depths. Not long, she didn’t think, not when it was what she secretly desired. What she deserved. Not when there was no real fight left in her.
But no, that wouldn’t be fair. There were people who needed her. Even she wasn’t that selfish.
Opening her eyes, Remy was surprised by how much time had passed. The sky had become a pale, washed-out version of itself and the sun was almost at the top of the western ranges. It was time to go back to reality.
The swim back to her sailboat, bobbing on a distant swell, took more energy than she had expended on the way out, and she was breathing heavily by the time she closed in on it. Treading water, she paused to catch her breath, and for the first time, heard the drone of the approaching motorboat. She couldn’t see it yet, but knew from the sound of the engine revs that it was getting close.
It wasn’t until she attempted to clamber back on board her own vessel that Remy remembered she was clad only in her underwear. The realisation caused a momentary panic and she lost her grip, slipping back into the water. Rising again through the swell, she opened her eyes in time to see a sleek white speedboat navigate a wide arc around the stern of her tiny vessel. Engine cut to a low idle, the boat edged gradually closer. Modesty now dictated she remain where she was, putting her at a distinct disadvantage – though with any luck, she would appear to a casual observer to be wearing a perfectly respectable bathing suit. A mental flash of her mother’s disapproving frown brought a defiant smile to her lips. Dear Mama would be appalled to know her precious offspring had been caught in such an indelicate situation.
Remy called a friendly greeting to the new arrivals. “How’s it going? Can I help you with something?” In all likelihood, they were tourists who just needed to be pointed in the right direction. But on closer inspection, they didn’t look like tourists. There was three of them, grim-faced men with similar blunt features, short, dark hair and hard, cold eyes. When they made no greeting in return, she frowned, feeling the first ominous fluttering of unease. To her consternation, two pairs of strong arms reached out toward her.
“What are you doing?” cried Remy, her alarm growing as she batted them away. “Get your hands off me!”
The man at the wheel spoke tersely and his two offsiders grabbed her firmly under the arms and lifted her skyward. It was impossible to evade them; they were too strong and had taken her wholly unawares.
Remy screamed at the men to let her go, struggling frantically and kicking out wildly, but the two muscle-men pulled her effortlessly into the speedboat. The third man, vaguely Slavic in appearance and clearly in charge, ordered them to keep her still. There was a sharp sting as a hypodermic needle was injected into the muscle of her arm, and seconds later, her head began to spin. Her vision blurred and she was unconscious soon after.
The engine roared into life and the boat headed back out to sea.
Back on land and several miles further north, a late-model, black Mercedes sedan pulled up to the kerb of the main street of Fiddlers Creek, a tiny coastal hamlet about two hours south of Cairns, North Queensland. It was late Saturday afternoon so the only shop still open for business was the corner store, which sold everything from eggs to drain cleaner. A solitary car was parked out front: an old blue Holden with faded paintwork, chipped and rusting beneath a thick layer of dirt.
A man with skin the colour of burnt charcoal stepped out of the Mercedes and took a long look up and down the street. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he moved around the vehicle and opened the front passenger door for a woman of indeterminate age, wearing a fashionable, sky-blue, sleeveless dress. The woman murmured her thanks and took his hand. Her skin was pale as porcelain and her long, mahogany hair was piled high on her head, accentuating a long, alabaster neck. The sun was still bright, despite the late hour, and she raised a hand to shield her eyes.
A pair of middle-aged matrons chatting on the footpath stared in open-mouthed astonishment as the couple strolled across the road towards Woodford's General Store. Clearly they weren't from around here. The woman looked like she had just stepped out of the pages of Vogue, and while a black man was hardly an unusual sight in this part of the world, the only Africans they’d ever seen were in a National Geographic magazine. An African man driving a brand new Mercedes was as unlikely a sight as Martians landing in the main street.
In contrast to the woman’s conservatively European outfit, Makamu Zende’s towering frame was clothed in a dazzling white tunic and baggy trousers that did little to disguise the broad shoulders and musculature of a man used to hard, physical exertion. Despite the loose fit of his clothing, the warmth of the mid-November day gave his broad, handsome face a sheen of perspiration, enhancing the tribal scars etched upon his forehead and cheeks. The pattern of the scars gave him an ageless appearance; their symmetry and beauty both adorning his face and adding to his regal bearing. Under different circumstances they also added to the ferocity of his visage.
The big African's sharp brown eyes scanned the street once more before opening the door to the shop and allowing his Alete, Lady Catherine D’Raegan, to precede him inside.
The breeze from an electric fan was a welcome relief from the stifling humidity. A quick scan of the interior revealed a long counter in front of a wall of shelves, stacked with a variety of boxed and canned goods. A row of glass jars along the front of the counter displayed an array of multi-coloured sweets, at just the right height to catch the eye of all but the most unobservant child. To one side of the counter were tubs of equally colourful fruits and vegetables, arranged in orderly rows, in the midst of which stood a tiny woman, weighing a hand of bananas. Her sole customer, a slender, dark-haired girl in her mid-twenties, was sitting on a vinyl-covered kitchen chair while a pink-clad infant napped comfortably against her chest.
The screen door thudded shut behind Makamu, announcing their presence. The shopkeeper raised her head and gave a start at the sight of the newcomers, particularly the scarified African, but quickly recovered herself and offered a welcoming smile. “I’ll be with you folks in just a sec.”
The shopkeeper was a little over five feet tall, with shoulder-length brown hair pulled back into a neat pony-tail. At first glance, she seemed child-like in appearance and the belated realisation that she was a mature woman took the big African by surprise. As if reading his thoughts, the petite woman’s eyes twinkled mischievously and he found himself strangely discomfited, a rare feeling for a man of his worldly experience.
The shopkeeper added the bananas to the box of groceries sitting on the counter and took a minute to add up the figures scribbled on her pad. “That’s three pounds two shillings all together, Janie love. On the account?”
“Thanks, Holly,” said Jane. “We’re booked solid all next week so I’ll fix you up on Friday, if that’s okay.”
“No rush, love, whenever you get a chance,” said Holly good-naturedly.
Eyeing the newcomers with undisguised interest, Jane remained sitting, even though her shopping was now complete. The shopkeeper gave them a welcoming smile. “What can I get you good folk?”
Makamu deferred to his companion. “What would you like, Cat?”
Catherine gave Holly a warm smile. “We’ve been stuck in a hot car all day, so whatever you’ve got to drink that’s cold and refreshing will go down a treat.”
Holly raised an eyebrow at Jane as she moved towards the icebox. “Come far, have you?” she asked, her curiosity piqued by the woman’s upper-class English accent.
Catherine sighed wearily. “It feels like we've been driving forever. We left Brisbane yesterday evening and have been on the road ever since.”
“That's quite a trek.” Holly shut the icebox and placed two frosty bottles of lemonade on the counter.
“And it’s so much warmer than we expected,” said Cat, discreetly dabbing her forehead with a handkerchief.
“If you think it’s warm now, luv, you should come back in a few weeks. It’ll be hot enough to strip the hide off a blackfella’s arse,” laughed Holly, looking mischievously at Makamu.
“That does sound...hot,” remarked Cat, nodding politely. Makamu suppressed a smile at Holly’s colourful vernacular and placed a shiny new shilling on the counter.
“We plan to stay in Fiddler's Creek for a few days,” said Cat conversationally, “but since we left in such a hurry, we didn't have time to make arrangements. Can you recommend a suitable hotel?”
Holly looked the other woman up and down, taking in her couture dress, matching heels and leather handbag. As a concession to the climate, she wore no gloves, but was otherwise the epitome of style and convention. “Well, there's the pub, but I suspect it's a bit rougher than you're used to. I reckon you'd be better off at the motel. There's only one; you can't miss it. Just get back on the highway and head north for about five miles. It's nothing fancy, but it's clean and cheap and Enzo, the bloke who runs it, fancies himself a bit of a cord-on-bler chef.”
“It sounds like just the thing,” said Cat agreeably. She hesitated a moment before broaching the real reason for their visit. “If I might impose on you further, would you happen to know of a young woman who recently moved to town? A pretty, blonde girl in her early twenties? Her name’s Remy Sinclair and she's my cousin’s daughter.” Her tone didn’t vary, but the muscles in her jaw tensed and her intense blue eyes made it impossible for Holly to look away. “We believe she’s in grave danger, so any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, the only address we have for her is a post office box.”
Unnoticed by Makamu, Cat or Holly, Jane blanched, her face turning the colour of sour milk. The baby on her lap began squirming uncomfortably as she inadvertently squeezed the tiny body. Before Holly had a chance to reply to Cat's query, Jane leapt to her feet. “I really must run, Holly. I've got mountains of work to do before the guests arrive tomorrow.”
Keeping her eyes averted, Jane shifted the whimpering child onto one hip and hooked her free arm around the box of groceries. Makamu stepped forward to offer his assistance, but Jane muttered curtly, “Thanks, I’ve got it,” and stepped around him. The big African watched Jane thoughtfully, noting her sudden tension, but making no attempt to waylay her.
Holly reached the door first and opened it for her friend. On the pretext of kissing her cheek, Jane whispered in her ear, “Please don’t tell them about Remy. It’s really important.” Louder, she said, “Thanks, Holly, have a great weekend.”
Jane McDermott stepped onto the footpath and walked hurriedly to the blue Holden, noting the gleaming black Mercedes across the road, an oddity in a town where rust buckets and old bombs predominated. After securing the baby and the groceries in the back seat of the car, she revved the engine and roared off down the road, glancing fearfully in the rear view mirror until she was sure she wasn’t being followed.
The sleepy hamlet was soon left far behind, civilisation giving way to thick bushland on both sides of the road. Two miles further on, Jane turned off the road at a brightly painted sign that read, ‘Cassowary Lodge Bed & Breakfast’. A gravel driveway forged a path through dense scrub for another two hundred metres, until the bush abruptly gave way to a grassy clearing, in the centre of which stood a large timber Queenslander.
The house was one of the oldest buildings in the district and though it had been largely neglected before its current occupants took up residence, it was solidly constructed and had required only a few minor repairs to make it habitable. Just by repainting the exterior in vibrant, contrasting shades of blue and grey, Jane and Remy had revitalized its appearance, giving it a much needed facelift. The gardens surrounding the house were lush and well-established, having been lovingly nurtured by Jane's elderly grandmother before she passed away, although in the intervening period, before Jane returned from Melbourne to claim her inheritance, they had grown wild and unchecked. The two girls had tamed the jungle, returning it to an orderly extravaganza of tropical beauty, home to a large congregation of frogs, crickets and cane toads that sang a familiar, comforting cadence each night, lulling the household to sleep.
Strictly speaking, the house was three storeys, although the lowest level was mostly utilitarian, consisting of a laundry, a large storage room and space for several vehicles. Two flights of stairs on opposite sides of the building led up to a wide, open verandah that encircled the entire house, high enough above the ground to ensure maximum utilization of the prevailing sea breeze.
Jane was too distracted to care about the spray of gravel the car flung across the lawn as she tore up the driveway and skidded to an abrupt halt in front of the house. Her mind was filled with wild imaginings that had no basis in fact, yet were just as vivid and frightening for all that. The thing that frightened her most, she decided, was that Remy's baggage, whatever the hell it was, might end up destroying their idyllic lifestyle.
But despite her fears, she couldn’t help grinning foolishly at the burbling baby in her arms as she lifted the warm, pliant body from the back seat of the car. She was all that mattered; nothing else came close. Clutching the little girl in both arms, Jane raced up the front stairs, calling Remy’s name as she went, but the only reply was the plaintive cry of a distant magpie and the gentle lapping of the waves beyond the dunes.
Jane dashed through the kitchen and gently placed the baby in her playpen on the living room floor. Late afternoon sun streamed in through the west-facing window, illuminating the room, particularly the colourful painting hanging in pride of place. From the corner of her eye, Jane caught a sudden flash of movement, and for a second felt total, immeasurable relief. Remy was here after all!
A second later she realised it was just a trick of the light on the canvas and her spirits plummeted again.
The painting was, without doubt, the most amazing piece of art Jane had ever seen; it was certainly Remy’s most exceptional work to date. Far more life-like than any photograph, if you didn’t know better, you would think you were looking through a large, open window, deep into the heart of the rainforest. It was easy to believe that if you reached out your hand, you would touch the smooth, waxy, living foliage of the undergrowth, rather than the rough canvas of a painting. And if you were still and patient enough, you might hear the rustle of leaves as a shy tree kangaroo climbed the branches of a giant strangler fig, or catch a glimpse of a brightly plumed cassowary foraging the forest floor for fallen fruit. Its realism was disconcerting and mesmerizing, and no matter how often or how long you stared at it, the effect remained the same.
Jane shook her head and forced her mind back to the matter at hand. “Remy!” she called again, running from room to room, looking for some sign of her friend and business partner. It was entirely possible she had fallen asleep and wasn't even aware of their return. Yet she wasn't to be found in any of the downstairs bedrooms. The only place left to look was upstairs, but Jane’s hopes were fading fast.
She slowly climbed the stairs to the uppermost level and stood in the doorway of the nursery, running a distracted eye over the room she and Remy had created together. It was a young girl’s delight, full of colour, light and surprise. Jane had sewn lacy curtains, soft cotton sheets and pretty pastel cushion covers, while Remy had painted an exotic mural that ran the entire circumference of the room. The mural was a fanciful woodland scene, full of real and imaginary creatures at work and play, while dainty fairies frolicked and danced overhead. It was as whimsical as the rainforest painting downstairs was realistic.
Remy had admitted to indulging her own unfulfilled fantasies when painting the mural. Her own childhood had been very much a down-to-earth, no-nonsense one, with little time for play or the exercise of her imagination. And though Jane didn’t know the details of Remy’s estrangement from her family, she understood that leaving had been the only viable option available to her. Unfortunately, it seemed her past was about to catch up to her. To them.
“Goddamn it, Remy! Where the hell are you?”
Though Jane spoke out loud, she no longer expected a reply. She stamped her foot in frustration. It wasn’t like Remy to just disappear like this! She knew how much work needed to be done before the guests arrived tomorrow and it was her turn to make dinner tonight! And now there was a fierce-looking African combing the streets of Fiddlers Creek for her.
Downstairs, the baby began to cry. She must have sensed Jane’s tension, or more likely, was simply hungry. Jane raced back downstairs. “Shhh, sweetie, it’s all right,” she cooed, scooping the little girl up into her arms and carrying her back into the kitchen to find something to settle her until dinnertime. Which was when Jane finally saw the note on the floor behind the swinging door, blown off the kitchen bench by the breeze.
‘Gone sailing,' said the note. 'Be back by 6.’ A heart and a large ‘R’, drawn with a distinctive flourish, completed the message.
The speedboat rendezvoused an hour later with a northbound container ship on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, cruising slowly north toward the Torres Strait. The smaller boat was hoisted aboard with practiced precision, its additional, unconscious passenger of no interest to the crew, who were all deaf, dumb and blind to all matters that didn’t concern them.
The two thugs were dismissed and went below, giving no further thought to the girl they’d plucked from the sea. The third man hefted Remy easily over one shoulder and carried her up to the guest cabin where he was billeted, moving with the fluid grace of a dancer or perhaps a boxer. With such a compact physique and muscular upper body, he could have been either, but his battered face made the latter much more likely.
The cabin was the approximate size of a shoebox, but adequate for his needs. Two bunk beds were bolted to the bulkhead, one above the other, with a small metal table and chair on the floor beside them. The only other furniture was a narrow floor-to-ceiling cupboard in the corner, next to the outward opening hatch. Remy’s abductor deposited her carelessly on the lower bunk and looked at his watch. After quickly calculating the time it would take for the drug to wear off, he opened the cupboard and removed a pair of empty glass bottles, the kind used by hospitals and organisations such as the Red Cross to collect blood. Each bottle was stoppered and attached to a length of rubber tubing. Placing them carefully on the tabletop, he moved the chair closer to the bed and settled down to wait.
The former boxer watched Remy with strange, golden-brown eyes – wolf’s eyes – pleased with the afternoon's work. His patience and planning had netted a valuable prize, although he’d be the first to admit there was a certain amount of luck involved. Pulling the elastic from his hair, he ran his fingers through the black, silver-tipped mane as it fell about his shoulders like a curtain. His lustrous hair, predatory eyes and legendary temper were only part of the reason he was known universally as the 'Wolf’. Ultimately, it was his tenacity and ruthlessness during the hunt, together with a primal cunning that put his namesake to shame, that intimidated his enemies and allies alike into acquiescence.
A buzz sounded from the intercom on the bulkhead near the hatch. The Wolf moved to answer and after a brief exchange, returned to his chair. Stretching his legs out before him, he studied the girl closely. This was the first opportunity he’d had to observe her properly and he saw now how truly exquisite she was, with a perfect heart-shaped face and the smooth, clear skin that was the sole province of the very young. Her blonde hair, bleached almost white by the sun, had come loose from its ponytail during the struggle, and lay in tangled, wet clumps around her face, but instead of looking disheveled, she appeared merely vulnerable. Which indeed she was. He regarded her firm, slim body, tanned to a golden brown and dressed only in a plain cotton bra and underpants. The tantalizing swell of her breasts and her smooth, flat stomach sent a sudden rush of blood to his groin, and he looked impatiently at his watch. There was nothing to stop him taking her right now – certainly Stazia would have no real objection – but no matter what his detractors might say, he liked to give his prey a fighting chance. And he was well aware of the rewards of patient anticipation. He sat back to wait, allowing himself the pleasure of visualizing exactly what he would do with her once she awoke. Some might think it a shame to spoil such sweet perfection, but in the Wolf’s opinion, perfection was vastly overrated.
At last the hatch opened and a thin woman on high-heeled pumps entered the cabin, followed by a uniformed steward bearing a bottle of chilled vodka and two empty glasses. Everything about the woman was severe, from her jet black hair, pulled back into a chignon, to her painted red lips and nails. Her powdered, angular face was starkly white against her tight, black, crew-neck sweater, worn over a black pencil skirt. Even her voice grated.
“Darling, this calls for a celebration!” she commanded imperiously. Glancing briefly at the unconscious girl on the bunk, she turned a smiling face towards the Wolf, giving him her full attention. “Drink with me before we claim our prize.”
The steward filled the glasses and proffered them respectfully before bowing and backing out. The conspirators toasted each other and drained the vodka in one quick gulp. The Wolf poured them another and again they threw it down.
“We should get started, don’t you think?” he suggested, chafing at the bit.
“Patience, my eager Wolf,” teased the thin woman, “she's not going anywhere.”
Settling her gaze at last on Remy’s unblemished face, she remarked thoughtfully, “She’s little more than a child.” A shadow crossed her face but disappeared almost instantly. When she spoke again, her voice was hardened steel. “Once she wakens, I’ll need a few minutes to take what I need, then I'll leave you to your amusements. When you're finished, dispose of her.”
“It seems a shame to throw such a pretty thing away,” remarked the Wolf idly. “I could easily find a discreet, discerning buyer, happy to pay a premium for such youthful beauty. After she’s had time to recover from her injuries, of course,” he sniggered.
“No,” said Stazia firmly. “I want her dead. No loose ends.”
“Of course,” agreed the Wolf without argument, bowing his head infinitesimally.
A low moan from the bed drew their attention. Remy rolled her head from side to side and rubbed her eyes. Her eyelids fluttered open and she put one hand straight to her forehead, as if to stop it from pounding.
“Well, hello there, young lady. How do you feel?” asked Stazia brightly, her voice deceptively empathetic. “Let me get you a drink.” She gave the Wolf a sideways glance and he poured a splash of vodka into a glass.
Looking about the cabin in puzzlement, Remy tried to sit up – too quickly – causing a flash of pain to stab her behind the eyes. She lay back down and closed her eyes.
“Here you are, darling,” said Stazia, bending over her. “Drink this up and you’ll feel much better.”
Remy opened her eyes again and tried to focus on the hard-faced woman before her. “Where am I? Who are you?” Panic made her voice shrill. Her brain sluggishly tried to pull everything together but she couldn’t recall how she came to be here. She sat up again, more slowly this time, taking hold of the glass in trembling hands. They shook as she tried to drink, spilling cold liquid down her front. A small shriek of alarm escaped her lips. “Where are my clothes?” she cried, trying ineffectually to cover her breasts with her arms. “Who are you people?”
Ignoring her questions, Stazia motioned for the Wolf to step closer. “You have something I want, darling, and I mean to have it. Don't worry, it will only hurt for a while,” she assured her smugly.
Remy was too disoriented to argue. Taking a seat beside her on the bunk, Stazia gently took Remy's hand and turned it over to expose the pale skin and delicate blue veins of her wrist. She then crossed Remy's wrist with her own, which bore a heavy, gold bracelet, about four inches wide, covered in strange symbols etched deeply into the metal. Remy gasped in sudden shock as dozens of tiny needles, thinner than a hair’s breadth, inserted themselves into her wrist, sending liquid fire into her bloodstream. “Stop it! Get it off me!” she cried, trying to pull her arm free, but it was as if their two wrists were fused together.
The symbols on the bracelet were glowing visibly now, gradually turning dark red and pulsing in time with Remy's heartbeat. As the symbols darkened, the pain increased; very soon, white-hot flames of agony were shooting up her arm. In little more than a minute, her entire body was engulfed.
“Get it off!” screamed Remy, clawing at the device with her free hand. She had never imagined such agony was possible. Excruciating pain consumed her entire body, from the tiny capillaries beneath her skin to the very marrow of her bones. Her heart was beating so hard, she felt sure it would explode. Just when she could bear it no longer, just as she began to understand it was actually going to kill her, the nature of the pain changed. Searing fire gave way to burning ice, freezing every atom of every cell of her body, until she began shivering uncontrollably, certain she would never be warm again.
And then it was over. The symbols on the bracelet stopped pulsing, fading into invisibility, and the bond between them broke. Dozens of tiny red dots covered Remy's wrist, but she was shaking so hard they were just a blur. She sobbed uncontrollably, weak as a baby.
“Finis,” announced Stazia dramatically, pleased by whatever it was that had just happened. Turning to the Wolf, she patted his cheek and pressed their lips together. “She’s all yours, my lecherous Wolf. Enjoy.” With a smile of deep satisfaction, she opened the hatch and left the cabin.
“What just happened?” Remy whispered dazedly. She felt different...changed somehow. No longer in pain, but aware that a small, intrinsic part of herself was no longer there. Not just gone; stolen. Her soul felt violated. She forced herself to concentrate, to probe her body and determine the extent of the damage. It took only a moment to confirm the deep void inside her. That small coruscation she had been born with, which set her apart from almost every other living creature, had been cleaved from her as cleanly as a blade might sever an arm or a leg. Already she was struggling to remember the person she had been before.
A low growling sound intruded into Remy's confused introspections, reminding her she wasn’t alone. The creepy wolf-man was watching her with the intensity of a lion stalking a gazelle. Clearly, she had another battle still to fight. A spark of anger began to burn inside her. Though she was still very much afraid, she was damned if she'd be such a pushover a second time around. Figuring out exactly what had happened to her would have to wait. If she managed to get out of here alive, she’d have all the time in the world to ponder her new reality. And to mourn.
The click, click of Stazia’s heels had only just faded away when the Wolf casually reached over and backhanded Remy across the face with such unnecessary force that she fell off the bunk and onto the deck. Blood gushed from her nose in a fountain of red and she could feel her lip begin to swell. Stunned by the violence of the attack, she scrambled backwards like a frightened rabbit and cowered against the bulkhead in a huddle of bare, shaking limbs. Sobs wrenched her body as she tried to think of a way out of her predicament. She had never been so frightened. If only she could remember how she came to be here. She was inside a ship by the look of things, but that didn't explain why she had been humiliated and assaulted by two complete strangers. Raising her tear-stained face, she asked tremulously, “Please, can’t you just let me go? I won’t tell anyone.”
The Wolf didn’t answer. Instead, he bent down and grabbed a handful of blonde hair and hauled her roughly to her feet, before slamming his fist into her abdomen. Remy doubled over in agony, all the breath expelled from her body. Gasping, she tried to suck air down into her lungs, but it was long seconds before she could breathe normally. The Wolf bent over and murmured in her ear. “You’re mine, little girl, to do with as I please. No one even knows you’re here. No one’s coming to save you.”
The Wolf’s breath was stale and warm on her face, but his words turned her blood to ice. “Who are you?” she gasped. “Why are you doing this?”
“I'm the monster your mother warned you about,” sneered the Wolf, drawing a line with his finger from the top of her jaw to the cleft between her heaving breasts. “I'm your worst nightmare come to life,” he whispered.
Remy believed him unquestioningly, but if he thought she was going to give in without a fight, he was in for a rude shock. She hadn't endured the hardship and loss of the last year to throw her life away now.
“No!” she screamed, shocking herself with her vehemence. Adrenaline coursed through her body, strengthening her resolve and fueling her anger, giving her a clarity of thought and a calmness of mind she had never experienced before. Her hand reached out and found the neck of the vodka bottle on the metal table and she swung it with all her might in a high arc at his head. Unfortunately, the Wolf's reflexes were those of a hungry predator, and without apparent effort, he grabbed hold of her wrist before the bottle came close to making contact. He slammed her arm downwards, smashing the bottle against the corner of the table, sending shards of glass flying everywhere. Cold liquid and sharp splinters sprayed her bare legs.
Laughing at her feeble attack, the Wolf raised his hand to strike her again. His fist made contact with the side of her head, and it felt like she’d been hit with a sledgehammer. Her head twisted violently to one side and she saw stars, but when her vision cleared, she caught a glimpse of salvation. With her free hand, she snatched a large piece of jagged glass that had landed on the table and in one smooth motion, slashed it upwards, scoring the Wolf’s cheek and cutting a bloody swathe all the way to his forehead. Blood gushed from the wound and flowed down his face and neck in a macabre, red stream.
He screamed, dropping her wrist to bring both hands up to his face. Disoriented by the blood in his eyes, he fumbled helplessly, searching for the towel hanging beside the cupboard. Still cursing, he yanked it towards him and pressed it against his face to stem the flow of blood.
Remy wasted no time. While the Wolf was still stumbling blindly about, she opened the hatch and stepped into the empty passageway. Instinctively, she turned right, having no idea of the way out, but knowing she had to be decisive and keep moving. A small part of her mind registered a painful gash on the sole of her foot where she’d trodden on a piece of broken glass, but that was nothing compared to what was in store for her if the Wolf caught her. Vile curses rang in her ears as she ran down the narrow passageway. He would be after her soon, no matter how severe his injury. If she could just get out of this rabbit warren and into the open air, maybe she could find a life-jacket and jump for it, although God knows, her chances of surviving the open sea and the sharks were slim at best. She would worry about that when the time came.
The passageway twisted and turned and though she passed several closed doors, she couldn’t risk stopping for help or trying to hide. She had no idea what sort of ship this was, or if anyone on board would even help her. Somehow, she doubted it.
The passageway ended abruptly at the top of a steep, narrow stairway leading down to a lower deck. Close behind, she could hear footsteps and loud voices. He was coming! Her heart felt as if it was about to jump out of her chest but adrenalin forced her onward, focusing the panic that threatened to overwhelm her.
Remy began her descent. There was no time for caution, but the treads were so narrow only a small portion of her heel fitted on each step. Her pulse was hammering loudly in her ears as she forced herself to hurry. A quarter of the way down, her heel, slick with blood, slipped off the narrow tread, causing her to lose her balance. Her hands fumbled desperately for the rails but all she found was air. Gravity and momentum took over and there was no way to check her downward acceleration. Her head hit the wall first, dazing her, then glanced off the sharp edge of the step, once and then again. She plummeted downward, flailing like a rag doll, stopping only at the very bottom of the almost vertical drop. Finally, she lay still, her limbs twisted awkwardly beneath her, in an expanding pool of blood.
The Wolf’s voice grew louder and more furious as he stormed down the passageway, yelling every obscenity under the sun. The steward had been roused by his shouts and followed nervously in his wake, not knowing the cause of the uproar. The Wolf reached the top of the stairs and halted abruptly, the blood-soaked towel held against his face. The sight of Remy’s battered body brought a scream of unbridled fury to his lips and the steward backed away in fright.
By the time the Wolf descended to the lower deck, Stazia had been alerted by his screams and was standing over the body. An amused smile touched her lips but not her eyes. She looked at the Wolf and laughed cruelly.
“So you finally let one get away, my angry wolf. Well, at least you won’t have the bother of killing her. Toss her overboard for the sharks.”
Four weeks later, Lady Catherine D’Raegan was opening her mail at her desk in the London offices of the Leonica Foundation, when the sight of an envelope with an Australian stamp and postage mark stilled her hand. She looked at it for a long moment without touching it, running through all the possibilities in her head and preparing herself for the worst eventuality.
The address was written in a hand she didn’t recognise, but that was no surprise. Even in the unlikely event the letter was from Remy, her handwriting would be unfamiliar. Finally picking it up, she turned it over. The return address identified the sender as H Woodford, Fiddlers Creek, Queensland, Australia. Catherine’s heart sank. There could be only one reason for Holly, the shopkeeper, to be writing to her.
Steeling herself, she tore open the envelope and removed its contents. There was a single piece of paper – a neatly clipped newspaper article – and another small item wrapped in tissue paper. Catherine scanned the clipping quickly, then read it again more slowly. It reported the discovery of a woman’s body, washed up on a beach 20 km south of Fiddlers Creek, 15 days after an empty sailboat owned by local woman, Remy Sinclair had been towed back to shore by a local fisherman. The remains were too badly decomposed for a physical identification, but were eventually identified as Sinclair by means of a necklace found on the body. Her death was ruled accidental. There was no next of kin.
Catherine closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Poor Remy, she thought. Poor, misguided, misunderstood child. She didn’t relish telling her parents their only daughter was dead, but who else was going to do it? She looked down at the small parcel on her blotter and knew what it was even before she opened it. Nevertheless, her fingers trembled as she unwrapped the antique gold pendant she and Edwin had given Remy for her 13th birthday, the last time they saw her.
There was one thing to be grateful for at least, small but not insignificant: her death was an accident and nothing to do with the bastard who killed her cousin five years ago.
They say drowning is like falling asleep. That was infinitely preferable to being terrorized and tortured by the Wolf.